There are better ways to start a post than with V.S. Naipaul, but few that give better context for my concerns on authorship and gender. Our names have a pleasing symmetry, with his “V.S.” and my “A.M.” His name, though, concludes with “-paul” — that archetypical church-father, that name shared by Beatles and Popes. My own name has the Finnish -la suffix, like power metal legend Tuomo Lassila‘s name. Like the suffix in Tuonela, the land of the dead, and the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland that tells of the land of heroes. It ends with an -a, which Romance languages have trained western readers to gender female.
In retrospect, it was inevitable that readers (and reviewers) would interpret “A.M. Tuomala” as a female person. Most readers, trained on Spanish and Italian and French, had no other linguistic context for the name. Perhaps an avid football aficionado might think of Jani Tuomala, or a Finn would recognize the name as his own or his neighbor’s, but otherwise, who would know? My grandmother used to tell me that people would pronounce her name almost correctly, although it was difficult to spell. “Except they’d pronounce it too-MA-la instead of TOO-ma-la, like it was a Spanish name.” It might be a modifier for a quarrelsome daughter: “hija tuomala,” that ill-behaved girlchild.
I write stories about women, too; I mustn’t forget that. Because only women write about women; men are interesting to everyone, but women are only interesting for women.
As a person who doesn’t identify as gendered, my deep uneasiness with this gendering of my author-self is partly personal. I see reviewers referring to “her writing,” and I experience a disconnect — “Who is she? What troublesome woman has made my writing her own?”
I have to acknowledge, though, that another part comes from the culture of sexism in which I live. It comes from the same place as V.S. Naipaul’s contemptuous pronouncement that no female writer in history could match him. It comes from the same place as Smurfette and all of her sisters, who must always be only women and never the helper or the fixer or the gutsy one or the engineer.
It comes from the place where my culture has always told me to stay, as in, “Stay in your place.”
Well, I’ll have none of that.
I can spend the rest of my life fighting for recognition of a genderqueer identity and not account it time ill-spent. I can fight to convince reviewers to call me sie or xie or zie, to speak of hir writing or zir writing, to create a space in their language for a gender that is neither male nor female but instead both or either or neither, and I would not account that time ill-spent. But if I choose those fights, I may inadvertently spend the rest of my life fighting against the recognition of a female identity, and I cannot brook that.
If A.M. Tuomala must be identified as a woman, I want her to be that troublesome woman, that ill-behaved girlchild. I want her to be a person in her own right, complex and difficult and impossible to condense into an archetype of femininity. Most of all, I want her to be a woman who makes myths of a place of heroes, who are men and women and neither.