Eight hundred women heard my voice

Revelations: The time: 1983 The place: Vancouver, Canada The woman: Carol Shields, novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
There was a cartoon from a 1950 magazine, which my sister sent me, featuring two janitors cleaning an office at night. One of them is looking at a typewriter with a piece of paper in it. He puts down his broom and says: "Bad spelling, poor spacing, lots of mistakes - wow, she must be something."

I get the joke because I remember when ditzy women were considered sexy. We took it all for granted because it was the culture we swam in. Even in 1967, Canada celebrated its centenary with a fair and it was called "Man and his world" - we would never call it that today. Yet I can't remember anyone objecting. I can't understand why we didn't see what was right in front of our face.

I'd never been to a conscious-raising meeting, but reading Betty Friedan had an enormous impact on me - it was the first time that I realised that my life belonged to me. For someone who married in the Fifties, nothing compared me for that revelation.

I always knew that there was something wrong, I just didn't know what it was. I must have noticed that there weren't many women writers featured on our literature courses, only Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen, but it was in an unfocused way. I had been very accepting of the patriarchy.

By my mid-forties, my life was changing but I don't think I realised it at the time. I still had one of my five children at home. Talk about ordinary people, I write about them because I am one. I lived in a fairly large house in a pretty street and went into the University of Manitoba to teach twice a week. I'd published four novels by this time. They were fairly conventional. Therefore, I was surprised by the reception my books were getting. Writing, you expose something about yourself that even you don't know is there. It was certainly pointed out by reviewers that these were feminist books. I was dealing with women who were changing their lives while their husbands were more or less stalled - not that it was true about my husband.

The startling and ultimately important turning point was the Women and Words conference in Vancouver in 1983. I had never been to anything like this before, so I didn't know if I would fit in. However, I met so many intelligent and vibrant women that it was inspiring.

The university campus, where it was held, was not only enormous but also remote. It was like living on an island for three days. There were not only the 800 women delegates, journalists and editors - it wasn't just writers because we didn't have 800 female writers in Canada - but also women caterers and technicians to set up the sessions. Not one man until the final day, and this was a very interesting phenomenon, the air-conditioning broke down and nobody knew how to fix it, so we had to get a couple of men in.

It was very controversial because I don't think such an event would even be funded today. The defence was that women needed to be able to speak without interruption or re-interpretation. I really think at that time it was required.

I remember so clearly walking back through my front door - whenever I've been away on a conference I unload to my husband, but this time it took me about three days because it was such a rich experience and not always a comfortable one. There was a risk that any changes might unsettle my family and the life I was comfortable with. So many new ideas came at me at once that I was completely unprepared for the impact.

I'd always written about women's experiences but in some way this conference was my validation. I returned with faith in what I wanted to write about. I discovered that women could have as authentic a voice as a man, and just as strong. At that point, the problem for women writers was that we just didn't trust our own experiences, because on literature courses women and their experiences were discounted. Talk about disparaging, a male reviewer in Canada had dismissed one of my books with: "Woman goes to quilting conference - yuck." That was the total review. Have I forgiven that man? I have not! I could tear his ears off.

Although my first two books were considered minor domestic novels, now they've been reprinted and taken seriously.

I had a sense that people didn't know what I was writing about. I wasn't sure myself, because I was just finding my way. I had so much to balance: all these children, friends, teaching, writing academic articles and novels. Before the Vancouver conference I think I had not had the chance to reflect. Although it might seem easier for women today, reading this week's book section of The Guardian I discovered that every one of the 10 or 12 reviews was of a book by a male author. It was pretty astonishing, I wonder, do other people notice this?

If it took confidence to believe that my life and experiences could be of interest, I've now taken an even greater leap and written from the perspective of the opposite sex. There is an element of risk about gender- hopping, but I've always been interested in the mystery of men.

Someone asked me if I wanted to have been born a man but it only took me a second to say "no". Part of that was because I value my friendships with women so much and it seems to me that men miss out on that closeness. Writing my latest novel, Larry's Party, I was very aware that it's men who are now the butt of jokes. I didn't want my character to be a buffoon, so I asked some of my male friends to help with my research by thinking deeply about what it is like to be a man. I became aware that they had never had this conversation before, something that woman discuss all the time, and was very touched by how eager they were for it. An interesting revelation was just how big the hole is in what men talk about. I've learnt that men don't often ask questions; women ask questions and men supply information.

Interview by Andrew G Marshall

`Larry's Party', the new novel by Carol Shields, is published by Fourth Estate, pounds 16.99.

Comments