Because I Said So: Idiomatic Insistence and Queer, Feminist Refusal in Woolf, Nelson, and Philip Restricted; Files Only

Robb, Melinda (Fall 2022)

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This dissertation examines the writing of Virginia Woolf, Maggie Nelson, and M. NourbeSe Philip to theorize a queer, feminine literary strategy that I am calling idiomatic insistence. All three writers, working in distinct genres and historical and geographical contexts, articulate a refusal to be interpellated into extant theoretical conversations, which would threaten these writers’ capacity for expression. In these cases, expression-limiting phenomena include: rigid ideas about femininity, queerness, maternity, and writing; too-high expectations; theoretical and ethical aporias; restricted access to scholarship; and canonical bias.


As feminine writers, Woolf, Nelson, and Philip are often burdened with ethical and theoretical tasks related to identity and politics, and with expectations that they would conform to fantasies. In order to write from their idiomatic perspectives, then, they always begin from a position of disappointing external expectations. In A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, Woolf accepts the platform to speak on femininity and war, and refuses to answer the questions posed to her, instead, taking the at-the-time rare opportunity to speak from her own perspective. In The Argonauts, Nelson engages in an irresolvable debate with her partner on the violence of representation, only to continue memorializing their relationship with the same violent, reductive language; she explicitly bristles at, and disrupts the assumptions made about her as a figure of queer maternity. Philip articulates an ethical aporia in writing Zong!—a text that insists on the omnipresence of historical trauma that might otherwise be ignored or repressed. 


In this project, I show how beginning from this position of insistent disruption of expectation creates opportunities to trouble and expand the scope of literary discourse on femininity and queerness, and more broadly. With idiosyncratic priorities and stakes, and insufficient time to address their interlocutor’s demands and concerns, these writers take a page from Winnicott’s good enough mother to validate their unique interests and expressions, opening space for feminine writing to emerge as more than its constraints.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents







Introduction – Enough!                                                                                 1


Chpater 1 – A Point of Fact:                                                                          23

Virginia Woolf’s Ecstatic Discourse                                                             


Transition 1                                                                                                     90


Chapter 2 – “Ugh, Move On”: Maggie Nelson’s Queer Poetics              98


Transition 2                                                                                                     140


Chapter 3 – Zong!’s Echolocations                                                              147


Conclusion                                                                                                      192


Works Cited                                                                                                    204

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