Each month we speak to an Australian writer about writing, feminism, and the connection between the two. This month we speak to Sonia Orchard, whose new novel, Into the Fire, explores power, guilt and womanhood, and the many ways that we betray one another as well as our own ideals.
What does feminism mean to you?
Oooh tricky! Once upon a time I’d have simply said equal pay, equal rights, equal opportunities, but these days my views on feminism are a bit more complicated, as I’m not sure it’s realistic to strive for gender equality – or any other kind of equality – in a society that thrives off inequality and exploitation. These days, a lot of more privileged women have been able to escape many of the traditional burdens imposed on their gender by outsourcing menial work to poorly paid, usually female and often migrant workers.
One of the most important discussions in feminism, in recent years, has been about intersectionality, and the importance of feminists to fight for rights and opportunities for all oppressed and marginalised people. If some women attain ‘equality’ with men on the backs of other marginalised groups, then it’s a hollow victory for feminism. In a nutshell – feminism within capitalism is always going to be problematic, so I think feminism needs to strive for more than individual rights and opportunities, it needs to strive for structural change – to create a fairer, kinder society for all.
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?
Whilst I always grew up thinking of myself as a feminist, motherhood – in particular, the feeling of having become a 1950s housewife! – was certainly a turning point for me. That was when the personal really did become political, when I realised that feminism needed to be more than an individual pursuit, it needed to be more about community, and restructuring the way, as a society, that we live. A rethink of what a good society should value, and a redefinition of success.
As a writer, I remember when I started writing Into the Fire, around seven years ago, a sense that what I was writing wasn’t going to be taken seriously, because it was a story about womanhood. And stories by women, about women, were usually considered ‘chick lit’ – they certainly weren’t an authorised literary subject. The more I thought about this – that publishers and reviewers might look
down on what I was writing about – the more irate I felt, and the more important it seemed to stick to my guns and write a story that was unapologetically feminist.
A lot has changed in the writing world since then. Initiatives like the Stella Prize have really raised the profile of women writers and helped expose the plethora of extraordinary female literary talent in this country. It’s a wonderful – and important – time to be a woman writer in Australia, and there’s a fabulous sense of camaraderie amongst female-identifying writers. I feel pretty fortunate to be doing what I’m doing right now.
Into the Fire tackles many feminist themes, including motherhood, abuse and patriarchy. Why did you choose fiction to explore these themes?
I enjoy writing nonfiction and fiction. I generally use nonfiction to write about issues which I feel are quite clear-cut, and where there are obvious solutions. I turn to fiction when I have a messy topic that I’m grappling with – a topic that I need to investigate from many sides, and one which doesn’t seem to have obvious answers. That’s why I could only use fiction to investigate some of the thornier issues of feminism.
Also fiction is, arguably, the best mode (art form or other) for eliciting empathy in a topic. One of the challenges with fiction writing is to make all your characters – even the not very nice ones – deeply human. I love writing good characters who do bad things, and bad characters who do good things – as this is what people are really like. And we need to understand why people behave the way they do if we want to address societal problems. In my novel I have an essentially good but flawed character who does something that seems harmless to her, but has catastrophic consequences. By empathising with characters who behave in inappropriate or misguided ways, due to the way they’ve been raised, we can better identify our own poor behaviours and develop a better sense of how ingrained cultural dysfunction can be changed.
There’s been a literary trend lately of novels focusing on female friendships and the trials and tribulations of womanhood. What’s important to you about telling women’s stories, and how can telling these stories challenge the status quo?
Like most women of my generation, I grew up on a diet of male hero stories. I can’t help but think that many of the gendered problems in society stem largely from these stories that we’ve imbibed since birth. Due to growing up reading ‘other people’s’ stories, I think many women develop a great ability to empathise with other people’s lives. But they’ve also grown up happy to be on the sidelines, constantly apologising for themselves, being talked over, and feeling awkward when in the lead.
I think the more men and women and boys and girls get accustomed to hearing stories with a diversity of protagonists, the more boys and men will grow to feel greater empathy to others, and the more girls and women will feel free to be as fabulous or as messy they want to be. We should never underestimate the power of storytelling. After all, what was #metoo other than women telling their stories and other people listening?
How much of your own experience as a woman informed the writing of the novel?
All of it! But I also shamelessly steal from the lives of everyone I know. Into the Fire is a fictional story, but it’s in many ways a personal study of some of the complexities of patriarchy and modern-day womanhood, as I’ve experienced and observed it.
Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?
I would never be prescriptive about what another person should read, other than to say: read as many Australian female-identifying writers, or writers from marginalised backgrounds, as you can, because despite the progress of the last few years, they still face disadvantages.
But if I had to single out a recent feminist text that I found thought-provoking, I’d point to Why I Am Not a Feminist by Jessa Crispin. I can’t stand the title (the author is clearly a staunch feminist), but I found it refreshingly radical. She criticises modern feminism for being too polite, too safe and lacking imagination. She calls for a new world order. I’m with Jessa. Except that I would always proudly call myself a feminist.
What piece of writing advice would you give to your younger self?
Be fearless. (Though I’m not sure my younger self would have listened!)