A Tired Heroine's Manifesto
A room of one’s own. Virginia Woolf, but expanded. Widened. Reinvented. Make the room a planet. A universe. Writers have been undoing the closeness of that room since it was built. I want to pay tribute to that reinventing, that great and endless recreation, through this platform. I want to carve a space, intimate and bright with thought, with creativity, in the ether of the Internet. For young people to converse and connect over the medicine and wound at the heart of so many lives - books. To read with feminism like a lifeblood changes how you read at all. There are all these wonderful people remaking the literary norms of the exclusive past, redefining all of those stiff institutions. I want to, in my very small way, gather some of these voices, coalesce them into a publication, into a tangible, illuminated medium. That is why I so believe in this publication’s potential and why I so believe in books at all- they spur creation by merely existing. They spur creativity, reflection, and invention. I want this space to do that, to amplify the heartbeats of writers and artists that the mainstream still represses, still quiets. To say, this prickling, boundless, complicated bloodrush of mine means something, duh, and here’s the place to make it heard.
A Tired Heroine is that for me, will be a compendium of these voices. Not as a savior but as a sounding board, a greenhouse warm and dense with selves upon selves, how our selves find definition through books and how those books come to grow inside of us, vines that entangle with our hearts.
All throughout my education I heard excuses for exclusivity. I heard, namely, that we read so many dead white dudes because no other demographic has been historically enabled with the societal privilege and rights to meaningfully contribute to the literary canon. Yes, true that women, people of color, queer and trans people - essentially anyone not of the white-dude persuasion - have, to varying degrees, been subjected to oppression and therefore not generally able to make art or write. Too busy surviving. I know that Virginia Woolf, in her very privileged perspective, was right about that room of one’s own. I also think that we need to stop using that as an excuse, though, for not studying diverse work. For not searching in the margins for genres and types of literature that may go unstudied because of their unconventional formats.
I have read my share of classics in my eighteen years, which is, of course, not much compared to anyone older than me, but although I loved some of those beloved classics, although I indeed found literary merit there like I was told I would, I also started to unconsciously believe that those homogenous narratives were really the only ones that existed. Or, rather, the only ones that mattered enough to study. That is a problem, obviously, as tons of intersectional-eyed literary critics and theorists have described long before me. But still we teach homogeneity in America like it’s truly all there is. Still we shrug at the suggestion of diversifying our curriculum, just a tad. Still we only read the work of women in Gender Studies classes, and the work of black writers in classes on African-American Lit. We ingrain, then, whiteness and maleness as the default. As the neutral ground of literature. The neutral voice. It is most certainly not that.
Whiteness is not neutral. It is the voice of the privileged, of the powerful. Of the beneficiaries of an oppressive and deep-rooted patriarchy. To impose overwhelmingly white male work and call it unblemished by the oppression that inhibits other voices is impermissible.
Let us highlight the work of non-white-males in our English classrooms and not make it feel supplementary; we must not say that the American experience belongs to white men, to anyone. I do not mean to stop reading the canon, but to expand it, grow it, rethink it. What constitutes the literary canon was defined by white men. What makes for quality writing was defined by white men. It degrades the cultural vernacular of any other demographic, to so squeeze our definition of “good writing” so harshly. It degrades anything other than whiteness and maleness. We have to stop doing that.
Sappho. Sandra Cisneros. Alice Walker. Ralph Ellison. Lorraine Hansberry. Toni Morrison. James Baldwin. Amy Tan. Clarice Lispector. Zora Neale Hurston. Octavia Butler. Frederick Douglass. Murasaki Shikibu. Julia C. Collins. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Mary Shelley. Dorothy Allison. Maya Angelou. Maggie Nelson. Mohsin Hamid. Ursula K. Le Guin. Dorothy Strachey. Claudia Rankine. Mary Gaitskill. Rebecca Solnit. Bell Hooks. Edith Wharton. Lidia Yuknavitch. The list rambles on.
The work exists. Marginalized artists have been constructing a radiant, ever-talented room of their own for a long time now. The writers abound, breathlessly good, their prose like knives, or the meat it tears through, tenderness brutality joy plentifulness, everything. This ecosystem of literature, a groundswell. Writing anything is a revolutionary act if you are not the beneficiary of immeasurable institutional and cultural privilege, in skin color, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, etc. Even if you don’t want it to be, that’s the thing. We live in a society so drenched in dust we cannot quite breathe without those ashes skimming our lungs. It shouldn’t be a revolution, to write, but thanks to our history, it is.
The heroine as a glassy, oversimplified, easily digested figure is myth; heroines are as complicated and raw and contradictory as the male heroes we read about constantly. Very infrequently are womxn (a spelling I use because of its inclusivity) - particularly, womxn of color and queer womxn - afforded the same complexity as men and still respected, studied, and analyzed. The literary world has gilded white male anguish into the stuff of Canon, of Importance and Greatness - the male voice, it is implied, is a universal narrative. The hero speaks for all of humanity, for the colorful, knotty compendium of human experience, while the heroine’s voice is considered inherently autobiographical, singular-minded, and too particular to represent universal feelings or experiences.
Roxane Gay talks about the inexhaustible quest for likability, a trait we tend to focus on only when it comes to anything female. About perhaps our quintessential anti-heroine, Amy of Gone Girl, she writes, “This is what is so rarely said about unlikable women in fiction — that they aren't pretending, that they won't or can't pretend to be someone they are not. They have neither the energy for it, nor the desire. They don't have the willingness of a May Welland to play the part demanded of her. In Gone Girl, Amy talks about the temptation of being the woman a man wants but ultimately she doesn't give in to that temptation to be "the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn't ever complain." Unlikable women refuse to give in to that temptation. They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices and those consequences become stories worth reading.”
Indeed, the heroine isn’t here to make friends. We never lament Odysseus’s lack of likability, despite his supreme arrogance, infidelity, frequent bursts of childish and self-destructive rage, etc. Hamlet’s not the nicest. Holden Caulfield isn’t what I’d call “likable,” and yet. We don’t read books to become friends with the characters, at least I don’t. Why is it that we need women to be “likable” or we’ll ignore them altogether?
The anti-heroine, then, needs to be centralized. When she is angry, she is unlikable, bitchy, not relatable, overdramatic, selfish, crazy. When she is loud, outspoken, rumbling with fervor or frustration, she is dismissed. We call them difficult women, but they are just women period. Women unbound by convention or constriction, women abhorring the rules we say dictate womanhood. Women being complicated, fraught, and blisteringly flawed - that is what I want in my heroines, that is what I want because that is what is real, what is true. Womxn are not glass houses, not voids to pour our cultural angst onto; they do bad things, hurt other people and themselves, enact violence, enact love, fall ungracefully and lick their wounds. They have guts, they have multitudes.
Let every heroine be as complex and difficult as any white man and still be interesting, still be appreciated and studied and read.
To live up to the regulations of heroinehood. To overflow oneself with expectations. To bury the true, tangled self - or, rather, selves - underneath rosewater and easygoing wit. To be a heroine only if you’re an unthreatening one. The wallpaper of the heroine’s quest: floral, constrained, quieted. We let womxnhood be defined by men. Anyone can tell stories about anything, but to think that the white male experience is enough, is expressive and embodying of every experience, of womxnhood, of blackness, of everyone’s existence, is not telling a story; that is claiming every story as your own. No.
I am tired because I am a girl. I am tired because I am a person. And maybe that is the point I’m trying to make: this culture does not like to give girlhood the complexity of personhood. I am not thought to be a complicated enough person to merit reading about, because I am a girl before I am a person, still. We conceive of our personhood through the lens of our oppressions, because we have no other choice, but we must give amplification to our lives. We must be riotous, vibrant, thundering. We must dismantle the mythologies, fantasies, even, of our lives constructed by oppressive systems and tell them ourselves.
I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll repeat it everyday: the teenage girl is the most hated creature on the planet. Most definitely, the teenage girl who does not conform to the soft, white, hetero, cis American grail of girlhood is hated more so. If girlhood is so violently disparaged, ridiculed, indicted and invalidated, how do we grow into a womxnhood that looks any different? We tell our stories. We tell the burnt centers of our lives because they matter, all of them, and believing that is crucial. We tell the turbulence that spreads like a rash, that itches at our very being, because we all have it, together. No one is exempt from the turbulence of personhood, but privilege ensures that your turbulence is not because of your identity.
What is the heroine doing? She is aflame with anger, exhaustion, and creativity. She pours lighter fluid on binaries, upends paradigms, unfurls the margins of history, burns with all of the inexpressible monstrous truths of living, scatters herself too far too wide, blazes, blazes, blazes. She hurts, hurts, hurts. She lives, tenuously, tumultuously. Gorges on living, loathes it loves it and sinks into it, gulps life in like she’ll never get enough. She is is is.
Her is in all its jarring tilts and upside-downs and vicious ledges, matters, but she shouldn’t have to convince you of that. Not anymore. So she’ll write about her is until she isn’t anymore. Her tiredness thrives but so does her ferocity. To me, the heroine works towards a deconstruction of all binaries. I want nonbinary heroines. I want characters that transcend and obliterate gender altogether. The heroine, then, feels larger than femaleness. She feels like the shattering of all those stifling choked restrictions, a lawlessness to her that can tell cis-normativity and gender binaries to fuck off altogether. I want that more than anything.
Culture cements a narrow voice as the only voice. The writing that stirs my blood, cuts into my brain and stays there, though, is the writing that defies that culture. The writing that remakes writing itself. Opens all the doors and windows, lets not only the light in but the pounding rain and listless sunlight, lets everything in, all the noise, striking chords I’ve never heard. That writing, living between the margins of America’s sacred literary canon, ignites the world. That writing can expose people to the inimitable. The expression of what they believed inexpressible.
I named this platform “A Tired Heroine” because I have to laugh, sometimes, at how suffocating girlhood, womxnhood, the impossible tightrope of a heroine’s likability, can be. I am tired. I am certainly not the only one. So I say we take that collective exhaustion and, rather than pretend it away, study its heart. Let us remake the heroine, let her be real, full, tired of bullshit, and interesting. She need not be anyone’s friend. She need be a person.