Why is women’s writing invariably reduced to the personal, or dismissed as “confessional”? This week, my book Unspeakable Things is published in the UK and in the standard set of interviews you do when you have a book out – in which you turn up in a clean T-shirt and try not to sound stupid – that’s the one question that has come up every time. Why do you write about “personal issues”? Why do you include your own experiences when you speak about sex, power and politics – and such intimate experiences, too? Why do you talk about addiction and date rape and television? Aren’t you being too “provocative”? Aren’t you being too “confessional”, as women always are?
The first point is that when men write about their experiences in a political context, it’s never called “confessional” – it’s just “literature”, or a “memoir”. The second is that male political experience is never coded as male – it’s just universal truth.
In five years as a columnist and commentator who also happens to be young and female, I have lost count of the times I have been encouraged by editors to write about being a woman, in a way that is “provocative” without really challenging sexism. I have been encouraged to be a “voice” for young women – to draw attention away from how most newspapers’ political pages are still dominated by men’s words, men’s agendas.
Now that I’m lucky enough to be able to pick and choose, I often hear the same thing from younger women writers: that they can pay their rent, or have their pitches listened to, only if they write about fashion or diets or dating in a way that is modestly feminist but still fluffy enough to sit within the “women’s pages”, which are usually part of a paper’s lifestyle section by virtue of not being considered serious politics.
It was in reaction to that pressure that I drafted an early version of the book with almost no personal content at all. I took inspiration from the dry, academic manifestos of many radical groups I had known and was careful to write from the head, not the heart. Those who saw those early chapters told me that although the argument was fine, something was missing. Courage was missing. I had spent so much time working and writing in a world where women’s experience was treated as trivial – the same car-crash stories of silly, suffering girls – that I assumed my own was trivial, too.
The political writers who have inspired me most throughout my life – from James Baldwin and Alice Walker to Allen Ginsberg, Germaine Greer and Leslie Feinberg – have always been the ones who told their own stories with power and passion but without letting their politics collapse into their experience. (Obviously, just because you’re inspired by Baldwin and Walker and Greer doesn’t mean you can write like them, but trying is always good.) In the middle of putting together my book, I reread Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, an uncompromising essay on racial injustice in America interwoven with the story of the author’s own youth and early adulthood in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s. When Baldwin describes his violent rage towards a racist restaurant worker, how he had to run away because he knew that if he expressed that rage he could be arrested, beaten or killed, the open hands of his polemic close their fingers around your heart. Reading that passage, I found my own courage. The political had to be personal – not exclusively but without compromise.
Slowly, I began to weave intimate narrative back into my own writing. I wasn’t telling the story of my life, or my friends’ lives as angry young radicals – I was telling the story of our politics, piece by piece. I learned to pare down the unnecessary gossip. I took out most of the sex scenes, lest they became the story. I sent chapters again and again to friends I thought would understand, asking what could be improved, expanded. I’ve grown up writing online, where you can respond to comments and change your mind, so producing a single finished draft was a daunting prospect.
Where I wrote about issues that I had not been at the heart of – sex work, for example – I turned to people who knew about those worlds from the inside. The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of the danger of the “single story”, warning that the attempt to make any narrative universal undermines not just collective struggle but ignores the breadth of human experience. There is always pressure to construct a single story of what young womanhood in the 21st century is, what girls are and what they do, stripped of any uncomfortable anger about class and race and economic injustice, tied off with a happy ending: I got better, I got married, I had children and a makeover. There is such a temptation, particularly when writing for a mass market, to reassure readers that everything will be OK.
In the end, I stopped worrying and just wrote the book I needed to read when I was 17. What I most wanted to say, to all the messed-up teenagers and angry adults out there, is that the fight for your survival is political. The fight to own your emotions, your rage and pain and lust and fear, all those unspeakable secrets that we do not share because we worry that we will be hurt or shunned, is deeply political. That fight matters and you can make it through, like so many others before you.
Those are the secrets that are written off as “confessional” when anyone who isn’t a white, straight man speaks them. Balancing the personal and the political without being dismissed is an almost impossible project. However, in times like these I think of James Baldwin: “The impossible is the least that one can demand.”
Laurie Penny’s “Unspeakable Things” is out now (Bloomsbury, £12.99)