The Australian Women Writers challenge received 1578 reviews in 2014.
The majority of the books reviewed are, of course, fiction. But we over here in our little nonfiction corner of the challenge are not doing too badly ourselves. And what you will find is that we tell stories too. We have managed to garner an approximate 6% of that total with 92 reviews of stories about each other, our place in the world and society, what we need and want to do and how to do it and our lived experiences.
Rather appropriately, and also very unsurprisingly since she has been a firm favourite over the years, Helen Garner has been crowned Queen of Nonfiction for 2014 with 15 reviews to her name for four books: The First Stone, True Stories, Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief.
Trying to edge her out for her throne with four reviews each are Annabel Crabb with The Wife Drought and Tara Moss with The Fictional Woman.
Why Helen Garner? Possibly because she asks the questions we want to ask about the interesting and strange events that happen and become woven into the fabric of public life and thought. Take This House of Grief. What led to Robert Farquharson driving a car into a river, killing his three sons? What did it say about his relationship with his ex-wife for whom he exhibited great hatred? How do you go from loving someone to hating them?
It’s the obsession with finding out the answers to these questions that sets Garner apart. As Jennifer Cameron-Smith in her review put it, she sat through all the trials over the years, accompanied by her knitting and a teenaged female friend, almost becoming a noted symbol and character of the trials herself.
But her work has problems too as David Golding points out in his review of The First Stone: “[It would be] Irresponsible of me not to condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the idea that women have an essential power to attract sexual ‘attention’ or repel sexual ‘harassment’, the idea that it is natural for men to gaze at women, the idea that the hurt and lack of empathy must continue forever.” The First Stone follows the story of two women who claim to have been sexually harrassed by the head of their co-ed residential college at Melbourne University in 1992. It is not for the faint-hearted to read.
And as female authors and as those who read their work, we seem to not be faint hearted or afraid of asking tough questions and calling others out. Tara Moss‘ The Fictional Woman discusses the stereotyped and gendered roles society and others force upon women with a commentary on how they have played out in her life so far. She argues that being under represented is not the norm, that the lives of women are not complete nor at an end come 40, that issues such as the fact that many women die in poverty in their old age, something that can be rectified in a large way by ensuring women get paid an equal wage.
As Robyne Young who reviewed the work in 2014 for the Newtown Review of Books put it: “Throughout the book, Moss interrogates the social and cultural thinking that creates the fictions for women.” Tara Moss makes the point that we should, as women, write fiction, not in reality boxed into little fictions throughout our lives and asked and made to stay within their boundaries.
Annabel Crabb also poses an interesting question in The Wife Drought about fictions created about women and about men: who will be the wives for the women? As Janine Fitzpatrick put it in her review: “Finally, somebody explains clearly the impact of children, family responsibilities and the goddamn housework on a woman’s ability to participate fully in the workforce. Finally, somebody lays out the impediments men face in trying to have fully interactive lives with their children and partners when dealing with a workforce which still operates as if it was 1950.”
And Crabb makes the point that until you understand how women can be so easily undermined in almost every facet of modern day society, you cannot understand why they do not reach and achieve as much as men can, as easily as they can, and why they are still, in effect, disenfranchised to a degree.
But female nonfiction authors are asking these questions on our behalf as readers – readers who are curious and concerned and often downright hopping mad about various aspects of society, if the content of our reviews for 2014 is anything to go by.
We ask tough questions about language (Linda Javin‘s Found In Translation essay), we want to know more about and find out why we weren’t taught about different cultures (The Poems of Hong Ying, Zhai Yongming & Yang Lian, edited by Mabel Lee), what’s happening in the parts of the country that we don’t often get to see or hear about (The Power of Bones by Keelan Mailman), whether we should be making huge changes that will affect our kids (Marion Maddox‘s Taking God to School), and whether our role models and gender roles are positive (Anna Krien‘s Night Games & Anne Summers‘ The Misogyny Factor).
We have done pretty well in 2014. The authors and the volunteers here at Australian Women Writers thank you for contributing towards ensuring that their work becomes more visible.
And so we find ourselves in 2015. Every year, we make new resolutions and goals (mine is to not be so stupidly and horribly AWOL in summarising our reading and reviewing progress throughout the year as I have been – my apologies).
So in 2015, here is our list of titles for 2013 (first half & second half) and 2014 so you have a place to start – for this year, in the context of the changes, both positive and negative in our country, our society, our world, for this year, 2015, let your goal be not just to read and if possible review female authors for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
This year, let your goal be also to ask all the difficult, thorny, hard questions. And to open yourself up to the answers when our authors ask them for you.
About me: 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