FWF Q&A: Ellena Savage

Ellena Savage is the author of Blueberries.

What does feminism mean to you?

I love the opening of Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life where she writes of feminism:

It is a word that fills me with hope, with energy. It brings to mind loud acts of refusal and rebellion as well as the quiet ways we might have of not holding on to things that diminish us.

Often (usually?) the right thing to do is the thing that goes against an individual’s own self-interest. We know this, we know that the freedoms and pleasures we as individuals get to enjoy (however limited) come from these loud acts of refusal and rebellion, and the quiet refusals, too. And yet there’s not much in our culture to provides a stable or realistic model for saying no.

Feminism is, for me, a space where those acts of refusal are sanctified and remembered. Feminism collects and tries to honour the refusals of women who, at their own peril, did not participate in the degrading thing, the harmful thing, the bullshit thing.

In practice, in real life, feminism can feel like a provocation and a challenge, and it can be really, really hard. It can be the thing that makes a person—and sometimes that person is me—‘difficult’, or ‘the problem’ (Ahmed has written about this, too—the ‘killjoy’).

Recently I made the choice to not work with a person because I knew that they had abused their power and had not accounted for or acknowledged it. When I made that choice known to the people affected, it came back on me. I became the person scrutinized and suspected for interrupting the flow of power. This is what makes power power; its ability to render its exploitations and abuses natural and indisputable. In situations like these, in my despair, I have to think like Sara Ahmed and understand that those necessary nos are acts of imagination, they insist on the possibility of more and better yeses.

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?

My apocryphal-sounding coming-to-consciousness moment happened when I was in middle school and clearly sex-obsessed, but not getting the information about it I craved. At Glenroy library I typed ‘SEX’ into the catalogue and sought out the references it gave me, which led me to a bunch of self-help books for middle-aged and older readers who were out of touch with their sexualities, and The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. I was obviously too embarrassed to check out any of the self-help books (but not before scanning them thoroughly for their lurid details), so I got out the Beauvoir. Following the ‘sex’ references given in the book’s index, the first chapter I read was the one about sexual initiation.

I’m now re-reading the chapter for reference, in the newer translation, and it’s softer than I remember, though she does write: ‘The woman … becomes an erotic center uniquely through the intervention of the male, and this always constitutes a kind of rape.’ I remember it being more shocking—perhaps the language was more severe in the old translation? That, or I was just easily stunned because while I’m sure I’d heard about the concept of gender equality before, I knew nothing about sex nor feminism at the time.

Either way, that claim, that heterosex ‘always constitutes a kind of rape’, particularly in its first instance, was a frightening and gratuitous concept for a teenager, but I was also drawn to it. I took it to mean that there were historically enshrined power differences in all relational acts, and these asymmetries often took shape in symbols. The phallus (if you will), in the penetrative act, was a metaphor for an inheritance of centrality, primacy, entitlement, and ease. The phallus didn’t have to be a penis, exactly. It was a legacy. And that’s where my thinking about gender started: with one of the most (I learned much later) disputed and provocative ideas in twentieth century feminism.

Despite its many contested implications, this idea taught me a powerful lesson about looking for symbols, and paying attention to when symbols were being subverted or manipulated to mean something else; when a dangerous inheritance was hiding in other forms.

It also taught me that you could theoretically split yourself without doing too much damage to your psyche. You could believe in the truth that historically-determined power differences complicated received notions of consent between men and women, you could be vigilant and dogmatic, and you could, at the same time, enjoy your life however you wanted to. You could aspire to impossible moral standards to help correct the injustices of history, and you could also dye your hair, be frivolous, make mistakes, and it was not the end of the world.

Did you have a roadmap to where the book was going when you were writing it? Or did it materialise in tandem with the life you were living, the books you were reading? I guess what I’m also trying to ask is: does your writing process feel knowable to you and possible to dissect for others to understand?

This is a tricky question. I tend to write compulsively, and from the materials of my life, because they’re there, my life is always happening. But writing in this haphazard way doesn’t always produce ‘publishable’ ‘outcomes’. So I had to do a lot of planning and mapping with Blueberries, to make it a book that was not just a book of ‘everything I have ever thought and read and felt and experienced’ but a collection about fragmentation that could somehow sustain its integrity against, itself, fragmentation.

One of the essays took two or three years to move from ‘a block of text circling a potent but fleeting sensation’ to something that was potentially coherent to a reader (I’m still not sure about its coherence to anyone but me). One essay came out more or less exactly as it is, and is the best one, and I will never know how it came from me.

My editor at Text, Alaina Gougoulis, helped a lot with this process, the what should go in, what should stay out. She also came up with a thematic ordering system for the essays, which I won’t reveal here, but which I found magical to witness to. Alaina is a brilliant and exciting editor.

What draws you to expressing yourself through memoir?

My favourite definition of memoir comes from Nancy K Miller, who in her own memoir But Enough About Me says:

One of the meanings of the word ‘memoir’ is memorandum. And this meaning surfaces in another French expression that has passed into English: the aide-mémoire. Something that helps memory. 

Memoir as document-making. As archival work for future people, future communities.

Miller also makes a case for the argument that memoir is an intersubjective project. Instead of being, as its critics suggest, navel-gazing (though its worst iterations can be this), memoir is a genre premised on a direct line of connection between the author and the reader. The author is at her desk, she is simultaneously the narrator, actor, and author of the text, she is ostensibly creating a direct line between from herself and her reader, and she is asking to be recognised, witnessed. Yes, this relationship is constructed and mediated by the artifice of writing, but the idea, this line between two people who are otherwise unknown to each other, appeals to me. Following Shoshana Felman’s claim in her and Dori Laub’s book Testimony ‘it takes two to witness the unconscious’, Miller writes that ‘it takes two to perform an autobiographical act—in reading as in writing.’ Autobiography, here, is as much about identification as it is dis-identification: what a reader or writer is not, but can extend herself to recognise as real, important, and critical in another person’s experience.

I’m interested in how genre categorisation is used to assist a book’s circulation. Choices need to be made about where and how a book is positioned, and how, exactly, it will reach its ideal reader. In the Australian edition of Blueberries, the strapline is ‘What kind of body makes a memoir?’, which is a line from the final essay ‘Antimemoir’. In the UK, the book’s strapline is ‘Essays concerning understanding’, which my UK publisher, the excellent Philip Gwyn Jones, attached to it after the John Locke essay. I love both straplines, but they are clearly doing very different work.

As an author, I’m not privy to the marketing or sales meetings that happen at my publishers’ offices—I don’t even know if that’s what they’re called! So I will never really know how and why of anything much to do with that side of things. I could ask. But when I was writing Blueberries, I heard the refrain, over and over, that essay collections were the kiss of death in the Australian market. I imagine that framing Blueberries as a memoir was a choice made to connect the book with readers who would respond to Blueberries—readers comfortable with women’s memoirs—and who might feel less attracted to the term ‘essay’.

I think of myself more as an essayist than as a memoirist, though. My approach differs to more classical memoirists, in that I tend to use autobiographical material as one of many sources or citations in my writing, rather than as the object of study. The essay, as a mixed, freewheeling, inside-outside, public-private genre, fulfils the compulsive need I have to write about myself, and my paranoiac impulse to connect unconnected ideas.

When I read Blueberries, one of the things that struck me was how comfortable you were with contradiction and second-guessing; how certain and generous you were with expressing doubt. How do you glide between certainty and doubt in your work?

We know that stable narratives are unreliable. We know this because we can often see how they are constructed to support existing power relations, and that they don’t—can’t—reflect our lived experiences. In real life, we are endlessly split, fragmented, and we, now—all of us—lead extremely complex lives. We are struggling against hordes of competing information on a daily basis. We are being asked to accept the death of the earth, and we are encouraged to soothe ourselves with expensive scrubs and bath bombs and scented candles.

There is a huge discord between the theoretical moral framework of the Anglo-western civilisation—vaguely Mosaic, vaguely Christian, a little bit Greco; bad and good, punishment and reward—which we apparently adhere to, and the material reality, which is brutal, extremely unfair, and presents no real consequences for extortions and exploitations on the grandest scales.

I wrote in response to one of your earlier questions that thinking against accepted power formations requires a person to split herself. I said that you could do it without damaging your psyche. But doing it requires a person to occupy two or more thought positions at once; this is, I think, how you psychically survive this ever-fragmenting world. It’s something I try to do in Blueberries: represent the multiple and simultaneous and contradictory positions that thinking, being, demands.

In ‘The Literature of Sadness’, you write: ‘It is the writing within a life that gives moments of reprieve from solitude. Where do you distinguish loneliness and solitude, especially considering how writing can be so enabling of both, and sometimes at once?

The books I write about in that essay, Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams and Agota Kristof’s Notebook trilogy in particular, are just these catastrophically sad books about the most vexed and devastating periods in European modern history. I can’t even think about the Notebook trilogy without feeling a shadow cast over my soul. But both works argue for the necessity of writing as a way of surviving supposedly unspeakable grief. With both works, writing is positioned as a form of witness and as a method of entering the world.

In Marguerite Duras’ strange essay on writing, titled ‘Writing’, she says that ‘the solitude of writing is a solitude without which writing could not be produced…’ She also says: ‘Writing was the only thing that populated my life and made it magic.’ I relate strongly to both sentiments.

The necessary loneliness or solitude of writing is assuaged, for me, by the feeling that it populates my life. Writing is a social activity done alone. It’s made meaningful by a community of people who are in communion with one another—people who have been dead for centuries are speaking to people who have not yet been born. Putting myself inside a circuit of literature is like being invited to an interesting conversation that goes on forever.

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

I am bad at these things, I am never able to remember anyone but the last handful of writers I’ve been interested in. I love all the writers everyone else already loves, so I won’t add your Garners or your Tumarkins, Wrights (Alexis or Fiona), Alexieviches, Kushners, Rankines, Boyers, Myleses, Nelsons, Tillmans, Kapils or Krauses here.

Authors who might not already be on the top of the list, then:

Everyone should read Jamaica Kincaid. Her voice is like a hammer. Many of her books are out of print, and that’s a travesty. I love Gertrude Stein, too, but should everyone read her? Probably not. I just re-read The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which is one of my absolute favourite novels ever. It’s the model of a book I wish could one day write; its scale, its ambition, its everything-ness. Another: anyone who brushes up against the comforts of bourgeois whiteness should read the Norwegian novelist Vigdis Hjorth, whose novels (only two in translation so far) dramatise the many violences inherent in privileged lives.

Others still with brilliant books out or nearly out: Jean Edelstein, Rita Bullwinkle, Chelsea Hodson, Rachel Ang, Eloise Grills, Anwyn Crawford, Rebecca Giggs, Nicky Minus, Ellen Van Neerven, Elena Gomez, Laura Jean McKay, and my sisters at Text, Jennifer Down and Laura McPhee-Browne.

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