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 Lovely, Liz Harfull’s Australian Blue Ribbon Cookbook, Merle 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.
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