by Nicole Melanson ~
In celebration of International Women’s Day 2016, I attended the (free!) “Women & Words” event put on by Marrickville Council this weekend. I’ve never been to Stanmore Library before, and when I saw the outside of the building, I was expecting a handful of attendees having an intimate chat in the corner. To my surprise, the library was packed out; I heard one of the coordinators say they’d had about 100 RSVPs — not bad for a tiny library on a steamy Saturday afternoon!
The panel consisted of Mireille Juchau, Fiona Katauskas, and Zoe Norton Lodge, convened by Jenny Leong MP, Member for Newtown, speaking across a range of topics from literature to cartooning to comedy to politics.
Some of the things that really jumped out at me from the discussion:
The women were asked to shout-out Australian women authors who had recently inspired them. Fiona and Zoe cited Charlotte Wood and Magda Szubanski as two women whose work had wowed them. Mireille said she not only really appreciated the writing of Gail Jones, but that Jones had been an incredibly generous mentor to her. (The importance of this mentoring is something Emma Viskic mentioned in her recent WordMothers interview here.)
Mireille addressed the issue of whether or not there was a gap in dystopian literature and even moreso in Cli-Fi (not her favorite term, it should be noted) for women to explore the psychological aspects of fighting for survival. Her curiosity had been piqued by recent conversations with another female author suggesting male authors have traditionally pursued the blood-and-guts side of the survival story, whilst perhaps neglecting how that battle might play out on the human psyche.
Fiona questioned why the default Everyperson in any situation is male. She said that when cartooning, she tends to make her Everyperson female as that is what comes to her intuitively, but a male reader criticized her for it, saying he couldn’t relate to her work “because of the feminism.” Zoe said she had seen similar biases in comedy, where the tendency is to joke about a male boss or a male scientist, rather than objectifying a woman that way. She said this might reflect a sort of misguided attempt to “protect” women from criticism by only portraying them favorably, to which the other panellists mused that the day you could create a comedy sketch around a “bitchy” female boss or scientist without it being perceived as misogynistic might be an ironic sign of progress.
In terms of what women today need in order to write, Mireille said she asked one of her writers’ groups a similar question and all agreed that not much had changed since Virginia Woolf spoke of “money and a room of one’s own”, but that psychological room seemed equally important ie. women must be able to find the psychological space inside their everyday lives to do their work, particularly if they are not full-time writers.
The event wrapped with a discussion around whether or not we still need to be having this kind of conversation, or if it was simply a case of preaching to the choir. It’s worth noting that there were only about 5 men present at this event, 1 of whom was a photographer, 1 my son, and 1 Mireille’s. The consensus was that yes, these events are still incredibly necessary because sexism persists in most industries, including the literary world — despite the fact that the majority of the people who work in publishing are female and the majority of book-buyers are female. As most writers know, getting the book written and published is only part of the equation; it’s the marketing, publicity, reviews etc. that are much harder to come by and very much biased towards male authors. (The Stella Prize got a nice plug here for helping direct attention towards women’s writing.)
The talk concluded with the librarian pointing out that even if men don’t listen, if women hear what’s being said and take it back out into the world, if we advocate for not only ourselves but for other women as well, if we read and recommend and share the words of women writers with others, the numbers will eventually win out.
As a postscript, it’s easy to walk away from this kind of event feeling buoyed and even perhaps complacent. Here’s an International Women’s Day event featuring intelligent, impassioned speakers before an enthusiastic crowd — what more could you want?
This morning, I opened my email to find that my poetry manuscript had failed to win a first book contest. Instead, another woman won. My genuine reaction: good for her! And me? I’m OK with rejection. I know there can only be one winner. I know my work isn’t to every editor’s taste. And yet… There were 25 semi-finalists. Want to know how many of them were women?
Now that’s a contest that’s an awful lot harder to win.