Searching for Mary Lee


By Denise George

Often, only disparate and fragmented traces that remain of women’s lives in Australian history, and this makes telling their stories difficult. Some stories are minimal accounts, others neglected, many erased completely because of a lack of sufficient sources. In some instances a lack of women’s records and their subsequent stories have been misinterpreted as an absence of women’s contribution to the development of Australian society and culture.

FWF Q&A: Lee Kofman

Features, Q&A

Each month we speak to an Australian writer about writing, feminism, and the connection between the two. This month we speak to Lee Kofman, whose new book, Imperfect, explores the concept of physical perfection and what it’s like to live in a body that deviates from the norm.

What does feminism mean to you?

This is such a big question… I’ve already written about this a lot in my creative works, particularly because I often feel I practise my own version of feminism which differs from current dominant feminist discourses. But I can’t possibly unpack this version in a short interview, so here I chose to answer this question intuitively. The first thing that springs to my mind is the word ‘sisterhood’. Not in the ideological, camaraderie sense of this word, but in the intimate sense. I’ve always felt much closer to women than to men; my most important friendships have been with women, and the truth is I’m more likely to enjoy a conversation with a woman than a man. On this primal level, then, feminism for me is simply about being around other women, relishing their company, plus collaborating with them creatively.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism?

I don’t have a ‘fixed’ perspective on feminism; it is always a work-in-progress, so I can’t pinpoint a particular moment in this sense. But I can easily trace the beginnings of my identification as a feminist. I became an ardent feminist as early as the first years of primary school (these unfolded in the former Soviet Union). I was a weird child who loved adult literature above all else – my first attempt at reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace was at the age of eight… By that time, I’d already read many other Russian, and also French and English, classics – by Chekhov, Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, and so on. So, my head was full of fainting ladies and gallant gentlemen rescuing them continuously. It was also full of various common wisdoms about gender that those books were filled with, such as the old Russian proverb that roughly translates as: ‘If the hair is long, the wisdom is short.’ The more I read, the angrier I became. The last straw was The Three Musketeers. At first, reading this novel excited me, as I’d finally come across a proactive and non-fainting, heroine, Milady. But once I got to the point where Dumas had her beheaded (by men, of course), my conversion to feminism was complete…

In Imperfect, you combine memoir and cultural criticism to explore the concept of physical perfection, and this pressure. Did you learn anything surprising in your research?

My book is, actually, more of an exploration of physical imperfection – my term for appearance that deviates from what western and westernised societies currently consider to be ‘normal’. I wanted to see if appearance can shape our lives, including our psychological makeup, especially when we have imperfections. Based on my own experience, I have always suspected that our looks are more than skin-deep. My body harbours a constellation of disfiguring scars resulting from multiple surgeries I underwent as a child, and I know that this fact has significantly impacted my life. For example, I haven’t experimented with my sexuality as much as I’d have liked to, out of shame, and for the same reason I’ve avoided most outdoor activities, and generally become secretive. In the course of 10 years of interviewing other imperfect people, I found that my experience wasn’t unique, that our selves are often more entangled with our flesh than we might want to believe. But I also found many things that surprised me. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I was astonished, for example, by the extent of the mockery and other abuse that is the lot of many imperfect people. Meeting people with various imperfections which are (unlike mine) impossible to hide – people with dwarfism, albinism and Marfan Syndrome, larger people and people with facial disfigurements – made me realise that dehumanisation is far more prevalent than I assumed. I also learned a lot about the world of extreme body modification. Before writing this book I knew nothing about it and I wanted to find out why someone would intentionally ‘un-perfect’ themselves. Initially, my mind was full of the usual prejudices. I assumed that these people were criminals or suffered from serious mental illnesses. What I found was that sometimes this holds true. But I also found, to my great surprise, that for some other extreme body modifiers, changing their bodies was a way to empower themselves, find contentment and sometimes even succeed vocationally. In short, I realised that occasionally extreme body modification can be actually a sensible choice.

What considerations do feminists need to make when talking about body image; what is the current conversation missing, and how can we be more inclusive?

One of the main reasons I wanted to write Imperfect was because I feel that the current conversation about appearance – and by all means it’s not only a feminist conversation – is missing a lot. I think it’s time we began talking honestly about the impact of appearance on people’s, and particularly women’s, lives. As much as there is sky-high pressure on women to be beautiful, paradoxically, at the same time, as a society we have gone too far in trying to pretend that looks don’t matter. At least in the more so-called progressive circles, we like to say that beauty is skin deep and that all bodies are beautiful. We like urging women to accept themselves as they are. I know these messages are meant to counter the pressures of beauty and I’ve known women for whom hearing this is liberating. But I know even more women, many of whom I’ve interviewed for Imperfect, who – like me – feel burdened not only by the imperative to be beautiful but also by these additional expectations for unconditional self-acceptance. To say that everyone is beautiful glosses over the very real feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, sometimes caused by the hostile reactions of others, that many women, particularly those with imperfections, experience. As a result, appearance-related grief becomes disenfranchised grief – a psychological term for socially invalidated sorrow. Moreover, women who like beautifying themselves, or choose to undergo cosmetic treatments for other reasons, often experience ambivalence and guilt and keep their procedures secret.

So, I don’t think we can truly promote bodily diversity before we acknowledge that what we look like does matter, and before we stop minimising the difficulties women, particularly women with imperfections, often experience. I’d like us to stop holding women accountable for how they present their bodies or feel about them. To do so, we need to shift the conversation about appearance away from a body image discourse, which is currently the most common way of speaking about looks. When we talk about body image, we talk about our perceptions of, and feelings about, our own appearance, which is just another way of blaming the victims. Instead, I’d like us to focus more on interventions at the social level. For example, how to make imperfect bodies more visible – in the media, in our cultural narratives and even in the fashion world. I believe that high, and positive, visibility will help to expand social norms around appearance, make our society more inclusive.

What are the challenges for you in writing memoir, and how do you ‘shift modes’ between your memoir and fiction writing?

By nature I’m a confessional writer; even my fiction is usually based either on my life or on the lives of people I know. Whereas when I write memoir, I employ many fictional techniques – dialogue, scene setting, descriptive details etc. So, I actually don’t so much shift as blur modes between memoir and fiction.

In memoir, however, I feel my responsibilities to be far heavier than when I write fiction. This genre is a minefield of ethical challenges. I often become daunted at the necessity of relying on an unreliable memory, feel shame about exposing my various shortcomings and, worse, about violating other people’s privacy while telling my own story. Sometimes the weight of this responsibility has paralysed me so that I’ve stopped writing altogether. However, no paralysis has lasted longer than several months. I’ve come to realise that these struggles, as gruesome as they have been, actually invigorate me artistically, because they keep me on my toes. So, what I try is to deepen my writing by pouring all this blood and tears I spill in my ethical struggles into my narratives. Instead of allowing them to become narrative stoppers, I write them into the work itself. One of the themes running throughout Imperfect, for example, is the shame I’ve felt while admitting in my writing my desire to look beautiful.

Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?

At the moment I’m particularly infatuated with several American and English creative nonfiction writers (some of them write fiction too): Katie Roiphe, Elif Batuman, Meghan Daum, Rachel Cusk, Zadie Smith, Emily Gould, Jan Morris and Maggie Nelson.

Lee Kofman is the author and editor of seven books, including Imperfect, a work of creative nonfiction (2019, Affirm Press), and Split (2019, Ventura Press), an anthology of memoir featuring prominent Australian authors. Her blog The Writing Lifewas a finalist for Best Australian Blogs 2014.

Why women read more fiction than men (OK, not all men!)

Features, News

Kerryn Goldsworthy reflects on women and fiction…

Daria Shevtsova,

When I was a little girl at primary school in the 1960s, my sisters and I and all the other kids from outlying farms would be picked up by the school bus at the farm gate every morning, and dropped off there every afternoon. In the afternoon it didn’t leave the school gate till half an hour after school was out, as it had to connect with the bigger bus coming from the bigger town with all the high school kids on it.

One hot day when I must have been eight or nine, both of my sisters were sick at home. I went to sit alone in the school library and read while I waited for the bus. Not much later I was so deep into the Elizabeth Goudge children’s classic The Little White Horse that by the time I looked up, blinking, the bus was long departed, and the headmaster had gone home.

By this time there was adult panic elsewhere. Eventually the headmaster came to find me, and my long-suffering mother had to drive the five kilometres there and back over an unsealed road to come and get me. I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. I would have been happy to stay in the library all night with the heroine Maria Merryweather and Zachariah the cat.

One of the panel discussions at this year’s Feminist Writers Festival is headed “Why Women Read Fiction and Men Don’t”. The title is a provocation, for of course some men read fiction. I can hear the indignant cries of ‘Not all men!’ and they would be more justified than usual. But ten minutes’ online research of the statistics will show you that women read far more fiction far more often than men, that they read different kinds of fiction, and for different reasons.

I think of that hot afternoon in the 1960s every year around this time, when the portable stands down the middle of shopping malls are crammed with next year’s wall calendars and we are all reminded that we must gird our loins for the coming of the new year. And every year I look for the Reading Woman calendar, which is exactly what it says it is: twelve paintings of women reading. Medieval art is awash with these images. Vermeer, Utamaro, Manet, Matisse and countless other artists all produced at least one such painting, all conveying the solitary remoteness and intensity of their subject. The reading matter has the woman’s whole attention. She is unaware of any observer, transported to another world. If you said Boo, she would jump.

In a painting by the 19th century American artist Winslow Homer, a young woman is lying on her side on the grass in front of a high, dark hedge. She is dressed in the smothering clothes of the time, a dress with long sleeves and a high neck, buttoned through from chin to ankle, her long hair swept up to the crown of her head. The hair, untidy and straying from its pins, is the same colour as her dress, a flaming apricot. Her whole figure seems to be emitting a golden glow against the dark foliage. Her pose is relaxed to the point of abandonment, lying on the grass with her head cradled on some sort of bundled-up coat or mantle, but her hands are tightly clutching the book she holds, her face absorbed, her eyes fixed on the pages, intent.

What is it that has this young woman so in thrall? The painting is called The New Novel. She is reading fiction, and she is, as Helen Garner once said, away on the high seas of narrative.

Studies of gender difference in readers’ habits have thrown up some surprising results. One survey reports a startling difference in completion rate: men make a quick decision about a novel and will give up on reading it sooner than women. Another survey asked readers to nominate the novels they felt to be most significant: men mostly nominated “books of alienation and indifference”, like Albert Camus’ The Outsider and JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, while most women chose “books of passion and connection”: novels by the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. Women liked books about domestic realities and families, while men preferred books about social dislocation and solitude.

Researcher Professor Lisa Jardine says this survey also shows that women were far more likely than men to regard well-loved novels as inspiration, companion and guide, something to support and help them through “difficult times and emotional turbulence”. And at this point as I read the study, I remembered the moment last autumn when I chose my dog-eared and yellowing Penguin Classic Jane Eyre to come with me and keep me company as I sat by my sleeping father’s bedside on what I knew would be the last day of his life.

So perhaps women read fiction because novels can become, over time, like the dear human friends on whom we rely for support and advice. Perhaps women read fiction because we value stories of emotional connection and family ties. Perhaps women read fiction because, as the legendary publisher Hilary McPhee once put it, novels give us ideas about how to live our lives. Or perhaps women are just more open: open to advice, to imagination, to connection, to the possibility of change.

This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum section. Reproduced with permission.