Despite being The F-Word’s namesake, Iman Qureshi argues that Granta 115: The F Word misses the mark
A sprig of wit, a dash of bile and a hearty glug of good old-fashioned girl power, you would think is not a difficult recipe to follow. And it certainly makes for a killer cocktail. So when I heard about Granta’s foray into the world of feminism, I could not have had higher hopes.
Pouncing gleefully on the opportunity to review The F-Word’s very own namesake, Granta 115: The F Word, I fully expected to open the covers and unleash a whole new wave of feminism. I expected to be shown things I’d never considered before, introduced to characters completely unfamiliar to me. I expected to be shocked, shaken and challenged to the core. In retrospect, I probably expected too much.
From Rachel Cusk’s opening ‘Aftermath’, which has recently been acquired by Faber, right through to Jeanette Winterson’s tedious finale, we are presented with women defined by their domestic identity – wives, ex-wives, mothers, daughters, lovers, kept women – the works. While Cusk examines her role in a family unit, Francine Prose bemoans second wave feminism and her philandering ex-husband. Self-indulgent narratives such as Winterson’s witter inanely on about sex and love – ironic considering feminists spend their lives complaining about being sexed by a patriarchal society. Other contributions in this issue are autobiographical anecdotes which dredge up a history of inequality; A.S. Byatt, feminist doyenne as she is, documents the exclusion of women in academia during and prior to the 20th century. Coming from “The Magazine of New Writing”, this is hardly “new” per se.
Perhaps it is partly the remit that’s flawed. Caroline Moorehead’s ‘A Train in Winter’, for instance, is a powerful and harrowing story about a group of French women imprisoned in Birkenau in 1943, but it feels criminally reductive to contort the experience of Holocaust victims to fit the frames of ‘feminism’.
There are, however, the odd truffles in the mud. Helen Simpson’s delightfully satirical dystopia where stereotyped gender norms are inverted is sheer fictional genius. Simpson’s pithy descriptions of women indulging in porn and a man being battered by his wife serve two purposes.
Firstly they function as a caveat for feminism, cautioning women against aspiring to be exactly like men. Secondly, and more importantly in my opinion, they expose stereotypes that even the most hardline of feminists may unwittingly harbour. The image of a man lying awake at night concerned about his body image, his book club and his wife’s appetite for porn, is undeniably funny. In being so, it is also undeniably tragic. The reason we find Simpson’s inversion so hysterical is because we are so accustomed to these stereotypes. We accept that it is women who lie awake at night worrying about their husbands’ porn habits. We accept that it is women who join book clubs and women, not men, who suffer from domestic abuse – so an inversion appears ludicrous. Herein lies the tragedy. Because, guess what? Women can have an appetite for porn too. Women are also capable of knocking their husbands about. And, believe it or not, men are just as inclined to join a book club. Shock. But these are not the initial assumptions we make. By concluding that these differences between the genders are ‘the natural order’, Simpson hammers home that we all stereotype and, ultimately, asserts that these gendered roles are socially constructed stereotypes and therefore can be changed.
The other gem for me was Taiye Selasi’s ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’. Already bearing the iconic Toni Morrison’s seal of approval, Selasi’s short story is a brazen critique of the sexual abuse and exploitation experienced by many young girls. The title, ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’, is succeeded by the first line of the story: “Begin, inevitably, with Uncle” – a disturbing initiation to an ultimately devastating conclusion. Selasi’s poignant story is squarely matched by her dazzling prose and makes for a stunning fiction debut. I’m now desperate to get my paws on a proof of her upcoming first novel, Ghana Must Go.
Despite these treats, this issue of Granta leaves something to be desired. More often than not, writers dredge up the same old arguments, air grievances in the same old ways and portray women in the same stereotypical manner which pop culture does ad nauseam. Moreover, there are far more creative ways to criticise the status quo than by simply whinging about it. But maybe, just maybe, it was too ambitious to hope for a sexual revolution to bring down a social structure reinforced by centuries of patriarchy – all in a paperback.
The feminist cocktail I had hoped for was a zingy, juicy, fruity daiquiri that packs a punch. Instead, I’ve had to settle for Granta’s slightly synthetic slush puppy with the odd strawberry thrown in for good measure. All in all, the underwhelming sentiment “not bad” resounds.