- "How Difficult It Is Being Human!":Transforming Bodies in Patrice Kindl's Fiction
"At the close of the twentieth century," asserts Joan Jacobs Brumberg in The Body Project (1997), "the female body poses an enormous problem for American girls" (xvii). While contemporary girls may perceive themselves to be more liberated than their female forebears, she finds that maintaining and managing the female body has, in fact, become increasingly time-consuming and anxiety-producing. At first glance the resourceful protagonists of Patrice Kindl's three fantasy novels—Owl in Love (1994), The Woman in the Wall (1997), and Goose Chase (2001)—are hardly typical fourteen-year-old girls: Owl Tycho can metamorphose into an owl at will; Anna Newland lives inside walls; and Alexandria Aurora Fortunato has hair that sheds gold dust and tears that turn to diamonds. Having said that, however, I wish to argue that the anxiety and alienation that they register regarding their bodies, however fantastic those bodies seem, are not radically unlike the experiences of "normal" adolescent girls, and offers a way of critiquing traditional notions of the female body.
In "The Battleground for the Adolescent Girl's Body" (1998), Brenda Boudreau explains how the body often "becomes an obstacle to autonomy and self-agency as the girl tries to reconcile her body to the demands of a socially proscribed gendered identity, leading, paradoxically, to feelings of disembodiment" (43). Kindl's heroines suffer rather from an excess of bodies (or bodies that become excessive), complicating their relationship to humanity as well as femininity. Owl, the heroine of Owl in Love, is situated between species, an outsider in both owl and human societies. She explains that "other owls tend to avoid me, sensing something alien," while her school friend Dawn complains that "Sometimes I feel like I'm talking Swahili with you" (38, 43).
The Woman in the Wall's Anna, imagining herself both as a tiny girl and giantess, regards other people as if members of another species. Through observing teenage boys and girls, she compares herself to "an animal behaviorist crouching on an ice floe trying to work out the social relationships of a tribe of penguins" (61). Her alienation is such that she ponders whether she herself is human, and whether she is even alive. Alexandria's status in Goose Chase is similarly ambiguous. Her clothing, appearance, and speech reveal her upper class status, despite her persistent claim that she is a goose-girl. While she retains a girl's body, her dramatic rescue from the Prince's tower, on a flying featherbed carried by her geese, transforms her, at least symbolically, into a goose like her sisters.
Not only do Kindl's heroines experience alienation from their own bodies, but their perspective as narrators who write from the position of the "other" puts into question what constitutes a "normal" female body, as well as what constitutes normal familial and social relationships. At some point, each of these girls feels like an imposter, a female impersonator. The implicit ideal against which these heroines measure themselves may be, broadly speaking, white, middle-class, and heterosexual, but Kindl's strategies of defamiliarizing bodies, appropriating texts, and subverting romance plots challenge the naturalness and inevitability of such a narrow definition of femininity.
Particularly in Owl in Love, describing girls in terms of what and how they eat is one way that Kindl defamiliarizes the girl's body. As Susan Bordo points out, female hunger is a culturally loaded term: "the control of female appetite for food is merely the most concrete expression of the general rule governing the construction of femininity: that female hunger—for public power, for independence, for sexual gratification—be contained" (96).1 Both Owl's and Dawn's eating habits defy the appetites for girls, as defined by teen magazines, nor are their bodies those of models. Both girls also eat differently from their mothers, since Owl's mother eats human food and Dawn's eats almost nothing. Dawn shrewdly guesses that Owl's difference from her is related to eating: "You don't like our food and you don't want anybody to see what you do eat...