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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - Media Sales - £36,000 OTE

£28000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning company, whi...

Recruitment Genius: C# .NET Developer / Application Support - Junior

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This business has an industry r...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Planner

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Day In a Page

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash