walking through: watching the people watching
The women at the center of my writings are walled off in some way; there is a layer between them and the world. I’ve been told over and over in the writing workshops I’ve attended that my fictional protagonists and the speakers of my poems feel “detached,” that I should remedy this problem. It’s not that I think these are assessments are wrong really, but I do wonder if their corrective intentions diminish a gendered experience of space.
Yesterday, I took a walk around my neighborhood with my small, reactive terrier. It was a football Saturday in a town where football consumes everything on game days—the campus, the roadways, the sidewalks. The library is shut down and there are RVs and sports gear and discarded cups as far as the eye can see. My little dog barked at three men in matching hats as they walked to a tailgate, or from the game, or perhaps across town for more revelry. Families crowded around televisions in a parking lot. My dog and I escaped the noise of the spectators into a small park and walked its empty paths, first by a creek and then winding underneath an old 19th-century railroad trestle. There wasn’t a person or pet in sight beyond the park border; my dog was free to trot along undisturbed. The culture of game days is one I have long felt estranged from; one from which I have perhaps intentionally distanced myself. It reminds me of feeling younger and more unsure, of being in college, of never feeling safe in a surrounding culture dominated by masculinity and its whims.
As I’m writing this, the past weeks have been filled with coverage of and reactions to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s brave testimony. I was brought to tears by the description in a New York Times article of women watching the hearings in salons, in hotel lobbies, on the seatback screens of airplanes. Most women I know are reeling, faced with a large portion of the country that doesn’t seem to care, doesn’t even think sexual assault would or should deem a man unworthy of a lifetime appointment with the highest court in the land. It’s demoralizing and painful. Of course it is.
Throughout the hearings there have been moments of profound heartbreak and those of everyday, but powerful estrangement. The questioning of the victim over and over. The “boys will be boys”-style defense in every comment thread. There is a constant reorienting to the sexual assaulter—his future, his career. These responses are so familiar and yet they gain new poignancy in this national drama. Women are constantly making visible the everyday threats and cruelty that have forever been a staple of our lives.
There is a separateness I feel and which in turn permeates the voices and actions of my characters. It comes from the tired and tragic feelings of exhaustion, dismissal, unfair caution, and worry familiar to many women. There is the fear of being afraid in a room full of men; there is a sense that you have always sat outside a culture of men, looking in. In many of my favorite books and stories, there is a feminine voice who embodies a cautious or even unconscious “detachment” borne of years of unfair, even cruel treatment at the hands of men. In the world of men.
“Detachment” is the word I used above, but it has never felt like the right word. I now realize, however, that it is not always detachment, so much as a misreading of what I’ve come to recognize in literature as the voice of the flȃneuse—a woman observing the public, wary of the crowd, while at the same time even reveling in the freedom of being alone. I found evidence of my rebuttal of this idea of “detachment” in a 2003 interview with Amy Hempel in The Paris Review. I actually remember saying, "Yes!" out loud to the computer when I read this quote a few years ago as it captures so well the feelings I have about my narrators and speakers and about the protagonists in many of the books I love, including Hempel’s.
“Interviewer: In that book [Reasons to Live] you began using a kind of signature, using the peripheral figure, one commenting on the action between others and detached from the goings-on.
Hempel: No, no—the peripheral figure is anything but detached. On the periphery you feel a little more because you're on the edge. I remember going to these huge rock concerts in San Francisco in the seventies and I'd be on the edge, not watching the performer but the people watching the performer. Much more interesting.”
Reading this portion of the interview was helpful in clarifying my own similar attitude about this “peripheral” position and my intuited sense that it was actually full of emotion and feeling, but also full of observation. I seek these introspective and hypervigilant women-identified voices as a reader—always. These moments of everyday alienation are something I also aim to represent in my own writing.
Estrangement from culture and environment happens in many different ways and the voice I am discussing is just one type of response among many. I hope, as a white woman, to write voices that consider subject position and privilege within explorations of space and estrangement. In short, I seek to recognize the voice of the flȃneuse in literature, but also to imagine its most inclusive potentialities.
A past workshop comment about one of my narrators said, She seems separate from her surroundings somehow. Yes, I think. Somehow. When I recognize a similar quality in other narrators, other authors, I feel a spark of familiarity. What one reader sees as “detached” another reads as self-protective. But how common is it for readers to read looking for a breezy, or self-apparent environmental ownership, one so visible in the many masculine and celebrated stories of literature? There is agency in the literature of the flȃneuse; there is a profound connection to the surrounding world. And there are attempts at honest portrayals of navigating that world as a particular woman in a time and place. As just one kind of voice reacting. These voices are “not watching the performer, but watching the people watching the performer.” And, as all women have been so starkly reminded over these past weeks, they are walking through a culture that doesn’t regularly believe women’s testimony and, when it does, doesn’t often care.
Lindsay Tigue is the author of System of Ghosts, which was the winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize. Tigue writes fiction and poetry and has been published in journals such as Verse Daily, Blackbird, and the Indiana Review. She was a Tennessee Williams scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a James Merrill fellow at the Vermont Studio Center, and a former assistant to the editors at the Georgia Review. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University and is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.