Book Review: Daisy & Woolf, Michelle Cahill

daisy and wool invites reflection on the relationships between writers and canonical texts, between women writers and their literary ancestors, and most importantly, between women writers of color and white literary feminist role models.

In their influential book on the 19ethe feminine writing of the -century, The madwoman of the attic, published in 1979, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar critique Harold Bloom’s approach to literary genealogy. Bloom claims that a writer experiences what he calls “influence anxiety,” or the fear of not being able to free their creation from the works of previous writers. He argues that only through a battle against his literary predecessors can a writer justify the validity of his writing. Gilbert and Gubar describe Bloom’s approach as “intensely (if not exclusively) masculine, and necessarily patriarchal” because he frames the connection between writers as a battleground between fathers and sons through a Freudian lens.

Women writers have often been marginalized and erased from history, especially when Gilbert and Gubar published their book. Since only a few women figured in the literary canons, how does a female writer fit into this male model of literary genealogy? Gilbert and Gubar ask: “Does she want to annihilate an ‘ancestor’ or a ‘grandmother’? And if it finds no model, no precursor?1

In 2022, there have been more texts that pay tribute to Virginia Woolf and acknowledge her influence in both literature and feminism, including popular media articles with titles such as “Why Virginia Woolf Should Be Your Role Model feminist”. The dynamic is more complicated as we look at the relationship between women writers of color and white feminist literary forebears.

Michelle Cahill’s protagonist, a writer of mixed ancestry named Mina, admires Virginia Woolf as “a site of cultural experimentation and questioning, subverting the idea of ​​self, gender binary, and patriarchy.” The connections between women of color and white writers are nothing new, but they deserve a closer look. A recent novel by Michelle de Kretser, scary monstersalso features a smart brunette protagonist who sees Simone de Beauvoir as her ultimate feminist role model.

My own literary heroines grew to include black writer Toni Morrison, Latina feminist Gloria Anzaldua and Indonesian feminist Marianne Katoppo, but in my early twenties there was only one name: Mary Shelley.

Harold Bloom’s Oedipal model of influence anxiety, in which validity is achieved by going against literary predecessors, does not adequately represent feminist trajectory and genealogy. Women of color don’t need to cater to white literary figures to seek validation. I share Cahill’s questions implied in her novel: how do we engage with the colonial scholarship produced by the women writers we admire? How to honor their contribution while questioning what they erase?

daisy and wool is a critical yet playful dialogue between female writers of color – Mina the protagonist and Michelle Cahill the novelist – and Virginia Woolf, the admired writer and feminist who marginalized a woman of color, Daisy Simmons, in her novel. In Mrs Dalloway (1925), Daisy is the British-Indian love interest of Peter Walsh, a former lover of Clarissa Dalloway. Daisy’s character is just a skit, inconsequential, and described as “pretty and dark”. Mina tries to rebuild and resuscitate Daisy through her novel.

Highlight the experience of a woman of color excluded by a white author, daisy and wool has been compared to Wide Sargasso Sea by John Rhys. Wide Sargasso Sea, is a revision of Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre which gives voice to Bertha, the figure known simply as the Madwoman of the Attic. Rhys, like Daisy and Cahill, oscillated between different cultures and was continually subjected to unwanted curious stares due to her mixed background.

Read: Book review: Telltale, Carmel Bird

In daisy and woolnotes Mina, “Woolf defends white women, she argues brilliantly against their subjection in A room of one’s own and in Three Guineas, but she uses her genius to kill Daisy Simmons. Mina voices her criticism of Woolf — and she has every right to be angry — but she also ponders many difficult questions that reveal the complexity of the writers’ relationship.

She asks, “Am I with Virginia Woolf or am I against her? His repertoire of privilege-thrown choices is bound to surpass mine, and yet I think I’m more on his side. It’s ultimately not who I am but what I do as a writer that matters.

The question of taking sides, whether one is with our literary ancestors or against them, does not lead to a clear-cut answer. On the contrary, it opens the space for conversations around difference, power and exclusion.

Daisy’s story mirrors Mina’s in many ways, including her experience of loss, relationships, and travel. In Three Guineas Virginia Woolf writes: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I don’t want a country. As a woman, my country is the whole world. What does it mean to retrieve Woolf’s statements from the perspective of a brunette woman?

In Marguerite and Woolf, we are invited to discover rich and vivid details of clothing, food and customs in India, where Daisy lives as a young mother of two children, but the two Daisy and Mina are also cosmopolitan travelers. Daisy in 1924 travels by sea to Europe and takes notes on the places she visits along the way, and Mina in 2017 travels from Australia to England, India and China.

Daisy and Mina are global citizens who leave their mark as they navigate through borders, prejudice and racism, both subtle and overt. This can be seen, for example, in Daisy’s passport application experience. The interviewer measured her and concluded that her skin color was too dark.

Both Daisy and Mina are observant and flirtatious – though it’s not always easy for them to wander around in public places as they are racially and sexually marked. In Mrs DallowayDaisy has no thoughts of her own, but in daisy and wool, she observes cities and people while reflecting on her personal journey and her desires. She shares her thoughts through her writings: “My heart beat tenderly for all the poor people of this city; those who camp in makeshift dwellings along the railway line, especially the women, who work barefoot and wear the same showy sari”.

daisy and wool not only brings us stories of brave and intelligent women in an eloquent way; it also leaves questions for readers to think about our own trajectory of reading and influences. What relationship do we have with our reading and the authors we admire? How to face their inconsistencies and contradictions, what they ignore and erase? And since we honor them by responding to their work and doing something with it, what texts are we omitting? What voices do we not hear?

Daisy & Woolf by Michelle Cahill
Publisher: Hatchet
ISBN: 9780733645211
Release date: April 2022
MSRP: $32.99 / €14.99

Cited

1. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The madwoman of the attic: the woman The writer and the literary imagination of the 19th century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 22

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