Interviewed by Sommer Schafer

Read Serena Johe’s fiction piece, Willpower


Sommer:  Sometimes I think we lose sight of (or don’t want to talk about) women’s implication in the assaults on women. In “Willpower,” we see how Sonya’s mother’s opinions of Sonya’s body impact how Sonya views and treats her own body. What do you think are some of the responsibilities of women when it comes to stopping these cycles of female abuse and self-abuse?

Serena: I love the way you frame this question from the perspective of women’s responsibility towards other women. It’s something I similarly feel is often understated in conversations about the way women are viewed and treated, enough so that I think the statement requires some validation: women do have a responsibility towards other women.

What that entails is broad and somewhat difficult to define. Cycles of female abuse are systematic as a part of women’s oppression in general: women’s worth and potential are disparaged compared to men’s; we face additional barriers to reach positions of authority or influence, which marginalizes our voices, which curtails our ability to alter other’s expectations or standards of us, which undermines our ability to change the way we value ourselves and other women. (That’s the abridged version, at least.) Women are then beholden to constricted, heavily intertwined conceptions of womanhood, beauty, and success, and that rigidity is difficult to change when women so often judge each other based on those standards. That’s where women’s responsibility towards other women comes into play—to transform, abolish, or broaden those definitions so that we can ultimately break these cycles and move towards healthier, more productive modes of thinking and being.

I think that can be done in a number of ways. One would be to change the focus of our conversations about women to their skills and talents rather than their appearances. The traits that others validate often become the building blocks of our self-esteem, so something as simple as choosing to compliment the women in your life (and yourself) based on qualities other than beauty might ultimately help change how we value ourselves and other women.

I feel as if women are often ultimately relegated to what they look like. I hope there will come a time when women won’t feel the constant pressure of society’s eyes on us, assessing, critiquing. That we’ll simply feel free to just be instead of feeling the need to constantly prep ourselves. I think we’re getting closer. Your thoughts?

On the first point, I completely agree. Beauty and worth for women are often treated synonymously, and I think that’s particularly damaging when beauty is narrowly defined.

As to whether or not we’re getting closer to changing that…Yes and no. I think that definitions of beauty are broadening, and that’s an improvement, but it’s still beauty-centric. The fact that there’s so much emphasis on standards of beauty in conversations about inclusivity and feminism is symptomatic of how deeply we’ve internalized the link between appearances and women’s value. In other words, even if we create more ways to get there, we’re still implying that our goal as women is to be beautiful.

I think it would be more productive to try and create distinctions between beauty, self-worth, and womanhood. I’m thankfully hearing more of that lately, but when it comes to criticizing or complimenting women, appearances are still the crux of both, and the implication is that the ideal, most esteemed thing a woman can be is beautiful. If we focused on other qualities—humor, ambition, talent, to give a few examples—we could prioritize different aspirations and create more ways to feel good about ourselves. (Which would hopefully decrease the prevalence of eating disorders and other self-destructive cycles).

What are you writing these days? Any big projects in the works?

Anything that comes to mind! I’m currently working on a sci-fi short story about prenatal genetic engineering, as well as a non-fiction horror piece.

What’s some of the best advice you’ve ever received?

“Listen more than you speak.”

I’ve only ever regretted not taking this advice.

Do you have any advice to writers on handling rejection?

I think there’s a lot of helpful wisdom out there from writers more seasoned than myself, and I think most of it comes down to not letting rejection keep you from being productive—whatever that means for you.

Beyond that, one thing to keep in mind is that you may have passed the writing test but failed the marketing one. I’ve gotten several rejections on pieces before realizing I’d been submitting to the wrong types or genres of magazines. After re-targeting those stories, they quickly got published. (Oops.) Save yourself the heartache and consider the rejection from all angles. A genre horror magazine may not want your literary horror story, but a non-genre literary magazine might.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, and congratulations on your publication!