MLA 2009 Girlhood and Nationhood

Recently, an intense interdisciplinary focus on female adolescence has emerged that treats girls as subjects of their own identity category unique from children and women. Girls and girlhood are crystallizing in fields where they were previously defined through boys’ experience as the marker of normativity, through adult women’s experience as part of “the feminine,” or through children’s experience as genderless inchoate subjects. Although literary scholars have become keenly aware of the influence of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality on the subject’s experience, age is not consistently added to that list. This panel will use Girls’ Studies foci of girls, girlhood, and girl culture in 20th century world literature to analyze the intersection between girlhood and nationhood. How is girlhood sexuality imbricated in racial and gender ideologies that support or undermine strategies of national rule?

In exploring the intersection between girls and national identity in 20th century world literature, our panel will focus on how the adolescent female body, through its victimization, resistance, and construction, forms a site of nationhood and citizenry. Much feminist literary scholarship exists on how the adult woman’s body symbolizes the national imaginary, as Nira Yuval-Davis summarizes “it is women . . . who reproduce nations, biologically, culturally and symbolically.” Yet the girl’s maturing body is liminally positioned between childhood and womanhood, encapsulating a range of biological changes through the onset of menses, fertility, sexuality, and sexual identity that encode a range of cultural meanings about the development of the citizen and of feminine power. Topics of this panel’s discussion are specific to girls’ experience by centering on ages thirteen and fourteen to address girlhood incidents of female genital mutilation, student militarism, and girls’ sexual assault in Irish and African fiction and memoir.
Abstract #1: Rather than simply acting as metaphor of the nation, the girl in Jane Elizabeth Dougherty’s “‘This girl is not a girl’: The X Case and the Limits of Irish Female Subjectivity” destabilizes concepts of Irish nationhood. Dougherty notes that scholars have long represented Ireland as a woman: as maiden, wife, mother, queen, and hag. However, Ireland has never been represented as a female child. Indeed, the conception of the girl in Ireland is fraught: in the Irish language, “girl” is a masculine noun; in Irish society, one is a “girl” from puberty until marriage. In 1992, a girl did emerge in the Irish symbolic order: Miss X was an anonymous fourteen year old who had been raped, impregnated, and forced to return to Ireland without having an abortion in England. Her case became a national scandal, the occasion of much soul-searching by a country that saw itself as poised between childhood and adulthood. Yet Miss X was denied, by her own supporters, the status of “girl.” Dougherty’s essay argues that the girl functions not as a symbol of Ireland, but as a kind of anti-symbol: as a subjectivity that abjectly threatened Irish national borders by representing the limit of both Irish female subjectivity and Irish national identity. Exploring two novels about the X case, Edna O’Brien’s _Down By The River_ (1998) and Keith Ridgway’s _The Long Falling_ (1998), Dougherty argues that the attempt to represent Miss X leads to literary works which posit the near-impossibility of representing the Irish girl through formal and stylistic idiosyncrasy.

Abstract #2: Girlhood is ideally constructed as a time of innocence. Yet Denise Handlarski and Tobe Levin offer contrasting essays on girl empowerment and disempowerment that, together, challenge the ideology of girlhood innocence and its passive, chaste, and virtuous connotations. In “Tough Girls: _Dancing in the Dust_,” Handlarski revisions the coming-of-age story as a girl-becoming-revolutionary story by analyzing Kagiso Lesego Molope’s _Dancing in the Dust_ (2002) as depicting the militarization of girlhood. Set in the apartheid era, _Dancing in the Dust_ portrays a girl of thirteen who joins the South African Student Organization against the regime after witnessing violence toward her mother and the murder of her school friends. Handlarski argues that the girl’s resistance work parallels reshaping the nation with reshaping girlhood. This reading disrupts a dominant discourse in Girls’ Studies termed the “girl in crisis” paradigm ̶ that positions girls as overwhelmed by and passively absorbing systemic constructs. Likewise, Handlarski intervenes in traditional readings of the bildungsroman to offer a complete, self-aware, and socially critical subjectivity in female adolescence, rather than exclusively in young men or adult women.

Abstract #3: While Handlarski argues how tough some girls can be, Tobe Levin’s “Female Genital Mutilation Transforms Girls into Women: Ritual Initiation in Somali Memoirs” portrays how tough it is to be a girl. Levin centralizes a global, multicultural, and intersectional view of girlhood through the work of three Somali memoirists, of which two are residents in Germany publishing in German, and one in the United States. Activist Fadumo Korn’s _Born in the Big Rain: A Memoir of Somalia and Survival_ [_Geboren im Grossen Regen: Mein Leben zwischen Somalia und Deutschland_] (2006), film-maker and activist Soraya Mire’s _Girl with Three Legs_ (2009), and Nura Abdi’s _Desert Tears_ [_Tränen im Sand_] (2005) portray how each author was subjected to infibulation at ages 7 and 13. From his pioneering work analyzing FGM specifically in creative writing, Levin draws from his fourteen multilingual articles on this exclusively girlhood violation to present an informed study of Somalian injustice in the context of the authors’ multivalenced relationships to the nation.