Literature and the feminine genius

“Running Out of Time” by Margaret Peterson Haddix was one of those books that so captivated me in elementary school that it became the standard bearer by which my young mind evaluated other novels. It’s about a young girl named Jessie who lives with her family in a secluded village that’s actually a replica of an earlier time period. All the parents in the village had formed a pact to keep the nature of the outside world a secret from their children. But when Jessie’s sister becomes sick and outdated medicine proves useless, her panicked mother entrusts Jessie with the village’s secret and the mission to retrieve modern medicine without getting caught.

I remember how I just had to read the whole novel in one sitting. I needed to know what happened next. I was entranced by Jessie and her bravery, and I started to intentionally reflect — and sometimes daydream — about ways that I could be braver for those I loved and whether I would have enough courage to do what was necessary if I had to do something incredibly dangerous. The story awakened in me a desire I didn’t know existed.

I consider good literature to be incarnational. In much the same way that God revealed more to us about his nature through the flesh and bone person of Jesus Christ, literature has the ability to reveal more to us about our own human nature. As the microscope is to science, literature is to the human soul. What do we feel; and why do we feel what we feel when we feel it? People will forever use the art of storytelling to probe those depths and discover deeper depths yet unexplored.

In the Incarnation, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Shepherds and kings alike came to behold the face of God. The God who had yet to be seen or touched was now on display in a manger — arms reaching out to the world, awakening us to God’s great love. The power of literature is to take the parts of our own selves that are unknown to us and make it known. A masterful writer can bend words to awaken the deepest layers of the human heart, where there is a longing for love and a determination to make a gift of self.

While gifted men and women are both capable of writing in ways that stir us, women’s voices contain a specific and necessary perspective. Edith Stein said, “The world doesn’t need what women have, it needs what women are.” The greatest gift a woman can bring to her writing is that of her feminine genius. And in literature, that often means intuitively telling a story in a way that moves beyond establishing relationships as mechanisms to serve an external function, and into the nature of relationship as the heart of the story itself. According to Edith Stein, the task of a woman is to make her heart a home, and this is especially prescient for women writers. More attention tends to be paid to the complexity of relationships, and the emotions behind them, than relationship as merely functional servants of plot. In this way, women are especially talented at drawing us into the depths of the human heart. Born out of love itself, our hearts were made for an everlasting union with God. The core of our nature is defined by relationship; and made for relationship.

There is much more work to be done when it comes to imagining the entirety of the feminine genius, and thus many more reasons that women’s voices are important in the creative realm. But if the power of literature is to make known the deepest desires of our hearts, then the empathetic and relational insights of women writers are precisely what will awaken in us our own relational longings for God.

Amy’s recommendations

1. Book: “In this House of Brede” by Rumer Godden explores life in a monastery, and how community can often be a catalyst for forgiveness and healing to the deepest parts of our lives.

2. Short Story: “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” by Flannery O’Connor compares the feelings that arose for a young woman while attending a freak show to her experience with the Eucharist.

3. Poem: “Delay” by Elizabeth Jennings is a beautiful poem on desire and longing itself.

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