Sunday, 20 March 2016

Girls Like You

The beautiful cover of Charlotte Wood's incredible novel The Natural Way of Things (2015) makes a number of promises, by way of quotes from leading Australian authors. Malcolm Knox calls it 'brave and brilliant', Clementine Ford claims it is 'utterly unforgettable', Joan London and Tegan Bennett Daylight point out its uniqueness. But Christos Tsiolkas describes it best when he writes "You can't shake off this novel; it gets under your skin, fills your lungs, breaks your heart."

That was certainly my reaction to the novel. As I read I felt the need to talk to friends about it and share this experience, a feeling I have not had with such intensity since reading We Need To Talk About Kevin many years ago. This is a book that needs to be reflected on, spoken about and shared.

The story begins when two women wake from a drug induced sleep to find that they have been imprisoned in a ramshackle property in the Australian outback, surrounded by an electrified fence. They find they are not alone, but rather among ten women who have their heads shaved, are dressed in scratchy tunics and oversized bonnets, and are forced to perform hard labour while chained together in the merciless sun. As the days progress the women realise what they have a common - each one has been involved in a sexual scandal.

The scandals that brought the women here are all too recognisable: Verla had an affair with a high-profile politician; Hetty with a Cardinal; Lydia partied too hard on a cruise-ship; Rhiannon was a gamer girl, a 'Codebabe'; Leandra was in the army; footballer's girlfriend Yolanda was gang-raped. Whether it was the school principal's head girl, the reality show contestant, or the flight attendant, all of these women have been unchaste, have sinned, and are now being punished for their sexuality.

The property is run by Hardings International, under the ironic banner "Dignity and Respect in a Safe and Secure Environment", with three vicious, baton-wielding employees to keep the girls in line. The threat of sexual and physical violence is pervasive, as the jailers aim to humiliate and strip these women of their humanity. While this sounds desperately bleak, The Natural Way of Things is actually a gripping, provocative, page-turner which, as Tsoiolkas claims, 'gets under your skin, fills your lungs and breaks your heart'.

Wood is a gifted writer, not just in her ability to tell a good yarn, but in the beauty of her prose. She creates the bleak, dry landscape and gives rhythm to the day's events by her crisp writing. Some of the many lines which captivated me are:
"A flock of white cockatoos arrived, landing noisily down on the flat, the white line of them billowing and settling like a thrown bedsheet." (page 199)
"The tin walls are heating up already, blowflies dotting against them, their arrhythmic drones making it feel even hotter than it is." (page 54) 
The Natural Way of Things has been compared to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, with good reason. Both are speculative fiction which are all too possible. Slut-shaming and misogyny are such common occurrences that it is not a hard to imagine such an outback prison for wayward women. Indeed Wood was inspired by the Hay Institution for Girls, a maximum security home for girls which operated in the 1960s and early 1970, where 14-18 year olds were isolated and subjected to daily humiliations, hard labour and abuse. We have a shameful history (and present) here of locking people up - whether in outback institutions or off-shore detention centres - so this facility is no stretch of the imagination.
"What would people in their old lives be saying about these girls?.... Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves." (page 176)
Of course Wood was also influenced by the almost daily news of women who were 'asking for it', 'playing the gender card', 'dressed like that', 'should have known better', 'could have left him' - a pervasive narrative. Her anger at gender inequality and contemporary misogyny is well founded and well articulated, but this is not a ragey/ranty book. Rather it is timely and necessary. This is a novel which needs to be read, discussed, debated.

I had the pleasure of meeting Charlotte Wood and hearing her speak at the All About Women festival in Sydney a few weeks ago. This novel has been shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Pledge for Parity

The 2016 International Women's Day theme is "Pledge for Parity" - closing the gender gap at home, at work and in communities. The World Economic Forum reported in 2015 on the gender gap across health, education, economic participation and political empowerment.

Australia was ranked 36 out of 145 countries with a score of .733 for equality. While education and life expectancy were ranked highly,  Australia did poorly on political empowerment and in some areas of economic participation, reflective of the wage inequality for similar work. Perhaps more disturbing, is that over the past ten years Australia has been sliding down the global rankings on the Gender Gap Index, indicative of the progress made in other nations and the lack of progress in our own.

Each year I attend events affiliated with International Women's Day. This year I attended the All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House. The big names at the festival this year were Miranda July (filmmaker, writer and artist), Piper Kerman (of Orange is the New Black fame), and Anne-Marie Slaughter (former US Director of Policy Planning). Due to the overlapping sessions on the program, I could not see everything I wanted, so I elected to attend a series of speakers on a range of topics of interest to me.

Professor Emerita Raewyn Connell has spent a lifetime researching gender. I first came across her work many years ago when I was undertaking a Masters of Arts in Gender Studies and I read her seminal work, Masculinities. Connell argues that there is no crisis in masculinity, as frequently proclaimed in the media. Rather, there are a variety of forms of masculinity and ways of being men. For example, the shift from blue collar labour to the IT sector, has seen a different masculinity come to the forefront.  Gender is relational, thus masculinity is described in reference to femininity.

Connell spoke about the wage gap and argued that there are cumulative effects of wage inequity. For example, women retire with significantly less superannuation than men (from lower pay and time out of the labour force) which has a huge impact as women have longer life expectancy.

The new world of work is changing the way people divide household labour. So much of Australian male identity is still wrapped up in notions of male as bread-winner, but this is changing as more men seek active involvement in childrearing activities. Here we need to be cautious of sexism creeping in, emasculating househusbands as "Mr Mom".  She also spoke about poverty and the disengagement of young men in poorer neighbourhoods where there is high unemployment, lower education, and more social problems related to alcohol, drugs and violence. Where there is insecure employment, there is stress.

Eva Cox asked a question regarding systemic change. Connell spoke of the need for all people, men and women, to be involved in creating the future.

I really enjoyed this session. Connell is extremely knowledgable and conveys her message clearly and succinctly. I have tremendous admiration for her and it was wonderful to hear her speak in person again after so many years.

Susan Goodwin (left) and Raewyn Connell (right)

New Women, New Men, New Economy
This was a session I really wanted to see and was most disappointed in. The topic is of great interest to me - how diversity and economic participation create greater prosperity. Unfortunately I felt it was let down by the manner in which it was presented. Where most other presenters were really natural, Narelle Hooper and Rodin Genoff came across as too showy - laughing at their own jokes, encouraging the audience to give themselves a round of applause (ugh!) and introducing their family members.

Their argument seemed to consist of a few main points. There are new men out there - as evidenced through photos of Justin Trudeau and Benedict Cumberbatch - and new women. Hooper and Genoff have cracked the CODE of the new economy which consists of Creativity Openness Diversity and Equity. They spoke of research they had conducted and provided some statistics as evidence.

I had expected a greater degree of intellectual rigour from this session. Given the Pledge for Parity theme, I was hoping for a more analytical, political economy approach to issues of prosperity, equity and economic participation. Rather, it felt like a shameless book plug. In fact, I was so underwhelmed that I decided not to purchase their book despite my intentions to.

I think this session would have benefited from a third party moderator who interviewed Hooper and Genoff about the findings of their research. In fact this was the only session in the Festival that did not have a Chair, which I believe let the audience down and made it less professional than other sessions.

Narelle Hooper and Rodin Genoff

The Women We Love To Hate
I really enjoyed the next session. This was a panel chaired by Ruby Hamad, featuring historian Michelle Arrow, author Charlotte Wood and researcher Dr Emma Jane. With the recent 40th anniversary republishing of Anne Summers' feminist classic, Damned Whores and God's Police (1975), the panel began by reflecting on the dichotomy that women fall into one of two camps: damned whore or virtuous saint. The panel concluded that it is almost impossible to be in the latter group, so most women are in the damned whores camp.

The panel discussed how women cannot win in terms of sexuality and how women who are shame, silenced and rendered invisible. They cited examples  like the public servant who was slut shamed by a federal minister,  women in the military filmed during sex without consent, Diane Brimble, Monica Lewinsky, and so many more. Emma Jane argued that "slut shaming is a misnomer. It is shaming for being a woman and having any kind of sexuality."

They spoke about how it is possible for women to be the objects of desire and contempt simultaneously. For example, in prostitution women are desired but also reviled. Charlotte Wood spoke of the women in her book, The Natural Way of Things (read review), in which ten 'fallen' women are held in captivity and humiliated for their involvement in some sort of sex scandal. Wood's women are 'bewildered by the simultaneous toxic desire and disgust' by their captors.

Emma Jane made an interesting point about women shrinking - how women sit and pose to make themselves as small as possible, whereas men spread out in a power posture.  Her research on cyberbullying has revealed a shocking degree of misogyny, particularly for women in the gamer community.

The panel discussed various women that have been the subject of loathing. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was targeted by people within and outside of politics and eventually stood up to the misogyny in her famous speech. Michelle Arrow spoke about Lindy Chamberlain and how she was judged for failing to behave in line with societal expectations.  The panelists agreed that small acts of courage - standing up for yourself and others - will make a significant difference.

This was a terrific hour of discussion - thought-provoking, humourous, and positive. After the session I met Charlotte Wood and she signed a copy of her book for me.

(l-r) Ruby Hamad, Michelle Arrow, Charlotte Wood, Emma Jane

True Crime vs Real Crime
My final session of the day was an interesting panel of crime writers. The amazing Van Badham chaired the panel which featured South African novelist Margie Orford, Mexican writer and President of Pen International Jennifer Clement, and Australian professor Kerry Carrington.

Van Badham pointed out that the volume of crime novels published and sold have continued to grow, the popularity of crime shows on television and the movies continue, two of the biggest successes in recent months are Serial and Making a Murderer - and yet, in most places, crime is actually decreasing. The panel spoke about the mistaken glamourising of gangsters and the criminal underbelly.

Kerry Carrington pointed out that 'upcharging' is on the rise - wherein criminalisation and punishment for minor offences is increasing, putting more women into the corrections system. Around 18% of women in jail are for drug related offences. Most women in jail have been impacted by domestic violence, alcoholism and mental health issues that, if prevented or treated, would have changed these women's lives dramatically.

Margie Orford spoke of crime fiction as a catharsis. She said that in a crime novel you (the reader) sit on the shoulder of the investigator, so you have agency and justice on your side. Orford's South Africa has high rates of rape and other violence against women, so for her writing crime fiction was a way to take these crimes and make it real. She pointed out that, in Australia domestic violence is front page news, but in South Africa it is not spoken of despite its prevalence.

Orford also pointed out that Scandinavian societies are more egalitarian, with women and men more on par than other parts of the world. The crime fiction coming from Scandinavia, however, is extremely violent particularly towards women. Steig Larsson's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium series) and Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander novels, are but two examples.

Jennifer Clement spoke about violence against women in Mexico. She pointed to the daily disappearance and brutal murders of young women in Juarez, for which the word femicide has been created.  She wrote her book, Prayers for the Stolen, about young girls in Mexico against the backdrop of drug cartels, disappearances, and poverty. Mexico has a high rate of child sex trafficking, with little action by police. A theft of a car would generate more attention than the theft of a child.

Kerry Carrington has written a number of non-fiction books on gender and justice. She spoke passionately about how female victims of violence are forgotten or rendered invisible. Carrington wrote a book about the violent gang rape and murder of Leigh Leigh, a 14 year old girl, and the police investigation and court case that followed. She spoke about how she and her family were targeted by the Police Integrity Commission following publication of her book.

The panel were asked a number of interesting questions, including one about media portrayals of women who commit crimes (like Aileen Wuornos, Karla Homolka). Female killers are often depicted as either victims themselves or crazy, but rarely as acting with agency.

This was an interesting, intellectual hour of thought-provoking discussion. I really didn't know much about the speakers before I attended, but was thoroughly impressed by their knowledge, passion and integrity. An excellent session.

(l-r) Van Badham, Margie Orford, Jennifer Clement, Kerry Carrington
The Book Haul
Of course, no trip to a festival like this would be complete without the purchase of a few books. I picked up copies of:
  • Jennifer Clement's Prayers for the Stolen, which she kindly signed for me.
  • Anne Marie Slaughter's Unfinished Business
  • Tara Moss's The Fictional Woman
There were plenty of other books that I wanted to get but I had to be selective (especially with the Sydney Writers Festival coming up soon). But I must say that I miss having Gleebooks at the All About Women and Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Current bookseller Kinokinuya is a wonderful bookstore, but I find that Gleebooks is more thoughtful in the selection of titles it brings to festivals. I would have certainly purchased more had Gleebooks been there.

Final thoughts
Overall, I enjoyed my day out at the All About Women Festival. I love the diversity of topics and the talented women presenting. The chairs of sessions are uniformly excellent (Julia Baird, Ruby Hamad, Van Badham, Jane Caro, Catherine Fox, Jennie Brokie etc) and bring to the event tremendous curiousity, wit and wisdom.

There are a few things that would have made my day more enjoyable. First, the timetable this year pitted all the high profile speakers against each other. Why have Piper Kerman, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Carrie Brownstein on in the same timeslot? Plus the overlapping of timeslots meant having to choose between sessions or missing out altogether. Often people had to leave sessions early to rush to their next session which was disruptive to speakers and attendees. A few more panel sessions would have been beneficial.

Another annoyance was sessions not starting on time. My first session of the day started at 11am. There was a massive queue at the doors, but they did not open until 10.55am, so people were not seated and the session did not start until well after 11am. This is disrespectful to the speakers and shortchanges the attendees who do not get their full hour - cutting short the amount of question time.

Finally, there were almost no men present. This is understandable due to the nature of the event, but disappointing in terms of furthering gender equality. Men need to hear and understand these issues. Maybe some kind of "bring a bloke" campaign is needed to encourage men to engage with feminism. Having said that, I must say how enjoyable it was to spend a day with hundreds of feminists talking about the issues that matter to us all. See you next year!

My post about the 2015 All About Women festival is available on this blog.

Friday, 11 March 2016

The Stella Shortlist 2016

The Stella Prize shortlist was announced on 10 March 2016.  The shortlisted titles are:

  • Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight (read review)
  • Hope Farm by Peggy Frew
  • A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories by Elizabeth Harrower 
  • The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau
  • The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (read review)
  • Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright
Brief synopses of these titles can be found on my post about the longlist.

Of these books I am most excited for Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things. After hearing Wood speak at the All About Women festival this week, I am really keen for her novel to be better known. It is a powerful, important story.

It is wonderful to have this prize as so often women writers are under represented and their stories go unnoticed. The winner will be announced on 19 April 2016.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Unexpected Love Stories

Prolific writer Alexander McCall Smith is in Sydney to promote his latest book, Chance Developments (2015). As I never miss an opportunity to hear him speak, I attended an event at the Seymour Centre as part of the Sydney Writers Festival. Over the course of an hour, McCall Smith spoke on a range of topics, delighting the audience with wonderfully humourous stories.

The author began by talking about hipsters with their tailored trousers, bicycles and beards. He pondered the difference between hipsters of today and the beat generation in the times of Kerouac. Somehow we segued into talking about photography, a passion of McCall Smith, and his Chance Developments.

McCall Smith wrote Chance Developments as a series of unexpected love stories. He came across several old black and white photographs and, not knowing the real story of the couples in the pictures, he wrote a fictionalised account of each couple's romance. The tales are set in far flung places: a circus in Canada, a goldmining town in Australia, a country village in Ireland, the Scottish highlands, and McCall Smith's beloved hometown of Edinburgh.

He talked at length about different kinds of love - reminding me of the scene in The English Patient where Katherine Clifton tells Almasy that "romantic love, platonic love, filial love - quite different things surely."

For McCall Smith love is central and takes many forms. He believes that one of the most heartbreaking kinds of love is that which is unspoken. His novel The Forever Girl is about unrequited love, in which a young girl falls in love with a boy and then spends much of her life following him around in the hopes that he will notice her. At the event McCall Smith spoke of the anguish of not being able to reveal your love for someone else.

The conversation then shifted to friendship. McCall Smith came to prominence with his bestselling series The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency which centres on the friendship of Mme Precious Ramotswe and Mme Grace Makutsi. The author has always been interested in the nature of friendship - how some people form a bond that cannot be broken, how others cull their friends on a regular basis, and how some friendships can withstand great distances.

McCall Smith greatly admires the writings of Patrick O'Brian and the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin which he believes is one of the best explorations of male friendship. McCall Smith writes many children's books and his School Ship Tobermory series is a tribute to O'Brian's series. He spoke about the differences between male and female friendships, and how he envies women for their ability to talk openly about things. He finds it relatively easy to write from a female perspective.
Of course he is always writing something and generally had three or four books on the go. He spoke about how he is currently working on the next instalment of the Scotland Street series and regaled the audience with some tidbits of where the story is heading. He is also working on the next Mme Ramotswe book and another Bertie novel. He tends to get up at 3 or 4am and write for a couple of hours before going back to bed and rising to write again. He cannot write all day but has found a workable routine. He has a full time assistant who aides him with his correspondence and appointments.

I really must get back into reading his books. I began with the Detective series many years ago and read the first three or four back-to-back. But then I took a break and now I am not even sure how far behind I am! The Scotland Street series is great too although I am not caught up with that either. I have never read any of the Sunday Philosopher Club (Isabel Dalhousie) novels. Hearing McCall Smith speak reminded me of what an excellent story teller he is, and has encouraged me to get back into his books again.