FWF Q&A: Lucia Osborne-Crowley

Lucia Osborne-Crowley is the author of I Choose Elena.

What does feminism mean to you? 

Feminism, to me, means being vigilant about recognising each and every structural and individual disadvantage women face as well as the combined impact of those disadvantages. That means that to be a feminist, in my books, you have to look squarely at the world and acknowledge just how many different ways women are held back, shamed, silenced, hurt, injured, belittled, hidden, humiliated, taken for granted, killed. You have to be willing to acknowledge how these play out on every plane of a woman’s life, from personal interactions and conversations, to intimate relationships, to institutions and structures. Most importantly, you have to acknowledge the way these things interact with oppression based on class, race, sexuality, gender identity, disability. Feminism means actively informing ourselves about all the ways women are held back and then committing to challenging them, at least in some small way, whenever we encounter them (or at least as often as possible while still protecting ourselves). Anything less than that is not enough.

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?

I was very, very lucky to be raised by feminist parents, and so I had these ideas in my orbit from very, very early on. My grandmother told me at age seven that if anyone ever tried to teach me to do domestic chores, I should refuse, because they could use it against me later on to take my time and energy away from the feminist cause. I remember that my parents’ feminist worldview foregrounded every major lesson they taught me as a teenager. And then things started to crystallise in my mind a bit more in my later years at a co-educational high school, when I started hearing the way my male friends would talk about girls and sex and relationships. That’s when it stopped being an intellectual belief that I knew I had been brought up with and started really meaning something to me. I was also incredibly lucky to have been at a high school in Sydney with the most unbelievably dedicated group of English teachers, most of whom were passionate feminists and taught us all the most important feminist texts. I admired these teachers so much, and I so loved the books they taught me, and I wanted to be on their team. Also, in the later years in high school, some of the boys at our school started making fun of these teachers precisely because they were feminists. I remember that as a very galvanising time. All of a sudden I knew exactly whose team I wanted to be on, and whose team I didn’t.

I Choose Elena is an expansion of an essay you wrote for The Lifted Brow. What was the process of writing the original piece, and what was the process of lengthening the work?

Writing the original piece was a really strange and interesting process. It began as a deeply personal and private thing. I was going through a major health episode with my Crohn’s disease and endometriosis and was getting sicker and sicker, and was in and out of hospital, and it occurred to me one day that if I were to disclose my sexual assault to my doctors, if I were to incorporate that experience into my treatment, I might find some peace. At this point I had told one person – my psychotherapist – the whole story, and that’s it. So I slowly started to tell my doctors, and all of a sudden this whole world opened up to me, full of all the different kinds of treatment out there, all the amazing dedicated professionals and friends who could help me recover. I couldn’t believe I had spent so long not knowing that there was so much care available that I could potentially have access to if only I could tell the truth.

What followed was months of appointment after appointment – with physical therapists, psychologists, psychotherapists, surgeons, masseuses, acupuncturists and sex therapists. The journalist in me decided to pretend that during all these appointments, I was researching a story about someone else’s sexual assault and recovery. I took fastidious notes. It was a way of keeping some emotional distance between myself and the story. I don’t do well when I’m emotionally overwhelmed, and I knew I would be at risk of giving up. So I just went ahead and pretended I was at work. But then after months of this, I realised I had pages upon pages of notes, full of information I wish had been available to me earlier. I am incredibly lucky that I was able to go to all of these appointments – I had a job with enough income to cover them and lived in a place with a semi-functional public health care system. But the vast majority of people are not as lucky as I am, so I wanted to share the information I had been lucky enough to have access to as a result of those privileges. So I started thinking about publishing the piece as a way to share the information I had been lucky enough to have access to. I started showing it to trusted friends and over the course of a few months, and with a lot of help, I decided to publish it in The Lifted Brow.

When I was approached by a publisher to turn the essay into a book, I was thrilled and also terrified. Writing and publishing the essay was the most difficult thing I had ever done, and I knew the book would be 10 times harder. And it was – the months I spent writing it were, to be honest, almost unbearable. I sat down each day trying to excavate my life, trying to pinpoint all the different ways this act of violence had impacted me. I struggled much more than I imagined I would. But I just forced myself to go from the beginning to the end of the story, without editing or going over anything, until I had something that resembled a book. Then I took a really, really long break.

What are your thoughts on the first-person industrial complex – a largely gendered writing phenomenon – especially in the wake of #MeToo? What were your considerations in sharing your story, and how did you do so with your own safety and wellbeing in mind?

I am genuinely so heartened by all the amazing first-person writing we are seeing in the wake of #MeToo. I think the literature that has come out of this moment has enriched the world in so many ways. I’m so grateful for it. The company of women writers who have braved the first person has been a lifesaving force for me over the last few years and I truly don’t know what I would have done without it. We have, for so long, accepted a literary tradition that sees women’s inner lives as frivolous and unworthy of our attention, which means we have left a whole swathe of our world unexamined. That’s finally changing. I really believe that.

I also feel as though the women’s writing that has come out since #MeToo has challenged the idea that women writing about their own lives is an easy, lazy thing. For so long, when we did hear personal stories about women, we would so often hear critics and readers describe the writers as “diarists”, or describe the work as “confessional”. But when our male colleagues did exactly the same work, they were called essayists, writers, journalists, critics. They were afforded the privilege of the assumption that there was a craft to writing about their own experience; that they had deployed their skills to best communicate what they needed readers to know about their lives. As Roxane Gay has pointed out, you don’t hear anyone calling Knausgaard a diarist

But I think #MeToo literature is starting to change that, precisely because we are starting to have a conversation about the difficulties of disclosure around sexual abuse and harassment. And with that, I feel that we’ve started to develop a much healthier appreciation for the craft involved for women writers who decide to tell their stories – an appreciation for the fact that we work hard on our craft, that we think deeply about how to express our pain, and that there is professional and artistic value in that beyond the “confessional”.

Another element of this that I can see being challenged by post-#MeToo writing is this idea that when women write about their lives, they are engaging in a purely selfish or solipsistic act – that we are simply unburdening ourselves and asking others to hold onto our pain for us. We see this in how frequently women are asked if writing their stories is “cathartic”, as if it is purely an act of self-help. Of course there is an element of catharsis in speaking up – and it’s a really important part of the moment we are in – but I notice that it’s never foregrounded in the same way when male writers write about their lives. They are offered to presumption that they are primarily focused on artmaking, on giving something to the world, whereas women writers are often framed as though they are taking something from it. Spilling their darkest secrets and asking the world to fix their problems. But I’ve noticed that #MeToo is changing this as well, because again we are starting to recognise that society benefits from hearing these stories, and that in fact women are making contributions outside of their own self-fulfilment. The author Rosie Price, who wrote a novel called What Red Was about rape and its aftermath, a story she later said was based on her own experience, is often asked if the time she spent working on the book was therapy for her. I love her answer. She just says: No. The time I spent in therapy was the therapy. The work is the work.

The novelist and essayist Olivia Sudjic reflects on these issues beautifully in her book Exposure. I felt so deeply comforted and understood when I read her words: “It’s a mistake to confuse a literary project with a personally therapeutic one. Writing is not therapy for me. It creates as many problems as it solves.”

Much of your work explores the emotional inner lives of women, especially in regard to interactions with men (emotional labour, dependence etc). Why do you choose to unpack this in your work, and with what goal?

The one reason I keep trying to do this is because this is the kind of writing that has moved and shaped me the most in my life. It’s the kind of writing I admire the most, so I’m desperate to try and replicate it, or add to it, in some small way. There are so few experiences in my life that come close to reading Ferrante for the first time, for example, or Sally Rooney’s first novel Conversations With Friends, because these books looked squarely and honestly at the emotional landscapes of women in all of their complexity. The characters in these novels were allowed to feel angry, resentful, victimised, hard-done-by, guilty, unsure, confident, joyful, scared, hopeful all within the four corners of the same book. I can’t tell you how comforted I was by the experience of reading about those women. They made me feel as those my own contradictions and messiness were acceptable, even valuable, which is something women are taught from a young age to reject. I had always, always compared myself to female characters in classic novels, often written by white men, whose roles in life were so deeply straightforward. That I was nothing like them had always felt like a personal failing. But the more space that has opened up for honest writing about women’s emotional lives, the more I realise it is a failing at all. I do get to be all those things at once. So each time I sit down to write something, I always keep in mind the drive to hold on to that honesty and complexity, just in case adding more words to that chorus helps other readers feel the way I have felt these last few years.

How does your practice differ between your journalistic work and your personal essay work?

I really, really love having two very separate modes of writing. When I’m writing journalistically, I relish in taking myself out of the story and focus on how I can construct sentences that make the action speak for itself. And then when I’m writing longform, I get to do the opposite. I get to look at a story or an idea and think: what role can I play as a narrator in this? Could my voice or experience be useful here? Asking those questions, and figuring out what form a certain piece will take, is one of my favourite parts of the process. And as I start to improve my skills in each different form, I’m excited to start blending them together more and more – I’d really like to try writing long, in-depth reported pieces that have some of the formal qualities of a personal essay, and some of the lyrical expression you find in the essay, but still driven primarily by reportage. 

Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read (or listen to)?

I have just finished Bernadine Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other, and it is the most impressive work of fiction I’ve read in a very, very long time. It is absolutely essential reading. Other fiction I’ve loved recently include Emma Glass’s Peach and Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure and Rosie Price’s What Red Was. I’ve also been reading fantastic essays by women and non-binary folks like Sinead Gleeson, Leslie Jamison, Anne Boyer, Olivia Sudjic, and Michelle Tea. And I’ve been reading and listening to poetry by Olivia Gatwood, Eileen Myles and Andrea Gibson.

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

Just keep writing until you literally can’t write anymore. When that happens, read, and read, and read. Use writing to tackle every difficulty you face, because every sentence you write makes you a better writer. Maggie Nelson said recently: “Writing doesn’t solve my problems, but it does exhaust them.” I love that. So my advice would be: Just keep writing. Write until every single one of your problems is exhausted. 

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