Sunday, March 08, 2015

Book #10: The Bishop's Wife

This book has been sitting in my top priority stack of books (read: on my nightstand) since the day it was released at the end of December. I had to buy a copy after reading the positive review in the New York Times because (a) I've known author Mette Ivie Harrison since our bookstore days and I like her and (b) the story, a mystery, is set in a Mormon ward in a town north of us and I'm always curious to see how writers present the culture I am steeped in.

There are many directions I could go in this post, but in honor of the fact that today happens to be International Women's Day, I am going to take my inspiration from one of the key themes Harrison explores in the book: the role of women in the LDS faith, which is patriarchal and life-encompassing.

Like many things, and Harrison illustrates this, it is far more complex than the two competing narratives we generally hear: women (and motherhood) are honored and revered or women (mothers) are silenced and second class. Not only are there other stories as well, these two competing narratives are hardly mutually exclusive.

This passage from The Bishop's Wife reveals what could be an apt metaphor about well defined gender roles:

Whenever friends from other parts of the country come to Utah, the first thing they mention is the feeling they get from the mountains. Some people feel oppressed by them, others feel safe, like they are wrapped in a cocoon. But I am so used to them, I take them for granted. If I go elsewhere, somewhere without mountains, that's when I realize how much I miss them. I don't know how anyone can tell what direction they're headed without mountains around to help.

I grew up in a very different geography, both literally and, or so I thought for many years, figuratively. I am my own person! But the older I get, the more I realize how much I have subconsciously absorbed about gender from the world around me, and without being aware, I let it reign me in.

Coincidentally, it was Harrison who posted on Facebook an article that I read earlier this week about writing female characters in fiction. I thought many of the points it made could apply to the real world we are experiencing and trying to understand and working to create. One idea particularly struck me: "Some readers may not notice the shallowness or cliché because it is a portrayal they expect to see and have seen a thousand times before. Its very familiarity comforts and feels right [emphasis added]."

What we see and hear over and over becomes our truth whether or not it is true.

One area this happens, especially on a subconscious level, is with the language we use. Tomorrow in my freshman writing class, I happen to be covering strategies to avoid using gendered nouns and pronouns when they are meant to include more than just men.

My whole life I was reassured, though--at school and work, but particularly at church and with scriptures--that the language is not important. All we need to do is shift our assumptions. Whenever it says man or men or mankind, we should just read it to mean that it applies to women as well.

Except, of course, for when we mysteriously shouldn't.

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