Archive for February, 2012

Latest Favourite Things

Posted in Frocks, Shoes on February 16, 2012 by ladyredjess

It’s almost Friday, at the end of another week of writing (a poem and first draft of an essay), work (report writing for a research project), running, dancing, skating and sceptics group. I just can’t ever seem to get enough sleep and am about to cry with tiredness, so to get through to the weekend, I thought I should post (a la The Sound of Music) some of my latest favourite things:

  1. Morning runs on writing days.

  2. My giant sun/rain umbrella with clouds on the inside.

  3. My latest acquisitions from Nude Footwear, being some subtly shiny Endless Love peep toes which I shall pair with my Collette Dinnigan frock, and Silverdrops in pink which I will wear with my floaty Sacha Drake dress. Every time I find a new Nude style on StyleTread my heart beats a little faster.

  4. The silhouette of the kentia palm against the cream blinds when I stagger up at 6am. There has to be some kind of reward for a non-morning person getting up this early.

  5. My new rollerblades. It’s hard to look like a girl in skates, helmet and knee, elbow and wrist pads, but I have sourced socks with tiny bows and stripes, and I’m looking for a cute t-shirt to match.

  6. My KeepCup from A&S, so I can drink coffee and do a little for the planet.

  7. My new phone which, according to H, is like having a Ferrari and driving it around in a paddock. He said the same thing about my laptop and I ignored him then too.

  8. Smelling of chocolate when I use Palmer’s cocoa butter moisturiser.

  9. The hullaballoo of fruit bats along the creek as they unfold themselves for evening flights.

Almost the weekend …

On Heroines

Posted in Books, Feminism, Writing on February 12, 2012 by ladyredjess

Lately I have been reading the Game of Thrones series, with a break to canvass Ron Rash’s Serena, and now I find myself hankering after more feminine characters.

“All Game of Thrones has is fucking and fighting,” I complained to a bloke.

“What’s wrong with that?” he replied.

Ahem. The clashes and cavorting aside, the series is brilliantly plotted, with jabs of wit and good characterisation in parts, which is why I read the first volume in three days over New Year and am hankering for time to finish the next one. However the representation of the female characters is getting a little tiring. There are maidens who love knights and jousting, mothers who try to guide their sons as they grow into kings, whores aplenty, and tomboys. It is the latter who are the only ones who seem to have any autonomy; the others are caught within the conventional power structures of Medieval culture to which the writer hearkens back. And yet, even these tomboys seem to be no more than female versions of men. The only woman who seems realistic in the whole text is Daenerys, who is forced, by circumstance and the land with which she interacts, to change from a timid girl dominated by her brother into a woman who is sexually confident, resourceful, and loyal to her lover.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of “heroine” as “a female hero”, the word being the feminine version of the Latin hero. The role of the heroine, then, is automatically shackled by its relationship to a man, and a woman becomes valorous, and validated, by engaging in actions that have traditionally brought acclaim to men, viz., poking someone off their horse during a tournament. Given this, how can a woman be admired outside of such an equation, particularly given the long history of dismissal of areas in which women have excelled, such as crafts and cooking? This is something that I think about as I work out the sequel to A Curious Intimacy, which I’ll write two novels down the track: how can I create a character who retains her sense of femininity, yet is physically and mentally strong at the same time, in a harsh environment?

Rosa Praed managed it, to a degree, with Fugitive Anne (1902), in which the protagonist Anne, escaping into the desert from her violent husband, collapses near the conveniently placed camp of the explorer Eric Hansen, who has amorous (and of course noble) designs upon her. He revives her by wiping her brow with a silk handkerchief so that Anne, in a state of extreme sensory deprivation, ‘was filled with delight at the touch of this fine material to which she had for so long been a stranger’ (117). Anne then rallies around and sturdily follows Eric on his explorations, despite being a small woman who seems to wear out easily.

Anne’s character works because Praed imagines how a woman would respond in extreme conditions. For a woman, even if she gallivants around the countryside sticking her sword into things, is still not going to think in the same way as a man. She would see the world differently – there would be more attention to the details of things, for example, or she might occasionally want a brush for her hair, or she might get stroppy or nostalgic when she was menstruating. You can’t just put a woman in coat of armour and expect readers to believe in her.

This is why I was troubled by Serena (2008) as well. The novel pivots on the character of Serena Pemberton, a woman who marries George Pemberton and moves to the North Carolina mountains to build their timber cutting empire. Stepping — far too efficiently to be believed — into the rural world of the 1930s, she establishes her authority over the timber cutters by winning a bet with a man who spits at her feet. Thereafter, her acquisition of an eagle to kill the rattlesnakes and her ruthless murder of opponents via a sidekick whose life she saves, lends her a mythical air among the workers. She carries out her tasks with elegance and serenity, as her name declares, not even showing much emotion when she miscarries her child of eight months. When she attempts to have Pemberton’s bastard child killed, it is suggested that her motivations for doing this are not so much maternal grief, as a reaction to Pemberton’s disloyalty, demonstrated through his partiality to the boy. If she does feel grief, it is submerged by throwing herself completely into her plans to expand to timber cutting in Brazil. Serena acts too much like a man to be believed.

Part of the reason for this sense of distance is that we are not privy to her voice or her internal thoughts, as opposed to the focalisation of the character of Rachel Harmon, who bears Pemberton’s bastard child and who interacts beautifully — and realistically — with the natural world. I expect the writer was using this technique to create a woman who would impress his readers through her loftiness, but the effect, for me, was one of estrangement.

I think the reason for my attraction to the figure of a female botanist and explorer is because I can create a strong woman who still retains a sense of femininity through her delight in the flowers she collects. I never felt like I achieved this in A Curious Intimacy, because so much of the novel had a domestic focus. I also found, whenever I gave readings of the book, that the scene I always turned to was when Ingrid went into the desert to collect flowers. I realised that, even after changing the point of view three times and cutting out a third of the novel, this was the book I should have written – one that followed Ingrid on her explorations between Adelaide and Busselton while she thought about the lover she’d left behind. The sequel, then, will follow Ingrid’s journey back into the bush as she collects flowers and recalls the women she has loved, and Ellyn as she sets up a life in Sydney.

I wish that there was a new word altogether to describe these kinds of women – not just the female version of a brave man, but a woman whose sensibility renders a world that is imbued with femininity, even if that world might be perilous. Until then, we’re stuck with the prosaic heroine, to wave around like Adam’s rib.

On Scepticism and Creativity

Posted in Writing on February 5, 2012 by ladyredjess

When I came home from London and moved to Brisbane, I had to start my life again from scratch and meet new people, as the friends I’d made before London were in Sydney. Also, having spent four years writing a thesis in an intellectually demanding and rigorous environment, my brain was starving. To remedy both these things, I joined a sceptics group. I knew very little about scepticism, but I was up for anything that would help me think.

The roots of ‘scepticism’ are to be found in the Latin word scepticus, meaning ‘inquiring and reflective’, and further back still in the Greek word skeptesthai, meaning ‘to consider’, suggesting a framework of thinking that is both exploratory and doubting.  In other words, a concept is never taken as a given, but is explored from a multitude of angles.  Or rather, as in our sceptics meetings, it is whacked to pieces with a plethora of different viewpoints.

Initially I found that this kind of thinking very different from that to which I was accustomed. I spend most of my time recalling memories, daydreaming, watching people, writing down ideas, reading and appreciating language, and making links between all of the above. If there is a word to describe how my brain works, it would be ‘organic’. In our sceptics group, by contrast, theories are presented, picked apart and examined, like organs dissected in a lab. There isn’t so much a building up as a breaking down of elements. This manner of thinking certainly has its merits, not least when it comes to questioning religions such as that of the Divine Truth, headed by a man who believes he is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ (and on this note, if any reader would like a fictional rendition of the impact of cults, I direct them to Janette Turner Hospital’s startling Oyster, one of my favourite books).

Yet I have been, to my knowledge, the sole artist in the group, and largely the participants hail from fields such as IT. I have also found that, despite being an intelligent woman, I find many of the concepts difficult to grasp because, as above, my thinking tends towards the imaginative rather than the deductive. This has had me wondering, lately, if scepticism and creativity are compatible.

P1 once said to me, “When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.” It took me a while to work out what this meant. I read it as: if you hear what you think it is, then it’s probably that. Some help from Wikipedia confirmed this, and indicated that it’s usually used in medical circles, where a ‘zebra’ is medical slang for a surprising diagnosis. However, as someone trained to think of the most original interpretation of an idea possible (because clichés mean death for writers), I would have thought that thinking of zebras was the best approach to take.

The business of being a writer also involves creating new worlds, not breaking them down. Even when research is used to substantiate those worlds, the interplay of imagination means that the world will never be represented as it actually is (which brings up an additional question of whether anything can be translated accurately). Can a writer, then, also be a sceptic?

The answer of course, is yes, but you need to learn to switch off different parts of your brain. Latterly I’ve realised that I have been doing this for as long as I’ve been writing. When I started studying creative writing at uni, I got bored because I had too much time on my hands, and took on another degree in English Literature. Through this, I learned to analyse and take apart texts, which of course is the job of any writer learning their craft, but my lecturers taught me how to do it in a structured and intensive way. And this is what I, in turn, teach my students, telling them, ‘You can argue whatever you like, as long as you have evidence from the text to back it up.’

However to use this kind of thinking still requires an active change of gears – it doesn’t come naturally. I wonder, then, if some people are by nature dreamers, or sceptics, and if the latter need to be taught how to dream the way in which I am taught to pull things apart? I don’t have any concrete answers and, even if I find the sceptics group hard work, I persist in attending. The people are marvellously different and I always get good ideas for stories. One, in fact, has been a zebra that I have happily chased all over the plains to lasso, and now it is turning into my third novel.