Heather Sappenfield in Response to StS Contributor Questions
Why is contributing to feminist literary reviews important to you?
I am who I am due to the battles fought by earlier generations: Title Nine, women’s right to vote, the work of early women cyclists to rid us of corsets. Women in the US have such freedom today, so much that I have the luxury of living and often forgetting that boundaries still exist. But things come along that remind me that the US is in ways far behind other nations, nations we eschew as oppressive to women. Take a woman presidential candidate, or even vice-presidential candidate for that matter, why should she not be able to campaign without gender even coming up? In their very existence, feminist journals bring together the voices that remind us we still have much to accomplish.
How do you think your work contributes to feminist discourse?
Honestly, I’m just trying to write good stories. If they stick with people and bring up issues that start people talking, all the better.
What does being a feminist in today’s world mean to you?
I feel being either male or female in the US today is a challenge, and it saddens me, frankly, this never-ending battle between the sexes for dominance. When did it start? When the first caveman dragged a woman into his cave by her hair? I tend to see the world in its long history, and women seem to be still suffering from the rise to power of patriarchal religions. My daughter loves to play soccer, the world sport, but if she is good enough to play after college, her options are limited. It’s interesting, really, to note the countries that have national teams and professional women’s soccer leagues and the ones that don’t. Similarly, she wants to be a doctor. Having a girl heading out into the world makes me consider how fairly the world will treat her. Being a feminist manifests itself in my daily life through my tireless work to ensure her chances are equal to a boy’s. In my fiction, it never stops surprising me.
Who are some of your feminist influences and why?
Dora Rinehart. Did you know that in 1896 she rode her bicycle on over one-hundred centuries? A century is 100 miles. And she rode that far about every third day on one of those early, wooden-wheeled bikes, mostly on dirt roads. She was always required to be accompanied by men, who were often hard pressed to keep up. Annie Londonderry, a mom, rode her bicycle around the world near the same time. These are my type of feminists because in pursuing what they loved, they forced reform. Those early cycliennes were incredible accelerators in all aspects of the women’s rights movement, from forcing common-sense apparel, to nudging out confines on chaperones, to redefining male attitudes and defining “The New Woman.” And don’t get me wrong, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are right up there too, as are all the women who have tirelessly lobbied for change. I just tend to be more like those cycliennes.
How do you interpret your relationship within the feminist movement and how do you use poetry or other art forms to represent your politics?
I have only recently considered myself a feminist writer. All my life I’ve been an athlete, especially a cyclist, and I have spent a lot of time training and competing in the company of men. Additionally, growing up, I identified with my father, who always told me I could achieve whatever I wanted to achieve―a gift really. The result: I have a very male way of thinking, am comfortable in a man’s world, and often, I don’t even recognize the limitations on women until I run into them headlong and am stunned. The survey results of VIDA, that wonderful, brave organization that supports and speaks out for women in literary arts, for example. Or heading out to teach a ski lesson and noticing in the computer that the client has requested a “pretty instructor.” My first MFA advisor at Pacific University, John Rember, told me I had a lot going on with gender in my stories, and at that point I started to understand that simply by viewing myself as an equal, by writing with a man’s orientation and sense of freedom, I push the boundaries that do, indeed, exist. My politics? I guess they’re represented in my commitment to keep writing as if those boundaries are not there.
How do you subvert, celebrate, complicate identity/gender roles, power structures in your art form?
I honestly have no idea. It’s sort of like that Far Side comic, years back, of the complex math proof filling an entire chalkboard, and step thirteen or something says, a miracle occurs. But here is a pattern I’ve noticed: whether writing a male or female character, my unconscious, the part that writes the draft, tends to look at all the complex ways society expects a particular character to behave, and then it tends to turn some aspect of that expectation on its ear. Therein lies the character’s conflict, but it can also become the reader’s conflict, because it may make him or her uncomfortable. My conscious mind isn’t smart enough to figure this out, but after it’s on the page, I often see it in an aha! moment. That moment might take months of studying and listening to the static of a story. Once, it took me two years. From there, I hone the story’s elements to best support that inversion.