Feminizing Wilderness Writing in the Anthropocene

An Exchange between Ida Olsen and Abi Andrews, Author of The Word for Woman is Wilderness 

Abi Andrews is a British author, whose debut novel, The Word for Woman is Wilderness, was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2018. The book follows Erin, the protagonist, on a journey from her English hometown across Iceland, Greenland, and Canada, and to the Denali Wilderness in Alaska. Featuring both intimate nature experiences and reflections around the topics of ecology and environment with a specifically feminist agenda, the book is a significant contribution to both contemporary nature writing and to the critical discourse around the cultural production of environmental values.

Ida Olsen: Your first novel The Word for Woman is Wilderness was published around one year ago. What inspired you to write this book? How did it come about?

Abi Andrews: I started the book in 2013, in my last year of university. Much like my protagonist Erin, I was watching Into the Wild, the biopic of Chris McCandless, who infamously died in the Alaskan wilderness in a botched survivalist experiment. I decided that I, too, would like to take myself into the wilderness on a quest for authenticity. But then I thought a little about how doing this as a woman gives a completely different story.

Our idea of a woman shrugging off society and going AWOL into the wilderness is limited by what we think women are capable of; we find that kind of story in some way monstrous because we don’t allow women the same freedom to cast off society that we do men. A woman who leaves her children abandons, for example, while lots of our canonical stories of men in the wild leave behind wives and children, with no bonds of conscience.

Growing up the books I liked to read were almost exclusively bildungsromans about boys running away from home and becoming men, glorifying the spirit of adventure and the individualism of the runaway; the ‘Mountain Man’ trope is what I’ve come to know it as. Many canonised fictional characters, David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn, and characters from books like The Call of the WildMoby Dick, and Lord of the Flies, are Mountain Men in a way. These texts are typified by masculinist interpretations, are stories about men carving out their individual and manly selves.

The bildungsroman is the text of the self-finding quest, and the implication of this exclusivity is that woman cannot have an individual and authentic self, carved outside of the socialised and domestic sphere. So I wanted to try and write a bildungsroman for young women; this was my starting point.

I.O.: There are several references in your book to the work of other writers. The title, for instance, brings to mind two works of Ursula K. Le Guin: The Word for World is Forest and the essay “Woman/Wilderness” in Dancing at the Edge of the World. You also refer to Rachel Carson, Thoreau, Ted Kaczynski, and Aldo Leopold, among others. Are there any writers that are particularly influential for your work? 

A.A. : Ursula K. Le Guin is indeed a huge influence on my writing, in terms of themes and tools. Although our approaches are very different, I do feel like I am always coming back to Le Guin on her ideas of how to write as a woman and a feminist under patriarchy.

Rachel Carson was another huge influence in this book, and she appears as a ghost or vision throughout the book. Rachel Carson was a scientist and a woman at a time when it was very difficult to be a woman and especially a woman scientist. She started the mainstream environmental movement by bringing to attention the way that man-made chemicals were corrupting entire ecosystems across the world. I think it’s significant that it took a queer woman using the small and local, i.e supposedly pedestrian and feminine, to talk about macro issues, and who started the conversation before we had a word for the so-called ‘anthropocene’

In an inquiry into scientific objectivity Donna Haraway suggests that a feminist epistemology would question not only what is seen but ‘how to see, where to see from, what limits to vision, and with whose blood were my eyes crafted?’ To me these questions of gaze and responsibility apply directly to writing, and in particular to travel and nature writing. Haraway continues to be a huge influence.

And then I always had Kathy Acker in the back of my mind when trying to approach deconstruction with humour and playfulness.

I.O. : Many nature writers try to be as mimetic as possible in mediating the wilderness experience; however, your book seems to be very aware of how the practices of writing about, mapping and systematizing nature can be associated with a logic of domination and conquest. The book is characterized by a unique style in its combination of narrative prose, philosophical reflections, internal dialogue, transcripts of video recordings, and letters. How important would you say that style is in this book? Was using a patchwork of different literary forms a conscious attempt to break with the male nature writing tradition and develop your own style.

A.A. : Erin sets out to mimic a certain kind of male ‘nature’ or ‘place’ writing that has traditionally excluded women, as her feminist venture. But her documenting of her quest, in a way that quantifies the other women she meets on her journey, and the environments she is present in, takes away the agency of her subjects, in wording them it corrupts and colonises. The act of documenting is in fact colonial, and therefore anti-feminist, because the idea of ‘wilderness’ I was working with was the one conceived in its Thoreauvian sense; not a place of lots of plants and animals necessarily, but a place where we are not. It is the absence of symbolic culture, most significantly, words. At the crux of the text, the issue is that the most feminist quest would be not questing at all, or at least doing so wordlessly.

So I had to try to find a way that ‘nature writing’ or ‘place writing’ could be in relationship with this ‘other’, without this being a relationship of domination or conquest. I needed to try and decenter the objective male gaze common in this tradition of writing, drawing attention to the power at play in looking and wording.

So for a few examples: I chose a first person perspective, but then used the other literary forms to undermine my protagonists objectivity (e.g. the camera looking at Erin as well as Erin presenting herself). I leant heavily on other books, writers and thinkers, so as to situate the book into a web of meaning. Because writing is a collective action, omniscience and objectivity are not true; to me, this is a very ‘feminine’ (in the sense of not being monotheistic, dualistic in mind/ body, or objective) and feminist admission to writing.

I wanted the form of the text itself to pose certain questions and not necessarily answer them. How should we write the nonhuman and human other with respect to colonialism? I don’t draw any conclusions but hopefully I coax the reader into thinking critically about the power involved in looking and wording.

I.O. : Ecofeminism has existed for several decades now and is made up of different camps and interpretations regarding the relationship between women and nature. The gendering of nature is still prevalent today, for instance in everyday expressions like “Mother Nature” or “Mother Earth”. Your book elegantly sumps up one of the central paradoxes here: “Women both are excluded from, and banished to, nature” (4). What is your own take on ecofeminism? Should we embrace the idea that women and nature have a close connection and use it as a tool to empower women, or is this something that should be discarded completely, in your opinion?

A.A. : Both in survivalist literature that approaches nature from a dynamic of conquest, and in nature writing of the tradition of Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, Nature is feminised (she/mother). In discourse women are naturised, or reduced to biology (irrational/emotional), to the myth of womanhood as defined by care and nurturing. We are simultaneously excluded from, and banished to, nature. The exclusion stems from a Darwinian narrative that casts women as inherently social in reductive evolutionary terms, having ‘natural’ instincts inclined towards care. Women and nature are both non-autonomous subjects of the male gaze. Absent and spoken for.

Ecofeminism is the lens through which I look at everything really. That isn’t to say I think women are ‘naturally’ closer to ‘nature’. I don’t, and I think essentialist readings of ecofeminism are problematic. But I do think ecofeminism is useful in thinking of patriarchy as an interlinking hierarchical system that includes stratifications of gender, race, species etc. I think we should look closely at the way that women and nature have these supposed close connections, not for some mother-goddess essentialism, but because of the way women and ‘nature’ have a shared mantel of burden due to patriarchy. I think the most important lesson from ecofeminism is that feminist struggle is struggle for emancipation of not only women, not only white women, and not only, even, human-people, but more-than-human people and the whole living world too.

I.O. : Wilderness is an important motif in the book, and the Denali Wilderness functions as setting for the latter half of it. The notion of wilderness has been criticized, most notably by William Cronon’s essay “The Trouble with Wilderness”, for being a cultural construct which sets nature up against civilization. Erin is certainly aware of this, as she writes “Wilderness as a static boundary keeps humans out of nature, as though we are still two sides of a dichotomy when we are not” (281). Why did you choose the wilderness setting for the book? Why did you feel it was necessary for the protagonist to travel to Alaska in search of the wilderness experience instead of exploring for instance her local environments?

A.A. : I was wanting to write against a particular trope; that of the Mountain Man, the rugged individualist that shrugs off civilisation to go into the wilderness. This particular trope is very much tied up with the history of the American frontier. Alaska specifically is a place which in the collective imagination features as a ‘last great wilderness’. It’s the least densely populated state in America, and is considered to be a place where ‘wilderness’ can still be found.

In the UK we don’t have any ‘Thoreauvian wilderness’ or places where people aren’t. The notion of wilderness as a polar to civilisation is problematic, but I wanted to write about this problem. And it’s just more difficult to frame in a country where we can’t see any suggestion of distinction; the pastoral landscapes of the British environmental psyche are already anthropogenic. So, it seemed particularly pertinent to have a British protagonist able to compare these two environmental histories, and especially one who is teenage and female, at a time when the ‘anthropocene’ has levelled the planet by announcing everything as touched-by-humans, and undone all wildernesses.

I.O. : Erin’s journey is motivated by the desire to challenge a male-dominated nature writing tradition that perceives wilderness as a domain reserved for men. This is a tradition of nature writing that has been highly influential for the formation of the popular environmental imagination. What do you believe is the role of literary authors in engaging with the environmental issues that we currently face? Do you believe that writers have a particular environmental responsibility? 

A.A. : I think writers have a lot of environmental responsibility. To me environmental issues are the key issues of our time. I don’t think you can write about contemporary life without writing the anthropocene, or writing about the effect that a (mostly western/ European) humankind has had on the rest of life on earth. The novel is traditionally a form that presents human interiority, but fiction is a good tool for changing the consciousness of human people. So I think it’s important for literary writers to find a way to decenter the human subject.

That doesn’t mean to do away with with the human subject, but to bring it down from its pedestal. It’s important that other life, other persons, are not only held valuable for their use as an object for the environmentalist to write about. There is still a dichotomy of human vs nature within ‘nature writing’, and writers that write about ‘nature’ are still largely male, white, middle class writers with specialist ‘naturalist’ knowledge. I don’t think we have time in our rapidly simplifying life-web to think that everything other than human is the domain of only ‘nature writers’ and their readers. Every writer is a nature writer now.

I.O. : Finally, do you have any plans to continue working on ecologically themed fiction in the future?

A.A. : Oh yes. As above, I don’t think you can write about life in the so-called ‘anthropocene’ without writing ecologically. I’m currently working on something which is in a way an extension and amplification of themes from The Word for Woman is Wilderness.

To quote this article: 

Abi Andrews, Ida Marie Olsen, “Feminizing Wilderness Writing in the Anthropocene. An Exchange between Ida Olsen and Abi Andrews, Author of The Word for Woman is Wilderness”  in Literature.green, March  2019,  URL: www.literature.green/en/feminizing-wilderness-writing-in-the-anthropocene/, page viewed on [date]. 


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