Archive for February, 2013

True Confessions: Poems by Jackie Kay, Sharon Olds and Sylvia Plath


















This week, students are reading poems by each of these poets:

Jackie Kay (From The Adoption Papers, 1991)













Sharon Olds:







Sylvia Plath:

Lois Cucullu, Exceptional Women, Expert Culture and the Academy

And “Book Of A Lifetime: The Adoption Papers, Jackie Kay” By Patience Agbabi (online)

In her excellent essay “Someone Else’s Misfortune: The Vicarious Pleasures of the Confessional Text,” (which I have placed on Study Space for students) the critic Jo Gill reminds us of James Dickey’s “infamous” remarks about the so-called “confessional” poetry of Anne Sexton. Her poems, Dickey wrote “so obviously come out of deep, painful sections of the author’s life that one’s literary opinions scarcely seem to matter; one feels tempted to drop them furtively into the nearest ashcan, rather than be caught with them in the presence of so much naked suffering.” As Gill argues, Dickey’s dismissal of the confessional form exemplifies “the very contradictions which ignite and sustain our interest in the genre: the compelling dialectic between fascination and revulsion, sympathy and horror, guilt and relief; the desire to look coupled with the reluctance to know the truth.”


Author Rachel Cusk

As we saw two weeks ago, Rachel Cusk noted in an interview with the Guardian following the publication of her memoir Aftermath (2012) that “Writing is a discipline: it’s almost all about holding back.  The memoir is a confessional form, but that doesn’t mean that it is itself a confession.  It isn’t a spewing out of emotion.”

So if confessional forms are not confession, what are they?  And what are the “vicarious pleasures” we enjoy while reading them?  For Gill, all such writing is self-reflexive: however much emotion is on offer, it is not “spewed” but carefully such writing is concerned with the processes of its own production – this is writing about writing, poetry about poetry.  And if this is so, why choose the (often suffering) self as a starting point for such literary exercises?  And why, as one of my students asked last week, are contemporary women writers in particular drawn to confessional forms?  Do women have more to confess?  Or is it that the confessional aspect of such texts partly stems from women’s historical exclusion from literary history?  That is, in order for women to be able to write poems about poetry and to have those poems read and heard, must they offer themselves, their life history as a ritual sacrifice? Must they speak as women, of the experiences of (often suffering) women, in order to have their writing read?


True Confessions: Persepolis: The Story of An Iranian Childhood by Marjane Satrapi



Week 5: Monday 25 February


This week’s topic is Childhood in Contemporary Women’s Fiction and we will be reading:


  1. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  2. Babak Elahi, “Fake Farsi: Formulaic Flexibility in Iranian American Women’s Memoir Author(s).” Melus, Vol. 33, No. 2, Iranian American Literature (Summer, 2008), pp. 37-54.

Trailer for Persepolis

In week three, we discussed the complications of “writing for” or “speaking for” women and minority groups in literary and other forms, and the reading for this week develops that same idea in a number of different directions.  In the first place, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood can be read as one example of a growing number of memoirs written by Iranian women living in exile in a variety of Western countries (including France, America and the UK) that have been published in the past ten years.  Others include Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi, Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran, and To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America, by Tara Bahrampour. As Babak Elahi argues in the essay “Fake Farsi,” along with stories of pre-and post revolutionary Iranian life, escape and exile, such memoirs offer a “defamiliarized relationship to language, a relationship at the heart of the exilic experience.” As Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have argued in De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, the life writing of exiled women enacts the hyphenated split of their national identities: Iranian-American, Iranian-British, etc.  Such writing therefore, “becomes a site on which cultural ideologies intersect and dissect one another, in contradiction, consonance and adjacency.”

Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis not only confronts the difficulty of the defamiliarized relationship to a new language of which Elahi writes, but also addresses the multiplication of such defamiliarization in communication in the use second and third languages. Through its graphic form, moreover, Persepolis literally illustrates the constraints of using any form of words to communicate the whole story.  In scene after graphic scene, Satrapi reinscribes the power of language to hide, deny, obfuscate and damage both national identity and familial relationships.






But we must also remember that this is not only a memoir of exile, but also of childhood, and the representation of, or speaking for the experience of a child brings further challenges.  How can one ever capture or evoke the thoughts and language of one’s childhood?  When grown-up writers “represent” their childhood selves in memoirs, are they not in a sense “colonizing,” “speaking for” and “interpreting” the voice of a powerless, voiceless self who cannot speak for herself?  As we will be discussing this week, what are the multiple pressures that are brought to bear on our reading and understanding of a text in which a woman writer writes her child-self?




We Need to talk about Motherhood



Rachel Cusk, Aftermath
Lionel Shriver “We Need to Talk about Kevin” film clip

Rachel Cusk Aftermath

Lesley Wheeler, “Both Flower and Flower Gatherer: Medbh McGuckian’s ‘The Flower Master’ and H.D.’s ‘SeaGarden.’

We will also be looking at several reviews of Cusk’s work:

Author Rachel Cusk

And watching a few clips of the film adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk about Kevin:


Images of motherhood in much 19th century literature written by men and women often depicted mothers as “angels in the house” – either figuratively (in the guise of saintly/self-sacrificing mothers like Louise May Alcott’s Marmee in Little Women, or Ursula in Dinah Craik’s John Halifax Gentleman) or literally (as in she’s dead). In 20th and 21st century fiction and culture, the picture is far more mixed. Mothers can be good or bad, absent or present, angels or demons – but wherever they are portrayed and whatever their character, thanks to Freud, their role in the lives of their children and wider community is always read as hugely powerful. This week we consider portrayals of motherhood not only in fiction, but in our culture, and in particular the media portrayals of figures like Lionel Shriver and Rachel Cusk who have each written very differently indeed about the darker side of family life: how do contemporary women writers portrayed motherhood and how, in turn are they themselves portrayed? Have a look in the papers, listen to the evening news, watch a little television or a film – if you were an alien visiting earth – what might your understanding of contemporary motherhood be like?