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’.
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
“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
Written in 1890
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.
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”
in 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)
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,
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.