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A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Woman

By: Yiran Jiang

Art by: Cara Lewis

I was around 16. I had a dream. I dreamed of an island, lying between the craggy islets in the huge stretch of a dark, blue ocean. It was a stormy night. After nightfall, I looked afar and noticed the blurry outline of a lighthouse gleaming a short distance away. I remembered I was once at the swimming pool with my family, but the next moment my location changed. I was standing on the outside rim of the island, ready to jump into the sea. The storm grew in intensity. I swam. I saw the lightning, and thunder was my company. I made use of the very few moments when my head was above the water, trying to catch sight of the flickering light of the lighthouse. Strangely, I had an unquenchable desire for life, and I wanted to swim across the sea to reach the lighthouse.

I never truly fathomed what the dream could mean, but I always remember the senses and feelings left in me. It’s a mix of curiosity towards the borderland, fear of the unknown, regret of jumping into the sea, and sensations caused by adrenaline that flood in my bloodstream. Later I dreamt of the lighthouse a few more times, but each time I failed to get to the other side. Either I never reached the lighthouse, or I just couldn’t remember. I wonder if there are other ways of going there, just like the Lighthouse was reached at the same time as Lily Briscoe completed the unfinished painting of Mrs. Ramsay. Or perhaps after many years, others will go there on behalf of me. But at that time I didn’t know who Lily was; I knew neither the Ramsays nor Virginia Woolf. I gradually set this dream aside, but it later became an archive where I can visit any time. Whenever I need to be empowered by its vitality, it’s always there.

Initially I didn’t choose to write, but instead I felt like writing chose me. I write when I have strong emotions, when I have to defend myself, and when I become rebellious. I

write not because I own inspiration but because inspiration owns me. I am the medium of ideas, the vessel for emotions, a fungible character who finds her voice in each opposition that is directed at her. I cannot stand the open fields, just as I was afraid to be abandoned on the shore. So I felt the need to swim across the sea. My body resides in the valleys where I can hear echoes in the wind. The same with my dream when I hear a sound resounding from the lighthouse in the midst of the faint light. I need to hear the echoes, and I shall not exist alone. I feel like I need to be confronted, to have emotions, and to soak things up like a sponge. But in the meantime, I hate and love my counterparts, my enemies, my friends. And myself especially. I don’t know when I started to doubt my feelings and senses. Me being praised and criticized at the same time. Me being both a leading role and a supporting actor. Tagged with the word “femininity.” People value my delicacy but bemoan my subjectivity. When did I start to notice that whenever we talk about femininity, we think of sensitivity? Since when do people regard sensitivity as having an acute sense of emotions? Is it a bad thing to be emotional? And is there too much display of emotions in my writing ?

There was a time when I wanted my writing to be more rational, more objective, more distanced, as if the image of myself as an author almost faded. My writing was not creative, not reflective, and not even organized. It was neither feminine nor masculine. It was a concoction. It was nothing. Maybe. I tried to become neither man nor woman, neither myself nor the others. Like Schrodinger's cat, I was in the superposition state of multiple realities. I force myself to be shrouded by the gaze of the others. I assume that I am judged by stereotypes. I want to prove that my writing can be more than just emotions and feelings. I conceive of an imagined enemy. I am just never free.

For such a long time, I’ve restrained myself from resorting to definition. I was afraid of defining things. Definition kills possibilities. If I am in a state of uncertainty, everything can still be constantly shaping me, turning me from a prototype into a finished product — from instability to stability. That is why I start to fear that I will have to settle in a final state of being. I fear the already "stable" version of myself, not to mention what I will eventually become. Perhaps it’s a good thing for my mind to linger in the process of suffering, struggling, confusion and never reach the end of the journey. At least this ongoing process means infinite possibilities. Once I am settled, there is only one “me.” Once something is determined, there is only one reality. Once writing is defined, the impression of it can be hard to change. So when the notion of “feminine writing” first came to me, I had mixed feelings.

We don’t talk about masculine writing. We talk about feminine writing.

I appreciate how Clarice Lispector wrote about death and how Virginia Woolf described the moments of being in which one had an epiphany. But I’ve seen people mention these wonderful female authors only when they talk about feminine writing. I’ve seen people always expecting feminist elements in female authors. I understand. I understand it is a notion used to combat the writing traditions featuring male writers. A notion to help female writers pick up their pens and write in rooms of their own. I understand why we talk about this notion. I understand the meaning of its existence. But how I wish feminine writing was merely a transitional concept. A concept that is used and only used in our time, when there are still structural challenges for female writers, when we have to yell in order to be heard. How I wish there could be a time when female writers are no longer bound by feminist identities. How I wish there could be a time when we stop talking about feminine writing, feminism, femininity.

My mind as a writer descended into warfare and chaos. Constantly worrying if I live out the stereotypes inflicted on me and on us. If I am the stereotype per se. If sticking to the stereotypes violates the duty of a female writer. If I should accept my sensitivity. If I should laud my femininity.

Hélène Cixous said, “Write yourself. Your body must be heard.” Yes, I’ve been trying to write about myself: my desire inside my body, my struggles, my reckoning. It’s just that I am constrained by self-criticism. I cannot be settled for having something to say, for not saying anything; for maintaining balance, and for breaking that balance; for having empathy, and for not having any. I constantly swayed between each binary, of good and bad, of empathy and apathy, of being and nothingness…… Should my writing submit to a certain type of writing, be it feminine or masculine or genderless? Should I look back to my female predecessors when I feel the need to escape — when I feel overshadowed by the canon set before me? And by doing so I am only consolidating the binary opposition, am I? Trying to define my femininity as opposed to masculinity, to embrace destabilization only because so many things are stabilized, and to be loud only because we have long been silenced. Feminine writing is always defined as what masculine writing tradition is not. Even the act of redefining femininity can fall into this trap: what once was considered masculine is now re-assigned to femininity. The world is like a cage of binary.

Cixous suggests that feminine writing cannot be defined. I second that. I can be better off without defining a form of writing as feminine. I can be sensitive or Rational. Neither Sensitive nor Rational. I can become myself, or I can become the others. I can become a specific type of person, or a bodiless form in multiverses. I can be the stereotypes. I can also be anti-stereotypical. I can be defined by femininity, or I can also reject the notion of femininity. Perhaps, trying to fit myself into these categories is like chasing a mirage. I can essentially be undefined. I wish to be undefined. I wish to trouble these socially constructed concepts, accepting all facets of me and negating the binaries. My mind and body shall not be bound by any definitions, nor shall my writing.

I cherish my identity as a writer, a female writer, an unorganized writer. But I would also like to be organized, degendered, and undefined. I’d like to be physically spared and mentally occupied. I’d like to fathom out that dream. I’m ready to jump into the sea again. The light increases in luminosity. I catch sight of the flickering light of the lighthouse. I will still be on that great journey of reaching the lighthouse.


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