For Books’ Sake Talks To: Katherine Angel

9th Oct 2012


Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell is an experimental work by academic and writer Katherine Angel. A book with a distinctive form, it uses a combination of personal experience, reading and reflection to discuss the themes of sex and desire.

I found this book to be a hugely generous read. A jewelry box of thoughts and references, I’ve flicked back through it more than once to find a glint of something new. I was thus, particularly pleased to ask the author a few questions about her influences and the story behind Unmastered.

Angel’s writing is clearly steeped in feminism. As someone who stumbled upon Gender Trouble (and the rest thereafter) in my early twenties, I’m intrigued to know how she came upon feminism but, perhaps unsurprisingly, there isn’t an answer.

“It’s almost as if [feminism] was always there”, she tells me. “I was very aware, from a young age, of sexism, inequality, and hostility towards women with feminism.”

Angel grew up through her teens reading writers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, Naomi Wolf and Elaine Showalter among many others, the names of whom she throws out like confetti. This has formed a well digested and reflective point of view that is wealthy with nuance.

Her role as Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for History of Medicine at the University of Warwick has furnished Angel with a vast breadth of academic influences, but she also cites a capricious assortment of cultural ones; from Wuthering Heights singer Kate Bush to director and photographer Cindy Sherman; Italian novelist and playwright Dacia Maraini to Sylvia Plath.

The author’s background has built the confident feminism which pervades Unmastered and seems to bolster her even when other feminists have deemed her views to be unacceptable.

Angel illustrates how she has felt feminism, in some instances, enforces precisely the same “shaming and silencing” of women’s sexuality that it seeks to oppose. This is shown through an occasion when Angel listens to Shere Hite and is disappointed to find the disapproval with which penetrative sex with men is discussed.

“Some feminist languages around sexuality can reassert a sense of shame and forbiddeness around female desire, and can be experienced as a set of rules about what you can feel,” she tells me.

Angel successfully deploys personal experience to illustrate a difficulty which certainly resonates with me, but which I’m also sure will resonate with many other women who have trouble reconciling their desire with their feminism.

Angel writes close to her own experience, for me this quiet specificity speaks volumes allowing the reader to relate in a visceral way to her lust and her pain, disappointment and disillusionment.

Memoir and musing combined; Unmastered has a fragmented form and is written as a number of short chapters each split into parts and each part containing a number of short passages. The presentation style that has been chosen seems to have come about as quite an organic development of the work.

Angel explains, “Unmastered came out of thinking about gender, power, sexuality, and feminism as these operate in my own life. It came out of living the questions…”

The tight relationship between her own personal experience and her thinking led to Angel’s inclusion of her experience of abortion in the book. A thorny part of Unmastered, its juxtaposition alongside tales of desire is simultaneously almost unseemly and perfectly sensible.

As Angel tells me; “the book paints a portrait of the pleasures of sex and desire, but also its risks and fears and hopes – and pregnancy, abortion, fertility, are all there in the mix.”

Often this side of sex and desire is relegated to a woman’s experience, alone and divorced from what happens in the bedroom, but they are of course, intrinsically linked to sex and thus their omission is a key omission of any woman’s experience of sex.

Discussing this part of the book, Angel says that “the excessively judgmental and punitive language” that we see used in reference to abortion is an instance of a wider issue in political debate and the media, that sees human experiences which are complex “reduced to stark polarities”.

This seems to be the crux of Unmastered in its spattered and streaming form, showing complexity for what it is; wonderful, pleasurable, painful and confusing.

I’m personally very much looking forward to following Angel’s future writings, her next project will be an academic book on Female Sexual Dysfunction in psychiatry. She also tells me that she’s thinking about a future book on the idea of post-feminism and how we think about time and performance.

If you’d like to add Unmastered to your feminist theory shelf, it is available from Amazon, Foyles, or from your local indie book store.

Henna Butt