After reading my new biography of World War II spy Virginia Hall, Code Name Badass, a seasoned biographer told me, “I’m... pleasantly surprised you got away with it!” The surprise was justified: it’s not often you see a YA nonfiction work that’ll make your grandma clutch her pearls. Badass is meant to read like an episode of Drunk History, with all the irreverence of the Comedy Central hit intact—but with more than 50 pages of endnotes.
My Pussy Riot–style ambush on the genre has f-bombs falling on its pages. This book comes to the fight with brass knuckles and one of the most audacious women ever to enter the ring of war as its subject. I wanted the language to reflect the dirty fighting of guerilla warfare and the culture of my readers, most of whom armor themselves for the daily onslaught of the patriarchy with clothing and accessories emblazoned with so-called foul language.
It’s possible to drop an f-bomb and an endnote at the same time, I assure you.
Despite the increasing presence of female writers, subjects, and narrative approaches to nonfiction, I’m still not seeing many books that marry the deep research required of a quality biography with bingeable prose. With the rights of women constantly under threat, the last thing my readers want is another biography by the man, for the man, about a man. I may be writing about the past, but the future is female.
It was exhilarating to write the book I wanted to read—as though I’d ditched history class and hung out behind the gym, sneaking a cigarette with the French Resistance instead of reading a dry chapter on the early days of asymmetrical warfare.
Badass is about a disabled woman whose job was to be invisible, but who was also rendered invisible not only by the men in power she worked with but by the privileged few who chose to write and acquire biographies. Did I want to make a little noise with my book, since its subject was often silenced? Hell yes I did. And to be heard over all the dudes in the biography section, I knew I’d need to do a bit of literary shouting.
According to Slate, as recently as 2015, roughly three out of every four popular history books were written by men, and of the books that were classified as biographies, 72% were written about men.
If most biographies are written by and about men (and we’re mostly talking white Western men), then it’s imperative we include more female, nonbinary, BIPOC, disabled, LBGTQ+, and non-Western approaches to subjects and storytelling. Just as we’re seeking greater diversity in all areas of American life, we should be demanding it of our biographies, too. It’d be nice to see that diversity reflected in the editorial gatekeepers who determine which biographies to publish, as well. How about more biographies that tell stories of lives outside the confines of traditional footnoted prose, such as graphic nonfiction titles like March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Trinity?
The Notorious RBG, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, was such a hit precisely because it eschewed the seemingly tried-and-true approach to biography. The success of titles such as Mallory O’Meara’s fusion of Hollywood biography and personal memoir, The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, suggests that readers are eager for new ways of approaching history. I enjoy when an author draws a bridge between their subject’s challenges and their own—this allows me, the reader, to get closer to them, too.
We’ll always have the scholarship and heft of a David McCullough or Ron Chernow. But many readers I know—myself included—long for biography that’s infused with the energy of the subject’s life (often iconoclastic, passionate, and dramatic) and wouldn’t mind seeing a clear line drawn between the past and the present. In short: relevant biography, as modern as its 21st-century readership.
I’m not alone in taking the genre’s road less traveled, but I want to see more writers on this road with me. There’s no map, but you have a lot of fun getting where you’re going.
I share some of Virginia Hall’s privileges: I’m white, middle-class, educated, American. Hall’s access to education and travel is what allowed her to become one of the greatest spies of all time. But she was also disabled and a woman. These two barriers created numerous obstacles throughout her life. And yet it was her character—her grit, moxie, and doggedness—that made me want to write about her.
In order to do Hall’s extraordinary life justice, I had to write in a way that was as divergent as the woman herself.
Author Heather Demetrios won a PEN America Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her novel Something Real.