At their New Yorker Festival reading Friday, writers Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon demonstrated that writing across gender and class is not as hard as it seems.
I've mentioned how I feel about Zadie Smith, and Chabon's always a charming and funny reader (I once heard him respond to the question, "What parts of Spiderman did you write?" by saying, "All the parts you liked"). So I was excited to hear them read together even thought the rationale behind the pairing wasn't completely clear — especially since, as Smith pointed out, she was reading nonfiction on what was supposed to be the Festival's fiction night. Her piece (from Changing My Mind) described her father's experiences during the D-Day invasion, but it was actually way less graphic than Chabon's — a scene from an unpublished work depicting a home birth gone awry. In the scene, a mom gives birth to a healthy baby but then begins hemorrhaging copiously, all while her daughter looks on. A male audience member actually had to get up and leave when things got really bloody. Afterwards, as the women in the audience slowly unclenched our vaginas, the Q&A session turned — unsurprisingly — to the difficulties of portraying another gender.
Chabon got a lot of praise for his understanding of the birthing process — praise that occasionally verged on fawning. He's written before about being perceived as a great dad just for going grocery shopping, and he seemed equally unwilling to be seen as a great writer just for describing childbirth (he mentioned learning a lot about the process during his wife's pregnancies in order to "keep up"). Smith, too, was skeptical about whether writing about a gender not your own was really that difficult. She said that "people aren't exclusively feminine in their sense and people aren't exclusively masculine" — and joked that she and Chabon might both be close to the middle of the gender binary (maybe that's why they were paired?). She opined that it was much more difficult to write across class (a divide she explores in this week's New Yorker) than across gender. And, she said, "it's hard to get inside anybody's head."
This was probably the most powerful statement of the whole evening. Frequently, discussion of gender roles get bogged down in questions like, "don't you believe women are different from men?" But everybody's different, and to think of gender as the biggest difference between people is to give it way more importance than it deserves. Of course, our gender influences how the world perceives and treats us, and of course these influences can be interesting (if I wasn't interested in the way gender impacts life and vice versa, I obviously wouldn't have this job). But sometimes it's good to be reminded that humanity's about more than male and female, and it's not all that hard for one to understand the other — provided we actually try.