Archive for the Feminism Category

On Reading when Rundown

Posted in Books, Feminism on May 7, 2012 by ladyredjess

Sometimes when I forget to stop working, my body makes an executive decision for me and puts me to bed with an illness.  The only positive thing about this state of affairs is that I can lounge about feeling sorry for myself, bake carrot cake and eat it, and read incessantly without guilt.

Which is just as well, as 2012 has been designated the National Year of Reading, although our newly elected Queensland premier would appear not to be cognisant of this.  In a wonderful initiative, Elizabeth Lheude of Australian Women Writers has set a challenge to read and review books by Australian women.  The motivation for this approach is, as she writes, ‘to help counteract the gender bias in reviewing and social media newsfeeds that occurred throughout 2011 by actively promoting the reading and reviewing of a wide range of contemporary Australian women’s writing’.  Already 696 links to reviews have been posted on her site, which is a fantastic response, and through this I’ve added another three.

First off the rank is Romy Ash’s Floundering, recently released by Text.  A first novel shortlisted for the 2011 Vogel, it follows the journey of two boys picked up by their unstable mother (who has left them, without explanation, with their grandparents for a year), and driven across the country to a caravan park by the sea.  The prose is absolutely crystalline and the tension, up until about page 100, is superb.  After that it wobbles a bit, but takes off again.  The titular scene, in which the boys try to catch flounder in the sea with their mother by the light of a torch, stands as a perfect encapsulation of the story.  With ripples of disquiet created by the boys’ interactions with their old neighbour in the caravan park, the hint of prostitution learned from the mother, and a car accident with kangaroos that reminded me of Wake in Fright, the novel was on the cusp of springing into something truly disturbing.  Sadly, however, this didn’t happen, as it wrapped up in a somewhat pedestrian way and didn’t leave me with a huge amount to think about.

Alternatively, this might be because this is the fourth in a rash of first novels I’ve read recently about disturbed children, largely written in first person.  It began with Jon Bauer’s Rocks in the Belly (recently shortlisted for the IMPAC), which had no lyricism and left me cold.  Then there was Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game, which was very well-written and constructed, and finally Favell Parrett’s Past the Shadows, again finely-written (this one in third person), but largely unmemorable aside from the distressing ending.  Maybe I’m just a bit over this theme.  However, having said all that, I’m looking forward to seeing what Ash does next, as she is clearly a deft and dedicated writer.

On finishing her book, I picked up Kirsten Tranter’s second novel, A Common Loss.  I liked Tranter’s first work The Legacy.  Although, as with many others in my bookclub at Avid Reader, I felt the ending too convenient and clichéd, I was thoroughly impressed with her ambition in applying James’ The Portrait of a Lady to Sydney and America.  A Common Loss, also set in America (and evoking that country so well that I wanted to go back there) follows four college friends who meet annually in Las Vegas.  This year is the first without their friend Dylan, who died in a car accident and who, it transpires, holds secrets about them all. While the story had enough intricacy to draw the reader on, and while I liked the setting of Las Vegas and its attendant subtext of the blurring between reality and fiction (although this was too labored at times on account of its filtration through an academic character), the story failed to come to life, remaining stubbornly pinned to the page.  It also took me a good twenty pages to work out that the narrator was a man, and I didn’t have an overwhelming sense of masculinity throughout the text, despite all the main characters but one being male.  I wonder, too, if anyone can write a college novel these days without being overshadowed by and compared to Tartt’s sublime The Secret History, or if this even matters.

Then I got all hot and bothered and uncomfortable with Krissy Kneen’s Triptych, as it was designed to do.  As with Nabokov’s Lolita, referenced several times throughout the novel, Kneen’s skillful writing arouses her readers, despite her rendition of interactions that they may find confrontational (bestiality and incest, for example), making us question our responses and desire.  It follows the engagements, virtual and otherwise, between three sets of people: Susanna, daughter of deaf parents (a family setting I found beautifully done), who engages with Aaron online; zoophiles Rachel and Leda, who have couplings with animals and also communicate with Susanna online; and Aaron and Katherine, who are brother and sister.  I really enjoyed the novel, not least because it had narrative drive, unlike erotica such as Cleland’s The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which was initially entertaining but became tedious through so much repetition.  However the strands of the characters’ lives in each of the three stories, which looked as though they would be tied together, were left loose at the end – particularly Susanna’s, which bothered me.  If reading is anything like sex, a writer really oughtn’t leave their readers hanging.  Alternatively, Susanna’s disappearance might simply be indicative of the internet’s strange conflation of intimacy and distance: you can be close enough to see someone masturbating, but might never be able to connect with them again.  I still haven’t read Krissy’s much lauded Affection, which is very poor on my part, but have ordered it to the library.  Sometimes I think I’m the only person who keeps Stone’s Corner Library alive, as it’s so small I constantly need to pay to order books they don’t stock.  I console myself with the thought that at least every 80c goes to buying new books for other people to read, a concept with which our premier might be unfamiliar.

Beside my bed I still have Brigid Rooney’s Literary Activists, and Melissa Bellanta’s Larrikins.  These will have to wait for another day for review, however, as I need to get stuck into Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance.  And have another cuppa, a couple of paracetamol and piece of cake.

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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 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.