“IS THIS THE TEXT OF AN AUTHOR or a mad woman?” Kate Zambreno asks in Heroines, a critical memoir about reading texts by and about the women she calls “The Mad Wives of Modernism”: Vivien(ne) Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald, and others. Modernist couples, mostly men and their muse-wives — the Hemingways, the Bowleses, the Millers, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas — make appearances braided into an account of Zambreno’s own marriage. It's a messy and fragmentary text where essays on, say, June and Henry Miller, or Paul and Jane Bowles, are punctuated by the names for shades of lip gloss, or trips into town for glittery eyeshadow. Zambreno gorges on history, on artifacts made by writing down what happened (and, in a few instances, what didn't, but could have). Heroines reads like a notebook suffused with scraps, or maybe a novel written in a fevered haste.
Or like a blog. Zambreno's own, Frances Farmer is My Sister, begun in 2009, has provided if not precisely the impetus, then certainly a sort of playground for Heroines. She makes a handful of references throughout Heroines to the communities she has found through her online writing. The final section of the book is a manifesto, of sorts, for the women who write as digital diarists:
So the decision to write the private in public, it is a political one. It is a counterattack against this [historically sexist] censorship. To tell our narratives, the truth of our experiences […] Why write one's diary in public? To counter this shaming and guilt project. To refuse to swallow. To refuse to scratch ourselves out. To refuse to be censored, to be silent.
Zambreno praises the personal, the frivolous, the feminine as it is being written into the interlinked publics of LiveJournal, Blogger, and Tumblr. Frances Farmer Is My Sister affords her a community of women to celebrate and celebrate with: a community peopled with women who have become long distance intimates. These other women writing their own public diaries, or publishing books on small presses, bolster each other; they form a support network that both cheers on and mirrors Zambreno's marginalized writing and radfemme politics. “I am outside,” Zambreno says, “writing in the margins, for my fellow illegitimate sisters.”
Both in her book and on her blog, Zambreno proposes a radical poetics of female writing in which texts can be composed in “bulimic” or “anorexic” modes. The bulimic mode is messy, vomitous, spilling ink manically all over the page; as she wrote in 2010 on FFIMS, it incorporates an “aesthetic of purging, privileging the verbal.” By contrast, the anorexic mode is overly careful, restrained. As she wrote just last month, anorexic texts “are abbreviated, full of punctuations and silences.”
Heroines is written in the “bulimic” mode, and so speaks in the voice of a very feminine mania, which Zambreno links to the modernist and surrealist practices of automatic writing. Given her intere...read more