The Break by Katherena Vermette
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A powerful, realistic, tough and heartbreaking novel. It is about powerful women and broken women. It is about Indigenous people devastated by the invaders of their land and their culture. It is about male violence and the connections, bonds and empathy between women that is their only hope for survival. A book that will remain with me for a long time.
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The Break by Katherena Vermette
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Silence becomes a woman…” Pat Barker writes a powerful novel. She depicts, sometimes graphically, the horrors of war, the wrongs, abuses and death inflicted on men, by other men, all in the name of the powerful, the rich – those who benefit from patriarchal violence and control. And she describes with empathy how raising boys to become heroes by inflicting harm, by committing atrocities to others, damages irretrievably their humanity. The voice of women is central to this novel – how women are mere chattels to be won and lost in battles, how rape and violence is inflicted on them without heed to their humanity – they are mere objects to be fought over – symbols of victory and easily discarded. This particular war is Troy and reminds us that throughout history women have been the silent victims of war – from Troy through to our present day wars – the world wars, Vietnam, Yugoslavia – it goes on – and such atrocities against women as a result of patriarchal violence is rarely acknowledged or remembered. Women are the forgotten, silent victims.
“What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacre of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No they’ll go for something softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.”
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“What I hope for is a world filled with richness, texture, depth and meaning. I want diversity with all its surprises and variety. I want an epistemological multiversity which values the context and real-life experiences of people. I want a world in which relationship is important, and reciprocity is central to social interaction. I want a world which can survive sustainably for at least 40,000 years. I want a wild politics”.
So Susan Hawthorne concludes her excellent book in which she critically examines the impact of globalisation, capitalism and patriarchy. She highlights how globalisation is a distinct outgrowth of western capitalist and patriarchal system. Her focus is on how feminism, ecology and the insights of indigenous people are challenging globalisation and its oppression on women, people, and the land, and its resultant disconnection and dispossession between people and their land. Full of useful and important information I highly recommend this book.
“Most important the figure of the witch…in this volume is placed at the center-stage, as the embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy; the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeha woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired the slaves to revolt.” (p.1)
I have just finished reading this fascinating and excellent work.
I am avid enthusiast of the need for the reclaiming of women’s history and the necessity to document and learn about women’s past roles in our history. So it was with excitement that I came across this important work.
Federici gave me an interesting perspective on women’s history as she claims that it is not just about reclaiming women’s hidden history but understanding how women are often at the centre of historical events but their role has been diminished by historical accounts.
She talks of the “enclosure of knowledge” whereby new generations of women are increasingly losing a “historical sense of our common past.”
“Women then in the context of this volume, signifies not just a hidden history that need to be made visible; but a particular form of exploitation, and, therefore, a unique perspective from which to reconsider the history of capitalist relations.”
This is a study of the witch hunts of the 15th and 16th centuries in which Federici explains how the witch hunts were a central aspect of the development of capitalism.
“It is generally agreed that the witch hunt aimed at destroying the control that women had exercised over their reproductive function and served to pave the way for the development of a more oppressive patriarchal regime. It is also argued that the witch hunt was rooted in the social transformations that accompanied the rise of capitalism.”
What this analysis is attempting to do is to revisit the transition from feudalism to capitalism from the viewpoint of women and argues that capitalism is “…necessarily committed to racism and sexism” (p.17)
There are a number of issues that Federici raises to highlight the centrality of the witch hunts in the development of capitalism and the on-going misogyny and sexism which prevail today. She argues that this was a turning point in the history of women which led to:
- Deepened divisions between men and women
- Created the sexual division of labor
- State intervention in the reproduction of labor
- Control of women’s reproduction
- Creation of women’s roles as housewives and mothers
- Creating women’s dependency on men and employers
- Family sphere separate from public sphere
- Exclusion of women from paid work and therefore wages.
“Witch hunt destroyed a whole world of female practices, collective relations and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe and a condition of their resistance in their struggle against feudalism” (p.102)
The end of feudalism and the creation of capitalism involved land privatisation and, in Britain, enclosures, where land became privatised, and monetary relations began to dominate. It is women who were most affected by these developments – “…when land was lost and village community fell apart.” (p.73)
And she argues that women were at the forefront of rebellion against such forces, and thus prime targets.
It was also when paid labor force was developed, which excluded women, and where they were able to work, they were paid a pittance of men’s wages. So that by the 19th century full time housewives became the norm.
“In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, women suffered a unique process of social degradation that was fundamental to the accumulation of capital, and has remained so ever since.” (p.75)
Federici agrees that sexism and misogyny existed prior to the 15th century, and she describes how the power of the Church, which was the “…ideological pillar of feudal power, the biggest landowner in Europe, and one of the institutions most responsible for daily exploitation of the peasantry.” (p.33-34)
She argues that this set the scene and prepared the ground for the witch hunts.
“Without centuries of the Church’s misogynistic campaigns against women, the witch hunts would not have been possible.” (p.168)
But Federici points out that it was collaboration between the State and Churches involved in the witch hunts, thus highlighting the political, as well as ideological, motives for the witch hunts.
“If we consider the historical context in which the witch hunts occurred, the gender and class of the accused, and the effects of persecution, then we must conclude that witch hunting in Europe was an attack on women’s resistance to the spread of capitalist relations and power, that women had gained by virtue of their sexuality, their control over reproduction and their ability to heal.” (p.170)
“Witch hunting was also instrumental to construction of the new patriarchal order where women’s bodies, their labor, their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic resources.” (p.170)
Feminists were quick to recognise that hundreds of thousands of women could not have been massacred and subjected to the cruelest torture unless they posed a challenge to the power structure.
Federici highlights the importance of our knowing this history, because the same forces continue in current day capitalism. As contemporary capitalist forces continue to accumulate capital in past-colonial countries, misogyny and the destruction of communities continues today.
“But if we apply to the present the lessons of the past, we realise that the reappearance of witch hunting in so many parts of the world in the ’80’s and ’90’s is a clear sign of a process of “private accumulation”, which mean that the privatisation of land and other communal resources, mass impoverishment, plunder and the sowing of divisions in once-cohesive communities are again on the world agenda.” (p.237)
Federici states that this study is an attempt to:
“…revive among younger generations the long history of resistance that today is in danger of being erased. Saving the historical memory is crucial if we are to find an alternative to capitalism. For this possibility will depend on our capacity to hear the voices of those who have walked similar paths”. (preface)
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’.
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.
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.”
‘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.
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.
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.”
“The grief. The anger. The guilt and the shame. It would come back later. It would come back forever. We had all wanted the simplest thing, to love and be loved and be safe together, but we had lost it and I didn’t know how to get it back.”This is the story of Bone (Ruth Anne). It is told in her voice – a strong, heart-breaking voice. It is Bone’s story of growing up in poverty in Carolina. It is a story of childhood abuse – physical and sexual.We come to know intimately Bone’s experiences of being part of a poor, extended family in America’s south, which is told exquisitely by Dorothy Alison. We become immersed in this family – its trial and tribulations, its warmth and connectiveness.But it is not a ‘nice’ family. It is a macho world where her uncles are proud of their violent reputations, consistently getting into brawls, drink heavily and are always in and out of jail.But it is the aunts that we are drawn to. This community of women who are immersed in poverty, struggling to survive, who are there for each other, who support and care for each other. They are strong women. We get to know them intimately through Bone’s eyes. These are women who are the core of Bone’s life.Bone is subjected to episodes of extreme violence and sexual abuse by her step-father. Her mother becomes increasingly aware of the violence and attempts to protect her such as ensuring that Bone is not left alone with him. But of course the abuse continues.What is told so poignantly in this book, are Bone’s feelings and experiences – her grief, her shame, her anger – and her desire to protect her mother and her happiness.As Dorothy Allison says in the Afterword:“I made her brave and stubborn and resilient. I made her want to protect her little sister and her mother. I made her a child full of hope as well as despair; and while I worked carefully at all the ways she learned to hate herself, I also made it plain to the reader that she was not hateful in any way.”This book does not have a happy ending. I fought against the inevitable result. But I was left feeling hope for Bone – hope that she would survive, hope that her gritty determination would lead to a happier life.I applaud Dorothy Allison’s courage in bringing Bone’s story to us, and for the empathy and understanding that she sensitively and skilfully she shows – for she is writing for all of the children who suffer horrendous abuse and violence.However, the Afterword also tells us that this book has been banned in several school districts in America.
Dorothy Allison responds:
“I want the society in which I live to be clear about the reality of our families; to know all the ways in which we avoid the issues of violence, abuse, and societal contempt; and to see survivors as more than victims. If we know more about what it means to survive abuse, we will better able those still caught in the whole shameful secret world of physical and sexual violence.”This book is a beautiful book. It is heartbreaking to read. But it is a courageous testament to women and children who suffer at the hands of male violence.
This is an amazing, compassionate book.
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