11 August 2022

Bleeder: Heidi Sopinka on the inspirations behind her new novel

Posted by Heidi Sopinka

‘Nothing for men is pre-determined, except their chance at great success.’ Heidi Sopinka’s second novel Utopia, published today, is set in the male-dominated world of the 1970s Californian art scene. Here, she explores the ideas and inspirations behind the novel: periods and the menopause, second-wave feminism and female rage, Roe v. Wade and the fragility of our right to bodily autonomy.

When I was ten, still in Siamese cat-printed underwear, I got my period at my friend Jen’s Cabbage Patch doll-themed birthday party. I was so mortified, that I went home, hid my underwear deep in the garbage, made my own supplies out of Kleenex and electrical tape, and told no one until I was twelve. So, at forty-two, when my cycle ended for good, my first instinct, again, was to say nothing. This time the mortification sprang from the feeling that, barely out of my thirties, I would suddenly no longer be considered quote unquote a woman.

As the oestrogen was leaving my body, I wrote in a haze of productivity, exhaustion, and a steadily increasing rage. I landed on a novel set in the era where second-wave feminists and first-generation performance artists were born. I decided my novel would be a kind of companion to Virginia Woolf’s ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’ from A Room of One’s Own, only it would be the tale of [insert famous-male artist’s name here]’s sister.

That’s when I started re-reading the feminists of my activated university days – Audre Lorde on the uses of anger; Germaine Greer on our negative feelings toward women in menopause due to society’s total intolerance of female anger. And then, feminist of feminists, Andrea Dworkin, who I’d always been a bit scared of with her overalls, rage, and notion that all sex is rape.

But in these dark times, re-reading Dworkin felt like reading a prophet. ‘Our enemies – rapists and their defenders – not only go unpunished; they remain influential arbiters of morality; they have high and esteemed places in the society; they are priests, lawyers, judges, lawmakers, politicians, doctors, artists, corporation executives, psychiatrists, and teachers,’ Dworkin said in a lecture in 1975. She had been written off as a man-hating paranoid, but after Trump’s election, the Kavanaugh hearings, and revelations of predation of everyone from Harvey Weinstein to Bill Cosby, her words seem alarmingly insightful. In a highly unpopular move at the time, she also defended Monica Lewinsky, then written off as a joke. One can only imagine what she might have to say about the recent Depp-Heard case.

I started to try and talk about what I was going through, but no one knew what I was talking about because they were all still bleeding.

I discovered that Marilyn Monroe died of her period. Not as a sex toy for JFK or a foil for the FBI or the CIA, as we’ve been constantly led to believe. She had very bad endometriosis and was in constant crippling pain. She even wrote it right into her film contracts so she could be in bed for two days a month. All that pain resulted in getting hooked on pain killers, mainly barbiturates, which she took right up to her death. Which, in fact, most likely caused her death.

For a number of reasons, mainly because I didn’t want to murder someone and because my mother, who also went through the change in her early forties and was diagnosed with early-onset osteoporosis (a diagnosis I was told would likely be my own without intervention), I started taking oestrogen. Like magic, the hot flashing and flat-lining and total insomnia all but disappeared. But the rage stayed.

‘Being female in this world is having been robbed of the potential for human choice by men who love to hate us,’ Dworkin wrote in the 70s, though it could have been an Instagram post after the Roe verdict. Fifty years later, we are still arguing for over women’s rights to their own bodies. For trans and non-binary rights. For the rights of anyone who suffers under the material conditions historically assigned to women. This is the kind of regression and frustration that fuelled my novel. If ever there was a time to look to the radical feminists, it is now. As Dworkin wrote, ‘We don’t have to think about different things. We have to think in different ways.’

Books mentioned in this blog post