What a Blessing: Jessica Barksdale on writing fiction and feminist works
It was thrilling to see my short story “Salsa” in the latest edition of So to Speak. I’d worked a long time on this character and story (Montserrat appears in two other stories I’ve written, so I’m invested in her). I’m grateful that the editors chose “Salsa” and gave it such a lovely platform.
I sent my short story “Salsa” to So to Speak because I felt that my main character Montserrat was a woman who missed the energy and drive of the feminist movement. Maybe it was her culture. Her age. Her own internal rigidity. She wanted to be a dancer. A musician. A mother. None of these things worked out, but instead of giving up, she followed her husband and his career around the United States worked in the schools in the cities they moved to. She might not have gotten what she wanted, but she was of use. She felt useful. And yet that certain something was missing for her, and this became even more pointed when her husband died. And as her mind began to unravel, she was left only with the need to do something. To be of use again in the ways she knew how.
Montserrat’s drive reminds me of one of my favorite poems, “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy. In that poem, the speaker looks not at the façade or shine of things but at their function, their use, the work of those things. Her gaze is the same; she writes, “The people I love best/ jump into work head first.”
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Famous” focuses on this drive as well, the speaker stating “I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,/ of a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,/ but because it never forgot what it did.”
Montserrat never forgot even as she was forgetting.
I’ve been in academia all my working life, though I’m not a true, rigorous academic. I’ve written around the genres—fiction, poetry, non-fiction—and I’m not really sure my work contributes to feminist discourse per se, though I know all female voices add to our story. When I write, I don’t aim toward a particular agenda or philosophy, and I’m pretty sure feminists aren’t reading my work on purpose. In fact, I’ve written in a genre that feminists in the past have attacked: romance.
As I was growing up in the 1970’s, feminists were wearing shirts that read “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” And romance? It’s all about the woman needing the man (in a good romance the man needs the woman, too). In the romance world, fish ride bicycles all the time. And yet, my goal as a writer is to show people as rounded and human. To depict men and women un-stereotypically even if they are falling in love.
With literary fiction, I am basically trying to figure out my characters, and by doing so, I peel away the outer layers, exposing the true humanity. We are all thwarted and flawed and interesting and challenged in some way. That’s what I want to write about and what I want to read.
As a woman who benefitted from all the women before me, I want to make sure that everyone is able to do what she wants. I encourage my students to write it all down, no matter what it is. To go for it, no matter what the job is. Though I was born in the early sixties and was raised initially in the 1950’s mode, I came of age after various social movements broke open everything. I feel very lucky to have gone through high school and college thinking I could do what I wanted, though I know there are still special doors I cannot enter. But I’m doing exactly what I planned back in my freshman year of college. I found my journal from that time a few years ago, and I read my own words: “I want to write and teach.”
And I am. What a blessing.
Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve novels, including “Her Daughter’s Eyes” and “When You Believe.” She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing classes for UCLA Extension.