Siri Hustvedt: “Almost all young, attractive women find it hard to be accepted as authors worth reading”

Míriam Cano, Siri Hustvedt

I would be lying if I said that the first time I read a book by Siri Hustvedt I did so without thinking about her as the wife of Paul Auster. It’s possible that the person who recommended it to me, also a reader of this author from New York, mentioned this fact when they lent it to me, whether as a guarantee of quality or as mere gossip, who knows. The fact is that when I read What I loved, I was conditioned from the outset by the idea of who the author was, not in relation to her personal or intellectual qualities, but in terms of something as irrelevant—as regards her work—as the man with whom she lived. I took it for granted that, if I liked Auster, it was very possible that I would like his wife, that they must share a similar style, and that he must have had some kind of influence on her writing or her perspective on world.

Neither can I hide a certain sense of embarrassment in confessing this, although at the same time I think it’s an important fact to recall because, fifteen years after that first novel, I feel more curiosity to read a new book by Hustvedt than by her husband. This not only reflects my relationship with her as an author, but also how my understanding of feminism has evolved: through self-criticism, trial and error, and learning. Nowadays, it wouldn’t occur to me to draw a correlation or attribute certain characteristics to someone just because they are the partner of someone else, and perhaps because of that, Siri Hustvedt is not only a writer and intellectual who I follow with interest, but also a kind of symbol of the development of my feminist awareness, always incomplete, always liable to error and always in process.

She has come to Barcelona, after receiving the Princess of Asturias Award for Literature 2019, to present her latest novel, Memories of the Future (published in Catalan as Records del Futur by Edicions 62/Seix Barral), a fictional work in which you can’t help but see —and she herself doesn’t try to hide it— a fictionalised reminiscence of her years as a student in New York. Minnesota —as they call her protagonist, even though, revealingly, her initials are S.H. just like the author’s— arrives in the city, alone and penniless, and becomes obsessed with the strange behaviour of her neighbour Lucy, writing down her observations in a notebook. Forty years later, now a professional writer, the protagonist looks back on her notes to create a story about memories and how they are shaped over time.

Siri Hustvedt is not only a writer and intellectual who I follow with interest, but also a kind of symbol of the development of my feminist awareness, always incomplete, always liable to error and always in process. Reading her, I ask myself whether, to a certain extent, we are allowed to create. The female artist, the female writer and creative falls within parameters that often shift between condescension and a certain fetishism

Minnesota is a young, attractive and intelligent young woman. She lives with this contradiction and she is surprised how the prejudices of other people—especially men—generate a conflict between her physical appearance and her brain. I tell Hustvedt how, when I was a girl, I decided that I didn’t fit into the standard definitions of beauty, but that I knew I was smart, and so that would be how I made my way in life. After publishing my first book, someone said that people paid attention to me because I was pretty. Like Minnesota, I also lived with this paradox, which in some way also left me feeling defenceless: what would I do with my shield now? Hustvedt laughs loudly. “It’s a fascinating subject” she says. “It’s very difficult, in our culture, to accept the idea of an author, someone who writes books, like you or I, and who comes in a young, attractive package. You might not fit into the normal standard of beauty, but it doesn’t matter: almost all attractive women aged 20, 30 or even 40 find it hard to be accepted as authors who are worth reading. It’s a big cultural problem. I think I was also somewhat naïve when I published for the first time. I thought that books didn’t have a gender, that they were made of material, that they were there for anyone who wanted to read them. I don’t write my books for a specific gender, I write them for any human being that wants to read them. And it was extremely shocking and painful to gradually realise that my appearance would interfere with how I was read”.

Reading her, I also ask myself whether, to a certain extent, we are allowed to create. The female artist, the female writer, creative, also falls within parameters that often shift between condescension and —let’s admit it— a certain fetishism. However, things become more complicated if the creation is, let’s say, of a more intellectual bent. Hustvedt has combined fiction and non-fiction, exploring subject matters as diverse as philosophy, art, psychology and neuroscience. In fact, the chapter “No Competition” of the book A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women (published in Catalan by Edicions 62/Seix Barral) looks at the inherent sexism —conscious or otherwise— within creative and intellectual circles. “Especially if your books are about something that people perceive as being emotional or passionate, or if you threaten anything typically masculine, there are two types of reaction: they either look down on you or get angry with you. I’ve had to bear the brunt of a lot of anger. And it’s a kind of anger that’s directly related to my intellectual output”. Perhaps that’s why Harriet, the artist-protagonist of her novel The Blazing World, hides her identity behind three men. Suddenly, people start to take notice of her work. “It’s a common issue, even among writers. George Eliot never published under her real name, Myriam Evans, because she wanted to be taken seriously, and George Sand did the same. Even J.K Rowling, after Harry Potter, has used a male nom de plume”.

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The theme that weaves through all the other threads in Hustvedt’s latest novel is, without a doubt, the construction of personality. What we do with the things that have happened to us. What do we do with the things we have read? Many women grow up reading men. Memories of the Future includes a fragment from Don Quixote which immediately makes me think of Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, both a heroine and the subject of derision: the woman who goes soft in the head from reading too many romantic novels. Again, this is a viewpoint, a masculine filter, that inevitably conditions us as women and as writers. And what is more, the academic interpretations of these characters have also been eminently masculine. “Absolutely. Part of the novel’s action focuses on a young woman who arrives in New York looking for a hero for her novel. And this contains an implicit idea of masculinity. One of the ideas in the book is precisely that how the books we have read have moulded our perception. Minnesota is a romantic, and her ugly apartment, and this New York with its Quixotic air, reinforce the idea of an antiquated hero. But all of a sudden, she starts to go hungry and she writes about hunger”. It’s contained in the novel’s opening lines: “I didn’t know then what I know now: As I wrote, I was also being written”.

I think this masculinised idea of the hero which Hustvedt uses to make her protagonist reach a state of self-awareness, and which often involves personal experience and introspection, is closely related to a dichotomy that has interested me for some time between two of the great American poets: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. The way in which their lives have been depicted has much to do with how other people have marked them with certain clichés related to masculine or feminine qualities: Whitman, the passionate adventurer; Dickinson, the female recluse. I exaggerate, but to put it simply, I don’t believe that this roughly depicted opposition is at all innocent. “Dickinson only managed to publish a few poems in her lifetime, but she wanted to publish: we know that from her correspondence with Higginson. She knew she was a genius. Higginson was one of the literary authorities of the time, and after she sent him some of her poems for him to appraise, and he wrote back saying, well, the metre she used was rather strange, she replied with one of my favourite quotes: “Sir – You think me ‘uncontrolled’ – I have no tribunal”, in other words she had nothing to defend herself against, nothing to justify. And she didn’t change the way she worked. Her relative reclusion wasn’t imposed upon her, it was what she herself wanted. I think it was partly so she could work, of course, but also to protect herself form the flagrant misogyny that surrounded her and which later pursued her. The real hate towards ambitious women”.

But why this anger towards a woman who removed herself from the traditional roles? “I think it has a lot to do with motherhood. All of us came out of a womb and we are deeply dependent on a mother or someone who occupies this role or acts as a mother. In fact, we are much more defenceless than most other mammals. I once saw a foal being born. As soon as he came out of his mother’s belly, he got onto his knees, then he stood up and started to run. He was completely independent. Humans—and it’s not me who says this, it was a German biologist—really need ‘another year in the womb’. We are utterly dependent. And I think that to a large extent it’s this dependence that has created misogynist attitudes. Every part of the female body reminds us, not just men, but men more strongly, of this omnipotent presence during the first years of our life. And there’s an even more awkward question: we all came out of a woman’s vagina. That’s the reason for this linguistic construct used by successful men, the typical ‘I’m a self-made man’, which is entirely impossible and negates this dependency”.

“We are utterly dependent. And I think that to a large extent it’s this dependence that has created misogynist attitudes”, states Hustvedt

The dark side of this female body—Hustvedt also talks about this in her latest novel—is the violence that has been and continues to be exacted against it. “There’s this idea that a women’s body is a free zone”. Violence between men has its own limits, but we mustn’t forget that violence from men is also often related to racism, to xenophobia. Even when this violence occurs between men, there still exists the idea that you have power over the other person’s body.

The main character of Memories of the Future is a victim of abuse. Hustvedt makes her reconstruct this episode forty years later, with everything she has learned and understood. “To start with they both want to have sex, but as the evening goes on, she loses interest. He doesn’t. He wants, in a certain way, to punish her. And she lets him come up to her apartment and yes, they go to bed. It’s not until many years later that she realises she’s been abused. And this often happens with many women who have been the victims of sexist violence. They ask themselves: what if I’d done this or that. Maybe I could have avoided it. Maybe it was my fault”.

“Any form of violence, or even of intrusion, although obviously if there is violence it’s much worse, is a form of punishment, of domination. Because if a man misinterprets your signals, and starts to kiss you and you say hey, we’ve got our wires crossed: I don’t want to have sex with you, I don’t want to kiss you, it’s no big deal, end of story. If a woman —or in the case of a racist, an immigrant or a racialised person— places themselves on a higher level, it’s immediately perceived as an attack, as humiliating. This is when people get angry and want to punish us. And someone might want to punish you for many reasons, because you seem independent, because you make me feel small and therefore I have to dominate you”.

Miriam_Cano

Míriam Cano

Míriam Cano is a poet, author, translator, writing teacher and Humanities graduate. In 2013, she was awarded the Martí Dot prize for poetry for her first book Buntsandstein (Viena Edicions). She also authored They Burn the Skies (Cremen Cels, LaBreu, 2017) –co-written with Martí Sales and Antònia Vicens– and the collection of poems Anchorage (Ancoratge, Ed. Terrícola, 2016). She regularly contributes to Nació Digital, Catorze Cultura Viva, Gent Normal and Poetari on cultural issues and as a literary and music critic. At present, she is the literary critic for the Els Experts programme on iCat radio and the l’Irradiador programme on Catalunya Ràdio.


Siri_Hustvedt

Siri Hustvedt

Siri Hustvedt is a writer. She has a PhD in English Literature from the Columbia University and is a lecturer in Psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medicine faculty in New York. Her novels include titles such as What I Loved (Allò que vaig estimar, Edicions 62, 2008) and The Summer without Men (L’estiu sense homes, Empúries, 2011). Both her literary works and her academic research focus on the nature of identity, individuality and human perception. She received the Princess of Asturias Award for Literature in 2019 and currently teaches and writes regularly for the New York Times and Psychology Today.

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