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Reimagining Boyhood

Published: June 13, 2004

Matthias Clamer for The New York Times

Frankly, I don't understand why you, a biracial, bisexual writer who is raising a son with another woman, would be moved to see the male sex as an oppressed group and champion men in your new anthology, ''What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future.''

For the last 50 years, women have been intensely re-envisioning femininity and what it means to be a woman. I think that same scrutiny should be applied to men.

But feminism began because women were at a social disadvantage. Men, as a group, are not socially disadvantaged, so they don't need special pleading.

I don't agree with that. The feminist movement came into being because women were fundamentally in pain and unable to develop to their full potential. And men are similarly hampered by this masculine ideal, in which they are expected to repress their emotions.

In the introduction, you say that you dislike the idea of having your son play soccer or baseball. Why?

I think you have to come to terms with the kind of child you have. Not every child is a dominator or a competitor designed to be a gladiator in the American cultural marketplace.

But isn't Little League fairly innocuous as masculine pastimes go?

I got my son into it when he was 8 or 9. There was a lot of pressure on the kids, and I couldn't imagine them trying to hold the weight of winning or losing a game. I wanted him to be liked and admired for who he was, not for some identity he felt he had to put on by involving himself in a physically aggressive sport.

But the point of sports is to help boys channel their innate aggression into something more constructive than punching each other out.

I think it's a cop-out to say that boys are biologically determined to be aggressors. Playing sports should not be the mandatory requirement for masculinity. Our definition of masculinity is so limited. Look at male nurses. They devote their lives to healing others but have a hard time being recognized as full men.

A lot of this reminds me of Robert Bly, who started these camps in the 70's where men ran naked through the woods to find their softer, more expressive selves.

What I am doing is nothing new. I am contributing to the work of many men who have been raising these issues. It is very difficult to challenge entrenched values. I was just reading something that said if you let the culture happen to you, you end up fat and broke, in a house full of junk, with no time. If you just sit in front of a television and let it carry you along, without making an effort to resist it or deconstruct it, you really suffer.

You're the daughter of the novelist Alice Walker. Why did you decide to take her name instead of your father's, who is a lawyer?

It's not that important for me right now. Can we talk about something else?

You have now written and edited several works of nonfiction, including your memoirs, ''Black, White and Jewish.'' Do you think you will ever write fiction?

From 2001 to 2003, I tried to write a novel. I struggled, and I struggled, and I was at my studio toiling away writing these terrible pages. But I just don't have that particular kind of mind. I don't think that experience needs to be cloaked in the subterfuge of fiction. I just can't get invested in the device of it.

Did you show your mother your novel before you abandoned it?

No. I really don't show my work to anyone before the final stages.

That sounds either very sane or very insecure. I'm not sure which.

It might be a little of both.

Do you think you have to be monstrously selfish to be an artist?

When I was growing up, many female artists adopted the masculine paradigm of the artist, that kind of heroic notion of my-art-at-any-cost, intimacy-not-so-important. There has got to be a way for artists to be both thrillingly productive and also emotionally sane.

Are you saying that artists can actually be nice people?

I am at a point where I want to explore the possibility of being a writer who is deeply mindful of the importance of taking care of people, and holding them in a way that isn't harmful. I don't know if it's possible, but I am going to try.



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