FWF Quarantine Q&A: Jo Lennan

Jo Lennan is a lawyer and writer. In the Time of Foxes is her debut short story collection.

Is there a moment you recall that shaped your own idea of feminism?

When I was in high school – a pretty ordinary public high school in the country – my art teacher went out of her way to lend me books (thanks, Mrs Rae!). One was John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, based on the 1972 TV series. It anatomises the sexism that runs through the Western high art tradition. It’s stuff that Hannah Gadsby is talking about now – the male gaze as default, the reduction of women to certain limiting types – and at the time it was easy to spot the parallels in the surf culture around me as a teen. Art history and theory became my political education, in a way.  

Many of the protagonists in your stories are women making their way through the world with ‘the feral arts of survival.’ How can feminism be a tool for survival in the modern world?

One of the stories is a kind of unexpected ‘me too’ story, which I wrote as a what-happens-next story. It’s about the relationship – a rivalry – between two women, both actors in London who are cast in a Chekhov play, nemeses of a sort. One of them, Holly, is forced to think about how she benefited from past events. It’s not simply about men being baddies and women being aggrieved.

Feminism is also a frame for what the stories are not doing: they’re not apologetic about women’s preoccupations. There’s a sort of equal opportunity in the book, in which both women and men are at times flawed or ridiculous or powerful or transcendent in some way. And that’s treated as both remarkable and unremarkable, and the proper terrain of literature. 

I think we’re getting better at doing this in real life, too, getting past the reflexive assumption that the feminine is trivial, though that ingrained bias is hard to shake. 

Ultimately, feminism matters most when it aims at more than individual advancement, but it’s also true it can matter at the individual level, reminding us to resist the subtle pressure to discount our selves, our seriousness and worth.

For all the diversity of your individual stories, they feel deeply linked. How does a collection of short stories allow you to tell a bigger story or approach a bigger question?

I absolutely wanted this book to feel like a whole, something more than the sum of its parts. It’s sometimes said that the novel as a form is polyphonic, including different points of view through its different characters. A collection of stories can do that too, but more so, because you can set different stories against each other, in a kind of counterpoint. 

In The Time of Foxes has a central motif, taking the fox – the quintessential survivor – as a sort of spirit animal. It’s really about the human capacity for reinvention and survival. And people trying to become themselves, which is not as simple as it sounds.

Because human lore about the fox is so wide and deep and varied, it was never constraining as a motif. I never thought of it as a theme – I’m wary of themes for story collections.

Could you share some reading, listening and social recommendations?

There are so many! On Twitter, I follow Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. And for smart funnies, columnist Eleanor Margolis

On Instagram, I’m following Blackfulla Books. Merinda Dutton, a lawyer and bookworm, started a Zoom/Microsoft Teams book club for black lawyers. Then, with Teela Reid, she turned this into @blackfulla_bookclub, on Instagram, sharing and discussing reads from Aboriginal authors. They have freebies, big ideas and great style (just saying), so give them a follow if this is your kind of deal.

Fiction-wise, I’ve really been enjoying The House of Youssef, a book of minimalist, super-short stories by Yumna Kassab, which draws its characters from the Lebanese community in Western Sydney. Kassab writes beautifully about women and men who are sometimes constrained by circumstance. It’s very intimate, very deft. I read that Kassab trained in medicine, which makes her a kind of Chekhov of Western Sydney – the same sympathetic humanism is there. 

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