MARCH 4, 2021
IN HER SECOND BOOK, The Women I Think About at Night: Traveling the Paths of My Heroes (published in 2018 in Finland and available now in a fine translation by Douglas Robinson), the Finnish writer Mia Kankimäki finds herself 42 years old, unmarried, without children, and unemployed after having left a steady job in publishing. Sitting in her parents’ attic, she mulls her options and chosen fate: “[W]hat on earth,” she asks, “ [are] women like me […] supposed to do with their lives”? She draws her answer from a fleet of little-known historical women — her “honor guard” — who chafed against societal expectations and defied traditional roles, blazing uncharted paths despite being born into societies bound by gendered constraints. What proceeds is an unusual blend of literature and history, a meditation not only on the lessons the lives of past women can offer, but on the very process of seeking guidance. It is, however, also a cautionary tale, raising key questions about how we tell stories and, especially, about whose stories get told.
A mixture of travelogue, memoir, and biography, Kankimäki’s book was a best seller in Finland. Its rights have already been sold to 16 countries and counting. And no wonder — her dilemma is one to which many 21st-century women can relate. In European and North American literature, it joins a recent wave of books featuring female protagonists of all ages, often artists and writers, who contemplate how to live their lives amid the egalitarian visions and failed promises of second-wave feminism. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (2012–’15) belong to this growing subgenre, as does Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (2014). Most recently, Sheila Heti’s widely acclaimed Motherhood (2018) tackled the parallel acts of art-making and mothering head-on, while almost precisely enacting Nancy Chodorow’s psychoanalytic theories on “too-late” motherhood — the idea that some women’s ambivalence about becoming mothers plays out in ways that ultimately prevent them from realizing that they want to conceive until it is simply, biologically, too late. Still, it is never quite too late for Heti’s 36-year-old protagonist who, after grappling with her ambivalence about having a child, realizes that she draws her truest meaning from the creative act of writing. In The Women I Think About at Night, Kankimäki discovers that women have been coming to Heti’s conclusion for centuries.
As Kankimäki traces her own dual journey, interior and global, she differs from her peers mainly in the self-directed nature of her project: a search for historical paradigms, for stories of women who navigated similar internal pressures and external exigencies as those she, too, aspires to escape. These rigorously chosen heroes are her “night women,” individuals whose lives she has researched in-depth and whose stories she now stays awake to ponder. (“Why have they come to me, clung to me?” she asks, as she tries to find meaning by emulating their lives.) These exemplars extend across place and time, from 16th-century Bologna to 21st-century Tokyo.
Her search begins with a group of 19th- and early 20th-century writer-explorers, women who became best-selling travel authors after making “massive life changes at an advanced age.” This includes the Danish Karen Blixen (1885–1962) of Out of Africa fame, the Austrian Ida Pfeiffer (1797–1858), the English Mary Kingsley (1862–1900), the Belgian Alexandra David-Néel (1868–1969), and Kankimäki’s self-proclaimed “doppelgänger,” the Scottish Isabella Bird (1831–1904), “a fortyish, depressed spinster who suffers from headaches and insomnia, but who is fed up with the narrow confines in which her society has trapped her.” Clad in long dresses, toting umbrellas, constricted by corsets, and occasionally concealing ransom money and pistols, these women — all white, all European — scrambled up volcanic mountains, translated ancient texts, mounted elephants, and entered forbidden cities. Through their adventures, Kankimäki leads us to Africa, China, India, Hong Kong, Egypt, Morocco, Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains, New York, San Francisco, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Bird, we learn, was the first European woman to enter several parts of Japan, and Pfeiffer, Kingsley, and David-Néel were the first Europeans to set foot in parts of Indonesia, West Africa, and Tibet, respectively, a distinction lauded both in their own times and by Kankimäki. Among this group, only Pfeiffer had children.
Spurred by their formidable example Kankimäki embarks upon her own series of voyages, using her night women to inform her decisions even as she seeks out new stories. In Italy, she stumbles across the world of Renaissance women artists, painters who were highly successful in their own times but have only recently begun to feature in mainstream exhibitions: Sofonisba Anguissola (ca. 1532–1625), Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), and Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654 or later). In Japan, she traces the lives of two women who lived centuries apart: the late Edo painter, poet, and calligrapher Ema Saikō (1787–1861) — “a quiet radical” — and the contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), who has lived in a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo by choice since 1977, with her studio across the street. Although the book’s organizing motif falls a bit flat on these journeys, and the narrative tropes become both reductive and too convenient — these women all achieved success in their youth and each of the Italians married (the latter two even had children) — Kankimäki finds new parallels with these “women who did what they wanted.” She celebrates them, moreover, from unconventional angles: Fontana for sustaining a financially tenable career while birthing 11 children in an era when “every pregnancy was a potential death sentence to a woman,” Kusama for doing so while openly attending to her mental health. (Notably, at every stop, Kankimäki spends considerable time pondering the physicality of womanhood.)
Through these parallels, Kankimäki ensures that her and her night women’s journeys are always entwined. The reader learns little about Kankimäki’s parents or about the decisions she previously made, those that led her away from what she considers a clear road not taken. Rather, by gathering historical figures to whom she now relates, Kankimäki poses anew questions that have long captivated feminist thinkers and writers. What models for a non-traditional life can a woman find among women who lived in the past — individuals who do not commonly appear in history books but whose stories are there to be found by the discerning eye? And what might it mean to choose heroes whose legacies have largely been forgotten, if not erased?
At a time when women’s stories, past and present, are coming to be recognized as never before, this is an important project. Kankimäki has said that she “wanted to engage in dialogue with these women,” and her self-confidence as a writer-explorer grows as she traces their paths, actively absorbing their lessons and jotting down the advice she imagines they might give. Her approach takes many forms, from speaking directly to her subjects to brief nods when describing a situation that she, too, has experienced (“As the book project approached its conclusion, Mary [Kingsley] grew more depressed than before, and suffered from frequent migraines, insomnia, and exhaustion (check)”). When disturbed by their decisions or curious about details — from their rejection of suitors to how they bathed — Kankimäki pens them probing letters. When frustrated by their denunciation of the emerging feminist cause, she reasons that this was a necessary compromise: it was how they sustained enough mainstream respectability to continue traveling independently. And, when feeling particularly hard on herself, she invokes their idiosyncrasies: “I think: Dammit, I may not be the kind of woman I’d like to be, but then neither was Karen [Blixen].” Indeed, it is exactly as Kankimäki reconciles herself to these women’s less heroic choices — the compromises they made in order to maintain their unusual lifestyles — that she begins to free herself from her own 21st-century bind. As she embraces their flaws, she learns to accept her own. In the process, she provides a valuable (although incomplete) start for any reader’s continued engagement with women’s history.
Yet it is also here that the historical lens ceases to flatter. Kankimäki recently explained that she is “interested in the area between genres, in playing with different kinds of literature.” However, the invocation of past figures and events (even when they are not called forth as consciously as they are here) demands an author’s engagement with a set of issues that, unfortunately, go unexamined in the book. Although Kankimäki is willing to complicate her heroes’ choices within their own societies, and even worries that her night women may not be as “exemplary” as she has taken them to be, she does not question the complex global systems in which they participated. In other words, for an aspiring world traveler, she is remarkably unconcerned with race, and remains so even as racial tensions come to permeate her own experiences and those of her subjects. As a direct result, the book presents a woefully uncomplicated view of history, one that sidesteps the violent and destructive legacies of European colonialism and imperialism.
For example, Kankimäki’s longest journey is to Africa, in explicit emulation of Karen Blixen, her first night woman. Upon landing in Tanzania, Kankimäki stays with a couple she has never met, embarks on a lone safari accompanied by a local male guide, and jokes that her kanga, a cloth garment that traditionally includes a printed proverbial message, should read “Fortyish woman seeks meaning of life.” Throughout the trip, she uses Blixen’s experiences to push herself beyond her natural comfort zone, and eventually crosses the border to Kenya to visit Blixen’s house. (“KAREN I’m here stop,” she writes, reaching out to her hero by imagined telegram.) Most of all, Kankimäki deeply relates to Blixen’s situation in 1931, when she ended her 17-year stint in Kenya following a divorce, the failure of her coffee farm, a syphilis diagnosis, and her partner’s death. “What would Karen do with her life?” Kankimäki asks. “Exactly: What can a fortyish, familyless woman who has abandoned her work and her home do with her life?” She might have added “Nordic” as well.
Kankimäki is, after all, not unaware of her own whiteness. Soon after arriving in Tanzania, she wonders, “Am I allowed to look at everything through the eyes of an outsider, a foreigner, an alien? Will I be forgiven anything on the grounds that I at least try to understand?” At moments, she clearly experiences white guilt and fears her own colonial gaze. But she also reflects on the newness of these fears: “When I wrote about Japan in my first book, none of these concerns even occurred to me. I just wrote whatever came to mind.” Leaving her attitude to her first book aside, such brief acknowledgments feel inadequate in a work that is largely about self-scrutiny amid global encounters.
For while Kankimäki does not shy away from her heroes’ racism or cultural appropriations, she does not probe them, either. Rather, she is repeatedly content to simply recognize and label occasional transgressions, remarking, for instance, that one of her night women (Isabella Bird) could pen “shockingly racist” descriptions of Japan. Similarly, even as we read that Mary Kingsley made it her mission to “promote the Africans’ cause,” Kankimäki notes that Kingsley also “began to think of herself as semi-African.” This problematic self-appointment, like Bird’s racist renditions, goes without comment. Most shockingly, when describing the late 19th-century moment when European powers carved up the African continent for their own gain, Kankimäki omits mention of racial or colonial violence.
This is not to take away from any of her night women’s accomplishments, nor the challenges of Kankimäki’s own 21st-century dilemma. It is remarkable that Mary Kingsley scaled Mount Cameroon in 1895, the first European person to do so by the southeast route, a feat she managed by befriending the Fang tribe. At the same time, it is quite important to stress that, while Kankimäki’s night women did lack numerous fundamental freedoms, they were also part of an imperialist power structure that lingers largely unmentioned: a colonial system that enabled these writer-explorers to act as oppressors even while they were, themselves, also quite oppressed. It was in fact through their global travels and ensuing literary celebrity — the adventures and publications that Kankimäki so admires — that they gained influence as imperial players.
To acknowledge these intricate and multifaceted tensions would only have strengthened Kankimäki’s book. It would also have placed it firmly in dialogue with contemporary academic work, in which historians of gender and race are increasingly analyzing the complex roles that white women have historically played as both the oppressor and the oppressed. (This canon includes, among many other texts, Lisa Tetrault’s 2017 book The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848–1898 and Stephanie Jones-Rogers’s 2019 tome They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South.) There is a certain complicity in Kankimäki’s unwillingness, or lack of desire, to press her source materials in this direction. Moreover, by not asking how race and power shaped these women’s worldviews, she presents an incomplete perspective on their work.
In some ways, these tensions stem from another endemic problem, one that Kankimäki genuinely attempts to address and amend. As she is the first to admit, most of the women she studies — despite the firsts they accomplished and the publications they penned — have been left out of mainstream historical accounts altogether. Indeed, members of marginalized groups, including women, have been excluded from analytical narratives for so long that the very act of asserting that their stories are worth telling is often a laborious and lengthy first step. More than the perils of hero worship, then, what we see is the danger of heroizing individuals whose unconventional lives demand (and deserve) much more research, analysis, and interrogation than they have hitherto received. There simply is not the same room for revisionism when there is so little to revise. This risk of one-dimensionality adds a final challenge to Kankimäki’s thought-provoking, almost counterintuitive project: because she feels paralyzed by the trope that “‘everything’ is possible for the modern woman,” she seeks guidance from a time when very little was.
Ultimately, it is apt that even as Kankimäki searches for meaning through her night women’s journeys, their lessons do not lead in any linear direction. Their lives were complex; they were pioneering and quite fallible; they rose to certain occasions, and fell to others. This multidimensionality of perspectives and paths is, of course, one of the largest lessons that history can offer. Kankimäki has consolidated an impressive range of research, presenting a strong case for her guardians’ ability to inspire other women, present and future. But a deeper embrace of their multidimensionality would have allowed for their extraordinary global travels to speak more fully and respectfully to the tangled historical narratives to which they belong and to the intersectionality that imbues the question of what it means to be a woman today.
Paris A. Spies-Gans is a historian of gender and art. She received her PhD in History from Princeton University and her MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is currently a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.