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)