Viva la Mujer!: A Conversation with Early Career Women Authors

Danzy Senna, Kseniya Melnik, Laura van den Berg, Jennine Capó Crucet, Tiphanie Yanique, Nina McConigley

Each of the women of this roundtable is quickly ascending to the realm of notoriety; each is winning prizes, awards, and praise like medals on a general's chest. These women are boss. I consider myself lucky to call each of these amazing writers friends, so when this roundtable on contemporary women writers was greenlit, I knew who to tweet: Laura ven den Berg, Jennine Capó Crucet, Nina McConigley, Kseniya Melnik, and Tiphanie Yanique. And we were incredibly fortunate that Danzy Senna agreed to moderate. Due to her talent, experience, and familiarity with the participants, she was an obvious fit. This roundtable magnetizes the personal with the social and reveals how these writers have traversed the "business of writing" by defining themselves through their own words. Their voices ring loud and clear through the hall. Let us all rejoice and respond with vigor, "Viva la Mujer!"

—David Tomas Martinez


Danzy Senna: Welcome to the roundtable. I’m excited to have this conversation with such an amazing array of women writers – though I have to say, it also feels almost old-school to point out that you are women – to connect around our being women writers. Is it old-school? Are we post-gender in terms of how we think of ourselves as writers? Are there other connections that feel more important and/or vital to you when thinking of yourself and other writers?

Kseniya Melnik: For as long as women are biologically different from men on some fundamental level (I'm not excluding the possibility that they won't be in the near bionic future), I don't think it will ever be superfluous to connect around our being women writers. No matter how much political and economic progress women make, our life experiences are markedly different in the world, and that seeps into the way we approach writing, both its practice and content. That said, I never actually think about that when I write and when I think about other women writers—it's more like water for fish.

Laura ven den Berg: Oh man, I don’t think we’re post-gender in anything (alas). I feel a great deal of solidarity with my fellow women writers and am all for programs the highlight work by women (women-centric prizes, for example). But like Kseniya said I never think about any of that stuff when I write: I’m just following the voice, the story, the idea, the image. I don’t actively think of myself as a “woman writer.” It’s more on my mind when I’m moving through the world off the page.

Jennine Capó Crucet: Yeah, I’d agree that I don’t actively apply that label -- or any label -- to myself *while* writing. I’m mostly reminded of the fact that I’m a woman when it comes to the publishing aspect of our world, not the writing aspect. (Then, and when I get my period, which happens about once a month, more or less.) And for me, the label of Latina finds me faster than that of Woman. I’ve found that my ethnic identity trumps my gender out in the publishing world, though of course they can’t actually be separated.

Nina McConigley: I have to agree with Jennine -- I know I think of the label of being an Indian writer first -- as a writer of color, as Jennine says, ethnic identity trumps gender. It’s funny, but where I felt most keenly being a woman writer was in workshop during my MFA. I found myself deferring to the men in my class when it came to talking about issues of craft and the merit of a story. That kind of kills me now. But it’s interesting to me that the writers I look to now for work-in-progress are all women. So I think internally, I do look for connection with my fellow women writers.

DS: One thing I have noticed as a teacher of writing: My students don’t seem to, in general, care much about geography. I often read student stories and have no idea if the story is set in Montana or New York or LA, etc. I have to constantly reiterate to them that geography is important. Not just literal geography, as in where on the map a story is set, but the cultural geography of the characters. They often seem to be writing a “generic” world – as if such a thing were possible. I wonder if it has to do with the prevalence of screen culture – that they are so deep inside screens they don’t see what’s around them. For me, geography was where I began. My parents’ history – African American, WASP Bostonian – were part of what informed my characters. The setting of Boston – not any Boston, but a historically-specific, class-specific, race-specific, politically specific world.

I’m wondering if you have noticed this at all. Or, for those of you who teach, what are some other qualities you notice about your student writings that seem interesting, from a cultural perspective? What are some of the ways those younger voices see the world that are different from the way you see the world?

KM: I could sign my name under your words, Danzy, in terms of the importance of the literal and cultural geography. Nothing excites my literary imagination more than location with its attendant political situation, historical consequences, length of winter and summer, music playing out of apartment windows, color-scheme, levels of bird squawking, dog-barking, speed of wind. Geography absolutely shapes characters. The stories in my first book take place over fifty years of USSR and revolve around my Russian hometown of Magadan, which used to be an entryway into a vast forced labor camps system. The daily economics (in its broadest sense) of survival affect the characters loftiest dreams and desires; there's no way around it.

I've often noticed in my limited teaching experience and even in my MFA workshops the lack of socio-economical consideration. I was always that annoying person in class asking "but how do the characters make a living?" Their class and career aspirations or lack thereof affect their outlook on the future, which, in turn, affects them in the conflict in the present of the story. In reality, don't these worries consume us 80% of our waking lives, when we are not watching quality TV that is?

LvdB: Oh yes! I too have seen a lot of this “generic” world. I feel like that’s a pretty common story to see, where there’s a series of events happening in a kind of vacuum. I’m tempted to say that sometimes the issue is students not having a sense of world, but perhaps it’s more that they haven’t yet learned to see the world through the writer’s lens, to translate the tactile world, their own or one they’ve imagined or some combination of the two, into their work. It’s like while writing they forget they have bodies and that those bodies are constantly moving through this larger ecosystem of landscape, work, shelter, sound, weather, and so on. A lot of our work is teaching them how to register the physical world in a particular way, how to pay a certain kind of attention. And also just that the grit of life has a place in fiction.

TY: I think students are sometimes afraid. Writing is so hard and it’s easier to worry about plot (and then, and then, and then…) and not worry about the work of building the world and real bodies to move about the real world. I tell my students that if it’s easy then you’re probably not writing well. Often this leads them to write a generic geography anyway! So many stories set in Brooklyn. Or, alternatively (and often worse) it leads to stories set in the exotic place they once went on vacation--and the places stay exotic and stereotypical because that’s what vacation if often about. It takes a lot of bravery and hard work to talk about place in a meaningful way. Hard because it’s not just about a cursory glance, but (in fiction anyway) about hunting down and revealing details that work specifically for the characters and the story you’re trying to tell. I say brave, because this kind of specific work also leads students to consider issues of race and ethnicity--and they didn’t think they would have to challenge their own racism or sexism in order to write well.

JCC: Where I currently teach, undergrads apply to be in our workshops, so they tend to be at least a little familiar with our work. I think, because of this, I don’t see students avoiding place or geography -- cultural or otherwise -- because they know that’s a huge part of my fiction. They come wanting to explore that in their work, and I enjoy that immensely. One thing I do see in their work that I’m still trying to wrap my head around as a professor who wants to help them be the best writers they can be: the way social media permeates their work as both a device and as a driver of plot. Their characters log into Facebook and learn everything they need to know about another character, or they spend pages texting each other. It’s such an intrinsic part of our lives right now, but I haven’t figured out a good way to talk about it in their work, to point out that it often deflates tension or just feels stiff and false on the page. If anyone’s got any good models for this to show them (and to learn from myself), let me know!

NMc: I teach mostly teach literature classes here in Wyoming, but from my undergrad creative writing classes, I do get a lot of writing about land. I don’t think you can live in Wyoming and not have land be a character, be influenced by geography. This semester, I have several ranch kids in my class, and we started the semester reading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories. After that, I had a lot of great descriptions of prairie and weather. Or I have students that so want to push away from a rural space. One thing I really noticed this semester was first person point-of-view seemed to be what everyone was writing. The stories were all very interior, with a character really not interacting much with other characters. And there was very little dialogue. I wonder if this has to do with social media?

DS: Do you see your own work as claiming a certain territory, thematic, cultural, geographic, however you define that term?

KM: In my first book, I wrote about the northeast of Russia, shadowed by Stalinist and Communist past; also a little about the Russian non-Brooklyn immigrant experience. In reviews, I have been praised for bringing my hometown to life, but I still feel uncomfortable claiming it as my territory. Northeast Siberia is too big a place. Same goes with such grand themes as "life under the Soviet flag" or "the aftermath of the USSR collapse" or "voices of Russian women." The narratives are too varied; I cannot ride the wave of a sociological trend, like perhaps Jonathan Franzen can when writing about the post-war Midwest. I prefer to dwell under the skin of my characters and look out at the world through their eyes. I don't like political questions at interviews.

LvdB: I was born in Florida and lived there until I was twenty-two. When I left, it was for graduate school in Boston and when I arrived there, I was very eager to shed my Floridian identity and very much did not want to be seen as a southerner or a southern writer (though at that time, if push came to shove, I probably would have been delighted to be seen as any kind of writer). I was a little embarrassed by Florida, to be honest. It was only until my second collection of stories, which came out in 2013, that I began to write about Florida at all, but even when Florida isn’t explicitly on the page, its presence is felt; the strangeness and surrealness of the state, and the ways in which the surreal becomes ordinary, has been perhaps my foremost influence. It just took me a long time to realize and then accept that you can take a person out of Florida, but getting the Florida out of the person is, well, a different story. And so I humbly stake my small claim in weird-o land.

TY: I would say that my writing so far has been about staking a claim on my own existence. My own right to belong. Since I am interested in history and politics and family, my writing has those influences. So once I claim my own existence, then I spiral out and ask questions like the rights of girls in general within their families, or the right of the Virgin Islands within its region (the Caribbean) or within its nation (the United States). And once I’m doing that, then I realize that yes, I am writing a kind of prose and a kind of poem that is staking a claim. A claim to speak along with women, and girls and the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean and people of African descent...and all that. But I start with my own body and my own private history.

JCC: Welcome back to Florida, Laura. We’ve missed you! For me, I’ve never had the desire to shed my home state -- on the contrary, I rep it pretty hard -- but I’ve also never really had the option/luxury/privilege, either, since most people assume any Cuban they meet has some connection to Miami. I do happen to be a Miami Cuban, and it’s been important for me to write *against* the cultural imagination of South Florida -- or maybe less “against” and more working to expand it to include realistic depictions of the very hard lives people are living in my old neighborhood. It ain’t all alligators and South Beach and Pitbull, etc. I made a choice, when I decided on the title for my first book (How to Leave Hialeah), to get Hialeah on the literary scene, so I guess that’s a sort of claiming. But the place claimed me first; it has always been -- and always will be -- central to my idea of who I am.

NMc: I think my writing is like Tiphanie said, staking a claim on my own existence. I am bi-racial, so have always felt in an in-between space. My father was raised in Ireland, my mom in India. I was born in Singapore, but moved to Wyoming when I was a baby. For me, Wyoming has been the main thing that has shaped me. But growing up here, no one knew what kind of Indian I was -- Arapahoe or Shoshone? So my writing is always thinking about identity and how people fit in. I think I am rather obsessive about it. Through my characters, I am always thinking about how they fit into the world. I live in a place where I never see a reflection of myself out in the world (in Wyoming), so I like to try on the page have diverse voices.

DS: Do you see a difference between the way male literary writers of fiction and female literary writers of fiction are seen and heard and celebrated? Are there certain conventions that feel restrict you as women artists? As women artists of color? Do you feel that the canon is still biased towards and against certain voices?


KM: I haven't done any kind of statistical analysis (though VIDA has), but by virtue of being an ardent reader of the NYT Sunday Book Review, I feel that men are still pegged more often than women as the emissaries of the important cultural and historical message, as the assessors of "the way we live now." I personally don't feel restricted by any conventions; I feel I can write anything I want, in whatever form I want. The question is whether anyone will notice. I don't take that as a given.

LVDB: I agree with what Kseniya said in that I do often observe male writers as being the ones who are supposed to tell us all about “the way we live now” or to be the architects of the “Great American Novel” and yet at the same time I feel utterly free to write whatever I want. I have heard a few women writers remark that they decided to write male narrators in part because they felt freer to take certain risks or that they would be taken more seriously; the thinking was that writing a woman with the same qualities would open them up to more critique or make their work easier to dismiss. And I find that approach so striking; I understand and empathize with where they’re coming from, but could never work in such a way myself. My narrators are, for the moment, all women, simply because those are the voices I hear, and they are often unlikeable as fuck. We all have to work with whatever it is that we have.

On the publishing end, I do think there are differences in how women are “marketed.” We see this in book covers and elsewhere. I have women writer friends who have been told by publishing professionals to not sound “too smart” in interviews or to be “more cheerful” on social media. I feel extremely fortunate that everyone I’ve worked with in publishing to date has been super cool and thoughtful and did not want to turn me into some kind of author-bot, but those pressures are real for many.

One example: in 2008-ish I accidentally took a kind of stone-faced author photo for my first book, just because we were in a hurry and I didn’t really know what to do, and over the months/years I got so much shit for not smiling. It came up in Q & As at readings. I got e-mails about this from strangers. Universities that were hosting me for readings would sometimes ask if I had a “warmer” photo on hand. At first, I was surprised and apologetic, but after a while I became more suspect. Why did the absence of a friendly, smiling photo make some people so uncomfortable? Are women held to different standards in this regard? I did an informal poll of my guy writer friends with scowly photos, asking if they’d had similar experiences, and they had never heard of such a thing and so I resolved to never smile in an author’s photo again on principle. In real life, I feel like I’m pretty smile-y and so it would have never occurred to me to take this stance, or to give too much thought to my photo at all, had I not stumbled into this particular conversation. But stumble I did.

TY: I love, love, love that Laura, whom I know to be a kind person with an easy smile, is refusing to smile in her author photo on principal. I can’t help it, but that shit just makes me smile right now. I am however, a big smiler and laugher in general. So it would be complete performance for me to not smile. I don’t think much about author photos--my husband is a photographer which for me means that I’m so used to being in front of a camera that I just don’t fret about the image at all, figuring the interpretations are endless anyway. That being said, I was very uncomfortable with my the title of my first novel, Land of Love and Drowning. I came up with the title, but from about day one I was thinking up other and more serious titles. My novel is a political one, but I felt that this title (with the word “love” so prominent) along with my female name, and maybe even my smiling face on the back, would come together to communicate that this was not a serious book. Alas, that was the title and always had been. That’s my name and that’s my face. Is it true that most folks who take a look at the book automatically think it’s not serious because it’s “feminine”? Absolutely. Infact, people even READ the book and get really caught up in the love and miss the big politics. The “woman” packaging impacts the way readers even read the book. A more masculine packaging and the my novel would be read by more men and definitely talked about in more political conversations. Hey, even when men write about domesticity readers sometimes think it’s political and serious. But I say, what is more political than love?

JCC: I just had a discussion about this with my publisher -- going with the smiling photo over the serious (we were calling it “inscrutable”) one. Like Tiphanie (who I know and love, like I know and love Laura -- being on staff at Bread Loaf together cements these things), we went with the smiling one because it just looks more like me, but also partly because Make Your Home Among Strangers is “serious” and is being marketed “with gravitas” (sounds scary!) and they thought a smiling photo provided a good contrast to that -- that it showed I have “personality.” I wonder if that kind of back and forth happens over the photos of male writers; I kind of hope it does, but more honestly, I wish none of us had to worry over or think about it. I also wish I didn’t have to worry that people would conflate me with my protagonist, or worry that people will think that my book was in any way trying to represent anyone other than the Lizet (the protagonist) and her experience. I worry that some readers will see her as defining or representing a group rather than recognizing her individuality as a character -- something that straight white male writers don’t seem to have to deal with nearly as often.

NMc: I thought about this so much with my cover art for my book. On Facebook there was this group called the Red Sari Club -- all authors who’d had a red sari on their book cover. I was terrified that my cover was going to be in weird Hindi-looking script or have some mendhi hands and hot pink or orange. I think writers of color get some weird cover art choices. I knew I wanted the cover to be reflective of the American West. I am kind of fascinated with the book cover photo phenomenon of a woman’s head and neck looking away. What’s that about?

DS: Are there still taboos in fiction? Are there things we are not supposed to say? Voices, styles, genres, plotlines, characters, we are still not ‘allowed’? Or at least still make people uncomfortable?

TY: Conversations about racism and imperialism still make people uncomfortable, even when gathered within a narrative about so many other things. In Land of Love and Drowning, I still have readers who feel betrayed...they take the book on vacation, they lay with it on the beach and suddenly they realize they are reading a book where tourism itself is being criticized. The more privileged we are, the more fragile we can be.

LvdB: Yes to what Tiphanie said. I have seen this play out in the classroom: you have a group of students who are smart and engaged and on board with the notion that we live in the world riddled with bias and injustice, but when confronted with a text that deals explicitly with said injustices (racism, sexism, imperialism, classism, and so on), particularly texts that invite the reader to examine their own culpability, they can sometimes become uncomfortable and defensive. And it is deeply uncomfortable to consider how we might be contributing to systematic problem, but unnerving us right out of the narrowness of our own immediate reality is one of literature’s most powerful properties.

At the moment, I’m finding the conversation about “unlikeable characters” a bit wearying, for it seems plainly obvious that likeability should not be a mandatory quality for a humanly and artistically interesting character, but I do think women writers/women characters are sometimes judged more harshly, or in more moralistic terms, for their alleged “unlikeability,” particularly if they fall outside the norms when it comes to motherhood and sexuality.

JCC: Oh Tiphanie, you are right, sadly. I teach a Cuban-American lit course, and my white American students have no problem starting out from a place of big generalizations from the books we read: So Cubans are like this and like this and like this. But then when we encounter a part of a text that talks about white folks, they start freaking out about how the author is “stereotyping” white people and how it’s “not fair.” It takes a lot of work to get them to understand and analyze that reaction and then flip those feelings around.

NMc: I agree that racism is hard to talk about in the classroom. I also find class really hard to talk about. My students are so big and hopeful when it comes to the American Dream, that anyone can pick themselves up and achieve greatness. But then I have a lot of ranch kids who know what it’s like to work so hard and not make much.Talking about money and class is hard for them. I teach at Warren Wilson’s MFA program, and did a craft class about Representing Foreign Territories in Fiction this last residency. We talked about writers who are writing in voices not their own -- books like Confessions of Nat Turner, The Orphan Master’s Son, The Help, Southern Cross the Dog -- or how we write characters of a different race. The class brought up some anxiety for students. As fiction writers, we create worlds, we inhabit other experiences. And it’s true, you can write characters that are different from you (a lot of us do) but in my mind, you have to do it carefully and responsibly. You have to not be stereotypical and reductive.

DS: Who do you think of as your mentors? Who is living and writing today that you admire, male or female? Whose work and career do you really think offers a great model to you as a young woman writer? Why?

KM: I admire the careers of Aleksandar Hemon, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nicole Krauss, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I admire their courage to write about the big political subjects through the prism of domestic stories, their multi-faceted language that feels so intimate, so close. I love the way they reflect and refract the culture of their ancestors.

LvdB: I had wonderful teachers in graduate school and elsewhere, so those mentorships have been invaluable, and as far as writers working today I especially admire the careers of those who appear to insistent upon being completely themselves as they navigate the waters of creating and publishing, writers who do not seem especially preoccupied with doing the most expected or most obviously pleasing thing, whose ambitions seem to get greater and risker and stranger and more striking over time. Great and risky ambitions can take many many shapes, but Jenny Erpenbeck, Tom McCarthy, Marlon James, Rachel Kushner, Kathryn Davis, Helen Oyeyemi, Anne Carson, Joy Williams, Yoko Tawada, and Victor LaValle all come to mind, just to name a few.

TY: So once this begins we could each keep coming back and adding more and more! Like K and L my list is long and non-exhaustive. What I like about the way this question is asked is it’s not just about the writing but the writers themselves. We’re considering how to live the writing life, not only how to craft the writing...though that, too for sure (first, maybe!). I’ll stick to living women writers only because that helps me not keeping going on and on. Jamaica Kincaid for her fearless hunting down of the truth that fiction gives. Edwidge Danticat for her grace and generosity to other writers and to her own characters. Danzy Senna for her ‘don’t give a shit, write what is in you’ aesthetic in her writing and in her comments on writing. Claudia Rankine for her constant and brilliant boundary subverting which she puts in service of some real vital conversations on race and gender. Mary Gordon for her deep love and wide sensitivity with which she writes her histories and bodies. Chitra Divakaruni for the sensory intensity--smells, tastes, touch, sight--that she never fails to celebrate. Shit, I’m going on and on anyway.

JCC: I mention her often, but I would not be writing this right now if it weren’t for Helena Maria Viramontes -- both her generous mentorship and her writing. And every single writer named by my gal pals here -- they’re on my list, too.

NMc: I look to so many writers as models of how to live and write. Right now since I am getting to a certain age, I look to see how women writers balance motherhood and writing. I feel like I can barely write with just teaching. How do they do it? But the writers who have been important to me are Antonya Nelson, Valzhyna Mort, Laila Lalami, Jhumpa Lahiri, Emily Raboteau, Claudia Rankine, Zadie Smith, Claire Vaye Watkins, Matthea Harvey, and Claire Messud. But I also look to my friends for how they are writers in the world. It’s hard with social media to know how to present your writing and life to the world. I think of actually everyone on this roundtable as a great example and teacher for me.