The Light of Literature (3): “Regarding the question of women’s writing, women can’t seem to win”

In this section, editor Rieneke engages in conversation with professors of literature to put literature in the spotlight. Topic of conversation: literature, particularly three books selected by the professors. This is in analogy with the podcast “three books” by Wim Oosterlinck. Today, on International Women’s Day: Elisabeth Bekers, Hannah Van Hove and Birgit Van Puymbroeck, professors of literary studies in English and members of VUB’s Centre for Literary and Intermedial Crossings – with a particular focus on women’s writing. 

Text: Rieneke Lammens
Image: Archive VUB & Jarno Van Mulders 

Since the beginning of this section, I have been keen to speak with professors Bekers, Van Hove and Van Puymbroeck. During my bachelor and master in linguistics and literary studies, they all made me reflect on things that I hadn’t considered up until then, but still think about today. Professor Bekers welcomed me in her office – or “a store room packed with stuff from a conference”, as she calls it – where she waters her plants while discussing literature; and I met professors Van Hove and Van Puymbroeck on Teams like the ‘good old days’.

Who is Elisabeth Bekers? 

  • Obtained her master’s degree in New Literatures in English at the University of Hull in 1995;
  • Received her PhD on female genital excision in African and African-American literatures from the University of Antwerp in 2002; 
  • Senior Lecturer in literature in British and Postcolonial Literature in English at the VUB since 2006; 
  • Co-director of the international Platform for Postcolonial Readings for junior researchers, and editor of an academic website on Black British Women Writers. 

Who is Hannah Van Hove? 

  • Obtained her master’s degree in European Literary Cultures in Strasbourg, Bologna and Thessaloniki in 2012;
  • Received her PhD on the fiction of British avant-garde writers Anna Kavan, Alexander Trocchi and Ann Quin from the University of Glasgow in 2017; 
  • Assistant professor of the interdisciplinary Honours Programme and a postdoctoral research fellow at VUB;
  • Chair of the Anna Kavan Society. 

Who is Birgit Van Puymbroeck? 

  • Obtained her master’s degree in Literary Studies and Linguistics at Ghent University in 2008;
  • Received her PhD for a dissertation on Anglo-French literary networks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from Ghent University in 2012;
  • Assistant professor in Literature in English and Research Methodology at VUB. 

What kind of literature are you specialised in?

Bekers: “I am specialised in postcolonial literatures and black British women’s writing.”

Van Puymbroeck: “My specialty is twentieth-century literature with an emphasis on modernism – so actually late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature.”

Van Hove: “My specialty is experimental women’s writing, specifically British women’s writing from the post-war era, from 1945 to 1975.” 

How did you get specialised in your field?  

Bekers: “I got a scholarship for an additional master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies at the University of Hull, in Britain. However, some time before my departure, the MA was cancelled, and I had to choose another master’s program. I chose a master’s degree in New Literatures in English, where I read authors that would now be labelled as postcolonial, but that term was very new back then. Postcolonial literature became my specialisation. Why did I start focusing on black British women? I was selected to teach British and Postcolonial literatures at VUB; their writing was at the intersection of these fields and I could build on my doctoral expertise in black women’s literature to draw attention to this neglected body of writing. A watershed moment in my life was the day I realised I would never be able to read all the books I wanted to read. So, I made a decision: if I can’t read everything I want to read, I have to make sure that I specialise in something, so that I feel like I can read all the literature there is on this subject. That was when I started working on black British women writing. Now I can say – and this might sound a bit condescending – if it is written by a white man, I haven’t read it (laughs). Now I don’t feel obliged to keep up with these writers, because that’s impossible.”

Van Puymbroeck: “My love for modernist literature started when I was on an Erasmus stay at Trinity College Dublin. I took a course on modernist literature, which I found exciting, since its experimentalism was unfamiliar to me until then. When I was back in Belgium, I took another modernist literature course, which was taught from an entirely different perspective. It introduced me to modernist magazines, which made me connect the dots in a different way. At first, I worked on the interaction between literature in French and English. That was the basis for my MA thesis on Virginia Woolf and Henri Bergon and formed the beginning of my research expertise.”

Van Hove: “My interest in experimental literature was first provoked during my master’s. I also wrote my thesis on the connections between French and British literature, particularly looking at the French nouveau roman and its relationships to the work of the experimental novelist Ann Quinn. She was the first post-war experimental novelist that I really focused on, and that sparked my interest in other experimental post-war fiction. 

I ended up doing my PhD on three British novelists who had at that point not really been looked at before: Ann Quinn, Alexander Trocchi and Anna Kavan.”

What role does gender play in your research/expertise?

Bekers: “Literary history is heavily dominated by male white upper-class writers, but as soon as I can, I start including women and black writers in my survey course. Men had the space, the education and the ability to write that women were often denied. Even if they had it, they weren’t encouraged to write or they were frowned upon when they did write. For example, when readers found out that Jane Eyre was written by a woman (Charlotte Brönte, ed. note), the critic George Lewes said ‘Are there no stockings to darn, no purses to make, no braces to embroider? My idea of a perfect woman is one who can write but won’t’. So I feel like there needs to be some kind of compensation in my courses. It will take a very long time before the canon has become truly diversified. What I do hope is that I’m presenting our increasingly diverse students with literature that makes a difference and that presents worlds with which they may be more familiar. This also prompts all these black British women to write: they’re all writing out of frustration that they didn’t have access to writing by and about black people, and if they had access, it was African-American writing. So this concern also drives the authors, not just me.”

Van Puymbroeck: “I think gender is really important and it has also been an important factor in various projects that I’ve done. For example, I was the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Diversity and Gender Studies. I always try to pay attention to power relations, and try to make sure that I introduce students to a wide range of authors. That is: not only men and women, but all kinds of differences. But I would also say that gender sometimes becomes part of what is referred to as ‘gender mainstreaming’ — where it becomes something that is part of everything you do. So you also incorporate it in the way you look at and read literature.”

Van Hove: “I’m focusing on women’s writing as a response to the fact that a lot of women writers that were writing experimentally in the post-war era weren’t granted much attention, since there was a focus on male authors such as B.S. Johnson. Now, the field has changed a lot since I started doing my PhD — there’s been an emerging scholarship on these authors and writers in the last few years, which is really exciting. At the same time, I’m constantly bumping up against the fact that I don’t want to reduce the work of these writers to the category of ‘women’s literature’. I don’t want to essentialize the idea of what women’s literature might be or could be, but at the same time, I also want to recognize that their work responds in so many interesting ways to the patriarchal status quo. In what ways do they do that? How do they experiment with forms and in what ways can those experimentations be read as political?” 

What is your opinion on the relationship between form and content? 

Bekers: “You can’t separate one from the other. Works by women of colour are often read sociologically: if it’s a black woman, questions about race and gender come up. Of course they are paramount and important to what they’re doing, but they are also very much worth looking at for aesthetic skills, formal aspects, and experimentation. A form is never randomly experimental, it’s to express certain political themes. Even though they received little collective attention at the time, John McLeod was already saying in 2010 that black women writers were at the forefront of what is happening on the British literary scene.”

Van Hove: “When focusing on experimental literature, form is usually a concern which is at the forefront. In the post-war era, experimenting with form was negatively commented on by a lot of reviewers. There was this general idea that after the Second World War, novelists should be returning to social realism in order to write stories that can be understood in clear and comprehensive ways. With women’s writing, it was often suggested that if a woman experimented with form, she was merely trying to imitate great modernists or male geniuses.”

Van Puymbroeck: “You can’t really separate the form from the content, or the medium for that matter, as I am now looking into radio literature, which works very differently. Regarding the question of women’s writing, women can’t seem to win. Many modernist writers experimented with form were considered to imitate male modernists in the early twentieth century; if they wrote in a traditional form, they were considered to imitate the great male writers of the past. No matter what they did, they were measured against a male standard, always seen as imitating their male counterparts. This shows how difficult it often was for women writers to have their works respected, and their formal innovations recognized.” 

© Jarno Van Mulders

3 books

I asked each professor to pick out one book. Every professor’s specialisation is clearly reflected in their choice.

Book 1 – prof. Van Puymbroeck: To the Lighthouse (1927) – Virginia Woolf

“I chose the book that I worked on for my master’s dissertation, but that I still enjoy and sometimes also teach, which is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. To me, this is one of the major works of literature. You can read it in different ways, obviously, but it is basically about a family, the Ramsays, spending their holidays in their summer home and the everyday life that comes with that. It is written in three parts, and has a peculiar, experimental structure. The first part is about the family and their friends in the holiday home; the second part – which is much shorter – describes the passage of time by focusing on the summer house without the family; the third part sees the family returning, but this time without a central figure.”

“The novel is not really plot-driven, but it’s clearly about going through some kind of loss and then picking up the pieces. On the one hand, it can be read as an elegy, a commemoration and mourning of the dead. On the other hand, it’s also a story about art itself: how to write about war, how to write about art, about writing itself. There is also a painter in the book, Lily Briscoe, who tries to paint a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay, which is often seen as a reflection on the book itself. The book also sheds light on the relationships between parents and children, between men and women, and different types of experience, which makes it very rich.”

“And there is, of course, the beautiful prose of Virginia Woolf with her particular images, rhythms, language… You have to take your time to read the book and to take it all in. It’s a very aesthetic experience and makes you think and feel in different ways. So, that’s why I chose that book as well as probably some nostalgia to that time when I was writing my MA paper and didn’t have a care in the world. So that too may come into play (laughs).”

Book 2 – prof. Van Hove: Ice (1967) – Anna Kavan

“I chose Ice by Anna Kavan, which is a very odd and unnerving story set in a post-apocalyptic world. Something – but it is unclear what exactly – has happened to the world, which makes it covered in ice — hence the title. Some argue that it is a World War ll novel, others claim it is set in a world affected by climate change. It’s all quite circular and experimental, but it is still very readable. You see everything through the eyes of a narrator, but you quickly realise that he is not entirely reliable. We join him on his quest in search of a woman, whom he refers to as ‘the girl’. Besides those two protagonists, there is also a third person, who’s referred to as ‘the warden’, another man with whom the narrator is in competition. At a certain point, the narrator manages to get to the girl, but she leaves him again, and the search restarts. So nothing much happens in terms of plot. It’s very circular; the quest restarts over and over again.”

“The reason I chose this novel is that it’s one of those novels that I keep rereading and returning to, and every time it offers me something I hadn’t yet seen or thought of. It’s still a puzzling read for me, because there are so many interesting interpretations that you can give of this novel. To me, it’s also always fascinating to hear what students think about the novel.”

The New Yorker published an article on Ice a few years ago, suggesting that it commented on and in a way prefigured the MeToo-era. That is one way of reading it: thinking about how it comments on gender and power relationships. You see everything through this narrator’s eyes and his relationship to the girl is very questionable. He’s not a nice man, and as a reader, you feel very uncomfortable. I’m also interested in that aspect of the reading process: why is it uncomfortable and how is that kind of discomfort achieved?”

Book 3 – prof. Bekers: Girl, Woman, Other (2019) – Bernardine Evaristo

“I’d like to pick out a book by a black female writer, because that’s what I’m working on. I would recommend Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. Evaristo had been writing fascinating experimental novels for decades, but wasn’t really known in the broader literary world before she won the Booker Prize for that novel. She was the first black woman to win the prize! Sadly, she had to share it with Margaret Atwood, even though the Booker Prize committee had said they would never split the prize again (they decided that only one book could win after Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth received a joint Booker Prize in 1992, ed. note). In 2019, they did it again, with a white and black writer. Why could they not just have given the prize to Evaristo, if only to make a statement?”

“That aside: it’s a great book. Evaristo presents twelve women and queer characters of different generations. Gradually, you start realising that this group of people are somehow interconnected. The main character is a female theatre maker – which is a fictionalisation of the author’s work in the theatre, since she has been instrumental in developing black women’s theatre. What brings the characters together, is the first performance of the protagonist’s play. Simultaneously, the book showcases the variety of black British lives. They have different backgrounds not only in terms of class, but also geographical differences (some live in London, some have roots in Africa, others in the Caribbean, some pass for white). They have different experiences, so when you read the book, you have a broad impression of what life for a range of black women has been like.”

“She writes in a style that she calls ‘fusion fiction’. It reads a little bit like stream of consciousness (a narrative style that captures a character’s thought process, ed. note). ‘Fusion fiction’ is not the same though, since this is in third person and she starts new lines, but it is still like reading the flow of these characters’ thoughts. She uses commas, but no final punctuation marks. It’s a little strange at the beginning, but you’re used to it after the first chapter. This book really confirms her literary talent.”

Is there also a downside to reading literature? 

Bekers: “I’ve got a very nice job that allows me to read literature and I absolutely love that. It is art, right? It’s hard to explain to outsiders.”

Van Hove: “Reading literature, and in particular experimental literature, can be so many different things: enjoyable, frustrating, thrilling, boring, puzzling, and so on. Reading, whatever positive or negative emotions and engagements it might provoke, remains for me a practice which allows for an expansion of the mind, an expansion of one’s own world; and that, in my eyes, can only ever be an advantage.”

Van Puymbroeck: “If there is a downside, I have yet to discover it. It can, of course, be uncomfortable or frustrating (as when I was working on Gertrude Stein’s experimental fiction), but you still get something out of it. And I have a very broad notion of literature, also looking into radio plays and more medial experiments, so that there is so much to discover.” 

With a little nostalgia for the time I took courses on literary studies, I let professor Bekers water her plants, and professors Van Hove and Van Puymbroeck forget about online teaching. 

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