Art and Literature

Seven questions with Artist-in-Residence Valerie Miner

There is no one way to “do” feminism, just as there is no one way to be a feminist. The fight for gender equality manifests in all walks of life—because gender inequality is historical, global, and systemic. At the Clayman Institute, we are very fortunate to have an artist-in-residence to show us how the arts contribute to our larger mission of gender equality and breaking barriers to women’s advancement.

Valerie Miner has been our artist-in-residence since 2006. She also teaches in the Stanford programs in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality and the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. The award-winning author of fourteen books translated into eight languages, her work has appeared in The Village Voice, Ploughshares, and Gettysburg Review, among many other journals. She has won numerous awards and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Fulbright Commission, the Bogliasco Foundation, MacDowell, and Yaddo, among other institutions.

Below is an interview with Miner in which she elaborates upon the critical importance of the arts to the feminist movement. Her inspirational call to art, you’ll see, mirrors that of the call to feminist activism and the fight for social justice in general.

Valerie, what does it mean to be an “artist-in-residence” at a gender research institute?

As artist-in-residence, I initiated and continue to organize and host arts programs at the Institute. I wanted to add the topic of arts to the larger conversation at the Clayman Institute. Most of my colleagues at the Institute are social scientists, STEM professors, humanities scholars, or administrators. History shows that often artists first envision the change feminist activists seek to bring about. I wanted to use my position to bring the arts, analysis, and social activism into closer dialogue.

How did you arrive at writing? Or, when did you realize that writing was the greatest way that you could make an impact in the world?

I’ve always regarded writing as a vocation more than a career. Vocation as in “calling,” as in “being summoned,” from the Latin vocare, which means “to call.” When I graduated from U.C. Berkeley, I was going to change the world. I was a young journalist fighting for civil rights. Eventually, I left this country in protest against the war in Southeast Asia. I moved from Canada to London and have spent 11 of my adult years living and writing abroad. By the early 1980s, when I was writing my first novel, my goals had become a little less grandiose: simply to clarify political contradictions and to contribute to a more generous social conscience.

Now, in the 21st century, I am amused by the scope of those youthful plans, awed by the energy that propelled them, and grateful for what I learned in the process. I still want to change the world, and if my political principles have remained steady, the belief in my own powers has shifted. Now I can say that the goal of my stories is understanding. As I grow less prescriptive, I hope to become more receptive. These days the causal connection between intention and invention thrives in surprise. Humility is different from defeat; in fact, it may be our best defense against it. 

Is writing an inherently political act? Or, what makes writing political, and, correlatively, feminist?

In his splendid essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell says one of his reasons is political purpose: “Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Personally, I believe a good artist needs humility as well as hubris. So, I’m more interested in raising questions and exploring contradictions than in offering political answers. As a feminist, I want to involve readers in the story and give them time to pause, reflect, argue, and engage. 

Generally, I explore how commitment affects experience and consciousness. This exploration has changed as I have expanded my notion of the political (from affiliation with movements like Irish nationalism or feminism to attitudes towards others). To write fiction that is inclusive, it is necessary to take political differences and political facts like inequality and its personal consequences into account.

Everyone, from artists to audiences, has an opinion about “political correctness” these days. How do you balance cultural sensitivity and sensibility in your writing?

I don’t like the term “political correctness” because conservatives tend to employ it to distract from serious racial, class, national, and gender discrimination. It’s a divisive phrase that perpetuates the so-called culture wars. I first heard the term in the 1970s, when it was used among progressive people as a safeguard against our own rigidness and the rigidness of other people on the left. Many political meetings ended with a period of evaluation and this was one of the problems acknowledged as something to avoid. The term has been bowdlerized since then.  

I welcome a range of opinions in my classroom and we always discuss the importance of genuine disagreement on the first day of term. I aim for a stimulating, surprising, awakening, collegial, and safe classroom, and try to foster this by encouraging everyone to speak and by creating assignments in which students work in a variety of small groups. We speak, we agree, we argue, we laugh, we learn.

In addition to serving as the Institute’s artist-in-residence, you have taught undergraduate courses at Stanford since 2006. Why is the study of literature, and of women’s literature in particular, so crucial in today’s digital world?

Literature is the story of our many and diverse lives—in fiction, poetry, drama, and so forth.  Unfortunately, women’s books are much less likely to get published then men’s books. They are much less likely to be reviewed then men’s books. Most of my classes are now cross-listed with CCSRE and my students energetically explore race and ethnicity as well gender in literature. Last year, I launched a new course, “Queer Arts,” as part of a Faculty College Grant, to add more arts classes and queer classes to FGSS. 

You oversee the Artist’s Salon at the Clayman Institute—what types of artists catch your eye? How do you select the artists you invite to share their work with our community?

I aim for diversity and quality of every kind. And of course, we invite people actively engaged with various questions about gender. When I created the Artist’s Salon at the Clayman Institute, I specifically wanted to focus on the many faculty and staff artists who teach at Stanford. At each salon, we invite an artist to share their work and engage in dialogue with the Stanford community. We have highlighted the art of many people, including Jan Krawitz, Aleta Hayes, Nova J. Jiménez, and Robert Moses, among many other esteemed artists. Next year, our 2018 featured artist will be Chang-Rae Lee.

Under the auspices of the Institute’s thematic focus—“Moving Beyond the Stalled Gender Revolution”—what you do have in store for the coming year?

I have a novel in progress, The Roads Between Them, which focuses on a number of issues—gender, class and race—in the story of a mother and two daughters. I’m also particularly interested in the characters’ evolving attitudes toward women and aging. I hope that my narratives reveal new insights into the barriers facing women’s advancement and raise approaches to advancing gender equality.

As a professor, I’ve been pleased to follow the lives of my former Stanford students as they break through barriers and flourish in fields such as medicine, law, technology, and writing. Several of my Stanford students have published books; notable among these are Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming, which is one of the required freshman books this year, and Amy Kurzweil’s graphic memoir about her family’s experience with the Holocaust, Flying Couch.


An abbrieviated version of this interview appears in upRising, volume 5.