March is Women’s History Month, and Thursday 8 March International Women’s Day. For a long time, women have been written out of history – and this includes in literature. We speak to Carmina Masoliver ahead of her course The Femme Canon to find out more about why she thinks it is time to redress the balance.
In your course you will be looking at women and females only. Why is there a need to focus explicitly on female authors?
Literature is just a microcosm of the wider world, so it simply reflects the society we live in that there isn’t always a much attention on female authors. In this, I take a historical perspective, in that women have been systematically oppressed, and this filters through into how we experience literature. Although there is a lot of change, publishing is still dominated by white cis-gendered men. The education system reflects this bias, and so when I was thinking of this workshop I was thinking about how we can create an alternative canon that highlights work by women, but also other intersections such as sexuality, class, and race.
Are there any particular writers that you believe have been overlooked, but shouldn’t be? Male or female?
I think it’s so easy to overlook so many great writers, especially now, because there are so many. Thinking about all the books you won’t be able to read in your lifetime becomes a bit overwhelming. Part of my desire in wanting to do this workshop was to also be able to discover new writers that I haven’t explored. I hope that the process will be collaborative as well, in that it provokes discussion about such writers. Recently, I was talking with some poets about the PN Review’s piece on Hollie McNish and other ‘young female writers’ and although we disagreed with so much of it (in my opinion, it comes across misogynistic and classist), we compared it with the feeling we could all relate to when, for example, a particular poetry video goes viral, but both doesn’t feel representative of the poetry community and doesn’t live up to the quality of so many of our peers who don’t get as much attention. The difference in this case, I think, is that this particular article seemed to want to reinforce this divide between the page and stage, which I hope not to exist within this workshop. For me, I like to discover a vast range of writing, whether something that is relatable and easily digestible, to something that is more challenging but still provocative, for example, I still need to return to Francesca Lisette’s Teens because there are so many words I need to look up in the dictionary. This answer is quite tangential, but my short answer would probably be Dorothy Parker. This is because I feel like she is someone whose work I should have learnt about at school, but instead I learnt about her from the film Girl, Interrupted.
How has reading work by women shaped your craft?
Some of my favourite writers are men, so I don’t know if women’s writing necessarily influences me more, but I just think that representation is important, particularly in school. I work in education as well as being a writer, and I studied a module in Children’s Literature where I found out that boys are less likely to read books with a female protagonist, whilst girls will usually read both. If Harry Potter was actually a story about a girl, would it be as popular? So, I guess that reading work by women has shaped my craft in that by existing it has meant that I have role models that have inspired me to keep writing and not to give up. Aside from that, and something that touches on that PN Review piece, I think reading women has influenced me in terms of honesty. Having just read bell hooks’ book all about love, she talks a lot about lies in society, and so there’s always something interesting about truth, perhaps because as women we are taught to keep certain things hidden, so it’s almost like a refusal to do that, a rebellion. I also identify with what Warsan Shire says about her poetry, in that she doesn’t like to say she ‘performs’ her poems, because it implies there’s something inauthentic about it. I really relate to that, which is partly why I often say I’m going to ‘do’ a poem, much to my mum’s dismay (a drama teacher, and even more of a stickler for grammar than I am, and I’ve been referred to as ‘the grammar police’ before). Someone once criticised my poetry by saying “it’s very feminine”. In itself, not a criticism, but communication is only about 7% of the words you say, and his tone of voice was very clear he thought that was a bad thing. So, part of what inspires me about other women is those who embrace this ‘feminine’ label, in that I write a lot about emotions, honestly, and about women’s experiences. Equally, I enjoy writers who don’t, because I like diversity.
Are there any writers who have been influential on you?
I did my dissertation at university on Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, and I think when you study texts at this level it just gives you a chance to really understand and absorb yourself in the work, and it definitely influenced my own writing at the time. I am influenced by a wide variety of texts when writing poetry, so I like to read novel, non-fiction, and scripts. It was Malika Booker who told me to read David Cale’s Blue Fir Trees, and that is a piece that always sticks with me. Although it’s a monologue, it feels really poetic to me in both the use of repetition and the imagery. I’m influenced in so many ways by so many writers.
Why do we need to read more diverse writing? How can this help us as writers and readers?
On a very basic level, the opposite of diversity is that you end up with something that’s really tedious and boring. More than that, I believe that reading a diverse range of writing helps build connections between people in real life, because you’re getting inside their head, learning about their world and their experiences. There’s a Regina Spektor song I might have misheard as it should be ‘there’s nothing wrong with them that a thousand bucks can’t fix.’ I misheard ‘bucks’ and ‘books’ and it’s a song about prisoners. So, my arguably incorrect interpretation of that is that reading diversely makes us better people and makes the world a better place.