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Monday musings on Australian literature: Kate Jennings (1948-2021)

May 3, 2021
Kate Jennings, Moral Hazard

Strangely, Australian writer and intellectual, Kate Jennings, has been in the air lately, even though she has lived in New York since 1979. She’s been in blogosphere because blogger Kim Forrester reviewed her novella, Moral hazard, just last month, but she’s been more broadly visible too because she features in the documentary Brazen hussies which screened in cinemas last year, and was broadcast on ABC-TV in a shortened version, this year. I saw both versions, and was inspired by Jennings’ bravery and passion in speaking for women at a 1970 Vietnam Moratorium march. This speech marks, many believe, the beginning of the second wave of feminism in Australia.

Kate Jennings, then, was quite a woman, and it’s incredibly sad that she died this weekend at the too-young age of 72. Yes, Virginia, 72 is too young.

“one of our essential writers” (David Malouf)

I’m impressed but not surprised that Australian novelist, David Malouf, described her as “one of our essential writers” in The Sydney Morning Herald’s announcement of her death. What does “essential” mean? I don’t know what Malouf means by this, but I agree with him in terms of my own meaning of the word. For me, essential, in this context, encompasses two things. First, it’s that the writer writes about important (though I don’t like this word) or significant or, perhaps even better, critical subjects. An essential writer will address the issues that are central to our being – personal, political and/or societal. But, I sense that Malouf means a little more. Certainly I do, and it’s that an essential writer doesn’t just write about, let us say, the “essential” things, but they confront us with them. They go where others don’t go – in subject matter, or form, or tone, or language, or … I’m sure you know what I mean.

Malouf thinks Jennings filled this bill, and so too, I think, does Maria Tumarkin who appeared in the first Sydney Writers Festival session I attended this weekend. A quick Google search retrieved the 2016 University of Melbourne Handbook (archived version). It includes the description of a course on The Art and Practice of the Personal Essay taught by Maria Tumarkin and Kevin Brophy. The description says “Some essayists we might read: Montaigne, Swift, A.D. Hope, Annie Dillard, Kate Jennings, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace”. This is quite a list, and it tells us something about Jennings’ stature, and how Tumarkin and Brophy view her.

Kate Jennings, Trouble, bookcover

So, in what way was Jennings essential? I’ll start with the above-mentioned speech that brought her to the fore when she was just 22. The women in the Vietnam Moratorium movement had fought (hard) to have one of their number included among the many male speakers scheduled to speak at the march. Here is how Jennings, herself, introduces it in her “fragmented autobiography”, Trouble: Evolution of a radical: Selected writings (1970-2010) (my review).

We persisted, and eventually the organisers gave in. As the most experienced writer in our group, I was given the task of composing the speech, which we decided would be deliberately incendiary. But what I wrote was so incendiary everyone balked at giving it, me included. In the end, with a big shove and no experience of speaking in public, much less in front of a thousand or more, I walked the plank.

The reaction to her speech, she says, was immediate – much of it negative, particularly from the men in the movement – but, she writes

the confrontational language of the speech worked: we could no longer be ignored. Right tactic, right time.

It was essential, in other words. (You can read it here.)

And Jennings continued in that vein, being true and uncompromising to what she believed in. Take, for example, her introduction to the poetry anthology she edited, Mother I’m rooted. She was unapologetic about what drove her choices. She states the problem, then says what she did:

I don’t know any longer what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. I have been trained to know, in a patriarchal university, on a diet of male writers. We have to go back to bedrock, and explore thoroughly that which is female and that which is male, and then perhaps we can approach androgyny, and humanity.

I have chosen the poems mainly on the grounds of women writing directly, and honestly.

(Included in Trouble)

Jane Bullen, reviewing the book in the ANU’s student newspaper Woroni (23 July 1975), picked up this point:

Perhaps it is this that is most striking about the book; the form of the poem is subordinated to the intense desire to say something, to mean something. Sometimes what is said contorts the poem, and the words are clumsy in their attempt to say it. The honesty, the urgent saying of what is meant is expressed (in the flawed structure, the not quite balanced nature of many of these poems. The effect of this is a refusal to compromise, an insistence on meaning in the face of form and a book well worth the time it takes to read it. 

My point is that Jennings saw that this poetry was different, that it may not have met the “received” style, but that it had something to say and she was darned well going to let them say it.

Her own writing broke boundaries. Her novel Snake (1996) takes the autobiographical novel to a different place with its spare style, episodic form, and mixed voice, and her Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Moral hazard (2002) is a work of that rare genre, business fiction. She wrote an essay, “Gutless fiction”, for the Australian Financial Review (26 August 2005), on the necessity for

unflinching works of fiction that engage our public and private selves, our intellect and emotions. More able to inhabit the skins of its characters, fiction can capture the ambiguity and caprice inherent in human behaviour and then give it context and causality in ways that nonfiction rarely can.

(Included in Trouble)

Erik Jensen’s book, On Kate Jennings, in the Writers on writers series, provides tender but honest insight into Jennings. Her life had many troubles. It’s worth reading, but I’m going to conclude by sharing something he tells us Jennings wrote for the back cover of her first poetry collection:

‘Kate Jennings is a feminist. She believes in what Jane Austen recommended at fifteen: “Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint.”’

(Jane Austen, Love and freindship)

An essential writer recognising another! Vale Kate Jennings. You gave us much to think about. A true legacy.

Lisa wrote a Vale Kate Jennings post on the weekend, and I have reviewed three of her books.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2021 10:06

    Thanks for the mention, Sue.
    Somehow, it feels personal, because she was our age group…

    • May 4, 2021 11:50

      A pleasure – of course, Lisa! And yes, I agree. A little older than us but definitely our generation. I guess it’s going to happen more and more but let’s hope not too many in their early 70s!

  2. Sara Dowse permalink
    May 4, 2021 10:32

    Thanks, WG. Our hearts are sore with the news of her premature death. I interviewed her for the NLA in 2010, which was almost as exhilarating as reading most of her work in preparation for it. I had never met her before, but found her to be a remarkable, gutsy person, and highly original. Sui generis, although we feminists will always claim her for our own. And I know she would like that. I loved Moral Hazard especially, how she captured corporate America on the brink of the country’s decline, and knitted that into her husband’s, both in the novel and her life. I don’t know how much is known about these oral history interviews, but they are extensive and penetrating – especially, as you might expect, with writers. She had a profound effect on me.

    • May 4, 2021 11:54

      Oh thanks for this insight, Sara. I have loved everything of hers that I’ve read, mostly because of her gutsiness and originality, with self-deprecation alongside (or so it seemed to me.) Moral Hazard is a great read, but what a personal time she had.

      I can imagine interviewing her was really interesting. Of course, I’m aware of the oral history program there, but you are right, I don’t know how many people are, and I haven’t checked for a long time to see what the availability is these days on them. Many have embargoes for some time don’t they?

      • Sara Dowse permalink
        May 4, 2021 11:57

        Some do put embargoes on. But not everyone. And some have conditions on them. The last one I did was in February 2020, the second I’ve done with Helen Garner. I seem to recall that there are different conditions for each.

        • May 4, 2021 15:53

          Oh good for you for still doing them Sara. They are a lot of work. I’ve done a couple and I found it interesting but challenging. I remember that part of the paperwork involved access conditions. I imagine Helen Garner was a fascinating one to do (as would you be. I think you’ve been interviewed a couple of times too?)

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