Women without men–short story traditions about toughness and resilience

In 1927, Ernest Hemingway published a collection of short stories called “Men Without Women” in his famous and much-imitated minimalist style.  The stories contained few female characters, but were grouped rather around themes relating to toughness, resilience, and the things which challenge and sometimes defeat these characteristics, especially in the lives of men.  Seventy years later, in 1997/98, the noted Hemingway imitator Richard Ford, writing in his own variation of the tradition, now known as “dirty realism,” published “Women With Men,” in which the toughness of the tone and the themes of finding ways of being resilient (and sometimes not making it) were also prevalent.

Taking place in the same time span, however, two other authors in other parts of the globe were writing on the basic subject of “women without men,” and about the toughness and strength required not of men, but of women, in their places in male-dominated societies.  One was Amador Daguio, writing from the Philippines, and sometimes from other places where he studied away from his home.  The other, a little younger, was Bessie Head, writing from South Africa, living some of her life in exile in Botswana.  Both wrote of tragic situations in the lives of their characters, one, Daguio, of the unhappy end of an otherwise happy relationship, the other, Head, writing about the horrific end of an unhappy relationship.  I’ll delineate some of the plot details of the story I’ve selected from each one, even though to do so is perhaps to spoil somewhat the outcome.  Still, both stories will bear up time and again to readings and re-readings, and the quality is in the writing, not alone in the plot.

In Amador Daguio’s story, “Wedding Dance,” the story takes place in a traditional Kalinga society.  The young man in the story, Awiyao, is on his way to his second wedding, a marriage undertaken purely for the purpose of conceiving a child.  He stops by the home of his true love, his first wife, Lumnay, whom tribal custom allows him to set aside because they have been unable to conceive, after seven years.  Though both of them tacitly acknowledge that the fault may lie with either or both of them, they both adhere to tribal custom, and consider it inevitable, though later Lumnay has a wild moment of considering rushing into the elders’ group and protesting, in effect ending the custom.  He offers her both the hut they have shared together and the field they worked together as hers to keep, but the only thing she asks for is her string of marriage beads, valuable in their own right, and personally valuable to her.  He urges her to attend the dance, and to think of finding a new husband, but she refuses.  The story ends, after she has made an abortive walk to the outskirts of the dance but withdrawn, with an extremely poetic passage, the very opposite of “dirty realism,” and somehow full of the desperate kind of hope that is all she has left, in emotional terms, anyway.  She has gone to the bean field:

“A few more weeks, a few more months, a few more harvests–what did it matter?  She would be holding the bean flowers, soft in the texture, silken almost, but moist where the dew got into them, silver to look at, silver on the light blue, blooming whiteness, when the morning comes.  The stretching of the bean pods full length from the hearts of the wilting petals would go on./Lumnay’s fingers moved a long, long time among the growing bean pods.”

Hope and the celebration of moments of love and affection are all that are left as well in the starker story by Bessie Head, called “The Collector of Treasures.”  In it, Dikeledi Mokopi, the heroine, has been deserted by the husband of her three children, Garesego, for a number of years.  This is after she has already had a hard life as a child and young woman.  Yet still, she is spoken of as “the collector of treasures” because she finds isolated moments of happiness and contentment to buoy her up and carry her through, these moments being her “treasures.”  “She had filled her life with treasures of kindness and love from others and it was all this that she wanted to protect from defilement by an evil man.” Garesego has in fact moved in with a concubine, whose children he treats as his own, and  he never comes to see his own children or take any responsibility for them.  As a counterpoint to this relationship, her new neighbors, who celebrate and come to love her, also take the place unofficially of her lost breadwinner.  Paul Thebolo and his wife Kenelepe, who become her fast friends, supply her in abundance with foodstuffs and household goods in exchange for her crafting and cooking and small hand manufacturing jobs, for which she refuses to take any pay.  Their relationship with each other is one of love and understanding, and Kenelepe, to her husband’s amusement but implied refusal, loves Dikeledi so much that she offers to lend Paul to her for lovemaking, after Dikeledi discusses it with her and she discovers that Dikeledi’s husband never even attempted to love her properly.  But of course, after eight years of happiness, there’s bound to be a snag:  the eldest son of Dikeledi is ready for school, but with all her savings, she hasn’t managed to save enough.  When she approaches Garesego for it, he insults her by casting a supposed relationship with Paul in her face, and then says he will come home so that they can settle their differences.  Dikeledi knows that this means he wants sex, so she sends a message of apparent compliance, and prepares her home.  After he has had one last meal there, and she has given him one last opportunity to say that he will help, which he more or less refuses, she allows him to fall asleep from his heavy meal.  Then, using a knife she had placed in secret at the ready, she cuts off his genitals.  When Paul Thebolo finds out what she has done, he swears to her that they will take her three children and raise them as their own, sending them to school.  The conclusion (which actually takes place in a flash forward at the very beginning of the story) happens in a prison area which Dikeledi shares with other women who’ve committed the same crime.  She settles in and makes herself happy there too, finding someone to love, a friend, and prepares to live out her life sentence.  It is made clear that this is her fate because this is her nature, to be resilient and strong, and to find good things wherever she can to be happy and pleasant about.

Though both men and women in the tradition I’m writing about show strength and resilience, toughness, what the British call the “stiff upper lip” quality of not overly complaining about one’s difficulties, in the stories about women what is emphasized more is the ability simply to endure, to wait, to bear the burdens of life, often in societies that don’t offer them the same outlets as men have.  The story “Wedding Dance,” which ends with an implied parallel between Lumnay’s chances for happiness and the returning of the harvest season each year, suggests that perhaps she will after all accept the offered bean field from her erstwhile husband, and find a way to go on, thus changing in a small way the tradition she speaks about at the beginning, of returning to her parents.  The tradition is broken, of course, in a much more violent and what is usually thought of as a “masculine” way with Dikeledi, who commits murder with a knife in order to keep her life undefiled.  She has, of course, defiled her own hand with the deed, but this crime is a crime for which the author clearly and under the given circumstances shows sympathy and understanding, and implicitly asks the reader to do so as well.

In both cases, the prose, though it mentions rough circumstances and cuts the characters no slack, is clearly different from that of the American precursor authors.  The entirety of “Wedding Dance,” though slightly and strangely atilt from the fact that it is not the two lovers in it who are going to be married, is extremely poetic and flowing, and indicative of love as is often displayed in a line of dance.  In “The Collector of Treasures,” the story uses language as simply as possible, but it looks deeply into the heart of Dikeledi and analyzes her thoughts and feelings in a way that Hemingway and Ford prefer generally not to do, their forte being to get the reader to do the work.  Yet, all four authors are placing their characters in situations that anyone could relate to, and though they are situations very different from each other, they all stem from basic human relations and needs, as all good short stories do, as all good writing does, for that matter.

I hope you have enjoyed this post, readers; it’s the first I’ve had time to do for quite some time, but I hope to be posting more again soon.  If you’re looking for a place where these two stories can both be found together, along with many more, some of which I may also write about soon, look for a 1995 Harper Collins volume, quite large, called Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World:  Where the Waters Are Born.  The editors are Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel.  Spring approaches!  Shadowoperator

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Women without men–short story traditions about toughness and resilience

  1. Ooo, a Filipino writer! Excellent, I hadn’t come across Amador Daguio, but will make sure that I keep an eye out.

    Hemingway’s female character (I forget her name) in A Farewell to Arms to arms was terrible. I disliked her so much and it put me off reading him for a bit, or at least picking the books without women in them, as I did. It’s nice to see there are strong alternatives.

    Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World: Where the Waters Are Born. sounds like a really good resource and introduction to new authors, it is irritating to know that there are so many good writers we just don’t get to hear about.

    Like

    • Yes, there was yet another rather quizzical Filipino story in it that I plan to post about, as soon as I figure out some of what it means! It’s very mysterious, elliptical. The book is so thick, I know you’d love it.

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