Review – 7th December, 2007

Female body experience on show

Zsuzsa Bruria Forgács (ed). Thirsty Oasis

Review–7th December, 2007


Well-known and less-known Hungarian cultural figures of the female sex elaborate their notions of female body experience across various styles from short fiction to intellectual autobiography, memoir, blog-diary, life-narrative, or hip-hop text.

This anthology is the second volume of a series entitled Uncovered Psyche, a literary enterprise launched by three writers who call themselves the “Artisans”: Zsuzsa Forgács, Kriszta Bódis and Agáta Gordon. The first volume, entitled Nighttime Zoo. An Anthology About Female Sexuality (see our interview), provoked a critical controversy and become popular with the reading public. Estimation of sales is around 8000 copies, which is a relatively great success in terms of the Hungarian book-market.
The reviewers of Nighttime Zoo mainly took issue with the editors’ pronounced woman-centered literary policy, judging it as anti-literary and non-professional. In spite of the critics’ reservations, there has been a growing public interest in narratives by and about women in Hungarian culture. Therefore the appearance of further volumes anthologizing women writers on a variety of women's issues seems to be awaited in Hungary.
Zsuzsa Forgács clearly formulates the editorial concept of Thirsty Oasis in the book as well as in the promotion material. Her goal was to compile a thematic volume on female body experience in the broad, postmodern sense of the “body”. The editorial policy fits into the current trend of publishing anthologies on specific themes – for instance, the series issued by Noran Press of works by Hungarian writers focusing on various topics from photography or culinary pleasures to the literary perception  of various nations. A close look at the “Hungarian writers about” series, however, throws light on the challenges an all-women anthology poses in the context of Hungarian post-socialist culture. The volumes of the series include almost exclusively writings by male authors under the general heading of  “Hungarian writer”. This tendency indicates that the status of women as Hungarian writers is far from settled. The woman is still an exception in Hungarian literature, even though more and more professional women writers have been present in the Hungarian post-socialist book-market. Nevertheless, the emergence of a woman-centered contemporary literary discourse by women marks the ongoing transformation of Hungarian post-socialist culture into a more balanced system with regard to gender relations.  
Thirsty Oasis provides an opportunity for well-known and less-known cultural figures of the female sex – writers, artists and intellectuals – to elaborate their notions of female body experience and existence across various narratives and styles from modern and postmodern short fiction to intellectual autobiography, memoir, blog-diary, life-narrative, or hip-hop text. The anthology embodies a specific Hungarian women’s discourse on female subjectivity –  identities as well as differences. It presents, as well as represents, various positions on and attitudes to issues like conception, contraception, birth, abortion, sexual abuse, self-denial, self-acceptance, etc. In other words, it covers woman-centered themes that are central to feminism without necessarily representing feminism.
The collected narratives provide a heterogeneous picture of female body-constructs, definitions of womanhood and concepts of authorship. The approaches vary from the biological-essentialist notion of female identity (equating “femaleness” with the female reproductive organs) to depictions of female body experience as much more than anatomy and sexualized existence. Accordingly, in Thirsty Oasis, we can find narratives drawing on the  definition of the woman writer as the desirable erotic body and the male writer's intellectual and creative inferior as well as postmodern parodies reworking the patriarchal concept of the female body or gender-conscious reflections on women artists’ identity politics. The anthology also powerfully represents the various stages of the life of a heterosexual woman from pre-sexual childhood to post-sexual old-age existence.
The structure of Thirsty Oasis is modeled on that of Nighttime Zoo. Accordingly, the narratives are grouped together under four headings. The fourth chapter has a subheading (“hip-hop, psycho-blog, body aria, spiral-trans”) indicating that the last section includes  texts that are hard to classify according to conventional literary standards. This fourth section  contains those writers and texts that do not fit  in the traditional notion of literature or  literary author. Indeed, from the postmodern feminist perspective outlined by the cover design and the editorial concept, it would be self-contradictory not to mix traditional but unusual narratives or  experimental writings together with familiar and conventional literary forms, methods and styles. One might note that in this framework the logic of grouping is somewhat problematic, constructing as it does the last section as distinct from “normal literature” and the members of this group as the exotic others which could, by definition, appear as exceptions in the first three sections, which contain mainly genres and authors that have become institutions.
Nonetheless, as the cover design suggests, from Nighttime Zoo to Thirsty Oasis, the female subject potentially transforms from reader and receiver to author and creative cultural agent. Therefore, besides being a pleasurable read, Thirsty Oasis is thought-provoking as a representation voicing women intellectuals' views and, more importantly, as a potential record of gender ideologies and gender politics naturalized in post-socialist Hungary.       
Andrea P. Balogh
Agáta Gordon – a review and an excerpt from her novel Goat Rouge
Forgács Zsuzsa Bruria (ed): Szomjas oázis. Antológia a noi testrol
Budapest: Jaffa, 2007

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