Sex and Text: Writing the Body in Contemporary Russian Women’s Fiction

Yelena Furman, University of California, Los Angeles

From glasnost’ to the present, contemporary Russian women’s fiction has been characterized by a deliberate and graphic emphasis on the female body, in terms of both violence and sex. By looking at Julija Voznesenskaja’s Ženskij Dekameron and Marina Palej’s Kabirija s Obvodnogo kanala, I will discuss why the female body has become such a central trope for Russian women writers and how writing the body is a strategy for subverting literary and cultural prohibitions against women’s desire for sex and text.

The most fruitful way to explore these questions is through the theory of writing the body, which originated with Hélčne Cixous and Luce Irigaray. In such works as “The Laugh of the Medusa” and The Newly Born Woman (Cixous) and This Sex Which Is Not One (Irigaray), they maintain that the path to subverting phallocentrism lies in women’s seizure of language to write themselves into history, literature, culture. This project in turn centers on the body: for Cixous and Irigaray, women (and men) are inseparable from the bodies they have because the body is the site of lived experience and the manifestation of identity. Thus, they exhort women to write their bodies, i.e., themselves – to subvert patriarchal constraints. In this endeavor, they rely on the concept of jouissance – unbounded female pleasure that can radically disrupt the phallocentric order once women seize and rework language to articulate their desire.

This articulation of desire characterizes the texts of contemporary Russian women writers, whose open and positive portrayals of female sexuality are a radical first in Russian literature. Such portrayals stand as a formidable challenge to literary and cultural Russian and Soviet puritanism and at the same time to the misogynistic rhetoric of (post-)glasnost’, in which female bodies became commodified and violated through pornography, prostitution, and domestic violence. The violation of women’s bodies in life is amply evident in literature; yet like Cixous and Irigaray, Russian women writers conceptualize the female body both as the site of gross defilement and the source of extreme sexual pleasure. Voznesenskaja and Palej emphasize that subverting the brutality is possible precisely through sexuality, more specifically, through the symbiotic relation between sex and text.  For both writers, the body generates narrative and narrative gives the body a voice, bringing it out of silent materiality into the realm of language. By insisting on the inextricable link between sexuality and textuality, contemporary Russian women writers work to dismantle the mind-body duality that associates women with nature and men with culture. They emphatically maintain women’s status as cultural producers, including the production of narrative centered on the body. Their protagonists are both sexual and intellectual beings, continuously integrating these aspects of human existence in the same way that their texts negotiate the inextricable relation between body and writing. Contemporary Russian women’s fiction marks a decisive break with literary and cultural conventions in exemplifying the full meaning of jouissance – the pleasures of both sex and text.