Literary Sexism

My journal, two unsharpened pencils, and biscuit crumbs are spread out on my desk. Sundays are for writing. I sit beside the window-light, looking at the pigeons’ heavy eyes.

However, after having read Annie Finch’s piece on literary sexism and sexual abuse this morning, writing seems to have become a rather cathartic practice. As a woman, I have always existed on the margins, and as a young female writer, even more so. While reading her piece, my experiences and recollections of literary sexism came to my mind all too easily. Sadly, I am highly unprepared for such remembrance. Sharing, I presume, will be a way of letting go. But I am yet to know.

I have decided to publish this piece anonymously. I am afraid. Often, both words and silences are equally difficult to bear. The writing community has offered me more than I could ever ask for, and in no way do I wish to sound ungrateful, dismissive, or offensive. I am not willing to drop names of those who made me feel violated, knowingly or unknowingly. I am simply not prepared. I write with a burden I once hoped I would never have to bear.

My first encounter with literary sexism occurred during my pre-teen years when I began taking writing seriously. A rather acclaimed scholar and writer I happened to know told me, as he scanned me from head to toe, that I didn’t have “the right body” to be a writer. I remember him pointing to me as an example of “some Little Miss Pumpkin” and “Thunder Thighs” at a poetry reading in front of at least fifty people, and even asking me to lose weight if I wanted to be taken seriously. Reading or writing didn’t help at that time, either. I tried to mould myself to fit into the frame of that confining patriarchal, misogynistic gaze, which is, to be brutally honest, all too unavoidable sometimes. I started skipping meals, working out needlessly, and I did everything possible to beautify myself. I tried to adopt the kind of enigma that, I had been told, “men were persuaded by.” In a year, I lost almost 33 lbs. I was only twelve.

At fifteen, I got in touch with a poet I admired and looked up to. He was coming to my city, and we decided to lunch together at this Italian restaurant. I carried my recent work with me for him to read and comment on. And the more we talked that day, the more comfortable I felt, as though poetry really had the power to bring people together. The restaurant was abuzz, but we were sitting in a tiny corner–somehow it felt rather quiet. He seemed to be reading through my work carefully, as I sat patiently waiting for his feedback.  Once he finished reading, he looked at me in the eye. Differently. He called my work “sexual” and from there, his comments took a rather obscene turn, which seemed to be directed towards me, in a way. I was clueless. More than that, I fell silent. I felt uncomfortable. That discomfort, that disbelief only escalated as he continued to talk. I kept looking down, with utmost guilt and shame that wasn’t even mine to possess. Not wanting to create a scene, I excused myself to go to the washroom, walking with a fear I had never known. I was too scared. I called home and asked if someone could pick me up as soon as possible.

Last year, at a literature festival, I asked a panel of esteemed writers about how emerging writers should go about publishing. One of them replied, “Since you’re a woman, I’d recommend seduction.” The panel and the audience laughed, but I wondered if it was really a joke. In another session, two male writers briefly debated who the most voluptuous contemporary female writer was.

More recently, I received a hate email from someone who said my “despicable writing and editorial outlook” made him want to “rape me.”

It is easy for many to dismiss the possibility of sexism and sexual abuse in the literary field. On the outset, the writing community represents progressive values. But these are only the visible voices. Writers from marginalized communities have little history to back their presence, and that is disabling enough. The categories we are often listed under speak more about the divisions and distances we encounter, than the ones we have overcome.

It hurts when my work becomes inseparable from my identity, my body, my colour, or my gender. It is hard to see my work and self being commodified to satisfy the perception of someone superior, someone who can command exactly where my voice must be placed. When my narrative no longer remains my voice, I am subjugated.

The fact remains, a woman’s voice is still seen in conjunction to a man’s. A woman writer, especially those who are non-white, non-American and non-straight, exists as a ‘figure’ on the sidelines. These questions and answers are far too foreign a language to speak in. There are words in other words. But here I am, still depending on these words for refuge. Here I am, closing my journal.

-Anonymous