‘The Only Secrets People Keep: Strategies of Silence in American Women’s Writing’

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited or keynote talk at national or international conference


Taking its title from the closing lines of Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘1748’ (“The reticent volcano keeps/His never-slumbering plan–”) – “The only secret people keep/Is Immortality” – this paper investigates the use and importance of silence in women’s writing from Dickinson to the present day. While the ground covered cannot be exhaustive, I plan to show how writers as diverse as Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, Toni Morrison, Jayne Anne Phillips and Solmaz Sharif deploy silence as either a resistance to or subversion of male codes of writing, or as the result of enforced policies of state control. Whether it be Dickinson’s coded and gendered representation of knowledge from the mid-nineteenth century, Bishop and Sexton’s silencing of perceived deviant female activities (e.g., lesbianism; abortions), Morrison’s occluding of child rape and incest in her debut novel The Bluest Eye (1970), or Phillips’ intricate narrative of family secrets and legacies in her Vietnam War novel Machine Dreams (1984), female strategies of silence are both survival techniques as well as culturally conditioned modes of (not) speaking in particular environments and contexts.

The paper will close with an extended look at the 2016 poetry collection Look by the Iranian-American poet Solmaz Sharif, a volume that is built around the terminology found in the United States Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (up to October 2007) as well as redacted/censored letters-as-poems from an imagined detainee held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in the wake of the September 11th attacks on the US.
Period13 Oct 2019
Event title22nd International Colloquium of American Studies: Annual Conference of the Czech and Slovak Association for American Studies
Event typeConference
LocationOlomouc, Czech RepublicShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • American Studies
  • Women's writing
  • Silence
  • Secrets