Women who write about cities

Who are key women writing and thinking seriously about cities in fiction and non-fiction? My partner asked me this innocuous question that should have been easier for me to answer as, among other things, an avid reader, a geographer, a feminist, an urbanist. Granted I feel a beginner at the academic interface of all but the first, still, when asked, I was struggling a little. This post is a beginning at rectifying that problem.

space-place-gender-doreen-massey-paperback-cover-artIn the most easily accessible list of ‘great’ or best-known geographers I carry in my head, there is really only Doreen Massey, who has absolutely written on space and gender. Beyond an article or two I haven’t read much, and I’ve been meaning to change that for some time. I suppose Saskia Sassen belongs here as well with her work on world cities, but I think I probably need to revise this list of ‘great’ geographers in my head, or get rid of it all together. Key to my thesis was the work of Laura Pulido, who looks at race, white privilege and the city’s form with a focus on struggle and environmental racism in L.A., and to a lesser extent Gillian Hart, who brings together Stuart Hall and Lefebvre to look at race, gender and space in South Africa. There are Audrey Kobayashi, Linda Peake, Katherine McKittrick,  all of whom I know from searching for discussions of intersectionality and space. One of my favourite books about L.A. is by Becky Nicolaides, a historian writing about the working class suburb of South Gate in My Blue Heaven. Jenny Robinson on everyday politics and the Global South, Margit Meyer writing from Germany on struggle and right to the city. I am sure there are many other women rocking the subject of women in the city, and many I’ve cited, but shamefully they are not in that top layer of my brain’s recall. I’m in Bristol at the moment, but hopefully once I am at home staring at my beloved bookshelves I will come up with a few more.

VIRGINIA WOOLFI’ve been doing all this reading on London and psychogeography as well, and is that shit male! White too. There is a kind of cannon of ‘walkers of the city’ that so many people refer to, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Years, Poe’s ‘Man in the Crowd’, Baudillaire and Rimbaud, de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater, Arthur Machen, de Certeau, Walter Benjamin, sometimes Dickens, Breton’s Nadja (where he stalks a woman), the situationists Debord and Vaneigem, there is  James Joyce of course, I always add Dylan Thomas to this list but not many other seem to. Iain Sinclair writing now, Patrick Keillor. There are a few names missing here, but the only woman regularly included is Virginia Woolf, with Mrs Dalloway. Time to create a new and broader cannon I think, much more female, queer, of colour. These groups move through cities, experience cities, desire from cities very different things.

mishaI love noir and SF, which deal so much with cities, but again, most of the people immediately springing to mind as writers of the city are men. Asimov of course, with Trantor, China Miéville’s The City and the City, and New Crobuzon and London in so much of his short fiction and Kraken and King Rat. The city is a character in so much noir, but it’s Chandler and and Hammet, Gary Phillips and Walter Mosely and Chester Himes on LA and Harlem, even Crumley, not Dorothy Hughes or Leigh Brackett or Margaret Millar — though perhaps her more than most. Maybe L.A. for Denise Hamilton, who knows so much history of both the city and noir itself. Chicago in Paretsky‘s novels? Not so much really, not if I remember rightly. There’s the incredible book of urban apocalypse by MishaRed Spider, White Web, Karen Tei Yamashita‘s L.A. in Tropic of Orange, and San Francisco of I Hotel, Nnedi Okorafor‘s Lagos in Lagoon.  Glasgow in Denise Mina‘s work. London’s broader literature scene has Zadie Smith, and Monica Ali, maybe Elizabeth Gaskell on northern cities…but who else? The more I write and think the more names come to me, but I haven’t come across anyone else thinking about these things. Probably my own fault for not looking hard enough.

So I googled women writing on cities. The first hit is a list of work from the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association on contemporary women writers and their constructions of the city from some years ago, it looks good but it is so short:

Comer, K., 1999. Landscapes of the New West: Gender and Geography in Contemporary Women’s Writing. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

An original text that explores the way in which a number of contemporary American women writers (Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Leslie Silko, Jeanne Houston and Louisa Erdich among others) have developed a feminine/feminist, postmodern, multiracial, urban imagination in their fiction.

Fischer, S. A., 2002. “A Sense of Place: London in contemporary women’s writing”. Changing English, Vol. 9: 1, pp. 59-65.

An exploration of the symbolism of London and its relation to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and class in a range of contemporary women’s writing including Sarah Waters.

Palmer, P., 1994. “The City in Contemporary Women’s Writing” In Massa, A. & Stead, A. eds. Forked Tongues: Comparing Twentieth Century British and American Literature. London: Longman, 1994, pp. 315-335.

Palmer’s essay explores the approach taken by women writers to writing the city in contemporary fiction.

Squier, S. M., 1984. Women Writers and The City: Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.

A unique critical analysis of the symbolic role of “the city” in a range of women writers. This collection includes essays on Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing and Adrienne Rich. Also has a very useful bibliography for further reading.

Wilson, E. 1991. The Sphinx in the City. London: Virago.

An examination of various cities with regard to urbanism and postmodernism. Offers an excellent focus on the role of women and the freedoms and perils that face them in the city.

Some good places to start. There is this book from 2006: Unfolding the City: Women Write the City in Latin America, Anne Lambright and Elisabeth Guerrero, editors.  More to read! This book on women’s poetry and translations and walking the city — Metropoetica from Seren Press. But really, without more thought on google strings and library searches, not much more is coming up. I know you’re out there, women. Writing great things, thinking great thoughts. So, a new theme to investigate and write about and hopefully I will find you sooner rather than later.

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