Fellow: Awarded 2009
Field of Study: General Nonfiction
Competition: US & Canada
I am drawn to synthesis. Over the last four decades, I have combined disciplines and genres in my work, philosophy with literary form, poetry with prose, using storytelling and autobiography in extended essays. In several books I unite disparate narratives. Early in my work, I began to make unconventional connections between attitudes in European culture toward women and toward nature. Woman and Nature, published in 1978 by Harper and Row and reissued in 2000 by Sierra Club Books, was a foundational work for eco-feminism, and is still considered a classic in environmental and women’s studies. (See Fifty Key Environmental Thinkers [Routledge].) I have continued to write about the relationship between ecology and social justice through a series of essays, including a Schumacher lecture in given in Great Britain, and the title essay in my collection The Eros of Everyday Life (Doubleday/Anchor, 1995).
In 1983, the last decade of the Cold War, during a dangerous expansion of nuclear weapons, I began work on A Chorus of Stones (Doubleday, Anchor Books, 1992) in which, weaving autobiography with the story of how our civilization came to invent, build and use weapon of mass destruction, I explore the ways that private lives and public events influence and shape each other. That volume was supported by a year-long MacArthur Foundation Grant for Peace and International Cooperation, and chosen as a New York Times Notable Book, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, and it won the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award.
Starting with that book I began a longer work, which will contain four or five volumes, a social autobiography. In all of works I combine history with stories from my own life. Repeating autobiographical elements throughout the book, often marginally to the main narrative, I render these episodes each time from a new perspective, which is why I think of this longer work as cubist. The second book in this series, What Her Body Thought, speaks to economic justice through the experiences of illness and poverty. My most recent work, Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy, On Being An American Citizen (Trumpeter, 2008) explores the inner life of democracy and the development of the consciousness that is required to perpetuate any form of self-government, by juxtaposing my experience coming of age in America with moments in our history crucial to the development and expansion of equality and freedom. Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy has been nominated for a Northern California Book Award.
I have written several plays. Voices won an Emmy in 1975 (Samuel French). Thicket was published in its entirety in the Kenyon Review in 1994. I have also completed a work called Canto, a play in poetry about the massacre of civilians in Latin America in the 1980s. I have published several volumes of poetry, including Unremembered Country (awarded the Commonwealth Club Silver Medal in 1987) and Bending Home (both by Copper Canyon Press).
Another prose work, The Book of the Courtesans, A Catalog of Their Virtues (Broadway Books, 2001), reveals a hidden chapter of women’s history, presenting an interpretation that subverts moral judgments aimed against “loose women.” With help from the Guggenheim Foundation, I am working on a companion volume, a book that reinterprets another history associated with women but that belongs to men as well. The Book of Housewifery navigates hidden meanings once more in the terms private and public through personal stories, myth, folklore, history, and practical knowledge. Using my own experience, I include my own ambivalence as well as that of many women of my generation, along with the great difficulties women who have been confined to domestic work have faced. Yet my intent here is to reveal and restore the deeper significance of the traditions, skills, and arts that maintain a household, work that, though it is often trivialized, sustains and shapes all our lives. And to reveal the continuation through many centuries of alternative philosophies through domestic practices and beliefs that value nature, sustainability, sharing, community, relationship, sensual pleasure, and emotional life.