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"We think we've come such a long way, but women still aren't allowed to convey anger or anxiety without being reduced to 'bitches' or 'nervous girls,' even in fiction."
Think of a sorority house and certain images may come to mind: that of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde or the misfits in The House Bunny. It is a place where women have power, but in a specific sort of way. It is also a stereotypical image that is typically falsely understood. In Sorority from Genevieve Sly Crane, readers can go behind the doors of a sorority to discover the complexities of the women who live inside. In the particular house of the book, there has been the death of one of the sisters, and those who have been in any way connected are sharing what they know (and how they feel).
Genevieve shares with us what inspired her to write the book, what role Greek mythology plays in the plot, and how far she feels narratives still need to come in order to reflect feminist sentiments.
How did you become interested in writing?
My father noticed that I was a good writer when I was still a very small kid, and he encouraged (and sometimes pushed) me to write as much as possible. I remember writing stories and giving them to him, and he would return them with edits. It was crushing, but I also knew that he wouldn't waste time criticizing me if he didn't think I had the potential to produce something worthwhile. He wasn't going to tell me my work was good simply to stroke my ego. Prior to his death, he wrote me a letter that said, "I'd hate for you to be the fourth generation of writers in this family that wanted to write and failed to do it." It wasn't until then that I realized he was placing his own aspirations on me.
How does your work as a writing professor influence your own work?
I teach students who (often) don't want to be writers themselves. So many people think they aren't capable of understanding or producing literature because they feel like fiction is this esoteric, inaccessible thing. It's one of the best feelings in the world to watch students connect with a piece of writing that they approached with skepticism. That said, I try not to let my students influence my creative work at all because learning is such a vulnerable endeavor. My own work and creativity have their place and time at home, and I keep it militantly separate from my time as a professor.
Tell us a little bit about what inspired your novel, Sorority.
I wanted to write a book about the ways in which the best systems — whether they're religious, governmental, or social — are only as good as the people that participate in them. I was also interested in the motivation of joining sorority houses...I joined a sorority to feel connected to my university, but of course the subtext there is that I joined a sorority because I was intensely lonely and thought that membership would solve my loneliness. (It did and it didn't.) The final thing I wanted to deal with was the illusion of being young and female and having an easy life by virtue of those two qualities. I was a mess in my twenties, but if I admitted that to someone, the response was often, "why?" which was infuriating. I wanted to dismantle the mythology of ease in young women.
In what ways does this book go against the traditional ideas of what it is like for women who are members of a sorority? Why was it important to explore this?
I think that the modern interpretation of sorority life is polarized into absurdity: either the young woman is beautiful and flawless and stupid, or she's slutty and drunk and stupid. These reductive stereotypes don't serve anyone, and women in sororities have vastly different experiences depending on their own expectations and the culture of their house.
Would you consider the book concerned with feminism or feminist principles?
I truly hope so. From an anthropological perspective, I'm always fascinated by how upset some readers get over the behavior of the women in my book. I'm curious...if this had been a book about fraternity life, would disruptive or self-destructive behavior be as upsetting to readers? We think we've come such a long way, but women still aren't allowed to convey anger or anxiety without being reduced to "bitches" or "nervous girls," even in fiction. I've also had people express discomfort about the sexuality and sexual activity of my characters. One man told me it was unrealistic to portray women as having more than one sexual partner!
This novel is very focused on character. Were there certain voices you particularly enjoyed exploring and how did you balance all of them?
The characters you see the most are the characters I loved the most. Twyla's story came easiest to me. I also enjoyed writing as Amanda, because her restrictive way of thinking presented challenges I hadn't dealt with before. I spent a lot of time playing with syntactical patterns to make sure that each character sounded authentic without coming off as a gimmick.
Greek myths are also alluded to throughout the novel. Why did you include this element?
Greek myths are the undercurrent of sorority life already, so it felt like a natural element to incorporate. I also love the strange, savage opera of Greek myths. No god or goddess is a neutral party. They are rage, envy, generosity, lust, ugliness, and beauty personified. All of our social fears about people "off the rails" are acted out in these ancient characters.
How do you feel about the future for women writers?
I often think writers are still subject to an enormous amount of social and cultural discrimination. Any college-level literature course will have a slew of white men, followed by a tiny homage to white women and an even smaller perfunctory assignment by a P.O.C. While I understand that white men have had centuries of monopolization on the "literature" market, I still see plenty of male bias in contemporary fiction. Women, for whatever reason, still come off as having less to say, and our writing is much more likely to be accused of being saccharine or fluffy. I think change is gradually taking place, but it takes active participation from everyone in the industry, from publishers to booksellers to readers. It always makes me happy to see bookstores giving more eye-level shelf space to diverse writers, but it's our job as readers to make choices at the checkout line.
What is coming up next for you?
I'm working on a novel and it's the usual process: introspection, denial, write. Repeat!
Rachel A.G. Gilman is the Creator/Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Creature.