Pen World Voices 2008: Writing Sexuality

By Sophie Powell

I've just returned from New York where I attended the panel discussion 'Writing Sex and Sexuality', one of the many and varied events hosted by PEN as part of their festival of international literature. I was particularly interested in this event since my novel The Mushroom Man included some sexually explicit scenes which provoked quite a few comments from readers, and recently I had an essay on sex forthcoming in the upcoming anthology Behind The Bedroom Door until I chickened out and withdrew it. I decided that some things were precious (my real life) and that whilst I was quite happy writing fictional sex scenes, writing autobiographical sex scenes was not something I felt entirely comfortable about airing in the open.

Catherine Millet, on the other hand, author of the shocking, bestselling memoir The Sexual Life of Catherine M. does not seem to have any inhibitions about dishing the dirt. This Parisian founder and editor of the modern art magazine Art Press was one of the four panelists on the discussion, the other three being Amanda Michalopoulou, a prolific Greek author and journalist, Anja Sicking from Holland, author of The Silent Sin, and Yael Hedaya from Israel, author of the acclaimed novel Accidents. The event was skillfully moderated by Rakesh Satayl, an editor at HarperCollins and author of the forthcoming novel Blue Boy.

It was a very engaging and stimulating debate. Particularly noteworthy was to learn how significantly these authors' ideas of sexuality as children had been influenced by books (Hedaya cited Lady's Chatterley's Lover and Lolita). This is in contrast, the panel agreed, with the way it is now with their own children who are rather absorbed by the internet and film. This led to the panelists articulating exactly what sex scenes in books can do that sex scenes in other media (eg film) cannot do. For example Michalopoulou mentioned the beauty of how the writer can communicate exactly what each person engaging in the sex scene is thinking, whereas in film these intimate cogitations can only be suggested. There was also some lively conversation about different nationalities' attitude towards, and comfort about, talking about sex. Sicking made the amusing observation that cultures which were very happy speaking about it so freely and plastering it all over their media (eg Americans) were often more prudish and inhibited when it came to the actual practice of it ("if they speak about it so much they probably aren't getting it so much"). Generally it was agreed that national stereotypes regarding sex were unhelpful. Millet mentioned that she expected her book to do really well in Italy (Italians stereotyped as being sexually uninhibited). However, the contrary proved true—it did much better in countries traditionally known to be more conservative. It was, perhaps, the panel agreed, more a generational issue, older generations being more reluctant to accept explicit language.

When the panel was opened to the floor, I asked the four writers about their experience of translation regarding sex in their works. Since they were all foreigners who were fluent in English and therefore could be decent judges, what did they make of the English translation of their writing? Had things been lost/gained in the translation of the sex scenes originally written in their native language? Hedaya gave a very encouraging answer. She said that she felt that it was actually in the English translation that she felt her sex scenes were properly expressed. She explained how modern Hebrew is a relatively new language and how the range of words to describe sex is very limited: "they are either too slutty or the vocabulary of a gynecologist." She spoke of how it was a challenge to describe a sex scene in her native language but that in English what she meant to communicate became clear.

I left the discussion feeling that it was an hour and a half very well spent, and it also encouraged me not to shy away from explicit description of sex in my own writing—in my fiction at least. The uniqueness and beauty of fiction is its ability to enter deep into the individual's interior world. To shy away from describing sex, which has a significance for most individuals, is to shy away from fully exploring a character. Fearless writing is the only interesting writing.

I'd just like to add a couple of thing before signing off. Two excellent articles caught my eye recently: A profile on the Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany in the Sunday New York Times magazine (04.27.08), and a profile on the young Belarusian Poet Valzhyna Mort in Poets And Writers Magazine (May/June). Both are well worth a read.


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