Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman (eds), Rebellious daughters (Review)

Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman, Rebellious daughtersTo rebel or not to rebel, that is the question. At least, it’s the question that interested memoirists Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman who, having written their own stories about “conservative upbringings and subsequent rebellions”, wanted to discover what other women could reveal about that “universal life experience”, the rebellion against parents. This book, Rebellious daughters, is, obviously, the end result – and it makes for fascinating reading.

In their Introduction, Katsonis and Kofman quote American author Gordon Lish’s statement that the  best thing writers can do is to get themselves “in trouble”, to “make it hot” for themselves. This is what they wanted from their contributors, they wanted them to take risks – and it’s what they got.

Like most anthologies, Rebellious daughters has been carefully ordered. It starts with one of the grand-dames of Australian literature, Marion Halligan (“The daughters of debate”) who describes herself as “well-behaved”, as the “good girl” that so many of the later contributors rebelled against. But this is not to say that she didn’t engage in her own little subversions, such as reading forbidden books. They didn’t do her any harm, she writes, “the delicate ones were my parents.” I related to Halligan’s story because, like her, I was the eldest, “the one who came before, who paved the way” and didn’t rebel dramatically. But, enough of that, I’m talking order, structure, here.

The book ends with author-journalist Jane Caro (“Where mothers stop and daughters start”) who shares her daughters’ rebellions, the loud in-your-face one and the withdraw-and-don’t-engage one. Her motherly perspective provides a satisfying, logical conclusion to the anthology. And then, right in the middle, the ninth story of seventeen, is author-publisher Rebecca Starford’s “Who owns my story”. Drawing on her own life and memoir, Starford grapples with the form, with the ethics and practice of memoir writing. I was intrigued by the placement of this contribution, but it’s clever. Having read eight already, I was ready to think about the issues Starford posed, and then, as I read the final eight, I had them in mind.

So, what are the issues? Starford starts by quoting author JP Dunleavy, who said that “The purpose of writing is to make your mother and father drop dead with shame”. Starford likes this quote because

it reveals, simply and with a degree of sharp comedy, the risky nature of memoir writing.

She touches on several issues. One is the idea of shame, and whether it is “an emotion women memoirists suffer from more acutely than our male counterparts.” She thinks it is, and wonders if this is due to girls being taught that they should never speak out. She also explores “a nagging moral quandary”, that is, “the right” to tell stories that involve others. It is, she admits, “the biggest ethical question a memoirist faces” particularly when the memoir portrays these others “in an unflattering light”. She discusses the option of writing the story as fiction. (But we all know cases where people “see” through that – or think they do – don’t we!) Anyhow, she says that she couldn’t choose the fiction option:

For me, the act of writing a memoir was important to the process. If I’d written my experiences as fiction, I would have been hiding behind the genre, and that would have been self-defeating, less courageous, and less honest.

This makes sense to me – and implies that many memoirs are a form of catharsis or, at least, of resolving one’s past. This seems to be the case for Starford who concludes that her memoir has resulted in improved communications with her father. And, she says, while her memoir might have seemed like rebellion to him, for her it was about “seeking to understand him and my mother” and how her experiences as a child had shaped her.

Starford’s analysis of the personal and ethical implications of writing memoirs provides a wonderful grounding for understanding of the other “stories”. There’s a lot of pain here, but there’s also humour, occasionally laugh-out-loud, more often wry. Lee Kofman’s story (“Me, mother and Sexpo”) about taking her conservative Hassidic mother to the Sexpo exhibition is hilarious, but is also a lesson in the assumptions we make – particularly about our parents. Michelle Law’s (“Joyride”), on the other hand, perfectly captures her pain of rebelling only to discover that she’d misread the feelings of the boy in question.

Not surprisingly many of the stories are about tension over boys and sex. Krissy Kneen (“Wundermärchen: A retelling of my grandmother”), whose Steeplechase I’ve reviewed, comes to realise in the end that instead of being the rebellious granddaughter she thought she was, she had taken on her grandmother’s mantle, she’d become a storyteller who likes to shock the innocent. It’s just that her grandmother used death, where she uses sex.  In “Resisting the nipple”, Rochelle Siemienowicz, whose memoir Fallen I’ve reviewed, tells of her struggle against the “good girl” expectations of her strict Seventh-day Adventist family and then of her complicated feelings, particularly regarding her mother, when becoming a mother herself.

In many of the stories, the youthful rebels are shocked to discover things aren’t as they thought they were or would be. Jamila Rizvi (“The good girl”) is confused when she realises that a girl (like her baby sister for example) could be not-good but liked. Jo Case (“Rebelling to conform”), in her desperation to be popular, starts to do poorly at school only to realise, later, that some of those popular girls she was trying to emulate got good grades. And Amra Pajalic (“Nervous breakdowns”) is frustrated by her out-of-touch migrant mother’s nervous breakdowns until she realises the cause is a mental illness.

Not all the rebellions in the book are against mothers – some are against fathers and grandmothers – and not all are resolved but, in most of the stories, age and experience eventually bring rapprochement. That doesn’t mean of course that the daughters capitulate. Rather, they come to understand their mothers (or whomever) a little more and their mothers likewise learn to accept the daughter they have. As Susan Wyndham (“A man of one’s own”) concludes

life is a long lesson and from this distance I prefer to look back with tenderness on those riotous years … And for both of us I say, no regrets.

And that seems the perfect point on which to end my post on this engaging, sometimes shocking, but thoroughly generous and warm-hearted book.

Note: A percentage from the book’s sales is going to the Women’s Legal Service Victoria.

aww2017-badgeMaria Katsonis and Lee Kofman (eds)
Rebellious daughters: True stories from Australia’s finest female writers
Edgecliff: Ventura Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781925183528

(Review copy courtesy Ventura Press)

29 thoughts on “Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman (eds), Rebellious daughters (Review)

  1. What a fascinating sounding book. Lots of ideas to think about there but the one that struck me immediately was Lee Kofman’s comment about the assumptions we make about our parents. We see them entirely as parents rather than as individuals and that means we don’t really see them other than as fulfilling a role with all that goes with that role. I suspect as we get older that view changes (well it has in my case)

    • Yes, Karen, great point. Interestingly I heard a program on the radio recently which said that teenagers lose (don’t have) empathy. While I think it’s a generalisation, I think there’s an element of truth in it. Then again, many parents seem not to have empathy for their teenagers. They focus too much on their expectations rather than on who their children are and what THEY want.

      • Well, it’s not shame I feel about discussing private family matters but a sense of distaste, so I’m just going to say that I agree with you about a lack of parental empathy. It’s the parents who should be older and wiser!

        • I can understand both feelings Lisa – the shame and the distaste – but I do agree that parents overall should be older and wiser, and so often they aren’t because, I guess, they are human. In the “right” scheme of things they should have grown and matured, and developed some wisdom, through their growing up experiences and be able to apply that to bringing up their children, but life doesn’t seem to occur in that logical linear way does it.

          Oops, meant to add that I think most parents, from my observation, do get it right – or right enough, as none of us is perfect. I hope my comment to Karen didn’t sound as though I think the majority of parents lack empathy.

        • There are people whose personalities predispose them towards being controlling towards others, and when they have children, they never grow out of expecting their children to do as they’re told. When the child is old enough to reject that control, they usually have no strategies for dealing with it. That’s a recipe for disaster, eh?

  2. I’ve been dipping in and out of Rebellious Daughter’s for a while now (is that a metaphor? No, my rebellious-daughter-days were a plunge into the deep-end!), reading a snapshot at a time. I agree, the placement of Rebecca Straford’s piece is timely and works extremely well in raising some of the ethical dilemmas underpinning memoir. I also love the candour of the contributors – these writers whose usual genre might not be memoir. A wonderful read.

  3. Sometimes I wonder if it was only baby boomers who rebelled against their parents – en masse it seemed at the time. It seems to me the generations before and after have been very similar to their parents.

    • Good question Bill. I did think that the more rebellious daughters came from the trickiest situations including migrant backgrounds where of course the expectations of the parents were so different from what their children were seeing possible in the new country. It seems to me that the more parents are able to adjust their expectations to those of the current time than their own then the easier the transition is likely to be. Given the increasing rate of social change since the fifties it’s probably been an increasing challenge for parents to do that?

        • Haha, Bill … my son will never let me forget that I wouldn’t let me see Jurassic Park when he was 9. It scared me to death – a rare case where I checked a film out first.

          I do think it’s not just baby-boomers who rebelled though, hence my comment re change, because several of the writers in this book were born way past the boomer-period,

  4. I agree – I would never be game to risk the dangers of memoir writing – I couldn’t even begin to contemplate fictionalising personal experiences either. That’s why I prefer to write history and historical fiction.

    • Absolutely Ros, I’m with you. These memoirists are amazingly brave (or, is it foolhardy!!). Whatever it is, I think the rest of us do benefit from their honesty don’t we.

      Oh, and put that way, I can certainly see the attraction of historical fiction!

      • What a thoughtful sounding anthology! Memoir writing is such a (productive) minefield. The reader is so often primed to trust the writer’s truth as absolute. I thought Jeanette Winterton’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal was wonderfully honest and very much letting the reader know that her adoptive mother’s version of reality would be very different.

        • You have some wonderful ways of seeing Ian. I love the idea of “productive minefield”. You make a good point about versions of “realities”, about “multiple truths” (or, oh dear, “alternative truths”!), that memoirs represent. I should read that Jeanette Winterson book.

  5. Oh! I would so love this book! I am the rebellious daughter in my family! I was never a bad girl but did I ever baffle my parents and still do. Wore weird clothes, cut off all my hair, left home at 18, “lived in sin,” married someone from a Jewish family, went vegan, moved halfway across the country, refused to have children, always vote liberal, got several tattoos, and the list goes on and on. Visiting my family is like a diplomatic mission to a familiar yet foreign country. I suspect they kind of feel the same way.

    • And good for you Stefanie for following your heart. Funny how some families find difference hard to accept and understand.

      BTW you have to be careful about saying you vote liberal here because voting Liberal (capital L) means you’re voting for the conservatives. Some of them are what we call small-l Liberals, which means they pay a little more attention to the human caring (welfare) side of the liberal philosophy, but they still represent the conservative/Right/economic rationalist agenda. If you’re interested, Wikipedia has an article on the Liberal Party of Australia

      • Whoa! I had no idea! So I looked at the article, so interesting! So liberal is more like a neo-liberal thing in a way? And your non-conservatives are Labour? Really fascinating. Obviously we don’t hear much about Australian politics in the US. I would not mind if we did!

        • Yes, you got it. There’s a serious disconnect in talking about politics between Americans and Australians if you don’t clarify terms. That’s why here we more and more talk about Right, Left and Centre than use terms like liberal and socialist. I think you’ll find the UK will be a bit more like us in their use of the word too because liberalism, as you may have seen in the article, comes from their philosophers Burke and Mill.

  6. Pingback: Short Stories Roundup #1 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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