Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian women’s non-fiction writing
Today’s Monday Musings was inspired by a post last month in Overland literary journal’s blog. The topic – Women and non-fiction writing – is a big one, bigger really than I have time for now, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to make a start.
In the Overland post, which comprised an interview with writer, Rebecca Giggs, Giggs discusses the issue of authority in non-fiction and the notion that “nonfiction writing is supposed to have a fidelity to the real world. Disgrace comes to the author who adds too much of the unreal to their mix”. She talks of how it is believed that “things must be stated, accounted for, and settled. Declared. The unknown turned into the known” and sees this view very much as a gendered thing. As male, in other words. And then she continues
But of course, this is not how the world actually is. Inner and outer worlds are not so easily divided! And permitting that fact – allowing such things as the corporeal, the uncertainty, the experiential in – doesn’t just make clear that falsity, it also lets in other modes of authority. It questions the role of women’s interior lives in our political discourse.
So much to unpack here that I fear getting bogged down, so will just keep to the surface (more or less). I have always been intrigued by the subjective in history, ever since I read EH Carr‘s What is history in which he argued, convincingly for me, the interpretive basis of history, that the role of the historian is significant in terms of what we come to know as “history”, as “fact”. I have no idea how Carr is viewed now as I’m not an historian but it would take a good argument to shake my belief in Carr’s basic premise.
And so, I like the changes I’m starting to see in non-fiction writing. I like the fact that the role of the historian – or, let’s broaden this to non-fiction writer – is becoming more transparent in the (in some anyhow) writing. And it seems that a lot of this is being driven (championed, even) by women writers (although my impression could be skewed by the fact that I’ve read more non-fiction by women over the last decade or so. I would love to hear whether you agree). In the rest of this post I’ll discuss a few of the writers who have come to my attention, in roughly the order I’ve read them.
Garner was the first to confront me with a new personal way of writing non-fiction. She put herself in the picture and told us exactly what she thought about the subjects she was writing about: college master-student harassment in The first stone, murder/manslaughter and duty of care in Joe Cinque’s consolation. Garner caused quite a furore with these books, particularly the former, but I’m not going to go into that here. Google if you are interested. My point is that she was fearless in putting herself in the frame, and in documenting her process. It’s exciting writing – and it’s honest. I like that, whether or not I agree with her views and conclusions. I like the fact that she allows us to see her thinking and to engage in the discussion – and engage we surely did.
In a way, Chloe Hooper in her Tall man did for Cameron Doomadgee‘s death-in-custody what Garner did for Joe Cinque. Chloe Hooper is less emotional, less heart-on-sleeve, than Garner but she does also put herself into the story, taking us with her as she researches the situation, and admitting her sympathies. She specifically raises at one point the issue of “historical relativities” which I read as meaning that the facts can be seen from different angles depending on where you are in the spectrum – in many often overlapping spectrums in fact, the historical one, the black-white one, the power one, to name a few.
Krien’s book Into the woods and essay Us and them work very much like Hooper’s book. She’s there in the story she is investigating. She researches all sides as best as she can. She makes her sympathies clear as they become clear to her, taking us, like Hooper, on her journey.
The Garner, Hooper and Krien books I’ve mentioned above are all pretty straightforward. They put the “I” in their nonfiction writing, something that was once a no-no. But they still focus on the “facts”, albeit recognising the subjective and/or interpretive aspect to them. Francesca Rendle-Short’s memoir-cum-fiction, Bite your tongue, though, is quite a different matter. And it is, I think, a good example of what Giggs is talking about when she talks about “letting the experiential in”. Rendle-Short’s story is powerful and no less valid or true because she has chosen to write most of it through a fictional voice. It’s a clever book. Most of it is told in the voice of the fictional Glory because “some stories are hard to tell, they bite back … [so] I’ve had to come at it obliquely, give myself over to the writing with my face half-turned” but the “real” Francesca has the odd chapter which comments on, validates, Glory’s experiences. The truths in this book are palpable.
Funder has said that she initially planned to write Stasiland as fiction but for several reasons turned it into non-fiction. One was that she wanted to honour the people whose stories she was telling, that in fact “it didn’t feel right” to turn those stories to another purpose. But, another reason was that she felt the stories were so far-fetched at times (such as the story of the “smell samples”) that they would not be believed in fiction. And so Funder wrote Stasiland as non-fiction and she, too, put herself in the book. When she interviews her subjects we don’t get a dry reportage of the results of the interviews, nor do we get a simple interviewer-interviewee style presentation. What we get is her in the room – reacting to the person as a human being while also reacting to, and reporting on, the facts being presented. The result is something rich in which the particulars lead to a complex universality (or truth) that encompasses both sympathy and horror.
Oh dear, I have gone on haven’t I … so I will close here on Giggs’ point about these new approaches letting in “other modes of authority”. I’m not 100% sure what she means by that, but what I take from it is a recognition that this new “authority” can encompass something beyond the mere “declaration” of facts, something that encourages us to empathise, something that might force us to confront the moral dimension to the stories being told. And this is, to me, a good thing. What’s more, in the right hands, it can make for darned good reads.
I’d love to know whether you read non-fiction and what you look for in it, particularly in terms of “authority” or, dare I say it, “truths” …