It feels odd, having a play opening and not seeing my name attached to it. Everywoman is billed as “a deep and dirty dive into being a woman, the danger of autobiography and the existential threat of motherhood”. It’s opening on the 13th February at Vault Festival. And it’s credited to anonymous.
To be honest, the decision started off as an instinctive choice. I started writing the text during the sleepless nights that followed the birth of my child. In those snatched late night/early morning moments, it struck me that the transition from womanhood to motherhood is like a kind of death (and rebirth), and I was reminded of the medieval myth of Everyman, in which a male stand-in for humanity undergoes a final reckoning of his sins before crossing over into the afterlife. The show deals with some intensely personal stuff, and anything to do with motherhood is fraught with guilt and the fear of judgement. It shouldn’t be like that, of course, but I know I’m not alone in having those feelings.
Am I just a coward then? Scared to put my name to some of my darker thoughts? Maybe a bit. As women, we’re supposed to want children, even to need them in order to be complete. And yet, for me, having a child was a process of dismantling myself. It wasn’t the final piece of the jigsaw; it was like ripping up the whole puzzle and starting again with brand new pieces, without even knowing what picture you’re trying to build. I’m still figuring it out. Will I even recognise myself in it?
As a mother, I feel like I’ve already disappeared into anonymity. I’ve moved from being an individual – a woman with her own dreams and desires – into being mum. From the moment you get to the hospital, that’s what everyone calls you. You’re nameless and named, both invisible and intensely visible.
But there are other, deeper reasons for my choice. I have felt for a long time that women’s writing is often collapsed into autobiography. What we write is assumed to be autobiographical – whether it is or not. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, autobiographical work is seen as less important. Everyone goes to see a play by Shakespeare, but a story that’s based on personal experience? Well that’s only for the small group of people who have been through the same thing, right? This is compounded when the subject matter is domestic, a traditionally feminine domain. By contrast, men have both the freedom to write autobiographically and be taken seriously, and the freedom from the assumption that everything they write is autobiographical.
Take Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. It’s about a man who compulsively jerks off. It’s a misogynistic and racist shitshow. It feels like it’s based, at least partly, in personal experience. And it’s considered to be a classic, part of the canon. As a woman, I’m supposed to be able to relate to Portnoy and his cock. But a show about motherhood? How many men are going to show up?
This trend for stories written and centring men to be seen as more ‘accessible’ than those centring women is clearly communicated in marketing. Roth’s covers are crisp and clean – block fonts and hardly any imagery. On the back of my copy of Roth’s own (masculine) take on the medieval myth of Everyman, published in 2006, it explicitly describes the story as ‘universal’. Compare that with a copy of any book by Elena Ferrante. You’ll see pastel shades and pictures of women and children relating to each other. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that, obviously – why should a picture of a woman and a child look less worthy than a photographic drawing of the inside of a clock? And yet, in the context of a patriarchy, that sends a clear message. A friend of mine was recently going through a break up and her soon-to-be-ex took one look at the Ferrante book she was reading at the time and shouted: “Why are you reading that trash?”
Ferrante herself writes under a pseudonym. Her work feels raw, personal, and she often writes about difficult topics, such as women who resent their children. But in fact, we know nothing about her life. A male journalist recently ‘outed’ her – a violation of her privacy that I don’t want to amplify – but what I do want to point out is this: the reason he gave for naming the writer he thinks is Ferrante is that she was ‘lying’ about who she was. That is, her background is very different from those of the characters in her books. But why shouldn’t it be?
We all ‘write about what we know’. To some extent, that’s inevitable. But, as women, we are assumed to only be able to write about what we know. We struggle to be seen as capable of transcending our lived experience.
Motherhood is just one experience, among many, that I have had. I don’t want to be defined by it, either as a woman or a writer. But I do challenge everyone to relate to what I have to say, to grant me the possibility of reaching them with my story. I don’t think it will disappoint.
Everywoman is on at Vault Festival from 13th-17th February – more info here.