Monday, August 26, 2013


I'm still reading both of the memoirs I mentioned in my last two posts -- and some thoughts have been percolating about the difference between male and female writers.  Here we have two excellent memoirs about living in Japan, one by a man and one by a woman, and not for the first time I have the suspicion that there is a gender-based difference in how the author's narrative is approached.  I've seen this difference, too, in two other memoirs, reviewed on the "Finding Oneself Abroad" page of this blog:  MANGO ELEPHANTS IN THE SUN, by Susan Herrera and SURVIVING PARADISE, by Peter Rudiak-Gould.  Although in this case the two stories have different settings, their similarity comes from their being stories of young people fresh out of college who go to a third world country to teach English.

So, I have two sets of books here -- and I don't pretend this small sample makes any kind of definitive conclusion possible.  Rather, what follows is just a hypothesis. (And if this idea is already out there, I'd be interested in knowing.)

It seems to me that women's approach, and the language they use to describe their experience, is self-referential:  "When that happened, I felt so . . .. "  Men tend to skip this kind of analysis.  Sometimes they use language that may imply how they feel -- the "objective correlative," to borrow from TS Eliot -- but often they seem to be more interested in describing the world than in observing how they feel about it.

I've noticed how this plays out in my own little writing world.  I sometimes review books for a certain journal, and after the first couple of submissions, I noticed that whenever I made self-referential comments in my reviews, the (male) editor always cut them.  For example, "I didn't find the dialogue realistic," might be changed to, "The dialogue isn't realistic."

What is the difference between these two statements?  In the first, the writer is stating that she herself had a certain experience but leaving open the possibility that others' experience might be different.  The second statement assumes that the writer can speak for all readers.  And the modesty of the first type of  statement -- if I can call it that -- may be the reason that, according to one study I read, women writers are far less likely to be published in the top literary journals than men are.  What women call modesty may translate as lack of assurance in men's ears.

But it's not just modesty, I don't think.  Relating this back to the memoir question, it seems to me that women are simply more interested in subjective experience than men are.  There are exceptions, of course -- among poets, especially -- but for the most part, this generality seems to hold and to be reflected in the way each gender approaches memoir.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Journey of a Lifetime

I'm just starting HIROSHIMA IN THE MORNING by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, a memoir about six months in Japan than changed the author's life.  She writes:

"I knew I was leaving, but if I had known how thoroughly my life would shatter over the next six months, into gains just as astonishing as the losses; if I knew I was saying goodbye to the person I was that night, that decade, that lifetime; if I understood I was about to become someone new, too new . . . too different to fit in here . . . would I have still gotten on the airplane?"

I myself was twenty when I went to Japan for a year that turned into two as love and Buddhism intermingled in a tale no one could possibly have made up.  We just have no idea where our blind choices will lead.  No one who has gone abroad for an extended period, especially in the crucial years of young adulthood, comes away the same person.  This is what is interesting to me about the genre I've chosen to emphasize in this blog -- journeys inner and outer.  Usually an outer journey precipitates an inner one, but it might also be said that the sojourner is ready for change or s/he would have stayed home.  So my answer to Rizzuto's rhetorical question is, "Yes, probably."