Diversifying in death: Interview with Katherine Howell

Katherine Howell

Two years ago, I slipped through a door into a convention room in Perth and sat down to listen to Katherine Howell. What intrigued me was part of the blurb for the session – Katherine Howell had been a paramedic for fifteen years before she had her crime fiction published.

That, to me, seemed impressive. She had all she needed to know about the system right at her fingertips in order to write a believable plot. And she still did research.

March is Diversity month here at Australian Women Writers and Ms Howell’s seventh novel to feature her detective Ella Marconi, Deserving Death, is now out with a lesbian as one of the main characters.

“I’ve had gay and lesbian characters in my books before but not as point-of-view characters, so I really enjoyed writing both Carly and Linsey,” Katherine tells me via email from over East where she’s got one week left on a writing deadline.

Deserving Death by Katherine Howell

Both plot and characters worked together in her favour in Deserving Death – the relationship creating issues that were central to the story.

“Carly is a paramedic and is out, while Linsey is her closeted girlfriend,” Katherine explained.

“I’m always looking for ways to put the characters under more stress in the stories, so using that issue of their relationship having to be secret, and Linsey desperately wanting to tell her family but being so afraid, was a good way to do that while also having Carly under pressure with her work situation and her suspicions about the crime.”

Web of Deceit by Katherine HowellWriting crime fiction is difficult and weaving a web, much like the sixth novel in the series titled Web of Deceit, where the detective can solve the crime and yet it still isn’t a cakewalk for the reader is a tough ask. And that’s assuming you have an idea in the first place. But for Katherine, inspiration exists everywhere.

“I think it’s the same for me as for many other writers,” she writes, quite candidly.

“A little seed of an idea appears, maybe in a newspaper article, or something we overhear, or something that pops up in our heads, then we start to think about where that could go, and what could happen next, and next, and next. I think about who’s dead and who killed them and why, and then about ways I can hide that from the reader and have them suspecting different people along the way and busting to find out the truth. It sounds quite a neat process there, but it’s not – there are lots of mental dead-ends and scrawling of notes on sheets of paper. Lots of frustration too.”

It’s nowhere near a neat process. Not for Katherine Howell, the steady routine of some other writers. It’s almost a relief to hear that she is quite human about the way she writes.

“I waste a lot of time dithering and feeling anxious,” she confesses, making it all the more amazing that she has graciously taken time out to answer questions despite having a deadline.

“Once I make myself get rolling I try to do one or two thousand a day, and sometimes that takes just a couple of hours, sometimes many more. I write best in the afternoon and every so often will write late into the night if I get into the flow of it.”

And then there’s humour: “Every year I promise myself I’ll be more disciplined. So far I haven’t been.”

But while it all seems quite normal so far, there are certain facts that leap out at you that speak a lot about how dedicated she is to writing.

Frantic by Katherine HowellShe wrote four manuscripts while studying, the last of which was sent off to an agent who returned it saying she needed to understand how to craft suspense. She then turned around and enrolled in a Masters degree to study how suspense was created in fiction and applied it to her own manuscript. When she graduated she sent it back to the agent and the first Ella Marconi novel Frantic was published in 2007 and won the 2008 Davitt Award for best crime fiction.

“I’ve always loved reading, and even as a child loved the thought of writing my own stories that would draw a reader in just as I was drawn into the books I read. That’s what I still love about it now, and when I write I think about what the reader might suspect is happening, or be expecting to happen next, and try to turn that on its head to keep them guessing, and reading.”

And would she ever stray from the love affair she seems to have concocted with the crime fiction genre? Would she ever write other stories? She admits to the affair readily enough:

“I love crime fiction! I read a lot of it and it seemed quite natural that that’s what I would write. I’d certainly be open to writing something else if I had the urge, but so far there hasn’t been one.”

Perhaps that’s because there is no need for that urge when her current one is uniquely hers and still going strong – Ella Marconi is the mainstay throughout the series but the paramedics differ. It’s a strange setup but nevertheless a useful tactic providing something both familiar for readers and yet introducing something new each time. But it came about because she wanted to use her fifteen years of experience riding in ambulances and dealing with blood and death firsthand.

“I couldn’t work out a way to write a crime series with just paramedic characters, so developing a detective character was really the only option to make it all work,” she writes.

Ella herself was baptised from a baby book and the White Pages: “I knew she had to be tough, as a woman working in the male-dominated police for so many years, and that she’d be idealistic — which can get her into trouble — at the same time as being cynical, frustrated and bored of the red tape,” she says.

“I chose a first name from a baby name book, a name that was not masculine/ambiguous. I wanted something distinctly female – then went through the White Pages for a surname that felt right.”

My last question is whether she has advice for other writers. For her, that’s an easy answer: “To never give up.”

She clarifies: “It’s easy to think that a first draft is awful, and to give up right there. The people who succeed are the ones who’ll work on it to make it better, and edit over and over again, put it aside and write something new and then edit that over and over.”

Tenacity. Persistence. Determination. With seven novels under her belt, a range of diverse characters scattered through them, a personal history of using a Masters degree to teach herself how to improve her writing, this is a writer who knew what her goal was from the start and puts everything into her work.

And now you have seven novels to read and review for Australian Women Writers while we wait for Katherine Howell’s next book.

Which presumably she is pulling all nighters to write, right now.

You can find Katherine Howell’s novels at her website. Her latest novel Deserving Death is out right now.

About me
Image
Marisa Wikramanayake is a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She published her first book at 17, has lived on three different continents, been in ground zero of a bomb blast twice and is currently based in Perth, Australia. She’s also been freaked out by the Scientologists, helped run national publishing conferences and currently sits on the Society of Editors (WA) and WA Media Alliance committees. She writes book reviews for The West and the ABR, science news for Science Network WA and writes novels in the spare time that’s left over after painting, dancing, gaming and mentoring. She contributes her two cents as non-fiction editor at Australian Women Writers and lends her geek goddess expertise to the Guys Read Gals project and the Society of Editors (WA). You can catch her on her blog at marisa.com.au or on Twitter @mwikramanayake

Big Increase in Reviews for Australian Women Writers!

In 2013 Australian women writers received a large increase in online reviews. The number of reviews entered in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge increased by nearly twenty percent compared to 2012.

In its second year the Challenge demonstrates that the groundswell of enthusiasm for books written by Australian women is increasing. This is a trend that traditional literary publications need to adjust to. Readers expect to see as many reviews of books by women as they do of men. All genders are equally capable of quality writing. All genders write about a wide variety of interesting topics.

In 2013 over 1,800 reviews were written about books written by Australian women writers. Nearly forty percent of the books reviewed were published in 2013. The most popular books were:

Title Author Publisher No. Reviews
1 Burial Rites Hannah Kent Picador 21
2 Fractured Dawn Barker Hachette 14
3 Dark Horse Honey Brown Penguin 12
4 The Railwayman’s Wife Ashley Hay Allen & Unwin 11
4 The Girl in the Hard Hat Loretta Hill Random House 11
5 Web of Deceit Katherine Howell Pan Macmillan 10
5 The Wild Girl Kate Forsyth Random House 10
5 The Husband’s Secret Liane Moriarty Pan Macmillan 10
5 Half Moon Bay Helene Young Penguin 10

Most reviewed books for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge in 2013.

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Over seven hundred authors had their work reviewed by Challenge participants.

Yes, there are over seven hundred Australian women authors. The number would be even greater as we recognise that despite the volume of books that were reviewed, there were still some authors who published in 2013 but missed out on reviews in the Challenge.

The most popular authors were:

Author Name No. Reviews
1 KENT, Hannah 21
Most Popular Authors, Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, 2013.
2 JOHNS, Rachael 18
3 HILL, Loretta 17
3 BROWN, Honey 17
4 OVERINGTON, Caroline 16
5 HOWELL, Katherine 15

A feature of the Challenge is the fact that anyone can participate. There are no educational or work experience requirements. Reviewers don’t have to live in Australia. No-one ‘vets’ the reviews before they are linked. This may be a reviewer’s first experience of writing for the public.

The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is a grass-roots positive action by people from all walks of life. The one thing in common is all reviewers believe that the books they read which are written by Australian women are worthy of a review. The time and effort the reviewers put into writing the reviews is an unspoken comment on their views about the writing of women authors.

Over two hundred reviewers wrote at least one review for the Challenge in 2013. Some of the Challenge reviewers were prolific:

Reviewer No. Reviews
1 Brenda 121
Top 10 Challenge Reviewers 2013
2 Bree 110
3 Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out 100
4 Lauren @ The Australian Bookshelf 72
5 Tsana 42
6 Sally From Oz 40
7 writereaderly 37
8 Shannon (Giraffe Days) 34
8 Jess @ The Never Ending Bookshelf 34
8 Mel @ Adventures of a Subversive Reader 34
8 Helen 34

There is still considerable work to be done to change the attitudes of major, traditional book reviewing publications. Both the international and Australian statistics for 2012 still showed too many of these publications prioritise reviewing the writing of men over the writing of women.

Our statistics reveal that only seventeen men wrote a review for the Challenge in 2013. Women’s writing is for everyone just as men’s writing is for everyone. The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is keen for more men to participate.

Renewed impetus for the campaign to change attitudes has emerged from the United Kingdom since the New Year. Writer and illustrator, Joanna Walsh, has started a Twitter hashtag, #readwomen2014. It has quickly become a vibrant conversation with many people committing to reading more books written by women. American literary magazine, The Critical Flame, has committed to a whole year of reviewing the work of women writers and writers of colour.

The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is part of the growing world-wide movement to raise awareness of excellent writing by women. It helps readers to challenge the subconscious stereotypes that govern our choice of books to read. We are excited to be entering our third year and hope that we can help you do something about this issue.

Participation in the Challenge is better than whingeing. It is better than waiting for old, traditional publications to move into the twenty-first century. The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge gives everyone the opportunity to take positive action to change our world.

Commit yourself. Sign up today and write your first review!

At a Glance: The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge in 2013 2013 2012
Number of Reviews 1822 1526
Books Reviewed 1079 876
Authors Reviewed 763 596

The Challenge: A Mid-year Overview

We are only half way through 2013 but a review of the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge has revealed some impressive figures.  In just six months participants have written 1,100 reviews, reviewed the work of over five hundred Australian women authors and read nearly seven hundred books.

It is the participants of the Challenge who have generated this groundswell of interest in the writing of Australian women authors.  In the first six months 187 volunteers have taken the effort to write about the books by Australian women authors that they have read and share their reviews online.  These reviewers range from those who have little experience in reviewing to those who are published authors and/or reviewers.  Everyone is invited to participate in whatever way they can.

Most books have been reviewed just once but 26% of the books have received more than one review. Our ‘Top Five’ list shows the most popular books so far this year:

Books Reviewed: The Top Five
Title Author Number of Reviews
1 Fractured Dawn Barker 12
2 Dark Horse Honey Brown 11
The Girl in the Hard Hat Loretta Hill
3 Paper Chains Nicola Moriarty 9
The Railwayman’s Wife Ashley Hay
The Wild Girl Kate Forsyth
4 Hope’s Road Margareta Osborn 8
The Husband’s Secret Liane Moriarty
House for all Seasons Jenn J McLeod
Web of Deceit Katherine Howell
5 Sea of Hearts Margo Lanagan 7
Shallow Breath Sara Foster
Beneath Outback Skies Alissa Callen
Saving Grace Fiona McCallum

Understandably most of the books in the top five most reviewed books for the last six months have been categorised by the participants as contemporary fiction but there are also several historical fiction books, some romance, and a speculative fiction book in the list.

Genres-1st-6-mths-2013The chart above demonstrates the range of genres that are covered in the Challenge reviews.  Participants decide what genre(s) the book they have reviewed fits into.  Nearly two hundred reviews were of books that Challenge participants regarded as ‘literary’.

The top five most reviewed authors by Challenge participants were:

  Author Number of Reviews
1 Honey Brown 16
2 Loretta Hill 14
3 Katherine Howell 13
Kate Forsyth
4 Dawn Barker 12
5 Liane Moriarty 10
Nicola Moriarty

It is notable that there are many other authors and books which are very close to being in the top five. Seven authors have received nine reviews and many more are just two or three reviews away from the top five.

Challenge participants like to review newly published books.  Books published in 2013 received the most reviews of any publication year.  43% of reviews were of books published in 2013 and 94% of the reviews were for books published this century.

The aim of this Challenge is to increase the reading of books written by Australian women and foster conversation about these books.  Through this we hope to raise awareness of the extent and depth of Australian women’s writing.  The statistics for the first half of 2013 demonstrate that the Challenge has contributed to raising awareness of women’s writing in Australia this year and encouraged discussion about books written by women.

At a Glance: the first six months of 2013 Number
Reviews 1,100
Books reviewed 689
Authors reviewed 516*
Participants who have published reviews 187

* This total does not count the women authors contributing to multi-authored collections.

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About Me

DSC_6276 Yvonne PerkinsI’m Yvonne Perkins.  For the last few years I have been working as a research assistant on a variety of historical projects one of which was an investigation of the history of teaching reading in Australia. Currently I am researching the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of soldiers who served in World War I.  In my spare time I enjoy reading history and writing about it on my blog, Stumbling Through the Past.  I can also be found @perkinsy on twitter.

Feature: Global Women of Color Challenge: Interview with Marilyn Dell Brady

Global Women of Color Logo

Global Women of Color Challenge Logo

In this special feature, retired professor of US women’s history, and founder of the Global Women of Color (GWC) Reading Challenge and Blog, Marilyn Dell Brady, speaks about founding the challenge, her career in academia, a love of reading, and a lifelong connection with feminism. Paula Grunseit reports.

Marilyn Dell Brady says the desire to change her view of the world goes back to her days in grad school (university) where African American women writers, along with various feminists, helped her envision what it meant to be a woman. “They gave me alternative visions that allowed me to move beyond the helpless, white lady I had been raised to be,” she says. “I had two black women friends who were focusing on African American History. Like others, we realised that in Women’s History ‘all the women were white’, and in African American History ‘all the blacks were men.’ So we got a grant to research and write about Black Women in Kansas. While my major interest remained Anglo women, I have continued to read and research African American women’s history and literature. I wrote a couple of articles and taught a course on the subject, as well as including them and other non-mainstream individuals in my Women’s History classes and other courses I taught.”

Inspired by feminism, Dell Brady returned to grad school in her mid-thirties to get the PhD she had always wanted. “My specialty was US Women’s History and interdisciplinary Women’s Studies. I taught and published in those fields. My MA thesis was about Quaker women in Philadelphia in the 1790s and my PhD dissertation was about perceptions of motherhood in the early 20th century.”

Taking a job at a small liberal arts college, she then created a variety of courses focusing on those left out of traditional history. “For example, I taught a course on Immigration to the United States (starting with the British) and one about the American Revolution (asking ‘Who was there besides George Washington and why does it matter?’). I also taught a senior seminar on Women’s Studies, focusing on the challenges that feminism raised in various academic disciplines.”

GWC Header

Having developed “a fierce love of reading” in her childhood, Dell Brady says that what she read then was limited to the contents of the children’s section of the small library in her home town. “College expanded my exposure immensely, and later in the 1970s I devoured everything I could find (fiction and non-fiction), about feminism. While in grad school, massive reading was required, but I also continued to read novels by women. By then I had access to Spinsters, a radical, lesbian bookstore which kept up with a wonderful selection of what was being published, including books by women of colour. They and their books helped shape me. During my grad school years, I not only read but had a variety of people with whom to discuss books and ideas — something I have missed ever since.”

Desert mountains

Dell Brady now lives in the desert mountains of far west Texas, a place she and her husband (a librarian), have long been in love with and it’s not hard to understand why when she describes it: “Pink granite mountains rise up out of the desert and near-desert landscape. They are sometimes called ‘desert islands’ because their height creates an entirely different environment where pine trees grow. The most dramatic examples are in the Big Bend National Park, about an hour south of here. We live outside the small town of Alpine in a large valley created by the pink granite cliffs, not as high as in the Park. There is lots of space.”

MDB with Agave

Marilyn Dell Brady and Agave. Agave grow only leaves for thirty-five to forty years then suddenly shoot up their stalks about a foot a day and bloom

Retirement, more time for leisure reading and a desire to connect and share were all catalysts for founding the GWC says Dell Brady. “I decided to move out of my ‘Americanist’ cocoon and was still particularly interested in women’s experiences, but expanded that interest globally. Starting to blog a year and a half ago, helped me find some amazing novels by women of colour. These are the books I still seek out and read most often. I started GWC to share what I had found and learn about more of such books.”

A rainy year

A rainy year

Feminism is also still a strong driver for Dell Brady as she explains. “It is easy for women to embrace feminism because it validates their own desire to live fuller lives. But feminism claims to be for all women. Too often women in westernised nations, like America and Australia, assume that women everywhere are just like us. They need and want what we do and should follow our lead. African American women and others globally have eloquently pointed out how narrow and self-centered such a view is.”

If feminism is to be global, as it must be, we need to listen to women without our privileges and cultural experiences. What is better than reading books by women of colour for learning what other women’s lives and concerns really are?

So, how have Dell Brady’s reading habits changed since founding the GWC? “Most of the books I have read and reviewed on my blog are by women, but not all.  Generally I am a bit bored with reading books as told from male perspectives. I do read some men’s books and have found a few that do an amazingly good job at creating fully developed female characters. So far the best examples of these are men outside the western literary mainstream — Thomas King, a Native American author, has great interesting and strong women in his books. He is sympathetic to both his male and female characters but he describes the ways the men frustrate and neglect the women. Amit Majmudar, whose family migrated from India to the USA is another man who does a fine job with women characters.”

I also still read some fiction by white mainstream women, especially novels by favourite authors, but I am also bored with white suburban housewives. I really like memoirs and read them when I can. Few of the books are ones I would have casually found on my own. Some reading highlights have been: Persian Requiem by Simin Daneshavar, Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samaran, Ghana Must Go by Tauye Selasi, A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam.

evening-is-the-whole-dayghana-must-goa-persian-requiema-golden-age

“And I read some history. Australian historians, whom I have found through AWW and via Yvonne Perkins have re-awakened my interests in my field, especially with their interests in the historians’ craft, Indigenous history, and in transnational history. The way in which Australia’s history is both like and unlike ours is fascinating to me.”

Running the GWC Challenge has mainly been a positive experience both in general, and on a personal level. This year, seventy-two reviews have been listed and most of the books being reviewed are fiction with a sprinkling of memoirs, essays, and histories. “We’ve also had a couple of classics, such as The Red Chamber, reviewed by our Chinese reader. I am pleased with how GWC is doing, but I’d like to improve it,” says Dell Brady. “Fifty-nine people are following it as a blog and about twenty signed up listing the books they planned to read. They were from all over the globe, and they included both a woman who described herself as an Algerian feminist and a specialist on Indian literature. A much smaller and narrower group of eight or ten regularly submit reviews to share. We include a recent arrival to the US from China (who delightfully shares the traditions she and her family continue), a Canadian woman from India, a woman in England who has lived in Cuba and Galicia, an Hispanic American woman, an African woman, a couple of Australians, and several others from the US.”

Ocitllio

Ocotillo

“Personally, I have gained from GWC and have found new friends, engaged in new discussions, and expanded my list of books to read. Many of the gains, however, have come as I subscribed to the blogs of those who have signed up rather than through simply reading their entries on GWC. I have gotten nothing but compliments about doing GWC, just not much follow-through. No men have responded in any way.”

As for challenges, refining technical processes is an ongoing task and it is never easy working in isolation online; it can sometimes feel as if no-one is listening (or reading) and Dell Brady has found this aspect difficult. Going forward she would like to introduce a more team-based approach (along the lines of the Australian Women Writers Challenge) and would like to see more interaction and discussion with bloggers, readers, and reviewers. So, head on over to GWC, have a look around, sign up, subscribe to the blog, or drop Marilyn a line — your suggestions are welcome. We wish Marilyn all the best for the continuing success of GWC!

In the same spirit of inspiring readers to pick up books by women of colour, as Marilyn Dell Brady has done, Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers will be hosting a challenge for readers of Indigenous literature during NAIDOC week (7-14 July). We will also be encouraging AWW challenge participants to review books by Indigenous women writers throughout the month of July. You can read more about this and other initiatives in an upcoming post by AWW contributing editor, Jessica White, later this week.

Happy reading,

Paula

About Me

I’m a freelance book reviewer, journalist and editor and have worked as a librarian for many years. I’m always feeling guilty about what I ‘should’ have or ‘should be reading.’ I signed up for the AWW challenge in 2012 and this year, as well as doing my own challenge, I will be posting updates about Literary Awards and writing features. I blog over at Wordsville and you can find me on Twitter @PaulaGrunseit

The forgotten women’s writing festivals by Susan Hawthorne

SHawthorn-post-May2013I’ve been involved in feminist writing, organising and publishing for around 35 years. In that time I’ve participated in numerous events around women’s, feminist and lesbian writing. I’ve attended international feminist book fairs, a conference on women’s writing in Israel, Sybylla readings, books launches, talked on radio, reviewed books and been published in lit mags and journals in many places. Given that this has been my life, I was somewhat surprised to be asked if there have ever been any women’s writers festivals in Australia?*

And I wondered, how soon forgotten we are.

Salon-A-Muse, March 1982-1985, Melbourne
This was a monthly gathering for feminist artists, writers, playwrights, musicians, comedians and others to present their work to women interested in the arts and culture. At the first meeting about half the potential audience had to be turned away with just 80 squeezing into a terrace house living room. The organisers changed venue several times with monthly audiences in the range of 100-200. It was an extraordinary culturally rich period which followed on from the Women’s Theatre and women’s rock bands of the 1970s. In Canberra Tilly’s became a focus for women’s cultural productions and performances.

Sydney, 1982: The Sydney Women Writers Festival, Seymour Centre
This weekend festival was the first writers’ festival I ever went to. It was an eye-opener to me, a budding writer with hardly any published work. There I heard Antigone Kefala, Anna Couani and met Robyn Rowland, Susan Hampton and Lee Cataldi for the first time. There were readings, writing workshops and panel sessions.

Melbourne, 31 August – 8 September 1985: The Language of Difference: Women Writers’ Week, Abbotsford Convent
In 1984 after being unemployed for 15 months, I applied for the job of the Writing, Theatre and Music Co-ordinator for the New Moods Festival. Part of Victoria’s 150th invasion celebration. I put it that way because from the start I wanted to subvert the idea of Australia’s history of colonisation. On 26 February 1985, we had a one-off session in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria, Doris Lessing Speaks. An event with 800 in the audience, 200 of which were standing-room only tickets.

In September 1985, after many meetings, lots of invitations sent out, the 9-day writers week took place. Opening with keynote addresses from Audre Lorde (USA) and Keri Hulme (NZ/Aotearoa) and session speakers such as Dorothy Hewett, Eva Johnson, Elizabeth Jolley, Hazel Rowley, T. Nappurula Nelson, Diane Bell, Sandra Shotlander and many others. The 9-day festival was filled with sessions on Aboriginal and Islander women’s writing, migration and the mother tongue, class and literature, erotic and lesbian writing as well as sessions on publishing, scriptwriting, experimental writing, the feminist aesthetic and about a dozen book launches. This event occurred a year before the inaugural Melbourne’s Writers’ Festival. An anthology, Difference: Writings by Woman was published and launched at the festival.

Australia wide, 1989 and 1991, Australian Feminist Book Fortnight, 1-17 September 1989, 6-22 September 1991
This national festival of books and writers took two years to organise. On each occasion more than 200 events were held across the country – from Broome to Burnie, Whyalla to Wagga Wagga – as well as multiple events in every capital city. I can’t find the full programs but on one A4 photocopied page there were 31 events in Sydney alone with writers such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Marele Day, Ruby Langford, Dale Spender, Maxine Hong Kingston (USA), Luisa Valezuela (Argentina), Janette Turner Hospital, Beth Yahp, Drusilla Modjeska and more. Part of the purpose of the Fortnight was to promote books written by women to booksellers. To this end we produced 15,000 catalogues containing information about approximately 300 books. Of the 300, 20 were chosen as Feminist Fortnight Favourites and had prominence in a coloured insert in the catalogue. We also produced a double A4 poster with those 20 books reproduced in colour. The catalogues and posters were distributed to bookshops around Australia (in the first year by Penguin, in the second by Random House). Booksellers created window displays, some ran events and readings as well. I recall that the regional events were incredibly popular and in Broome 200 people turned up to the event. I have no idea of the total size of the audience, but it was certainly many thousands.

IMG_0794lowres portraitMelbourne, 27-31 July 1994: 6th International Feminist Book Fair: Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Writing and Publishing, Exhibition Buildings
In 1992 a group of us put together a bid to take to the 5th International Feminist Book Fair in Amsterdam to hold the next IFBF in Melbourne. I presented the bid and we won it. Previous International Feminist Book Fairs had been run in London (1984), Oslo (1986), Montreal (1988), Barcelona (1990) and Amsterdam (1992). Renate Klein had been involved in the 1st IFBF in London, and the London event had been an inspiration for the 1985 Women Writers’ Festival. With Renate’s input in Australia and having attended Montreal, Barcelona and Amsterdam, we were in a good position to organise this event. It was held over 5 days. The first two days were industry days to allow publishers to sell rights and share information with one another, followed by three public days. Over 200 writers participated coming from many countries including China, Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago, Vanuatu, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Aboriginal Australia, Romania, Vietnam and publishers from New Zealand/Aotearoa, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Egypt, Spain, Germany, Canada, USA, India and more. Our estimate is that 23,000 people attended. There were book launches and panel session, readings and workshops, as well as the book displays of at least 100 exhibitors. Most events were at the Exhibition Buildings but Mietta’s and other venues also became places of feminist writing and performance. Sadly, there were no more IFBFs after Melbourne. The 6th IFBF produced a sampler booklet of work by around half of the attending writers, 46 international writers and 53 Australian. The anthology, Flying Bookies: International Feminist Writers edited by Sandy Jeffs and Natasha Treloar, was named after Judy Horacek’s cartoon characters which had been produced initially for the AFBF and subsequently on materials for the IFBF.

In addition to these events, I know of a number of small festivals run to highlight the work of women writers. The Lynx Festival in Footscray (late 1982, I think) was one of them. I’m sure there have been others in other parts of Australia.

IMG_0793lowresStory Passions, 3-5 March 2006, North Melbourne Town Hall
The most recent large event I organised was the 15th birthday celebration for Spinifex Press, Story Passions, which took place from Friday to Sunday with forty writers and performers. It began with a panel session on the future of feminism, followed with sessions by novelists, playwrights and poets, by activists, and writers whose focus is politics and health. On the Saturday night six performers presented Swirl which included theatre, monologue, aerials and opera. Sue Ingleton closed the event on Sunday with her wonderful comedy. All sessions were videoed.

This morning a friend told me she had found in a shop, with a closing down sale, a cup engraved with the words: Women’s Art Fair, 1907.

It is all too easy to forget the amazing events that women have organised. On the whole they (we) are written out of history. The Feminist Book Fortnights began in the UK following the 1st International Feminist Book Fair in 1984, Australia picked up the baton, New Zealand’s Listener Women’s Book Festival carried on in the 1990s, and in the mid-1990s, US feminist publishers began creating joint catalogues of feminist writing. In India today, there is a thriving feminist publishing scene, and such presses exist in many places we don’t ever get to hear about.

There are many names left out of this brief run-down, my apologies to all, you are not forgotten. It would be fantastic to get women around Australia to write up similar events that occurred in different states.

~

susan-hawthorneSusan Hawthorne was the Writing, Theatre and Music Co-ordinator for the New Moods Festival in 1985. She was a member of the Management Committee of the AFBF from 1988 to 1991 and Chair of the 6th IFBF Management Committee from 1992 to 1996. She is the author of seven collections of poetry, a novel and two works of non-fiction. She is currently Adjunct Professor in the Writing Program at James Cook University, Townsville and Publisher at Spinifex Press which she and Renate Klein co-founded in 1991.

Susan was recently interviewed by Rob Kennedy on Guys Read Gals blog here.

© Susan Hawthorne, 2013

* This question was posed to AWW by Michaela Bolzan, Creative Director of the Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival, which will be held in Sydney on July 20.

Gender bias in literary reviewing: VIDA Count 2012

It’s International Women’s Day this Friday, March 8, and the count is in.

According to VIDA  – Women in Literary Arts, several prestigious literary journals improved their representation of work by women in 2012, including The Boston Review, Threepenny and Poetry. But what of Harpers, The Paris Review, The New Republic, New York Review Of Books, Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, The Nation and The Atlantic?

The graphics speak for themselves.*

VIDA2012-Harpers

VIDA2012-ParisReview-overall

VIDA-2012-NewRupublicVIDA2012-New-York-Review-BooksVIDA-2012-TLSVIDA-2012-NewRupublicVIDA2012-nation VIDA2012-Atlantic

*Note: some of the selected charts above refer to a breakdown of the number of authors whose books were reviewed; others refer to, and are labelled as, “overall” contributions by men and women. The complete VIDA Count for 2012 can be found here.

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Despite the VIDA count being in its third year, it’s obvious the trend of ignoring both books by women and women contributors has continued. Gender bias is real and it affects more than the careers and livelihoods of talented female writers. Ultimately it affects the way cultures are shaped and what gets recorded as history.

What can we do?

According to the VIDA group, “Improvements will happen with effort, not accidentally or by ignoring the glaring disparities”. They advise:

Count your bookshelves… Write seriously about works by women. Solicit and commission writing by women. Consider race, gender, sexuality, and other identity categories as well.
(Source: VIDA site: Frequently Asked Questions.)

To this, we’d add: contribute to reading and reviewing challenges such as the Australian Women Writers Challenge, Global Women of Color and the newly created South-Asian Women Writers Challenge (more about this soon).

Follow these challenges on Twitter, Facebook and GoodReads and tweet using their respective hashtags.  Look up the reviews of books already reviewed for the AWW challenge and take the time to comment. Mention what you’re doing – and why – to your friends and acquaintances. Get your local librarians, booksellers, and school and university teachers involved.

Even if traditional modes of reviewing continue to fail women, that doesn’t mean we’re powerless. Together we can help to create a global online reading community which takes women and women’s writing seriously. And if you have any other ideas how to help, let us know.

Sleeping Beauties: Reviving Australia’s forgotten women writers

In lieu of a monthly wrap-up, my offering is a belated write-up of an event held at the State Library of New South Wales last December. My co-blogger, Sue Terry, will post a wrap-up of literary fiction and classics next week.

Sleeping Beauties: Reviving Australia’s forgotten women writers featured author/academic Jane Gleeson-White and author/Chief Literary Critic of the Australian Geordie Williamson in discussion. The chair was journalist and ABC broadcaster/producer Cassie McCullough.

Australian women writers were operating as subversives within the field of Australian literature as it is determined by a small and narrow clique and they are interesting and more interesting to us today, precisely because they did. Geordie Williamson

The focus of this discussion was the familiar, recurring story of Australian women writers who, for various reasons, struggled to find a path to publication. Many had their work heavily edited by male editors, and several only found their way to publication overseas. We heard about their frustrations, their difficult lives, their determination, their successes and failures. Many of their stories can be found in books written by the presenters: Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library and Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics: 50 Great writers and their celebrated works.

Australian Classics: 50 Great writers and their celebrated works by Jane Gleeson-White

The conversation opened with a reference to Jane Gleeson-White’s declaration in an Overland  blog post that 2012 was the year of women writers. Explaining that with the establishment of the Stella prize and the Australian Women Writers Challenge, Jennifer Mills’s article on Classics and the domination of the fiction awards by Anna Funder and Gillian Mears, she felt that we were experiencing a “sea change”.

In response to a question from McCullough about whether outsiders have a keener eye for cultural products than residents, Williamson, who was born in Australia, went on to give us quite a personal insight into his background and how he came to write The Burning Library.

Speaking about his experience as “an outsider”, he described the period of his life where he spent five years doing postgraduate research in English literature in England. “I’m a really shocking academic,” he said. Having discovered that, he went to work for a bookseller and dealt with manuscript materials and rare books. Says Williamson: “I found myself living in the West Country, pretending to write a thesis, walking the dog along this shingly beach and thinking ‘what am I doing?’ I feel so homesick. I found a copy of Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown in a little shop and took it up to the The Undercliff.” Set in Australia and England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, The Cardboard Crown is about an upper middle-class family who love both countries but are not quite at home in either. This revelatory read inspired Williamson to focus on Australian literature when he returned to Australia to become a full-time literary reviewer. “A presiding spirit of my book is Drusilla Modjeska,” he said and described her book Exiles at Home: Australian women writers 1925-1945 as “a crucial work of cultural history.”

BurningLibrary

“Australian Literature and Australian Women’s literature is constantly under threat and exists in a state of crisis and I’ve come to the conclusion that that is its natural state. My book emerged out of a sense that it is embattled; that there are great problems in the way it is taught, published and disseminated and that there are problems generally in the reading community in terms of getting the information out there and raising enthusiasm levels,” he said.

An important thread of the evening’s discussion was one of the main obstacles faced by Australian women writers of a certain period: the masculine, bush tradition in Australian literature which was championed by the editor of the Bulletin, AG Stephens. Gleeson-White briefed the audience on this. “Masculine culture came about in the 1890s with the Bulletin and the first coherent promotion of a national literary culture even though we weren’t a nation yet. AG Stephens promoted this ‘bush writing’ to distinguish it from English and American literature. He published Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and so on. Although he didn’t publish My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, he did declare her book to be ‘the first Australian novel’ and it was published in the year of Federation in 1901.”

Gleeson-White says that she was not motivated to write her book on Australian Classics by a desire to promote women or men. “I wanted to give an accessible overview of Australian Literature and to make available to anyone who hadn’t studied it at university, some way in to literary culture which wasn’t a dense textbook,” she said. “I found it fascinating how many early women writers couldn’t find publication here. That includes Miles Franklin. The part of their work which was considered ‘too feminine’ was excised.”

barbarabaynton

As Gleeson-White went on to explain, a prime example of this is The Chosen Vessel by Barbara Baynton—a story about a woman living alone on her selection. “AG Stephens, Editor of the Bulletin published the story but omitted the second part. He left the first part, the realist bush part in but ‘excised’ the supernatural, religious overtones of the second part of the story, leaving in the bush realism to fit his vision for the Bulletin.”

It was very heartening to hear that after some hardship, Barbara Baynton’s story ended well. She and her squatter husband lived on a selection in the bush. When he left her for the maid, she moved to Sydney with her children. She then met her second husband, a wealthy doctor, who was well connected to the literary world and she began to write. No one in Australia would publish her short story collection. When her husband died, leaving her well-off, she went to London and happened to meet the critic/editor Edward Garnett, who had published Henry Lawson and others and was connected to the Bloomsbury circle. He loved all her stories and published them as they were as Bush Studies. I loved Gleeson-White’s description of Baynton as “a grand literary dame” living the high life, dressed to the nines and driving around in flash cars.

Judith Wright—one of Australia’s greatest poets had a similar experience, said Gleeson-White. Clem Christesen , founder of Meanjin, published her first book of poetry, The Moving Image. It was very successful critically, and in terms of sales. Wright sent him her second book of poems (Woman to Man), which she had written after having met and fallen in love with a man for the first time. “They were very intimate poems about her body, about pregnancy, about being a woman,” she said. “And she wrote to him saying ‘not sure if you’ll like this lot’. Well he didn’t like ‘this lot’ and he didn’t publish it because it was ‘so female-centered’. It was published eventually but didn’t do as well and one critic said it was ‘alienating for men’. It was AG Stephens who called Barbara Baynton ‘too obstetric’.”

judithwright

M Barnard Eldershaw was next on the list but as Williamson explained, this was actually a formidable, two-woman writing team consisting of Marjorie Barnard (who, along with Christina Stead, was one of Patrick White’s favourite writers) and Flora Eldershaw. They wrote together because there was no literary community.

“This pair emerge out of the conditions Jane has described,” Williamson said. “We had a limited literary network at the beginning of Federation. It permitted women inside its ring- fenced circle but they had to be ‘sympatico’. Miles [Franklin] is fascinating in this regard because she takes on a lot of the rhetoric of the Bulletin school but we now have to recuperate her as something else. We read only one half of her experience,” he said.

Both writers went to the University of Sydney and Barnard graduated with First-class Honours and the university medal in History. She was offered a scholarship at Oxford but her father, a strict Presbyterian, prevented her from going. She stayed at home to care for her parents and became a librarian (topping library examinations in 1921). “A noble undertaking but it was for her a crippling time,” says Williamson. “Life is banked up in me for miles and miles,” she once wrote in a letter.

Barnard and Eldershaw wrote historical novels together. Williamson says that despite their writing seeming to be “very obedient to the norms of realism laid down by the Bulletin school”, the concerns of their novels are not with the “masculine realm of outward endeavour” but with the “feminine”.  Williamson says an example of this is the mercantile, rags to riches story about the rise of a British merchant, A House is Built (which won the pair the Bulletin Prize in 1928). “The men are lost, outside the novel’s frame,” he says.

houseisbuilt

And as the years go on, it is increasingly the social and domestic worlds which are at the heart of their novels. “And this seems radical and wonderfully sneaky. This is what inspired Patrick White’s vision of early Sydney and this is what White writes about—the feminine interior, the world of women as a place of wonder and bizarre, majestic otherness.” In this regard, Williamson asked us to think about the opening chapters of The Vivisector.

Williamson says when he was trying to do a 50/50 gender split of men and women writers for his book, it was easier to find women who “undermined the traditional, gendered version of Australian Literature laid down because the men were very much stuck in the realist, masculinist, rural mode.” He is not saying that he doesn’t like the men’s books or that they are not worthy of “recuperation”. Rather that: “Because they were moving in the direction of more national and political ideological currents, they were more obedient to them, they were more like propagandists than writers of literature in the way we think of it today.” He gave the example of Frank Dalby Davison (Man Shy, Dusty).

Williamson explained that as M Barnard Eldershaw went on to write more sophisticated books incorporating philosophy and modernism, and they became increasingly unpopular and more negatively reviewed.

As time went on, Barnard tended to write fiction (eventually writing her book of stories The Persimmon Tree), whereas Eldershaw wrote non-fiction Together, they produced a landmark volume of Australian criticism, Essays in Australian Fiction and wrote the first essays on Christina Stead and Henry Handel Richardson.

Williamson says that their vision was extraordinary for their times, the 1930s. “That there might in fact be a national literature, it might include women and that women might in fact be the preeminent practitioners.”

When introducing Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, Barnard’s last book published in 1947, Williamson said it was written mostly on her own and it was heavily censored by the government because of its left-wing, anti-war stance. Barnard had joined the ALP and was an avowed pacifist. Many cuts were made to the book and this seriously affected its flow. It was republished uncensored in 1983, again fell out of print and Patrick White said it was one of the great Australian novels.

mauriceguest

Gleeson-White then sang the praises of one of her favourite novels (along with Voss and Carpentaria): Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson. A gifted pianist, scholar, and translator, Henry Handel Richardson went to Leipzig to study as a music student and married a philologist she met there; he adored and promoted her. She was the first translator of Ibsen into English and James Joyce, an admirer of Ibsen, bought a copy of the book.

Says Gleeson-White: “She was this freaky, brilliant woman who read Freud in the original, before he was known to be a genius. She was obsessed with Wagner, steeped in European literature and music. All of that feeds into Maurice Guest. It is the most fantastic, overblown passionate novel, a devastating Wagnerian love story. There is poor hapless Maurice, the piano student, vying for the love of an Australian girl with the genius violinist, Nietzschean superman.”

It’s interesting as Gleeson-White says Henry Handel Richardson’s best known and loved stories are the ones based in Australia like The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, which are part of what she describes as the “nation building canon”. She was very pleased to say that Maurice Guest has just come back into print (published by as part of the Text Classics series).

Discussion moved on to Christina Stead who was only reviewed once, and negatively, in the 2012 AWW Challenge. This was surprising to quite a few Challenge participants so it was interesting to hear Williamson say that he believed that the difficulty of being the expatriate as it applies to Maurice Guest applies to Christina Stead’s entire career and may help to partly explain her lack of appeal.

Many great critics have praised her as one of Australia’s and the 20th century’s greatest writers. She won the inaugural Patrick White prize and White set it up with her in mind. Stead in a letter to a friend says “my credo is intelligent ferocity”. And Williamson says she wrote like that during her entire career.

McCullough quoted from Jonathan Franzen’s piece on The Man Who Loved Children in which he calls it a “masterpiece” but also says: “I suspect that one reason The Man Who Loved Children remains exiled from the canon is that Christina Stead’s ambition was to write not ‘like a woman’ but ‘like a man’: her allegiances are too dubious for the feminists, and she’s not enough like a man for everybody else.”

There was a slight digression here as Williamson apologised “as a man” for Jonathan Franzen saying that the author had “jumped the shark in literary terms” when conversation turned to Franzen’s comments about Edith Wharton in his essay Rooting Interest: Edith Wharton and the Problem of Sympathy.

Angela Carter said: “To open a book, any book, by Christina Stead and read a few pages is to be at once aware that one is in the presence of greatness.” Williamson asks: why is it then that, according to Nielsen Bookscan, she sold 199 books in 2008, and was taught on only one university course (For Love Alone at the University of Queensland). Williamson identifies two points: “She lived in Europe, America, and the UK. She never had an established relationship with any particular locale, or class or language group. She was an exile in the best 20th century tradition. And since she was married to a Jewish, communist stockbroker, the 20th century was not kind to them on either side of the Atlantic.”

salzburgtales

He says that Stead’s reception was very much marred by the fact that she was unwilling to accept certain “boundaries” (she didn’t like being edited or editing her work). “She is our great genius, she wrote like no one else, she is a figure of world literature and her greatness is something which we don’t actually respect. We like our modernism light; we like our Booker novels well-tended, well-edited and we don’t want to be so ‘furiously explained’, with the great terrors of existence. It’s too much and she is too much and that’s why she’s such a splendid writer and it’s probably why it’s so hard to get people to read her,” he said.

Gleeson-White agreed that Christina Stead is not “easy reading” saying that she tried many times to read The Man Who Loved Children before she succeeded and finds Ulysses easier to read. She’s not even sure she likes The Man Who Loved Children although she loves Christina Stead.

It was suggested that Christina Stead “beach reads” would be For Love Alone or The Salzburg Tales described by Williamson as “folktales retold by a brilliant young woman who has just arrived in London who is going to set the literary alight. Everybody says it’s spectacular. The review in the New Yorker said it’s better than The Decameron.”

And what of Amy Witting? She was the first Australian writer to sell two stories to the New Yorker and when they asked for another, she refused because her second one had been edited without her knowledge. Williamson told us that Kenneth Slessor who had published her first story in Southerly said to Thea Astley (who was working as a teacher with Witting at the time):  “Tell her I would publish any word she wrote.”

Says Williamson: “Her story is the story of how hard it is to become a writer as a woman in the 20th century. You won’t find her on university courses or in print. She is not in the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature.”

iforisobel

Recommending her novella I for Isobel which features the character Isobel, (who also appears in some stories and in a later novel Isobel on the way to the Corner Shop), he says Witting’s first novel wasn’t published until quite late in her life. Despite being called “the Australian Chekov”, her publisher didn’t agree and wouldn’t publish her in paperback. I for Isobel was set to be published when sales staff decided against it.

She was a teacher and may never have been published had it not been for one of her students who became a literary figure in London and shopped her manuscript around. Amy Witting’s work was recognised with the Patrick White Award in 1993 and she was posthumously awarded an AM in 2002.

Williamson concluded by saying: All these people are our Sleeping Beauties but Amy Witting is in “suspended animation”.

List of writers (I’ve no doubt missed some):

Drusilla Modjeska

Judith Wright

Barbara Baynton

Miles Franklin

Marjorie Barnard

Flora Eldershaw

M Barnard Eldershaw

Frank Dalby Davison

Patrick White

Henry Handel Richardson

Christina Stead

Amy Witting

Further reading:

Our Common Ground by Geordie Williamson

What we talk about when talk about Australian literature Kerryn Goldsworthy on Text Classics

Auto da Fé  Nicolas Jose on The Burning Library by Geordie Williamson

Write-up of this event by John from Musings of a Literary Dilettante who was also there but unlike me, wrote it up promptly!

About Me

I’m a freelance book reviewer, journalist, editor and librarian. I blog over at Wordsville and you can find me on Twitter @PaulaGrunseit

2012 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: History, Biography, Memoir

In 2012 the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge time machine travelled from fifteenth century Venice to contemporary Australia.  We ventured around the world, dropping in at Mogmog in the Pacific; Bangladesh; Spain; and Mt. Wellington in Tasmania.  It demonstrated that Australian women authors are a diverse group of people writing about a broad variety of subjects.

What is history?  I take a very broad approach to this question.  Basically if it is an attempt to truthfully depict something that actually happened in the past then I embrace it as a history.  What is truth?  I leave that up to you to decide.  A biography or memoir relates the story of what has happened to a person in the past – perhaps only the quite recent past. That is history.  Bernadette Bean drew attention to the sub-genre of true crime in her Crime, Mystery, Suspense and Thriller roundup. If the history of crime interests you I suggest you read her post.  Some histories and biographies were also included in the Literary Fiction and Non-Fiction wrap-up.

Over one hundred histories, biographies and memoirs were reviewed for the Challenge during 2012.  The following overview will only discuss a fraction of them.  A survey of the list reveals that Challenge participants prefer to read about the recent past.  Most of the books reviewed were about the history of our lifetime, ie post World War II.  Understandably most books are about Australian history but this is not limiting. Australian history covers a vast array of topics and includes people from nearly everywhere in the world.

Australian History

The most reviewed AWW book in this category for 2012.

The most reviewed book in the history, biography and memoir category for 2012.

The most reviewed book in this category for the Challenge in 2012 was Am I Black Enough for You?, a personal account of life and identity written by successful Aboriginal author, Anita Heiss.  You can read Jessica White’s overview of these reviews in the Diversity wrap-up.  Other books by Aboriginal authors that have been reviewed for the Challenge are:

  • Kick the Tin by Doris Kartinyeri (reviewed by Marilyn Brady),
  • Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington (reviewed by Anne Marie),
  • Auntie Rita by Rita and Jackie Huggins (reviewed by Marilyn Brady),
  • Too Many Tears by Heather Vicenti and Deborah Dickman (reviewed by Kate Rizzetti),
  • My Bundjalung People by Ruby Langford Ginibi (reviewed by Marilyn Brady), and
  • My Place by Sally Morgan (reviewed by Marilyn Brady).

These books all focussed on life for Aboriginal people in the twentieth century.  In 2013 I am hoping to find some histories of Australia’s early settlement and the nineteenth century written by Aboriginal authors.

I agree with Jessica White who wrote in her 2012 wrap-up about diversity that she would like to see more Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWW) reviews of books by Aboriginal authors.  Seven histories, biographies and memoirs written by Aboriginal authors have been reviewed for AWW in 2012.  If it was not for Marilyn Brady’s reviews there would been only four books by Aboriginal authors reviewed by Challenge participants.  I am sure we can read more in 2013.

Australian historians, generally of Anglo-Celtic background, are highly regarded worldwide for their handling the history of indigenous and non-indigenous relations.  Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers, reviewed by Marilyn Brady, is a landmark work and is required reading for some university history courses as well as being an enjoyable read.  I was surprised that there were not more reviews of books about relations between Aborigines and settlers during the colonial era given that Australian historians have been producing so much work in this area over the last twenty or thirty years.

Other aspects of the history of Europeans in Australia was also covered by AWW reviewers. Paula Grunseit reviewed a book about a bushranger in Carol Baxter’s Captain Thunderbolt and His Lady. Janine Rizzetti carefully analysed Derelie Cherry’s biography of an early Colonial Secretary of New South Wales, Alexander Mcleay.  The story of Scottish convicts serving time in the Female Factory on the slopes of Mt. Wellington in Tasmania was reviewed by Lauren Murphy and Paula Grunseit.  If you like the air of a mystery then you may enjoy a book reviewed by Jean Bedford about a reclusive woman living in nineteenth century Newtown, Sydney.  Alternatively Penny Russell’s book about manners, identity and social status in Australia during the nineteenth century and until the outbreak of World War I might interest you (reviewed by Jenny Schwartz and Paula Grunseit).

Published in 1959 this was the oldest book reviewed in 2012.

Published in 1959 this was the oldest book reviewed for the Challenge in 2012.

Two books provide the bridge between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Stephanie Campisi writes an enticing review of the biography of Melbourne confectioner Macpherson Robertson, the inventor of the Cherry Ripe and Freddo Frog. “If this book were a type of confectionery, its recipe would be one part rags to riches, one part Richard Branson, and one part Willy Wonker” she writes.  Marilyn Brady received quite a different view of Australian history while reading Mary Durack’s Kings in Grass Castles. This history about pioneering pastoralists, the Durack family, was written in 1959.  The story continued in Brenda Niall’s recently published biography of the Durack sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, which was reviewed by Sue on her Whispering Gums blog.

Challenge participants did not read many books that focussed on the first half of the twentieth century.  Narelle Harris reviewed a book about Melbourne when it was the capital city of Australia between 1901 and 1927.  Melissa Watts commented that the autobiography of writer, Dulcie Deamer was “a great insight into Sydney of the 1920s”. Katie Holmes’ exploration of Australian women’s diaries in the 1920s and 1930s was recommended by Marilyn Brady.

History is for all age groups.  Two children’s histories were reviewed for AWW in 2012. Paula Grunseit praised Christobel Mattingley’s book, My Father’s Islands: Abel Tasman’s heroic voyages, which is written for children.  Louise enjoyed Who Explored Australia? Blaxland, Lawson, Wentworth, Evans and Strzelecki.  There are many children’s histories published in Australia.  It would be good to see more of them reviewed in 2013.

History of the Living Memory

youll-be-sorry

Four reviewers enjoyed this book.

History is what happened yesterday, literally.  The history of our time is well represented in the books that were reviewed in 2012. I will mention only a few here.  Marieke Hardy’s You’ll be Sorry When I am Dead attracted four favourable AWW reviews (Kate Rizzetti, Mareelouise, Maggie Dad and Sue Luus).  Jessica White reviewed a memoir by Krissy Kneen through which mores about female sexuality are explored. Tim McGuire enjoyed the account of Brisbane during the 1980s and 1990s in Sally Breen’s The Casuals. 

Diversity is an important element in the fabric of Australian society and Challenge participants recognised this.  Jo Tamar reviewed Alice Pung’s memoir, Unpolished Gem, about growing up as an Australian of Asian descent. Tamar praised Pung’s “impeccable” writing and found that it helped her to understand her Asian friends better.

Australia has been a refuge for many people who suffered the horrors of the twentieth century.  AWW reviewers Maree Kimberley and James Tierney were moved by Pung’s subsequent book, Her Father’s Daughter, which explored her family history in the killing fields of Cambodia.  Readers can learn about the experiences of Vietnamese making the dangerous journey to Australia in Boat People: Personal Stories from the Vietnam Exodus 1975-96 which was reviewed by Monique Mulligan (scroll down). Last year Holocaust survivor, Halina Wagowska, published The Testimony, an account of surviving the Holocaust and her subsequent life.  This attracted the attention of three AWW reviewers, Maree, Janine Fitzpatrick and Stephanie Campisi.

tea-with-arwaChallenge participants also read about the lives of Australian Muslims.  AWW reviewers, Amra Pajalic and Sally, enjoyed Arwa El Masri’s memoir and felt that her book helped to clarify some misunderstandings about Islam.  Kevin Rennie reviewed the memoir of Somali Muslim, Mariam Issa, who writes about her life in Africa and the events that led her to settle in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Brighton.

The Australian Women Writers Challenge has something for everybody.  If reading books about entertainers is something you enjoy then you can read reviews about entertainers such as the comedian from Alice Springs, Fiona O’Loughlin (reviewed by Shelleyrae).  The books of another comedian, Judith Lucy, were reviewed by Shelleyrae and Paula Grunseit (review of audiobook version).  Simone found Dannii Minogue’s memoir easy to read and absorbing. If you enjoyed the television series, The Farmer Wants a Wife, then you might want to read the memoir written by a participant on that show, Jo Fincham (reviewed by Helen McKenna).  Perhaps punk rock is more your idea of entertainment? If so, you might be interested in reading The Ballroom: The Melbourne Punk And Post Punk Scene: A Tell All Memoir, reviewed by Adam Ford.  You can find more books about entertainers by browsing through the list of AWW reviews of histories, biographies and memoirs.

Australian Women Write about the World

only-in-spainOf the books reviewed it is not surprising that the most common subject was Australians living in Australia.  However, Australian writers also like to explore the world in their writing.  Amra Pajalic reviewed Hanifa Deen’s biography about Bangladeshi human rights activist, Taslima Masreen, who had to flee her country and resettle in Sweden.  Other books were memoirs of Australians who moved to another country.  AWW reviewer Helen McKenna read about a West Australian family who set sail for a world tour only to crash on the island of Mogmog in the Pacific.  It was Nellie Bennet’s passion for flamenco dancing that led her to move from Australia to Spain.  Her memoir, Only in Spain, was reviewed by Jody Lee who thoroughly enjoyed it.  In an unusual conclusion to her review of the same book Paula Grunseit advises readers to avoid practising the castanets while driving!

History of science is a thriving field but there were very few AWW reviews of books from this sub-genre.  I reviewed two books that were shortlisted for many literary awards.  Robin Arianrhod’s book, Seduced by Logic, is an account of two female mathematicians who were important to the Newtonian revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Double Entry, Jane Gleeson-White’s exploration of the history of double-entry book-keeping, focuses on fifteenth century Venetian merchants before tracing this system of accounting to modern times. Double-Entry earned Jane Gleeson-White the Waverley Library Award for literature.  My reviews of these books are here and here.

The Reviewers

The strength of the Challenge is not only the number of reviews that have been written but the number of reviewers who participate.  Sixty seven Challenge participants reviewed one hundred histories, biographies and memoirs in 2012. This creates a wonderful online community where people who enjoy reading books can find someone else to share their interest with, whether it be on Twitter, Facebook or Goodreads.  There is a niche for everyone in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.

Paula Grunseit was the most prolific reviewer of histories, biographies and memoirs, writing thirteen reviews.  Marilyn Brady, who lives in the United States, wrote nine AWW reviews despite facing some difficulties in getting her hands on some Australian books.  Other reviewers who enjoyed reviewing books in this category during 2012 were Yvonne Perkins (six reviews), Helen McKenna and Heidi Reads (five reviews each).

Reviewing books is an opportunity to work on our craft of writing.  A review can be bland or riveting. The best reviewers can entice people to read the review even if they have no interest in the book being reviewed.  Recognition for passionate reviews must be given to Heidi Reads for her review of The Confession of an Unrepentant Lesbian Ex-Mormon by Sue-Ann Post and Elizabeth Lhuede’s review of The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement by Virginia Lloyd.  Heidi demonstrates that a reader can be infuriated by a book, yet conclude that it is a wonderful read.  Elizabeth wrote beautifully about a book that “sings of love and grief” and how she wept on the bus while reading it.

Australian women are very productive writers of histories, memoirs and biographies.  I wish I could have discussed all the books that were reviewed.  I encourage you to read some of the reviews that I did not include in this roundup by browsing through the list of books reviewed in 2012.  This list has made the Australian Women Writers Challenge website a useful database for those who want to see what Australian women are writing in this genre.  Twenty six of the books reviewed were published in 2012, yet there are many more published last year that still have not been reviewed.  In the monthly posts about histories, biographies and memoirs which I will be writing this year I will bring your attention to new publications as well as those books that have been shortlisted for awards and books written by indigenous authors.  I am looking forward to reading your reviews this year!

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About Me

I’m Yvonne Perkins.  For the last few years I have been working as a research assistant on a variety of historical projects one of which was an investigation of the history of teaching reading in Australia. Currently I am researching the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of soldiers who served in World War I.  In my spare time I enjoy reading history and writing about it on my blog, Stumbling Through the Past.  I can also be found @perkinsy on twitter.

Jane Gleeson-White on 2012: The Year of Australian Women Writers

miles-franklin-overland-imageI declare 2012 the year of Australian women writers.

And I’m thanking the Stella Prize and the Australian Women Writers Challenge. And the happy chance that two novels by Australian women published this year have dominated the literary prizes: Anna Funder’s All that I Am, which won seven awards including the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread, which won among others the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Created in September 2011, partly in response to the all-male 2011 Miles Franklin Award shortlist, the Stella Prize came into its own this year. In 2012 the Stella has run a series of thought-, conversation- and blog-provoking events – and inspired many others.

Perhaps the most significant ‘event’ inspired by the Stella is Elizabeth Lhuede’s Australian Women Writers Reading and Reviewing Challenge (AWW), a flourishing website which reviews books written by Australian women created in late 2011. Since then, over 370 people have signed up to review books and so far they’ve generated 1250 reviews. Impressive stats.

As part of the AWW challenge Overland’s fiction editor Jennifer Mills read for the first time five Australian ‘classics’ written by women, which she reviewed last month. Mills wrote: ‘Knowing these women readers and writers have gone before makes me feel that I am part of an active culture, a living thing.’

The indefatigable Lhuede has just wrapped up the achievements of AWW so far at the Huffington Post, where she gives a fascinating overview of the books by women reviewed on the AWW blog this year.

The first thing that struck me on reading it was the range of genres it includes. As Lhuede says: ‘The reviews haven’t all been of literary fiction. They cover nonfiction and poetry, as well as genres that rarely, if ever, get reviewed by traditional media such as horror, romance and erotica.’ The genres covered include literary, classics, historical, crime, mystery, thriller, suspense, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, young adult, history, memoir, biography. Comprehensive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about women writers this week in preparation for a Stella event at the State Library of New South Wales on Wednesday – Sleeping Beauties: Reviving Australia’s Forgotten Women Writers. I’ve been thinking especially about the ongoing marginalisation of women writers in Australia – and one word that keeps recurring is ‘genre’.

A Stella event in Sydney earlier this year asked ‘Do women write differently from men?’ Of course we don’t – the range of women writers and writing is as vast as that of men. But I can’t help feeling that something like an idea that women write (and read) differently from men lurks at the heart of the marginalisation of women writers in the prevailing western literary culture (as suggested by the VIDA statistics).

Sometimes this is overt, as in Times Literary Supplement’s editor Peter Stothard’s remark that ‘while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS’. And other times subtle, as in Helen Garner’s comment on the Stella website, which has been bothering me all year: ‘The Stella Prize, with its graceful flexibility about genre, will encourage women writers to work in the forms they feel truly at home in, instead of having to squeeze themselves into the old traditional corsets.’

The question of genre was explored by Rebecca Giggs in the Spring 2012 issue of Overland in her essay ‘Imagining Women: On gender and genre’. Prompted by a question asked to Anna Krien about Into the Woods and why it was that the best nonfiction in the country was being written by women (Helen Garner, Margaret Simons, Chloe Hooper, Amanda Lohrey), Giggs teases out the terrain of these nonfiction writers who defy generic conventions. They ‘incur upon the narrative; they let the narrative trespass upon them. They use the lyric, the language of poetry, and swear and slang with equal grace.’ In her exhilarating conclusion, Giggs argues these genre-bending women write to destroy all traditional categories and boundaries, including those of gendered discourse: ‘In short, these are writers who use nonfiction to burn down the barriers between masculine and feminine discourse, inner and outer worlds, form and content.’

These questions of genre and gender have a particular inflection in Australian literary history which dates back to that formative decade, the 1890s, and the strongly masculine style of fiction – realism, bush tales, lean prose, laconic characters – championed by the Bulletin’s AG Stephens. This particular brand of Australian fiction has shaped our thinking about national literature and ‘the great Australian novel’ – and is reflected in many of the Miles Franklin shortlists, notably the sausagefest (thanks Angela Meyer) of 2011. The terms of Franklin’s will – that the novel ‘must present Australian Life in any of its phases’ – seem to encourage this.

Julieanne Lamond explores Australian women’s writing in the context of this history in her brilliant Meanjin essay, ‘Stella vs Miles: Women Writers and Literary Value in Australia’. Lamond draws on Susan Sheridan’s work on Australian women’s writing, saying that Sheridan ‘puts forward an account of the relationship between masculinity, genre, nation and literary worth that it seems to me might still be at play in judgements about women and literary value’. As Lamond tells it, Sheridan argues that during the 1890s and in subsequent accounts that upheld its values, ‘a set of ideas that came to define what it meant to be distinctively Australian were defined in opposition to a set of values that were identified with femininity and that ideas about what constitutes literary value in Australia are also gendered in favour of realism and the vernacular (a la Lawson and Rudd) as opposed to popular romance (a la Praed and Cambridge). These are of course false dichotomies but they have been compelling in discussions of Australian literature ever since the turn of the twentieth century.’

In my attempts to clarify my thinking about Australian women writers for the Stella event this week, I keep returning to the recent case of Kate Grenville and the different fates of her two historical novels, The Secret River (2005) and Sarah Thornhill (2011). Especially as it seems to me that, crudely speaking, the novels fall across the realism versus romance divide.

The Secret River (realism) won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and several others, and was shortlisted for most literary awards, including the Miles Franklin. In contrast, Sarah Thornhill (romance) has won one award and been shortlisted for four. It does not seem to have had the critical attention that The Secret River received. And yet for me, Grenville’s achievement in Sarah Thornhill is at least as great, if not greater, than her achievement in the earlier novel. Except that Sarah Thornhill’s is a subtle and unambiguously feminine achievement: Grenville has conjured from nowhere, almost, with very few archival records of early nineteenth-century women’s voices, the vivid voice of an early Australian colonial girl, woman, lover, wife, mother. The novel is told in the first person, from the constrained, socially restricted, uneducated viewpoint of a girl. Does such a voice carry weight in our broader Australian literary culture? Not much, it seems. Or not as much as a third person account of Sarah Thornhill’s pioneering, nation-making father, the protagonist of The Secret History.

I’ll be chewing over these questions and more on Wednesday night with Geordie Williamson.

This will be my last blog post for Overland. For the foreseeable future anyway. I’m riding off into the dawn to do some genre bending of my own.

~

This article by Jane Gleeson-White first appeared on Overland blog on 4 December 2012 and is reposted here with permission.

Jane Gleeson-White is a writer and editor with degrees in literature and economics. She’s a PhD student in creative writing and the author of Double Entry: how the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world : and how their invention could make or break the planet (2011), Australian Classics (2007) and Classics (2005). She blogs at bookish girl and tweets at @janeLGW. Double Entry has been reviewed for the challenge by Yvonne Perkins.

M D Brady on When Women Write about Women

Last January I was just beginning to blog, and I was interested in expanding my reading of books by and about women globally. I was particularly interested in the types of stories women write. Browsing for possible challenges to get me started, I found and signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWW). I knew little about Australia, much less about Australian women writers.

Quickly I found helpful guidance on AWW, first on writings by Indigenous women writers, and then more generally from Australian bloggers who were reading irresistible books. I have ended up reading 22 books for AWW already this year, more than twice what I had intended. My reading led to the observations I make below. A longer version of this essay, which includes more books that are global examples of the patterns I discuss, appears on my blog.

When Women Write about Women

Novels by and about women are being published and recognized in ever increasing numbers. Are these books significant? What do these books say about women? What is traditional and what is new in these books? Should we consider them feminist writing? Although I am not a literary scholar or critic and not involved in the publishing industry, I am an avid novel reader. I care about these questions and wonder what they offer women in a changing world. I’d like to share my thoughts and possibly start a discussion about them.

What strikes me most strongly is the sheer variety of novels by women writers available today. Despite booksellers’ desires to market them as “women’s fiction”, the diversity of authors, plots and styles refuses to be ghettoized. Women’s novels remind us of the problem of lumping all women into any one definition. As long as we live in a gendered world, most men and most women will reflect a gendered difference in their writing. All authors write about what they know and gender is part of our experience. If men and women are to communicate, they need to read about each other.

Whether or not authors express and prioritize their own gender is their choice, not an inevitable result of their gender identity. Writing styles and subjects of male and female overlap. Some of the best recent writing by women does not reflect gendered sensitivity. Take, for example, novels by Australian Alexis Wright. Her Plains of Promise focuses on the experience of Indigenous women, but in her epic, Carpentaria, the narrative includes some forceful, interesting women characters, but centers on the lives of Indigenous men.

Of course, many women choose to embrace traditional roles and definitions in their plots and characters. The romance genre is alive and well among writers and readers, sometimes featuring strong women going after the man they want, not waiting passively for him. Novels featuring domestic life are also abundant and popular. This is as it should be. I would argue, however, that the attempts to ghettoize women’s writing in these genres are also misguided and belittling. Although some of the books in these genres may be simplistic, complex and compelling narratives about domesticity and romance are being written as well, which deserve the attention of both women and men. On the other hand, such novels often look to the past where some, but not all, women could live sheltered by the men they loved. Such novels do little to challenge the status quo or help women imagine alternatives. That is fine, but it is not feminism.

I am always hesitant to label novels as feminist. A basic component of feminism is that private lives are shaped by the public actions which determine economic and social structures. Feminism seeks to help individual women value themselves and consider their own interests; at the same time, it pushes for changes that make the larger world more fair and just for all women. Novels are great for exploring individual women’s sense of what it means to be a woman. When they try to analyse and address larger social problems, few succeed. One that does succeed is Finola Moorhead’s Remember the Tarantella. She has created a lesbian novel with deep meaning for all women about the possibilities of growing as individuals at the same time as belonging to a larger community.

The recent novels that interest me most are the ones I believe make a new, important contribution to literature by offering new narratives for women. I consider these as “women-centered” novels because they explore in new depth and variety what it means to be a woman. Although not explicitly feminist, they reflect changes and new options for women that have been emerging in the past thirty years. Their plots vary widely, and they encourage women to examine and value the parts of their lives often outside men’s notice, such as their bodies and their relationships with each other.

In 1989, acclaimed feminist scholar, Carolyn Heilbrun, wrote a book entitled Writing a Woman’s Life. In it she describes how we all live by the stories we tell about ourselves. She observes that the literary canon of the English-speaking people is full of plots featuring men engaging in various quests, but women are limited to romantic plots centering on a man in their lives. Even fine women authors like Jane Austen and George Eliot do not offer alternatives to this plot. Heilbrun urged women writers to create new plots that depicted women engaging in their own quests and telling about lives and events that did not depend on men choosing to care for them.

By the time she wrote this book, Heilbrun was already acting to correct this situation. In 1963, she had been a non-tenured professor at Columbia University in an English Department, not unanimously ready to treat a woman as an intellectual equal. She also had a husband and three young children. Writing under the pseudonym, Amanda Cross, she created a series of detective stories. Her lead character was Kate Fansler, a female professor like herself, but one without children. Fansler was sharp and witty and anything but nurturing or “womanly”. And she was extremely popular.

In the fifty years since Heilbrun created Kate Fansler, dozens of other women detective novels have followed. Other female sleuths include women, straight and lesbian, of every imaginable ethnicity, nationality, and class. Interestingly, some women struggle to combine their love for a partner and children with their professional ambitions and responsibilities. Part of their quests involves finding ways to be successful in what were once defined as the public and private spheres. Not many of us are going to go out and solve crimes, but their stories resonate with all of us who juggle careers and families, combining romance and quest plots.

Not all women’s new writing presents plots that are either quests or romances. “Coming of age” stories today deal more explicitly with girls’ physical changes and growing awareness of sexuality, but not necessarily marriage. Other recent books deal with midlife crises which require women to reinvent new life stories for themselves. Perhaps such stories could be classified as “coming of self”, since many women, in life or in novels, develop as individuals only after the loss of a marriage marks the end of their romance plot. Other crises can have the same effect. In these books a woman friend or a group of women offer alternative support.

Another way women writers are expanding our society’s conception of womanhood is the attention given to experiences that are typically those of women but not men. Traditionally these have been ignored by male writers and by literature in general. For example, menstruation has been a taboo, and when childbirth was included in a novel, readers have typically viewed it from the perspective of the anxious father in the waiting room. Today women’s experience of pregnancy and birth is described with relevant complexity. Since giving birth is a very human event, such accounts are a step toward the inclusion of woman in literature as fully human.

More generally, motherhood is being increasingly described from the perspective of the mother. Authors are writing about what it is like to raise small children and how the mother-child relationship changes as boys and girls grow up. While narratives of mothers and sons have been common in the past, today’s books often feature mother-daughter relations. My favorite is Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite Your Tongue, published by the Australian Spinifex Press. This book is also unique in its inclusion of the physical nature of the relationship, another aspect of how women authors are changing how we think about women. Sisterhood is another popular new topic. Women’s friendships with each other are also being depicted and treated with dignity. In lesbian novels, a sexual dimension is also present.

Another change in publishing has been the growing availability of novels by and about women from varied backgrounds. Thirty years ago, novels in the libraries and bookstores in the United States were routinely by white authors, or occasionally by men of color. As readers and publishers have realized the quality and significance of women writing globally, books by women of color and other groups silenced in our traditional cultures are relatively easy to find. Women still are discriminated against in the publishing and reviewing (as the VIDA study reported by AWW shows) but the situation is improving. As more books by women about themselves get read by men and women, some men are also writing with more depth and sensitivity about women.

At the forefront of the increased prominence of books by and about diverse women are the feminist presses that specialize in making them available. The Spinifex Press in Australia produces a fine array of such books, fiction and nonfiction, many of them by global women.

Women writing about what it means to be a woman are offering new stories that move beyond stereotypes which are no longer adequate. Their novels are varied and significant because they expand our understanding of what it means to be human.

To ignore or denigrate novels because they are by women or deal with their lives slightingly is to continue the traditional assumptions that humanity is synonymous with manhood. Although not all novels by and about women are explicitly feminist, many treat women’s lives as significant and help us imagine new stories for ourselves. And this, after all, is a basic goal of feminism which we can all support.

Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts on women’s writing and my reading of books by Australian women this year. I hope AWW readers will suggest other Australian books that supplement or challenge my observations. I’d especially love to hear of more feminist or women-centered books by Australian women which are available as ebooks. I believe they would be popular here in the US.

~

Marilyn Dell BradyMarilyn Dell Brady is a retired women’s History professor now living in the desert mountains of West Texas. She blogs at Me, You and Books about books, especially ones about women in all their diversity.

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