(originally featured in Bitch Magazine) Kate Zambreno has declared herself the “literary executor of the dead and erased.” Zambreno’s blog, Frances Farmer is My Sister, is part of an online discourse around how women writers have been historically perceived. Her latest book, Heroines, is part memoir and part encyclopedia of these forgotten women writers, a union in which she believes herself to be a part.
Zambreno’s narrative is a series of fragmented histories. The bulk are rich and devastating biographical accounts from what she calls her “invisible community,” comprised of women like Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien(ne) Eliot, and Sylvia Plath, among others. While Zambreno has a soft spot for the “erased wives,” she constructs a broad community built around women writers whose legacies were repressed. “Who gets to be remembered?,” she asks. “Whose writing is preserved and whose is not?” Her intent is to illuminate these writers’ achievements, otherwise buried in the shadows of a husband, a mental illness, or a suicide.
Zambreno takes us inside the unique struggles of women writers and ultimately reveals that little has changed. The skeleton of this book is her own literary identity crisis. “I have two selves too,” she writes. “The me that lectures women on literature where husbands oppress their wives, and the me that secretly lives that life.” She struggles throughout to reconcile her marriage to a writer with her own writerly goals, affirming that love and ambition are often doomed to a perpetual binary.
Duality seems to be at the core of Zambreno’s text: husbands and wives, writers and characters, novelists and novelties. She takes the corset off a world in which women have historically been expected to be muses instead of artists, often ostracized or ridiculed for attempting to cross that divide.
One of her central arguments is that there is a critical bias against women who write autobiographically. “Memoir is a woman writer’s forbidden and often avoided content,” she writes. The charge is often narcissism—one rarely leveled at male writers of the same genre. “he can write the autobiographical, but his work is read as aspiring to something greater.” Zambreno disputes these claims and encourages women to embrace the literary self-portrait, if anything to claim ownership of themselves as characters before someone else takes that liberty.
Toward the end the autobiographical takes a backseat and Zambreno speaks frankly to her readers, advising them to tell their stories in any format available. “The only way our narratives will be told is if we write them ourselves.” This book will leave you with a sense of urgency to preserve your own fast-disappearing history.