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Deborah Levy on Writing and Citing

Here is something I would not recommend: at a dinner party, right when conversation is getting good, ask people what they think of citation practices. In all likelihood, you’ll get are confused glares and complete silence. Footnotes, bibliographies, where you cite and how; the average person would rather talk about dry-walling.

For all that, with the right crowd, citation practices are controversial and political, because citation practices are an area of university life in which equity is negotiated. Women and minorities are cited less than white men, and disappear more quickly than men from the citation apparatus after their death. Some scholars, like Sara Ahmed, have responded by making of citation a kind of activism. In her book Living a Feminist Life, she writes “I adopt a strict citation policy: I do not cite any white men” (15). She calls it a “blunt…policy,” the purpose of which is to “break long-standing habits” (270).    

I recently came across another interesting citation policy. I was reading Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing, a book that is part memoire, part literary theory, part reflection on finding one’s voice. Levy names her chapters after four reasons George Orwell gives for writing (from his essay “Why I Write”), but she mentions Orwell only twice, and never names the essay. The only indication that she has not invented the chapter titles is the synopsis on the back of the book; I imagine her publisher insisting that she give the reader a little context. Explicit discussion of Orwell is conspicuously missing from the actual pages of the book.

It is an interesting choice, because reading Orwell’s essay enriches Levy’s book. While Orwell begins his essay with bombastic confidence – “From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer” – Levy’s book is a catalogue of not knowing, of childhood and adult experiences of being unable to claim the role of writer. When a man asks her, “You’re a writer aren’t you?” she says “it was impossible to say yes, or hmmm, or even to nod” (26). As a child at a new school, she pretends not to know how to read; she feels it would be “rude to tell them that [she] had learned to read and write to years ago” (62). She speaks so softly that the daughter of a family she lives with gives her lessons in screaming (53). Levy rearranges the order of Orwell’s categories, starting with “Political Purpose” instead of “Sheer Egotism,” and the manner in which she treats each theme is different than Orwell’s. For Orwell, writing with political purpose is one option among several. For Levy, writing is always a political act, one that involves the difficult project of “[becoming] a subject rather than a delusion” (26). While Orwell describes the impulse to write provided by his time as “public, non-individual activities,” Levy’s chapter on historical impulse is a narrative of growing up in apartheid South Africa. “THIS BATHING AREA IS RESERVED FOR THE SOLE USE OF MEMBERS OF THE WHITE RACE” – signs like these interrupt her childhood.

So why does she not cite Orwell? She references a number of writers: George Sand, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julia Kristeva, Marguerite Duras, Adrienne Rich, Georges Perec, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, even a couple white men, Sartre and Nietzsche. Most are female writers that rejected traditional gender roles. Sand wore men’s clothes and ran off to Majorca with Chopin. Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex, and though she stayed with her partner Jean-Paul Sartre for fifty-one years, they never married or had children, and she had other lovers during their relationship. Adrienne Rich’s first marriage was to a man, but her partner for the last 40+ years of her life was a woman. It is as if Levy is looking for the literary equivalent of the hotel she stays at in Majorca, which she describes as “a refuge from The Family” (14). She lends whatever authority she has as a writer to a particular kind of woman, and though Orwell is clearly an influence, she uses him to point elsewhere. He is not, after all, in danger of disappearing from the citation apparatus.

But Levy has her own habits, her own exclusions. Race is a significant topic in her book, and several of her most significant characters are people of color (Maria, a black woman who works for them in Johannesburg; Farid, their West Finchley au pair from Cairo; the Chinese shopkeeper, with whom Levy shares a meal and a kiss), but the writers she cites are almost all white Europeans. She may be looking to other white women who have tried to live well in the world, women who have also struggled with the fact that, as Levy says, “white people [are] not normal” (39). Or this may be an oversight, something Levy didn’t notice or particularly intend. In other words, another example of Ahmed’s “long-standing habits.”

I do not know why Levy makes her citation choices. But what I find fascinating about her and Sara Ahmed is that they have both thought carefully about who they reference. Having achieved the status of writer, they take seriously their authority to authorize others, their responsibility to consider which voices they carry forwards and which they leave behind. And by so doing, they answer the question “Why I Write” by pointing to a community of writers, others who like them have struggled to “become a subject,” and who have done their best to write that struggle into words.