A Word: Encouraging Voices through Literature

27 Oct

Image Marilyn. Mother. Divorced. Teacher. Artist. Woman.

Words are all around us. On our phones, on our signs, on bright blinking dashboards, televisions and computer screens. I teach college English, literature specifically, and my students encounter yet more words, words, words. But in the community of our classroom words become something greater than the incessant noise of the outside world…our words engage, our words entertain and our words educate. Women of words visit us on a daily basis – Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Zora Neal Hurston, Marge Piercy, Virginia Woolf – admitted to our class for their subversion of traditional patriarchal ideologies and willingness to use their voice to impact social change.

Literature offers us a creative, vital and passionate method of criticizing and analyzing our roles as mothers, women, wives, and community leaders. A short-story can often use the escapism of fiction to impact a woman’s beliefs and structures in a way that politically-laden articles full of elevated, agenda-specific terminology often fail. This is not to discount political writings, which provide a necessary and powerful tool to participate in community discourse. But I have found that many women shy away from participating in those conversations, often for fear that their voice may sound uneducated or simplistic, or fear of embarrassment that voicing opinions may “offend” their friends and colleagues. Organizations like Leadership Voices are working to change those attitudes and broaden those voices that need a place to participate in our current political, social and economic culture.

But sadly I have no political background. I lack the experience and expertise to dialogue from a vantage point of political science. What I do have are books. Lots of them. What I do know is feminist theory, gender studies and literary genres. Lots of it. That is the way, therefore, that I make my voice heard, by allowing my college students to engage and participate in the voice of great women writers, poets and artists in order for them to find their voice – a voice that they hopefully add to the larger social discourse of today.

So let’s begin with words. Words are our gift. They are our tool for compassion, education, support, community, criticism and inspiration. One of my favorite lines of poetry comes from Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘Spelling’: “A word after a word after a word is power.” Use your words to engage with us here at Leadership Voices and in your community around you. Don’t be afraid. Simply string together a word and a word and a word…your voice will do the rest.

“I began as a profoundly apolitical writer, but then I began to do what all novelists and some poets do: I began to describe the world around me.” – Margaret Atwood

Spelling by Margaret Atwood

My daughter plays on the floor
with plastic letters,
red, blue & hard yellow,
learning how to spell,
how to make spells.

I wonder how many women
denied themselves daughters,
closed themselves in rooms,
drew the curtains
so they could mainline words.

A child is not a poem,
a poem is not a child.
there is no either/or.

I return to the story
of the woman caught in the war
& in labour, her thighs tied
together by the enemy
so she could not give birth.

Ancestress: the burning witch,
her mouth covered by leather
to strangle words.

A word after a word
after a word is power.

At the point where language falls away
from the hot bones, at the point
where the rock breaks open and darkness
flows out of it like blood, at
the melting point of granite
when the bones know
they are hollow & the word
splits & doubles & speaks
the truth & the body
itself becomes a mouth.

This is a metaphor.

How do you learn to spell?
Blood, sky & the sun,
your own name first,
your first naming, your first name,
your first word.

One Response to “A Word: Encouraging Voices through Literature”


  1. No Words: What happens when a woman’s voice has been denied? « Leadership Voices - January 9, 2013

    […] morning, I was struck by the number of fiction selections illustrating the precise opposite of my previous blog post here at Leadership Voices. Yes, I do include numerous women of words in our studies, but what about […]

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