One of 80: A reflection on domestic violence and media reporting

Features, News

By Nour Haydar

The author with her mother

In 2015, I was shocked by the news of 17- year-old Masa Vukotic’s murder at the hands of serial sex offender Sean Price in Doncaster. A fortnight later, my mother’s picture hit the front page. 

My mum, Salwa Haydar, was murdered a month before my university graduation. I remember swearing off becoming a journalist because I resented reporters prodding for interviews with my sisters and me only hours after our dad had stabbed our mum to death. 

As I lay awake in the days after my mum’s burial, the disappearance of Leeton teacher Stephanie Scott filled the headlines. Julie Hutchinson. Daniela D’Addario. Melita Hart. Linda Locke. Seker Yildiz. Leila Alavi. Rose Maries Sheehy. Brittany Harvie. Rebecca Webb. Norma Ludlum. Tiffany Taylor. Anna Hay. Tara Brown. Karina Lock. A total of 80 women across Australia died violent deaths that year. Counting Dead Women estimates 80 per cent of those deaths were at the hands of a partner or former partner.

My siblings’  Facebook inboxes were flooded with messages from journalists, and these requests made me angry and anxious. The media intrigue in our trauma felt insensitive, and responding to journalists’ questions trivial when our mother’s body still lay in the morgue. I also feared how my mother’s legacy might be clumsily portrayed or how the complexity of her life, and death, would be eroded for the sake of brevity, or distorted through stereotypes and victim blaming. 

I questioned the role and value of the news media in our lives when incomprehensible and seemingly unpreventable acts of violence could happen without warning. But my mum was one of few people who encouraged me to pursue journalism, so after her death I reluctantly went ahead with a news producing internship I had previously lined up. At first, the job was a welcome distraction, but working in a newsroom soon proved to be anything but.

I feared how my mother’s legacy might be clumsily portrayed or how the complexity of her life, and death, would be eroded for the sake of brevity, or distorted through stereotypes and victim blaming. 

Countless police media releases about the violent deaths of women in our neighbourhoods have continued to drop into my email inbox with a faint ping. They punctuate my weekly routine and remind me of the trauma and heartache I share with an ever-growing group of Australians who have lost their mothers, sisters, daughters and friends to men’s violence. 

As I scan the emails, I am not surprised to learn that in most cases police have charged a man known to the victim. A-fucking-nother-one. I can’t help but imagine how a similar statement would have been sent out to my peers in the early hours of March 31 2015:

Police were called to a property in Bexley after reports of a stabbing. A 46-year-old woman was found with lacerations to her arms, neck and torso. She was pronounced dead at the scene. A 60-year-old man, believed to be known to the woman, has been arrested and charged after attending Kogarah police station. 

I take a deep whiff of air through my nose and exhale to ease the building tremor in my chest.

After Adrian Bailey raped and murdered Jill Meagher in 2013, her husband Tom Meagher wrote about the “danger of the monster myth”. He describes his visceral reaction to hearing Bailey speak in coherent and intelligible sentences in court as he was committed to trial. Meagher states that he had previously sought self-comfort by dismissing violent men as “psychotic or sociopathic aberrations” to avoid “the more terrifying concept that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions”. 

Good reporting and nuanced writing can be the circuit breaker needed to empower women who have been isolated from friends and family to leave abusive relationships or seek professional help.

As I struggled to make sense of my father’s brutal crime, I naively insisted to a constable taking my initial police statement that my dad’s actions were unforeseeable and unimaginable because I had a “normal family”. With a voice full of pity she replied, ‘That’s what most people who sit in that chair tell me’. 

The way I understood my parents’ relationship began to unravel. I was forced to confront that what I had accepted to be a “normal” marriage was a grossly unequal and abusive one. Like Meagher, I also had a distorted perception of the type of man capable of committing physical violence and murder. It was a flawed image that had allowed me to dismiss my mother’s fears and overlook the subtle controlling, belittling and manipulative behaviours exhibited by my father. I had thought men capable of such brutal crimes were inherently unlikeable and aggressive. They certainly were not personable, law abiding and university educated like my father had been. I know now that they can be both. 

The media can use its influence to inform victims of domestic and family violence to recognise the many ways in which abuse can manifest – and that it doesn’t have to be physical before it becomes fatal. Good reporting and nuanced writing can be the circuit breaker needed to empower women who have been isolated from friends and family to leave abusive relationships or seek professional help. Good reporting can teach others to identify what I learnt before it is too late. 

In fact, it can go a step further. As Rosie Batty observed, “media are uniquely placed to help stop violence before it starts.” Writing and talking about all gender-based violence, including domestic violence, using appropriate, accurate and respectful language is an important first step that can help encourage victims to tell and own their stories and experiences – and you cannot underestimate the liberation that comes with that. But curbing the staggering number of women being assaulted and murdered in Australia, and indeed around the world, won’t happen solely because victim blaming headlines and sensational and distasteful teases have been eradicated. 

Violence against women in all its forms is pervasive, but it’s preventable. Perpetrators of domestic violence are amongst our readers, listeners and viewers. Responsible media reporting challenges men to reconsider toxic behaviours, encourages younger readers to adopt respectful attitudes towards women, and recognises that the driving force behind violence against women is gender inequality. 

Writing and talking about all gender-based violence, including domestic violence, using appropriate, accurate and respectful language is an important first step.

For generations the media has been complicit in condoning domestic violence by remaining silent. There has been a significant shift in recent years that has seen bouts of coverage about this epidemic, but it’s often limited to individual cases, in particular those perceived to be more vicious. Given the scale and prevalence of violence against women, it deserves greater and sustained scrutiny. Flawed policies that contradict expert advice, like the Morrison government’s recent decision to fund couples counselling, should be interrogated. The government must rectify the systemic failures and underfunding that keep women, particularly those from Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, in danger. 

Positive change in the industry is being made — overwhelmingly by my female peers. Our Watch and the Walkley Foundation last year established the inaugural Our Watch Fellowship. I was fortunate enough to participate in the program alongside 13 insightful and fierce journalists committed to gender equality and safe, respectful reporting on violence against women. Our Watch has also created media reporting guidelines that are designed to uphold the dignity of dead women. If followed, they can limit the retraumatisation of victims and grieving families. They are there to ensure journalists contextualise domestic violence, which is insidious and remains largely invisible.

We need to talk more about domestic violence, but when we do, we must make sure our words and actions are doing more good than harm.   

Nour Haydar is a multiplatform journalist with ABC News covering politics. She is an advocate against gender based violence and in 2019 she was awarded the inaugural Our Watch fellowship. 

FWF Q&A: Nicola Redhouse

Features, 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 Nicola Redhouse, the author of Unlike the Heart.

What does feminism mean to you?

For me feminism means a constant awareness and push against structures and systems, attitudes, biases (often unconscious) and cultures that deny women the ability to make choices for themselves, or place them in an invidious position of physical, emotional or material deprivation because of their identity. My own understanding of the ways these structures and systems are entwined with other social factors – like race and socio-economic and class status – expands constantly as I reckon with the specificity of experience.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?

Maternity brought my feminism into sharp relief. I very quickly became aware of the social structures and unconscious biases in place that set women (even women who aren’t mothers or have no intention of being mothers) on a different track, socially and economically, to their male counterparts. I watched my husband leave for work after two weeks of paternity leave and I felt the singularity of the maternal experience, and the ways I was, as Rachel Cusk once put it, cut off from civic life.

Then, when my (unpaid) maternity leave was over, I saw it in the way my male former boss dealt with my new status as a mother. He reluctantly offered me a long-overdue promotion in a part-time capacity (I had been working below the award rate for my role for years, trying many times to negotiate appropriate pay) and then rescinded the offer and offered me my previous under-paid role full-time. I began to cry, thinking about how I would afford childcare, and how I would leave my son every day, thinking about how badly I wanted to keep working as a book editor. He implored me to stop crying because it was making him feel bad. He makes a living publishing books that are very often by women, often by outspoken feminists. I now understood that my back-foot position in the office was always somehow connected to my female body, and to conscious and unconscious attitudes to what it was capable of, what it deserved, and how it could be treated.

And I saw from that experience that many men do not want to know about maternity. They do not want to know about what women feel or experience having a body that has the potential to house a baby, or a body that represents that capacity, or of actually raising babies. The maternal experience must be kept away from them. I find something similar in my work as a writer. My book brings maternity into contact with a number of fascinating topics: neuroscience, psychoanalysis, genetics. But it is as though the maternity infects it. I am rarely asked to talk about those topics. I am asked to talk about motherhood, and while I want to talk about motherhood, I don’t see motherhood as cordoned off from the big themes of life, such as war and science and technological progress, and I am disappointed that my audience is almost always all women. I sense that maternity is tainted by the domestic and the mundane. Many men struggle to recognise the immense richness and complexity and crossover with science and industry and history and pretty much the whole entire existence of everything that living is bound up with. I hope to continue to bring that complexity to the fore in my work.

In Unlike the Heart, you combine extensive research on neuroscience and psychology with your personal experiences of motherhood and anxiety. How did you approach the writing process, and where did the idea come from?

I approached the writing process like a freefalling coconut, like a terrified porcupine, like a deranged and absolutely wired starved person who has finally found food. On some days. On other days I sat, grave and frozen, with no sense of where to go with the thing. I just wrote. I have some kind of amnesia about the process now, actually. I know there were times I felt really stuck, but mostly I felt like I was running, pushed by the wind, and it was totally thrilling. But my boys are still young, and then even younger, and childcare needed to be paid for. I was only able to write like this, with abandon, when I had the time, and that came when I was able to put aside paid work as a freelance book editor, because I was fortunate enough to receive first a grant from Creative Victoria and then one from the Australia Council. 

The kernel of the book came  when I had a robust conversation with my sister about the scientific status of psychoanalysis. Our father is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and I had been very excited by his work and interested in it from a young age, and in analysis myself for years. I felt very defensive about what she was saying. I went looking in to it and discovered the work of a group of people who were looking at the brain science behind Freud’s theories (the neuro-psychoanalysts). I thought I would write a book about my own slow reckoning with scientific parameters, and the science of the mind. But quickly I realised that theoretical matter was bound up with all the questions I had been asking myself about what had happened to me postnatally, which was that I had experienced severe anxiety, a kind of dissolution. I had found myself caught up in the medical and psychological approaches to my anxiety, and that connected directly with this question of whether the talking cure had any scientific validity in the knowledge we have about the brain.

My process then was a mixture of constant reading and research (including a trip to Holland to attend a neuro-psychoanalytic congress and interview the founder, Prof. Mark Solms), and then writing, writing, writing. The real struggle for me was structure. How would I bring these strands together and move the narrative forward? I had some astute readers, and some logical input from my non-writing husband, and eventually it came together.

Writing about motherhood has often been confined by social expectations and perceptions of women, but in recent years the genre has expanded and your book is a great example – where do you see the future of this kind of writing going?

Going back to what I said earlier about motherhood being connected to big themes, I think that the genre of writing in which the maternal experience is central is opening up to those connections; perhaps taking a leap of faith in a readership that will begin to recognise motherhood as a significant human experience bound up to the biggest experiences we can know: death, war, love, survival. Eula Biss’s On Immunity brings motherhood to life in connection to disease and the history of immunisation; Jessie Greengrass’s Sight engages deeply with the capacity to investigate our internal experience in the history of medicine; Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: essays on love and cruelty brings maternal representations right up against social fear, politics and race.

And then we also have a move toward exploring the banal, the repetitive and the ordinary terrain of motherhood as important, as worth knowing about; acknowledgment that what goes on in the house, and in the mother’s mind, is as formative of human experience as what goes on in the boardroom, so to speak. Sarah Moss’s Night Waking is a great example. Lauren Elkin, in a great piece in the Paris Review, puts it well in saying the new books on motherhood are a ‘countercanon. They read against the literary canon with its lack of interest in the interior lives of mothers.’ And perhaps what they do is what academic Petra Bueskens writes about in her essay ‘From Containing to Creating’ in Dangerous Ideas About Mothers: they subvert the idea of mothers as containers (drawn from the psychoanalytic theory of people like Melanie Klein) and recognise mothers’ ‘material subjectivity’. The messiness, brokenness, interruption of the maternal experience becomes interesting material; material that offers exciting ideas for writing forms, like what we see in the writing of Jenny Offill or Sarah Manguso.

How has your work as an editor impacted your work as a writer, and vice versa? Did it affect the way you wrote the book, knowing how you might edit it yourself if it came across your desk?

I don’t think a writer can ever be their own editor: to be effective, an editor must take the role of the interested outsider. A deliberate misunderstander. But my knowledge of the ecology of publishing affected the approach I took, in that I am implicitly aware of how an acquiring editor thinks (which is not terribly different to how a discerning reader reads): I know that a book needs a point of difference or a serious level of expertise or an unpassable quality of writing. As for how my work as a writer has impacted my work as an editor, writing has sort of ebbed away at my editing energies. I can’t do the two at the same time; not substantive editing, anyway, where I need to think creatively about the structure and story of a work. So my main paid work these days is as a writer, teaching writing, or proofreading.

You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction – how do you approach these two very different kinds of writing? Do they require different skills or mindsets?

Fiction has a certain freedom, but also can be more daunting because I feel less sure that I am writing anything with meaning. Often the meaning of my fiction only comes to me after I have written and reworked it and I begin to understand the symbolism of what I have put down on paper. This comes in to my nonfiction writing too (this desire to be working at a level of narrative and meaning) but at the start I feel less like I am free-falling with nonfiction, because I have research to undertake or real-life events to hang on to. I am in the same mindset for both kinds of writing: trying to loosen my mind, to get down on paper a feeling I have about what I am saying. But I think with fiction a part of my mind is engaged with thinking ‘where can I take the reader now?’, while with nonfiction a part of my mind is thinking ‘how do I bring that material in meaningfully?’

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

I’ll limit it to three but could list thousands: 

Sarah Knott’s Mother: an unconventional history has recently been seminal for me. It has reminded me of the richness of interruption, of broken forms, of connections in research; it has reminded me of the incredible silence and absence around the maternal experience and some of the social history to why that is so; it has drilled into me the value of knowing the vast differences of experience between mothers culturally and historically; it has reminded me of the importance of specificity. 

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was similarly transformative in its form and lyrical quality, and in the transformative boundary-breaking motherhood it offers. 

The poet Rita Dove, whose collection Mother Love re-imagines wryly and startlingly the mother-daughter relationship via a modernised version of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. 

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. 

An Invitation to Inquiry: Julienne van Loon’s The Thinking Woman

Features, News

By Melissa Cranenburgh

I think about this a lot. How, as we get older, the things we choose to read (hear, see) push us about like someone floating on a backyard pool, in just the right season, at a warm – but not too warm – time of day. Encouraged – gently, this way and that – by self-generated currents. We might kick out a leg, to propel us harder in a different direction, but we will soon hit the sides. Sometimes, someone jumps in the pool and fucks things up. Or it starts to rain. Or we get cold and just have to get out. But we know this place, calm consensus. We built it. And here we will stay.

It becomes more and more necessary for those of us coasting to invite discomfort in like an honest friend: to remember what it was like to try to reach those floating in their own safe presumptions, and just hating them for it. (It’s hard to recognise exactly when you became the smug person in the pool. Or just turned around and built your own version of whatever a pool is to you. Just know that you did. We always do. I’m sorry.)

“What is a female philosopher?” And, while we’re at it, “What is philosophy?”

So it’s heartening to read a book that encourages us to challenge our assumptions. To think expansively, and to look at those who do, and how that may be relevant to our everyday. An invitation to a thoughtful life. Julienne van Loon’s The Thinking Woman is that kind of book.

Loosely based on Alain de Botton’s pop-philosophy conceit, the author uses personal anecdotes to guide us through six themes: love, play, work, fear, wonder, friendship. Using these universal themes as an invitation to inquiry, she introduces  readers to a cast of influential thinkers. Philosophers. Thinking women.

It’s a primer, of sorts, but much more rigorous than de Botton’s reductive fare.  Arriving not at a simple conclusion, but at a place of openness. To new ideas and questions, somewhere off the page. In another book, perhaps. To be picked up by someone else.

As van Loon explains in her introduction, it began as a journey to profile “leading female philosophers”, but as she reads more deeply,  increasingly, she asks, “What is a female philosopher?” And, while we’re at it, “What is philosophy?” Particularly because, as Anne Summers observes in the foreword, only one of the women ultimately profiled (socialist feminist Nancy Holmstrom) “can be labelled a capital ‘P’ philosopher”.

Challenging myself to question unquestioning assumptions about gender makes is a bell I just can’t un-ring.

In exploring ideas set out by prominent “thinking women”, it’s no accident van Loon’s structure takes on an idea central to second-wave feminism: The personal is political. So, while she has not explicitly set out to write a book about feminism, its necessary intersections and our need to leave room for questions, in so many ways she has.

The question not asked here, but begging to be, is also What is a female? Or, for that matter, a woman, especially a thinking woman: we – a hugely different lot – who have been defined as a group more by shared oppression, than by a genuinely shared specificity. To be a thinking woman, don’t we need to ask that question? When weighted against other binaries of oppression?

Another thing: the uncritical use of gendered language itself here, when challenging language has long been a tenet of feminism. The thinking woman’s domain. The choice to uncritically use the terms ‘woman’, ‘sex’ and female, in a book about those who think critically, is an interesting one. The language we use changes us, our neural pathways, our modalities of thought. Challenging myself to question unquestioning assumptions about gender makes it a bell I just can’t un-ring. So, it becomes impossible not to ask these things. And these are questions van Loon would no doubt welcome us to ask. Her book’s generosity of thought encourages it; she leaves room.

In turn, she encourages her subjects to reflect on how their ideas are filtered through their personal circumstances and particularity.

The far-reaching profiles – love: Laura Kipnis, work: Nancy Holstrom, wonder: Marina Warner, play: Siri Hustvedt, fear: Rosie Batty, Helen Caldicott and Julia Kristeva, and friendship: Rosi Braidotti – are in some senses admiring, but far from uncritical.

They wind in small slices of van Loon’s life. She recalls playing with her child, and finding it both bonding and revelatory. Leaving her long-term partnership, and questioning why she had washed up on the shores of monogamy in the first place. Getting her first job at a carnival at 13, and the nostalgia with which she reflects upon it – even as she questions the nature of work itself.

She introduces each of the ‘thinking women’ in terms of their critical ideas on a given topic. In turn, she encourages her subjects to reflect on how their ideas are filtered through their personal circumstances and particularity. In each, too, she offers contemporary counterpoints. Encouraging discomfort. Kindly leading us through variegated territory. The author doesn’t offer answers. In many ways, the book feels guided by ideas gleaned from Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman (2013). That “relations between oneself and another – as between friends – have been understood as a binary: difference versus sameness. She argues for difference as positivity.” In each, the challenge to ideas raised feels like an act of respectful difference that is essential to the whole. It begs for its own flaws to be interrogated, too. (And that is a refreshing take.)

It’s interesting then, that I found myself adding a layer to everything I read. I read this book at the same time as Reni Eddo-Lodge’s excellent 2017 polemic Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I found myself trapped between the two, considering a deconstruction around race. Wondering why that was missing, and how it created a sense of irritating self-indulgence that I was perhaps languishing in more comfortable territory with van Loon’s book, when there were thinkers out there ready to pierce the skin.

The Thinking Woman is a great example of a thoughtful approach to philosophical enquiry. I think it isn’t really likely to attract the kind of pop-philosophical audience of de Botton or other (worse, much worse) philosophical pretenders. But I do think its flaw (complexity) is also its strength. Julienne van Loon is that rare writer: one that invites us to join her, without judgement, and find our own way.

The Thinking Woman is out now through NewSouth Books.

Melissa Cranenburgh is a writer, broadcaster, editor and educator. She spent more than a decade in senior editing roles, including associate editor and acting editor of The Big Issue, and co-editor of the magazine’s annual fiction edition. She now teaches in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing diploma, and hosts Triple R’s flagship weekly book show, Backstory.

FWF Q&A: Monica Tan


Each month we speak to an Australian writer about writing, feminism, and the connection between the two. This month we speak to former Guardian journalist, Greens politician and author of Stranger Country, Monica Tan.

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism to me means being conscious that my womanhood is a frame through which I have both experienced the world, and been regarded by the world.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?

A feminist friend of mine recently reminded me that while in our early twenties I told her, somewhat haughtily, that I wasn’t interested in my female identity and women’s rights. I had said I was more interested in ‘human rights’. Back then I was sceptical of the writing sphere’s ‘pink space’ and in particular disinterested by its preoccupation with body issues and self-esteem problems.

I’m grateful this friend was patient with me and helped expand my understanding of the female experience, far beyond my own. Now I understand better how power, control and privilege plays out through gender. That said, I’m still learning. I’m better versed in race theory.

How did the idea for Stranger Country come about, and how much of an idea of the book’s narrative did you have before you set off on your journey?

At 30 I had travelled the world but barely seen Australia. I had complicated feelings towards my home country: I’m Chinese-Australian, and a city-slicker, hipster type; what did I have anything to do with salt-of-the-earth, Akubra-wearing Drover’s Wives and suntanned, beer-swilling, BBQ-manning larrikins? And how could I ever truly belong to a land that was the spiritual domain of Indigenous Australians for over 60,000 years? With these questions in mind, I chucked in my dream job as a journalist at The Guardian, threw a sleeping bag and tent in my Toyota RAV4, and hit the long, dusty road. It was always trip first, book second. I had no idea what kind of book I would write and it was always a secondary concern to the experience itself.

In the book, you fuse travel writing with history and sociology. What was the research like for this project, and did your work as a journalist inform it?

My work as a journalist gave me a beginners-level understanding of Australia, Indigenous Australia and colonialism; I wasn’t starting from scratch. The trip took that knowledge up several notches. The reading and research I did after the trip helped me place my experiences in a historical context and reveal myself as a mere line of an unfolding and fascinating national story.

You write about realising that, as a non-white, non-Indigenous person in Australia, you too are complicit in colonialism and Aboriginal erasure. What do you think is the role of non-Indigenous people of colour in the fight for Indigenous rights?

I think it would be unhelpful to define that role in a very concrete way. But suffice to say that being a Chinese-Australian means I find myself outside of the conventional whitefella v blackfella dynamic through which we typically regard Australian colonialism. My skin colour is confusing: I am neither oppressor, nor the oppressed, or am I both? For now, anyway, I think people find it novel and refreshing to view the Australian story from that perspective and perhaps some clarity is gained from a viewing not so heavily burdened with partisan feeling.

A solo trip like this is often seen as a white male adventure. What was your experience of traveling alone as a woman, and woman of colour, for this book?

I’ll use that word again, people found me ‘novel’. A Chinese-Australian woman in her thirties alone in the Outback? I was perpetually a strange and unexpected sight. But Australians are highly versatile people and beyond an arched eyebrow, they would give me a little extra hospitality and perhaps I was hit on more than your average grey nomad Outback wanderer. I found single women in their thirties a rare commodity in the Outback (the surplus of which live in the cities).

How did you get into politics, and what has the experience been of being a young woman of colour candidate?

I was never interested in politics, but I cared about environmental and social justice. I joined the Greens because they were working on issues I cared about: marriage equality, climate change and asylum seekers, and I wanted to make a difference to my community. As for running in the recent election, as a Chinese Australian women in her thirties, once again, I was just as strange a sight on the ballot as I was in the Outback!

Throughout my professional and political life I have had to endure many small humiliations, because I am a woman, because I am Chinese, because I am young-ish, because I am a progressive candidate in a conservative seat. I swallow them; grind my teeth; smile and carry on. Because on the other hand, I also had an upper-middle class upbringing and am well-educated. I am frequently given respect, great jobs, a platform from which to express myself and access to power. I am always reminding myself that I’m a person with more influence than your average Australian. For that I am constantly grateful and committed to using it for good.

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

I don’t think I could ever recommend a single writer to ‘everyone’, but in an effort to restore some of the female writers who have been somewhat marginalised by Australian history, I implore others to read the works of ecofeminist Val Plumwood and pioneering suffragette Louisa Lawson. I do what I can to ensure their impact on our world is not forgotten.

What piece of writing advice would you give to your younger self?

No advice. I’m too afraid of the butterfly effect to mess with time travel!

A Precarious Home: Older Women, Housing Insecurity and Homelessness

Features, News

By Ruth Quibell

Photo: Pixabay

For many women, home is a provisional place. This has long been true. Violence, dispossession and poverty are not new. What is recent is the increase in the number of women over the age of 55 experiencing housing stress, insecurity and homelessness. On the 2016 Census night, for instance, there were an estimated 6,866 homeless older women in Australia. This was an increase of over 1600 women, or 31 per cent, since 2011.