This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Nin Andrews’s Why God Is a Woman (BOA Editions, 2015), part of the American Poets Continuum Series, is a simple enough idea it’s a wonder no one has written something like it before. Using clean, unpretentious language Andrews gives us a series of short prose poems that tell of a society where many of our Western social codes of morality and vice, power and oppression, beauty and objectification are turned on their heads. Women are and always have held more social and political power. Classically feminine traits like meekness and kindness are esteemed as naturally preferable and are signs of leadership potential. Men are generally deemed unfit for leadership and responsibility because of their emotional propensity for violence and aggression. Women have the larger sexual appetites. Men are prized for their physical traits and are often objectified, treated as delicate, pressured to have cosmetic work done to exaggerate these traits. Parents hope for and take pride in their daughters while sheltering their sons. Men stay at home with the kids and are expected to serve others at the expense of themselves.
“On the Island where I come from, parents worship their daughters. They invest all their hopes for the future in their girls, spoiling them rotten, letting them do and have whatever they wish. When I was a boy, my family was no different. While my sisters were allowed to go out night after night, I was never out of my parents’ sight. Like all proper Island boys, I knew I had to remain a virgin.” – page 20
The idea itself is a simple one, but the execution is not. Andrews isn’t content to propose a basic conceit and let the text itself coast along on the momentum of this one idea. Rather than floating the idea down the central current of gender reversal, she forays into side channels, exploring ideas of religion and spirituality, love in the context of power imbalance, puberty and sexual innocence, colonialism, celebrity, empathy. Just when you feel the book has settled into a pattern or rhythm, a strange anomaly confronts you on the next page, a poem that does not carry the flag of the book’s theme but runs in a different direction, to a different wind.
Nin writes the book from the perspective of a man from this island, telling us about his experiences there, his memories and regrets. There is a melancholy that pervades Why God Is a Woman, an ache that seems to simultaneously reach back for the life he left on the island, and up and outward for a life that was barred to him there, one his culture would not allow him. In an oppressive system the oppressed lose the most, but no one actually wins. The Island of the book has aspects of joy, bliss, pleasure (certainly), but around each is an invisible cage, a barrier to something more. As we read we wonder what could be if all the citizens were equal, worked together, looked past appearances and gender roles. And of course this is the point. We live in this place, albeit it with most of the roles reversed. The book is much more than this simplified mirror, but it would be foolish to ignore the reflection the book holds up to our culture.
That reflection is one of a patently absurd society, one that hardly seems like it could have gotten itself to the twenty-first century still in possession of basic civility and hygiene. The simple flip Andrews works with is all that is required to showcase the childish silliness of a culture that allows one sex to hold nearly unchecked power and permission while another is so consistently patronized or outright victimized. This contrast is beautifully and efficiently expressed, but never feels cartoonish. Andrews doesn’t overreach. Even in this unjust system, beauty is still present in the flickers of the human spirit, the surges of human love that oppression isn’t able to squelch.
“On the Island where I come from only women hold political office. During every election seasons at least one angry man runs for mayor, governor, or even president. The angry man tries to rally others to his cause of male liberation. He flaps his wings wildly, thrusts his fists in the air, and shouts demands for equal rights, pay, respect, and representation. Of course, nothing happens.” – page 41
Plenty happens in Why God Is a Woman, and beyond the reaches of the power imbalance at its core are the eddies and divergences that force the reader back to the book even after we think we have it figured out. Its central theme is strong, needed, clever, and devilishly simple, but there is much more at work, ideas and images that I will be revisiting for months. This book isn’t going to get a huge marketing push, so take the chance to seek it out when you can.