December 04, 2011
Like many of the writers in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience, Nava Renek is a triple threat. A writer, editor and educator, she’s also no stranger to anthologies, having herself edited the daring Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century, published by Spuyten Duyvil—a veritable Who’s Who of innovative women writers, including several who also appear in Men Undressed. Nava is the author of two published novels as well as the program coordinator of the Women’s Center at Brooklyn College, and—as we discuss here—she goes for the “tortured type.”
TNB: You’re one of the contributors to a book the entire premise of which is women writing sex from male characters’ points of view. On a scale of 1-10, exactly how nervous does this make you, in terms of every male critic on the planet potentially pointing a finger at you and your co-writers and deriding you for “getting it wrong?” In a Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (or wait, is that the reverse?) era, what would possess you to dare to try and . . . gasp . . . understand the other gender between the sheets instead of just throwing up your hands in helpless disgust like a good sitcom wife and saying, “Men! Who knows what they’re thinking?”
NR: I am not at all nervous about what male critics will say about my interpretation of men’s emotions or actions. Isn’t that what writing is all about…looking inside a character, male or female, and trying to find the common threads that connect us all to each other or make us different? In many ways I subscribe to the view that Men are from Mars, but that is just a superficial explanation of our different ways of seeing. Why are they from Mars? What are they getting from seeing and reacting to the world that way? That is what I’m exploring without trying to point a finger or put blame on one side in particular.
TNB: Sex is a fundamental human urge, and at its best brings human beings closer together. Is it easier or harder to write from the perspective of a man having, chasing, or desiring sex than it is from the perspective of a man, say, going about the other business of his daily life? Is sex the great equalizer? And if so, why do so few literary writers–male or female–seem to focus on it?
NR: Sex is easy to write about because it is almost always a guarantee attention grabber but it is a great platform to explore other topics like emotions, power balance, gender roles etc. It provides a great construct to pull apart common human conundrums. I think few literary writers focus on it because it is a very sensitive and controversial topic. Readers have to be prepared to acknowledge that a physical relationship is part of a “romantic” relationship as well as a relationship in and of itself. Our culture is so laced with puritanical morality that people/writers who do delve into this subject matter somehow automatically find themselves labeled “edgy” or taboo.
TNB: Tell us about “your” man in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. What drew you to him, and why did his story lead to the figurative or actual bedroom? If you had the opportunity to have sex with this guy (presuming he is straight and you are straight), would you?
NR: I probably already have had sex with him too many times than I care to count. He seems like my type. He picks women up in bars. I’ve been in bars. I’ve been picked up (not recently, though). But it is his back story that I wanted to explore. He really wants his marriage to work, but the dynamics of the couple isn’t working for either him or his wife. So, he really sees no other recourse. He wants to feel loved and emotionally alive, and one aspect of that is to experience passion, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes with different women. I think if he could trade it for an emotionally rewarding marriage, he would. The thing is…in this situation, it’s too late for both the husband and wife. The story captures that sad point when they both realize they’ve committed to something that isn’t working, but neither have the strength or know-how to take on such a daunting task and make changes. I certainly empathize with him.
TNB: Many readers have come to Other Voices Books asking if we will now be publishing a follow-up anthology entitled Women Undressed, in which make writers explore female sexuality. Although male writers have actually been doing this to great acclaim and/or controversy for centuries . . . think D.H. Lawrence to Philip Roth to Milan Kundera . . . maybe there is still more to say. If such a book existed, what would you hope that your male literary comrades understood about female sexuality that their predecessors did not?
NR: That’s funny. I work at a college Women’s Center and one of the most annoying (yet common) questions come from men who visit the Center and want to know why there isn’t a “Men’s Center”. I say: “because it’s the world.” I actually love to read writing about female sexuality by both male and female writers. Male writers of course romanticize it more, but still, sexuality at all, written in a tasteful way is very important to include when writing about relationships. What I don’t like is the superficial quality of some “chic-lit” written by women that doesn’t get below the materialistic/kitschy surfaces of the characters and plots. My impression is that the older writers like Roth and Kundera romanticize female sexuality but don’t get to the heart of it where sex for women really has to do with the stimulation of emotions and contains so many contradictory elements that can be both emboldening and destructive.
TNB: Sexiest male character in all of literature?
NR: Of course, my first impulse is to say Heathcliff, but I really haven’t read Wuthering Heights in a long time. Maybe Kafka’s Hunger Artist or the protagonist in Camus’ L’Etranger. Obviously, I go for the tortured type. Not a good sign.
TNB: Recently I was listening to a radio show on which they reported a survey they’d done on how old men and women can be and still be considered “sexy.” As you might guess, women’s ages came in younger than men’s, at 44 and 52 respectively. On the one hand, I have to admit that these figures are probably quite a bit better than they would have been twenty years ago, but on the other hand–wow, harsh that in an age when people are routinely living into their 90s, the culture basically de-sexualizes them for the entire second half of their lives! This smacks of some serious ageist bullshit to me. Tell us about the sexiest, smokingest older person you’ve ever known–male or female–and give us all some hope, will you?
NR: Hum. Wish I could say I didn’t conform to those stereotypes, but alas, I do. How old is Anderson Cooper? (Yeah. I know he’s gay.) Well, at least he has gray hair.