I am honored to have my essay “Melt” included in the Spring 2013 issue of So to Speak. I’m also surprised that it found a home in the pages of a feminist journal. When I shared an early version of the piece with a handful of fellow female writers, they bristled at my depiction of my relationships with men. One scrawled on the final page, “= too much like relationships in artifacts.” Another pointed out that it enforced traditional gender binaries, adding, “We meet the narrator almost exclusively in the kitchen, where she prepares and serves food to, for, and provided by men. I would sympathize with the narrator more if I had a sense of her agency. At no point in this story does she assert any sort of claim on her own independence and self-worth.”
Those well-intentioned critiques made me second-guess my identification as a feminist. I chastised myself: An empowered woman would have put up a fight when her husband left her (or better yet walked out on him). A real feminist would have experienced an ecstatic sense of release at the close of a difficult marriage. A strong woman would have felt better off without the bastard. Instead, after the collapse of my nine-year relationship, I felt deprived of some vital organ, felt a fraction of myself. And my cognizance of this reality convinced me (for quite some time) that I had failed as a feminist.
That misguided conclusion underscores the dangers of a rigid and oversimplified feminist ideology. I recognize the value of stories in which women lose (or leave) men and find themselves, stories in which women subvert oppressive conventions, and stories in which women discover meaning in roles traditionally reserved for men. We need those stories. We need them to inspire the bound, abused, exploited, and inhibited among us (and their advocates). But we also need to consider the limits of these narratives. When these are the only valid plotlines, we force women with nonconforming narratives into a place of shame. To feel a void in the wake of a partner’s leaving—to feel paralyzed, lost, shattered—isn’t anti-feminist, it’s human.
And choosing to inhabit my kitchen, to prepare and serve food to my beloved, is not a betrayal of my feminist foremothers or a rejection of the freedom they worked so hard for. It is an expression, in my case, of creativity and love. Coming to this understanding has not been easy. Last summer, I wrote an essay in which I grappled with my guilt about the role cooking played in my romances. A dear friend’s response to that piece gave me the permission I needed to accept this aspect of my relationships. “The impulse to cook for someone else is so lovely and such an act of generosity in its purest sense,” she wrote. “One of the saddest things about ‘feminism’ to me is how it asks us to question such impulses even when they don’t obviously spring from a place of subjugation.”
I feel grateful to be part of a community of artists and friends who challenge me to refine and deepen my feminist identity. I thank So to Speak for the privilege of sharing my thoughts with a broader circle of creators, thinkers, and doers. And I ask you, my fellow feminists, to join me in engaging this question: How might we complicate the feminist canon so that it reflects the nuanced lives of today’s women and affirms their varied approaches to independence, wholeness, and fulfillment?