'The Word for Woman Is Wilderness' Is a Call to Subvert Gender Marginalization

In her debut work of fiction, The Word for Woman Is Wilderness, Abi Andrews explores why men can reject society and turn to wilderness survival but women are dissuaded from doing so.

The Word for Woman is Wilderness
Abi Andrews

Two Dollar Radio

Mar 2019


The relationship between men and the wilderness dominants nature writing and the travelogue genre. Authors including Henry David Thoreau, Jack London, and Jon Krakauer centralized the male experience and have claimed the wilderness as a masculine space. Turning to contemporary culture, Bear Grylls is the de facto outdoors adventurer. He adeptly plays the Mountain Main role, an archetype unequivocally signifying gender. This is where Abi Andrews' debut, The Word for Woman Is Wilderness, positions itself as a contemporary feminist adventure novel.

The Word for Woman Is Wilderness is a first-person fictional narrative of 19-year old Erin. She realizes the privileged afforded to her by her British middle-class status and the protection heaved unto her by dominant gender norms. So she leaves her family and rigid neighborhood to learn more about herself and society's understanding of women. Cliché, definitely, but an uncommon trope for female characters.

Rejecting conventional methods of travel, Erin journeys to Alaska by barge and dog sled then hitchhikes across Canada until she arrives at Denali National Park. Along the way, she records a documentary about her experiences, asking questions that draw out her subjects' cultural histories and perspectives of modernity. She focuses her literal and figurative lens on how gender informs personal freedom while maintaining a critical voice against masculinist ideologies and patriarchal control.

Essentially, Erin wants to know why it is socially acceptable for men to reject society by turning to wilderness survival and women are dissuaded from doing so. She never finds the answer. Instead, she sketches the various social factors constructing the gender politics of wilderness survival. For example, she reflects on her upbringing and wonders why women are confined to private spaces, but men are allowed to roam and conquer public spaces. More so, she critiques London and Krakauer for centralizing androcentrism. She notices that London's 1903 depiction of the dogs in Call of the Wild ignores basic animal biology. Rather than being led equally by a male and female breeding pair, London's lead dogs are male. The female dogs are either eventually killed or go insane. Their fate explicitly symbolizing the consequences of transgressing gender norms.

Indeed, almost every interaction and experience Erin undertakes exhibits a specific gender bias and the systematic marginalization of women. She is constantly challenged by paternalism, archaic conceptions of women's worth, and unyielding (and unwanted) physical protection, yet pursues her vision and journey with clarity.

It is impossible to categorize The Word for Woman Is Wilderness into a specific genre. The novel is more of a bricolage of musings resembling travel, science, memoir, and philosophical writing. Erin's thought process is vast, oftentimes scattered, ranging from space colonization to Native American forced migration and loss of cultural history. As such, the narrative is non-linear, and chapters are more akin to disconnected articles rather than following a designated trajectory. Erin's exploration of self-identity and feminism are the only concrete plot points. However, her character development is secondary to Andrews' meditations and deconstructions.

In the novel's second half, Erin lives in solitude and without the secondary characters breaking up the stream-of-consciousness, but Andrews' voice takes over. Erin's exposition is lost to Andrews' philosophical discourses rendering the character as nothing more than an instrument conveying the author's ideas. More so, Andrews' incorporates graphics, images, interviews, and video transcripts, in addition to conventional storytelling. The multitude of formats overburdens the narrative instead of extrapolating Erin's character or progressing the plot.

It is unfortunate that Erin's narrative competes with Andrews' philosophical considerations. Erin is an intriguing character. She has a strong sense of self, sharp social awareness, and palpable empathy for those around her. She frequently confesses to purposely lying to family members and acquaintances because she does not want to defend her actions against the fallout dictated by entrenched and archaic gender norms. Frequently, these lies are hilariously written and are understandable when considering Erin's undertaking. Regardless, Erin's characterization is worthy of further development. As such, The Word for Woman Is Wilderness' scope is way too ambitious and unfocused.

Throughout the novel, Erin reflects on the significance of prominent historical figures such as Rachel Carson and cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. Certainly, male explorers have not been the only adventurers. Yet the histories of Louise Boyd, Hannah McKeand, Beryl Markham, Robyn Davidson, and others have not reached popular culture's echelons and escaped Andrew's purview. Inexplicably, she excessively references Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, idealizing his societal rejection and penchant for reclusiveness without problematizing his social and political impact. Infrequently, Andrews' expand her gaze beyond the handful of male explorers who indelibly benefited from patriarchal privilege. In doing so, her critiques of adventuring and gender establish a straw man fallacy. Examining the histories of female explorers and situating Erin's narrative within the historical gaps would only strengthen Andrews' argument.

Whereas Erin embodies patriarchal rejection, The Word for Woman Is Wilderness is too scattered to develop her activism fully. More resembling a collection of long-form articles, Andrews' novel does, however, deliver a fierce love for the wilderness and a call to subvert systematic gender marginalization.

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