Introductory Remarks by Elise Miller for the event Adventuring Women: Books to Explore and Share
WNBA-SF Member / Author Panel held on October 29th, 7:00 – 9:00 pm at the Bookshop West Portal, San Francisco as part of National Reading Group Month, 2015.
For details on each author, her books, and the event, see the post October Readings ‘Round the Bay
First off, I have to point out something that made my task of defining themes both more difficult and more interesting: these three authors work in different genres. Lisa Alpine’s stories are memoirs and her central protagonist is herself; Carole Bumpus’s work is fictionalized memoir and history. Martha Conway’s work is historical novel, conceived out of her research and imagination.
I sometimes think that just being alive is a risky adventure. And one sentence could define the act of writing stories or novels, whether or not they are true stories: “Protagonist overcomes obstacles to reach desired goals.”
So if all life is an adventure, and all stories are adventures of a sort, then what sets apart our three authors here who tell tales about “adventuring women?”
There is a difference between “adventurous” and “adventuring.” To be “adventurous” is a characteristic of a person, a combination of traits. “Adventuring” is a state of being: someone who goes forth on an adventure. All of these characters go forth on adventures. But in the hands of these authors, adventuring is not just trying new things and taking chances.
Their characters leave their homes or are forced out, and risk intense discomfort—in some cases I want to say ridiculous discomfort—demoralization, humiliation, isolation, sheer terror, loss of loved ones, not to mention risking injury and death. Each of these writers created characters who take incredible risks, risks that not every person would be able to take, no matter what.
Why do these women go through all this? Some of the themes contained within these books are the motivating factors. They are compelled to go forth—by the unfolding of world events, by family loyalty, by love in the broadest sense, or by empathy, or by the need to earn a living, to survive, or even by insistent intellectual curiosity.
Some events or situations are inescapable, some motivation is often provided by internal emotions. And there is also, adventuring for adventuring’s sake. Family loyalty is a common theme for Martha and Carole; curiosity unites Lisa and Carole’s main character; and the need to earn a living or survive unites all three.
Beyond the motivation for adventuring, the female characters in these books possess, to greater or lesser extents, a baseline set of traits like courage, daring, resolve or conversely, impulsivity. In other words, if they were not “adventurous,” they would not have been able to take action even when the motivation was strong. Besides courage, more complex qualities are: attitudes toward people and ideas, adaptability, determination, and the ability to commit.
Then there is the other side of the coin, the impulsiveness that we associate with recklessness and a rush to action. This quality might imply a lack of ability to think logically. That quality has traditionally been used to discredit or limit women. We might want to look out for these traits, and if they are introduced by these authors, how do they do it so as not to limit or trivialize their female characters?
Finally, are adventurousness and adventuring in literature presented differently for women than for men? On Goodreads, I found an interesting list called, Strong Female Characters Written by Female Authors. There we find Jane Austin, Harper Lee, the Bronte sisters, and Margaret Mitchell along with many others, some more recent. As we would expect, strong female characters are often created by female authors. However, strong women do not always go adventuring.
In the history of literature by female authors, adventure is more often defined as risk-taking in one’s own sphere, requiring courage but less adaptability then a male adventurer, with a lesser degree of physical risk. Also, in literary history, there is more emphasis on the converse trait of impulsiveness, and yes, some of the characters are thereby limited and trivialized. Think Scarlett O’Hara, and both her wonderful and her maddening qualities.
In our panel discussion, we focused separately on the motivations, passions and events which send these characters off on their “adventuring”; and on the personal traits which enable these characters to be spurred by their motivations to take amazing risks. We shared how different are literary adventuring men from, at least, this group of literary adventuring women. Our authors uniquely and newly defined traits in females like courage, loyalty and impulsivity, and contributed to a stimulating discussion.
Many thanks to Bookshop West Portal for hosting this National Reading Group Month event.