Interview with Harvard Teaching Fellow Katie B. Kohn on Feminism and Creative Writing
Updated: Sep 4, 2019
Ayesha Khan | Cambridge, Massachusetts
During my time at Harvard University this summer, I was lucky enough to have an amazing teacher who was extremely passionate about creative writing and feminism. I had the chance to sit down with Katie, a PhD student and teacher at Harvard, and ask her a series of questions about her experience at Harvard, her journey in writing, and her take on feminism:
1. Tell me about yourself
When I came to Harvard for a PhD program in Film & Visual Studies, it was with a background in philosophy and cinema studies six years, four countries, and two degrees in the making.
My only background in writing was the screen and playwriting I'd done as an undergrad at NYU... I knew I wanted to keep working on some projects I cared deeply about, but I was too scared to transition from script writing to prose, and anyway, I had other "safer" options ahead of me, like the doctoral program...
In that time, I learned a few important things: I love teaching, I don't love academia, and the passion I had for my stories had become stronger than any fear I had about telling them. So I started writing fiction and eventually, teaching it. These days, I am not working towards a career in academia, though I can't ever imagine giving up teaching...Right now, I'm just editing a manuscript so a very supportive literary agent and I can make that happen!
2. What’s the best part about being a writer and a student in writing?
Sleeping in? Being able to say Candy Crush and crossword puzzles are "part of my process"? That might sound silly, but I'm serious! The worst thing about writing is...the writing part. If I could snap my fingers and get my vision on the page, I would! I have no shame about that. But as grueling as the writing itself may be, it is a privilege to be able to prioritize any kind of creative work, and not just because it often means investing something you believe in. Having flexible hours and working from home is beyond priceless.
3. Diversity and feminism are obviously very relevant topics in the US and around the world. Do issues relating to these topics affect your writing?
A lot of the my work--both fiction and non--comes from a place of feminist interest and inquiry. My master's thesis was on feminist film criticism and "feminine" genres like rom coms and "chick flicks" and the last few years I've curated film series for the women's history library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced study. Not all of my academic work deals so directly with gender studies, and neither do all of my fiction projects. However, the manuscript I am currently editing is an explicitly feminist adventure. There's actually only one character in it who is a boy, and he disappears very early on!
4. Does the way women are portrayed in literature/popular culture bother you?
Yes and no! I do have some really persistent pet peeves about the way female characters are represented in contemporary popular culture, particularly in stories driven largely by nostalgia like "Stranger Things." I'm pretty cynical about the ways male writers restore problematic old tropes to contemporary stories, particularly when they try to repackage them as progressive or even "feminist" storylines.
Generally, however, I feel like the last two decades have been a remarkable time for female characters in popular narrative culture, from literature to film, comic books, and TV.
For female authors, filmmakers, and artists too. In particular, I love that every year seems to include more and more stories featuring female protagonists and especially "anti-heroes." It's hard to make sweeping claims, but generally speaking there have been times when flawed, unstable, or even unlikeable female characters have not been so welcome in popular culture.
Female characters can tend to follow the "fairy tale" model, with women and girls represented as either wholly virtuous or outright villains...Today's "Disney princesses" might be spunky, quirky, adventurous, or "headstrong"...but they are still opposed to villains and foils whose flaws are clearly coded as feminine. From the fawning peasant girls who faint at the sight of Gaston to Ariel's small-minded sisters, contemporary fantasies don't just give us "bad women" in figures like the vainglorious and vengeful Ursula, they also paint a clear picture of what it means to be a "good" or "bad" girl. So what does it mean if we say that "good" girls are tomboyish, curious, adventurous, and stubborn while "bad" girls are--well--girly?
What I think we are seeing today is far extra exciting, even amongst Disney Princesses. I was really shocked and impressed with Frozen came out, not because it featured a "Disney Princess" with no romantic story line, but because both of its female protagonists were allowed to be imperfect, interesting, realistic, and capable without also throwing "girlishness" or femininity under the bus...The book series I'm working on now very much aspires to contribute more morally complex anti-heroines to the world.
Overall, I think a major misunderstanding to think that for a work to be "feminist," it needs to feature female characters who are "strong" in the sense of stoic, proactive, or strictly heroic...When I think of "feminist" stories, I simply think of narratives that tap into or directly address issues that resonate with (and are often produced by) women and girls in ways that attentively commit to their interests, fantasies, and concerns...
All stories are born out of characters facing compelling conflicts; for me, a "feminist" story is simply a story which authentically privileges and prioritizes the conflicts that currently concern women and girls, including trans women and girls.
5. What advice do you have for women who want to write for a living?
I think most people will tell you that if you want to write for a living, the best advice is simply: write. Whenever you can, about whatever excites you, without ever giving up. Neil Gaiman calls this "walking towards the mountain." If you just keep walking towards the mountain, eventually, you'll reach the mountain.
Another phrase I like to share with my students--predominantly women--is from Stephenie Meyer, author of the "Twilight" saga. She describes the day she woke up from a very intense and fascinating dream. She began writing that day not because she knew what it would become or even who might want to read it, but simply because she "didn't want to lose the dream." Every reason I write and teach fiction today is because I have had these experiences--not dreams, exactly--but stories that seem to come out of nowhere that I simply cannot forget, that I refuse to lose.
I like to share this sentiment with aspiring writers--women and girls, in particular--for a couple of reasons. First, I think there is this idea that you're not a "real" writer if you are passionate about something other than award-winning literary fiction. Meyer isn't about to win any prestigious literary prizes for her work, but she commits to what she's passionate about and her stories resonate with and entertain many people, especially women. Personally, that's all I ever hope to do: to realize some stories I care about and share them with other people who might care about them too.
Second, I like to share this anecdote because figures like Meyer are fairly common in the history of English language fiction. Every generation seems to have it's breakout novel--the one that is on everyone's shelf, that gets made into highly anticipated movies, that is described as "a phenomenon"--and its writers (and readers!) very often tend to be women. Before Stephenie Meyer and "Twilight," there was, of course, J.K. Rowling, but keep going back and you'll find so many others..many of the authors of some of our most beloved or exciting fiction started out with passion for a story and the commitment to see it through. They weren't "professional" authors when they first put pen to paper; they were mothers, sisters, memoirists, fantasists, dreamers, and they had stories they didn't want to give up.
6. Advice for women during ‘divisive’ times?
Oh man, are we living in divisive times? I'm not sure if I would describe the moment we're in now as any more or less divided than other moments in history. If it seems like we are, perhaps it's because, as individuals, we have more communication platforms than ever before and these platforms have the potential to be far reaching--even global.
It might seem like we are hearing about a lot more conflict than other times in history, but perhaps it's a good thing that we have so many more opportunities, not to just to be a voice, but also to listen. In democracies--or at least here in the U.S, we talk a lot about the importance of "sharing your voice" or "having your voice be heard'.
In writing, we talk about "finding your voice." I don't disagree, but just as writers have to read and appreciate the work of others, I think it's equally important for folks in democracies to become better listeners. To become "literate" about the things we hear on any given day, from "fake news" to the real experiences that inform our values and views.
That said, I do think it's worth knowing when to draw the line and not waste your energy trying to communicate with someone who has no interest in listening to you; if it isn't mutual, accept that you did your best and move on. Women, in every part of the world, I think, and especially women of color, already bear a lot of weight when it comes to being the listening party.
7. If you could recommend any 3 books, what would they be?
As my students know, I think E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" is a perfect a novel, worth reading again and again no matter how old you happen to be! But I do like to recommend some of my favorite authors whose work remains tragically under-read:
1) Anything by Megan Abbott. She's best known for "The Fever" and "Dare Me," both noirish thrillers about the secret lives of teenage girls, but my favorite is probably her true-crime inspired novel, "Bury Me Deep." Warning: all of Abbott's books, while wonderful, are quite dark and, at times, very violent! Also, while Abbott often writes about teen girl culture, none of these novels are "YA." For that, I recommend the work of the phenomenal YA authors Nova Ren Suma or Courtney Summers, who both write about the dark underside of teen girlhood.
2) I just read Robert MacFarlane's latest non-fiction work, "Underland," and I cannot overstate how marvelous it is. I've always really loved folks like Barbara Kingsolver, whose non-fiction blurs the line between nature writing, fantasy prose, and the personal essay. Reading authors like these help me see the world through new eyes.
3) And finally, my favorite author--alive or dead--is probably Michel Faber, His best known work is the epic, "The Crimson Petal and the White," but he has also written some truly phenomenal short stories. I teach one of my favorites, "Fish," in my writing classes, and his first novel, "Under the Skin," is currently my favorite novel. I love a lot of things about Faber, but what impresses me most--and what my students never fail to note--is how different his work can be from one book to the next.