Art Historian Challenges Gender Stereotypes

Art Historian Challenges Gender Stereotypes

Published: June 21, 2012 (Issue # 1713)

Irada Vovnenko reads extracts from her new book, ‘The Dress Code of Inspiration,’ at the city’s W Hotel last week.

When we are brave enough to look our mistakes square in the face, we often realize that, although each situation was very different, the key to our failure and subsequent frustration was due to the same thing: Fear.

A recent essay by a European colleague summarizes the five most common regrets of dying people based on conversations with hospice patients. It showed that almost everyone regrets not being brave enough to express their feelings and not having the courage to act without considering what others will think and say about them. In other words, people regret not being true to their hearts and betraying themselves — out of fear.

The experience of overcoming fears and insecurities is at the heart of Irada Vovnenko’s new book, “The Dress Code of Inspiration,” which has just been published by Moscow’s Astrel publishing house.

Most contemporary female Russian writers either serve their readers a meager diet of detective stories or “how to ensnare a billionaire” soap-opera-esque, semi-autobiographical sagas. Vovnenko, who recently co-authored the bestseller “Love and Other Dissonances” with Polish writer Janusz Wisniewski, makes female emotionality the focus of her stories.

Thirty-nine-year-old Vovnenko, an art historian by training, works at the St. Isaac’s Cathedral Museum and used to be head of public relations at Ruhrgas oil and gas company in Germany. She started writing only four years ago, her first book being born out of her own frustrating romantic experiences. By contrast, “The Dress Code of Inspiration” was admittedly the product of a happy love story.

It would be far-fetched to call Vovnenko’s book strictly autobiographical, yet the author makes it clear that her personal first-hand emotional experience served as the foundation of the story.

“I wanted to talk about human fears — let’s be honest, we all have them — we are afraid of our own emotional range, of showing affection, of becoming old…we dread our first wrinkles, and being honest often seems like a Herculean task,” Vovnenko said at the presentation of her book at the city’s W Hotel on June 14. “These fears are an obstacle in our lives and, when they take over, they ultimately make us insensitive.”

The way out, according to Vovnenko, is through being inspired and able to get carried away by a spontaneous happy experience.

“The Dress Code of Inspiration” is the story of a woman who had the courage to leave behind her fears— many of which are distinctly Russian.

Russian society is pitiless toward its women, and most ordinary women humbly accept the harsh standards that are imposed on them.

‘The Dress Code of Inspiration.’

“If a woman does not have a child by the age of 30, let’s face it, she has failed as a woman.” This phrase, casually dropped by one of the country’s most popular TV presenters, is perceived by thousands of women to be a truth. Another common belief in Russia is that falling in love when you are over 40 is unseemly.

Vovnenko does not argue against the many ridiculous and damaging prejudices. Neither does the writer analyze the paths these misconceptions take. She simply tells the story of a journalist, Yulia, who fights back against them and finds happiness. In a sense, the book is “the diary of a woman in love.”

“It is common knowledge that loved-up women over 40 look almost indecent; they look as if their feelings have more to do with theatricality or a climacteric hormonal imbalance than genuine deep emotions,” the book reads, sharing the thoughts that race through Yulia’s mind. “In fact, such women look almost repulsive to others, so inappropriate is their state!”

In the nearly 250-page book, Yulia, who was married for almost 20 years (and gets divorced during the course of the story) is feeling bored senseless when the reader first meets her. She has a passionate romance with a person she feels is the love of her life. Alas, this is not how the story ends, and the heroine goes through the bitter realization that, nearing 40, she has fallen victim to a dangerous, manipulative Don Juan type with stunning looks and impeccable speech, peppered with quotations from famous people.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” This quote from Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is key to Vovnenko’s book.

“Most people try to hide their imperfections and complexities behind lies, or, at the very least, story-like versions [of what their lives are really like],” the writer said. “Things seem easier to bear this way. And our men are afraid of admitting their love for a woman because they perceive it as a sign of weakness. Being a strong-willed man is equal to being a macho guy who goes in and out of relationships as easily as an eagle taking flight.”

Yulia does in fact end up finding the love of her life, although this demure, widowed Afghan war veteran-turned businessman at first seems like a most unlikely partner.

Perhaps surprisingly, Vovnenko’s prose has attracted the attention of a fair number of male fans, as was evident at her book presentation at W Hotel and a book-signing with her readers at Dom Knigi bookstore. Nikolai Burov, director of the St. Isaac’s Cathedral Museum and the former head of the city’s Culture Committee, is one self-confessed admirer of Vovnenko.

“Female writers can give us men insights into our own lives we would never even think of and open new perspectives from angles that would otherwise be unthinkable,” Burov said.

“And these insights, especially when they come at the right time, are incredibly valuable.”

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