FWF Quarantine Q&A: Leah Swann

Leah Swann is the author of the novel Sheerwater, a powerful story about a mother’s love for her children.

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism is a force with many expressions but what resonates with me most is how it asks us to bring a new and evolving consciousness to how we live and to scrutinise lazy habits of thinking.

I’ve been doing this for years and am still astonished at what I discover in dark corners of my own mind and being. In this sense, feminism is an ongoing conversation with my private self and the outer world. Feminism is about visibility, about calling things out so they are seen and recognisable – a recent example is how #metoo has drawn attention to the intolerable ‘open secret’ of the sexual harassment and assault of women.  

Working for a humanitarian agency and seeing the challenges women face in fragile contexts has made me urgently aware of how far there is to go when it comes to an equitable world. We have seen some real, quantifiable changes in the West. Change is possible with practical action. The more we challenge the status quo, the more we shift it.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism?

The moment was in my early 20s, when I was reading Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Revolution from Within by Gloria Steinem, Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn Heilbrun, the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich and worlds were opening up, spaces and language and modes of thinking – and unlearning old thinking.

Rich’s beautiful poems, Diving Into The Wreck and Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers have stayed with me, especially the latter’s image of those wild, prancing, unafraid tigers embroidered in and contained by, the borders of a cushion.

This is also when I read for the first time Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own. Reading her felt then – and still does now – like this amazing literary grandmother speaking with such sharp intelligence and clarity. There’s something fluid and expansive in her authorial voice. While opinionated, her opinions aren’t fixed but moving, widening, always taking up, and in dialogue with, new perspectives.

She says so many interesting things in A Room of One’s Own that remain true, including needing your own space and money to write, and I love what she says about any subject that is highly controversial (which would include feminism itself), and that is:  ‘one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.’

How do you think feminism has informed  your perspectives on motherhood?

The challenge for me was bringing that awareness to raising my son and daughter. Like positions on spirituality, you try with your children to teach them to think for themselves and to be discerning. One way of doing this was through storytelling. My daughter was and still is, a strong character and I looked for stories of strong girls who were both brave and active and thoughtful and kind. I invented a story of a girl who was raised by wolves in the patriarchal kingdom of Ragnor to tell my children at night time – this eventually became the fantasy series Irina: The Trilogy.

As a mother I strove to create an environment free of gendered expectation that fed the imagination. We had a big dress up box and they and all their little friends and cousins dressed up in every way possible, as ballerinas and pirates and fairies and kings, and both played with swords and shields and dolls (not cars, my son loved cars and my daughter never had the slightest interest!). I loved watching my son’s tenderness with the doll I made him for his third birthday, carrying him around and putting him to ‘sleep’ in a pram.

These days they’re teenagers with amazing ideas and opinions of their own and we have lots of conversations about what’s going on in the culture, and I often find their observations fascinating. I am deeply heartened by their idealism, along with their friends – many of them are progressive and thoughtful and politically engaged.

What do you believe feminism brings to the conversation about domestic violence and abusive relationships?

Without feminism, would we even be having the conversation? It seems unlikely that without feminism domestic violence would have been constructed as a social problem worthy of attention by policy makers, psychologists, academics, writers and the criminal justice system.  

In the last sixty or so years the discussion has encompassed both the horror of physical abuse and the insidious nature of mental abuse – sometimes called gaslighting, where the abuser erodes his victim’s sense of reality and seeks control and power over his victim.

With a woman killed, on average, every week to ten days by a current or former partner, feminism has much to bring to how these cases are reported by the media and publicly. According to Mary Barry, the CEO of Our Watch, blaming victims still happens in one in six news reports. This is astonishing. The way journalists frame each story can have a huge effect on public understanding, and I think all forms of public exploration, including film, music, fiction and art are grappling with this question

Which women, queer, or non-binary writers should everyone be reading right now?

Recently I’ve been reading the poetry of Ellen Van Neerven. Her writing is assured and funny and evocative. I’ve come across a few recordings online and on Instagram and really enjoyed the quiet way she reads, it’s beautiful.

For everyone and especially novelists, I think Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy is essential reading, even if it’s simply to witness an experienced, mature writer hitting her straps. In these novels Cusk is interrogating the intersection between life and writing itself, dispensing with conventions of dialogue, interiority and plot in pursuit of a deeper authenticity. Her prose sings.  

A writer I’d like to explore further is Judith Butler, whose latest book The Force of Nonviolence, calls for human beings to imagine a new, radically equal way to live together in the world. In an interview with The New Yorker, she says that in proposing active non-violence, she’s trying to shift the question to ‘What kind of world is it that we seek to build together?’ – a question that seems even more relevant in the time of the coronavirus, as we face a changed post-lockdown world. (As the musician and writer Richard Frankland posted on FB, maybe we have ‘the opportunity to plant seeds for a world cultural change? A world where we focus on the wellbeing of each other? Where we strive to end poverty and war? Where world collective action on climate change becomes a primary issue…’)

And finally, I loved Butler’s idea that we have ethical obligation to be unrealistic:

‘If one takes the view that it is simply not realistic that a woman can be elected President, one speaks in a way that seems both practical and knowing. As a prediction, it may be true, or it may be shifting as we speak. But the claim that it is not realistic confirms that very idea of reality and gives it further power over our beliefs and expectations. If “that is just the way the world is,” even though we wish it were different, then we concede the intractability of that version of reality. We’ve said such “realistic” things about gay marriage before it became a reality. We said it years ago about a black President.’

An ethical obligation to be unrealistic? I’m all for it.

Photo credit: Julia Nance

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