Reading Commentary: Daughter of Earth (1929)
Daughter of Earth is the story of Marie Rogers, a young woman, thirty years old as she stands at the edge of a Danish sea and retells, in the manner of the great novelists of remembrance, her life. Unlike those men-writers of remembrance, though, nostalgia is absent. Or, nostalgia would be absurd, even grotesque, because what she remembers us into is a life of a proletarian woman in the Mid- and Southwest in the early 20th century.
From her vantage point at the edge of the Danish sea, Rogers reveals to us the expanse of a struggle that has outlived her and her author, Agnes Smedley. The struggle is towards socialism, certainly, as Rogers’ younger life of brutal poverty—her mother’s economic dependence on a husband whose heart and mind and body have been destroyed by bosses, by mining companies, by the vagaries of weather by which those without the means of suitable shelter are battered like shallow-rooted trees, like birds unable to migrate for want of cashflow—prime a young Rogers for a commitment to life on the left.
But more critically, Rogers’ struggle becomes of the left. As socialism offers her a language (which is power) through which to struggle against the structural oppressor of capital, she nevertheless encounters within that language an identical powerlessness to that perpetuated by capital: an ongoing silencing specific to women, to female bodies making the mighty attempt of struggling alongside male bodies. In socialism broadly, Rogers finds yet another language, becoming deeply invested in the Indian liberation movement, but here again she finds for all the rhetoric of liberation, the violence of silencing, violence perpetrated and perpetuated in its uniquely gendered, i.e. sexual, form.
Wikipedia calls this book an “autobiographical novel,” and certainly its author used her own life to shape the story. However I reject qualifiers of “novel”—such adjectives do the work of qualifying, diminishing, positioning. “Autobiographical novel” signals to the left that this is “safe” literature, i.e. that we read this and can use it as text because it really happened. The materialism is indeed historical. But literature must be read for precisely its unreality. The unreality of literature is praxis. It is the compiling of what-if?s, an enormous effort of imagination: asking, and answering, “What shall come to pass, if material conditions are thus? When what comes to pass does come, what will be the material effects on real people, or people who look and sound and suffer precisely as real people do?”
Daughter of Earth is inspiring and should be read for its glorious portrait of a woman committed to the liberation of all people everywhere, through her belief in socialism. But Daughter must also be read for its cautions. It reminds us, emotionally and intellectually in the way only great literature can, that the language of solidarity, powerful indeed as it is, is not a bulwark for violence that has always been and continues to be exercised against those who are not male, through gendered power, political power, social power. It is only by dismantling the violence inside our own struggle that we will achieve anything close to the vision of socialism we strive relentlessly towards.
Haleh Roshan is an Iranian-American writer and DSA member in New York City. Hang out with/commission her@halehroshan.