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Male or female?

Janice Pariat | Updated on September 05, 2014 Published on March 07, 2014

Image: Shutterstock / Paulart

Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land

Gender is an irrelevant question when it comes to readers and authors

It started, as revolutions are wont to do now, with a hashtag. Early this year, London-based designer and writer Joanna Walsh tweeted cartes de voeux for her friends with illustrations and 250-odd names of women writers. >#readwomen2014 has become a terrifically popular trend, turning up on timelines everywhere and graduating to mainstream media. In online magazine Berfrois, Walsh explained that “although women read more than men, and books by female authors are published in roughly the same numbers, they are more easily overlooked.” The hashtag, she goes on to say, has been used as a personal incentive, a rallying cry, a celebration of recent achievements (of Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature 2013, Eleanor Catton, who won the 2013 Man Booker Prize and Lydia Davis winner of 2013 Man Booker International Prize) and of authors who should be better known. Also it has become a tag to discuss ‘women’s writing’, and to linkup ‘read women’ projects around the world.

After this, lists have sprung up to add to Walsh’s own. Flavorwire, Goodreads, Time, Cosmopolitan, and countless personal blogs. I resonate with the sentiment and purpose behind this, given the asymmetries that the gendered assumptions of a patriarchal culture have nurtured historically. Leading to telling and harmful exclusions — journals that focus primarily on ‘big news’ stories by certain authors, literary studies in universities that are designed to uphold a ‘canon’.

Yet I find myself hesitant to participate. This is because #readwomen2014 divides literature by biological sex as a rough proxy for gender.

While this may have seemed all-encompassing 50 years ago, when talking of ‘men’ and ‘women’ was interchangeable with ‘male’ and ‘female’, we’ve progressed to a more nuanced understanding of gender as not indissolubly connected to biological endowment. Hasn’t Facebook introduced 56 gender options for their profiles? (Two-spirit, Agender, Gender Fluid, Bigender, Gender Nonconforming, Intersex, Non-binary, among many others.) What decides whether you are a man or a woman? If a person thinking of herself as a ‘woman’ would write a book while (still) having a male body, or vice versa, how do we classify it? (And why, in the first place, this obsession to classify everything?) Even VIDA, the website Walsh faithfully cites as the place where ‘gender’ discrimination in the literary arts is documented, uses charts with two categories. No guesses which they are.

This counting of the camps stirs hesitation more than an urge to rally around #readwomen2014. That is because, when I am encouraged to talk ‘as a woman’, I lean instead towards focusing on how different the experience of every person is, and of how many definitions of womanhood, and manhood, and anything in between, and beyond, can exist. Shouldn’t we strive to make it possible for anyone to express themselves, however they see themselves, rather than forcing people with a penis to speak — and write — ‘as a man’ and people without one ‘as a woman’? This year, I do plan on reading books written by women, but not because they’re women. I will also read books written by men, but not because they’re men.

Beyond the drawing of lines, and of lines between only two camps, the counting is equally stifling. A quick trip to my bookshelf informed me that 60 per cent of my books are by male authors — but what does that entail? Does it mean I am ‘sexist’? What if I happened to truly love all the other 40 per cent by females? And only 27 per cent of the 60 per cent? And even if we had perfect equality, 50:50, knowing the sex of the author — in a multi-gendered world — wouldn’t be much more informative than knowing which authors are brunette and which aren’t.

What #readwomen2014 throws up — in binary terms that risk derailing the debate — is a bigger problem. A lack of diversity and an unspoken bias in the way books are promoted, informing tastes which reinforce the demand for certain ‘types’ of books, in a vicious loop. Books and writers are ignored because they don’t fit some scheme, don’t have the ‘right’ contacts, don’t write in a particular language, have a different experience of ‘gender’, happen to come from a certain (non-white?) part of the world. Less than it having to do with the author’s biological sex.

Therefore, my literary resolution for this year (and as many after) is #ReadEverything. Or #ReadWhatYouWant. Or #diversereading2014. Or #ReadAnythingNotOnAList. Reading should be like a dim sum meal, go with what touches the heart.

Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land

Follow on Twitter >@janicepariat

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Published on March 07, 2014
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