FWF Q&A: Sarah Krasnostein

This month, we speak to Sarah Krasnostein, author of The Trauma Cleaner.

What does feminism mean to you?

For me, feminism is an orientation which is sensitive to the ways in which dominant social, economic, legal and political norms devalue, silence and kill (yes, literally) women. Inherently intersectional, feminism is about seeing, and refusing, these distributions of power to name the many, many ways in which it is possible to penalise human difference. It is resistance against the loss of voice and potential and life that occurs when we fail to question received authority.

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?

I hope that my perspective on feminism is constantly developing as I learn from women whose experiences are different to mine. In terms of my take on what it is to be a woman writer, that, too, is evolving. Once I would’ve taken issue with the phrase “woman writer”, but I see a truth in it now that I’ve had experiences like balancing writing and reporting with pregnancy and motherhood, or having to negotiate the practicalities of being a relatively small person reporting alone, often at night, in unfamiliar and potentially volatile situations. So, it seems accurate to say that being a woman writer carries its own set of challenges which we have to meet before we even get to those inherent in the writing itself.

Why do you feel it’s important to tell everyday women’s extraordinary stories, as you have in The Trauma Cleaner? What are the responsibilities of telling someone else’s story?

I’m not very interested in writing about famous people (and, looking at my bookshelf, it seems I’m not very interested in reading about them). Fairly or otherwise, they seem to come pre-packaged. I’m more curious about meeting someone entirely new to me and finding, in that unknown quantity, elements of familiarity. Or finding something startling about someone who at first seemed familiar, in the sense of being “everyday”. Those elements of similarity and difference in our shared humanity are endlessly beautiful and terrifying to me.

Beyond the fact that I’m just magnetically drawn to these “everyday” stories, on a conscious level I do feel strongly that they are important to tell. My first year of law school, I read The Hidden Gender of the Law by Jenny Morgan and Regina Graycar and it was a wakeup call to the fact that facially-neutral laws and norms do not have substantively equal impacts. The lived experience of women in general, and different types of women in particular, remains functionally unequal despite structural changes to improve the fairness of the rules which govern our society. I enjoy writing about that from a legal perspective, but if I can write creatively about daily life –  how that point is personified by someone we can all relate to – I might be able to reach more people.

I think the greatest responsibilities in telling someone else’s story are those of amplification, empathy, accuracy and honesty. You try to balance them as well as you can, using any skill you may possess to amplify the voice of your subject and to accurately convey the context for their actions. Here – far from polluting the narrative – your empathic resources are as important as the more conventional research tools. And, in terms of honesty, you try to retain self-consciousness about the ways in which your own perspective colours the narrative, and keep your reader informed of what you’re doing.

The Trauma Cleaner combines aspects of several different genres; it could be variously be categorised as creative non-fiction, biography, or journalism, and you weave in personal reflections on your own life experiences too. How did you settle on this combination as the best way to tell the story of Sandra Pankhurst’s life? What books or writers did you turn to for stylistic or structural inspiration?

I didn’t set out to use a combination of forms, and I resisted it for a while. But between drafts, the material made clear that something more flexible and polyphonic was necessary. Sandra is such a complex individual, and she has lived such a complex life, that this combination of forms allowed me to most accurately convey the various layers I saw when I spoke to her or watched her in her daily life.

Being honest about my own life experiences was only fair to the vulnerability that Sandra and her clients shared with me, and by bringing that into the text I could be clear with the reader about the particular perspective through which I was filtering all the information. It was not easy for me. But I’m drawn more to Virginia Woolf’s “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people”, than to Joan Didion’s “Style is character”.

In terms of structural inspiration, I was feeling in the dark most of the time but Emmanuel Carrère’s books first showed me that you don’t have to be overly concerned with conforming to genre, and WG Sebald’s work confirmed that.

Stylistically, I’m always learning. My favourite writers inspire me not just at sentence level but also in terms of what details to look for in an immersive research process: Susan Sheehan’s Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing, the very early Gay Talese pieces, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Didion, the way Werner Herzog talks about his films and a book by the photographer Mary Ellen Mark called On the Portrait and the Moment which I always return to. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is so searingly talented, I came to her only recently but was heartened to hear her eschew cool objectivity for its own sake.

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

Recently we’ve seen just how many people are surprised by the prevalence of sexual violence against women and children in our society. The mainstream acknowledgment of the scope of the problem, its collateral consequences and the way in which a vast number of women are made especially vulnerable due to the confluence of gender, race, sexuality and socio-economic inequality is still embryonic. So I reckon most people could probably benefit from a reading list that included Maxine Beneba Clarke’s exquisite The Hate Race, Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness, Celeste Liddle’s opinion pieces and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Mapping the Margins.

Zadie Smith once said that if we limit our understanding of literature to books alone, important voices will be lost. The MCs Princess Nokia and Ana Tijoux and Siya are important writers. We have to look to other forms as well: Zoe Coombs Marr is an important writer, Rachel Perkins is an important writer.

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

It’s not about doing all the research and then neatly writing everything up. The writing is the thinking. It’s going to get messy; this is a sign you’re on the right track. Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.

Sarah Krasnostein was born in America, studied in Melbourne and has lived and worked in both countries. Earning her doctorate in criminal law, she is a law lecturer and researcher. Her essay, ‘The Secret Life of a Crime Scene Cleaner’, was published on Longreads and listed in Narratively’s Top 10 Stories for 2014. She lives in Melbourne, and spends part of the year working in New York City. The Trauma Cleaner is her first book.

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