A pirate, a pioneer, a punk princess

The writer Kathy Acker, who died of cancer last Saturday, aged 53, was a revolutionary in mind and body and she did not recognise defeat. I suppose on paper Kathy Acker always sounded quite frightening. She wrote graphically about sex and violence, she had worked in the sex industry, she was part of the New York art scene, she had been photographed by Mapplethorpe, she talked endlessly of her body, her sex, her weight- training, her tattoos, her piercings. When I first saw in her in the mid- 80s, speaking at the ICA, surrounded by her leather jacketed friends, she coolly declaimed her deconstructionist manifesto. She was a literary outlaw and she would take no prisoners.

In the flesh however, I found out, she was not scary at all. I soon found myself chatting to this tiny woman about jewellery and shopping and her motorbike and how much she fancied Moira Stuart, the news reader, who just happened to be at the same party where I had run into Kathy. She was funny and sharp and immensely vulnerable, her big eyes widening at any gossip you could tell her. She liked men, she liked women but she was often lonely and said so, citing it as one of the reasons for her continual transatlantic moves.

I didn't know her know her well but I admired her hugely. That does not mean that I liked everything she wrote, although some of it I liked very much indeed. It was important to me that she wrote the way she did about the things she did because the literary landscape that she aspired to was so irredeemably male. Her adoration of William Burroughs, the influence of the beat poets, her love of modernist experimentation and fierce understanding of post-structuralism meant that her subject matter was often language and identity itself. She was always asking what it meant to be a writer, cheerfully subverting the whole notion of authorship by openly plagiarising other writers' texts.

Such self-conscious cleverness, while celebrated in the hands of the right boy writers, often resulted in Acker being completely misunderstood by the critics. While Blood and Guts in High School was praised by many, much of her later work, such as In Memoriam to Identity, left the conservative literary establishment somehow incensed that anyone, let alone this weird- looking woman, should dare to play around with language like this.

So she would push further and further. She would read out loud in front of a group of feminists an imagined account of what it is like to rape a woman, she would write pornography with herself as the central character and like many avant-garde artists who proclaim alongside Barthes "the death of the author", she became a living embodiment of her art with her own cult following.

This idea of breaking the power base of meaning itself is an idea shared by many avant-garde writers. Acker's take on it was also influenced by the work of many of the French post-war philosophers whose theories she wove into her fictions.

Yet what made Acker's work so exceptional was precisely the fact of her gender, the way her body and its desires kept erupting in the text and this body was unmistakably female. The word was made flesh - female flesh. Sometimes her work was difficult to read, refusing conventional narratives and pleasures, sometimes it was harrowing, sometimes, frankly, her experiments didn't work but when they did she produced writing that carried great visceral and intellectual charge.

To write like this, to live like this was, I imagine, a struggle. In her fifties Acker was still proclaiming herself a sexual outlaw, having new bits of herself pierced. To be at the cutting edge of sexual and literary experimentation is still I think a lot more difficult for a woman than it is for a man. But in the end the final struggle over her body and who defined what her body "meant" was the one she had with cancer. For some close to her, her refusal of orthodox medicine and reliance on alternative therapies was a form of denial that they could not comprehend in this brave and honest woman. She was no longer merely playing with "discourses" about the body but with life and death itself.

As ever she chose her own way. Ultimately she would not have the meanings of others imposed upon her. She was a remarkable woman, a remarkable writer, a pirate, a pioneer, a punk princess. I am sad that her adventures here have ended, that her flesh could never be as strong as her words. For her real strength lies in her writing - and that will remain as powerful, as passionate and as unique as ever.

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