Heroines, by Kate Zambreno (A Review by Helen McClory)

MIT Press

320 pgs/$17.95


It’s probably bad form to write a review entirely composed of quotations from this book.

But – that’s my immediate urge. It would be disingenuous not to say, immediately, that I am a massive admirer of Kate Zambreno’s blog Frances Farmer Is My Sister, and have followed her there and on Twitter and Tumblr for many months. However, there is my relationship to the blog, to the critiques and interviews I have been reading relating to Zambreno’s work, (slipping from easy categorisation, Heroines is a hybrid biography with novelistic and autobiographical elements) and then there is my relationship to the words on the page: I picked through this book in a shaken state, I read nodding my head and puckering up my mouth. Scrunching myself up into odd shapes on the sofa. Anger at kinship, recognition. I’ve never dog-eared so much; my copy of Heroines about a third thicker than it was before I started.  I want to say here, HERE:

There has been no female equivalent of The Trial or Ulysses, de B[eauvoir] writes in The Second Sex, because women writers don’t interrogate the human condition.”a woman could never have become Kafka: in her doubts and anxieties, she would never have recognized the anguish of Man driven from paradise.” “Man” is the capitalised eternal, the transcendent- the woman has already been driven away, has already been excluded from this category.

Perhaps the woman cannot recognize the alienation of Man, but she can certainly understand Eve, and what it means to be rewritten.

Fitzgerald of course dismissed Zelda’s stories as not saying anything greater about the human condition: “Did she have anything to say? No, she has not anything to say.”

The difference is privileging in literature a hero as opposed to a heroine. The difference is dismissing anguish that is seen as feminine, and not “universal” (i.e. masculine). Perhaps Gregor Samsas also take the form, in literature, of 18-year-old chorus girls, or unravelling divorcees, or suicidal overachievers from a prestigious woman’s college.

In this I remember the time I was a girl-beetle, and how nobody noticed at all- in this I remember, painfully, the voice that told me something like “women only write the personal, men write the city from above, seeing the whole thing laid out.”As if, of course I, a girl working on her novel of a lonely, mad girl, wanted to hear this. I think of my polite silence to this remark.

My quiet boiling, my less than quiet boiling.

I think of the time Blake Butler complained on Twitter: “just remembered being told by a professor during my MFA that my only 2 options for book publication would be FC2 & Dalkey Archive” and I, still unpublished responded: “During my CW PhD a supervisor asked me when I’d be having children.” And he ‘liked’ the Tweet. I make no claims to my writing, to my right to speak back, but Heroines grants that a girl can and should write without legitimacy. That the great men did this without questioning themselves for years, the girl writer must do it in the face of internal and external pressure alike.

Here is the reviewer, trembling. Here is the reviewer, her eyes far too bright. But that’s the power of Zambreno’s work. It riles, speaking of personal experience, it prompts a personal response:

I take the course in order to apply to English PH.D programes, but I drop out mid-semester. It just seems there is too much to defend against. I want to write my little outlaw texts and not have to reason with the Professor X’s.

I guess I have always had a tremendous fear of being institutionalized.

(She was institutionalized, as Mad Woman, as Bad Wife, and he was institutionalized, as the Great American Author.)

I took this class while I was years-deep in the attempt to become a writer, but I had never actually published any fiction. Stuff like this just destroys my nerves. Strangely, this didn’t disappear when I got published, this sense of illegitimacy and invisibility. Maybe it even got worse, because before I allowed myself to be cocooned in my little world with my dinner party of imaginary friends, the mad wives. Some sort of sanctum.

I read this thinking of my (male) PhD adviser – an excellent, stringent editor who gave me all the fine dead white literary men to read, but also Jean Rhys. I think of another tutor who decried my use of the “I” in my essays on creative process but also handed me Dionne Brand. I think, these are the people I want most to press this book towards. Those Professor Xs who both conform to and greatly exceed the label.

I wish I could share more text here. It might appear from snippets that Heroines is purely a wave of biography and feminist anger, and it would be easy to characterise the punchy pieces as stand-alone, but they are not. The text is well woven together – arguments that appear in fragmentary statements are later, sometimes much later, returned to, expanded, re-contextualised and enriched. This acts like an echolocation, darts and sparks that sound out the territory being explored. The marginalised modernist women lit up in the excerpt of a diary here, a quote here, a second quote, a third, somewhere else. Zambreno in the text at instances of her life, struggling to write, reaching out a hand to another woman, crying at texts lost, minds erased. It is dazzling. It gives and it gives from the silenced a great space. An opportunity for that ‘Ecstasy of influence’ and permission to be angry, and encouragement to fight for more than a room in which to write.

I read and I felt like I had a foetal bird inside the shell of my head, rolling and growing, shut eyes bulging, finally towards the end of the book beaking at the ceiling to get out. How can you articulate that? At the same time, this book, while speaking to one side of me, my girl-self, had places that tapping did not reach.

I, like many others, have an ambivalent relationship with writers like Virginia Woolf , [whom Zambreno presents to us uncritically, in the spirit of a heroine]- women writers whose work was facilitated by their social class, and marred by it. Her distaste for those of lower social ranking. Her White Anglo Saxon Protestant (culture if not faith) concerns. She wrote so gloriously and with such soaring clarity through her narrowed and painful life – yet it’s hard to have a heroine who would have sneered at your accent, at your origin, at your religion, at your mother.

I think again of Jean Rhys, [another Heroine.] a writer who became desperately poor, who had cast off her class privileges, but who showed in her Paris Review interview at the very least a discomfort with black people that seems born from a racist colonial mentality. Her stated dislike of Feminism as a movement that was not mentioned. I’d have like to have seen these problematic sides addressed in Heroines.

Further on in the book, the lens takes in a diversity of contemporary writers and bloggers, and it almost felt to me that the channel was widening, that what I was reading was, as well as being a call to write, a call against a pathologising authority,  the start of something more – a book two?

This is the reviewer, greedily goading the writer.

This is the hungry writer, waving at a heroine across the water.

This is a girl telling you, read and be illuminated, charged. Throw Heroines at your students, at your professors, at your partner, and watch the fireworks, the shadows that dance.


Helen McClory was raised in both rural and urban Scotland. She has lived in Sydney and New York City and is currently to be found in the South Side of Edinburgh overlooking a prehistoric cliff face. The manuscript of her first novel KILEA won the Unbound Press Best Novel Award 2011, and publication is currently being sought for it. To keep the wire steady, Helen is working on a second novel about the intersections of love, failure and technology set in New York, New Mexico and Cornwall. Progress on this at: http://schietree.wordpress.com/