For October’s Q&A, we speak to Odette Kelada, the author of Drawing Sybylla.
What does feminism mean to you?
Equality. It’s as simple as that for me. Feminism is survival.
Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it is to be a woman writer?
There are so many ‘moments’ that it is more like a growing awareness from a very early age. I grew up hearing the word ‘cliterectomies’ as a practice that would have been done to women on my Egyptian side. In Australia, I did not find the idea of women liberating either with plastic faces surrounded by needles in magazines prizing a lobotomised surgical kind of ‘beauty’, again entailing cutting the body. Women’s pleasure appeared to need to be crushed as a dangerous thing. Ideas of ‘greatness’ taught in school and in the movies, books and so on, were predominantly enacted by men and I could feel that I was rewarded for being smaller and quieter than I might be as a male. All these things were very present along with the looming threat of violence against women constantly in the news. I had the feeling of being stifled even in my privileged upbringing, and this made me passionate about the freedom of speaking in relation to power.
Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth made an impact when that came out. Also a brilliant course ran by Professor Terry Threadgold I studied called Legal Fictions, studying power, oppression, law and language, and reading Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson on white feminism. Until that point, I was very ignorant about the impacts of race, colonisation and whiteness, or that the feminism I consumed was predominantly white.
Drawing Sybylla emerged from your PhD research – what were the theoretical or cultural ideas your research explored, and how did they inform your fiction?
The ways in which story and history are melded in Drawing Sybylla were influenced by Trinh T. Minh-ha’s deconstruction of fact, truth and storytelling in her essay Truth and Fact: Story and History. Trinh notes that current definitions of history attempt to oppose the factual to the fictional, separating history writing from story writing:
Story depends upon every one of us to come into being. It needs us all, needs our remembering, understanding, and creating what we have heard together to keep on coming into being …. Story, history, literature … literature and history once were/still are stories (1989, para.2).
The theoretical approach to my PhD, which was completed some years ago, combined Bourdieu’s concept of habitus with post-colonial and feminist theorists including Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Trinh T.Minh-ha, Judith Butler and Elizabeth Gross, drawing on their analysis of history, power, oppression, agency and resistance. I also drew on French feminist theorists around women’s writing and écriture feminine and Foucauldian feminist analyses of power as this enabled an examination of the ways in which power is perpetually reinstated in gender, race and social relations; in language; in physical spaces and performing bodies.
All of these theories influenced the fiction writing, as the creative story is all about imagining voices trapped behind patterns which are constantly morphing and these voices are trying to speak, to break out of situations and also battle with internalised feelings that keep them invisible and often exhausted.
What can the historical treatment of women writers teach us about the nature of writing while female in contemporary Australia?
‘Writing while female’? I’m more familiar with that phrase in relation to ‘driving while black’. I think if that phrase is going to be used, then it needs to reflect intersectionality and awareness of race as well as gender, given its connection to violent police shootings. For example, a white woman writing is not in the same danger as a black man driving, so any analogy there can read as co-opting and simultaneously erasing.
Learning about the history of women writing enables an insight into patterns of experiences and in tracing these patterns, the possibility to explore how ideas have formed, how constraints change and move. Power often morphs to keep up with resistance and activism, so it is impossible to decode oppressive structures without knowing the history.
This is why I wanted to study what life had been like for women writing in Australia in the past, and at the same time I conducted interviews with contemporary women writers to see how their experiences compared. The evidence of which women were even able to access literature, western education and writing speaks to class and privilege, among many factors. The ideas around the social construct of gender, limited expectations, constant refrains around confidence, validation, insecurity, dismissive reviews and bias reception that I hear today can be seen historically in ideas of women having no place in literature, as unable to create an original idea and only mimicking men, and literally the idea that women who wrote would become infertile and potentially become ‘mad’ or ‘hysterical’.
Do you have a favourite feminist book? Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was a revelation to me, as it showed how story, a walking story in this case, could be woven with socio-political commentary and reflection. Given what I have written, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper for capturing creatively much of what I have spoken about here. Toni Morrison is the most stunning writer who changed what I thought words could even do. Loved Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race – brilliant, put it on the curriculum this year for Creative Writing. Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin Up to the White Woman is the must-read book.
I’d definitely suggest checking out the list of great reads on the fab Australian Women Writers Challenge site.
What piece of writing advice would you give to your younger self?
The secret is always to play even when everything is serious and seriously messed up.