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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Kate Zambreno's Green Girl Activates a Feminist Manifesto

Posted by on Sat, Jul 5, 2014 at 3:04 PM

If you dare suggest that the world doesn't need another unimaginative coming-of-age novel written by a white guy, or another boring novel about a middle-aged male English professor's dalliance with a young, pliable student, you will then spend a lot of time on social media arguing with white men who accuse you of committing reverse sexism and racism. What those brave defenders of the underserved white American patriarchy fail to understand is that they see such comments as a problem of subtraction, when in fact it's a matter of addition: The more perspectives you add to literature, the stronger it gets.

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In her powerful manifesto about women in literature, Heroines, Kate Zambreno argued that we've lost whole generations of novelists and an entire literary tradition by marginalizing women. Heroines was a persuasive argument, and a scathing lament for all those unheard voices, but manifestos only go so far. Sooner or later, you have to start to build on the theories. With the reissue of her first novel, Green Girl, Zambreno pays tribute to the women who came before and also challenges a new generation of young writers to follow her lead.

Green Girl is the story of a young American who barely makes a living as a shopgirl in London, at a large department store she calls Horrid's, trying to sell a perfume called Desire to passing women. ("Desire? Care to try? Desire? Desire?") Zambreno's authorial voice is a fire hose of outrage and disgust aimed everywhere—at Ruth, at the men who ogle Ruth on the street, at the book itself—and it slyly echoes the criticism and loathing that young women experience from all angles. As she continually tries and fails to find happiness and contentment, nothing Ruth can do is good enough for Ruth, for Zambreno, or for the reader. Zambreno's best trick is that she somehow manages to turn the volume on her scorn up so high that it becomes white noise, and then the grace notes of compassion and beauty become apparent.

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