Archive for March, 2012

The Stella Prize

Posted in Books, Feminism, Social Justice, Writing on March 18, 2012 by ladyredjess

On International Women’s Day I finished up at work, caught the bus into town and walked down the main street of West End in my pale pink Alannah Hill shoes with bows, while my silk frock rippled against my calves.  At Avid Reader, I bought yet another copy of Anna Funder’s All That I Am for a friend, gratefully accepted a glass of wine from Fiona and sat outside to listen to a forum on the Stella Prize.

Still in the making, the prize will award $50,000 annually to a woman writer with Australian citizenship, in any genre.  It is intended to raise the profile of women writers and increase their readership.

It was another humid Brisbane evening and the palpable indignation of the speakers and audience made things even warmer.  Here was Susan Johnson, whose writing I have always loved and whose blog I used to read when I was miserable in London, brandishing some thoroughly depressing pie charts from Vida showing the number of women’s publications vs men’s publications in respected literary outlets in 2011; here was Anita Heiss declaring from the audience, ‘I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a black woman writer, I just want to be a writer’; here was Ben Law attending to the absence of women’s representation in culture through an anecdote of Triple J’s Hottest 100 of all time which showcased no female artists whatsoever; and here was Krissy Kneen saying that her sexy books are marketed with pink covers whereas a male author writing about sex has a more serious cover.  So, it was asked, do we need an award just for women writers?  Then consensus was that yes, we do.

To me, it was blatantly obvious after the discussion that evening that a culture exists in Australia which women’s intellectual and artistic contributions are diminished or made invisible, and that we need the award to draw attention to this.  Some might argue that market forces push women’s work to the margins.  Books such as Carrie Tiffany’s finely crafted Mateship with Birds, with its muted love story and gentle renditions of domesticity, would be completely swamped in a market that favours, as Mary Philip noted, the weighty non-fiction tome.  Yet if the readership isn’t alerted to the beauty of quiet texts such as Tiffany’s, how are these texts to gain the attention they deserve?

As someone who is disabled, I know full well that unless you get up and make a noise, nothing will happen or, more likely, people will walk on you.  If you don’t jump and shout, if you just accept the status quo, then society remains blind to its flaws.  Naturally, such challenging might result in stripping the status quo of its privileges, which is undoubtedly why, as Ben Law pointed out, when four male bands in a row win an Indie music award, it’s called a meritocracy, but when a woman is a winner, it’s a conspiracy.

The effects of such shouting were apparent that evening.  One member of the audience noted that she often bought books by female authors as gifts for her female friends, and books by male authors for her male friends.  She hadn’t realised it until that point, and from now on, she said, she was going to buy books by female authors for her male friends.  Consciousness raising might be a dated and unfashionable concept, but clearly it still works.

There are some however, such as MJ Hyland and Sonya Hartnett, who are completely opposed to the idea.  Mention was made of the anonymity of Hyland’s name.  Are we, I wondered, returning to the days of Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell?  Concerns were raised, too, that such an award might trivialise women’s women by consigning it to a corner.  Yet, as another audience member pointed out, women can still win awards for both genders and besides, when was getting winning more money ever a problem?  Male authors might complain that they’re missing out, but given Vida’s stats showing how well they’re doing, I don’t know how strong an argument this is.

I’ve been reading a slew of Australian fiction lately, and I noticed that all of it, aside from Alex Miller’s awful Autumn Laing, was written by women: Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread, Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, Anna Funder’s All that I Am, the abovementioned Mateship with Birds, Sophie Cunningham’s Geography and Bird, Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game, Melissa Lucashenko’s Steam Pigs, Janette Turner Hospital’s Forecast: Turbulence and Favell Parrot’s Past the Shallows.  I’ve been trying to work out if this is because I actively seek fiction by women or I just like their subject matter; most likely it’s both.  Given the quality of these books, I think that an award to encourage the production of more of them can only be a good thing.

And then, as we filtered back into the bookstore, P stepped through the doors, diverted me from Anna Krien’s Quarterly essay and we Jam Jarred across the road on a salad with chilli-flavoured popcorn.

On Creative Practice

Posted in Books, Family, Rural Australia, Writing on March 4, 2012 by ladyredjess

My father’s first studio was the laundry, with the rifles for roo shooting hanging on the wall, an old-fashioned meat mincer clamped to the bench and his sloping desk squashed against the door to outside. Often, bored during the school holidays, I sat on the washing machine and watched him paint. Once we looked through the windows to see Mum, who had just woken from a nap, yawning as she pulled out weeds near the tankstand. I, who must have been 6 or so, asked, ‘How can she be tired if she’s just had a sleep?’ Dad replied, ‘She’s still waking up.’ I found this an unscientific and unsatisfactory answer, but even then I sensed my father’s moods and knew when a conversation wouldn’t continue.

A few years later Dad built his own studio, and H and I would often go there after dinner to draw on the discarded pieces of cardboard from which he cut his mounts. Dad played LPs and tapes from musicals as he painted. H drew cartoons which he cut out and stuck on the wall in our bedroom next to his Halley’s Comet poster. As with my piano playing, I became technically proficient and was able to copy anything, but I lacked H’s imagination and flair.

My sister, brother and I all studied art at school, and later Dad left the farm to teach art himself, littering the house with art books and study notes. It was because of this education — formal and informal — that I was able to recognise the community of artists featured in Alex Miller’s new novel, Autumn Laing, as being loosely based upon the Modernists at Heide. As I lay on my red velvet couch reading, I thought I was in for an exciting ride. However, as I turned the pages, I became increasingly disappointed by the lack of momentum and dull writing, and found myself skimming the text, which I rarely do. There was an absence of detail grounding the work and, breaking the most fundamental rule in the writing book, far too much ‘telling’ over ‘showing’.

The novel is the memoir of Autumn Laing, written, she says, to put Edith, the wife of her lover Pat Donlon, back into the picture, to ‘give her portrait the first place in this testament’ (21). While attention is paid to Edith at first, the work is overtaken by Autumn’s focus on Pat Donlon, relegating Edith and her art to the margins as she had been all along.

After Miller’s perfectly pitched Lovesong, with its delicate rendition of how a woman’s desperation for a child eroded a relationship, the depiction of infertility in this work was a caricature. Following ‘a period of aggressive and exaggerated sexual behaviour’ in her late teens (178), Autumn is unable to have children. When she finds that Pat Donlon is to father a child with Edith, her reaction is to knock over her wine glass and slam the door, while ‘a moment later her wail came from the deep night, “I hate men!”’ (210). Continuing in this hyperbolic vein, Autumn’s carers, a nurse and her biographer Adeli, have breasts like ‘great melons diving about like bloated water bombs’ (185) and ‘trembling balloons of naked flesh’ (187), an unsubtle affront to Autumn’s angularity and infertility.

Each of these complaints could of course be explained by the voice and biases of Autumn, but a writer who has published his tenth novel should be capable of shaping better sentences than ‘I hated him. I wanted him to make love to me. To lose himself in a wild torment of passion for me’ (369). Mills and Boon territory, indeed.

Aside from allowing me to recognise the loose skeleton upon which Autumn Laing hung, my father’s creative practice has been instrumental in showing me how to become, and to live, as an artist. Although he doesn’t have the all-consuming passion and ambition that I do (for he would, ultimately, prefer to be renovating houses than painting), his art does seem to tug at him the same way that writing never leaves me alone.

At home for Christmas, when he was painting and I was writing, we came out for coffee (or rather, he heard me in the kitchen and came out for someone to talk to).

‘It’s so boring,’ he complained. ‘Why do we do it?’

‘Because it’s a vocation,’ I replied.

The word comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning ‘to call’. It’s a voice you can’t ignore. Certainly, if I don’t write, I start to feel a bit shitty and ill, and other writers I have spoken to feel this way as well.

Dad also taught me the importance of a single-minded dedication to a cause. His father once said to him, ‘There’s no such word as can’t’, and he relayed this to me in turn as I was growing up, as he did the phrase, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ For a stubborn little girl who always wanted to be the best but was sometimes thwarted by a disability, these mantras helped drive me on. Even now, when I despair that my friends have houses and cars and I am walking away from the white picket fences and down the dusty road to post yet another grant application, I remind myself that I can never lose faith in my capacity to succeed. To do so would be to give up my raison d’être.

In a piece of poetic dovetailing, my father’s art supports my own, for my parents help to put a roof over my head so that I can work part-time and keep writing. Likewise, my childhood on the property he worked with his brothers has given rise to almost all my themes, and the character of the artist/farmer has appeared in at least one short story, and will feature in novel #6.

Dad’s paintings are available here. If you’re stuck for gifts for weddings, birthdays or generally esoteric occasions, these will fit the bill. Plus Mum keeps at him to clean out his drawers, so divesting them of paintings is always helpful for household harmony.