Where Was My Hero’s Journey?, My Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl?
Janet Fitch on Finding a Real Coming-of-Age Tale
When I was a teen, I remember poring through Jung, Freud, and Joseph Campbell, through Joyce and Miller and Kerouac, hoping to find myself on their famous pages. But where was my hero’s journey? Where was my Odyssey, my Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl?
It seemed that women were supposed to grow like plants, without struggle or consciousness, rest-stops on the hero’s voyage. For me, there would be no quest, no dark night of the soul. The fundamental questions, Who am I? What is truth? What is worth believing in? weren’t questions I was expected to struggle with. Biology would be my destiny, take it or leave it, and to hell with my moral psychology, my gaining of wisdom.
So my passage into womanhood was haphazard, poorly armed, at best disrespected, at worst invisible—and my fight was always against invisibility. I preferred to be thrown out of a classroom than be ignored.
In junior high, that lowest of Dantean circles, a substitute teacher once challenged us to name a single major woman writer. And I remember my rage and shame that I could not think of a single one. At the time, I’d not heard of Virginia Woolf, nor had the resources to think of the Brontës.
But a girl in front of me raised her hand. “What about Anais Nin?”
The man was bested. He changed the subject.
I immediately shot her a note. Who is Anais Nin?
You’ve got to read her, she’s the best, she wrote back.
I begged my parents to take me to the bookstore, where I paid my own hard-earned cash for a boxed set of the Diaries. I was drawn to the strange luminous face on the front, unlike any other woman—stylized and mysterious.
In those pages, I found a woman wrestling with problems not unlike my own, not only how to be a woman in the world where women were only of physical interest, but what it was to see the world through a female consciousness—pen in hand. A woman who dared to see herself as primary, active, not object, but subject. A woman with unshakable confidence that her view of the world mattered, that her psychology and moral development were every bit as vital as that of men—and if not to culture at large, then to herself.
No wonder when I decided to become a writer, Anais Nin was the writer I imagined.
It’s been two decades since I published my novel White Oleander. Two decades since Ingrid Magnussen went to prison for murder, leaving her daughter Astrid to her first foster home and a perilous journey to womanhood. The way of girls becoming women, the development of female moral choice and individuation, is the red thread that winds throughout my work from that time to this.
In the early pages of my third novel, The Revolution of Marina M., my young poet protagonist Marina Makarova expresses her exasperation with her father’s fury at her burgeoning sexuality: “Why was it that everybody wanted a boy to hurry up and become a man, but nobody wanted a girl to become a woman?”
Nobody warns a girl that her independence will be a threat to a patriarchal culture where body is destiny, and the only lesson a girl needs to know is how to fit in. When a girl acts on her own recognizance, without permission of the gatekeepers, the old lie is exposed—that biology is not destiny, that women do not by instinct know what to do, no searching required. Society’s hostility to a girl crossing into the generational battlefield known as “coming of age,” comes as shock. Suddenly walls go up, punishments and talking-tos burgeon. It’s especially shocking to confident girls like Marina, warmly encouraged when young, but reproved and hemmed in as they move towards womanhood.
This is where moral development takes place, in that transfer of power from family to self. A girl will triumph only if she feels it’s a noble fight, that she matters, that her decisions matter—to herself and to society.
Unlike Marina’s father who meets her sexual coming of age with fury, in White Oleander, Ingrid Magnussen writes to her daughter from prison after she’s slept with a man in her first foster home, saying “A woman’s mistakes are different from a girl’s. They are a trait and not an error.” She’s telling her daughter that her decisions matter. Whatever you think of Ingrid, she believes in a woman’s agency. Subject, not object. Her one slip, becoming conventional, violates her own nature and code of ethics, enraging her to the point of murder.Finding the true self, asking the fundamental questions, being at agency, is a noble venture, and worth the pain of growth.
My complex antagonist’s brand of integrity struck home with readers in a way I could never have imagined. Tattoos with her sayings are regularly inked onto readers. However far-out her pronouncements, generations of readers have drawn strength from Ingrid’s absolute sense of her own primacy.
White Oleander was my answer to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Unlike Stephen Dedalus, Astrid is not so egotistical as to think she will forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. But she has survived her journey nobly, her battle-scarred dignity that of the true hero. She knows herself deeply, and has emerged with gifts, and her journey is worth honoring.
When I see women who’ve somehow avoided the confrontation with the big questions, and opted instead for the safety of plant-like development, they never seem like adults to me. It’s like they’ve missed their chances to take their place at the table as full voting members of the human race, thinking that there’s safety in forever remaining like children. That the work of individuation, of finding the true self, of asking the fundamental questions, of being at agency, is a noble venture, and worth the pain of growth, is a central theme in all my books.
Like Astrid, I was an anxious girl, lonely and blown around by the wind, plagued by self-doubt. When you have no guidance, no one to trust, you’re afraid that any choice you make is going to topple you off the bridge into the hell you’ve been told life is. Which path will take me in the right direction? Which will drop me off a cliff? Who to listen to? Who to trust?
Marina, first in the The Revolution of Marina M. and then in Chimes of a Los Cathedral, was a new kind of protagonist for me, a confident girl with a passionate nature, a person not looking for anyone to validate her or guide her or save her or complete her. She’s adventurous and extroverted in a way I would have killed to be at that age. Or any age. Like a joyful Ingrid, Marina considers power and agency her right, and in turn will suffer the heavy consequence reserved for the confident but inexperienced voyager.
Were that not enough, her coming of age is complicated by her historical moment—the Russian Revolution. She is a revolution within a revolution.
I came of age in the early seventies, a time of tremendous social upheaval in America. Political questions were part of my young life: What is a just society? How can it be achieved? Is society any better than the condition of its poorest members? Is the personal political? I recall the intensity of the historical moment, the exhilaration and the chaos as I tried to make sense of myself and the times.
How much more exhilarating and chaotic it was for young Marina who becomes a woman and poet in the midst of a revolution!
The idea of writing about the Revolution and my young poet’s coming of age within it frankly terrified me. I would have to expand from following one character’s personal journey to creating a rapidly changing, historically accurate world within which she would struggle and evolve. When I wrote White Oleander, I could handle about two people at a time, maybe three. I can tell you this—I could not have written Marina’s story any earlier.
I sometimes think of her epic as my coming of age as a writer.
While Astrid’s quest was a quest for safety, a place where she could heal from her traumas, feel loved, and find a firm moral place on which to stand, Marina is much more a part of the world—she feels the effects of history, she fights for a place on the wider stage. She is ambitious and feels herself worthy of participating in the life of her times.
Most importantly, and differently from Astrid—and myself—Marina accepts her own nature. In this she’s very much in accord with Russian culture, which values self-acceptance even to the point of fatalism. In Russia, the individual who embraces his or her essential nature is heroic, and the one who struggles against it is a fool. Marina’s battle is to find what she believes, to decide for herself what is most important in human existence. Her salvation is that she accepts who she is. One could say the crime in that coming of age novel Crime and Punishment is Raskolnikov’s failure to understand himself, and choosing a personal philosophy at odds with his own nature.
A revolutionary time, with its -isms and schisms, is the perfect field for evolution, as Marina struggles with questions like, Who am I? and What am I willing to sacrifice to be who I truly am? What am I willing to fight for? When does one stop believing in an ideal and admit that what you believed in is not what is actually happening? These are elements in this young heroine’s moral coming of age.
In researching this story, I found a beautiful Russian legend concerning the Invisible City of Kitezh. The story has it that Kitzh was a shining city built without walls on the banks of Lake Svetloyar. And so good was it that when it was attacked by the Great Khan, the entire city sank, intact, beneath the waves. But if you were faithful, upon the midnight you could still hear the chimes of its lost cathedral ringing out from beneath the waters.
To me, the chimes are such a beautiful symbol of the soul’s survival, despite all the losses and external attacks. That it remains possible to hear the voice of the deepest self. At times, all of us have felt so damaged, so compromised by life we can’t hear it anymore, we fear it has been utterly crushed. But then the sound of the chimes breaks through, telling us no, the self we have fought for still lives within us.
I never tire of the story of a young woman’s winding journey to adulthood. I admire her endurance, fear for her, honor her woundedness, celebrate with her and mourn with her, waiting for the moment she arrives, seasoned, scarred but ultimately unbroken, into possession of her own life.
Janet Fitch’s Chimes of a Lost Cathedral is now available from Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2019 by Janet Fitch.