MEDEEA IANCU ART AS PATERNITY AND RESPECTABILITY
“The writer’s responsibility, along with that of the institutions, ministries, and writers’ associations, is to broaden humanity through their vision, not cripple it; to create new awareness within society, not to teach conformism and corruption; his responsibility is to himself, but also towards what he creates and promotes. Without this awareness, clarity, and responsibility, the writer remains an impostor. His responsibility is a historical, political, human, and civic one. Which side of history he will end on is entirely up to him.”
At present, the way of teaching literature, as well as of promoting it through various workshops and online activities plays into the same antiquated, exclusively masculine practices that neither cater to the students’ or participants’ needs, nor reflect the century we live in. Not unlike in the times without social distancing, quarantine filled the online space with male writers’ activities: Florin Iaru announced a “literary tailoring” workshop, open only to individuals considered “advanced”—those who attended a creative writing course recognised by the same author. This seems to me like a discriminatory measure: the participants in Olga Ștefan’s workshops, for instance, cannot be considered… eligible. From Chișinău came another initiative by Dumitru Crudu, who invited only male writers to teach literature to young people at his workshops. Many publishing houses or bookstores focus almost exclusively on the promotion of men’s writing: male writers are invited to speak about their life, male writers are invited to read from other male writers’ work. This is not a new situation—on the contrary, it is normalised and tolerated, touted as justified and legitimate.
The reproduction of such initiatives alters everyone’s self-image and sense of reality; they change the individual’s relationship to literature, the world, creation, reading and writing, cementing prejudices and stereotypes. It builds a culture based on privilege, domination, exclusion, and discrimination. The presence of women writers becomes an exception, a taboo, something to be tolerated, an anomaly, susceptible to contestation at any time; in cultural life and curricula their presence is optional, while the male writers’ presence is necessary and even mandatory. On the other hand, women writers’ contribution and creation is not recognised in the contemporary era, and this continuous oppression gets transmitted, directly and indirectly, from one generation to another. First and foremost, it is the young generation who will face the consequences of such practices, but so will the rest of the population.
Culture and education were never a priority for Romania. The exclusion of women writers from school textbooks and cultural life is not only women’s problem, but a national problem, one which concerns us all. If “literature knows no bounds”, as the “Poet, Essayists, Novelists” Charter states, why do frontiers close before women writers? Does PEN Romania not have the responsibility not to promote and perpetuate discrimination, prejudice, tokenism? Is it not the role of PEN Romania to advertise everybody’s literature, not only that of males? How does this association support “literary creation aiming towards civic and moral societal values, in order to protect writers against censorship and political interference, salvage collective memory, linguistic rights of the communities, the important role of women in contemporary society, by educating the public through literary values”? In what way, most of all, does it support and acknowledge the important role played by women in contemporary society, but also in literature? How is women’s artistic contribution, but also literary diversity reclaimed? How does it educate the public, how does it contribute to the awareness which is so necessary in this country? What kind of activities will it undertake to reach such objectives? And, among others, how does it deal with some of its members’ misogynistic, racist views?
Privileges for some, invisibility for others
Romanian writers and politicians have many things in common: firstly, none of them takes responsibility of any kind; both try to convince us that we live in an apolitical reality, that the double standard creates literature’s and the country’s progress, that racism, segregation, homophobia, misogyny, rape culture etc. are inventions of ill-intentioned people who aim to destroy the country’s future and traditions. Both of them try to convince us that what we see is not what we see; both of them pose as tolerant people who are interested in minority rights. They desperately attempt to justify some colleague’s racist, homophobic, classist indiscretion only to finally declare: our country and literature are exceptional, no trace of discrimination or outdated mentalities! Both the Romanian politician and writer talk about respect: towards rights, towards women, about respect for the writer and about his respectability, about the value of human lives. Both act scandalised from time to time, but they remain idle. Their hands and minds are occupied by the preservation of privileges, not by the lack of women authors in school curricula; their hands and minds are concerned with defending a ‘respectableʼ friend, not with discriminatory methods in yesterday’s and today’s education; their minds and hands are busy creating the “progress” that is bound to guarantee their continuity.
Both demand time; they call for patience, and they ask us to wait. We need to be moderate, which means indifferent; we need to talk about literature, but not about the literature which has become political, for a writer’s life floats undisturbed in the bubble of the aesthetic. We need to talk about education, but not about the extermination of Roma, not about segregation, not about violence in schools and at home, not about the lacking sexual education, not about women’s history or their exclusion from cultural life. We should not talk about the multiple ways in which rape culture and violence, racism and homophobia, misogyny and classism are perpetuated in education and literature. We need to offer time, hours and years of our life, only to be told, in the end, that our lives do not matter.
Women, while despised in this country, are the ones who save all our lives, year after year—they were always in the first line of battle and now, they care for archbishops, politicians, mayors, teachers; the women who, not long ago, were catcalled on the street; the ones about whom male writers, preoccupied with their own image and the multitude of workshops they are coordinating, will not write. They are the ones who save millions of male lives, only to have them spit in their faces and lock them in history’s chambers so they cannot eclipse men’s grandeur. They are the ones selling bread and milk at the supermarket, the ones who cook, do the laundry, make grocery shopping lists, care for parents, grandparents, children; they are the ones whose lives do not matter. Or, to put it in a better way: their lives matter as long as they can save another life, as long as you benefit, as long as their ambition does not endanger your privileges; their life matters as long as they are paid less than you. Their life matters as long as they remain silent, invisible, isolated and robbed of historical recognition—just as long as the man remains a hero. They will be humble, obedient, respectful, feminine, home loving—just as long as they serve you.
Respect—this common, abstract, nebulous, ironised, imposed, and demanded notion—is missing from the Romanian writer’s understanding. The Romanian writer treats a woman writer as if she were his daughter or niece. He is not honoured to be at her side at events because he feels offended. He does not read women writers, he reads male writers, he has “nothing against” women writers, because women writers do not exist for him. Misogyny and racism do not exist, because admitting them would mean questioning the past, which is and has to remain idyllic and fundamental to his identity; the questioning of prejudice and stereotypes would entail the destruction of the familiarity offering him comfort and privilege. He does not respect the opinion nor the woman writer’s right to a different opinion, he gives lessons, holds lectures, scolds, and punishes the woman. Reducing the woman (writer) to the state of a minor, an incapable, foolish person, stripped of rights, has no other objective than to silence her and reestablish control over her. It also shows how children are perceived: similar to the woman/writer, they do not possess rights like the one to respond, to have a (different) opinion, the right to choose, to think differently, to perceive differently, to create, to interpret—the right to their own identity. However, we are always obliged to show respect towards the male writer and men in general. The Romanian writer “respects” the woman, not as flesh and bones, but as an ideal: the respectable woman, the pure woman—white, heterosexual, Christian, chaste, home loving, feminine, mute, obliging—the woman who does not endanger the male writer’s privileges. The Romanian writer is offended by the woman writer who does not follow in his path and listen to his sermons—she is not offered respect and she surely is not respectable as a writer.
A respectable male writer, a respectable woman writer
In 2017, the Romanian journal Dilema veche published an interview with Marlon James where he stated: “[…] the writers from whom I learned how to approach the issue of language were women: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Jessica Hagedorn. From Toni Morrison I learned about dialogue, Alice Walker taught me how to use dialect, and from Jessica Hagedorn I learned how to use the voice of the street, gossip, rumour, slang. […] I learned from the women writers especially. I believe that, in general, we read too many male writers.” Shortly after the publishing of this interview, a Romanian writer declared on Facebook that he found Marlon James’ statement “ridiculous” and said he could not “see in Toni Morrison a writer more important than Joyce”, and Alice Munro was “an entirely respectable woman writer”. I asked this Romanian writer what he had learned from the women writers he had read, to which he replied that I was impertinent.
Toni Morrison is not seen as an important writer, since we were not taught to see women writers’ contributions as important, nowhere near as important as the male writers’. The assertion that Alice Munro is “an entirely respectable writer” implies, on the one hand, that other women writers deserve respect, and on the other hand, that she is a minor writer. Such a statement brings into discussion the woman’s honour and virtue. Literature written by women seems to be read by some men in such terms: the male writer sets a barometer to assess how much respect the woman/writer would deserve, if she reached the required respectability level—for, to be read and enter the realm of literature, the woman writer has to be “entirely respectable.”
I grew up in a world where a woman was fully respectable if she did not wear short skirts, if she was in charge of the household, if she was married, if her utterly non-respectable name had been replaced by her husband’s respectable name. An entirely respectable woman participated in the liturgy, was not impertinent, did not make scenes in public, did not put her husband in embarrassing situations in public or at home; an entirely respectable woman did not endanger man’s author-ity. An entirely respectable woman became entirely non-respectable if her husband was an alcoholic. A woman became entirely respectable if the family was entirely respectable; an entirely respectable woman did not cohabit with a man, get divorced, doubt a man’s words, decisions and author-ity; she was not cheeky, did not speak unless spoken to, did not intervene in men’s discussions, but respected the man above all else. An entirely respectable woman became fully non-respectable if she was raped, harassed, or beaten. A fully respectable woman said “sărut mîna” (I kiss your hand) to a man, and an entirely respectable woman was greeted with “sărut mîinile” (I kiss your hands).
A fully respectable woman did not leave the house at night, she always put her men’s needs before her own. A fully respectable woman admired a man’s creation, she knew her place and her vocation, she knew the man was superior and she inferior. A fully respectable woman knew that “she needed to learn in silence, showing full obedience”, she knew that “she was not allowed to teach others, nor to rise above a man, but had to sit in silence”; she knew that “first there was Adam himself, then followed Eve. And Adam was not tricked, but the woman was.” She knew “a man is not bound to cover his head, for he is the face and the grace of God, while the woman is the man’s glory”. She knew that “it is not man who was created from the woman, but the woman from the man; it is not man who was made for the woman, but the woman was created for the man.” She knew that, being a woman, she “needed to wear on her head a sign of her domination”; she knew she couldn’t think, because her man thought for her. A fully respectable woman could not meet with entirely unrespectable women; a fully respectable woman was white, patriotic, virginal, did not have “bastard children” and was not a “bastard child” herself, a fully respectable woman knew that her existence could not offend a man’s existence. She knew her existence was conditional and the respect owed to her was conditional as well.
An entirely respectable woman did not love another woman and certainly practised a respectable profession. An entirely respectable woman ought not to be a person, but property instead; she cannot advance any demand, for her existence, as the Bible says, is due to man. “A woman’s head is the man”—an entirely respectable woman writer knows that she cannot and does not need to be more important than Joyce or any other male writer. A fully respectable woman writer has to be grateful that she was allowed to write and that she is offered this conditional respect. A fully respectable woman writer should never wish to be known or recognised, for this would be a sign of vanity, impertinence, and selfishness. A fully respectable woman writer becomes fully non-respectable if her voice is harsh, firm; if she demands “undeserved” rights, if she is a feminist, if she dares to disturb the cultic balance of literature. A fully respectable woman should not talk over mens’ voices, she should whisper, so the man’s voice can resonate loudly; she has to be modest and acknowledge that her role is to be the audience for a man’s oeuvre. A fully respectable woman writer despises other women and writers, including herself. A fully respectable woman writer should not respect herself, but always respect the man. A fully respectable woman writer should let herself be reduced to silence, invisible; she should be grateful that men are reading her, that she was allowed a corner in this literature and, most of all, she should wear this label of a “minor writer” with dignity and (measured) pride.
A fully respectable woman writer should not possess author-ity, for author-ity is reserved exclusively for men. A fully respectable woman writer cannot be a creator, for the only creator is man; she cannot be a complete creator, for she herself was created from man. As such, she cannot and should not aspire to be more important than man, the sole creator. A fully respectable woman writer is “man’s glory”, while man is “the face and grace of God”. A woman writer who won the Nobel Prize is merely an entirely respectable, minor woman writer, unlike the dozens of Nobel Prize-winning male writers, who are complete creators, geniuses, important, magnificent, unparalleled. The woman writer’s presupposed respectability, demanded from her, maintains her on the edge of the precipice: under control, dependent, rejoicing in some privileges while inequalities are still denied.
The Romanian male writer’s respectability goes hand in hand with maintaining the masculine privileges and domination, entitlement, misogyny, racism, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia; it goes hand in hand with the preservation of a collective imaginary where the man is “God’s image and grace, while the woman is the man’s slave.” It goes hand in hand with the woman who “has to learn in silence, showing all her obedience”, as she “is not allowed to teach others, nor to rise above the man, but to remain in silence”. This respectability of the Romanian writer goes hand in hand with the preservation of inequalities, with what is considered acceptable for a woman and what is not. This respectability erases the Romanian writer’s responsibility and transforms women’s opinions into exaggerations, hysteria, madness. In other words, a woman’s right to express her opinion is seen as illegitimate and even illegal, a woman’s right to see herself represented is deemed an illegitimate folly against nature and literature.
Deepening inequality and imbalance
It’s 2020 and the pandemic did not affect us in the same ways—it did not erase inequalities, but instead made them stand out more clearly. On the other side of privileged reality lie poverty and exclusion, racism, violence, abuse of all kinds, starving children without access to drinking water or education; children who became invisible, stigmatised, discriminated, incriminated, children labeled as worthless by the state, children without future, women without future. On the other side of privileged reality lie historical exclusion, invisibility, and isolation. These children and women are not seen as sufficiently respectable for the value of their lives to be seen and acknowledged. The comfort of one person’s life is not representative of the comfort and security of everybody’s lives.
It’s 2020 and a major imbalance continues to exist between what is happening in reality and what is being portrayed as reality; this imbalance will continue to exist as long as the sense of realities of women, youngsters, and children is destroyed. It will continue to exist as long as progress means the annihilation of identities, rights, dignity of other people, as long as respect will be a synonym for privileges, conditioning, control, and the perpetuation of inequalities.
It is necessary to change the national practice and perception according to which art is exclusively a man’s creative act, craft, and field, and consequently a woman has no competence, no right to express her opinion and experience about art—both her own and in general. In 2020, women writers’ art is considered irrelevant and a conversation on the topic is undesirable; the literary realm is occupied by men. A woman writer’s need to speak about her own art is considered illegitimate, abnormal, and fully unrespectable. Literature depicted only as a process, as the man’s creative act, is a manipulation and lacks truth. Young people need and have the right to see themselves represented in this literature. The writer’s responsibility, along with that of the institutions, ministries, and writers’ associations, is to broaden humanity through their vision, not cripple it; to create new awareness within society, not to teach conformism and corruption; his responsibility is to himself, but also towards what he creates and promotes. Without this awareness, clarity, and responsibility, the writer remains an impostor. His responsibility is a historical, political, human, and civic one. Which side of history he will end on is entirely up to him.
Article originally published in the Romanian language in Observatorul Cultural (The Cultural Observer) and translated into the English language for Kajet Journal by Miruna Bacali and proofread by Marija Spirkovska.
Medeea Iancu is an award-winning Romanian poet and theatre director. She is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Delacroix este tabu: Amendamentele lirice (Delacroix is taboo: The Lyrical Amendments, FrACTalia Press, 2019).
Miruna Bacali was recently awarded her doctoral degree in literature and cultural studies with the University of Giessen, Germany. Her thesis on "(Re)imagining Europe: Romanian Writers and their Self-Positioning after 1989" will be published in spring 2020. She is also a freelance translator for German, Romanian, and occasionally English.
Marija Spirkovska is a PhD researcher in literatures in English at the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture (GCSC) in Giessen, Germany, developing a project entitled "Disturbia: Poetics of Urban Psychopathology in the Anglophone City Novel (1980-2020)". She also works extensively as a freelance translator, proofreader, editor, and writer.
Cover image by Medeea Iancu