Five Modern Writers: Romance. Feminism and Sexuality
In the novel I Can’t Think Straight, by Shamim Sarif, there are three primary themes that make this novel a part of popular contemporary fiction. The three themes are romance, feminism and sexuality. This fantastic novel can be compared and contrasted to the other novels I have recently finished reading.
Romance is a theme that dominates popular culture. The romantic genre can be both realistic and dreamy. It remains the dominant genre that people read. This may be a result of women writers continuing to break ground in other genres. It may be a result of a feminine voice that has been absent from other genres up until the last few decades.
Feminism has been a part of fiction for the last three hundred years. It has only become a part of popular fiction in the last century beginning with writers such as Virginia Woolf. Feminism in a novel allows readers to grasp a story from a feminine perspective. This equality of the genders in writing has been severely lacking in popular fiction up until the last two decades.
The growth of female writers in all genres is on the rise. Women are finally breaking down barriers in publishing houses. Women writers are supporting each other by creating new publishing houses and self publishing. Males who write from an accurate feminine perspective such as Hosseini have also broken barriers. The two themes of romance and feminism have bridged the way for sexuality to be openly discussed in popular contemporary fiction.
In I Can’t Think Straight Leyla has a simple discussion with her sister Yasmin. In reference to both Leyla’s open lesbianism and her mother’s marriage hopes Yasmin says “Who cares?” Yasmin shrugged. “Can you marry Tala? Maybe that’ll keep her happy” (156). This statement in a popular contemporary novel has open dialogue about real romance, feminism and sexuality. The best part is that the entire novel is filled with this new wave of writing that prefers open discourse to hidden meanings. Modern readers are embracing multiple genres with this more feminine way of creating plot, dialogue, setting and characters.
In the novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, there is a clear romance between Laila and Tariq. A average reader may continue reading throughout the novel in the hopes that a romance will play out at some point. Readers are very driven by romance. Readers will seek it out in novels of all genres and not just romance novels. Unlike most other genres romance crosses over in almost any sort of fictional writing.
Readers follow romance because it is one of the most common threads of the human condition. Romance often eases difficult plots for a reader such as the undercurrents of love between Lisbeth and Mikael in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Romance can also be used to push a plot along with the protagonist such as between Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games. Romance rarely detracts from a fictional novel.
Romance actually keeps people enthralled with books that deal with intense themes of war and violence. It eases the pain sympathy for characters if a reader believes there is a light of love after the plot comes together. No Country For Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy, had the romances of Bell and Llewelyn that peeked out during parts of the plot. Some readers may have hoped for Llewelyn and Carla Jean to get away with love and two million in tow. The romance initially drives the plot before being overcome by more negative human components of greed and violence.
In I Can’t think Straight the romance between the characters of Tala and Leyla is used as a primary plot device to drive the narrative. The main conflicts that they are facing have to do with their place in their families. The main issues they are dealing with are a result of them being women. The questions they are asking themselves when they meet is how much they will conform to familial expectations. This includes what jobs they have, what countries they will live in, and their marriage objectives. The romance between them is in the context of this feminist backdrop.
The characters of Mariam and Laila are written from an accurate feminine perspective by a male writer. This is not an easy feat. Hosseini was able to find this voice that sounded authentic, and is believable to the many readers of his novel. These two women are facing real world issues of male dominance and aggression through most of the story. It would be horrible if it was just Rasheed.
Hosseini presents the reality that women face sexism and patriarchal degradation even outside the home. This happened in the family at the beginning, the court at the end, the bus terminal scene and the hospital. The women embrace their roles for reasons of survival. However, when removed from this level of hatred and control the removal of the hijab can be seen as symbolic.
Larsson also presents a very female driven plot. He writes in a feminist voice. He overthrows the patriarchy in his character of Lisbeth. She is despised by a male dominated culture. When she is on the fringes with other women and men who do not follow the patriarchal mode she finds more acceptance. One of the primary reasons she bonds with Mikhael is he does not seek to oppress or dominate the behavior of women in his life.
In The Hunger Games the female and male tributes are equal in terms of death and survival. A female tribute from district two can exhibit masculine traits. Katniss herself is a hunter. In literature this has been a primarily masculine occupation. Peeta exhibits many feminine traits such as crying on the way to the train depot of district 12.
The way writers are able to embrace feminism in writing style improves writing overall. These are just a few examples of expanding the definitions of gender. This removes limitations on character development, plot, voice, and an author’s style. This also leaves multiple plot lines driven by feminist ideals to be explored.
Sarif has two female characters meet who are living as the women that their parents and culture wants them to be. Both are trying to work jobs separate from the family business. Both are in relationships that leave them wanting less. Both have to make decisions in their own lives to determine the life they want to live as a woman.
In the painful coming out discussion with her mom Leyla says “…And now I know for sure that what I’ve been feeling all these years is actually the right thing and there’s nothing wrong with it…” (144). The growth of male characters on feminist issues in literature also attracts readers to a popular novel. For example, her father simply hugs Leyla after he walks into the coming out conversation “If I could help it, I would,” Leyla said, blowing her nose. “But I can’t.” “I Know,” he replied. “I know” (146).
Sexuality has been considered taboo many times in the past. Feminism and gender issues in literature have assisted writers with creating more varied characters. Lisbeth is considered a sexual deviant by the patriarchy in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Mikhael has had far more sexual encounters yet because he is a man he is considered normal. Larsson displays the sexist nature and inequality of male dominated cultures.
Larsson creates Lisbeth to be a more gender fluid character. In Hosseini’s novel the characters of Laila and Tariq break a boundary by making love before they are married. The protagonists among these novels are breaking various barriers in relation to sexual taboos of their cultures. In all the stories male dominance and patriarchy are sources of conflict and antagonism.
Sexuality is mostly used as a plot device for freedom and equality among the characters. In The Hunger Games Peeta readily admits that Katniss is the favored when speaking about his mother saying “She’s a survivor, that one.” and adding “She is” (98). He is not limited by a male dominant world view that would say a male will be victorious in the arena. Peeta just knows that he loves her, and he will aid her if he can.
Sarif is breaking boundaries by creating a normal love story between two women that is not centered on their sexuality. Instead this is built into a plot that deals with other issues like family dynamics and feminism. The sexuality theme consisting of freedom and spontaneity counterbalances male dominance, patriarchal and sexist voices in literature.
The popular contemporary novel has changed over the past few decades as female writers and the feminine voice become more practiced. The number of stories that have a feminist approach and gender nonconformity in character development has a wide appeal. Authors like Sarif, Hosseini, Larsson, McCarthy and Collins are creating more varied characters that appeal to the modern reader. They are indelibly marking the present generation with unique characters that expand our view of humanity.
Betz, Phyllis Marie. Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis. North
Carolina:McFarland & Company Inc., Publishers, 2009. Print.
Brizee, Allen, and J. Case Tompkins. “Feminist Criticism (1960s – Present).” Purdue: OWL. Web.
—. “Gender Studies and Queer Theory (1970s – Present).”
Purdue: OWL. Web. http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/owlprint/722/
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2008. Print.
Green, Gayle, and Coppelia Kahn. “Making a Difference Feminist Literary Criticism.” Taylor &
Francis E-Library, 2005. Web.
Hosseini, Khaled. A Thousand Splendid Suns. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.
Larsson, Stieg. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Trans. Reg Keeland. New York: Vintage Books,
McCarthy, Cormac. No Country for Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. Print.
Sarif, Shamim. I Can’t Think Straight. London: Enlightenment Productions, 2008. Print.
Alex is a student in the Creative Writing (Fiction) program at Southern New Hampshire University. She is a regular contributor on Wattpad as Apogee711, and her own personal blog The Autumn Writings of Apogee711 at http://apogee711.blogspot.com/