Gaby Wood, critic and director of the Booker Prize Foundation wrote in The Telegraph that “How to Be Both is, unashamedly, a novel of ideas. We almost never exist in a single tense, it suggests, or have a fixed identity”. This reference to the award-winning novel by Ali Smith (1962, United Kingdom) is undoubtedly a good place to connect to the frequently conflictual role of literature in the connection between history and gender. This debate has become more stimulating ever since the expression ceased to pertain almost exclusively to the sphere of feminism, with the rise of LGBT and queer studies, which have introduced a new set of concepts and a myriad range of ideas capable of objectively questioning the canon and broadening the scope of the debate.
The work by this Scottish writer, a committed feminist activist and dedicated advocate of anti-discrimination, has contributed a great deal to this discussion, through the portrayal of characters who struggle with deep inner conflicts and who often express their existential anguishes and identity crises either symbolically or crudely. In this discussion with the writer Richard Zimler, this work serves as the starting point for a wider reflection, spanning the prisms of literature, history and the varying definitions of gender, with an author for whom art, as “the essential, the only thing that matters” is mainly “the place where things that are impossible to say become understandable and are articulated. The place where all things can be said in many ways”.