In Abi Andrews’s book The Word for Woman Is Wilderness, nineteen-year-old Erin travels solo through Iceland, Greenland, and across Canada. Erin is smart and funny and—like many smart and funny nineteen-year-old women—angry that majority white masc society wants to prevent her from taking this trip as a free individual who wants to look, not to own or tame. Who wants to heal and gather, not to kill or hunt. Erin’s story’s shape forms through personal narrative, scientifically proven fact, different kinds of maps, loneliness, sex, plants, and blood, as well as the documentary she is making about it all. I read The Word for Woman Is Wilderness in three big gulps at coffeeshops and my corner bar, then asked Abi some questions over email.
MAIREAD CASE: How did The Word for Woman Is Wilderness start?
ABI ANDREWS: It was the premise of her trip that started things. I was watching Into the Wild, the Chris McCandless biopic, while I was in my final year of uni. I was watching it with two friends and a hangover, which made me particularly susceptible.
It wrecked me—I thought it was the most potent thing. I so badly wanted to do the same thing, but it struck me straight away that if you change the protagonist of a quest like that to a woman, it would be a completely different story. There are many tales of male runaways, of men who leave their lives and families because there is little societal expectation that they stay put. So then I wanted to do it, and make a documentary while doing it—at looking at how and why it would be different. But I didn’t have the funds and I still had to finish uni.
I took a creative writing at uni, and my work was going nowhere. I realised it was because I was too focused on style, and that I wasn’t writing about anything that I actually cared about. Then I thought, what if I just write this trip? I thought about all the books I’d loved growing up and decided I wanted to try to write something that was a bildungsroman, but for young women. But as it went on, it became more of a-“look at what coming-of-age as a young woman means right now”—that’s where it started to pull away from my original intention.
The more I read and thought about it, the more I wanted to engage with the question of why we lack coming-of-age stories for young women that centre on wilderness and outdoors and adventure. If a bildungsroman is a quest for self, is the implication that women can’t have an “authentic” self? It’s not even that women aren’t in outdoor spaces—we know they are. It’s that the literature that surrounds it is lacking—the stories and the way we frame them. There’s plenty transcendental, canonical literature by men, plenty of bildungsroman about boys, and then for us there’s Cheryl Strayed books Wild, which is almost framed as self-help rather than humanity-at-large.
I suppose I ended up posing it more as a question than just putting the story I thought was missing out there. I wanted to draw attention to the lack. I don’t see the finished thing as a YA book at all, but Erin more of a YA character who asks the reader to dissemble these themes and sit with them for a while.
I think about the texts that haunt The Word for Woman Is Wilderness. Its “ghost books,” as Maggie Nelson calls them, would be Silent Spring by Rachel Carson; some Le Guin, especially The Word for World is Forest; and there was a pamphlet I read while researching called The Word for World is Still Forest [Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin, eds.], which was influential. I’d like to see Donna Haraway’s Situated Knowledges essay up there. I had lots of Bjork playing while writing the Iceland sections. Also, I watched the recoloured film of Shackleton’s journey to Antarctica, which is in the British Film Councils archives and always simmers up in my mind for its sheer uncanniness when I think about the Antarctic and the Arctic, then and now. Also a gang of female adventurers: Nan Shepard, Anne le Bastille. And a fat tome on ecofeminism.
I’m not sure I have an ideal reader. I’m greedy. I want everyone to read it. There would of course be the young woman who might take something personal away from the book, and she’s the most important, but I’m also keen to challenge middle-aged, white male explorers. Using “woman” in the title was meant as a provocation, and I hope it invites more and more men to read it too. I’d like to think anyone might think a little differently about our relationship to the other-than-human world, and especially how we imagine women’s relationship to the other-than-human world, afterwards, even if in a small way.
MC: You’re from the Midlands, and so is Erin. What’s your experience with the American Wild?
AA: While writing the book I had never been to the US apart from a family holiday to Disneyland, Florida. We don’t have many (if any) spaces in the UK that could be described as “wilderness,” and certainly not in the Midlands, which is pretty flat and post-industrial. But we share a lot of cultural traditions with the US, and speaking as a literature student, a great many of the books that we study are American. We consume a lot of American adventure stories here, or I found I always did anyway. My favourite were always narratives of pets who get lost and survive some wilderness, then return to their cosy suburban homes. We also have a well-versed tradition tied up in our colonialism: man goes to foreign country and has adventure in the jungle/ in the desert/ on the mountain, etc. Lots of those.
I avoided writing about somewhere from experience on purpose. I might be accused of being inauthentic. But I was concerned with a particular vein of travel writing: this masculine tradition of writing as conquest, and I really, really wanted to avoid that in the most literal way. I didn’t want to write about somewhere I’d ever been before—to trap it in that way. I was more thinking around the ideas we have of places, rather than the places themselves. The stories that we tell ourselves about them. What is the Alaskan imaginary? So I read a lot about Alaska and the other places Erin goes. I watched a lot of documentaries and films.
When I finished writing the book, I took a trip to the west for a few months. I went to Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona. I didn’t stay in cities, I stayed in communes in very rural places, and I went on a road trip and did car camping, but I’ve never really done a trip like Erin’s. I’ve backpacked elsewhere, but never solo.
MC: I think parts of this book are really funny—not comedy superspecial funny, though. Funny because they’re true. Did you do that on purpose?
AA: I find a lot of what I was trying to say funny, and yes, I think it is because you have to laugh. Erin is a droll character. I found the best way to approach the things I wanted to bring up without coming across as overly preachy or scholarly was to use a teenage character who can be sharp but also naive, and who we can look upon with an element of distance. Which is also why I chose to write in the first person. She’s discovering all these things for the first time, and going along with her, we are made to reconsider them. Some of the things that the book touches on make me so mad, sad and angry, that the only way I felt I could approach them and still write something that people might enjoy reading, was to take this comedic step back. She needed to be deadpan and audacious, because you know what? The closer you look at patriarchy, the more you reveal its deep-rootedness, the more affronted you should become. And she has to be sardonic to balance what could perhaps become an overwhelmingly optimistic voice. I do hope it comes across as an optimistic book. And at the heart, I’m concerned with communicating the tenets and potential of eco-feminism to an audience who might not want to sit through academic texts. Eco-feminism 101, if you will. But I had to be balanced.
MC: I love this part: “I am finding It difficult to separate things that say something from things that do not. It is also hard to find things that say what I want them to,” says Erin. “I went over what I have so far and I can’t decide if I am saying what I set out to say, or if I am saying anything at all, or if I just have lots of records of my own sentiments. Unsure if the things themselves are saying things or if I am projecting this onto them, in the way that there are feelings evoked when you look at a postcard image you are very fond of; these might not translate when you show the postcard to someone else.” How did you think about plot? Or did you?
AA: I didn’t have to think much about plot at all, because I used the travelogue format; I could just expatiate, riffing off this chronology that was Erin gradually making her way to Alaska, which was very freeing. I lean a lot on Ursula Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction essay, where she dismantles the dick[-shaped plot] story. She puts forward Elizabeth Fisher’s evolutionary theory that the first tool was some sort of vestibule rather than a weapon, (as it is in the dominant story we tell ourselves about human history—think Stanley Kubrick’s ape-bone murder). In this reading, the human story is really the story of “The Ascent of Man the Hero,” which Le Guin says hid her humanity from her.
We need to change this story for feminism to be successful, right? We need to get rid of this idea that patriarchy is natural and inevitable. We should perhaps instead call early humans “gatherer-hunters,” to put the emphasis on what was really the most important form of food harvesting, and to stop encouraging the idea that human dominance is coded into us.
To do that we also need to look closely at language itself as a building block. For Le Guin, the novel should be a vestibule too—a basket for gathering. She said the novel doesn’t need a hero, should be instead a “medicine bundle” of things held in particular relation to one another, in the sense that things are gathered together that are good for healing. So the form of the book was very important to me; I wanted to try and write a yonic story. Erin realises after not too long that she is trying to emulate the hero-story, the one that “hides her humanity from her;” that really, she is reinforcing her half-ness because according to the hero-story, a woman is half a person. The rest of the book is about Erin trying to find a story that encompasses her in it, and in storying by herself (by making the documentary), she is trying to find a way to be a gatherer rather than a hunter.
MC: Chill question alert: how do you think about loneliness, as a writer or person?
AA: Maybe you can be a writer and be lonely, but you are never alone. When we write we speak to others, and with others, a whole line of other writers to who we are connected like a daisy chain. I think feminist writing makes a point of this. I think citation is important, and acknowledging where you are weaving the ideas of others with your own. No one says anything original. No man is an island. And that relates to the question of solitude in the book. How alone were they really, Thoreau and Emerson? They were writing, and language sews us into the human family. I think solitude is having time for yourself. If you can go somewhere peaceful and quiet, great! But this idea of solitude as being cut off from human civilisation is limited. You are always in relation to civilisation, as you are always in relation to its polar “nature.”
Solitude has intention in it—it is claimed distance, whereas loneliness is something that happens to us. We don’t choose it. I think there is a gendered difference between loneliness and solitude. Women without company are considered lonely and incomplete: women in bars, single women, childless women. A woman on her own is often seen as an invitation. I think this has to do with the agency that we don’t allow to women.
But masculine solitude eschews responsibility, and I think this is compounded by colonialism and climate change. It’s all very well and good, going on a lone hike, but what are you doing to build community? What responsibility comes with your relative privilege—the privilege that your hike is recreational rather than a desert border crossing, for example? Or that you don’t have a fear of the woods because that’s where the kidnappers hide (a thought men might sit with in relation to women)? We need to value communitism, not individualism, if we are to mitigate the worst of the climate catastrophe.
MC: What are some of the support systems you had to write this book?
AA: Support system-wise I have had a few good friends whose hospitality helped me to write this book, and I have been so lucky to have had mentors from early on. I think the book came at a time of transition for me—away from wanting solitude and towards realising how important community is. I think I wrote the book so that I don’t have to go to Alaska and die in a cabin to be a full person. I think the most important thing is to build resilient communities now.
MC: How do you support yourself?
AA: For the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time wwoofing, which for those who don’t know is work-exchange on organic farms and smallholdings where you work for food and board. This way I get to learn lots about different ways of living sustainably off-grid. It’s great, because it’s free and lets me live on very little. I have time to write, I get to always be learning, and I love being involved in growing food.
It’s a blessing to be in places like that because they are usually rural, which means that at other times I can sit in the trees or go for a walk or run in the forest, which is what I can do right now. We can drive to the national parks here, sleep overnight, and get up early to go walking. I’m very lucky!
I try to also be regularly involved in some kind of “activism” as well, if I can tentatively call it that. Not to get all savioristic, but just to balance the bucolic vision I’ve laid out above! And of course I do money jobs when I need to.
MC: What feels wild and free to you right now?
AA: Where I am now (next to a rainforest in eastern Australia) there is a flying-fox who visits the Banksia tree at around the same time some evenings, outside the window of where I sit at my computer. I’m not sure it’s the same bat every time, but I like to think it is. Specifically, the small stand of trees outside that window—they are re-wilded really, the land was a banana plantation for a long time and they have grown since. The Powder Puff is a flowering tree that has these bright pink pom-pom flowers, and I was so surprised to find out its a non-native species because it seems so perfectly fitted to the Scarlet Honey-Eaters, who are tiny like hummingbirds, with a bright red hood, and come to feed on it! The trees attract so much that lives in the forest into my line of sight.
Wilderness is freedom, in the Thoreuvian sense that it’s land left to be self-willed. But this is a false promise. There is a false dichotomy between what constitutes nature and what constitutes the human and civilisation. There is a freedom to being able to access a space unhindered, and I think that’s the feminist struggle on wilderness, is intersectional access.
In terms of feeling free in wilderness personally—it’s weird that I’ve been to a few different landscapes and places that could be described as wild, and actually felt anxious in some and totally wonderful in others. And I don’t always know where that comes from. Some of it is probably just projection from your own current state of mind and some is certainly tied to colonialism—it’s harder to enjoy freedom where is it more apparent that yours is predicated on someone else’s oppression. But I feel like whenever I’ve been in the tropics, I’ve felt really out of place. I’ve been amazed and overwhelmed, but it hasn’t felt like a homecoming. And just recently I went to the jungle and was like, wow everything is so angry, I don’t feel welcome. As astounded as I am that I’m here, I definitely feel like a visitor. Which in itself is perhaps the ultimate “freedom,” and yet it feels in some ways alienating?
When I’m anywhere with big coniferous trees and mountains, I feel like I’m tapping into something old in me that’s older than me. When you tap into that feeling in a place that feels wild, or has some semblance so that you can trick yourself into thinking it might be, I guess it’s akin to freedom. I think this does have a lot to do with our cultural heritage, the attraction to taiga forests and temperate climate. I can see how I’ve been trained to feel more at home in these places because of my European cultural heritage. And I’m very aware of the easy tip into blood-and-soil rhetoric—we have to be very careful about this—I want to emphasise the constructed-ness of it.
I think it’s important to note that freedom is always so tied up with colonialism, and I have to cringe at the privilege entailed in all I said above; that I can pick and choose from landscapes like a buffet! And how our experience of the outdoors is differentiated by sociopolitical circumstances. We can enjoy our forests because borders export the war and poverty that would make them unsafe or make leisure time impossible for us.
We might ask what does it feel like being able to walk in the woods as a white man. But likewise, to a lesser degree, what does it feel like to walk in the forest, and especially in someone else’s forest, as a white woman, with a lesser degree of anxiety than others? I’m not saying we shouldn’t be allowing ourselves to feel free. We absolutely should value and exercise our freedoms precisely because there are people who don’t have them. I think you need to feel it and cherish it and then let that feeling make you want to strive to make sure more people get to feel it.
MC: What advice would you give your 18 year-old self? Or an 18 year-old femme like you?
AA: Go wwoofing. Go walking alone. Travel alone. Stop reading almost only books by men. Read feminists, especially ecofeminists. Read more by people who aren’t like you. It’s good to be soft and kind.
Abi Andrews is a writer from the UK midlands. She studied at Goldsmiths college, and her work has been published in Five Dials, Caught by the River, The Clearing, The Dark Mountain Project, Tender and other journals, along with a pamphlet published with Goldsmiths Shorts.
Her debut novel The Word for Woman is Wilderness was published by Serpent’s Tail in February 2018, in the US with Two Dollar Radio in 2019, and will be translated into German, French, Spanish and Italian. She is working on her second novel.
Featured Image Credit: Abi Andrews.