Looking beyond the labels: Kirsten Krauth interviews author Tara Moss

Moss Fictional WomanAt the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, crime fiction writer Tara Moss appeared on a panel with Irvine Welsh and Damon Young, talking about writing the body. As she held her new memoir ‘The Fictional Woman’ up to the audience, I was drawn immediately to the cover, a close up of her face, with labels written on in black: Dumb Blonde mingling with Feminist, Model with Bleeding Heart.

It started me thinking about the names I’ve been called, especially when I was a teenager, and how they’ve defined or ignored the essential parts of me – and how often they were contradictory, exposing the labels as fabrications.

Here are some that people have aimed and fired at me (friends, bosses, family, boys yelling out of cars as they drove past): Stupid Girl; Aloof; Too Nice; Passive; Aggressive; Party Animal; Desperate; Brainy; Up Yourself; Leso; Ugly Dog.

It’s a good list, isn’t it? It feels quite liberating to throw them out there. And these are just the ones that have stuck with me. What are yours?

In her memoir, Tara Moss looks beyond the surface to examine the fictions that surround her (and other women), tracing her life as a teen model then writer, and the way she sees herself versus how others perceive her. I spoke to Tara about personal fictions, public perceptions of women’s bodies and feminism’s place in contemporary culture.

*Although you have written lots of fiction, your first nonfiction book is called ‘The Fictional Woman’. Why did you decide to call it that?

‘The Fictional Woman’ centres on the stereotypes, limiting labels or ‘fictions’ that hold people back. It is an issue that has impacted a number of groups along the lines of race, class and other categorisations, but the book specifically focusses on how this reductive labelling has impacted women and men along the lines of gender. I highlight the issues using some of my own personal experiences in the book, along with other people’s stories, wide-ranging data and a look at the historical context of these experiences. As mainstream films are arguably our most dominant form of storytelling today, I also explore the way in which women in particular are fictionalised in line with archaic archetypes, and how, incredibly, of the top grossing films 91% of directors are men, 85% of writers are men, 98% of cinematographers are men and so on, shaping what stories are told and from what perspective.

*How was the writing process different from your crime fiction?

I have always been very motivated by research, statistics and data, though obviously in my crime novels I approached issues of violence and social justice through fiction. The process of writing non-fiction is very different, but as I had been writing OpEds, blogs and advocacy work for a few years, and was also working on my doctorate in social sciences, a full length non-fiction book on the issues I am passionate about seemed like a natural progression. The addition of endnotes was a necessary part of ‘The Fictional Woman’ but I needed to spend a lot of time on collating that data.

*Did you feel like an investigator looking into your own past, searching for clues, for what was concealed?

I knew my own story very well – some experiences really stay with you – so there was little research needed for the memoir components. What I did do was to send any draft chapters dealing with family to all of the people who were mentioned in those chapters. My mother’s death, for instance, was not simply my story to tell. It was my father’s story too, and my sister’s story, so I consulted with them for that section and any section dealing with my childhood. The memoir component of the book was necessary to the story I wanted to tell and the way I needed to tell it, but it only makes up about 10% of the overall book.

*The striking cover features labels written on your face like ‘Dumb Blonde’ and ‘Brainy’. How liberating was it to acknowledge and bring these labels to light?

I chose those labels or ‘fictions’ and the idea for the cover because it seemed like the most raw, honest and authentic way to represent the book between the pages. My face, my fictions. Everyone has labels that have been hung on them, and those ones on the cover are mine. Some of the terms are positive or dictionary-accurate (feminist, mother, wife) while some are blatantly false and pejorative, but all of the words are labels applied to me and all of the words bring their own baggage and assumptions. Everyone has their version of these labels – men, women and school children.

*Why have you encouraged other women (and men) to write labels on their faces too?

The idea of visually expressing labels (and then washing them off, which can feel quite liberating) came naturally. The first person to do it once ‘The Fictional Woman’ came out was book reviewer and author John Purcell. We talked for a while about what fictions had haunted him, and he had me write them on his face. (There is a video here.)

At the book launch for ‘The Fictional Woman’, makeup artists helped people to apply labels relevant to them. A Facebook page was even started and a wide range of people have taken part.

*The book moves between memoir and broader feminist issues, framed by a series of themes. Why did you decide to structure it in this way?

‘The Fictional Woman’ found its structure organically, albeit with a lot of hard work and research. I wanted to create a book that was accessible, enjoyable to read, but also had something to say. Because there are so many issues to discuss, and because I was using some memoir as a jumping off point, it made sense to structure the book in an essentially chronological way, touching on each issue in its own chapter.

*You mention a number of very personal stories in the book, including a scene where you were raped, and your experience of miscarriage. You wrote that you were initially uncertain about whether to include these stories. What made you change your mind?

It became clear to me that if I was to continue to move into the area of advocacy for women and children, as I have been doing in recent years, I could not avoid the discussion of violence against women, as it is such a prevalent and serious issue. And I could not in good faith address that issue without also sharing my own stories, because one of the arguments I make is that the stigma and silence around sexual assault and harassment is damaging to individuals and the general community. I wanted to show solidarity with others who had these experiences – sexual assault, miscarriage, and other difficult but common experiences. There are many of us. 1 in 3 women will be physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime and about a fifth to a quarter of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, so these are issues that must be discussed and issues that we need to get better at dealing with. I am not arguing that everyone needs to tell their story, and certainly not in such a public way. You need to do what you need to do to cope. But in my case, because of my advocacy work, it was a natural progression to share my own experience in the context of the much broader issues.

*The book forced me to question my own judgements, what I tend to sum-up about people after taking a cursory glance. How do you step away from such quick judgements?

We all do it, but we can lessen our biases and assumptions by simply trying. Awareness can be powerful. When we are aware of our biases and the historical contexts for them, we are more easily able to reject lazy assumptions.

*Much of the harrowing early part of the book is about your experiences as a teen model, often isolated and sometimes in real danger. Why do you think there was no system in place at the time to support and help you? Has it changed now?

The modelling industry is an industry – a business. It is essentially about making money and as such the industry in general is not particularly concerned with the health and wellbeing of those working in the industry. Thankfully there are many individual people and individual businesses with high ethical standards, but a model does not generally work for a single business, but rather for a different client on practically every job, and often in different countries, so standards vary enormously. Notably, there is no modelling union I am aware of. There wasn’t at the time I was modelling and I am not aware of one now. Without collective bargaining there is little hope that working conditions will improve significantly across territories. Working conditions, particularly for underage models, need to be addressed more effectively.

*Your statistics outlined in the book and arguments reveal a world where the fight for equal rights still has a long way to go. What are the crucial next steps along this path, as you see them?

Activism and awareness are needed on many fronts, including but not limited to prevention of violence against women and domestic violence, creating more equal pay, preventing discrimination in the work place, addressing problems in superannuation and savings for older women, childcare, valuing unpaid care (which is extremely important for the community and is disproportionately performed by women), allowing women greater access to positions of power without stigma and allowing men to engage in flexible work and unpaid care without stigma.

*Your chapter on mothering and childbirth had particular resonance for me (I also went the CalmBirth way!). Why do you think women are increasingly afraid of childbirth?

There needs to be a better balance between quality, accessible specialist medical care where needed, quality midwifery care, and informed choice. Many experts working in maternity have expressed concern about the balance as it stands. The studies I drew on in that chapter pointed to the culture within a given health care system as being a significant factor in both health outcomes and what is known as ‘extreme’ birth fear, along with popular media portrayals that naturally focus on the worst possible scenarios for dramatic reasons. That conclusion seems to bear out in the different attitudes encountered in different countries. People’s birth experiences vary enormously, the subject can be a very sensitive one, people can find themselves judged viciously, and unfortunately the remaining taboos around birth make it difficult to get a balanced view.

*Women’s bodies can be seen as public property. This is often particularly the case for young women and pregnant women, where strangers approach and sometimes feel they have the right to touch. What can women do in these situations to assert themselves?

One of the most important moments in my life was when I realised that I cared more for my own dignity and sense of self than I did trying to please everyone all the time. That meant that I didn’t care if it upset someone to be told that they could not touch me, or that I did not accept their point of view. There has unfortunately been a history of women’s bodies literally being the property of others, and bodily autonomy remains a battle in some ways. It may not always be easy, but it is always worth it.

*I’m interested in the grey area between what girls/women would like to say and what they end up saying and doing in the moment. How do you think we can bring up girls to be more assertive, to express their sexuality confidently, and to move beyond the surface impressions?

There are still some negative stereotypes, or ‘fictions’ about assertive girls and women. We need to reject the idea that girls who simply want to participate in life are ‘bossy’ or leaders are ‘dragon ladies’ or ‘ice queens’ simply for being women and doing their jobs. There is a cultural shift still happening and cultural attitudes often lag behind actual changes in the law. For instance, women in Australia had the right to vote and stand for office 22 years before any woman actually did enter federal parliament, the longest lag of any western country, and incredibly, this right to vote was not extended to Indigenous women until 1962 (see Australian Women in Politics). We need to realise that just because something is, doesn’t mean it is right. We can challenge our own assumptions about what is possible, and challenge the assumptions of others.

That is part of what ‘The Fictional Woman’ is about, creating change by starting from within, challenging our own assumptions and refusing to participate in the limiting and damaging stereotyping of women and girls, and others.

~

just-a-girl-krauthKirsten Krauth is a writer and editor who lives in Castlemaine.

Her first novel just_a_girl was published in 2013 and she describes it as ‘Lolita with a webcam’.

You can hear Kirsten talking about girls growing up too fast, and writing novels for grown-ups with teenage themes, on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters and Books & Arts Daily.

~

AWW founder, Elizabeth Lhuede, would like to acknowledge Tara Moss as the inspiration for the creation of the AWW challenge. Without Tara’s original blog post in 2011 wrapping up the Sisters in Crime conference – and the outrage it generated – the AWW challenge and blog wouldn’t exist.

Navigating non-fiction – the Jan to June 2014 round up

It’s now halfway through the year at Australian Women Writers and while we have all dabbled happily in fiction of all forms and genres, some of us want something based not in worlds woven for our pleasure but more in the reality we know and experience right now. And we are open to not just those works in book form but also those works that turn up as enlightening essays, journal articles, informative interviews, picture books for kids, memoirs and even chapters in other books.

So then what have we been reading in this current political and social climate, the first half of 2014? What will our choices say about the things that worry us, that we feel we need to know more about right now?

We have 36 reviews of 35 authors with several tied for first place with two reviews each. The most popular book was Linda Jaivin’s Found in Translation, a piece written for Quarterly Essay where she discusses the importance of the work translators do. Both Red Bluff Review and A Strong Belief in Wicker reviewed the essay.  The latter points out that:

‘Linda tells us right on page one that “translators are used to labouring in the shadows”. She reminds us that unless we “speak all 7000 languages that exist in the world, or abide in a cave without even a copper-wire connection” that we live in a world found in translation.’

If nothing this dashes the stereotype that the only subject any women can write non-fiction about is anything domestic such cookbooks. But women, as much as men, seek to inform a wider audience of things they feel they should know – things that span a great deal of subjects. But they also engage with all things culinary and we do have four cookbooks on our list: Sophie Hansen’s Local is LovelyLiz Harfull’s Australian Blue Ribbon CookbookMerle Parrish’s Country Show Baking & Katie Quinn Davies’ What Katie Ate which if memory serves right showed up in the reviews last year as well.

So what is this great span of subjects?

Well, we have Art History to start with, with Janine Burke’s Australian Women Artists 1840 – 1940, reviewed by Debbie Robson who states that:

‘This book is so much more than a chronological account of Australian women artists during a 100 year span. Burke looks at economic, social and psychological factors that affected the rise and fall (during the Depression) of Australian Women artists. What I am amazed at in this book is how many women had the support of their families during the first quarter of the last century to pursue their dreams of becoming an artist – that is as long they didn’t marry!’

Drusilla Modjeska joins in on the commentary on female artists with Stravinsky’s Lunch which entwines feminist theory with the lives of  artists Grace Cossington Smith and Stella Bowen. Nalini Haynes breaks it down for us. Debbie Robson reviews Sydney Moderns for us, edited by Deborah Edwards and Denise Mimmochi.

We have Alison Vidotto’s 22 Leadership Fundamentals – what’s that? A woman writing a book about leadership and business? Well, tough, she is and apparently she is awesome according to Cecilia Clarke who reviewed it:

‘Alison Y Vidotto has produced an outstanding piece of work that I would unequivocally recommend to anyone wanting to improve their leadership skills and their life.
Mrs Vidotto gives clear concise signposts to leadership in her 22 leadership fundamentals and intersperses these with real life anecdotes of her own life including the disasters and mistakes that she very intelligently took stock of and learned from.

This woman walks the walk and talks the talk. She does not pull back from the hard decisions nor from ownership of the responsibility for her own actions. She has built her own success on the foundations of the lessons she has learned in life and shares these in a very readable manner.’

Back to something perhaps some people would expect of women non-fiction writers – we have a children’s picture book amongst our review offerings: Emma Quay’s Rudie Nudie, rated 70 and ‘adorable’ by Cecilia Clark.

But lest you think we are conforming, we have two works by Anne Summer: Ducks On The Pond which is about her life from 1945 to 1975 told through her evolution in political and feminist thinking and reviewed by Tiffany and The Misogyny Factor, a book about feminism in all aspects of Australia’s economy, reviewed by, rather aptly, the Subversive Reader.

Ducks on the Pond charts the author’s political evolution through her student activism in opposition to the Vietnam war. Her descriptions of the birth of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the early 1970s were fascinating for their detail, and the opposition that they faced. She was involved in setting up Australia’s first women’s shelter in Sydney, and the book is worth reading for this section alone. Yet they found it difficult to secure government funding, even from a reforming Whitlam government.

A Labor activist in the 1960s and 70s would usually have had some trade union exposure (I wonder if that’s the case now). The book’s title was a phrase that Summers heard in the shearing sheds – it was a warning that women were present and that the hands should behave themselves.’

And of course, racing into the discussion for feminism is one of the pivotal books within the movement, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Reviewed by David Golding here, who ponders whether it is still relevant, we take no responsibility for any flame wars that may occur as a result of mentioning it. Keep it clean in the comments, people, and ensure you check your privilege (whatever it may be) before responding. There’s also Helen Garner’s The First Stone as an offering up for discussion.

Over to other issues – Indigenous issues. Female writers have spent a lot of time writing about these as well in a variety of forms. Keelen Mailman wrote an autobiography called The Power of Bones and is interviewed by Nalini Haynes in a podcast form here for thy listening pleasure. But it isn’t just Indigenous writers who write but those who are non-Indigenous such as Walkley Award winner Kathy Marks, who won for her essay Channelling Mannalargena, reviewed by Whispering Gums here. It’s a heartbreaking account of how difficult it is for those in Tasmania to establish their identity and heritage and is well worth a read:

‘Because of the particular history of indigenous Tasmanians, family lines and connections have been broken, and so the way Tasmanians discover their Aboriginal background is highly varied. In her essay, Marks talks to many of the groups and factions existing in contemporary Tasmania, and describes the bitter lines that have been drawn between some of them. Some of these lines are so strongly defended that one group, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) in particular, has taken legal action against people who have claimed indigenous heritage. Officially, the definition of Aboriginality in Tasmania is the same as that established by the Federal government – the three-pronged factors of ancestry, self-identification and being accepted by the indigenous community. The TAC, however, demands a family tree as part of this.’

From Indigenous issues to history and we have Jackie French writing about A Day To Remember: The Story of ANZAC Day. But this is also a children’s picture book, designed to educate as Jess from the Never Ending Bookshelf (I need one of those) points out:

‘What I found particularly interesting with this book was the way that Jackie French focused on the concept and meaning of Anzac day through various generations and the way that it was developed, shaped and then lessened in meaning before reaching height again today. The narrative is told in almost diary-like entries ranging from covering that fateful day at war in 1915 all the way up to present time (and potentially the future). Although brief and to the point, French has tried to cover all the different aspects, beliefs and experiences of war and its aftermath in a way that both children and adults alike can enjoy and take something from it. I for one was unaware that the Sydney Dawn Service originated because of an “elderly woman [who] laid a wreath of flowers at the Sydney Centotaph” in 1927 and happened to come across ” a small group of returned soldiers” who all agreed ” that next year there would be a service here at dawn”. Likewise, I had never thought of early celebrations and services on Anzac Day and was surprised to learn that in even in 1934 after dawn services had become popular throughout Australia and New Zealand, that women were excluded “in case women’s crying disturbed the silence”. All in all I found this book fascinating to read, even as an adult who has studied the wars in great detail.’

From history we step over to journalism, with a stellar example already seen in the Walkley Award winning Kathy Marks but now also in Helen Garner’s work Joe Cinque’s Consolation – a story about the murder of Joe Cinque by his girlfriend Anu Singh, the complicity of their friends in the act, the investigation and the trial. As Nalini Haynes who reviewed it writes:

‘Helen talks about her experiences at the trial, her impressions of Anu Singh, Madhavi Rao and the people who testified on their behalf. I cried for Joe’s family as I read Helen’s account of sitting with them, their emotional burden, their financial suffering, their inability to present pertinent evidence to the court.

After spending hours trawling the court transcripts, Helen confirms pertinent evidence was omitted from at least one of the trials and adds a lay-person’s explanation for the judge’s findings.’

Women have also written about travel, opening our eyes to all that lie beyond Australian borders. Lisa Clifford and Carla Coulson have teamed up in a writer-photographer duo to produce Naples: A Way of Love, reviewed by An Italophile.

Women write about writing as well. We have Tara Moss’s The Fictional Woman, Ramona Koval‘s Speaking Volumes which is a collection of her interviews with famous writers and Gabrielle Carey’s Moving Among Strangers which is about her family’s connection to Randolph Stow, reviewed by the Subversive Reader:

‘So, a book which was connected to Randolph Stow was an exciting idea. But I had no idea that it was going to be such a wonderful, moving, whimsical and real story of Stow and his connection to the Carey family. Gabrielle Carey opens with a letter that she wrote to Stow when her mother was dying, a letter which sets up a chain of events leading to a literary pilgrimage. Along the way there’s books and poetry and shipwrecks and Australian (specifically Western Australian) history. And it’s sad and uplifting and beautiful.’

There is something for everyone in the non-fiction genre. It may not be a story but there is often a narrative to follow. And whatever your interest, there is something to spark your curiosity and lead you to explore and learn further. And whether you want a nibble such as an essay or article or a full feast, such as a book length work, there are forms to suit your particular diet in this smorgasbord. And you come out learning from a different voice, different perspective and richer for the experience whether you liked the work or not.

Non-fiction, especially that written by women, is not something to be afraid of trying.  My question for you now is, what sort of subjects and work do you want to see more female authors explore within the non-fiction genre? Tell us in the comments and leave us your suggestions for authors and works we have not tried.

About me
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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 hibernating in Perth, Australia. She’s also been freaked out by the Scientologists, helped run a national publishing conference for the Society of Editors (WA) and currently sits on the WA Media Alliance committee. She is dangerous when bored, having terrorised educational institutions to finish an Honours thesis on Archaeology and a Masters thesis on Neuroscience and Science Communication. She penned book reviews for The West and science news and now writes and edits novels and dreams of fun cross platform media projects 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. Feel free to badger her at her blog at  marisa.com.au, onFacebook or tweet at her at @mwikramanayake

Stella Prize 2014 Shortlist Announced

stella-logo-large

Three works of fiction and three of non-fiction have been selected from an initial longlist of twelve (from a total of 160 entries), to form The Stella Prize shortlist for 2014.

Congratulations to all the nominees.

The 2014 Stella shortlist is:

  • Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Picador)
  • The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane (Penguin)
  • The Swan Book by Alexis Wright (Giramondo)
  • Boy, Lost by Kristina Olsson (UQP)
  • Night Games by Anna Krien (Black Inc)
  • The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright (Text)

Hannah Kent, Burial RitesMcFarlane, The night guesttheswanbook-wright

boy-lost-olssonnight-games-krienWright Forgotten Rebels Eureka

You can read an extract from each of the shortlisted books in the 2014 Stella Prize Shortlist Sampler.

When I posted a Stella Prize longlist reviews roundup, all of the longlisted titles except Gabrielle Carey’s Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and my family had already been reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. In the meantime, although not on the shortlist, it has been reviewed over at Adventures of a Subversive Reader who says she “devoured” it.

Moving among strangers

She describes it as “immensely readable”, the story of “a literary pilgrimage”, “a wonderful, moving, whimsical and real story of Stow and his connection to the Carey family. The reviewer says she was inspired to read it by her own childhood reading memories and after finding out that it was on the Stella longlist and writes:

Midnite by Randolph Stow was one of the favourite books of my Year 6 teacher, and he read it aloud to our class, as he had read it aloud to my sister’s class the year before. When I became a teacher, I tracked Midnite down at the Lifeline Book Fest and made it part of my classroom library – it was always exciting when a new student discovered this excellent book about a very bad bushranger. … This isn’t an easy book to summarise, there’s no neat and easy way to explain it. … It’s a glimpse into the life of a prolific Australian author who has sadly been forgotten by a lot of Australia and a wonderful, rich family story at the same time. … I thoroughly recommend this book and hope it gets a big boost with readers thanks to the Stella Prize recognition.”

The Stella Prize judges for 2014 are critic and writer Kerryn Goldsworthy (chair); journalist and broadcaster Annabel Crabb; author and academic Brenda Walker; bookseller Fiona Stager; and writer and lecturer Tony Birch. The 2014 Stella Prize will be awarded in Sydney on the evening of Tuesday 29 April. The winner will receive $50,000. Additionally, and for the first time, the other five shortlisted authors will also receive prize money of $2000, courtesy of the Nelson Meers Foundation. This carries forward the generosity shown by Carrie Tiffany, inaugural Stella Prize winner, who last year shared $10,000 of her prize money with her fellow shortlisted authors.

Let us know what you think of the shortlist and keep sending us your reviews of Stella Prize nominated books, either from the longlist or the shortlist. And as always, the full AWW Challenge Review Listings are accessible here.

About Me

I’m a freelance book reviewer, journalist, writer and editor. I blog over at Wordsville and can be found on Twitter @PaulaGrunseit

2013 AWW Challenge Wrap Up: Non-fiction

If our literature functions as a mirror to our reality, then a glance at the list of titles reviewed in the non-fiction genre for 2013 gives us a great indication of what has happened in Australia over the past few years.

In 2013, we had 66 reviews submitted in the non-fiction genre, all on 55 different titles by 54 authors, some of whom were co-authors or editors.

We have been reading more non-fiction. In 2012, we had 48 reviews of 40 titles by 39 authors, the most reviewed author being Charlotte Wood who had her book Love and Hunger reviewed five times.

2013 saw us broaden our horizons a bit more in what we wanted to read so there was fierce competition for the coveted spots of most reviewed author and most reviewed title. By December 31, there was naught for it but ties. Kaz Cooke, Anna Krien, Annabelle Brayley and Belinda Hawkins all had three reviews each.

But it was yet another three way tie between Anna Krien’s Night Games, Annabelle Brayley’s Bush Nurses and Belinda Hawkins’ Every Parent’s Nightmare, all with three reviews each.

What else can we see when we look at the list? We are politically concerned. Kerry-Anne Walsh’The Stalking of Julia Gillard was reviewed twice and was in the pleasant company of A Country Too Far: Writings on Asylum Seekers (edited by Rosie Scott) and Pamela Williams’ Killing Fairfax and the delightful additions to the list of Jane Caro’Destroying the Joint: How Women Have to Change The World and The Misogyny Factor by Anne Summers.

We are interested in true crime – something noticed when the first round up of the genre was done in April 2013. In addition to Meaner than Fiction by Lindy Cameron and Rough Justice by Robin Bowles, we have Belinda HawkinsEvery Parent’s Nightmare and P D Martin’s When Justice Fails.

We love to eat. Katie Quinn Davies tells us What Katie Ate, while Jui-Shan Chang gets straight to Making A Meal Of It. And wash it down with Mel Campbell’s Out of Shape.

We value creativity and have a desire to know how to become creative and how others became, were or dealt with being creative in some way. Enter Janine Burke’s two offerings Dear Sun and The Art of Birds and Anne-Marie Priest’s Great Writers, Great Loves followed quite quickly by Ramona Koval’s confession on all things literary and loved, literally in By The Book. Marieke Hardy and Michela McGuire corral those they think of as women of letters and set them to work in the epistolary Yours Truly while Marion Halligan tries her hand at much the same in Storykeepers and Kate Grenville lifts the curtain on her writing experiences in Searching For The Secret River.

We also want help of both the practical and spiritual kind. Enter Kaz Cooke’s Up The Duff, and then (for when you have had the kid) Mind Your Mental Health and Monica Dux follows up with Things I Didn’t Expect When I Was Expecting (unfortunately there is no Spanish Inquisition joke in the subtitle but perhaps that will be rectified in the next edition). Better sex comes by way of Moments of Desire by Susan Hawthorne and Jenny Pausacker and we ponder the meaning of life by thinking about death in Bianca Nogrady’s The End: The Hidden Experience of Death. Both Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and Jo-Anne Berthelesen’s Soul Friend attempt to help us be a bit more in tune with our higher selves and purpose and of course, the universe.

At the end of it all, there are two great titles that are worth keeping an eye out for. One we came across early on in 2013 – Tamzyne Richardson’s book about her home town My Home Broome written when she was nine. The other was Eliza Sarlos’ Amazing Babes – a book for children about high achieving women in different fields.

The former is inspired and in itself inspiring, the latter continues to educate and no doubt will inspire many more young writers.

And so should they be inspired to write at whatever age, regardless of gender. As the list shows, Australian women write about what matters to a wide range of people and cover a wide range of interests. They educate, they inform, they reveal, they help, they inspire, they entertain.

Nelly Thomas’ What Women Want is also on this list of non-fiction reviewed in 2013. Suffice it to say the list helps encapsulate that as well. Thank you, readers and reviewers, for diving into the non-fiction genre in 2013.  In 2014, I hope we all continue to discover more subjects, topics and niches that Australian women are willing to explore and explain to us: their readers.

~

Links to reviews can be found on the Nonfiction Review Listing page.

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

Jan – April Round Up 2013: Non-Fiction

We kick started the year off with just two books reviewed in the non-fiction pile but now we have a total of 22 reviews covering 21 books, come the end of April and this leads me to reflect on reading habits. 

More specifically, do we read the fiction first and then the non-fiction titles on our “to-read” lists, our library bags and our “when I have spare time or go on holiday” buckets? 

It’s been interesting to see what exactly within the non-fiction genre we read as well. Out of 22 reviews, seven were about historical subjects, six were either anthologies of writing or writers discussing the writing life or process, four were definitely destined for the self help shelf, two were actually about very specific subjects and I had to classify one as a memoir, one as a spiritual book and one as a story about a place though not quite a travel piece either. I have decided to term it a geographical book for the sake of convenience. 

So then what are we then when we come to being non-fiction readers, the little stable of regular reviewers that dabble in this genre? We seem to be interested in the past, particularly in matters of justice and perhaps we have a desire to set things right for we read voraciously about other writers and devour their work, their thoughts and their advice. Maybe we want to set things right and write wonderful books about the past as well or maybe we just want to dispense advice that we know the world needs or possibly divulge the contents of our head when it comes to that one subject that we seem to be one of the few experts in the world on. These are the books we gravitate to so do they reflect who we are? As the year goes on, will we reveal more about what kind of readers we are when we choose to play in the factual non-fictional end of the literary pool?

ImageKaz Cooke and Janine Burke tied for the most read non-fiction authors with two books each reviewed, Cooke thereby dominating the self help sub-genre with the ever popular Up The Duff and Mind your Mental Health. Image Lara of This Charming Mum informs us that the latter is actually available as a collection of eBooks (the future beckons!) and that: “Cooke describes the symptoms, indicators and outcomes of the major mental health problems likely to be experienced by women – as well as reminding us that some conditions don’t have a clearly defined label, that vague and nebulous symptoms may well be part of a bigger problem (those afflicted are not ‘putting it on’), and that we are still a long way from a cure for social stigma.” Lisa of Lisa’s Life Lately, tells us how Cooke‘s most popular work was for her: “It was like having an ally who knew it all in my corner.” 

ImageAnnabelle Brayley‘s book The Bush Nurses was the most popular with two reviews and with good reason. Marcia of Book Muster Down Under stated that: “these stories put together by Annabelle Brayley will sometimes raise the hairs on the back of your neck, some will have you howling with laughter and others will make you cry but the one thing that is almost certain is that they will make you wonder at the dedication shown by these people who choose to work “out there” and ShellyRae of Book’d Out: “Their stories are heartbreaking, amusing, inspiring and incredible.” 

ImageAnd I wonder, do we skitter away from reading non-fiction because it can be confronting? Because it can deal with hard, cold facts and subject matter that if our historical reviews are anything to go by, to put it rather nicely, a tad bit icky? Want examples? We have Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man which is about an Aboriginal  man’s death in police custody, Robin Bowles’ Rough Justice about Australian murders and the sometimes unsettling results of the court cases (reviewed here by Vicky), and the theme of the justice system failing appallingly continues in Meaner Than Fiction edited by Lindy Cameron. Sally of Books And Musings From Down Under tells us that: “Books like MEANER THAN FICTION make me really angry – not at the editor or any of the contributing authors – but at the justice  system.” 

ImageBut lest we continue the myth that a collection of facts is all that makes up non-fiction, Nalini Hayes writing for the Dark Matter online zine points out that what makes Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man a good read and all the more compelling is the actual narrative thread vending its way through the story: “Hooper tells the story in narrative form describing scenes unfolding before her during her investigation interspersed with exposition and narrative from historical records and eye-witness accounts.” 

 But now to the non-fiction we really seem to want to sink our teeth into when we aren’t railing at wrongdoings in the past or the failings of the justice system: writers, what they do, how they live and how, why and what they write. 

ImageI have to admit that it might be my fault entirely this year as my review of Ann-Marie Priest‘s Great Writers, Great Loves was the first of this sort of non-fiction to pop up. But Priest‘s subject matter was too enticing to not delve into – the love lives of writers such as Woolf, Sackville-West, Lawrence, Plath and Mansfield explored and compared to the work they wrote to see how love and work informed and impacted each other. I may have got a trifle carried away: “It’s a book that reminds us that above all else, these writers were human, they were people, struggling to be themselves often in a world that was clinging onto a way of being that didn’t allow for new ideas without an immense fight. That they had flaws and that intentionally or otherwise, their beliefs, ideas and experiences coloured the stories they would write with subtle shading and subtext or with glorious rainbow-like tapestries.”

ImageBut the torch once lit, kept going. Tarla of Tarla’s Blog reviewed Kate Llewellyn‘s The Waterlily, an account of her first year writing in the mountains, encompassing all the tragedy that befell her then, the landscape outside her window and how her daily life unfolded, piece by piece, movement by movement: “Her opening lines have way of racketing around in my brain. “When I came to live in the mountains I was determined to be happy. Sparrows were pecking the pale green and white shoots from the tree outside the kitchen as I made the first cup of tea for the day.” Each journal entry contains little observations such as, “The first tulip is out today. It is red with a black heart like a Norse helmsman. If it were a person it would be called Eric.”  An unhappy affair is also woven into the story of her garden.”

ImageWritereaderly then got into the act with not one but two reviews: of Marion Halligan‘s edited anthology Storykeepers and Kate Grenville‘s exposition of her writing process in Searching For The Secret River. Writereaderly casually drops in the fact that the Storykeepers has, of all things, an acrostic poem in it which only makes one even more keen to find a copy of it. 

But from writers, writing and all things connected to it, let’s move onto the point at which it all starts for someone putting pen to paper for the first time. 

This blog exists to promote female Australian authors and their work in an effort to address a perceived gender bias. How exciting is it then to come across this book, the one I placed in the so called “geographical non-fiction” category? 

ImageThe book is My Home Broome. It is written by Tamzyne Richardson, who when she wrote it was nine. Nine. My Home Broome as Louise of A Strong Belief In Wicker tells us is a poem Tamzyne wrote when home sick from school about the place she lived in, the place she calls home. Eventually, the poem was added to with factual information and turned into a book. 

When a nine year old schoolgirl can write a poem celebrating all that she holds dear about the specific spot on Earth that she calls home and it can be turned into a book, you know you must be doing something right. As Louise states: “My Home Broome is a great book, and is a fascinating glimpse into life in a special part of the world.”

Right here is the point at which Tamzyne can decide that this, this writing gig, is what she wants to do. Right here, this is where we all start, writing about what we know to be true before we use what we know to extrapolate and examine the bits of the world we don’t fully understand yet. Right here, we can say, we have given a child a voice and a chance to write. 

And as non-fiction readers, this is what we do – listen to those describing and narrating the factual parts of the worlds they inhabit. And this is how we learn, more about ourselves and others. 

About me
Image
Marisa Wikramanayake spends most of her time writing. This was never going to change so she thought she should at least get paid for it. Now she geeks out with scientists, debates journalism practice and if that wasn’t enough she tries to write novels while editing other writers’ work. Occasionally her demanding cat sends her out for caviar. As a journalist she has been in ground zero of a bomb blast twice, had her phones tapped and been freaked out by the Scientologists. Publishing wise, her first book came out at 17 and her natural habitat is either a secondhand bookstore, a library or a literary festival (she’s covered the Galle Literary Festival with Richard Dawkins and has just finished organising IPEd‘s latest national editing conference). She writes for the ABR, 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

March 2013 Roundup: Diversity

Readers of the Australian Women Writers blog will have noticed that we’ve been peppered with long listings, short listings, and awards lately.  These are a boost to any writer’s career, but particularly those who might be overlooked on account of their gender, sexuality or race.  The effects of recognition are apparent in AWW reviews, with Subversive Reader writing of  Indigenous author Dylan Coleman’s Mazin Grace, long listed for the Stella Prize:

mazin-graceAlthough Mazin Grace was sad, and at times gut-wrenchingly confronting (and you must read the author’s note at the end), I was left with a feeling of hope – hope because stories like this are entering our consciousness, that writers like this are making long lists for awards, that books like this are available – easily – to readers like myself who don’t always find it easy to go to small or specialist book stores.

How lovely it is to see books that aren’t necessarily mainstream making an impact!

purple-threadsOther reviews of books by Indigenous authors included my own of Janine Leane’s Purple Threads, a gentle and meandering novel about the narrator’s childhood and aunties.  James Tierny from the Newtown Review of Books reviewed Melissa Lucashenko’s newly released Mullumbimby, her fifth novel.  He found it a ‘sure, funny and quietly modulated novel’ which ‘bursts the myth that Indigenous culture must present a unified face to Australia in order to be strong’, but questioned the ‘occasional tendency to use unnecessary adverbs or adjectives when neither the sense nor the flow of the narrative demands it.’  Poet Phillip Ellis reviewed Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s book of poems The Dawn is at Hand, commenting that the volume isn’t ‘simplistic, propagandistic poetry, but poetry that conveys its own worldviews’.  He also posted on Anita Heiss’ I’m Not Racist, But …, a collection of what Heiss terms ‘social observations,’ but which Phillip refers to as political poetry.

Patti Miller, The mind of a thiefPatti Miller’s The Mind of a Thief is about the author’s growing understanding that the country in which she grew up was a place of dispossession.  It was long listed for the Stella prize and, recently, the Kibble prize.  Anna Maria Dell’oso at the Newtown Review of Books wrote an inviting review, concluding with the observation that the novel’s final chapters leave the reader wondering ‘how the chain of human dispossession and thievery will continue to unfold into the stoic Australian landscape’.  Migratory Mel was more uneasy with the author’s stance, commenting that ‘Miller walks a fine line between her own memoir and a non-fiction story of rights to land, native title and registration claims’.  She was also irked by Miller’s ‘constant need to remind us of her own hardship growing up in Wellington (often repeated mentions of no running water, no hot tap)’ as though the author were ‘trying to place herself in a position as an equally hard-done by resident of Wellington alongside Indigenous Australians.’  However Mel also acknowledges that Miller’s honesty about her shortcomings helps the reader ‘to understand how the roles played by Indigenous Australians have been deeply hidden from our history’.  After reading both these reviews, I promptly downloaded the book from my library.

Another book on Indigenous issues reviewed over March was Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, reviewed by Nalini Haynes.  Nalini compared the book and documentary versions about the death of Cameron Doomadgee while in police custody in Palm Island, and highlights what she sees as some of the author’s biases.

people-smugglerOn the long list for the Miles Franklin and Stella awards was Robin de Crespigny’s non-fiction work The People Smuggler.  Bree wrote an impassioned review of this account of Ali Al Jenabi, a man who risks all to get refugees from the Middle East to safety in Australia.  She gave it 10/10, and wrote that ‘This book should be mandatory reading for every Australian school student.  It should help provide the one thing that the government does not: the other side.’

Other cultures also featured in the romance genre, with Coleen Kwan’s Short Soup reviewed by Kaetrin, who enjoyed the mix of Chinese and Australian culture. Lauren at The Australian Bookshelf reviewed another romance driven by cultural issues, Arranged to Love by Elizabeth Dunk.  The conflict in the book stems from the Indian-Australian female protagonist’s intention to go ahead with an arranged marriage, until her plans are thrown into disarray by her falling for an Australian man.  Lauren enjoyed the cultural aspects of the story but was frustrated with the characters at times.

let-the-dead-lieAustralian author Malla Nunn, who was born in Swaziland and moved to Perth in the 1970s, is a writer of suspense novels.  Marilyn Brady reviews her work Let the Dead Lie, set in South Africa at the time of apartheid.  The work shows how apartheid shaped people, and how it was never ‘the stark division of black and white people, as … envisioned by its designers’ but rather, ‘as Nunn displays, was messier’.  Marilyn also reviewed Alice Pung’s memoir Unpolished Gem about growing up as a Cambodian of Chinese ethnicity in Australia.  She describes the writing as ‘sure and affective, voicing on paper what could not be explained to non-immigrant friends about her life.’

monkey's mask porterOther issues which were canvassed include those of lesbian desire in Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask, reviewed with punch and panache by WriteReaderly: ‘The plotting is smart, the affair is sexy, Sydney is gritty and real, the poems are bitey and sharp – a damned fab book.’  If Not, Read reviewed the same book, and loved it.

Finally, it’s always great to see issues popping up in young adult literature, and Mandee at Vegan YA Nerds couldn’t put Alex As Well down.  This is the story of Alex, who is born intersexed with both male and female genitalia.  Her parents agreed early on she was to be a boy, but as she grows up Alex feels more like a girl and decides to become one.  Mandee found Alex to be ‘a really intelligent girl and she made for an entertaining and honest narrator, who speaks directly to the reader, as if she’s telling us her story. She had so much personality that she was jumping out of the pages at me.’  Sounds like the author Alyssa Brugmann has done her work well!

If you’d like more recommendations for books that cover these sorts of issues, head over to the Australian Women Writer’s ever-growing list of Indigenous authors and authors writing on Indigenous issues, or check out the lists under Reading for Diversity.  And let’s hope that the awards season continues to shower fine writers like these.

About Me

JessI’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis.  I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007), about botany and lesbianism, and Entitlement (2012), about Native Title and grief.  You can find more information about me at my website.  I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.

Announcement of the Kibble and Dobbie Awards longlist

Today the long lists for the Kibble award, for a work by an established woman writer, and the Dobbie award, for the first published work by a woman writer, were released.  This is the first time in the awards’ 21-year history that a long list has been announced, the intention being, as Chairperson and author Bridgid Rooney says, to ensure its writers ‘get the recognition they deserve’.  In light of this, it seems worthwhile to flag which books on the longlist have been reviewed in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and those which readers might like to pick up before the shortlist is announced on 5th June, and the winners on 24th July.

The Kibble Literary Award Long List:

Questions-of-Travel-194-297James reviewed Michelle de Krester’s fourth novel, Questions of Travel, in the Newtown Review of Books, noting her attempts to defy the criticism that Australian literary fiction lacks ambition with ‘a palimpsest of themes’ that include ‘colonialism, ways of knowing, the soft incursion of technology, migration, tourism, the numbing bite of terror and the mean coinage of tolerance’.  However, as the work progressed, he found its ‘declarative prose’ had the effect of boxing in the main characters, Ravi and Laura, and suggested that the author was providing answers to questions, rather than leaving these for the reader to work out.  Kathy, of Play, Eat, Learn, Live, who has undertaken the admirable task of reviewing all books on the Stella Prize’s longlist, found the book took a while to get into, but appreciated the author’s ‘calm, measured, almost somnolent voice.’

beloved-faulknerAnnah Faulkner’s The Beloved has been reviewed by Lauren at The Australian Bookshelf.  As a fellow Queensland writer with an interest in art and disability, Lauren’s review prompted me to order this book from the library, and I hope that it finds other readers too.

Chloe Hooper’s psychological thriller, The Engagement, has a number of admirers, including Bree at allthebooksicanread, Monique at Write Note Reviews, Rebecca at Lit-icism and Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.  Some, such as Caitlin at GoodReads, were more ambivalent, and her entertaining review is worth a read.  I also found the book a bit of a let-down (despite being a fan of Hooper’s work), for its well-crafted tension seemed to simply dissipate.

my-hundred-loversSusan Johnson’s sensuous My Hundred Lovers elicited a range of delicious responses.  Lara at This Charming Mum described it as ‘deeply moving’ and ‘blunt and unapologetic in its discussion of the unloveliness of the human body and the awkwardness of self-discovery,’ Linda at the Newtown Review of Books writes that the novel ‘remind[s] us of the wonder of our bodies simply drawing breath,’ Kate at The Truth be Told  consumed the book ‘with a passion I usually reserve for expensive wine’, Janine at Resident Judge found it ‘a beautifully written book, expanding love and sexuality to encompass the whole of life and being human,’ while Debra posted a detailed review on the AWW blog and Marg wrote up a readalong hosted by Bree of allthebooksicanread.  I also loved the novel’s concept and its absolutely gorgeous writing, and have long been a fan of Johnson’s oeuvre, but was a little let down by the ending.

Cate Kennedy’s book of short stories, Like A House On Fire, was referred to as a ‘hit-and-miss collection’ by ifnotread, while Kathy ‘whipped through it at a rapid pace, finding it not only beautiful, meaningful and moving but also, not to put too fine a point on it, a bloody good read.’  Janine at Resident Judge was, up until the point of reading this, quite opposed to short-stories, but found herself writing, ‘I don’t think that I’ve ever enjoyed a collection of short stories so much.’  It also prompted Denise at GoodReads to go back to Kennedy’s other works.

Patti Miller’s search for her ancestors in her non-fiction work, The Mind of a Thief , was reviewed by Anna Maria Dell’oso at the Newtown Review of Books, Mel at Migratory Mel and Deborah at GoodReads.  In general, readers seemed to find themselves unsettled by the book, sometimes questioning its style and delivery, and I wonder if any novel about belonging in Australia will have this effect.

an-opening-radokStephanie Radok’s collection of essays, An Opening: Twelve Love Stories about Art, was intelligently reviewed by Kathy, who described it as  ‘telescop[ing] unevenly between [Radok’s] personal reflections and recollections and the wider, more philosophical musings that she engages in with respect to art (particularly indigenous art).’  Radok’s book is on my desk, and I’m planning to review it this weekend.

Mateship with Birds, Carrie Tiffany’s second novel, has been widely and, for the most part, positively, reviewed.  I refer readers to Paula Grunseit’s summary of this in her wrap-up of the Miles Franklin longlist.

Dobbie Literary Award Long List:

Paula also noted six reviews of Romy Ash’s Floundering in her roundup of the Stella Prize longlist in February, and mentions Courtney Collins’ The Burial in this same post.  Adding to this is a review by Kathy, who describes the narrator as telling ‘the story of the bones of the earth, of the tragedy of wanting to live even when life is pain, of the bush and the struggles it holds.’

Jessie Cole’s Darkness on the Edge of Town was reviewed by Lisa Walker, who makes the interesting comment that this is a ‘you’ll read quickly and then wish you’d read slowly because you don’t want it to end.’   Meanwhile, for Shelleyrae, the prose created ‘a haunting melody of loneliness, grief and desire.’

finding-jasperLynne Leonhardt’s Finding Jasper was reviewed by Amanda Curtin, who knew the novel when it was a manuscript, and by Elizabeth at Devoted Eclectic.  Elizabeth found a resonance with the flawed, female protagonist, and felt the book was haunting, the way music might be.

Jacqueline Wright’s Red Dirt Talking and Lily Chan’s Toyo: A memoir, haven’t yet been reviewed for the AWW Challenge.  It would be great to hear some responses to these before the shortlist is announced.

Why do we need awards for women writers?

The short answer is: to redress bias.  This is the bias that leads to more books with male authors being reviewed than female authors, which is catalogued by the annual Vida statistics.  It’s often an unconscious bias, which means that many take the view that male dominance of our culture is universal, when in fact it’s a skewed perspective because women haven’t been able, or even permitted, to contribute their voices.  Even the more well-read among us haven’t been conscious of this attitude, as Elizabeth Lhuede writes in her account of establishing the AWW challenge.

For the long answer, I refer readers to Deborah Copaken Kogan’s eye-opening (and, to continue the bodily metaphors, jaw-dropping) account of her publishing history in which she was denied recognition and had to fight earnestly to be treated as her male peers were.  As she writes, ‘There’s a reason J.K. Rowling’s publishers demanded that she use initials instead of “Joanne”: it’s the same reason Mary Anne Evans used the pen name George Eliot; the same reason Robert Southey, then England’s poet laureate, wrote to Charlotte Brontë: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”‘  It’s also the same reason why Miss Nita Kibble (for whom the award is named by her niece Nita Dobbie) was successful in her application for the position of junior assistant at the Public Library of NSW in the 1800s: her signature was taken for a man’s.

Later, she became the first woman to be appointed a librarian with the State Library of New South Wales and held the position of Principal Research Officer from 1919 until her retirement.  Had her writing been taken for a woman’s, she would never have had the opportunity to offer as much as she did to the library profession.

Until a woman’s name on a book means that she’ll be read with the same seriousness as a man’s, we need the Stella, the Barbara Jefferis, the Kibble, and the Dobbie to increase awareness of, and the audience for, Australian women’s writing.  I’m damn pleased for every writer on this longlist, and hope that many more readers will find their books because of it, both in the lead-up to and the aftermath of the award ceremony.

About Me

JessI’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis.  I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007), about botany and lesbianism, and Entitlement (2012), about Native Title and grief.  A Curious Intimacy was shortlisted for the Dobbie award in 2008.  You can find more information about me at my website.  I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.

February 2013 Roundup: Diversity

Keighery WhisperOn the starting block for February’s reviews of themes of diversity is Subversive Reader’s write-up of Whisper, by Chrissie Keighery.  This is the story of Demi, a regular 14 year old who becomes profoundly deaf after contracting meningitis, and who needs to learn how to come to terms with her altered life.  I’m really glad to see books like being written, read and reviewed, not least because meningitis also wiped out most of my hearing when I was nearly 4, but also because they introduce kids to diversity, and the concept that there are many other ways of existing in the world.  However, it’s important that this is done well.  If it isn’t, there is the risk of stereotyping people with disabilities, rather than rendering them as fully fledged human beings.  In another review by Subversive Reader, this time of Julia Lawrinson’s Chess Nuts, a character Josh has autism, but the reader never sees in him ‘the shades of up and down that most people with ASD have’.

It is such shading that makes a character three-dimensional, and it was heartening to see some twenty reviews (although I haven’t the space to cover each one) of books that attempt to show their diverse characters as rounded people.  Of these, nine were by Indigenous authors, while an additional book was by a white author on Indigenous issues.

manhattan-dreamingDinner at Caphs wrote a spirited review of Manhattan Dreaming by Indigenous writer Anita Heiss.  As with Sue of Whispering Gums in her review of Heiss’ Paris Dreaming (mentioned by Kat Mayo in the February roundup of Romance Fiction and Erotica), the reviewer was aware of Heiss’ commitment to ‘to depicting Aboriginal people as ordinary individuals living their lives.’  In this instance, she writes about urban Aboriginal people for, as noted by Sue in her review, ‘30% or more of indigenous Australians are urban and this book, as its genre suggests, is about young urban indigenous women.’  Dinner at Caphs was frustrated by the protagonist’s continuing desire to be appreciated by men, but at the same time was interested in Heiss’ imagined role for Old Parliament House, into which the Indigenous people from the Tent Embassy moved.  The reviewer also made a fascinating reference to Indigenous people’s reactions to Old Parliament House which is ‘contested ground.’  To my amusement, they flung in that ‘If Andrew Bolt hates you, you are a superstar in my book’, a reference to Heiss’ nonfiction work, Am I Black Enough for You?, reviewed this month by Migratory Mel.  This book stemmed from Andrew Bolt’s absurd and defamatory claim that Heiss identified herself as Aboriginal to advance her career.

too flashOther Indigenous works reviewed include Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Flash, described by My Book Corner as giving a ‘strong, powerful voice to Indigenous teenagers’, and Nicole Watson’s crime novel The Boundary, which draws upon themes such as Native Title and Indigenous deaths in custody.  This was reviewed at GoodReads by Maree Kimberly who found that, although the work wasn’t without flaws, it was still ‘an original work that offers perspectives not often seen in Australian crime novels’.

Elizabeth Hodgson’s Skin Painting, a winner of the David Unaipon award, was reviewed by poet Phillip Ellis.  He refers to the genre as ‘non-fiction poetry’, an interesting term derived from the online magazine rabbit.  He pays homage to Hodgon’s style and confessional mode, but a sustained description of her culture and identity is missing.  Ellis describes the work as a memoir, applauding Hodgon’s ‘clarity and candour’, and I was wished that I could have seen some of this in the review; I shall have to get hold of the book!

Faith Bandler by Marilyn LakeIt was also great to see another review of Fiona Paisley’s The Lone Protestor, about the peripatetic, Indigenous protestor Anthony Martin Fernando.  This was reviewed by Jenny, who picked it up after reading Yvonne’s thorough review of the work from January.  Also in this genre is Marilyn Lake’s biography of activist Faith Bandler, comprehensively reviewed by Marilyn Brady.  Faith Bandler was, as Marilyn writes, ‘the daughter of a man from the South Sea Islands who was kidnapped, enslaved, and brought to labor on the sugar plantations of northern Queensland’, while her mother was from a family that had migrated to Australia from India.  Bandler’s skills for gentle persuasion and bringing diverse groups together were notable, but she often faced resistance for her South Sea Islander heritage and her gender, as Marilyn explains:

Lake writes sensitively about the fear that men had over the strong, articulate women, like Bandler, who did much to fund and drive the organizations. Indigenous men, long denied their “manhood” were particularly incensed about the women who competed with them for leadership roles. Bandler used her gentle, poised demeanor to try to calm tempers, but she was among those attacked.

This is a wonderfully interesting account of the intersection of race and gender, and the tension to which this can lead.

people-smugglerOther cultures are represented in books such as The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny, which is reviewed by Migratory Mel.    An account of Ali al Jenabi, one of the first people in Australia to be tried for people smuggling, the book demonstrates that the decision to save oneself and one’s family from persecution is never straightforward, and ‘makes the reader question what we are told is the “truth” about asylum seekers and displacement’.  The book also won the 2012 Human Rights Award for non-fiction.

In the fantasy genre, which always showcases a plethora of cultures, is Brisbane-based Kylie Chan’s Small Shen, a graphic novel which she wrote, she said, because she ‘bored [her] family and friends completely to tears telling them about the differences between Chinese and Western culture’ so she ‘decided to write it all down … [and] make it fun’.  The book, a prequel to a series, is reviewed by Australasian Educator, who describes how the characters respond ‘to a mixed pot of historical and mythological sequences alongside circumstances such as the Opium Wars, Hong Kong in the 1990s, and histori-fantasy versions of 19th and 20th Century China’.

Short Soup by Coleen Kwan (published by Escape)

Asian Australians feature in the romance genre with Coleen Kwan’s Short Soup.  For reviewer Giraffe Days, the book was ‘a breath of fresh air, truly it was, and I really enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a contemporary romance featuring Chinese characters before – well, Chinese-Australian, but you know what I mean. They have retained enough of their culture to be both different and familiar, like I knew them personally but still recognised them as, well, not white.’   This is wonderful for, as Kat notes in her February roundup, ‘romance should be for everyone’.  This includes gay romance, which moves the plot along in Ann Somerville’s Unnatural Selection.  The book is reviewed by Lynxie in a write-up which interested me enough to add the book to my worryingly long list of things to read.

 
Dog-boyFinally, Giraffe Days’ review of Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, a complex and unsettling novel which has prompted a number of thoughtful reviews (see those by Elizabeth, Sue and myself), illuminates a story that is ‘dense, descriptive, questioning, wondering and brutally honest. Beneath it all lies layers of philosophical thought, the riddle of human nature, and a hard poke at what separates us from other animals – or at what we think separates us.’  It is the story of Romochka, an abandoned boy who is brought up by a pack of dogs, and Giraffe Days found it a ‘profoundly thought-provoking novel, but … also one of deep compassion and empathy’.  This, I think, is the hallmark of a brilliant book: one that enables us to emapathise with another consciousness (whether human, animal, or something else altogether), instead of dismissing it as something too foreign to be understood.

About Me

JessI’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis.  I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007), about botany and lesbianism, and Entitlement (2012), about Native Title and grief.  You can find more information about me at my website.  I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.

2012 AWW Challenge: Short Stories and Poetry

We’re nearly at the end of the wrap-ups of reviews of Australian women’s writing for 2012, which have shown that writing and reading by Australian women is diverse, enthusiastic and unabated.  While poetry and short stories may not be as widely-read as other forms, they offer a huge range of styles and content, just as with the AWW Challenge itself.

Short Stories

Over 2012, there were 76 reviews of 42 works by Australian women writers, including both collections and individual stories.  Speculative fiction featured strongly, with 22 reviews of collections in the Twelve Planets series published by Twelfth Planet Press in Western Australia.  As Tsana notes in her AWW Challenge 2012 Speculative Fiction wrap up, the aim of the series is to publish twelve collections from twelve Australian women writing speculative fiction, and many of the stories have Australian settings. Below is a list of those which have been published and reviewed to date (I’ve included alternative links to Tsana’s where I can, to show how widely they were reviewed):

cracklescapeBad Power by Deborah Biancotti (reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts); Showtime by Narelle Harris (reviewed by Marg); Nightsiders by Sue Isle (reviewed by Tsana, who summed it up as ‘collection full of strong and well drawn female characters’); Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan (who made Sean cry); Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts (reviewed by Dave); Thief of Lives by Lucy Sussex (also reviewed by Tsana) and Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren (also reviewed by Dave, who called it a ‘complete success … Creepy, daring and provocative).  The consensus among reviewers was that the Twelve Planets series was a great initiative, and a good way of sampling an assortment of speculative fiction.

Other speculative fiction collections which were reviewed include Isobelle Carmody’s Metro Winds (reviewed by Maree), the gigantic volume Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies by Lucy Sussex (reviewed by Narelle M Harris, who struggled with its size over breakfast), and another Margo Lanagan collection, Black Juice, (reviewed by Marg).

inheritedIn the literary fiction genre, Amanda Curtin’s Inherited was praised for its spare, but haunting writing (see Angela Myer’s comprehensive review), while Janette Tuner Hospital’s new collection, Forecast: Turbulence, was described as ‘exquisitely crafted’ by Rebecca Howden.  Jennifer Mills’ The Rest is Weight was enthusiastically reviewed for the variety of its stories by Sean and ShellyRae, while Bronte mused on the dark undertone of the stories from Brothers & Sisters, edited by Charlotte Wood.  Genevieve Tucker’s tender and sensitive review of Josephine Rowe’s Tarcutta Wake was like poetry itself.  ‘Each story,’ she writes, ‘carries others nesting within it, and they unfold like the precisely engineered wings of migrating birds.’  Fittingly, Black Inc.’s annual The Best Australian Stories made an appearance.  This edition was collated in 2011 by short story connoisseur Cate Kennedy, and was reviewed by Sophie.

Memoir also featured, through Ilsa Evans’ Once a Poner Time (reviewed by Jayne from The Australian Bookshelf ) as did romance – see Kate Rizzetti’s review of URL Love.  It was heartening to see reviews of works by Indigenous authors too, with Jenny writing on Me, Antman and Fleabag by Gayle Kennedy, which was the winner of the 2006 David Unaipon award for unplublished Indigenous authors.  Sally wrote a review of Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing, which also won the David Unaipon award, this time in 2008.

Short fiction, as Matthew Lamb, editor of the Review of Australian Fiction has noted, ‘is a concentrated form of writing. It requires a concentrated form of reading. It requires occupying a certain mental space for the duration of the story, reading it in one sitting, as a coherent whole, in order for the effect of that whole to have an impact upon the reader.’
bush-studiesFor this reason, it’s pleasing to see reviewers focussing upon individual short stories as well as collections.  Sue of Whispering Gums was prompted to read the Bush Studies version of Barbara Baynton’s ‘The Chosen Vessel’ before it was edited and re-named to align with The Bulletin’s masculinist bias.  She also reviewed Thea Astley’s ‘Hunting the Wild Pineapple’ and Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘The Salesman’, both stories about tense relationships between men and women.  Jayne of The Australian Bookshelf also picked up some individual romance titles on her eReader (see her reviews of Anne Brear’s ‘A Most Serious Gentleman’ and ‘Caroline and the Captain’ by Maggi Andersen), while James Tierney commented on Barbara Baynton’s harsh story ‘Squeaker’s Mate’.

Such a diverse range of storytelling across all these genres is testimony not only to the talent and elasticity of writers, but also their readers, who willingly engage with any number of characters and settings with ease.  A full list of the collections and stories can be found here.  Meanwhile, collections are already being reviewed for 2013, which is wonderful.

Poetry

Bronte from Stilts Journal opens her review of Michelle Dicinoski’s Electricity for Beginners with an astute comment: ‘When I ask people if they like poetry I often get told that, no, they don’t understand it. It’s too pretentious, it’s outdated, or it’s just too hard. And I think to myself, what a shame. Poetry can be such a pleasure if you’re willing to give it a go.’  I’m in complete agreement with her and, as she notes, Michelle’s volume is a great place to start.

electricity-beginnersSeven volumes of poetry by Australian women writers were reviewed over 2012, from the historical to the contemporary.  Poet Adam Ford penned detailed reviews of two debut collections, Lisa Gorton’s Press Release and Fiona Wright’s Knuckled, which was also reviewed by Phillip EllisAngela Myer outlined the intriguing story and language of Kristin Henry’s verse novel All the Way Home, Timothy reviewed Dorothea Mackeller’s classic My Country and Other Poems, and Deb Matthews-Zot discussed Heather Taylor Johnson’s ‘feminine and fecund collection’, Letters to my Lover from a Small Mountain TownSkin Painting, by Indigenous author Elizabeth Hodgson, which won the David Unaipon award in 2007, was reviewed by Heidi.

Poetry is a way of sampling both the tiny and the grand through pockets of writing.  The collections reviewed here – often attentively – are testimony to readers’ willingness to focus intently, or to cast their minds wide.  If, like me, you’ve been inspired to head to your local bookstore or library to pick up one of these volumes, you can find the list of reviews here.  Alternatively, you might be taking up the gauntlet to read some new ones and, if so, I’m really looking forward to reading about them in the 2013 AWW Challenge.

 

About Me

Photo JWI’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher.  I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007), about botany and lesbianism, and Entitlement (2012), about Native Title and grief.  I’ve also published short stories and poetry, which you can find at my website.  I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.

2012 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: Diversity

This wrap-up of books reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge is a little different in that, rather than discussing a single genre, it contemplates issues of diversity across all the books reviewed. In this, the wrap-up mirrors the efforts of the AWW Challenge as a whole: to encourage awareness of groups that are often overlooked.

Indigenous Writing

In the same spirit, a page was created for reviews of books by Indigenous women writers. While, as Elizabeth Lhuede has noted, this runs the risk of ghettoism, it is an important means of creating visibility and recognition of these authors.  We also have another page, Books on Indigenous Issues, for works that address or represent Indigenous people, but are not necessarily written by Indigenous authors.

am-I-black-enoughDr Anita Heiss’ extremely accessible Am I Black Enough for You?, an autobiographical discussion of Indigenous issues in conjunction with the Andrew Bolt case, was the most widely reviewed text by an Indigenous woman writer.  A number of reviewers commented on how easily they absorbed its ideas, and of Anita’s positive attitude and desire to educate (see Linda Funnell’s post for a comprehensive review).  Anita’s endeavour to embrace a wide readership, and to inform them of Indigenous issues while also entertaining, is apparent in her ‘choc-lit’ novels, Avoiding Mr Right (reviewed by Cathy Powell) and Manhattan Dreaming (reviewed by Christine).  It was also heartening to see readers embracing Alexis Wright’s beautiful and fluent Carpentaria despite the challenge of its length (see Kate Rizzetti’s engaging review).  Non-fiction also featured, with devastating stories of the stolen generations (see Kate Rizzetti again on Too Many Tears by Heather Vicenti and Deborah Dickman), while Yvonne Perkins gives a thoughtful account of how Indigenous history is told in her review of Ruby Langford Ginibi’s My Bundjalung People.

interrogation-ashala-wolfExcitingly, Indigenous authors are also producing speculative fiction.  Ambelin Kaymullina of the Palyku people in WA, and daughter of Sally Morgan (author of My Place, reviewed by Marilyn Brady), published The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, which was enthusiastically reviewed by Tsana and Mandee.  In other genres, Jeanine Leane’s short stories (or short story cycle) were reviewed by Sue while Heidi reviewed Elizabeth Hodgson’s book of poetry, Skin Painting.

White authors have also written of their unsettlement about our history, including Gail Jones in Sorry (gracefully reviewed by Kevin Rennie) and Kate Grenville in her trilogy about early contact between Indigenous Australians and the settlers, consisting of The Secret River, The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornill.  Some reviewers, despite their clear admiration of Grenville’s skillful writing, were unsure how successfully she had depicted Indigenous Australians (see Marilyn’s review of Sarah Thornhill), while others expressed difficulty with reading about this confronting aspect of Australia’s past (see Erin’s and Lucy’s reviews of The Secret River).  It was good to see a variety of reactions to all these texts, and that they were getting their readers thinking.

On 5th July 2012, Elizabeth Lhuede posted ‘Are We Letting Them Down’? in the Australian Women Writers blog, looking at reasons for why so few books by Indigenous women authors were being read, and asking if we could do more to rectify this.  By the date of that post, 15 reviews had been written about 10 books by Indigenous women authors.  Six months later, out of some 1500 reviews, there were 46 reviews of 27 works by Indigenous women authors.  So, there’s been a little improvement, but I think much more can be done, and I’m intending to read and review at least one book by an Indigenous woman writer per month over 2013.  I also encourage interested readers to look at Anita Heiss’s 100 Black Book Choice List for a list of more books in this area.

On a positive note, Elizabeth also asked if the books listed in Anita Heiss’ ‘top 10 reads’ could have at least one review by the end of the year.  Of the 10 books listed, 8 were reviewed, missing Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Flash and Fabienne Bayet-Charlton’s Watershed.  Do pop over to the Indigenous Writing page for a list of the other great books by Indigenous women writers which have been reviewed over 2012, as I couldn’t cover all of them in this post.

Finally, it’s interesting to see that, of 24 winners of the David Unaipon Award, which is given by the University of Queensland press to an unpublished manuscript by an Indigenous author, 15 of these have been Indigenous women.  The future looks bright for writing by Indigenous women authors, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they write next.

Gay/Lesbian

abused-werewolf-rescueStories about lesbianism were represented through reviews such as Marilyn Brady’s on Finola Moorhead’s Remembering the Tarantella (see here for her thoughts on its themes and structure) and Darkness more Visible (also reviewed by Marilyn).  In the crime genre, Thicker than Water by Lindy Cameron was seen by Mindy as a refreshingly matter-of-fact representation of lesbians, with a great plot to boot.  In children’s literature, Rachel Cook’s Closets are for Clothes: A History of Queer Australia provides an introduction to gay and lesbian identity for middle-grade to young adult readers, (see Heidi’s review) while Holly Kench’s review of The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group by Catherine Jinks provides a wonderful interpretation of that novel as a coming-out story for young adult readers.  Books about gay men didn’t seem feature (I’d be happy to be corrected on this in case I’ve overlooked them), and I’d be keen to know of any books by female writers about this subject.

Disability

boy-who-fell-to-earthKathy Lette’s The Boy Who Fell to Earth, about a mother of a child with autism who begins dating again, is a welcome portrayal of living with this complex disability – see reviews by Sally and Lara.  Physical disability is referred to in Lauren Murphy’s review of The Beloved by Annah Faulkner, about a girl afflicted with polio and living in post-war Port Moresby, while mental illness is explored in the non-fiction work The Waterlow Killings: A Portrait of a Family Tragedy by Pamela Burton (reviewed by Tom Kelly).  Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, although it was about a little boy adopted by a pack of dogs, rather than about disability, prompted a number of thoughtful reviews about what it means to be human, and how we treat those who are perceived to be less than human.  See Elizabeth Lhuede’s, Christina Houen’s and my review.

Migrants

the-testimony-wagowskaGiven Australia’s rich history of immigration, it’s apt that a number of books by female authors on the migrant experience have been reviewed.  Europeans emigrating to Australia after the horrors of WWII are described in Louise Armstrong’s Empire Day (reviewed by Stephanie Campisie) and in Halina Wagowska’s memoir The Testimony (see review by Janine Fitzpatrick). The Memory of Salt, a first novel from Alice Melike Ülgezer, moves in the opposite direction, with the Turkish Australian protagonist travelling to Istanbul to find out about her father (see Jennifer Mills’ review).  Asian Australian experiences are also recounted in novels such as Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem, reviewed by Jo Tamar.

Gender Play

eonSpeculative fiction has long been used to explore other ways of living, and thus it’s no surprise to see that many works use this genre to play with gender, a number of them in an Australian context.  Nancy Corbett’s Heartland (reviewed by Maree Kimberley) looks at the two sexes living on either side of the continent, while Kim Westwood’s The Courier’s New Bicycle (also mentioned in the Speculative Fiction Wrap-Up), set in Melbourne, uses a protagonist who is neither female nor male in to explore ideas of othering (see Sean’s review).  In a completely different world, Alison Goodman’s novels Eon and Eona provide a fascinating interpretation of gender and disability, as outlined by Tsana.

Further Reading

For those who are interested in reading books that depict some of the themes above, you can refer to the Reading for Diversity page on the Australian Women Writers website.  We also welcome suggestions of other lists of books regarding diversity that we could usefully include.  As you can see, there are some brilliant books around that explore these issues, and it would be wonderful to discover more of them in 2013.

                                                                  

About Me

Photo JWI’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis.  I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007), about botany and lesbianism, and Entitlement (2012), about Native Title and grief.  You can find more information about me at my website.  I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.

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