Decatur Book Festival keynote highlights feminist writers

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Sept. 10, 2015

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Erica Jong, who struck an early feminist chord with her 1973 novel “Fear of Flying,” and Roxane Gay, who drew praise last year for her essay collection “Bad Feminist,” joined in a wide-ranging conversation at Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. Emory Photo/Video

Erica Jong is a 73-year-old Upper East Side poet and novelist, a veteran on the literary scene who struck an early feminist chord in 1973 with her groundbreaking sexual satire, "Fear of Flying" — a bestseller credited with helping fan the flames of the burgeoning sexual revolution.

Roxane Gay is a brash and funny newcomer — a 40-year-old blogger, writer and academic born in Nebraska to Haitian immigrants — who won over critics last year with her essay collection, "Bad Feminist," and novel, "Untamed State."

Yet at the core, both are feminists with a passion for writing and a love of literature. And both fearlessly pursue the impulse to write about things that scare them.

The two powerhouse writers came together last Friday at Emory's Schwartz Center for Performing Arts to share their unique perspectives in a two-hour keynote conversation that launched the 10th annual AJC Decatur Book Festival, which continued through Sept. 6 and featured several Emory authors.

The evening opened with welcoming remarks and a special reading by Natasha Trethewey, former two-time U.S. poet laureate and director of Emory's Creative Writing Program, who was asked to create a poem in honor of the festival's 10th anniversary.

Then Jong and Gay engaged in a roaming one-on-one exchange that covered a wide sweep of topics — from the challenges and flaws of modern feminism to disappointments in the U.S. presidential race, from writers who had influenced them to the harmless visual appeal of "Magic Mike" movies.

Jong, who just released the novel "Fear of Dying" as a follow-up to her bestselling 1973 work, was billed as the keynote speaker. Gay, an associate professor of English at Purdue University, joined her as the evening's interviewer and host, fielding questions from a near-capacity crowd and often answering some herself.

The format eventually evolved into a casual exchange that touched upon important but difficult topics, including whether the women's movement had gone far enough to include women of color.

At times, the authors were not on the same page. Jong described a longstanding tradition of women of color within the U.S. feminist movement, from the poetry of early blues singers, such as Billie Holiday and Ida Cox, to abolitionists and civil rights leaders.

Gay asserted that mainstream feminism has historically excluded women of color and called for the recognition of intersectionality in the lives of women, some of whom face multiple barriers to equality beyond gender alone.

The debate continued this week through coverage of the discussion in media outlets and blogs — an outcome that Daren Wang, Decatur Book Festival director, says he welcomes.

"Both Roxane Gay and Erica Jong are brilliant writers who have helped define feminism for their respective generations," Wang notes in a press release from the festival. "As I'd hoped, the keynote event and the conversation that continues even now has presented many of us, myself included, a real opportunity to understand the nuanced entanglement of gender and race in our history."

One writer's beginnings

It was poetry that first launched Jong into the publishing world — writing that allowed her to reveal her heart without fear of retribution.

But with the success of "Fear of Flying," Jong acknowledged that she's become more widely known as "the Happy Hooker of literature" than she is for her seven volumes of poetry.

Even as a child, Jong wrestled with ideas that would fuel her writing life. She described walking around at the age of 12 carrying a copy of Simone de Beauvoir's  "The Second Sex" while feeling a "burning to save the world."

In 1971, Jong shared a compilation of her early poetry with a family friend in the publishing business, who encouraged her. After the publication of her second book of poetry, Jong recalled being told, "Surely you must have a novel in you…"

When her first attempt at a novel, written in the voice of a male narrator, fell flat, Jong was urged to write in the voice of her poems.

In "Fear of Flying," Jong told the story of Isadora Wing's struggle over possibly leaving  her husband while exploring the character's fantasy life — a narrative that was considered groundbreaking at the time.

In her latest work, Jong introduces 60-year-old retired actress Vanessa Wonderman, a lifelong friend of Isadora Wing, who puts an ad on "zipless.com" to explore sex outside of marriage when her aging husband faces health issues, reaching for life even as she is surrounded by death.

Writing, feminism and fear

Here are a few highlights from the keynote conversation:

On writing about sexuality and older women

Jong: "It's not sexy to be an older woman, or for the longest time it wasn't. Now, I think older women, we're coming into our own … I think feminism is discovering the older woman. It's beginning, just beginning."

On writing and fear

Jong: "When I was writing ('Fear of Flying'), my chest was pounding — I was so afraid. And I knew because of that fear that I was doing something essential… Whenever I'm drawn to an experience, a book, writing … you name it, if I'm scared I know I'm doing it right, because I want to write the books that do not yet exist."

On including women of color in the modern feminist movement

Gay: "How do we make sure feminism continues to become more and more inclusive and accounts for more than just white women? Feminism has to realize it's really about intersectionality, but that word tends to be off-putting. That just means that we can have more than one identity. I'm not just one woman. I'm Haitian-American. I'm Catholic. I'm from Nebraska. I have a body. I have tattoos … When you think about equality, you have to think about how there are multiple barriers for equality for some women. That's not just gender. It's also sexuality, class, race and ethnicity. We have to take these things into account. Just because we're women does not mean that we are equal."

Jong: "Anyone who says feminism is only a white thing is ignorant of the history of feminism … If you look back on the 19th century, you will find black women who were abolitionists, who were civil rights leaders, and who … have been passionately involved in feminism from the beginning."

Advice for young women

Gay: "You have to own your voice, you have to own your ambition, and you have to be relentless. You have to fight and also you have to be willing to learn."

Jong: "Never give up, be relentless, don't let anyone tell you you're not good enough, and don't ever show your books to your family because they will try to take you down."