Searching for Mary Lee

Features

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. leekofman.com.au

Creating Space for Feminism in Romance

Features, News

By Stacey Farley

Image: pexels.com

At parties when asked what I do, I smile and say ‘write romance novels’. I don’t inwardly cringe like I used to. I’m not proud to admit that I used to worry about the judgment strangers made about my career choice, but this writer wasn’t born yesterday. Romance is perceived as being the bottom rung of genre fiction ladder; even non-readers have picked up on this literary bias. Romance is often seen as having the least merit of all genre fiction. My genre of choice is seen as being ‘trashy’ fiction – meant just for women. It took me writing in this genre to really question those assumptions as I interacted with readers and took time to really sit down and examine why so many felt this way.

Unpacking the bias, I know that the ‘trashy fiction’ perception exists because romance commits two sins: fiction written by women for women, where the plot lines centre on female desire and sexuality. Often, stories with a strong romantic plot written by men are seen as serious literature by contrast. I’ve read ‘literary’ novels in the past and thought, ‘if I just slapped a male name and a different cover on my books, they’d have the same level of literary merit all the reviewers on this dust jacket seem to think this one does.’

Romance commits two sins: fiction written by women for women, where the plot lines centre on female desire and sexuality.

The recent ‘cocky-gate’ scandal, in which a romance author trademarked the term ‘cocky’ so other authors couldn’t use the word in their titles, is a good example of how romantic fiction, its readers and its authors are handled in the press, in a way that male writers and their work would never be portrayed. When I read back over the snide headlines, I can easily identify how little regard journalists had when it came to reporting on something which could have been a serious game changer for romance authors. The tone was clear: these silly women – never professional writers and authors – were fighting among themselves about the use of a word. As if their professional reputations, not to mention their very livelihoods, were little more than a joke. I have never seen male writers, their work and their professional lives spoken about in such terms.  

Sadder still for many women is the misogynistic beliefs that impact readers of the romance genre. Often readers are mocked, as female sexuality and female desire are seen as unimportant or even embarrassing. Perhaps some are threatened by the thought that these hunky book boyfriends will show up women’s flesh and blood partners. When asked if she thought romantic fiction gives women unrealistic expectations, bestselling author Nora Roberts told The Observer, ‘Because women aren’t supposed to have expectations, right? We’re pretty smart. I think we know the difference between reality and fiction. I don’t think that people read Agatha Christie, and then think: I know, I’ll go and murder someone.’ It’s important to note too that not all romantic fiction centers around heteronormative couples. There is plenty of fantastic LGBTQI romance out there too, as the 2017 Rainbow Awards demonstrated.  

We need to value a rich cultural scene where diverse writers and characters are seen with the same respect as the mainstream sees the usual suspects.

That some of the world’s bestselling romance authors receive so little mainstream media attention despite their success is telling. Over the last 30 years, an average of 27 Nora Roberts books were sold every minute. As of 2009, Roberts had 400 million books in print. This compared to Dan Brown’s 200 million books in print as of 2012. Yet Brown is a household name despite the fact he’s had markedly less success than his female colleague, and has been in the game less time.

This is a feminist issue as it deals with female autonomy on both sides. Romance authors are overwhelmingly female and are often using the income to support themselves and their families, and romance readers are overwhelmingly female. Women are being entertained in a way that obviously bruises some fragile egos.

How can feminist book lovers do something about this? We start with a conversation. Through our conversations we decide what can be done to support female authors and their work. We need to value a rich cultural scene where diverse writers and characters are seen with the same respect as the mainstream sees the usual suspects: male writers penning characters through their own lens. We need to see more awards won by the deserving work by female authors in addition to more awards like the Rainbow Awards for LGBTQI literature. We need to see more books penned by female authors on the school and university syllabus, more reviews of the work by female authors and mentions of them in the media. When writers and readers push for change, we’ll see writers of Roberts’ standing receiving the respect they deserve.

A Small Book About a Big Topic: Germaine Greer’s On Rape

Features, News

By Zora Simic

Better titles for Germaine Greer’s new provocation, the essay-length small book On Rape, would have been On Bad Sex or On Heterosex. For these are what she’s most interested in addressing and has been since at least the publication of her first book, the spectacularly influential The Female Eunuch (1970). Back then, Greer challenged the myth of the vaginal orgasm – and its reproductive imperative – by celebrating hers on the basis of pure sexual pleasure. At the same time, she also anticipated later feminist writing by cautioning against obsessing too much about orgasm one way or another – if given too much power to define ‘good sex’, it could get in the way of proper intimacy. At the height of the sexual revolution, Greer – the ‘saucy feminist that even men like’, as Life magazine put it 1971 – opined ‘sex has for many of us become a sorry business’. She wanted better, for women and for men, and she still does. She’s just not particularly optimistic about it. To start at the end of her new book, with no spoiler alert necessary if you’re at all familiar with the Greer canon, Greer gloomily suggests ‘Heterosex may well be doomed’.

Silence and Violence Against Women of Colour: Remembering Eunji Ban and Renea Lau

Features, News

By Grace Yee

A vigil for Eurydice Dixon, left; memorial flowers for Renea Lau, right. Source: AAP

There are two stories that have been haunting me a great deal lately. The first concerns Eunji Ban, who was murdered in Brisbane on 24 November 2013. The 22-year-old student was walking to her cleaning job at a hotel in the CBD when she was beaten unconscious, dragged face down up a flight of concrete steps to Wickham Park, dumped beneath a tree and left to drown in her own blood. The killer, who broke virtually every bone in her face, admitted to ‘bashing the shit out of her’. The second story concerns Renea Lau, who was murdered seven months later, on 28 June 2014, in Melbourne. The 32-year-old pastry chef was walking to Flinders Street Station on her way to work at a South Yarra patisserie, when she was dragged across St Kilda Road into the King’s Domain, beaten unconscious and raped twice over the course of more than an hour. The crown prosecutor described this murder as belonging to a ‘worst case’ category of offending, due to the brutality, duration and randomness of the attack.  What I find unsettling about these stories, apart from their extreme violence, is the muted public response to them.

Amongst my own family, friends and acquaintances, some have vague recollections of these women’s stories, but not one can recall their names.

There is a stark contrast to the public responses to Jill Meagher (September 2012) and Eurydice Dixon (June 2018), who died in very similar circumstances. The absence of public mourning for Eunji Ban and Renea Lau is remarkable, for the lives – and deaths – of all of these women share significant common ground. All four were young and middle-class. All were well-loved members of their respective communities. All had been going about their normal everyday lives just before they died – walking to or from work and work-related activities – in the early hours of the morning. Each came face to face with their killers – men unknown to them – in a public place in a capital city. Three of them were sexually assaulted, all of them brutally beaten to death.

Yet the level of interest for Jill Meagher and Eurydice Dixon has been, and continues to be, far greater than for Eunji Ban and Renea Lau. This is evident not only in the sheer number of media stories which, for the former, number in the thousands, but in public outpourings of grief. Jill Meagher’s death drew more than 30,000 in a march down Brunswick’s Sydney Road, and on the first anniversary of her death, a ‘peace’ march was held in her name. Six years on, almost everyone remembers Jill Meagher. And if the tens of thousands who attended nationwide vigils following Eurydice Dixon’s death are any indication, she too will be remembered years from now.

But how many Australians will remember Eunji Ban and Renea Lau? How many are familiar with their names now? In a recent search on Google News, I could find only 675 stories about Eunji Ban, and a mere 40 about Renea Lau. In Brisbane, the Korean Society of Queensland invited residents to attend a memorial service for Eunji Ban, and this was reported to have been attended by ‘hundreds’. There was no known public memorial service for Renea Lau in Melbourne; a few bunches of flowers were left by friends and strangers beneath the tree where her body was found. There is now a memorial plaque for Renea Lau in the King’s Domain, and one in Wickham Park in Brisbane for Eunji Ban, to mark the places they were slain.  But their names are otherwise insignificant in the broader Australian community. Amongst my own family, friends and acquaintances, some have vague recollections of these women’s stories, but not one can recall their names.

While I do feel a sense of ‘cultural affinity’ with Eunji Ban and Renea Lau, this is not based on any ethnic or national alliance – our respective backgrounds are very different. Rather, what is shared is a bestowed identity: ‘Asian woman’, which in mainstream Australia entails a range of subordinating experiences.

These are the kinds of narratives that Asian women in white settler colonies have long been subjected to.

In Renea Lau’s case, I cannot help but wonder whether her status as a Chinese national at least partly explains the muted response to her death. In recent years, sinophobic sentiment appears to have risen in correlation with China’s increasing involvement in Australia. This has manifested in media stories that characterise the Chinese presence as a perilous invasion: one that manipulates unwitting politicians, prices ‘ordinary’ Australians out of the property market, and deprives Aussie children of baby formula. These stories have proliferated alongside enduring stereotypes of Asian women, which characterise us as dragon-lady dangerous or lotus-blossom meek – and always, sexually available. These are the kinds of narratives that Asian women in white settler colonies have long been subjected to, and which render us doubly marginalised: perceived by the mainstream as ‘less than’ by virtue of our ‘oriental’ origins, and ‘less than’ by virtue of our femininity.

Such stories have certainly had an impact on my own life in the 27 years I have lived in Australia. I suspect that they lie behind the eggs and open cans of soda thrown at us from passing vehicles; the men in utes who have tried to run us down; the random street assault that resulted in head injuries and hospitalisation; the lack of police concern. And then there are the everyday indignities that all people of colour are familiar with: being attended to last, or not at all, in service situations; racist slurs on the street; racist jokes at work; strategically loud xenophobic conversations on public transport, in cafes, and in supermarket queues. In almost all of these situations, bystanders have remained silent and walked on by.

Over time, these kinds of aggressions have undermined my capacity to feel safe in the world. When I observe what happens – or rather, what doesn’t happen – when women ‘like me’ are murdered, my very existence feels precarious. I am not insinuating that the men who killed Eunji Ban and Renea Lau were motivated by racism. I am making an observation: the public indifference to the shockingly violent deaths of Eunji Ban and Renea Lau – to the plight of two women who ‘look like me’ – reflects the public indifference to my own lesser injuries. This apparent lack of empathy, or apathy, further undermines my capacity to feel safe – in light of such pervasive and ominous silence, murder seems not so improbably situated on a spectrum of possible injuries for women like me. Because who is looking out for us?

Affinities rest on inclusions and exclusions, and undergird a hierarchy of who is more worthy of empathy – as if there is only so much compassion to go around.

Up until now I have held on to the rather tenuous hope that my experiences have not been due to this ugly unspeakable thing called ‘racism’, but instead, a long series of unfortunate encounters, accidents, sheer bad luck, and/or virulent karmic consequences. Indeed, over the years, my capacity to recover has been contingent upon this hope. But it is difficult to deny that what we look like determines, to at least some extent, how we are treated. Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, have a greater affinity for those we perceive to be most like ourselves. Perhaps we are wired to feel more compassion for people who look like us. I can’t help but wonder whether the proclivity for such affinities goes some way toward explaining the similarly muted responses to the fates of other women of colour: women like Laa Chol, who died after being stabbed at a party in Melbourne in July 2018, and Ms Dhu, who died in police custody in Western Australia in 2014.  Because affinities rest on inclusions and exclusions, and undergird a hierarchy of who is more worthy of empathy – as if there is only so much compassion to go around.

In the aftermath of Eurydice Dixon’s death, I noticed an alarming absence of compassion in some online ‘feminist’ forums, which manifest a disturbing dismissiveness toward women of colour who expressed concerns about their unique vulnerabilities. Amid the usual accusations of ‘divisiveness’, some commentators seemed affronted that women of colour had the gall to do what I am doing here, which is to put up a hand and say, ‘What about me too?’ Some were angry that the vigils for Eurydice Dixon were renamed in recognition of all victims of gendered violence (and for Sydney woman Qi Yu, who had gone missing, presumed dead, in the same week). Some were of the view that if women of colour could just forget about their own issues – that is, racism, marginalisation, being silenced –  and focus on the real problem, which is violence against all women, then ‘progress’ might actually be possible. What these threads have in common is a strong belief that the concerns of women of colour are less important and/or irrelevant to feminist concerns about gendered violence, and that therefore we should not speak of them.

It has been pointed out that there are white feminist ‘allies’ who have spoken for women of colour, who have gone to the trouble of pointing out the moral deficiencies of mourning only for your own kind, and that for this, we should be grateful. But while shows of support are appreciated, speaking for us without listening to us renders what is said little more than a show. It is not credibly ‘intersectional’ to argue for the importance of mourning for ‘all women’ victims of violence, if one insists in the same breath that it is simply not possible to ‘march for every woman’. Not only is there an implicit hierarchy here of whose lives are more worthy of public grief, but the very act of speaking for us – rather than with us – makes it clear where we are positioned.

We can see that our lives are considered not worthy of public grief or outrage, and at the same time, we can see how being spoken for subordinates and subsumes the very concerns we hold about our ‘less than’ status. In this onerous silence, there linger questions I’m afraid to know the answers to: If my daughter were to die in circumstances similar to Eunji Ban or Renea Lau, would the public response be one of widespread indifference? And would I be told not to speak of it?


Grace Yee is a Melbourne writer and academic. Her work has recently appeared in Mascara Literary Review, Westerly, Women’s Museum of California and Hecate.

Activist or Professional? A Feminist Question

Features, News

By Bridget Harilaou

In the whirlwind sphere of the non-profit sector, where grants, competitive tender models and the government of the day dictate the capacities of community services, those seeking to support vulnerable people and engage in social change come to an important question: is paid professional work within the constraints of funding bodies and government agendas an effective and ethical strategy?

Work that serves marginalised communities is a political project, centred in the assertion of human rights and human dignity, whether people are homeless, survivors of domestic violence or in the criminal justice system. Yet what are the consequences of taking funding from state and federal governments, whose reach then extends to stipulating the scope, messaging and activities of community work? And what are the political implications of turning resistance into what Arundhati Roy calls ‘a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job with a few perks thrown in’?

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and the rise of girl power publishing

Features, News

By Nicola Heath

Image: pexels.com

Once upon a time, in a bright blue house near Mexico City, lived a small girl named Frida. She would grow up to be one of the most famous painters of the twentieth century…

In 2016, journalist Elena Favilli and playwright Francesca Cavallo, two Italians living in the United States, raised almost AU$1 million via Kickstarter to fund a new project they dreamed up in response to the endemic sexism they encountered in Silicon Valley.

The couple, who in 2012 founded a children’s media company called Timbuktu Labs, wanted to create a story book for children that offered an alternative to the traditional fairy tale narrative.

The result was Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a collection of 100 tales of extraordinary women, from nineteenth century mathematician Ada Lovelace and Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek to Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini and Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid. It’s a book where primatologists, pirates and politicians reign supreme over princesses.