Sydney Writers Festival 2019, Live and Local (Session 1)

Pic of farm at Williamsdale

A day in the country at Williamsdale

As in 2018, selected Sydney Writers Festival events were live-streamed this year to 35 sites, including Canberra’s National Library of Australia (#SWFLiveAndLocal). I had planned to attend most of Saturday’s events, but then our annual day-trip to our friends’ place in the country came up, and that’s unmissable, so I only attended the last event of the day.

This year’s theme is Lie to Me, which means participants “will discuss the white lies and deceptions that are necessary for survival, as well as malicious lies that are spun with darker intent. They’ll explore the ways that writing can be used to deceive others in an increasingly post-truth world, and look at the lies that we tell ourselves, each other, and those we collectively tell as a country.” A perfect theme, don’t you think?

Boys to Men: The masculinity crisis, Saturday 4 May, 4.30pm

Panel: Clementine Ford, Adam Liaw, Janice Petersen (Convenor)

Book cover of Clementine Ford's Boys will be boysClementine Ford is the feminist author of Fight like a girl, and, more recently, Boys will be boys. An obvious choice, then, for the panel.

Adam Liaw is a lawyer who came to fame as a winner of Australia’s Masterchef. The festival program describes him this way: “As the author of six cookbooks and host of the award-winning SBS television series Destination Flavour, his approachable and family-friendly recipes are influenced by his global travels, but remain focussed on the casual simplicity of contemporary Australian home cooking. In 2016 the Japanese government appointed Adam as an official Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine.” Not such an obvious choice, eh? However, he has been appearing recently on some ABC-TV current affairs programs and has impressed us with his sensible, thoughtful, comments. He didn’t disappoint in this panel.

Janice Petersen, the convenor, is an SBS journalist and news presenter.

Firstly, although the panelists didn’t say this specifically, the topic was a natural for the Lie-to-me theme, since so much of gender is constructed on lies – on assumptions, beliefs and attitudes about what makes a man or a woman. This session focused on these, and how they impact, particularly, contemporary ideas about masculinity. Convenor Petersen did an excellent job, asking such questions as:

  • Why is masculinity in crisis?
  • Why does the mentioning word “masculinity” seem “to set off a bomb”, engendering negative responses?
  • What does it mean to have a son (as both panelists do) and do the panellists fear the influence of peers?
  • Are men and women different?

Clementine Ford spoke, naturally, from a feminist perspective. She argued that masculinity is in crisis, defining toxic masculinity as men being unable to have platonic relationships with each other, being unable to express their feelings. She argued that boys bond over negative attitudes to women because they can’t relate to each over other things. Men, she said, are hostile to discussions about feminism because they don’t see that it works for all, that its aims are to free all people to be themselves. The problem is that although many men hate much about their lives, they don’t want to “see what patriarchy inflicts on them” (at work, say) because they fear losing the benefits of being “men” (such as being the boss at home!)

However, Ford also said that she doesn’t see “masculinity” as negative. She is invested in “healthy masculinity” and has faith in men, but sees the issue being masculinity and power propping each other up.

Adam Liaw spoke, he said, from a non-scholarly perspective, but I must say that I really liked the way he thought. He talked about how every society defines its own understanding of masculinity, and that in our society today, we don’t have a clear idea of what that is. He sees this lack of clarity as a structural problem, one that creates a high level of insecurity in many men. He talked about various male “role models”, like James Bond and Batman. James Bond doesn’t have close friends which is something men can relate to, while Batman is rife with problems, which men can also relate to. Modern men, on the other hand, can’t relate to Superman as they once did. In other words, men are now defined more by their insecurities than by positive ideas or values.

Liaw returned repeatedly to this insecurity issue, and it made sense. When Petersen asked whether men and women are different, Ford was initially a little flummoxed and referred to Liaw, who without hesitation said yes we are different. We are, for a start, physically different, but, he said, we should not weaponise gender. Our biological differences don’t, for example, translate into meaning that men are better CEOs than women. Liaw’s most important point was, for me, that the issue is not things like men spending more time with children – which men have always liked to do – it’s about overcoming their insecurity, meaning, for example, being comfortable with their partners earning more money than they.

I found the conversation about raising children interesting. Ford expressed a more ideological approach, one I related to because of my own child-rearing days. Indeed, it was hard not to feel a bit of “been there, done that”, since we second-wave feminists had tried exactly what she was talking about. In fact, when I look around at our sons, I think we did a pretty good job! They aren’t the men evincing the toxic masculinity that was being discussed, which begs the question in my mind about whether a few enlightened parents raising their children to be free (free to be … you and me, and all that) will effect the change we need.

Both Ford and Liaw, albeit they expressed it slightly differently, eschewed imposing gender expectations on their children – on what they wear, play with, etc. Liaw spoke of wanting his son to be a “good person”, a “good man”. He is not in favour of forcing “reverse” gender activities on children, but on encouraging all children to be able to do all things. (This was in response to a clip Petersen showed from an SBS Dateline film of an Icelandic school.)

Ford spoke of structural oppression (much as Liaw had earlier referred to structural problems). This results in such things as her being trolled if she speaks of boys doing anything “feminine”, like pushing a doll in a pram. It’s seen as her forcing a boy to be a girl, rather than as letting him explore life. We need to “dismantle gender” but Australians, she feels, can’t get their heads away from narrow definitions of what “men” and “women” are. Worse, they don’t actively condemn men for treating women badly. Much trolling comes from packs of teenage boys. (This reminded me of a recent interview I heard with a female Uber driver who said that one drunk young man was manageable, but in a pack they can become abusive to women, showing off in front of their mates.) Toxic masculinity!

If Liaw’s most important point, for me, was about overcoming male insecurity, Ford’s concerned the malleability of humans. If we have learnt, she said, not to smoke, and not to drink and drive, we can also learn not to be racist or sexist, but these latter mean giving up power – and we resist that.

The session ended with a brief Q&A, from which I’ll just share the last question. It concerned overcoming the sense of entitlement (which I understood as encompassing more than male entitlement.) Liaw said it starts with understanding our own weaknesses and biases, while Ford said it’s about listening to others, and checking our responses to what they say. Which is to say, I suppose, that we need to look past the lies we so easily tell ourselves in order to forge more truthful relationships with each other!

PostscriptJonathan Shaw (Me fail? I fly!) has reported on some Friday sessions, which you may like to check out.

Festival Muse 2018: Turn me on

Muse FestivalWoo hoo, Muse, which is one of my favourite places in Canberra, is running its second Muse Festival this long weekend in Canberra. As last year, Mr Gums and I went to the opening event, Turn me on, last night -and it was different but also good. Different because last year’s opener, Women of the Press Gallery, was a panel discussion, while Turn me on comprised separate, short, roughly 10-minute talks by five speakers on the given topic, which was how they got turned on to politics or to the passion they have for their field of work. Muse was looking, in particular, for “the lightbulb moments and hidden drivers” behind the speakers’ passions for what they do.

Turn me on

The speakers were a varied bunch, but they had at least one thing in common – they’re “prominent locals”:

  • Michael Brissenden, political journalist and foreign correspondent for the ABC since 1987
  • Zoya Patel, founder of Feminartsy
  • Roland Peelman, director of the Canberra International Music Festival
  • Elizabeth Lee, Liberal MLA in Canberra’s Legislative Assembly
  • Jacob White, staffer for Federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh, and co-ordinator last year of the Australian Marriage Equality group’s postal survey campaign in the ACT

Michael Brissenden

Of the five speakers, Brissenden had the longest-standing Canberra cred having been born here in the 1960s, to parents who were part of the first big wave of academics coming to the ANU in the 1950s-1960s. He provided us with an entertaining picture of a Canberra very different to the one we know now, back when it was “six suburbs in search of a city”. There were few restaurants, so people made their own fun: they had parties. You would, he said, have historian Manning Clark “banging on” in one corner of a room, and poets AD Hope and David Campbell doing the same in another. What fun, eh? You needed, he said, a sense of humour to enjoy Canberra then.

He shared a couple of songs written by his father, RF Brissenden – “Canberra Blues” and “Gough and Johnny were lovers” (with its line “never trust a cur [Kerr]”) commenting on the 1975 dismissal. Being interested in politics, he said, was unavoidable in his house. Canberra is still a small place and can be suffocating at times. But it is also full of inspiring, intelligent people. No wonder, he said, they, like himself, keep coming back. (We know what he means.)

Zoya Patel

Zoya Patel, Festival MusePatel cut right to the chase. What turns me on, she said, is feminism. She then joked that there was a time – her early dating days – when her strong attachment to feminism was a turn off! Clearly though, the dates who reacted like that didn’t last, because her commitment to feminism remained strong.

She gave us a brief history of her trajectory as a feminist. She talked of her upbringing within a Fiji-Indian culture, where it was not considered normal for girls to have strong ideas, particularly political ones, and her staring to write, at the age of 15, for local feminist magazine, Lip Magazine. She spoke of how she’d been told that feminism was irrelevant, that women had won what they’d campaigned for. As a second-wave feminist from the 1970s, I remember being horrified by this attitude in the 1980s and ’90s, and am thrilled to see feminism on the rise again and in hands like Patel’s.

She talked about tipping-points that have kept her strong – such as encountering online trolling when she took Lip Magazine online – and about founding the cleverly named Feminartsy. She sees feminism as being about sisterhood, saying that “as many we are strong”. She’s pleased that feminism has gone from turn off to turn on!

Roland Peelman

Peelman, whom we had enjoyed earlier this week when he gave the pre-concert talk at Musica Viva, felt a little uncertain about his place in the group. He was not a politician, he said, but a musician, and not an Australian or a Canberran, but a Belgian. However, the thing about Peelman, who was also the artistic director of The Song Company for 25 years, is that he’s an engaging speaker.

He talked about attending a secular university in Ghent, which is still today a centre of positivist philosophy. This has informed his life he said. And, in one of those synchronicities we often talk about, he spoke of being on the barricades against missiles in Western Europe in the early 1980s. Regular readers here will remember our recent discussion about the Cold War on my review of Diana Blackwood’s Chaconne.

Peelman talked about the difference between Australia’s adversarial 2-party political system and the Belgian situation where government is made after the election (as has happened in Germany over recent months!) Talking to him afterwards, I suggested that the 2-party system may be breaking down with voters (here and elsewhere) increasingly voting for small parties. Peelman likes this form of “messy” democracy.

Finally, he talked about the politics of a small arts organisation (like The Song Company) battling big bureaucracy, and how they can survive despite the naysayers. Small arts companies do not work well within the constructs of economic rationalism. Music, he said, builds from community. And that’s as political as he’d get he said!

Elizabeth Lee

Local Liberal politician, Lee, started by noting how much we have in common despite our (political) differences.

What turned her on to politics or what encouraged her to chase a political career, she said, was her father. Korean-born, she grew up as the eldest of an all-girl family, so her father, she said, was a feminist from start. He told her that she was the needle, and her sisters the thread. She explained that her moving to Canberra to do Law at 18 years old was unusual for an Asian at that time. It means, though, that she has lived all her adult life here.

Lee then talked about how she went from not being interested in politics at university to working as a lawyer and getting involved in the Law Society, where she realised that she liked organising. Soon after, when she started work as a lecturer at the ANU, she joined the Liberal Party – because she agreed with the classic Liberal values which focus on “individual freedom and responsibility”. She described losing the 2012 election, and her father helping her see that politics seemed to be where she could contribute the most. She stood again in 2016 and won.

She also shared some disturbing examples of racist and sexist attacks she has faced, but said that she is committed to her (unsought for) leadership role as an Asian female politician.

Jacob White

Like Patel, White quickly identified the factors that led him to his political passion. He said an interest in process is something you are born with, and also that as the middle child of a family of five (with two older sisters and two younger) he got early practice as an agitator!

He also remembers being aware of the injustice of his Nana’s struggles. She was a single mum who had brought up 5 children including one with severe Down Syndrome. He described his early experience of activism, writing to local politicians when he was just 8 years old about lantana choking a play area – and succeeding in getting it removed. Finally, he talked about realising, when he was 11 or 12, that women were not for him, and soon seeing the injustices gay people lived with.

White said he was very involved in student politics, and from this experience came to work for Andrew Leigh. However, when they were all caught off-guard by the marriage equality postal vote, he took leave from this job to manage the campaign in Canberra.

He spoke about being from a small industrial town near Wollongong, with a father “in the steelworks”, and mother “at the RSL”. You don’t have to have a political background to do what he does he said, because “everyone’s life is inherently political.”

All in all, an engaging session, not the least because I got to hear and see some of Canberra’s new, young leaders, as well as seeing that some of the older hands still have things to offer!! Win-win, I’d say.

Oh, and the opening party drinks and canapes were great too – as you’d expect from Muse.

Thanks to Muse (particularly Dan and Paul) for another great event. As I’ve said before, what a great addition they’ve made to Canberra’s literary and arts scene.

Angharad at Tinted Edges has also posted on Festival Muse.

NOTE: Check the Muse link above for more Festival events.

Six degrees of separation, FROM The beauty myth TO …

Wah, it’s now the start of autumn here down under. I love, love, love autumn (and not just because my birthday occurs during it) but it does mean that winter’s next and I hate, hate, hate that! We do, however, have fun things to entertain us when things get glum like, for example, The Six Degrees of Separation meme. It is currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) – and if you are not familiar with how it works, please click the link on Kate’s blog-name. She explains it all.  Meanwhile, this month’s book is one that I should have read when it came out, given my interests, but didn’t, Naomi Wolf’s The beauty myth. As always though, I’ve read all the linked books.

Naomi Wolf, The beauty mythNow, when I said I should have read The beauty myth, given my interests, but didn’t, I mean that I have been interested for a long time – since I read Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch back in the 1970s – in the way western culture, specifically, objectifies women. Wolf’s The beauty myth, which was praised by Greer, looks, among other things, at the way women are pressured to conform to set notions of beauty, and are exploited as a result.

A more recent – and Australian – book-cum-memoir which looks, among other things, at the way women are pressured to meet societal standards of beauty is Tara Moss’s The Fictional woman (my review). Her thesis is that women are subject to an inordinate number of fictions that contradict reality, and that this helps perpetuate ongoing inequalities for women in myriad ways. Despite having some long bows, this book – written in 2014 – is spot on in terms of what is now, finally, coming to the fore. It’s distressing that so many writers (among others) have been saying the same things about this issue for SO long, but here we are, in 2018, still in a patriarchal society which thinks it’s ok to objectify and thus control women. Unbelievable.

Kate Jennings, Trouble, bookcover

Another memoir by a feminist is Kate Jennings’ Trouble: Evolution of a radical (my review). It’s a different sort of memoir, a “fragmented autobiography” she calls it. It comprises a compilation of Jennings’ writings selected and ordered by her to show how she has come to be the person she is, to believe the things she does. It’s an engrossing book that includes fiction (poetry and prose) and non-fiction (including interviews) written over a couple of decades.

And, it includes excerpts from her own semi-autobiographical novella, Snake (my review), which I have also reviewed here. Snake is a coming-of-age story set in rural Australia, and tells of Girlie and Boy, and their parents Rex and Irene. It’s not a happy childhood, and in fact the book was described by the Sydney Morning Herald as a “domestic dystopia”. The snake title provides a clever motif encompassing such ideas as temptation, deceit and danger.

Winterson, Oranges are not the only fruit, book coverThere are several books I could link from here, including Jill Ker Conway’s memoir The road from Coorain and Francesca Rendle-Short’s fiction-cum-memoir, Bite your tongue, but I’d like to leave the Australian continent at least once in this journey. Consequently, I’m choosing another autobiographical novel about a difficult childhood, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the only fruit (my review). Unlike Snake though, the orange motif is far less clear but seems to relate, in part at least, to closed-mindedness. At the end of the novel, pineapples appear, which may suggest change.

Thea Astley, Hunting the wild pineapplePineapples bring us back to Australia and a book with pineapples in the title, Thea Astley’s Hunting the wild pineapple (my review of the short story from this collection). It is set on a pineapple farm in a place called Mango, and deals, among other things, with the power wielded by white men over others – in particular, women (reminding me of where this month’s meme started) and migrants. And now …

Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau

For my last book, I’m going to link on names – from author Thea Astley to character Thea in Dymphna Cusack’s Jungfrau (my review). Coincidentally, this book returns to another thread in this meme, the coming-of-age one (though perhaps, as Diana Blackwood suggested in the comments on my review of her novel Chaconne, it’s more a “wising-up” one.) Set in 1930s Sydney, it concerns three young women, Thea, Eve and Marc, and revolves particularly around Thea’s affair with her married professor. Hmmm … I think we are back to the idea of the unbalanced power relationship between men and women. I’ll leave it there…

This month, again, we haven’t travelled far, only visiting the same countries as last month – the USA, England and Australia. We’ve stayed in the last 100 years and with women writers only. I must diversify a little more next month.

And now, have you read The beauty myth? And whether or not you have, what would you link to? 

Tara Moss, The fictional woman (Review)

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

In terms of feminist argument, I’m not sure that Tara Moss told me anything I didn’t already know or believe in her first work of non-fiction, The fictional woman, but that didn’t stop me enjoying her take, her approach. Moss is an interesting woman. Her careers as a model and a crime writer meant she wasn’t really on my radar for the first twenty years of her working life, but that changed a couple of years ago when she began appearing on commentary shows I watch like Q&A (see an appearance here) and The Drum. I discovered that she’s a woman of wide interests and many talents. Here are some of them: UNICEF Ambassador for Child Survival, Goodwill Ambassador; UNICEF Australia Patron for Breastfeeding for the Baby Friendly Heath Initiative; Ambassador for the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children; and a PhD candidate in the University of Sydney’s Department of Gender and Cultural Studies.

So the book. Her main thesis – born of her own experience – is that women’s lives and roles are subject to an inordinate number of fictions that contradict reality, and that this helps perpetuate ongoing inequalities for women in representation, status, value. The book starts more like a memoir, telling us how she became a model in her early teens (“The Model”), her experience of being measured by her body (“The Body”), how she survived some early experiences, including rape (“The Survivor”), and her transition to being a writer (“The Writer”). She then moves on to discuss wider topics such as “The ‘Real’ Woman”, “The Archetypal Woman”, “The Beautiful and the Damned”, and “The Crone”, though in these too, she often uses her personal experiences. To illustrate the fictions women live under, she tells of taking a polygraph test to prove that she, a “dumb” “blonde” “model”, could actually have written a successful novel.

Moss supports her discussion of the fictions she identifies with an impressive array of statistical and other evidence. The book is extensively foot-noted (or, is that end-noted), as you would expect from a PhD student. While the points she makes aren’t necessarily new to me, much of her evidence is – and that’s worrying because her evidence is recent confirming that things haven’t changed as much as I’d have hoped since I first started thinking and reading about feminism in the 1970s.

I won’t elaborate the multiplicity of fictions she explores, the way women are simplified into virgin, whore, witch, crone, for example, because we all know them. Even the male readers here know them, I’m sure. Rather, I’d like to talk about some ideas that I found particularly interesting.

One of these ideas relates to the issue of beauty, which comes up in several chapters, but my focus here is “The ‘Real’ Woman” in which she discusses the various campaigns for/promotions of “real beauty” which encourage women to show themselves au naturel. No, I don’t mean naked, but without makeup, and other enhancing products and processes. Having lived my life this way (little or no make-up, no hair-dyeing, no waxing, etc), I was feeling comfortable in this chapter, until I reached her suggestion that these “campaigns” can be “like a beauty pageant, only with different parameters”. In other words, once again, we are asked to “judge” women on the basis of their appearance. She writes:

I see some disturbing similarities between the kinds of appraisals of women’s appearance that we commonly view as misogynistic, and appraisals that present themselves as ‘pro-woman’.

I take her point. “Using images”, she argues, “to make the claim that you are freeing women from the prison of image is a tricky thing to pull off”. I found this chapter the most confronting because, unlike the others which tended to cover more familiar ground, this one forced me to think more deeply about the complexity of how we “see” women. It’s not surprising that she loves John Berger’s excellent work, The ways of seeing.

She explores some of the underlying structural causes, particularly the way our market-driven society supported by the media contort and distort “reality” through stereotyping, simplifying and then generalising. She argues that women’s visibility in the public sphere is dominated by/limited to those “images” needed to sell products. Advertising has become “so entangled with mainstream culture … so entangled with female identity in particular”, she argues, that we do not see the real diversity of women’s engagement in society.

For many people, “gender” and “feminism” are tricky concepts. Moss unpacks them both with excellent clarity. Her definition of feminism is exactly mine. Feminists want

equal opportunity, equal rights, equality for women. (Equality = same value or status. They want to be equal to, not the same as, men).

Yes! How often do we need to repeat this? “Equal” does not mean “same”. And just because you don’t agree with some feminists doesn’t mean you’re not a feminist if you believe in equality for women. Moss understands, though, women fearing to own the term. She tells of once being asked on ABC TV whether she was a feminist, and admitted she felt

an actual ripple of fear. Part of me was afraid of the vitriol I would be subjected to for publicly identifying with the very movement that had given me the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to work and earn my own pay.

How can that be?

And this brings me, in a way, to another theme that pops up through her book: the way women undermine each other. She discusses, for example the “mummy wars” in which working mums are pitted against stay-at-home mums, and breast-feeding mums are pitted against formula-feeding mums. And yet, she also debunks the fiction “that all women hate each other” or that “women are their own worst enemies”, not only by confirming that for many women, other women provide their greatest support, but by exploring how society, and particularly the media, “read” female behaviour and interaction to put this spin. She tells how a joking comment of hers was read as “a swipe at Miley Cyrus”. Again, the main point of her argument is the social construction that supports these “fictions” about women.

In her final chapter, she discusses what she sees as the wider problem which is that the world is not “a fair and balanced place”. We do not have equality – across gender, race or class. This is what we need to address, and she calls us all to action.

Occasionally I worried that Moss was drawing a long bow or skewing her argument a little by her own experience, but in fact I found her thesis and thinking to be clear and logical, intelligently-framed, and forceful without being judgemental. It’s a good read – and provides much for us to contemplate.

awwchallenge2015Tara Moss
The fictional woman
Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014
ISBN: 9780732297893

(Signed copy received from my sister-in-law)

Raising my consciousness: Thoughts of a reader on International Women’s Day

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book’dout – Shelleyrae)

I am not, and never have been, scared to use the “F” word – that is, I call myself a Feminist. My philosophy is a simple one: women are not the SAME as men, but women deserve EQUAL rights and respect as men. This is not to say that the interpretation and application of this philosophy is simple but it is to say that all our thinking on how we live, how we (as humans) should be treated and how we should treat others needs to start from this fundamental principle.

Books and reading have of course fed my thinking on this issue … and so today I’m listing a few books that have meant something to me. They are not, all anyhow, the usual suspects, but they are books that have remained in my consciousness years after I read them.

Germaine Greer‘s The female eunuch (1970)

I read this a year or so after it was published. It provided an underpinning to my thoughts from that point on. Greer’s analysis of how women are objectified fundamentally changed how I viewed myself and it informed how I have dressed and presented myself ever since. She politicised my decisionmaking and gave me permission to not spend time and money (that I could better spend elsewhere) on unnecessary grooming and uncomfortable, or demeaning, clothing. She said much more besides about women’s self-actualisation but it all stemmed for me from this basic premise …

Margaret Atwood‘s The handmaid’s tale (1985)*

Most of the books I’m going to list here are non-fiction but we litbloggers know the value of fiction in presenting and analysing human thought and behaviour, in showing us how we are and/or how we could be. Atwood’s The handmaid’s tale depicts with horrific clarity how we could be. It’s a dystopian novel, a cautionary tale; it describes with horrendous, gob-smacking clarity what could happen if we don’t remain vigilant about women’s right to equality. If you haven’t read it and you wonder whether Feminism’s for you, read this book before you make up your mind!

Diane Bell‘s Generations: Grandmothers, mothers and daughters (1987)

I recently read an article written in 1905 about Jane Austen, in which the author, William James Dawson, wrote:

It is often deplored that professional historians, who are capable enough of describing the pageantries of a court, the contests of politicans, the sumptuous lives of the rich, or even the miserable conditions of life among the disinherited and the criminal, appear incapable of producing any accurate picture of the average kind of life lived by those distinguished by neither great  wealth nor great poverty …

Lives, for example, lived by women. Dawson goes on to say that Jane Austen provides “a picture of England itself”. I love his recognition that fiction can provide us with social history … even though the rest of my list is non-fiction.

Anthropologist Diane Bell describes objects in women’s lives and how women pass them down from generation to generation. If I tell you that one of the chapters is titled “Darryl got the farm and mum got the pearls” you’ll get the picture. The book draws from interviews she conducted with several families of women. The women talk about pianos, sewing machines, textile crafts, jewellery, china, books, and so on, describing not only how they are passed down through the female line but also the memories these objects invoke – and what they tell us about women’s lives then and now. It’s a beautiful book, that I’d love to quote from if I had the time. I read it when it came out, and I think of it often.

Katie Holmes’ Spaces in her day: Australian women’s diaries, 1920s-1930s (1995)

Holmes is an historian and this book, like Bell’s, provides an insight into women’s lives – but through their diaries rather than through interviews. The book, also like Bell’s, is organised thematically but instead of by type of object hers is by women’s roles and life stages. The descriptions of women’s work (in the days before labour saving devices) are exhausting!

Start work 8 o’clock finish 11pm, feel awfully fed up, this life is much worse than the farm was even if I didnt have any clothes, here I do not have time to wear them, so it is worse, dont know what to do about it, but I am fed up. (Mabel Lincoln, 21 January 1930)

She also describes the way women were expected to give up their dreams to help others – to take over a family when a sister dies or becomes sick, for example. Unmarried women, in particular, were only “allowed” a life of their own for as long as someone else in the family didn’t need them. Another book I haven’t easily forgotten.

Helen Garner‘s The first stone (1995)

This is, probably, a strange book for me to include, mainly because Garner made me so MAD. Garner is a feminist but her response to the incident at Ormond College did not sit well with many feminists, me included. As I recollect, the incident involved the master of the College, the man in power that is, making untoward (read, unwanted) sexual advances to two students at a College party. When the students complained to the College hierarchy, they did nothing, so the two young women went to the police. Garner argued they should not have done that, that they should have simply, literally or metaphorically, “slapped” the man and got on with their lives, leaving him and his reputation secure. She felt their reaction was not mature and was taking the issue of harassment to unnecessary levels. But, for me, there were two significant issues that made me disagree vehemently with Garner. Firstly, the young women tried to complain within the College system and got nowhere. Had the College taken their complaint seriously, the situation could very well have been handled quietly and with a rationality that could have worked for all parties. But, the College didn’t. And secondly, this was a situation of power. It’s (depending on the situation) one thing to receive an unwanted advance at a party from a peer. Garner’s suggested response could very well be the appropriate one BUT, and I think it’s a big BUT, it’s quite another thing to receive such an advance from someone with real power over you. I’ve listed this book, though, because Garner is a great writer and so very honest about her views and feelings. We need more honesty like this, and more willingness to confront the issues and tease them out … and that, of course, is the other reason I’ve listed it. It got some issues teased out, albeit, for some, in an emotionally charged and hurtful way.

… and that, as they say, is that. I’d love to know what books have contributed to your thinking on women’s rights (or, indeed, on any issue of importance to you).

* Most of the books I’ve listed here are Australian but, given the topic is International Women’s Day and given the significance (to me) of Atwood, I had to include her here.

Monday musings on Australian literature: The triumvirate

Flora Eldershaw

Flora Eldershaw, c. 1915 (Presumed Public Domain, from the National Library of Australia, via Wikipedia)

I’ve mentioned Marjorie Barnard in a couple of posts recently, but I suspect few Australians and even fewer readers from overseas (except of course Tony of Tony’s Bookworld) have ever heard of her. Rather than write specifically about her, though, I thought I’d talk a little about the Australian literary scene of the 1920s to 1940s, and about three writers in particular – Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw and Frank Dalby Davison.

I’m probably cheating here a little because, while I have read quite a bit about them over the last few years, I have read only a smidgin of their actual works. I’ve read (and re-read) Barnard’s The persimmon tree and other stories (1943) and Davison’s Man-shy (1931). I’ve dipped into Barnard and Eldershaw’s collaborative work A house is built (1929) and some of their other writings.

These three writers were part of a pretty active literary scene in Australia at the time. It included writers such as Vance and Nettie Palmer, Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard (whom I reviewed recently), Eleanor Dark, Xavier Herbert and, yes, even, towards the end of the period, Patrick White. (Another contemporary, Christina Stead left Australia in 1928.) The reason I decided to start with these three is because of their friendship and “political activism”, mainly through the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW), which resulted in their being known for a time as “the triumvirate”. They were liberals who were concerned about the rise of Fascism in Europe – and the potential ramifications at “home”. Through them, in the late 1930s, the FAW engaged in political debate, particularly in relation to the protection of freedoms, such as that of speech. A topic, of course, dear to the heart of writers.

Barnard and Eldershaw wrote three novels, as M. Barnard Eldershaw, but they also wrote literary criticism and history. These days though, they are probably most read (when they are read at all) as early feminists. Neither Barnard nor Eldershaw married, though Barnard had an affair with Davison, and both lived independent lives supporting themselves through whatever work they could find. They were active in professional societies, judged literary competitions and edited anthologies. Eldershaw was a particularly skilled negotiator and worked hard to secure support for writers (via grants, pensions and other mechanisms). Vance Palmer admired Eldershaw for her ability to “neutralise conventional masculine expectations of the threat posed by women in ‘public life'”. At one stage they shared a flat, and held what could only be called a “salon”. It was attended by the literati of the day, including of course Davison.

That’s enough, though, of information you can pretty easily find in Wikipedia and other online sources. My aim here is to whet your appetite (I hope). I’ll finish with a quote from A house is built, which is set in mid-nineteenth century Sydney:

Her life was as full of ‘ifs’ as any woman’s. If she had not been so restricted, if her really considerable powers of mind and character had been given scope, Fanny would not have fallen victim to the first colourful stranger she met.

Barnard, it is reported, once said “Australia is still a man’s world”. I’d love to know what younger Australian readers of this blog think about Australia now – and whether anyone (besides Tony!) has read works by these three authors.

[Note: Some of the information for this post came from writings by Maryanne Dever whose PhD was on M. Barnard Eldershaw.]

Kate Jennings, Trouble: Evolution of a radical

Kate Jennings, Trouble, bookcover

Bookcover (Courtesy: Black Inc)

I’m not going to beat about the bush but tell it like it is: I absolutely gobbled up Kate Jennings’ Trouble: Evolution of a radical: Selected writings 1970-2010. It took me a fortnight to read it, partly because I’ve been pretty busy but also because there was so much to savour and take in that I did a lot of stopping and thinking. That said, I do have one whinge, so I’ll get it over with now: it has no index. The book is described as an “unconventional” or “fragmented” autobiography and it is chock full of content. She mentions people, she discusses books and genres, she talks about politics, economics and feminism, not to mention all sorts of enthusiasms including, would you believe, swimming pools and shopping! I can see myself wanting to refer to it again and again but each time I’ll have to flip through it to find the idea or topic that I want to explore. Just as well I’m a marginalia person is all I can say!

So, who is Kate Jennings (b. 1948)? She is an Australian-born writer (poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist) and feminist, who stunned Australia with her Front Lawn speech in 1970, confronting progressive men, in particular, with their sexism. She moved to New York at the end of the 1970s and, in one of her iterations, worked as a speechwriter for a couple of large Wall Street firms in the 1990s. Somehow, she seems to have managed to do that without losing her critical eye. I have not yet read her novels, but will (finally, and rather coincidentally) be reading Snake in the next month or so.

Why did I like the book? This is how Jennings describes it in her preface:

This book, then, is a stand-in memoir. I’ve assembled pieces  – essays, speeches and poems, along with short stories and passages from my novels that actually happened – so that a reader might have a narrative of sorts.

On reading this you could be forgiven for fearing a mish-mash but fortunately that’s not what you get. The book is divided into 9 parts, each introduced by Jennings with a current reflection on the aspect of her life and career covered by that part. These parts move more or less chronologically through her life, though the readings themselves jump around a bit. This is because, like most of us really, she revisits some parts of her life many years after they occur, while others are documented at the time of their occurrence. The press release which came with my copy describes it in the following terms: “no-holds-barred” and “pull-no-punches”. What’s that, you say? They’re clichés! They are, but they describe the book perfectly, because this is a fiercely honest book written by a rather formidable woman. How else to describe someone who defiantly affirms, in almost one breath, her commitment to feminism and Jimmy Choo shoes, who calls herself a pragmatist but also argues passionately that “these are times of moral poverty”.

I think at this point I will just dot-point the parts to give you a sense of what she covers, because I fully intend to explore many of her ideas in more detail in the coming weeks/months.

  • Presumption: the making of her intellect, covering the years from 1970 to the late 1980s.
  • A child of grace, a landscape of progress: her childhood in the Riverina area of New South Wales, told mainly through excerpts from her novels and poems.
  • Cause and not symptom: her youth, focusing particularly on her introduction to alcohol (and subsequent joining of AA).
  • You don’t understand! What do you know! You don’t live here!: the life of an Australian expat in the USA explored mostly through her interviews with three other expat writers: Sumner Locke ElliottShirley Hazzard and Ray Mathew.
  • Catching a man, Eating him: her romantic life, which, with some self-mockery, she views through the songs of Dusty Springfield.
  • Crazed, delinquent fabulousness: an eye-opening sampler of her essays from 1990 to 2009 showing what a hard woman she is to pin down!
  • A bright, guilty world: more essays, these ones about her life as a speechwriter on Wall Street during the 1990s, including the full text of her Quarterly Essay 32, titled “American revolution: The fall of Wall Street and the rise of Barack Obama“. She has much to say about the GFC.
  • Irrelevance is deadly: how literature has (or hasn’t) dealt with the issue of business and finance.
  • Cut the shit: two no-holds-barred (yep, bring on the cliché!) essays which, she says, bring us back full circle to her main themes: “The first, a foray into my dusty childhood and Aussie alcoholism and masculinity through the re-release of the movie Wake in Fright, and the second, into poetry and the reasons I forsook it – or it, me – and a pet peeve: closed minds”.

I know it’s a bit of a copout, but I feel I can’t do justice to this book without writing my own Quarterly Essay and so, as I’ve already said above, I will return to it in future posts. In the meantime, the question to ask is: How does it work as an autobiography or “stand-in memoir”. I say very well. It does the things I look for: it tells me the main facts of her life, it shows me her interests, beliefs and values, and it gives me a sense of her personality (which is intelligent, opinionated, fearless and principled). Fragmented it might be in structure, but coherent it is in portraying a life.

In one of the poems she includes in the book, she writes:

… Saying simple things

well or complicated things simply is an art
that is fast disappearing …

Fortunately it is an art that Kate Jennings has not lost.

Kate Jennings
Trouble: Evolution of a radical: Selected writings 1970-2010
Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010
ISBN: 9781863954679

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)