In my late teens, like a lot of people do, I got big into the beat generation. I read all of the books by all of the boys and then when I was done with those, I started on all of the books by all of the girls.
There aren’t that many of them. And most of the ones that have been published were written long after the fact. But I discovered that there was a whole other side to the story and I found it a lot more engaging.
A couple of weeks ago, I was excited when I visited the website of Brad Listi’s ‘Other People Podcast’ and saw a photograph of the writer, Joyce Johnson.
Johnson became one of my favourite female writers after I read her 1983 memoir, ‘Minor Characters’ in which she recounted her experiences of being part of the New York literary scene in the 1950s, and at 21, becoming the girlfriend of a then 35-year-old and newly famous Jack Kerouac.
She was interviewed on the podcast about her latest book ‘The Voice Is All’, which is actually a Kerouac biography. Naturally, most of the interview was spent talking about him, but it bothered me that she has spent her life answering questions about another writer. Writing books about another writer. Playing the part of a minor character in her own personal narrative.
It makes me feel really sad.
At one point in the interview, Listi asked Johnson about Joan Vollmer Adams, the wife of William Burroughs (who he famously shot in the head). ‘She was a tragic story… Such a bright girl…’ remarked Listi.
To which a 77-year-old Johnson replied,
‘It was hard to be a bright girl back then, you know. There wasn’t much bright women could do.’
It felt heart breaking to hear her say.
As I listened to Joyce Johnson answer question after question about Jack Kerouac, I realized how grateful I was to be a young woman in the twenty first century. How grateful I was to her, and the women of her generation, for pushing us forward to this point. I realized how lucky I was to be writing now instead of back then. How lucky I was to be living now instead of back then.
When Johnson and her contemporaries were moving into their own apartments and working as secretaries, cutting ties with their families and writing novels on their portable typewriters, they were the first generation of women to make those choices. They were stepping into the unknown and it must have been terrifying. It seems so easy to forget this. It seems so easy to take these things for granted.
This week, the third issue of the all female lit-zine, Illuminati Girl Gang was released online. The zine is edited by internet poet Gabby Gabby and features literature and visual arts by women from all over the world. It’s something that could never have been possible in Johnson’s youth, and something which I feel extremely encouraged by.
Because of course, things still aren’t perfect. There are still obstacles for a woman who wants ‘to be a writer’. It still feels like ‘a man’s world’. It still feels normal to go to a poetry reading and see six guys read with maybe one or two women. But there is so much to be positive about at the same time. There is so much more opportunity.
I’m hoping that if we keep creating things like this now, the girls of the future won’t have to feel marginalized. I’m hoping that they won’t ever have to feel like minor characters.