14 March 2018

Is there such thing a thing as the female gaze?

Yes, there is definitely such a thing as the female gaze. Simone de Beauvoir said it best: "Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth." This is still going on – as if there is one subjectivity and it is male.

Mothers and daughters recur as a theme throughout your fiction, from Isabel and Nina in Swimming Home to Sofia and Rose in Hot Milk. What draws you to examine this relationship?

It’s usually a conflicted relationship and that’s more interesting to write than a harmonious relationship. I do love writing dialogue for mothers and daughters. This is partly to do with the way women and girls are so witty, of course.

Your work is also perennially interested in monsters: in both the horror and the allure of the monstrous. Where do you find your monsters and how do you feel about them?

I am interested in the monstrous feminine – as in my exploration of the Medusa myth in Hot Milk. The many questions the fierce Medusa asks of Sofia, my 25-year-old protagonist (someone who is lost in life and feels worthless), turn out to be provocative and empowering. Sofia wonders if the Medusa had more power as a beautiful woman or as a monster.... It is what we invest in our ancient and modern monsters – and how they speak back to us – that gives them their potency.

Deborah Levy

It is what we invest in our ancient and modern monsters – and how they speak back to us – that gives them their potency

Literature is a lens through which we come to understand ourselves – and the right sentence can break something open in its reader. Your own work is full of sentences that do that. Which books have done that for you? Which would you pass on to the next generation?

Thank you. All the same, I’d prefer the next generation to pass books on to me.

Finally, is there such thing as ‘female’ writing?

I don’t know about that. I mean, I really don’t. On this matter, here is a quote from The Cost of Living:

"Serenity is supposed to be one of the main characters in old-fashioned femininity’s cultural personality. She is serene and she endures. Yes, she is so talented at enduring and suffering they might even be the main characters in her story. There were not that many women I knew who wanted to put the phantom of femininity together again. What is a phantom anyway? The phantom of femininity is an illusion, a delusion, a societal hallucination. She is a very tricky character to play and it is a role (sacrifice, endurance, cheerful suffering) that has made some women go mad. This was not a story I wanted to hear all over again. It was time to find new main characters with other talents."

This interview originally appeared in issue 44 of Five Dials, a free literary journal from Hamish Hamilton.

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