Women writing the West

 

Over the weekend, I drove to Denver for The Association of Writers and Writing Program's annual conference, which assumed a bit of a Western theme this year. Poets and writers overran the downtown convention center, sampling from a myriad of readings and panels. One of these focused on the challenges women writing west of the Mississippi face, and the change these authors have brought to the Western literary landscape — a conversation I hope others will continue here.

Moderator Alyson Hagy, a Virginian now writing in Wyoming, began the discussion by suggesting women have brought a "certain feminine intuition" to Western writing. Annie Proulx, for one, drew much needed attention to long-closeted issues in her powerful short story collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, spotlighting homoeroticism and rape (in the stories "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Mud Below" respectively). "Didn’t it take a female?" Hagy asked the audience. "We don't have men writing that kind of stuff."

"Western" writing implies a subject matter, the panel agreed, not where you put pen to paper. "In Wyoming, if you aren't writing about the West, you aren't a Western writer," said Hagy. What's more, Western writing seems as much about a certain "high riding, hard living" sensibility as it does about descriptions of sage and steppe. "We can’t disregard how traditions affect us," Hagy said. "What's key is to get outside it and say, 'What am I doing here? What’s really happening in this region?'" She proposed that, in ways, a non-Westerner is better-equipped to be critical.

Lee Ann Roripaugh, originally from Wyoming and now writing in South Dakota, noted that  Western literature's prevailing characters and metaphors seem to be "inherently masculine and colonial" (even, say, in Proulx's writing). In response, Roripaugh is "consciously deconstructing, complicating" as she writes her poetry. Native writer Allison Hedge Coke likewise criticized the Romantic "West" and its literature's emphasis on "pioneerism." "Outside the West," Hedge Coke observed, "there's not a lot of interest in the regular life of the West," which isn't all cowboys and corrals, and stalwart women holding the community together. (Hedge Coke, for one, likes to make her female characters villains.)

When the panel was asked whether Western women authors have gained prominence and pushed the region's literature forward, there was a resounding "Yes." Debra Earling and HCN contributor Laura Pritchett were cited among the authors tackling un-Romantic topics like single parenthood, teen pregnancy and domestic violence. Roripaugh astutely suggested that seeing progress is, in part, "a matter of categorization." As she said, "I'm from the West, I write about childhood memory, but I'm frequently categorized as an Asian-American writer. I’m also sometimes categorized as a queer writer — though, usually I don’t perform all those identities at the same time."

But the panel agreed that Western women writers confront immense challenges. Vicki Lindner, also writing from Wyoming, candidly described the pressures she deals with: "I'm probably the only woman [in Laramie] who has never married, never had children. I'm half-Jewish in an all white, Christian place. It's extremely conservative — coming to Denver and seeing the Obama signs still in the windows made me feel all warm and cozy inside." Her transition to the West from New York City wasn't an easy one. "I remember thinking, 'This is not really all it’s cracked up to be.' I had to give up a rent-controlled apartment. I moved to a cabin in Wyoming and lived there for four years — I’m sorry Terry Tempest Williams and Gretel Ehrlich, you can’t say that."

Overall, the panel drove home the need to be skeptical of what we read, and the way we think, regardless of gender. Perhaps there is such a thing as "Western" writing, but the reality is one of plurality, not the industry's dime-novel, cinematic version. Hedge Coke suggested that the way to make further progress is to keep writing from many perspectives, while remembering "you have the right to tell your own story, and anything beyond that adds to myth making. Anything on top of that is punctuation on the conversation, but not a source."

Are you a woman writing in the West? What's your experience like?