Ruby Hamad’s Legacy Books


This piece was performed at Legacy Books, Feminist Writers Festival Sydney on Saturday 3 November 2018.

When I was seven years old, my second grade teacher made a ‘book’ out of the first short story I ever wrote, called Tilly the Witch. After typing the manuscript on a manual typewriter (hey, it was the 80s), she bound it in laminated red cardboard and illustrated it with black and white photos she took of myself and my classmates dressed up as the characters, with myself as Tilly. 

Though that book is lost to me now, a victim lost to many long-haul moves; out of home, interstate, overseas, and back again, I haven’t forgotten her enthusiasm or how she told me to never stop writing. I did, of course. One of the unintended consequences of her interest in me and my writing was the perception in some of the other children that I was getting special treatment. This marked me as different. The bullying and taunts started soon after and would continue in some form or another right up until the start of Year 12. 

During that time, I became an increasingly inward-looking child. Feeling alienated both within my family’s cultural community and from my school peers, I escaped not into writing but into reading whatever happened to be lying around the house. The newspaper, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. My older sister’s Sweet Valley High books. All of which is to say, I read stories that I never saw myself in. Despite my love and talent for writing, I stopped doing it, as the reality of being a daughter from a recently arrived Lebanese-Syrian immigrant family made that prospect seem laughable. It’s not that my parents were against it, it’s that creative pursuits were just not things that even existed in the realm of possible futures for their children. 

At the age of 22, I was in the midst of my first big overseas backpacking trick. On the bedside table near my dorm bunk in an ultra-budget hostel in downtown Vancouver, a previous traveller had a left a copy of a fairly hefty novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, the debut of English writer Kate Atkinson. I picked up that book many times in the space of about a fortnight, contemplating whether I could be bothered starting it given it seemed not as fun a prospect as the underground Vancouver nightlife I was getting into at the time (hey, it was the the 90s). 

As someone who had never read books by Arab writers or even writers of colour growing up, this was the first time I could recall where I felt like the protagonist could be me.

The main character’s name is Ruby Lennox, and this fact was certainly a factor in my decision to eventually begin reading it. But it wasn’t until couple of chapters in that I knew I was hooked. Ruby, you see, is our narrator, beginning the story from the moment of her conception, and this is how she describes her naming, shortly after her birth: 

“My name is Ruby. I am a precious jewel. I am a drop of blood. I am Ruby Lennox.”

This sort of affirmation is not something I was used to. The fictional Ruby, who like me, would grow up to be a chronic loner, an adolescent who spent more time in her head than in the real world, was stating her worth. It would be repeated several times throughout the book, sometimes sarcastically, other times plaintively. But as someone who had never read books by Arab writers or even writers of colour growing up, this was the first time I could recall where I felt like the protagonist could be me. Was me. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but what connected me so much to a character called Ruby Lennox, a white girl born in the north of England in the 1950s, was that I felt represented at last. By the sheer fluke of our names, I was able to transcend all the obvious differences and imagine a Ruby much like myself. This is the power and importance of representation. This is why it is so important that young people – all people really – can see something of themselves in some of the stories they read or films they watch; just to know there are people out there with problems and joys not unlike their own. 

Had Atkinson given her heroine a different name, it is more than likely, I would never have read the book. Which is to say, representation must be more encompassing than the coincidence of names.  

This book has meant so much to me, I’ve owned various editions over the years, and for many years would pick it up at random pages and start reading. Spanning many generations, criss-crossing centuries and continents, Ruby and the women in her family hold centre-stage through the Victorian era, the two world wars, the Great Depression; it’s not often you come across a book that can include all the momentous events without shifting the focus from the women. 

Despite all our best efforts, white women still dominate feminism, they still reap the benefits of diversity and inclusion and ‘female empowerment’ leaving women of colour on the outside.

So profound was its impact on me that Behind the Scenes at the Museum reconnected me to my long forgotten dream of writing for a living and reminded me that being a writer is something that it is possible to be. For those of you who are fans of my writing, you have this book to thank for its existence; for those who are not fans, well you have this book to blame. 

Fast forward a number of years, and I am now in the midst of researching my first book, a non-fiction account of the racial stereotyping of women of colour and how this undermines relationships between them and white women. I’m still searching for authentic representation, still wondering why the arts and media are so overwhelmingly white. I’m still appealing to white feminists to read and comprehend my work and the work of other brown and black women. How do I know they aren’t doing this? Because despite all our best efforts, white women still dominate feminism, they still reap the benefits of diversity and inclusion and ‘female empowerment’ leaving women of colour on the outside.

But rereading Audre Lorde’s essay collection Sister, Outsider has been a lesson in how so often the answers we’re looking for have been with us all along. Why do white women still struggle to read and apply the words of women of colour? Lorde answered this question more than 30 years ago when she writes, ‘For as long as any difference between us means one of us must be inferior, then the recognition of any difference must be fraught with guilt.’ For white feminists to acknowledge that there are differences in the needs and experiences of women and that they cannot represent all of us would necessitate an acceptance of the limitations of their own feminism and an admission that their progress comes at the expense of other women. 

It is the generous wisdom and searing insight of thinkers like Lorde that drag us kicking and screaming into the future.

People are fond of describing forward-thinking people as ‘ahead of their time’. As much as her words still seem prescient today, it would do a disservice to describe Lorde as ahead of her time. If anything, such thinkers are exactly of their time because they have the capacity to diagnose the maladies of their era and prescribe the remedy. Nothing is inevitable and no progress is ever assured. It is the generous wisdom and searing insight of thinkers like Lorde that drag us kicking and screaming into the future. The problem is just how stubbornly resistant to this medicine the rest of us are. 

Despite everything, I am still hopeful we can bridge the gap. I have to believe in a common humanity that can work with and praise difference rather than deny and punish it. And I have to believe that writing is one of the ways we can get there. Like Ruby Lennox who shares my perpetual outsiderdom as well as my first name, ‘it is my belief that words are the only thing that can construct a world that makes sense.’

Ruby Hamad’s book White Tears, Brown Scars will be published by Melbourne University Press in September.

FWF Q&A: Alice Whitmore

Q&A, Uncategorized

Each month we speak to an Australian writer about writing, feminism, and the connection between the two. This month we speak to Alice Whitmore: a Melbourne-based writer and academic, the translator of Guillermo Fadanelli and Mariana Dimópulos, and an editor at Cordite Poetry Review.

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism to me is a collective spirit of love and strength. Feminism means empathy, compassion, ferocity, resistance. It means owning our bodies. It means treating others with dignity and respect, and demanding that in return. It means checking our privilege, and being allies to one another.

Editors are often described as midwives – how would you characterise translators?

At the risk of labouring the analogy, I’d venture that translators are a bit like surrogate mothers. The DNA of the work is provided, but we do the difficult work of gestation, we nourish the work from our own bodies, and, ultimately, we give life to it. Without us, the text could not exist in its new form. The process of ‘birthing’ a translation is also emotionally and ethically fraught – I often feel a sense of ownership over my translations, but of course that ownership only extends so far. In the end, translation, like surrogacy, is a transaction. It’s a tricky business, and one that works best if there is trust and respect on both sides.

How does your work as a writer and poet influence your work in translation?

I see literary translation as a process of re-writing, so the ‘writing’ part is absolutely integral to the work I do as a translator. Every work of translated literature is a unique artefact. I think of it in terms of embodiment, which is to say that a translation produced by my body (my mind, my hands, my language, the sum of my life’s experiences) will inevitably be different from the translation produced by someone else’s body. I think exactly the same thing happens when we write our own work, or express ourselves through poetry. The only difference, in my view, is the starting point: as a translator I have a more concrete frame to contain my work within, whereas writing for myself is a freer process, less bounded. I feel that my writing and my translation work complement each other – translation serves as practice, in a way, for my writing, and vice versa. I almost can’t imagine the one without the other.

Mariana Dimópulos’ work is resolutely woman-centred. Was this a factor in your choosing to translate her?

Yes, absolutely! I identified very strongly with the narrators of both All My Goodbyes and Imminence. I immediately heard their words in English, in my head; they spoke to me clearly and naturally. In a witchy kind of way, it almost felt like I was channelling them. As a translator it is my job to empathise, to jump into the skins of characters and writers, but that job becomes much easier when those characters, or the author, or both, are women whose lives I can readily relate to.

Do you think your lived experience helped interpret and translate her work fully?

I think so. As a young woman, there were a lot of places where I went: “Ah! I know that feeling!” And I also recognised a lot of the supporting characters, in the sense that I was able to project their personalities and traits onto people I knew. It’s almost like staging a play using elements from your own life. Of course, it’s impossible to know what you don’t see, and whenever we read a work of literature we are limited by our own experiences – our minds are constantly evolving, but we can’t expect them to assimilate seamlessly with someone else’s work. Especially when a text has travelled across cultures and oceans, there are always parts that don’t compute, or that are difficult to interpret. That’s part of the challenge of translation.

What do you think feminist readers here in Australia (or the English-speaking world) can learn from her writing?

It is always enlightening to read women from other parts of the world, and I think in a very broad sense it helps to strengthen a sense of international feminist solidarity. Sometimes, as English-speaking readers (that is, as members of the ‘dominant’ group), we are tricked into a feeling of self-sufficiency, and we become a little self-involved, and I think it’s important and refreshing to inject our reading lives with new perspectives. To give you a more specific answer, though, I think Mariana’s newest novel, Imminence, offers something really valuable: a raw and honest look at what it means to be a new mother who struggles to feel the transcendent maternal love and devotion that is expected of her. The novel is really an interrogation of womanhood, and motherhood, and friendship, and conjugality, and I think it offers a lot of material for feminist readers to muse on, or critique. 

Translators are often the carriers and champions of new works into new countries and languages. Do you feel that this has been accentuated in more recent times to include a focus on feminist writing? A gendered intervention of sorts?

Fantastic new feminist writing in translation is emerging all over the world, and I am so excited by this. I think translators are certainly playing a role in this shift. As recognition and respect for translation grows, and as the collective strength of women grows, we are seeing exactly what we would expect to see: women empowering women, women amplifying each other’s voices. It’s heartening to see. There is a real sense of community and solidarity. And translation is only one aspect of this – a true ‘gendered intervention’ must involve the publishing industry, the independent bookselling scene, the worlds of academia and reviewing, the media, the literary festival scene. The more space and power women occupy in all of these areas, the stronger feminist writing becomes. I do think the literary world is evolving, and women are claiming their space within it. Women’s stories are now seen as legitimate, and important, and intellectual, and challenging, which means there is more work out there for translators to champion. 

Can you recommend any books in translation?

There is so much great Latin American literature in translation, but I’ll limit myself to two recently translated works by Argentine writers: the short story collection Mouthful of Birds, written by Samanta Schweblin and translated by Megan McDowell, and the non-fiction title False Calm, written by Maria Sonia Cristoff and translated by Katherine Silver. I can’t not mention my favourite writer, the late great Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, whose Complete Stories have been breathtakingly translated by Katrina Dodson. Straying somewhat from my comfort zone, I also highly recommend two novels by Olga Tokarczuk, the Polish winner of the 2018 International Man Booker prize: Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. 

Any feminist must-reads?

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties had a huge impact on me. Right now I’m reading Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick: And Other Essays, and it’s blowing me away – it’s kind of a modern intersectional feminist masterpiece.