• 13Mar

    natural way of things

     

    I have just finished reading this harrowing and powerful novel.

    Set in the near future it is about a group of young women who are abducted and imprisoned in an outback facility somewhere in Australia. They are abducted by a corporation – to be punished, to be silenced because they have dared to expose their sexual exploitation at the hands of powerful men.

    They include a victim of a football-buddy pack rape; another is a “lover” of a high-profile politician; a woman assaulted whilst partying on a cruise ship, and a woman, a contestant on a TV reality show who is singled out for sex by the producer of the show.

    All very familiar stories which we far too regularly hear about on our news media.

    The literal abduction and violation of these women is reflective of how our society treats women who dare to speak out about sexual assault, coercion and sexual intimidation.

    And how we vilify – by calling them sluts; promiscuous; liars and publicity seekers. How they are ostracized and silenced for calling out the abuse of powerful men.

    The women in the novel are drugged and taken to this isolated place. They are kept locked in old shearers’ quarters. Their heads are shaved; they wear shapeless clothing, are shackled together and made to do hard labour. Their three prisoners, two men and a woman beat them and humiliate them constantly. And there is always the underlying threat of sexual violence, which comes to fruition during the novel.

    It is a story of survival – how each woman in their individual way learn to survive (or not).

    Charlotte Wood evokes a bleak, nightmarish landscape in this novel. I was reminded of ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding. Because these women have to learn to live off the land – to kill, skin and gut rabbits as their food source runs out and the electricity is turned off – but not to the giant electric fence which encloses them. And there are disputes and fights between the women.

    But I was moved by the sense of interconnection and commonality between the women, despite their differences and disputes.

    Verla and Yolanda are the two women we follow most closely. Yolanda, in particular, finds her escape by becoming part of the landscape, the environment and as time progresses she becomes almost wild– an unsentimental relationship with the land.

    Their relationships are not romanticised by Charlotte Wood – this is not a story where female bonding and communion occurs. It is not a sentimental novel. Each woman finds her own way to survive. Each however brings their skills to the group and they are able to work cooperatively to survive.

    What struck me most however was the sense of commonality of oppression that these women understood about each other. Despite their differences and in some instances the need to compete for necessary food and resources, they take care of each other.

    I had the privilege of seeing Charlotte Wood speaking at the recent Adelaide Writer’s week and one of her observations related to the lack of solidarity of the women and how this is reflective of patriarchal socialisation of women.

    Interestingly in a Sydney Morning Herald interview Wood describes how the idea came from learning about the Hay Institute:

    “Wood heard a radio documentary about women who had been locked up as teenagers in the Hay Institution for Girls, an offshoot of Parramatta Girls Home that was reserved for the 10 worst offenders in the state in the 1960s and ’70s. They were drugged and put on a train to the decommissioned men’s prison in south-western NSW, where they were forced to march, look at the floor, never talk to each other, and endure rape and other violence.”

    “One reason many of them were there was they had been sexually abused or assaulted in some way and they told someone about it, so then it was ‘they are promiscuous’.”

    Despite the hopefully unlikely scenario of this novel, I was struck by how it is replicative of our patriarchal society. We punish and vilify women who dare to speak out against male violence.

     “Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as  if womanhood is itself were the cause of these things. As if the girls themselves somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.”

    And at the end of this interview Charlotte Wood is quoted:

    “A couple of men who have read it wanted to know where it came from and I said, ‘I think it just came from 50 years of being a woman’.

     

     

     

  • 11Aug

    Harper Lee

    This book sat on my coffee table for a week. I was too scared to read it.

    As I have written previously, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee is one of my all-time favourite books.

     

    And I had heard of the controversy surrounding the release of ‘Go Set a Watchman’.

     

    I was concerned with the suggestion that she had not given full permission to have the book published; that she was a victim of greedy publishers taking advantage of her age and the possibility that she is not mentally well enough to give her permission. After all, she had said she would never publish another book.

     

    There were also reports that the Atticus in this pre-sequel was not the champion asserted in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.  Did I really want to lose my hero in Atticus?

     

    But I have finally taking up the courage to read it. And yes, the Atticus in it is racist.

    When Scout (Jean Louise) returns to her home town of Maycomb, she learns that boyfriend and father are active in anti-NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) organisations.

     

    This new book has allowed me to revisit ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and examine its racism.

     

     

    Atticus is portrayed as a good man – a good, white, middle class man in Southern America in the 1930’s. Being racist at this time was the norm. And Atticus does the right thing in defending a black man against rape charges that are obviously wrong.

     

    atticus

     

    His defence in ‘Go Set a Watchman’ against Jean Louise’s accusations of racism are that the:

    “Negro population is backward”

    “You understand that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?”

    “Do you want them in our world?”

    Paternalistic and racist.

     

    But let us get back to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Jean Louise is right when she says:

    “I remember that rape case you defended, but I missed the point. You love justice, all right. Abstract justice written down item by item on a brief – nothing to do with that black boy, you just like a neat brief.”

    Catherine Nichols writes an interesting article in Jezebel about this. She claims that Atticus and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has always been racist.

     

    “It’s about white people within white culture making Tom Robinson’s life and death about themselves.”

     

    Ursula Le Guin has a kinder take on it:

     

    “Atticus hasn’t changed. We saw him through his young daughter’s eyes as faultless. Now, seen by his grown daughter, we can see him as imperfect: a good man who, being fully committed to living, working, and having friends in an unjust society, makes the compromises and performs the hypocrisies required of its members. He’s a lawyer — not a judge — with a lawyer’s complex relationship to justice.”

    I worry that we will see Atticus and Scout as being of a different era, when racism was acceptable and the norm.

     

    But it is wise to remember. Black people are still being shot and killed in America – by state-sanctioned authorities. The ideology behind Atticus and the people of Maycomb still exist.

     

    It is also this ideology that exists in Australian society towards our Indigenous people

    As Stephanie Convery writes in Overland:

     

    “In the last decade alone, remote Indigenous Australian communities have been subjected to military intervention, alcohol bans, pornography bans and restricted internet access (remember that internet filter we’ve been fighting for years? All computers provided by any organisation in controlled areas that received public funding had a mandatory internet filter installed as part of the Intervention). Plus welfare recipients in many communities had their income contingent on their kids attending school, and then restricted by the paternalistic Basics Card which allows purchases of particular goods only from particular retailers.”

    And

    ‘What’s important,’ said our esteemed Prime Minister in response to all of this, ‘is that we ensure that remote communities, all communities, are being properly policed.’

    “Right. ‘Policed.’ There has been a 57 per cent rise in Indigenous incarceration in the last fifteen years. This time last year, 27 per cent of the imprisoned population was Indigenous despite Indigenous people making up a little over 2 per cent of the adult population in the country. Not a single police officer has ever been convicted for one Indigenous death in custody (there have been over 1400 of those since 1980). Just last week saw the anniversary of the death of a 22-year-old Indigenous woman after being jailed for the heinous crime of unpaid parking fines. I’d say there’s more than enough ‘policing’ happening.”

    I will still continue to read and enjoy ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ – but with more knowledge and awareness – and with a more appreciated understanding of Jean Louise. Because she, and Harper Lee as her narrator, become the heroes in these stories.

     

    As Ursula Le Guin writes:

     

    “So I’m glad, now, that Watchman was published. It hasn’t done any harm to the old woman, and I hope it’s given her pleasure. And it redeems the young woman who wrote this book, who wanted to tell some truths about the Southern society that lies to itself so much. She went up North to tell the story, probably thinking she’d be free to tell it there. But she was coaxed or tempted into telling the simplistic, exculpatory lies about it that the North cherishes so much. The white North, that is. And a good part of the white South too, I guess.

    Little white lies . . . North or South, they’re White lies. But not little ones.

    Harper Lee was a good writer. She wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill a Mockingbird evades.”

    My next post will continue with Scout and how we can be proud of the woman she has become.

     

  • 20Jan

    Mullumbimby_Final-front-cover

    This is a lovely book. Beautifully written.
    Melissa Lucaschenko takes us into the world of a First Nations woman in Australia. Jo is a strong, independent and very likeable woman determined to make the best for herself and her soon-to-be teenage daughter.
    The essence of the book for me was the connection to country and culture. The descriptions of the land and the creatures that are a part of it frame the book and highlights Jo’s special connection to them. Melissa immerses us in this world.
    And in the world of Aboriginal cultures and beliefs.
    But no book about First Nation’s people could not also address the history of their oppression, cruelty and persecution at the hands of white, Western imperialism. As Melissa introduces us to her characters and their situations she subtly shows us how this history has impacted on them as individuals and their cultures. And the battle with everyday racism that they live with constantly.
    Even the successes such as the Mabo decision and Native Title are shown to be fraught with difficulties – dealing with the white legal system that has so little understanding of, or respect for Indigenous culture and creates division and discord between Indigenous people.
    What we do learn is that the culture and its people continue to survive. How by holding on tight to culture; by holding on to community, we have hope that our first Australians will continue to be part of their country – and enrich ours.
    Thank you Melissa.
    And thank you to my feminist friends who brought her to me.

  • 07Nov

     

    the awakening

    I have just finished reading this moving and absorbing book.

     
    My immediate impressions were that of loneliness, alienation, confinement and oppression. Kate Chopin reflects women’s oppression and alienation in their roles as mothers and wives at the end of the 19th Century.

     
    But sadly it is far too familiar for women in the 21st Century. It is a battle that women still struggle against.

     
    Interestingly, Kate Chopin’s original title was A Solitary Soul, which highlights the loneliness of women recognising that the role they are confined to, not only does not fit but is oppressive.

     

    The book is about Edna Pontellier‘s awakening to her authenticity as a woman and her inability to continue in her restrictive and false life as a mother and wife.

     

    “As the critic Per Seyersted phrases it, Kate Chopin “broke new ground in American literature. She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardy fathom today; with an uncompromising honesty and no trace of sensationalism, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life. She was something of a pioneer in the amoral treatment of sexuality, of divorce, and of woman’s urge for an existential authenticity. She is in many respects a modern writer, particularly in her awareness of the complexities of truth and the complications of freedom.” Rosemary F. Franklin 

     

    It is interesting to compare this with the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

    Both address the issue of women’s oppression and alienation within patriarchy. Both of the women central characters find that their only option is to rail against this oppression.
    I was discussing “The Yellow Wallpaper” with two other women who had different interpretations of the ending. One thought that Jane finally went crazy; the other saw her as committing suicide. I saw Jane as finally being able to liberate herself.

    Edna Pontellier finds her only solution is to commit suicide – to swim into the ocean, naked. This is her liberation.

    “She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.”

  • 03Sep

    This is an amazing, compassionate book.

    book-halfyellow

    But it is not easy to read. It is set during the Nigeria-Biafra civil war of 1967-1970.
    As I began to read distant television images from that time (when I was still a teenager) came to me. I only recall images of starving African children and the feelings of horror and shock that accompanied them.
    But I had no idea what these images related to.
    Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche took me there in this book and showed me graphically and poignantly what this war was about and its horrific impact on the Biafran state – the violence, the abuse, the slaughter – and the starvation and death of so many when they were deliberately cut off from many supplies of food, water and basic needs.
    She takes us on this journey through the eyes of two sisters, their partners and families, their houseboy and an English writer. Chimamanda creates these people so vividly on the page that I grew to care for them deeply, as they struggled with their emotional relationships through this horror.
    She cleverly outlines the impacts of British colonisation and its creation of the country Nigeria. The Igbo people, one of the oldest kingdoms in Nigeria, lost its sovereignty to the British in 1911. Following independence from Britain, they sought to establish a separate country from Nigeria, the state of Biafra. This led to civil war, with Britain and Russia providing military support to the Northern Nigerians.
    What she shows us is that everyone is a victim in wars – the women and children raped, slaughtered and starved to death; the creation of hatred between people when they don’t know who they can trust and when they compete for meagre amounts of supplies; the soldiers who learn the culture of murder, rape and hatred.
    It has left me pondering deeply about so many people, in so many different places, attempting to survive in their worlds where war continues – In Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of Africa, Syria, the Ukraine etc. – whilst Western capitalists (men in blue ties) send weapons, drone fighters and bombs to protect their own interests.
    Here is a quote from an interview with Chimmanda Ngozi Adichie
    “I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war, because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, because many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, because my mother still cannot speak at length about losing her father in a refugee camp, because the brutal bequests of colonialism make me angry, because the thought of the egos and indifference of men leading to the unnecessary deaths of men, women and children enrages me, because I don’t ever want to forget.”

    This is an unforgettable book which I highly recommend.

    Here are two more of her books which are also very good.

    Purple Hibiscus -Based in Nigeria about catholic fanaticism and domestic violence
    Americanah – A powerful, tender story of race and identity

  • 14Aug

    “A frank, intimate, urgent voice.” (Maggie O’Farrell)

    I have just finished reading the collection of short stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman titled after the first short story

    “The Yellow Wallpaper”

    Written in 1890

    yellow wallpaper

    I was amazed at how this short story has resonance for me, as a woman, in 2014.
    The story is assumed to be autobiographical and describes a young married woman who is suffering from “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency”.
    As a result she, her husband (John) and her husband’s sister (Jane) spend some time in a rented house in the country. She is mostly confined to the upstairs bedroom with yellow wallpaper. The young woman becomes fascinated and obsessed with this ugly, yellow wallpaper, which in many ways symbolizes the oppression under which she lives.
    Her husband is a medical doctor and takes control of his wife and her illness. He has legitimate patriarchal power. He confines her to the bedroom and she is told to have complete rest. She is forbidden to do any work, including her beloved writing.

    “He is careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.”

    As a result she is forced to write secretly. Writing stories she is informed by her husband will stir up “all manner of excited fancies”.
    Despite her initially desire to please and obey her husband, we learn of her frustration and anger with his oppression and control of her…

    “The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John”.

    And the sister-in-law’s role is that of monitoring her – the role of all good patriarchal women. She is … “so careful of me.”

    As Anne Summers (Damned Whores and God’s Police) highlighted these are the women who are placed in the position of being the moral guardians of the community – to ensure that women follow the patriarchal line.

    Damned whores

    Maggie O’Farrell writes in her introduction to the book this is an angry story:

    “…fury crackling off the page”.

    It is the writer’s relationship with the yellow wallpaper that is so creatively told. She begins to see things in the wallpaper that nobody else can and a woman begins to emerge.

    “It is like a woman stooping down and creeping behind that pattern” and the woman becomes many women… “…trying to climb through”.

    This story is about oppression – the oppressive nature of marriage and power and control of men over women.

    It is also about mental illness. According to Maggie O’Farrell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself suffered some form of mental illness following the birth of her child. It is suggested that we may now know this as post natal depression. Charlotte was also forced to go through draconian treatment similar to the woman in her story where she is virtually imprisoned and not permitted any activity including writing.

    Phyllis Chesler wrote a ground breaking book in 1972 (revised in 2005) “Women and Madness”

    phyllis cheslerin which she documents how women are labelled as “mad” when they do not comply with the feminized norm or are unable to cope with the effects of patriarchal domination – and the harrowing treatment that has been imposed on women in the name of healing. There are many examples of this treatment of women throughout history – mad or bad – and it continues today.

    The uplifting aspect of this story is the powerful ending.

    She locks the door and peels off the wallpaper.

    “’I’ve got out at last’, said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane. And I pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back.”

    “What the Yellow Wallpaper does is give the mad woman pen and paper, and ultimately a voice of her own” (Maggie O’Farrell)

     

  • 10Jul

    Just finished reading this lovely book.27.Ruth Ozeki-A Tale For The Time Being

    It is written from two perspectives. One from a woman, Ruth living on an island off the West coast of Canada.

    And the other from a young Japanese woman, Nao Yasutani

    The book has many themes – but it is a book essentially about relationships.

    The main relationship is the one that Ruth has with Nao, as she reads her diary when it washes up on the Canadian beach.

    Whilst Nao is writing of the trauma of her life, and those around her, Ruth is drawn into concern and worry about her.

    And in this is reflected Ruth’s own life, rather simple but very much part of the here and now on this lonely Canadian island.

    This is where we discover her connection with her environment and the impact of global issues on it. Which makes this book also an environmental book.

    Nao’s story is also centred on the people in her life. Her father  Haruki #2, who is depressed and suicidal after losing his job.

    Nao herself is depressed and suicidal as a result. She is also subjected to very cruel bullying from her classmates.

    But she is a young woman with strength and humor – someone who we care about.

    But it is  her great grandmother Jiko, a Zen Buddhist nun, who delights us and who centres Nao.

    The Zen Buddhist theme throughout the book imbues the book with  a gentle, philosophical and sympathetic perspective.

    The story of  her great uncle Haruki #1, who was a kamikaze pilot in WW2 is also very interesting. An anti-war novel as well.

    This book has beauty and warmth. And one that I will want to read again.

    Jiko’s last words:   

    生 – to live
    “For now…for the time being.”

    I also like this quote in Appendix C: Rambling Thoughts

    “The day the mountains move has come.

    Or so I say, though no one will believe me.

    The mountains were merely asleep for a while.

    But in ages past, they had moved, as if they were on fire.

    If you don’t believe me, that’s fine with me.

    All I ask is that you believe this and only this,

    That at this very moment, women are awakening from their deep slumber.

    If I could but write entirely in the first person,

    I, who am a woman.

    If I could write entirely in the first person,

    I, I.

    Yosano Akiko – These are the first lines from Yosano Akiko’s longer poem (Rambling Thoughts) which were first published in the inaugural issue of the feminist magazine Seito (Bluestocking), in September 1911.

     

  • 21Jun

    Of course, the first on this list has to be ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee.

    To_Kill_a_Mockingbird
    This is a book that has sat on my bookshelf since I was in my 20’s. I have had several different copies of it and I read and re-read it at least every couple of years.
    It is beyond me to truly encapsulate this book. There is no way I could do justice to the depth and beauty of this book.
    I love the gentleness, humanity and thoughtfulness of it. It is told in a child’s voice but with an adult’s understanding of the experiences of this child.
    Who could not love Scout, Jem and Atticus, so truthfully brought to life by the film starring Gregory Peck, who will always symbolize Atticus for me.
    And the relationship between Scout and Jem is realistic and warm. And Atticus the moral, sincere and compassionate father.
    I love the part where Scout is having problems adjusting to school, particularly when she is told that Atticus should not be teaching her to read and so Atticus makes a “compromise” with her.
    “If you’ll concede the necessity of going to school, we’ll go on reading every night just as we always have.”
    The book explores complex issues in the small American country town of the South in the depression years of the 1930’s.
    The poverty and hardship of those in the town is described with empathy.
    It also deals with the racism of the American South of the 1930’s with tragic results – and Atticus’ attempt to challenge this racism.

    There have so many outstanding and poignant moments:

    – When Scout turns back the lynch mob by recognising one of the mob:
    “Hey Mr. Cunningham. How’s your entailment gettin’ along?”

    – The moment when Tom Robinson says he feels sorry for a poor white girl – his undoing for no African American can feel above a white person

    “…a quiet, respectable, humble Negro who had the unmitigated temerity to ‘feel sorry’ for a white woman…”

    – And the scene when the Court case is over. Tom Robinson has been found guilty.
    “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” As the whole of the African American in the balcony stand as he walks out.

    And who can forget the pivotal role of Boo Radley – their reclusive neighbour who is initially feared as the ‘bogey’ man but who ends up protecting and saving the children –

    “Neighbours bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbour. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.”

    And Scout fully understands the need to protect him from public scrutiny.

    “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”

    “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”

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