FWF Q&A: Alice Whitmore

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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. 

FWF Q&A: Monica Tan

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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!

Tickets on sale now

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Members pic

Tickets for the Feminist Writers Festival members-only networking day (Friday 26 August) are on sale now, available to purchase online only, here.

Our full program will be unveiled later this week, but for now we can tell you that sessions including feminist publishing, building feminist community, the politics of personal writing, and writing for kids with a feminist lens, will feature feminist writers and commentators from across the country including Clare Wright, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Susan Hawthorne, Evelyn Araluen Corr, Fiona Wright, Monica Dux, Emily Maguire and Lian Low.