FWF Q&A: Susan Johnson

Susan Johnson has been writing books since 1985, when she received the first of three grants from the Literature Board of the Australia Council which allowed her to write full time. She has since written award-winning novels, memoir and essays. From Where I Fell is a story of two women from opposite ends of the earth who start corresponding by chance and start sharing the intimacies of their lives.

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism to me means supporting the idea of women being recognised in their full humanity. This means challenging the deeply held concept in cultures throughout the world of the male person being the template of what it means to be human. For too long, ‘male’ has equaled ‘human’, and it continues to be a struggle to displace centuries-old prejudices—upheld by religions, laws, philosophies, and cultural and social beliefs—that a man is the default concept of a human being.  

My ideas of feminism developed first from lived experience, as for many women. First, I experienced feminism in the female body—conscious from a young age that my physical attributes were being assessed and discussed in a public way in a way my two younger brothers’ bodies were not. I also came from a traditional patriarchal family, in which the father was the head and the mother was a type of handmaiden. I only connected my lived experience with the intellectual concept of feminism when I was at school and I read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. It’s difficult to understate now how ground-breaking this book was at the time—I was maybe 14 or 15 when I read it and it was like a bomb went off in my head. As a young adult I was a member of an abortion rights and advocacy group (abortion was illegal in Queensland then); I went on Reclaim the Night marches and, because it was the days of radical feminism when sleeping with men was sleeping with the enemy, I felt I wasn’t a ‘proper’ feminist because I wasn’t a lesbian.

Your characters Chrisanthi and Pamela are such different people, but they connect and support one another. Why were these styles of being important and how did you balance their voices?

I have to say I think of this book as a novel of ideas, disguised as ‘domestic’ fiction. I smuggled in through a literary Trojan horse ideas about belonging and displacement, and broader philosophical questions about the meaning of love, friendship and duty, even though, on a micro level, it might seem like two ladies having a chat over the back fence! Don’t start me on “women’s fiction”—has anyone ever heard of ‘men’s fiction’? That’s what I mean about men being the template for what it means to be human—even in literature. We all know that Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle were regarded as masterpieces of literature, while many other equally accomplished novels by the ladies were regarded as minor works. I’m not claiming my books are unrecognised masterpieces, but I am claiming that works by writers such as Rachel Cusk (for instance) should long ago have been shortlisted—or even won!—the Booker Prize.

So, in answer to your question about Chrisanthi and Pamela, keep that in mind! I was aware this was essentially a dialogue in two voices, and in many ways a philosophical enquiry into how to live. They jokingly refer to each other sometimes as Socrates and Plato, but I was taking a bit of a dig at male philosophy being the template for human philosophy (and very frequently ignoring women as human beings altogether). I wanted these two “voices”, these two representatives of womenkind (and mankind) to represent two different kinds of women. Pamela’s story is partly an examination of female guilt, and so is Chris’s, as well as the role of duty in women’s lives. But it was critical for them to have some reason to connect in the first place (because their original interaction is a mistake), as well as a reason to keep communicating. Initially Chris’s attraction to Pamela is her ‘exotic-ness’ (she has a missing husband in Paris, she is well-travelled whereas Chris would love to travel), but it is their characters that in the end keep them talking. Pamela is free in her emotional expression, a person in crisis; Chris is a helper by nature, possibly over-invested in other people’s lives, a rescuer, with a feeling of somehow living a dampened-down life, and the novel examines their differences and their similarities—both of them are in their different ways trying to work out how to live.

We see too few books with the voices of middle-aged women centred – was this part of your aim with From Where I Fell?

Most definitely. The coming-of-age novel and novels examining that exciting and troubling part of life when you are trying to work out who you are—I’m thinking Sally Rooney’s Normal People and some recent Australian novels by Ella Baxter and Kavita Bedford, which I haven’t yet read but which I’m hearing great things about—are an important and eternal part of literary culture. I contributed my own coming-of-age novel (Messages from Chaos, my first novel, written when I was 28) and the more voices we hear coming from young women the better. But it’s also good to read the wonderful fiction of Charlotte Wood (The Weekend) and Claire Thomas’s The Performance (another on my TBR list I’m hearing great things about) exploring what it means to be an older woman.

You’re currently living in Greece with your mother — how does it compare with Australia as a place for two older women to live?

I’m not actually in Greece right now—I was a stranded Australian for about six months, on the DFAT list as an Australian citizen trying to return—and I finally made it back in January after raiding my super to buy a business class ticket. My mother was 85 when we took off for Greece in March, 2019, but thankfully she returned to Australia at the end of that year, just months before COVID hit. I stayed on, but needed to come home to support her. She’s 87 now, and recently had a fall, so now I’m back in Queensland. I think the Australian government should hang its head in shame over its abandonment of its own citizens. Apart from New Zealand, no other country in the world has effectively banned its own citizens from returning to their homeland. I cannot begin to imagine America or France or Germany not allowing its own people back. Yes, this is a public health emergency of enormous proportions; yes, protect the health of Australians, but the health of all Australians. I am not a rich person, I have spent most of my adult life as a self-employed author, and I had a modest amount of super I could raid, but other Australians are in far more desperate situations. Scott Morrison, act! Now!

But, yes, re older women and Greece, I have many older women friends there, where it remains one of those cultures which respect older people in general – both men and women—and where a life lived well is seen as an accomplishment. And by ‘live well’ that doesn’t necessarily mean those with the most money! Greece re-calibrates the entire idea of wealth, and what it means to live well—it means the accomplishment of friends, family and eating good food and keeping your garden in flower, both literally and metaphorically.

Could you share some feminist recommendations; which authors, books, podcasts, social media, are you reading, listening to and/or following right now?

See above for some of my TBR, and I have on order a memoir I just know is going to be fabulous, and will speak to the zeitgeist: Kathryn Heyman’s Fury, Allen and Unwin (about her experience of sexual assault as a young woman). I am also a huge Emily Maguire fan, and can’t wait for her new novel Love Objects (Allen and Unwin). I’m really looking forward to Michele de Krestser’s new one (Scary Monsters, Allen and Unwin). Also, the prolific and marvellous Krissy Kneen’s The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen comes out with Text in May—it’s a memoir of her Slovene matriarchal family and sounds fascinating. And a very dear friend (disclaimer!), Sandra Hogan, has done a miraculous job of turning an extraordinary story of a child spy in Brisbane into a great book (With My Little Eye). I think we’re at an extraordinarily rich cultural moment in terms of Australian ‘women’s’ fiction—or can I just say ‘fiction’? I wish we didn’t need the Stella Prize, but we do, until women’s writing is just ‘writing’. I went off all social media when I was in Greece—anyone else find it too addictive, stealing time from actual creation? I have only now tentatively put my toe back in the water on Twitter and Insta—my publisher couldn’t believe I cancelled my Twitter account with 10,000 followers—now I am starting back with—ahem—maybe three? I don’t listen to podcasts (don’t know why) and my social media feed is full of writers, books and publishing. I think Ben Law on Twitter is wonderful, that Trent Dalton is possibly the most adorable man in Ozlit, and that women online and offline should stay wide awake and keep fighting. Onward, sisters!

Photo credit Chrissa Fatsea.

From Where I Fell, Allen and Unwin, March 2021

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