If you have a little time this evening, check out Vanessa Veselka's "Green Screen: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why It Matters." Veselka begins with a story-within-a-story, narrating her own investigation into a serial killer, years after she'd had a close encounter with a killer while hitchhiking herself. She then weaves through big poles of historical and contemporary literary imagination of "the road," teasing out the absence of women in narratives of quest, travel, and wandering. In essence, she argues that "narrative poverty" is part of the reason that women out on the road are consigned to violence:
I am not saying that rape and violence aren’t the predominant experiences of female hitchhikers; rather, I’m saying that our cultural imagination plays a role in why it is the predominant experience. Without other narratives to inflect the ones we already possess, our relationship to the woman stranger we meet on the road is forestalled. We turn away. We don’t want to see. We sanction this invisibility, because her visibility forces a choice: whether or not to save her. Left with the pressure to rescue or run, it’s just easier not to see. This is the exact place where narrative poverty renders women on the road socially invisible.
She then turns to an exploration of the idea of "woman fallen by the wayside," playing with the idea that women traveling alone are colored by the same social holdovers that make a woman "fallen" if she is a sexual being, interspersing with personal stories at times. After the last of these stories, she concludes:
This is a fine story. It’s a true story. It has extremely pathetic moments, fantasy, unrealistic expectations—everything. But if I tried to write it, I would be asked to explain so many things that the story would never get off the ground. Why I was out there in the first place? Why was Goldenberry out there? What drove us to the road? Why couldn’t we go back? What were we running from? This is what it means to have no narrative outside of victimization and violence: it means wasting time constructing your moral right to tell a story in the first place, it means watching it get choked in the crib…
If we have a shot it’s going to be because we stopped asking permission and just started in the middle.
I liked this essay — the attempt to both construct and deconstruct something, the quirky lyrical bits. But I am most interested in the broad theme to which Veselka returns over and over — the fact that a woman traveling independently in the world must always be framed by the idea of violence.
I listen to the stories of my guy friends about hitchhiking various places, or going out the door to see where they could get to, and usually, it simply doesn't seem possible for me. That is, I can imagine being them and doing it solo, but not me. I've always chalked this up to basic prudence. But I like this essay for making me consider, in a broader way, why I have trouble imagining that for myself, and what the implications of that imaginative blankness are. The fact is, the narratives that we accept — in the newspaper, on the screen, on the shelf — have real-world implications and consequences. When Veselka writes of her own "invisibility" as a female traveler, she chalks it up to the fact that we can't imagine a situation in which a female hitchhiker is not imperiled. And if the female hitchhiker is imperiled, we have to either act as saviors or turn away, and turning away is easier — and so she becomes invisible. Writ large, that entrenched narrative of peril helps to endanger the hitchhiker by making her unseen. "A man on the road is solitary. A woman on the road is alone," she observes.
As much as this is depressing, it's an affirmation that stories have generative and transformative power. The essay ends with a call for new narratives, which I think is fantastic and much-needed.
What do you guys think? It seems to be a given that we lack "female narratives of ___" across the board these days, but I think this is a compelling, and interesting, argument for journey narratives told from women's perspectives. I also wonder if any of you guys have considered, specifically, the lack of journey/wandering/quest stories with female narrators or main characters. Veselka's nod to On the Road felt very on point to me — the immediate youngblood connection with the idea of Sal Paradise, followed nearly immediately with the understanding that you will not be allowed to be Sal Paradise — that you are locked out of that narrative.
As an aside, Jesus' Son comes up in the essay, and it's funny that I get to mention it twice today. It's an incredible book, this essay's wry "even Fuckhead [the narrator of JS] gets a story" line aside. Everyone should read.
Image source here.