Q: You write that as you grew older, “I began to look for plots that might help me map a possible future beyond the familiar fairy tale where the old woman is stereotyped as either the wicked witch or the fairy godmother.” How did you eventually decide to write this book? A: I have always looked to fiction by women writers to offer models of ways of being that allowed me to imagine myself and others in new ways.
I was invited to Guest Blog for “Read Her Like An Open Book”As I approached my sixtieth birthday, I began to notice that in the books I included on the syllabus for my popular course “Contemporary Fiction by Women,” none of the protagonists were anywhere near my age. Instead, women my age were secondary characters, mothers or grandmothers, usually included only because of their importance to the central character, a marriageable daughter or even a young girl. The older woman might be described in considerable detail, but only from the outside, through a younger person’s perspective. I was troubled by the stereotypes that seemed to categorize her as either wicked witch or fairy godmother.
Read an exclusive excerpt from the book in the Rumpus
“In her famous essay on fiction and the role of the modern novel, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Virginia Woolf claims that the task of the novelist is to catch in words the old lady in the railway carriage. This book is the result of my searching contemporary fiction by women for glimpses of those elusive old ladies who, a century after Woolf’s call for them, remain nearly invisible. Like Woolf’s Mrs. Brown, an old woman may sit in the carriage. Or she may sit quietly on the bench of a London park, like the invisible women of Doris Lessing’s novel The Diary of a Good Neighbour. She may sit quietly reading on an airplane, in a meeting, in the waiting rooms of public institutions. What does she notice? What does she make of the snippets of conversation she overhears? What is the interplay of present observations and memories in her mind? Does she enjoy the sun on her skin? Does she relish her flexibility after that recent hip replacement? Is she composing a melody or a poem as she pulls the needle through her embroidery? Woolf wrote that she never managed to tell the truth about the body, and I think most readers assume she meant the sexualized body. However, increasingly I think that fiction has often focused exclusively on the sexualized body rather than the embodied person as a whole. I looked and continue to look for stories of older women in which they notice not only their desire but also their strength, the beauty they apprehend through their sight and hearing, the life-giving breath that sustains them.”
Today, I will share some about my recently completed class with Mills students and Oakland seniors.
This past week, reading the students’ reflections on the course blog and listening to their final project presentations at our final Zoom session, and hearing from the seniors, reminded me just how much all of us—students, seniors, and I gained from our collaborations and how important it is to be in conversation with those whose experiences differ from our own.
One of my goals for the course was to help students see older women as individual persons rather than through the myriad stereotypes our society has of its elders. Although the readings were chosen from among stories that do just that, the conversations went far beyond my expectations.
At our first class meeting, in which the Mills students met on campus, I asked them to write on one side of a 4”x6” notecard the first words that came into their minds in response to “heroine”; on the other side of the card, they wrote words they associate with “old woman.” There was little overlap.
For our second class on campus, students read Doris Lessing’s 1984 “Diary of a Good Neighbor,” the initial novella in The Diaries of Jane Somers. Lessing’s protagonist, Janna, is widowed young and without children; she edits a glossy women’s magazine, and her life is focused on style. Janna meets ninety-two-year-old Maudie Fowler through a chance encounter and develops a complex relationship with her. Janna confides to her diary “I was so afraid of old age, of death, that I refused to let myself see old people in the streets—they did not exist for me…. I did not see old people at all. My eyes were pulled towards, and I saw, the young, the attractive, the well-dressed and handsome. And now it is as if a transparency has been drawn across that former picture and there, all at once, are the old.”
Similar to Janna, my students report that they seldom saw old people. Even if they adore their grandmothers or aunties, they commented that they tended to see them exclusively in that familial role, with little sense of how they experience and see the world.
As I looked forward to our first visit to the Downtown Oakland Senior Center, I did not realize that, like Janna, many of my students were dreading the encounter with a room full of elders. Later, they explained that they had expected to meet a group of undifferentiated elderly women whom they imagined as somehow unlively, uninteresting, passive, perhaps vaguely judgemental.
Our first meeting with the seniors stopped the students in their tracks. The conversations across tables were electric and filled with surprises, insights, and laughter.
In their responses to that first meeting with the seniors, students reported that, despite our delving into the topic of stereotypical views of the elderly in the first weeks of the class, they were stunned by their underestimation of older women. The students were delighted and entranced by their conversations with the nearly forty sharp, engaging, funny old women of a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds, ranging from their 60s to their 90s, who turned up to discuss that week’s readings—Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “My Man Bovanne” and Cathleen Schine’s novel They May Not Mean To, but They Do.
I look forward to telling you more about our discussions in upcoming posts, letting you know about some of the student projects and the follow up to the class among students and seniors before introducing additional stories beyond those we read in class.
I just finished teaching the final course of my 46 years at Mills College–“Coming to Age,” a collaboration between 18 students and about twice that many members of the Downtown Oakland Senior Center. Jennifer King, Director of the DOSC and a Mills alumna, helped create a format that fit the schedule of the center’s members and also worked for students.
We planned to meet together four of the sixteen class sessions, once monthly from February through May. The seniors created plans for an additional session and chartered a bus to Mills, but Covid 19 forced us to cancel, and we met for the second half of the semester on Zoom.
We read selected stories I feature in my forthcoming book, The Book of Old Ladies: Celebrating Women of a Certain Age in Fiction. We loved comparing our responses in animated discussions in person and on the course blog. Not only did students disagree among themselves, but seniors also noticed details the students had overlooked, and everyone brought lively insights to our conversations.
But, now the course has ended. Although I have been asked to continue the course, I can’t create that same magic again. Instead, I look forward to opening shared reading and discussion to a wider group, using this blog as a space to share my reflections and my interviews and other relevant content
I hope that eventually the blog provides a public space in which to move beyond The Book of Old Ladies and the spring course into conversations that introduce additional stories of women of a certain age–primarily, but not exclusively, in fiction. Some of those stories fall outside the structure of my book, others I have discovered since, and still others are only now being written. After years in which I could not find stories focused on the present lives of older women characters–not just their pasts–I am excited to introduce stories that move beyond what I have come to call “mini appearances of old women as secondary characters” or “death-bed bookends” to engaging stories that get inside the heads of old women, see the world through their eyes, and abandon tired old stereotypes.
I invite you to read along with me.
Please share your ideas and discoveries of Notable Old Ladies in Fiction and Beyond!