Christie Nieman is an author, essayist, and one of the editors in the feminist collective responsible for the anthologies Just Between Us, Mothers and Others, and #MeToo: Stories from the Australian Movement. Where We Begin is her latest deeply compelling, coming-of-age YA novel.
What does feminism mean to you? Or Is there a moment you recall that shaped your own idea of feminism?
My feminism is quite literal. I think about the qualities we’ve ascribed to masculinity and femininity and the skewed way we’ve split them along gender lines and proscribed positive and negative value to them, and it seems to me that this distorted value system is at the root of so many human-made ills. I see it not only in the gendered issues of the pay gap, transphobia, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence, but also in racial inequality, white violence, land degradation, species extinction, and climate change. Because when we only value ‘masculine’ attributes in the real world – certainty, action, ‘leadership’, production (at all costs), assertiveness/aggression, oration – they become the very weapons that are easily and uncritically used to police women, punish transwomen and nonbinary people and men who embrace femininity, hoard resources, steal from First Peoples, and exploit the environment. And it’s this ‘entitlement’ to everything on this Earth that really screws my feminism to the sticking place. Entitlement, over land, women’s bodies, other people’s identities, over the Earth’s limited resources … I keep coming back to it, to just how ‘masculine’ this entitlement is, and how damaging it is, now and in the past.
This is why my feminism isn’t pro-women or anti-men, it’s pro ‘the feminine’: because ‘feminine’ attributes – softness, nurturing, uncertainty, aesthetics, care, listening – are the antidote to violent entitlement, no matter who has them. And they are not the fuzzy and weak attributes they have been made out to be, they are strong and mature and difficult to achieve; and they are even more difficult to genuinely achieve after centuries of being dismissed, denigrated, infantilised, stereotyped, exploited, and sanctified. I want to reclaim these attributes from being ‘weak’ or ‘holy’. I want them to be restored to their rightful value and to give them real power in the world. Because they are what the world needs.
Where We Begin deals in secrets – this is a great way of storytelling, but why is it particularly good in a YA setting?
There is a section in the novel that talks about lines and where we choose to draw them – and ultimately about how hard-and-fast lines are nearly always just short-term solutions for things that are not actually problems but are in fact long-term imperfect uncertainties. Secrets can be a way of trying to tame the uncertain and the imperfect, to bottle it up and contain it, to push it down and keep it hidden and solve it internally. Secrets are often a line drawn too hard and too fast.
Everything about our internal experience is a secret until we let it out – all our thoughts, memories, fears, hurts, desires – and the process of consciously deciding what to let out and what to keep in and in which contexts, is part of developing and maturing. And it’s complicated. Even as an adult that decision-making process around finding and drawing those lines between inside and outside isn’t straight-forward. You may develop a template as you get older, but many things still have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, each time deciding where and when to place that line between inside and outside.
But I think young adults come up particularly hard against that dilemma: they are beginning to cultivate their internal private life as part of becoming an adult, but a big part of being a well-rounded human is to be open to the flow of reciprocity with our world and the people around us; ultimately the aim is to learn to live comfortably and openly with uncertainty and vulnerability. This is tough for all teenagers growing into a masculinity-serving adult society that favours certainty and perfection, but for non-masculine teenagers it is an especially complicated proposition that can easily push them into oppressive secrecy. YA fiction is a safe forum where teenagers can explore these lines.
Your novel deals with mothering through intergenerational trauma and its impact. What was your interest there?
When you are a kid, you think the here and now is all there is, and anything else is from some other strange planet. My kids have just started talking about ‘the olden days’ and I remembered being a kid and having that same vision of a distant and unrelated time and I even remembered my own mother snapping at me quite angrily when I said those same words to her, ‘the olden days’. ‘There’s no such thing!’ she said. I didn’t get it then, but I do now. The older I get, the more I see how we create each other. Everything is now. Every time is now. I think this is something that Aboriginal cultures understand much better than my white culture. As Stan Grant writes in an analysis for the ABC, “History is not dead, it is not past or redundant, it is alive in all of us: we are history.”
I think mothers are often at the emotional intersection of this. Mothers are at the coalface. As adults they can see and understand how violent acts reverberate and repeat themselves through time, as women they have often been the direct recipients of them, and as parents they are so often solely charged with either allowing that reverberation through to the next generation of innocents or trying to fully absorb the shockwave themselves. It is a terrible burden, an unfair burden, and there is no way to successfully navigate it.
We live in a society that is so immature that we regularly question the truth of experiences of trauma, and too often we can’t even begin to understand and accept intergenerational trauma. We say, ‘What does any of that have to do with us?’ or ‘That was the olden days wasn’t it?’ And we need a good mother to snap at us: ‘Grow up! There’s no such thing!’
Could you share some feminist recommendations; which authors, books, podcasts, social media, are you reading, listening to, following right now?
I’ve just begun reading Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo and already I am beyond excited.
‘TERF Wars: Why Transphobia has No Place in Feminism’ by Laurie Penny is essential reading for feminists. It lays it all out from the perspective and deep knowledge of a feminist academic.
My scrolling is a little ad hoc, but I am always interested in what is being posted by Black Feminist Ranter (Celeste Liddle), Nayuka Gorrie, Women’s Rights News, Blackfulla Revolution, and NZ’s Ace Lady Network.
Podcasts: Nice White Parents from Serial. It tackles white entitlement in the American public school system and asks the question, How do we limit white power? Applicable pretty much everywhere.I’m one episode into Dolly Parton’s America, and it is so good.