An Interview With Professor Lucie Armitt
by Jessica Day
Lucie Armitt is a Professor in Contemporary English Literature in the College of Arts at the University of Lincoln. She is a specialist in the fields of contemporary women’s writing, the literary fantastic and the Gothic. She is an Associate Editor of the award-winning OUP journal Contemporary Women’s Writing and founding Treasurer of the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association.
As a specialist in the field, you have been publishing and researching contemporary women’s writing for over twenty years, with your first publication being Where no Man Has Gone Before: Women and Science-Fiction (1991). Over this period, and from your perspective as a scholar, how have you seen contemporary women’s writing evolve, and has there been any development to your views about the role that contemporary women writers play, or ought to play?
For me, the crucial thing about contemporary women’s writing is the position of women in the world. My own engagement with women’s writing has always come from my commitment to feminism and to handing on a feminist legacy to the next generation. I was for a while concerned about the state of feminism in terms of its future and I am now less so. I started working on Where No Man Has Gone Before: [Essays on Women and Science Fiction (1991)] when I was very young. I was very fortunate in that I received my first book contract when I was still a postgraduate student and, in fact, I had only just started my PhD; the book came out of a networking opportunity. There was an absolutely wonderful organisation called ‘Network’ which was run, at the time I joined it, by Margaret Beetham and Elspeth Graham. It was for women who were teaching English in Higher Education, and I wouldn’t want to speak for them, but it seemed to me that the ethos at that stage centred around bringing together as group women, many of them junior lecturers, who were working on women’s writing within a still very patriarchal Higher Education sector. When I look back it was amazing, really. Every term of the academic year, in the old three term system, we would meet on a Saturday and four people would give papers. I gave my very first conference paper at one of those events at the University of Leeds. Of course, as a very, very junior scholar it was a wonderful way of meeting more senior women working in the field. This first paper I gave was based on my MA dissertation which was about women’s science fiction and, more specifically, how women writers of science fiction use that genre to talk about the gendered bias of language; and really I came to that project because I had an interest in women and language. I found that, at that time, it was only in contemporary feminist science fiction that one could find fictional representations of the feminist debates that were taking place in sociolinguistics around the patriarchal orientation of language, as well as positing possible utopian alternatives. I originally came to feminist science fiction through my interest in linguistics and that really set me off on a research career that has evolved, but is still really rooted in that moment. So because I was able to join Network, I also had that luxury of feeling that although I am an individual researcher, like lots of us in the humanities are, I am also part of a women’s community of researchers. That’s unbelievably important to me. In fact, there have been moments in my career when I’ve been doing quite heavy management roles where quite literally my opportunity to get away for a day and spend time with other female academics who work on contemporary women’s writing has felt like such an important oasis. So I could never really overestimate the importance of that.
In terms of the scholarship on women’s writing, the gaps and marginalisation that confronted Virginia Woolf in a Room of One’s Own (1929) have been addressed considerably. Women’s writing is being published and discussed to a greater extent than ever before. In your opinion, why do you think there has been such a radical re-appraisal of women’s writing in the last few decades, especially within the literary curriculum in schools and universities?
I’m not completely sure I agree with the premise of the question, because I felt that the ’70s and ’80s were an absolute burgeoning of women’s writing. You had The Women’s Press Book Club which was something I belonged to and had life membership for; as it turns out I lived longer than the book club [laughter]. The Book Club was an amazing thing; they sent you a booklet, as of course this was in the days before the internet, which contained not only all the books The Women’s Press had published, but a whole range of feminist or women-oriented books, from all disciplines and by all sorts of presses. So it meant that, from quite a young age, I, again as a young scholar working on my PhD, had discounted access to these books through my life membership which, if I remember correctly, was for a very small fee. I used to take this cherished little brochure into my student bedroom where I worked and the whole of women’s writing that had been published in the last three months would be there on the table in front of me. So, you can imagine as somebody writing a PhD on contemporary women’s writing, it was an absolute goldmine and that was the period when there were a lot of women’s presses, when there was an absolute explosion of women’s writing being published. Then in the 1990s they all folded with the exception of Virago and it felt to me then that women’s writing went into a bit of a decline, before it then blossomed again. There was a hiatus in the 1990s and I was very worried about the state of women’s writing at that time. I started to ask myself where the next feminist-oriented woman writer was coming from. For me it was Sarah Waters; Sarah Waters was the person I had been waiting for.
From your perspective as a lecturer and academic teaching on modules related to contemporary women’s writing, can you comment on the changing contexts and reception of women’s writing within the academy?
When I was writing my PhD, I remember a very cherished senior colleague telling me: “Lucie, history isn’t really linear, it always goes in cycles and women’s rights and their freedoms follow a similarly cyclical pattern.” I’ve never forgotten that and in my experience of women’s writing that’s right, actually. Those cycles might change slightly; they blossom and then go into a bit of a decline, and then are kick-started again. It was in the 1990s against the backdrop of not a single woman writer being shortlisted for the Booker Prize that another of my more recent interests, Kate Mosse, started to put together what would become the Orange Prize (now the Bailey’s Prize) for Women’s Fiction. So, there are women out there who are committed to women’s writing and who are writers themselves and who are also aware of writing within a larger culture of women writers, and belonging to that culture is really important to them. Not all writers who are women do that and, personally, I don’t consider those writers to be ‘women writers’; for me, somebody whom I would call a woman writer is somebody who is writing literature with an awareness that she is writing within the broader political culture of feminism and speaking of women’s issues.
How might or should researchers in this field, particularly postgraduate and early career researchers who may be the “future specialists” so-to-speak, look to continue and propel the interest in contemporary women’s writing? What more could be done to enhance the research and exchange of ideas on contemporary women’s writing?
There were two very important women’s writing conferences I went to in the ’80s; the first in 1984 at the then Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University) and the second the following year in Leicester, which I think was jointly organised by Leicester University and Leicester Polytechnic, though I may have mis-remembered that. They were amazing events; there was a mixture of academic papers and creative writing workshops, where I first met writers like Adele Geras and Elizabeth Baines. There was a huge grassroots feeling to these events. It was at one of these events that I can very proudly say that I heard Angela Carter read from her newly published novel Nights at the Circus. I remember she turned up in this amazing one-piece flying suit and talked about Fevvers the flying woman – she was just amazing. Similarly, I will never forget and I can still hear Grace Nichols reading poetry from her The Fat Black Woman’s Poems at the same event – just amazing. These were conferences that attracted such excitement – that for me is still such a golden age.
At that time, despite my youth, I immediately felt as if I was part of a much wider women’s network and, of course, that feeling was helped by the fact that there were also two fabulous feminist magazines available, called Spare Rib and Women’s Review, both of which made what I was studying feel completely relevant to the wider world. Second-wave feminism is often criticised, now, for having been insufficiently attuned to the politics of women globally. Nevertheless, it was at those events and by reading books by women of other cultures that I bought at those bookstalls that I first came cross the work of women, internationally, who have since shaped much of my personal politics. One of those was Audre Lorde, whose book Sister Outsider (1984) was a truly inspirational read for me. As someone interested in the gender politics of language, her essay ‘The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action’ was genuinely formative for me. Another is Alice Walker, whose arguments about the shortcomings of a white Western feminism in preference for a more inclusive womanism were also transforming. Walker was also the first person to make me think properly about generations of feminism. She wrote a beautiful poem called “My Daughter Is Coming!” in which the speaker asks herself if her daughter will notice all the preparations her mother has made for her visit, or if she will only notice the torn curtains. I now find this poem really tragic because of the split between her and Rebecca Walker. All of these events and moments were part of what I am and they were an amazing learning curve.
In October 2015, at the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association’s 10th anniversary conference entitled ‘Legacies and Lifespans’, you presented as a keynote speaker on ‘Unspeakable Seas: Flooding, Climate Change and Kate Mosse’s The Taxidermist’s Daughter.’ Your paper, almost literally, pushed the study of women’s writing into new territory by intersecting geographical studies with literary analysis as you discussed the ways in which literature negotiates cultural anxieties about encroaching seascapes. What inspired you to look at contemporary women’s writing from such an innovative perspective?
My interest in Kate Mosse came about because I think she’s a really important writer, and, one of the things that I’ve found over the years, is that some women writers are claimed by feminist critics and some aren’t. Kate Mosse is one of the ones that hasn’t been, unlike Sarah Waters, for example. I’m very interested in why that is, because what Kate Mosse is particularly interested in are the historical ways in which women have been silenced – that’s the basis of her writing and I think that’s unbelievably important. I think that giving voice to the past and continually revisiting the past through the lens of the contemporary is a way of actually keeping those women with us and making sure we don’t lose their voices.
My interest in flooding and climate change came about through reading the book [The Taxidermist’s Daughter (2014)]. I read it and thought, how interesting, this is all about flooding and yet it’s not about flooding; it becomes a metaphor for stories overlaying each-other, things being washed away and washed up. Also, I could never quite understand, and I still don’t understand, why some researchers dismiss Mosse’s work as somehow ‘too popular’, especially when she is the founder of the Orange Prize. In my opinion, writing is either important or not important, and, if it’s important, it’s worth serious attention. Can there be anything more important than writing about women, trauma, violence against women, and the historical silencing of women?
So, for me, I went to Kate Mosse and then had the ideas about climate change. I have always had a second interest in physical geography, and it became a way of engaging with that. A lot of the work I’ve done over the decades, especially in terms of fantasy and science fiction, has been linked to spatial theory, because that’s another way of thinking about geography; the ways in which spaces are circumscribed. So, it’s not necessarily as new a departure for me as it seems, but it has pushed my work into an obviously more interdisciplinary frame. In my view, anyway, women’s writing is innately interdisciplinary because it is grounded in society, and society is innately interdisciplinary. But the difference is that now I’m talking about climate change and geography these are areas that might seem to have a stamp of approval on them because they appear to be dealing with something that now seems “more important” than issues of gender. For me, there isn’t anything more important than gender.
Women’s writing can often be thought of as a synonym for feminist writing. Although, of course, many women writers are influenced and interested in feminism and its literary history, your paper at the conference identified to what extent Mosse, as a female writer, embraced other dominant social and political concerns of the day. Can you comment on why you think it is important to recognise and reflect upon the diverse concerns of women’s writing – I am thinking here about the evolving spirit of contemporary women’s writing and what may define it in future decades?
Well, I think women’s writing is innately engaged with our relationship with society. So, as society changes, women’s writing will change because it’s socially informed. It will move to accommodate the shift in concerns and anxieties, and hopes and visions of society as it goes into the future. I don’t think it’s my place to say in which direction women’s writing will go, because I’m already at the phase where I’ve got fifteen to twenty years of my career left, having done twenty-six. So, now my primary concern is to ensure that I, and other women of my generation, are handing over to younger women, in the same way that the women who came before me handed over to me. Some of those women that I first met at those Network meetings went on to have very successful careers in senior management. At that point, the grass roots that I was talking about earlier no longer properly belongs to them, that has to come through from the next generation and, actually, that’s where the power of the future lies. It doesn’t lie with people like me, it lies with the people who are at school doing GCSEs and A Levels, going to university, and that are in the first five years of their career – these are the people who will shape the next generation of contemporary women’s writing. My challenge is to keep up-to-date with what is happening with it.
Similarly, I am not a third-wave feminist, I’m a second-wave feminist. I hope I’m living through the third wave, and I hope I’m still, in that sense, part of the present moment, but I still identify as a second-wave feminist because all those things I’ve talked to you about, those early experiences, are what shaped me. And I take those with me, I still fight those battles. But I’m not really shaped by what happens to me now: I may still be angered by it, I might still have to think “I can’t believe people are still thinking this and doing that”, but what shaped me as a feminist is what happened to me in my early twenties, not what happens to me now. So, it’s not my job to shape women’s writing, it’s the job of people much younger than me to do that.
In addition to your own research within the field, you have dedicated a tremendous amount of time to promoting new developments and high standards of research in contemporary women’s writing. In 2013, as part of the CWWA’s executive committee, you secured AHRC funding to establish a Collaborative Skills Development Programme for postgraduate students and early-career academics specialising in contemporary women’s writing. Can you comment on why you wanted to set up the series of workshops and what the outcomes were for those involved?
The CWWA, of course, was set up by Mary Eagleton. Even that moment of setting up was really fascinating because I had just come back from maternity leave and I got a phone call. I picked up the phone and it was Mary and she said ‘You remember the old days of Network, I really think we need something again, would you be interested in coming to a meeting about what we could do?’. Of course I jumped at it, because after maternity leave it was blissful to hear Mary on the phone. Likewise, she’d just come off research leave and it was a time when the pressures on higher education were starting to bite. I went to the meeting and there was Mary Eagleton, myself, Sarah Gamble, Emma Parker, Clare Hanson, Paulina Palmer, Susan Watkins, Gina Wisker and Imelda Whelehan, and we all just immediately said ‘Yes!’.
Of course, for the first few years, it was Contemporary Women’s Writing Network, and we didn’t become an association for a few years until 2009. So, the first four years [from 2005], we were a network and it was just a group that kept getting bigger. During that time, the PG CWWN was set up, because very quickly we realised we needed to bring on the next generation and we were also concerned to ensure that the professional standing of researchers in contemporary women’s writing was secure. But, again, the thing with women’s writing is, it doesn’t feel like work, it is so pleasurable and so intrinsically part of who we are that it didn’t feel like work to contribute to the organisation. It feels like work when I’m sitting at my desk writing reports about things, but it doesn’t feel like work when I’m sitting with other researchers in contemporary women’s writing organising conferences, etc. Again, that’s because for all of us it’s about a commitment to a wider cause; that’s a part of everything we do.
The collaborative skills development programme was something I had wanted to do for a very long time. What I wanted to do originally was to see if we [the CWWA] could set up a collaborative version of a doctoral award whereby, as a body, we would jointly supervise PGR students. That never quite worked, but, I would still like to see that happen, even though I haven’t worked out a mechanism for doing it yet. But, what did become possible was to offer bespoke training which was subject specific and linked to contemporary women’s writing. One of the things I sensed, just by meeting these young women, was their entrepreneurialism, and, in part, that did come through digital innovation. People like Nadine Muller and others had effectively branded themselves in a way that was really exciting. I was continually meeting young women who were really savvy and interesting, and I wanted to try and harness that. It wasn’t that I didn’t think these women already had vocational skills, as one thing that makes me really cross is the assumption that people working in the Art and Humanities don’t have employable skills, when actually the opposite is the case. When somebody asks me ‘What can one do with an English literature degree?’ my answer is ‘Absolutely everything’, because of the huge number of skills people in our discipline have in abundance. Instead, what I wanted to do was to really encourage the participants on that programme to communicate confidently their innate ability to perform those skills. We weren’t actually giving them anything they didn’t have already, it was about encouraging them to confidently walk into an interview situation or conference and think ‘Okay, I’ve got the skills for this, here’s what I’m going to give.’
We made it very experience-based, and actually because between the lot of us (Clare Hanson, Susan Watkins, Gina Wisker, Nadine Muller, Fiona Tolan and myself) collectively we’d had so much experience and had made so many contacts over the years, it was really easy just to pull all that together into six workshops. The participants got such a lot out of it and were so positive about it; they bonded as a cohort and networked amongst themselves. At one point Susan Watkins turned to me and said ‘What we’ve got in this room is the next generation of contemporary women’s writing academics,’ and that was really exciting. It is undoubtedly one of the things I am most proud of in my career.
To now end it on a simple question, do you have any top tips for students specialising in CWW today?
Remain committed to women’s issues, don’t ever lose sight of them. Remain committed to other women. Help other women. Don’t be frightened to help each other. This is a tough profession: there is always a sense of being in competition with other scholars, but, actually, the researchers that I’ve worked with and most admire, the researchers I continue to learn most from, are those who have integrity; who aren’t frightened to share and who recognise that we are all fighting the same battles. Stick together.