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

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