Creating Gender: Destroying Creativity in the Writing of Elena Guro

Jamie Bennett, Columbia University

I would like to present a paper on "Creating Gender--Destroying Creativity in the Writing of Elena Guro." Guro depicts children as ideal artists in her work because they have the necessary perception and imagination to create. She equates writing poetry with playing in the sand--every child is capable of it. In a short prose piece entitled "In the Park," a young girl tells two "damy" how to make poetry from dirt and water (or saliva). The women refer to the girl as "Sappho," automatically assigning gender to her. Guro warns against this, however, and shows what happens when children are forced to accept the roles, obligations, and limitations that come with gender identity--they lose the ability to create.

In Guro's piece, So Goes Life, a young girl named Nel'ka is initially described as "a bit boy-like" and "lean, like a girl." As a child, she is not yet defined by her gender. However, she experiences a coming of age when her step-father whips her for leaving the house without his permission. Her punishment is a symbolic sexual act. Afterward, she feels naked and ashamed but also is driven by feelings of passion to follow and serve males whom she now sees as "master." Nel'ka reflects on a time when gender did not exist: "It's strange to think that somewhere ... right now little independent people (chelovechki) are waiting to leave for the dacha and while waiting, they are making little shapes with damp sand, and it's as if there are no men and women, but only a child's 'papa' and 'mama' ... " (in Elena Guro, Sochinenija [Oakland, CA: Berkeley Slavic Specialties, 1996], p. 27). Nel'ka acquires gender and loses the ability to create. She now regards pens as "masculine instruments." The piece concludes with Nel'ka following a boy down the street as he whistles to her like a dog.

In her short prose piece entitled "Vasja," Guro relates in the angry words of a mother that little boys are deceived by their fathers. They are placed into military schools which resemble prisons in order to be "made into men." She claims that her son Vasja was forced "into a little military uniform ... so that he would not gouge out [his father's] eyes (Sochinenija, p. 237). Guro recalls the Oedipal connection between blinding and castration and then inverts it. In becoming a man (as opposed to being emasculated), Vasja loses the vision of a poet. He becomes a functionary like his father and is ultimately unable to see "the sun, a meadow, a stream" (p. 238).

In contrast to these examples of child-poets who lose the ability to create, I will also consider several depictions of Guro's heroes who are not children but who are poets. These characters retain childlike qualities and are either of an androgynous nature or do not conform to the gender roles expected by society (as in the case of the poet who kisses puppies between the ears or the one who mends the holes in his sock). Guro's poet/hero is persecuted by society, which is represented by decidedly gendered characters such as "the kept woman" and "the solid gentleman," from Guro's play The Poor Harlequin. But the poet does not always succumb to his/her detractors. Guro's poet serves as a reminder to them that they were once children and potential poets themselves and he represents a sign of hope that society or at least some individuals will return toa more innocent state, one in which perception of beauty and imagination allow for creativity.