Literature, Modern Languages

An interview with Maria Kathryn Tomlinson, author of ‘From Menstruation to the Menopause’

To celebrate the publication and upcoming book launch of her new book, From Menstruation to the Menopause: The Female Fertility Cycle in Women’s Writing in French, Dr Maria Kathryn Tomlinson was interviewed by fellow LUP author, Dr Antonia Wimbush (author of Autofiction: A Female Francophone Aesthetic of Exile). Both authors are currently Leverhulme Early Career Fellows and have collaborated on conferences and publications about the body in francophone culture. In the interview, the pair discuss the book’s transnational feminist and postcolonial approach, tips for adapting a thesis into a monograph, as well as Maria’s transition from the humanities to the social sciences.

Dr Maria Tomlinson and Dr Antonia Wimbush also recorded an audio version of this interview. You can listen to the full recording below.

AW: Please could you give a brief overview of the main arguments and the theoretical framework that you sustain throughout the book?

MT: My research started with reading second-wave French feminist theory about the female body. I found a few academic texts that applied these theories to non-European contexts. In my opinion, if we are going to apply this white, euro-centric theory, we really need to make sure that we nuance these ideas within the specific context that we’re examining. As many subsequent feminists such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Barbara Christian, and Audre Lorde have illustrated, you cannot apply one perspective to all women.

I use intersectional feminism as my main theoretical framework to really draw out, not only how we should be examining women’s writing but also to show how, since 1990, women’s writing in French has been highly intersectional in scope. The books explored in my monograph demonstrate that women’s experiences are influenced by factors such as socioeconomic status, politics, ethnicity, religion, and also the legacy of colonialism. So, overall, the main argument of the book is that, although contemporary women writers have followed in the footsteps of the second-wave feminists by challenging normative patriarchal ideas about the female body, they’ve done so from a much more nuanced and contextualised perspective.

AW: That sounds fascinating. I was really struck by the book’s transnational approach. What was the motivation behind your choice of cultural contexts and how did you decide to structure the book, taking those contexts into consideration?

MT: I chose these three specific contexts because I wanted diversity. So, with France, you have a country that is supposedly secular but shaped by Christian ideology. Algeria is an Islamic country and Mauritius is very multicultural, but it is primarily populated by Indo-Mauritian Hindus. I wanted to choose three different religious contexts to see how the novels characterised the influence of religion on women’s bodily experiences. I was also very keen to have two contexts that were not based in Europe as well. I did not want to position Europe as the centre of the francophone world and I wanted to give each country equal weighting. I also wished to explore the influence of a range of other factors on female bodily experience, such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status, politics and history.

AW: I think another strength of the book is the vast corpus that you include. How did you go about selecting the authors and their texts?

MT: That was really difficult because my initial plan was to look at existing studies about how the female fertility cycle has been represented in literature. I found the odd article about the representation of menstruation that led me to some books. I found quite a lot of really good academic studies on childbirth that mentioned specific authors. I found very little on the menopause. However, the main way that I found the corpus was spending hours and hours one summer in the BnF (the national library of France) in Paris. I looked at every single book that was on the shelves by contemporary women authors from Algeria, France and Mauritius. I would just skim through these books, trying to find references to menstruation, menopause and childbirth. Some of the books that I mention in the monograph are by lesser known authors about whom I’ve not seen any academic scholarship. It was just literally by finding their books randomly on shelves in the BnF, or even at Gibert Joseph, that I came across them.

lamp post in front of building during daytime
The BnF (The Bibliothèque nationale de France), Unsplash.

AW: Thinking more broadly about the process of writing the book, what advice would you give to somebody who wants to adapt their thesis into a monograph?

MT: Firstly, I removed a lot of the footnotes because when you write a thesis, you have to justify every single argument that you make – that’s just not necessary in a monograph. You don’t need to absolutely justify every single thing. So, authors should cut down those ‘thesis-type’ elements. Also, I think you need to think about the language that you use. In a thesis, we want to show how many fantastic, technical, and highly sophisticated academic terms we have learned. But, I think the best thing for a monograph is think about your audience. Think to yourself, ‘do I want my book to only be accessible to people with PhDs and above, or do I want a wider readership?’ I was very keen that undergraduate students be able to access my book. I remember, as an undergraduate, reading academic articles and having to work hard to try to understand what they were saying. So, I hope the language I’ve used means that an undergraduate could pick up my book, feel very engaged by it and find it useful for their essays.

Then of course, you need to think about the structure of your book and how your audience will engage with it. So, in my thesis, I wrote three chapters: one on menstruation, one on childbirth and one on menopause. In each, I covered all three cultural contexts. When writing my monograph, I thought that a country by country approach would be more relevant to my readers. With undergraduates, for example, it’s likely that they are either studying Algerian literature, Mauritian literature or women’s writing from France. Or, perhaps, they want to focus on one particular author. Finally, if you have already published part of your thesis, you need to make sure you get permission from those publishers to include that material in your monograph.

AW: That’s really good advice, thank you. The last question that I wanted to ask you was about your current project. I know that you’re now working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in journalism at the University of Sheffield. How did you find the transition from Humanities to Social Sciences?

Dr Antonia Wimbush and Dr Maria Kathryn Tomlinson

MT: I think it’s not a common transition. Certainly, I’ve only met a small handful of people that have done the same. I think the difficult thing is learning the new methodologies in social sciences, such as data collection, coding, and data analysis. Methods such as critical discourse analysis sound as if they are so different from what we do in the humanities. Yes, it is a completely different way of writing and structuring your work. But, actually, I’m still looking at how people use language, and my theoretical framework is quite similar. My theoretical framework is based on feminism and studies about societal attitudes towards menstruation. So really, I’m still examining how people use language but it’s more about how they use it in everyday situations in society, rather than literature. So, I would definitely say that a PhD in languages does really help you transition into other fields as well!

Tickets are now available for the virtual launch of Dr Tomlinson’s book on Wednesday 27th October 4pm-5pm, co-hosted by the Department of Languages and Cultures and the Centre for Health Humanities at the University of Reading. Get your free tickets for From Menstruation to the Menopause here.


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