Monique Wittig

Radical lesbian writer who promoted liberation from sexual definitions

Monique Wittig, writer: born Dannemarie, Germany 1935; Professor of French, University of Arizona 1990-2003, Professor of Women's Studies 1997-2003; died Tucson, Arizona 3 January 2003.

Meeting one of the founders of the MLF – Mouvement de Libération Féminine – and the author of a significant novel, L'Opoponax (1964), was one of the most liberating half-hours of my intellectual and sexual experiences. For the first time, I found someone who agreed with my dislike of the word "gay" and all the false glamour of the Gay Pride parades – balloons with everything. "Gay" is a thoughtless generalisation used ignorantly as a snap description of the totally unclassifiable homosexual condition. Moreover, it cannot be applied to the minority who, like myself, are blissfully bisexual.

Monique Wittig was a great radical lesbian individualist. She had been invited to sign copies of her new book of "allegorical fictions", Paris-la-politique et autres histoires, in a Paris bookshop in early July 1999. I was so happy talking to her, I forgot to ask her to sign my copy.

Her opinions were well known to me through her books. I had written to her about one of them, Le Corps lesbien (1973; translated as The Lesbian Body, 1975) but received no answer – as I had expected from such a very private writer who hated interviews and loathed television "chat shows". Between signatures, we were able to talk about my reactions to her first novel about the discovery of childhood lesbianism, which I could relate to my own experience of boyhood adolescent bisexual experiences.

L'Opoponax (translated as The Opoponax, 1966) had been highly praised by Marguerite Duras, despite the fact that, as Wittig told me, she detested homosexuals, an allegation I doubted. My own mixed experiences in the field provided material for a novel, Doing It, which treats of subjects seldom mentioned in the present uproar of paedophile witch-hunts. She might be able to write about that theme in 1964, in the comparative literary freedom of nouveau roman France: but I could not see my novel being issued in prudish Britain, even in the 21st century.

Wittig's attitude to the subject was clear. In 1999, she spoke in one of her very rare interviews, in the well-named Libération:

For me, there is no "feminine literature" – it simply does not exist for me. In literature, I do not separate the women from the men. One is a writer, or one is not a writer. One occupies a mental space in which sex is not the determining factor. It's absolutely necessary to have the freedom of that mental space to work in. Language allows it – it's a matter of constructing an ideal neutrality that is liberated from sexual definitions.

This idea takes extreme forms in L'Opoponax, where the little girls refer to one another with the impersonal on. In Le Corps lesbien, the first person singular pronoun je is depersonalised as j/e. During her days in Paris, Wittig and a group of other radical lesbians went to the Arc de Triomphe to lay a wreath dedicated to "The Wife of the Unknown Soldier".

Monique Wittig was born in 1935 at Dannemarie on the Upper Rhine. Her parents, to escape the Nazi regime, moved to Rouergue in the Aveyron, where Monique spent an idyllic childhood before the family moved to Paris. She started writing early, but received the usual formal rejection slips before attracting the interest of Jérôme Lindon at Editions de Minuit, a celebrated avant-garde publishing house with an impressive list including Pierre Klossowski, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jean Echenoz.

Wittig was deeply influenced by the films of Jean-Luc Godard and by the nouveau roman of the 1960s (now fallen into disrepute). Robbe-Grillet read one of her early "textes" and Lindon wrote her a kind letter of rejection, but asked to see whatever else she wrote. She sent him a novel called La Méchanique ("Mechanics" – a true nouveau roman title). Lindon wisely advised her to wait a little longer, though, if she wanted to find another publisher for it, he would issue it at once. If not, he made a definite offer for her next book. She followed his good advice, and her next work, L'Opoponax, was published to great acclaim, winning the Prix Médicis for 1964. Minuit was to publish all her works up to 1985: Les Guérillères ("Female Guerrillas", 1969, translated as The Guérillères, 1972), Le Corps lesbien and Virgile, non (1985).

By the time that last-named book was published, she had become disgusted with the MLF and its rejection of her own advanced ideas. She emigrated to the more congenial atmosphere of the United States, where "Women's Lib" was getting into its full stride, in 1976. She taught French literature at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She also helped to create the new department of "Women's Studies", finally given department status in 1997. Such specialist studies were all the rage then in the US and Canada. Wittig had always abhorred the idea of labelling women as "women poets" or "women novelists" or "black women writers", so the name of the new department did not entirely suit her. However, she was always careful to point out that it was not simply a literature department: it had several sections devoted to biology, sociology, anthropology, political science, law and history.

Wittig had become a star in the American women's movement. In Leah D. Hewitt's seminal Autobiographical Tightropes (1992) she stands with the giants of women's rights and their associated authors – Simone de Beauvoir (whom she detested), Nathalie Sarraute (whom she worshipped), Duras and others.

One of her best books, The Straight Mind and Other Essays (1992), was reviewed enthusiastically, as were her other books, by no less than Mary McCarthy. Monique Wittig had to wait 10 years before finding a French publisher for it (La Pensée straight, 2001). Like all authors who have kicked off the dust of their native shores, she had become yet another prophet without honour.

Three years ago she collaborated with Sande Zeig (co-author with her of Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes, 1976; Lesbian Peoples: material for a dictionary, 1979) on a film, The Girl, starring Agathe de la Boulaye and Claire Keim. Wittig wrote the screenplay, based on a short story, her first written in English, and Zeig directed.

James Kirkup

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
people
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
News
i100
News
Perry says: 'Psychiatrists give help because they need help. You would not be working in mental health if you didn't have a curiosity about how the mind works.'
people
Life and Style
Stepping back in time: The Robshaws endured the privations of the 1950s
food + drinkNew BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain
News
Google celebrates St David's Day 2015
newsWales' patron saint is believed to have lived in the 6th century
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?