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?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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: Field Sales Consultant - School Playground Designer

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Traffic Planner

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As the successful candidate you...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Designer - Graduate Scheme

£17000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Join one of the UK's leading de...

Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor