Anna Krien, Night games: Sex, power and sport (Review)

Anna Krien, Night Games

Night Games (Courtesy: Black Inc)

Towards the end of her most recent non-fiction work, Night games, Anna Krien writes:

I wish I’d chosen to follow an ‘easier’ rape trial.

She’s concerned that what she’s written, what she’s finding, won’t “sit well with feminists or footballers”. She might be right, but that would be a shame, because what she’s produced is a rational and, yes, provocative analysis of football culture and the way society enables it. It’s about power, entitlement, complicity – and, of course, sex.

“… despite the verdict, I still don’t know who is guilty and who is innocent”

Like Helen Garner (The first stone and Joe Cinque’s consolation) and Chloe Hooper (Tall man), Anna Krien, whose Into the forest and Us and them I’ve previously reviewed, writes in the narrative non-fiction genre. It uses literary techniques to create a narrative about a real issue or event, and can involve the author putting herself (in this case) in the story. I like the style. If well done, it feels honest because the author is clear from page one about the facts (and their limits) she’s presenting, the ideas she’s exploring and, significantly, the challenges she personally faces during her exploration. Krien doesn’t shy away from confronting her feelings, but neither does she let them overshadow her ability to reason.

And so to Night games. The book tracks the rape trial of an AFL footballer. This has implications for the narrative. The name of the complainant must be suppressed, so Krien decides to suppress the defendant’s name too. The complainant’s testimony was given in closed court, so cannot be reported. This could seriously skew Krien’s story, except that she structures the book in such a way that, although the connecting narrative is the trial, the main game (ha!) is the surrounding culture. Also, Krien reverses traditional trial narrative (fictional and factual) and reports the verdict in her Prologue. This de-emphasises the trial drama, and focuses us on the issues she wants to explore. It’s intelligently done – and once again convinced me that Krien is a writer I want to watch.

The book has six parts – the Prologue, an Epilogue, and four parts in between in which Krein tackles what she sees as the critical issues. These are football culture, particularly regarding male bonding rituals, and attitudes to women and minorities such as black and gay players; rape and what she describes as the grey area surrounding consent; and the broader role of women in football, in various guises, including management and media. These parts could almost be read as separate essays, except that they are connected by the trial narrative, and by their thematic connections to each other.

“an abnormal society…”

Some of my family and friends looked a bit askance when I told them what I was reading. After all, rape is an unpleasant subject and I’m not a football follower – but, I am interested in gender and power, social relationships, and ethical behaviour, which are the book’s real subjects. The picture Krien paints of football culture is not pretty, but neither is it particularly new. Who hasn’t seen and heard, in recent years, news stories about drunken parties and sexual assaults involving footballers? Krien teases out what’s behind these behaviours, and it’s mostly to do with male bonding, a bonding that is characterised by bullying and by a “macho culture of humiliation” in which women become the objects through which the men (try to) prove themselves. It’s not quite that simple of course – and women can try to play the game too, can want footballer notches on their belts – but the pervading attitude, until recent moves to change it, has been one of male power and entitlement.

“… a moral quagmire”

More interesting to me was Krien’s discussion of “the grey area, the gulf of uncertainty between consent and rape”. She quotes academic Catherine Lumby, Rugby League’s advisor on gender and cultural change:

Yes, there are many instances of behaviour that we found in our research into players’ experiences that did not equate to sexual assault but are definitely extremely unethical behaviour – such as after having sex with a girl, throwing her out of your hotel room naked without her clothes for a joke. Or suddenly asking, ‘Do you mind if I invite my mate back?’

How easy, Krien asks, is it for women to say “no” in many of the, usually powerless, situations they find themselves in – and if they don’t say no, have they consented? Is acquiescence consent? If not, what is it? The issue of consent was the critical issue in the rape trial Krien follows in the book – and hence her wish for an ‘easier’ rape trial. I’m aware that, except for that stereotypical violent, sociopathic rapist we all think of, consent is the critical issue in many rape cases. But, what I liked about Krien’s discussion was her analysis of the consent issue within this particular culture and her questions concerning how it might be better negotiated and understood at the time the sex occurs and how it might be better handled legally. Underlying this, though, is the idea that there would be less need to worry about grey areas surrounding “consent” if the culture itself fostered respect and equality, not to mention ethical or moral behaviour.

I’ll leave my discussion of Krien’s arguments and thesis here, otherwise I’ll end up writing an essay myself. I’ll simply add that I like Krien’s self-questioning and analytical, rather than emotional, approach. There’s no list of sources at the end, which I missed, but she clearly identifies her extensive research as she goes, naming the people and works she consulted. I also like her writing. It’s accessible and logical, but has fresh turns of phrase that lift it out of dry reportage.

If you weren’t inclined to read this book, think again, because I found Night games to be illuminating beyond its specific focus on football culture. It is also an excellent read.

Anna Krien
Night games: Sex, power and sport
Collingwood: Black Inc, 2013
ISBN: 9781863956017

(Review copy courtesy Black Inc)

Anna Krien, Us and them: On the importance of animals (Review)

Krien Us and them

Quarterly essay cover (Courtesy: Black Inc)

I’ll admit it right up front, I am not a vegetarian or a vegan. I like to eat meat. I wear leather shoes. I like to think, though, that the source of these products has had a comfortable life and a quick, stress-free death. But I’m kidding myself, I know. And Anna Krien’s essay, Us and them, about the relationship between humans and animals, doesn’t reassure me.

In roughly 25,000 words, Krien, whose Into the woods I reviewed a couple of years ago, explores the complex relationship we humans have with our living, breathing co-inhabitants on this earth of ours. She exposes the underbelly of this relationship but resists simplistically declaiming the abuses and proclaiming that there is an easy solution. We all know there isn’t. As she says in the first section:

I’m not weighing up whether our treatment of animals is just, because it isn’t. That age-old debate is a farce – deep down we all know it.

The real question is, just how much of this injustice are we prepared to live with.

To try to answer this question she confronts the tension that exists in our relationship with “them” which is, as she puts it, the tension between seeing them as “beings” versus “objects”. She asks:

How to ensure that the butcher, the scientist, the farmer recognise that the creature in their care is a being, even as all the while they [and, I would say, by extension we] continue to use it as an object?

This is a well-structured essay. After an introductory section in which she sets the scene and poses her question, Krien explores the issues thematically, through the sorts of “encounters we have with animals”: Killing; Testing; Hunting,

These are, obviously, the encounters which are the most problematic. She spends little time on our positive and generally more mutually beneficial* encounters, such as in their roles as pets, guide dogs, and companion animals. That’s fair enough, given the serious questions she wanted to confront, but it’s a bit of a shame, nonetheless.

I like Krien’s writing. It’s well-researched, informative, and presents unpleasant facts with a light touch. She’s neither didactic nor conclusive but rather writes as one going on a journey with us. And she asks hard questions, such as these ones in the killing section:

  • Should Australia remain in the live animal trade and by so doing help other countries improve their animal welfare practices?
  • What does it say about our priorities when we have a World Society for the Protection of Animals but not one to protect women?
  • How do we explain the fact that more Australians empathised with the cows (being sent to Indonesia) than with people (such as those Indonesians for whom the cattle trade  means work and food, let alone the asylum-seekers plying the same seas as the cows)?

She explores the complexities of testing and here again disabused me of my head-in-the-sand hopes. I was surprised to read that the number of animals being used in research and teaching is increasing not decreasing. And again, the difficult questions. Is some testing acceptable, necessary even, and others not? And if so, on what basis do we decide? Why is there a disjunction between what scientists do in animal testing and believe is ethical, and what laypeople think?

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book'dout - Shelleyrae)

In her section on hunting, the focus is not so much on recreational hunting but on the hunting of animal pests – some native, such as dingoes, and some feral. She talks about apex predators, and the environmental impact of removing them. When the top predator goes, the ecological balance is severely disturbed. The loss of dingoes, for example, can be directly related to the extinction of small mammals. One solution to protecting farm animals that doesn’t involve killing dingoes is to use guardian animals like maremmas and alpacas. Hmm, methinks, introduced species aren’t always a good option – think camels, think cane toads – but so far so good it seems.

Late in the essay, Anna Krien writes that many scientists describe our current geological era as the Anthropocene, recognising the significant (negative) impact human activities are having on the earth. She follows this with biologist Edward O. Wilson‘s suggestion that what comes next will be “the Age of Loneliness” typified by “a planet with us and not much else”. I don’t want to think about what that would be like. There’s no easy answer to all this but, as Krien says, we must “acknowledge the questions” and continue the discussion. To do anything else is to deny that not only are animals are “important” in themselves but, to put it selfishly, they are important in multitudinous ways to us.

Anna Krien
“Us and them: On the importance of animals”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 45
Collingwood: Black Inc, March 2012
ISBN: 9781863955607

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)

* Though I’m aware I’m making a human-centric assumption here!

Anna Krien, Into the woods

How can so many people all be looking at the same thing and see it so differently? The man moseying around in front of me looks at a 300-year old tree and sees a nursing home, while an activist twenty minutes down the road sees a block of flats for furry and feathered creatures.

Vive la différence? Or not! Anna Krien’s Into the woods is an exposé of the decades long battle in Tasmania for its forests, particularly its old-growth native forests. For those who don’t know, Tasmania is Australia’s southern island state. It is famous for its beauty and its wilderness but also, it seems, for its Vs, that is, vitriol, violence and vigilantism. You see, being a small island state, with only 500,000 people, it’s a challenge to keep its economy in the black. Sawmilling and, more recently and more controversially, woodchipping have played an important role in maintaining its economy. It is this controversy – particularly surrounding woodchips – that Krien explores in her book.

Anna Krien, Into the woods

Cover image (Courtesy: Black Inc

On the cover is a “blurb” by Chloe Hooper who wrote The tall man about the death in custody of an indigenous man on Palm Island. This provides a clue to the book’s style, and that is that the author, like Hooper, engages personally in the situation, meeting with parties on all sides of the conflict. In Krien’s case this meant meeting ferals, environmentalists, politicians, loggers, whistleblowers, craftsmen and businessmen.

Krien has organised the book into five thematic sections:

  • Ratbags: the new generation protesters, or ferals, who live pretty primitively on/near the site  they are protecting and who are often in conflict with older activists
  • Loggers: the logging industry workers who range across a wide range of jobs in the industry and are also often conflict with each other
  • The company: Gunns Ltd, the main player in the Tasmanian logging industry, meddler (if so benign a term can be used) in politics, and initiator of the Gunns 20 lawsuit
  • Groundswell: change agents such as whistle blowers, proponents of the “rights” of nature, and shareholders wanting ethical investments
  • The mill: Gunns pulp mill saga, the beginning of the an end?

The story is a complex one, delving into competing interests within the logging industry itself – sawlogs versus woodchips, old-growth versus regrowth native forests versus plantations, public versus private forests – not to mention dissension amongst environmentalists and some very dirty politics. It is a story about jobs versus the environment and the “rights” of nature, of different value systems that set “unmanned” pristine forests against “manned” ones. It is a story of blaming and buck passing. And it is a story of half-truths and distorted truths, all in the name of defending one’s own patch. “I am on a journey through selective truths”, she writes at one point in the book.

This issue of “truths” is beautifully conveyed in her discussion of the timber industry’s language:

I find myself constantly having to decipher new words. Nature needs “disturbance”, logging is “harvesting”, deforestation is “afforestation”, burning woodchips for electricity is a form of “bio-fuel” or “renewable energy”. Woodchips are “feedstock”, while the non-commercial attributes of a forest are “non-wood values”.

The word-games though work on both sides. As she says, “evoking napalm, Hiroshima and the holocaust to describe logging is manipulative”.

A major argument presented by the logging workers is the economic one – jobs – but Krien estimates from the information given her that forestry “accounts for no more than 3% of the workforce”. In fact, she suggests that machines may be a bigger threat to timber jobs than “any greenie”. The more cynical amongst us might think that it is not so much about “jobs” but about “big business”. Sometimes, of course, big business means jobs, but that’s not always necessarily so, not if much of the work can be automated (or, sometimes, though not necessarily here, moved off-shore).

I can’t begin to convey all the information she presents in this book – the history, the statistics, the science, the criss-crossing relationships, not to mention the people, the overt and covert deals, and the truly horrifying violence (both actual and threatened). There are times when I started to feel bogged down in the complexity of it all, but I was reassured when I realised she was feeling it too. She is, in fact, like Hooper, taking us on a journey – but it is a journey that, despite her very real efforts to explore the whole story, does lean to one side, that of those who wish to protect not destroy. As she says in the last chapter:

I’ve tried to balance my seesaw heart, carefully weighing up each argument. But there is something about this island that wants you to choose sides.

I can understand that – it is, in many ways, a magical place. However, I do have one complaint about the book – my ongoing one for books of this ilk – and that is its lack of an index. It is jam-packed with people, events, places, philosophies and theories but how can the casual reader or researcher find them?

And so, is there a resolution to it all? Well no, but there is, she says, a universal story:

… in the greater scheme of things, the island is nothing but a drop in the ocean. But the story is universal – and what goes on in Tasmania goes on in the Pacific islands, in other continents, until it all comes back over the ice to Tasmania again. … Deep down in our bones we must know – we must know that nothing we do is done in isolation. Cause and effect: how did it get so noisy in between?

How indeed? Read this thoughtful, throughly researched book, and you will, unfortunately, find out.

Anna Krien
Into the woods: The battle for Tasmania’s forests
Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010
ISBN: 9781863954877

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc)