Contemporary Issues: The Word for Woman Is Wilderness

Being a part of Generation Z comes with a lot of grief. Typically clashing with our parents and grandparents’ ideas of gender, race, and sexuality leads to anger and misunderstanding.

‘Women are, in our society, simultaneously social and maternal, crazy and wild.’

In this era of uncertainty propagated by the events leading up to and following the 2016 US election where terms such as ‘feminism’ and ‘woman’ have been ignorantly censored, comes the debut novel by Abi Andrews.

A Journey of Self-Discovery


It may be too easy by reading the title and the blurb of the novel that Andrews wants us to return to nature in a spiritual hippy-yoga-retreat sort of way and the novel can be easily dismissed as a journey of a character trying to find meaning and selfhood in a world of rapid, overwhelming communication and the age of screens.

It is thanks to the style and tone of Andrews’ writing that scoops the narrative up from falling down to clichés stemmed from its coming of age and ‘finding one’s self’ narrative that we’ve certainly seen before.

Recent works such as Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and Memoir Wild by Cheryl Strayed, both of which have been adapted into critically acclaimed films.

In both narratives, the protagonists choose to leave economically comfortable ways of living due to a significant event in their personal lives. This is where Andrews’ novel stands out.

The addition of her protagonist being only 19 reworks the overwhelmingly male-driven exploration narratives that Erin, the protagonist, simultaneously quotes, questions and redefines in order to claim her journey as her own and not something infiltrated by what she calls ‘Mountain Men.’

A New Generation

In many ways, Erin’s young age and her determination to embark on a journey to Alaska on her own flags up issues.

However, getting to know Erin as her journey progresses switches this feeling of dread to one of encouragement; I began rooting for her all the way, to finish this journey, to prove something to herself on her search for authenticity.

In short, to read of a female victory amongst the muddied morals and failures of men is to read of hope and the young voice of a new generation who are growing up through all of this. It is inevitable that Erin comes across gender-targeted assault on this journey.

We feel her panic brewing as she makes her escape from a creepy male truck driver. In one of her most desperate moments in the novel, Erin is bleeding, afraid and alone along a highway near Winnipeg. A Native American woman named Rochelle finds Erin and helps her which also continues a thread within the narrative of the dichotomy between nature and native people.

Erin asserts frequently relates men historically ‘discovering’ countries and colonising them with the masculine penetration of natural spaces. The very masculine notion of claiming something as your own by leaving a mark is one which Andrews consistently challenges.

She comes to the conclusion that women are a part of nature, therefore, men invading nature mirrors the truck driver’s attempted attack on Erin.

Andrews strives to reclaim nature as a contemplative, feminine space belonging to the indigenous people.

Literature and Feminism


Not only is Andrews unafraid of the word ‘feminist,’ she does not reduce its semantics to a ‘white feminism’ that has been distinguishing itself as ‘feminism’ on social media.

White feminism is constructed out of ignorance as to what feminism is; it is based on white privilege in both the economic and social sense therefore entirely non-representative of what feminism actually stands for in the 21st century.

And similarly, to how the novel nurtures the Gen Z view that gender is not a fixed concept, yet one of a dynamic and changeable nature, the novel transgresses fluidly over genre boundaries in order to reanimate the perhaps overworked coming-of-age narrative.

The Word for Woman is Wilderness and Contemporary Issues

One thing The Word for Woman is Wilderness did remind me of was my lost days doing my Bronze Duke of Edinburgh award. Memories of traipsing through sodden forests with trench-foot came flashing back to me.

With this, I began reading with a hesitancy but luckily, the novel is not all about working out how to use a Trangia to make sloppy porridge in the middle of a field.

In fact, Lucy Scholes writes in The National: ‘You certainly don’t have to be a nature freak or a wilderness nut to be able to enjoy Erin’s explorations. I was entranced by Andrews’s descriptions of barren snowy wastes, Erin’s moving encounter with a bear and the vision of a sunset from a mountain top looking out across the Alaskan tundra.’

The novel finishes with an intelligent and beautifully crafted love letter and manifesto for change. Erin writes to Ted Kaczynski, who is a real-life figure dubbed the ‘Unabomber’ spending a life sentence in prison.

In 1969, he chose to live in the wilderness whilst targeting those who involved in modern technology and industrialisation with his ‘letter bombs.’ Erin addresses the letter to him as he has been an influence on her journey.

She realises that he hates women and feminism so writes a letter detailing how the dissolution of the patriarchy would in fact improve the preservation of the wilderness which they both share a love for. This powerful and timely letter ends the novel, making readers aware of its contemporary nature.

Andrews seamlessly links the dissolution of the patriarchy with equal rights, the idea of being a world citizen and population control. It seems all too simple, a dream-like method of erasing current social and environmental problems.

It is easy to fall in love with Erin and Andrews’ vision, and fundamentally, this underpins why the novel feels like an escape from the daily horrors depicted on news channels and global political tensions that seem out of our control.

The Novel and Escapism



Reading the novel feels like an escape, for me it is initially a physical escape from being on my laptop or phone and having my eyes paralysed by the screen. In other ways for me, it is entirely relatable, a protagonist with such clear ideas about feminism, indigenous people and their land and all of this in relation to her male predecessors.

Erin wishing for an end to oppression against a woman is all too relevant in 2018 with the #MeToo movement striving to end sexual harassment in the workplace and by physically removing herself from inner cities and entering nature at its most untamed signifies a wanting to escape this kind of oppression.

However, it seems that wherever men are, trouble is also there.

A Time Capsule of a Novel


There is much to admire about Andrews’ debut novel. It is so self-assured and direct in its presentation of ideas and attitudes towards modern problems affecting a woman in the world.

Ultimately, Erin decides that patriarchy is damaging but ultimately necessary because it has got us this far but now it is time for a change if we want to preserve our world and create a fairer place to live for all human beings.

The idea of ‘time-capsulisation’ is intriguing and a successfully exploratory metaphor; Erin argues that we need to preserve and remember history in order to learn from it yet there is this underlying anxiety of what the future holds.

I think that this is an accurate way to explain some of the politically minded, feminist activists of my generation: we are researching and learning for ourselves about the history they didn’t teach us in school, criticising current mistakes made by leaders and constructing an ideal of what we want to live through in the future.

Being out in the wilderness allows Erin’s ideas about the world, always supported by famous philosophical and scientific figures, to fully bloom and show us the impressive intelligence and the ability of woman when in the wilderness.


camera-iconImage respects to - Her Campus