No More Mean Girls: A Discussion Between LA Authors Caeli Wolfson Widger, Victoria Namkung, and Martha Batalha

LitFest Pasadena is coming to Pasadena’s Playhouse District May 19 and 20, 2018 and is free and open to the public. This is the Festival’s 7th year and features over 200 authors and special guest speakers appearing in over 60 events. Vroman’s will be selling books.

This is a preview of a panel happening Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. called No More Mean Girls: A New Era of Female Friendship in Fiction, that features novelists Martha Batalha (The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao), Victoria Namkung (These Violent Delights), Caeli Wolfson Widger (Mother of Invention), and Eva Woods (Something Like Happy).

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Popular culture has long delighted as imagining women as catty “frenemies” who would as soon go shopping with each other as stab each other in the back. Why do you think we delight so much as a culture in watching the foibles of mean girls?

MARTHA BATALHA: My guess is that it sells. People like conflicts, fights, competition. There is also the stereotype of women fighting each other to see who will get the best provider, and this goes back to the time when the most important thing for a women was marriage. Maybe not such a long time ago, if you think about the popularity of TV shows like The Bachelor.

VICTORIA NAMKUNG: I think presenting women as catty or backstabbers benefits the patriarchy and status quo. Even though men gossip or bully, we don’t have an equivalent to “catty” or a “queen bee” for them, do we? The way so many female friendships are portrayed in pop culture feels far away from my personal experiences.

CAELI WOLFSON WIDGER: I think it’s really hard to be a “mean girl.” At the risk of sounding like I’m oversimplifying or stereotyping, I think I can say that most women are pretty nice. Our instincts are generally to support and understand each other. Despite what reality TV and social media and tabloids would have us think, most women don’t stab each other in the back. But it’s not to say we don’t sometimes want to. So I think the fascination is a sort of vicarious outlet for the “bad behavior” we rarely let ourselves indulge in.

All of these books were written prior to the #MeToo movement, but deal, if not explicitly about the issues raised with #MeToo, then certainly peripherally with this subject matter.

CAELI WOLFSON WIDGER: Honestly, the original trigger for Mother of Invention was reading Lean In when if first came out and getting angry at how Sandberg advocated an “every woman for herself” approach to getting ahead on the career path. I was pregnant with my third child at the time, and working full-time as a tech recruiter, and Sandberg’s basic thesis that the corporate system isn’t going to change, so women must individually play the system to their advantage, struck me as lonely, daunting, and generally unreasonable advice for young women. What struck me as conspicuously absent — and what #MeToo has since situated front-and-center in our culture — was the power women can create when they support and “lean on” on another, instead of individually “leaning in” to the patriarchal structures of American institutions of all sorts. So in a way, #MeToo has gratified some of my earliest emotional motivators for writing Mother of Invention.

VICTORIA NAMKUNG: Outside of the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump, I think women were horrified that we elected President Grab ‘Em By the Pussy. Institutions and even our own families have failed to protect women and girls from enduring high levels of abuse and murder. We support one another because we share so many common experiences, whether it’s sexual harassment or being disbelieved when reporting a serious crime like rape. We’ve often only had each other to turn to for support.

MARTHA BATALHA: I don’t think that the #MeToo movement has or will affect my writing, at least not in the short term. Don’t get me wrong — this an important movement, but it is also very local to the US right now. In many places in the world the feminist movement is not about having the same salary as a male colleague or about avoiding being seduced by a boss. It is about how not to get teenage girls pregnant, how to offer women conditions to denounce an abusive father, husband, or brother, how to have access to education. Since I write about Brazil, a place with a huge social gap, I feel that these issues will be likely to be part of my writing.

Connecting each of your books is an examination of women’s relationships with their bodies. It seems like talking about women almost always goes hand in hand with talking about women’s bodies, whether as sexual objects or as machines for producing and sustaining life.

MARTHA BATALHA: When I was writing about Euridice and Guida, I found out that I could not write about women in the 1950’s in Rio de Janeiro and give them a well, adjusted relationship with their bodies or a fulfilling sexual life. It would seem unreal. There are very few sex scenes in my book, and when they occur, they are not sensual. What is interesting here is that the book takes place in Rio de Janeiro, what is, according to many, one of the most voluptuous places in the world, but the question is: voluptuous for who? Are the women in Rio being sensual (like Guida in the book) because they are enjoying themselves or because it is just a way to get what they want? And what does the lack of sensuality tell us about a young woman like Euridice? Although the story takes place many years ago, I feel that these questions are still pertinent.

CAELI WOLFSON WIDGER: Because bodies — particularly women’s — are mind-blowingly amazing! We can grow an entire human inside us and then singlehandedly feed that human until it doubles in size! And then we can also run marathons and flip on skis and climb mountains. Sure, I could write for days about the problems about perceptions of female bodies, but you’re catching me on a good day, and I have two little girls in whom I’m desperate to cultivate body-appreciation and confidence. A fun little game we play is asking each other “What has my body done for me today?” and then pointing out how it’s digested food, gotten rid of a cold, enabled us to ride bikes together — whatever! — while we were just sitting back, unaware! My girls are only 4 and 7 right now, so I’m sure I know a whole host of thorny body-issues are waiting for me just around the puberty corner. But for now, I’m trying to claim the cultural fascination with women’s bodies as something positive and empowering for my girls, to demystify what our bodies do, to view them as incredible ally and force — so that hopefully, later, they’ll be less susceptible to the dark manifestations of body-perception.

VICTORIA NAMKUNG: I think this goes back to the virgin or whore dichotomy. Women are primarily seen as delicate magical creatures who give life and nurture families or as bodies for straight male sexual gratification. Of course we know there are millions of women who don’t fall into either category, but that doesn’t stop the tropes. Women are fed so much bullshit around beauty standards, sex, and their bodies that I think it’s almost impossible to not address the body when writing about women. From footbinding in China and the ironing of breasts in Cameroon to female genital mutilation and enveloping burqas, the controlling of women’s bodies is an international pastime.

Can you discuss some of the research and the background inspiration behind of these books?

CAELI WOLFSON WIDGER: My general methodology for this book was to write as much as possible before starting any research. This was a conscious decision and originally, I just made up everything. I didn’t even have the basic language for the type of science I was writing about — reprogenetics and biotechnology, primarily — so I invented words and acronyms. After I had a draft full of ludicrous faux science that would horrify any actual biologist, I stepped away from actively writing the book and devoted time to pure reading and research. Only a tiny smidgen of that research ended up making it into the book. My general takeaway from writing this novel is that there is almost always some real science out there to “support” any fake science one can imagine. It was frightening and humbling, really, to learn that some iterations of the extreme, wild medical technologies I invented for the book were really happening in some laboratory.

VICTORIA NAMKUNG: Los Angeles had some massive teacher abuse scandals in recent years, ranging from LAUSD elementary school teacher Mark Berndt to Joseph Koetters at Marlborough School and I became curious about actual statistics. Since I’ve been a journalist for 20 years, I approached this novel like I would a story: I read anything I can get my hands on and interviewed a range of subjects, from victims of sexual abuse to worried parents of teens to teachers and alums of elite private schools. I also pulled some court cases and read victim impact statements that will haunt me forever.

MARTHA BATALHA: I knew about all the prejudices and judgments of an ordinary, middle class neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. I knew about the nuances in relationships among neighbors, couples, friends, and how hard it was for women to accomplish things in my generation, and even worse for my mother’s and grandmother’s generations. The research I did was about Rio de Janeiro’s history. I read dozens of books, and learned about picturesque characters. They seemed so alive, I felt that they were begging to be part of my book, so I ended up adding several supporting characters based on real people.

Since each of your books paints a generally positive picture of women supporting each other in work and life, can you discuss some of the network of support you have received from other women, particularly in your careers?

VICTORIA NAMKUNG: Many of the first editors who took a chance on me, at LA Magazine and the LA Times, were women and they helped champion my career in my early 20s, and I try to do the same for young women who approach me about becoming a journalist or author. The readers of my novels and the majority of my friends are women and there’s no way I could survive as a writer or a person without their love and support. I adore the men in my life, but I think there are limitations to the types of relationships and conversations we can have.

MARTHA BATALHA: My agent, Luciana Villas-Boas, has been an extraordinary friend, mentor, and supporter. My mom has also been a role model, even when she didn’t have the intention to do so. She didn’t know that I would see her as remarkable when she was struggling to manage work, study, and take care of two small kids in a time that very few women chose to have a career. She didn’t really need to, since my father had a good salary, but she wanted to be independent, and that made me proud. Even knowing that her life was not easy I wanted to be like her.

CAELI WOLFSON WIDGER: Without exaggeration, I owe my entire decision to attempt a writing career to the support and encouragement of other women. When I first moved to Brooklyn, back in 2004, I was desperate to write fiction but didn’t have any sort of writers’ group or community. So I joined a workshop I found through a Craigslist ad. The instructor was the novelist Julia Fierro, who was just launching what would become the Sackett Writers’ Workshop. Since then, supportive women, especially my agent Susan Golomb and editor Carmen Johnson, have been crucial to my work and ability to publish, which is incredibly difficult these days.

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