Kate Grenville is one of Australia’s most prominent authors. Her latest novel, A Room Made of Leaves, is set in the brutal, sexist world of early colonial Australia.
Is there a moment you recall that shaped your own idea of feminism?
In 1970, when I was twenty, Germaine Greer’s book The Female Eunuch was published and I started to read it. I realised that the book was a kind of bomb – that I’d have to change my whole view of the world if I went on reading it. I put it away in a kind of fear. Of course I came back to it soon after, and my life was changed by her insight that, to use the shorthand of the time, the personal was political. My problems weren’t just my individual response to an individual situation – they came out of a system that was all the more powerful for never having been named. Greer named it, dissected it, and shamed it. She gave us a big picture that made sense of the sexist and misogynistic world we were struggling to deal with.
Is it possible to do a feminist reading on a non-feminist past? Is historical fiction a way of addressing the ongoing inequalities of women today?
Historical fiction can be a kind of Trojan horse – sneaking ideas past the guards that people might have up. It’s just a story, after all, and the past is another country. As a writer my interest is very much with the present rather than the past, but stories from the past can offer an oblique way to think about the present – where we came from, as women, where we are now and where we might go next. In A Room Made of Leaves I showed the realities of women’s lives two hundred years ago – Elizabeth Macarthur’s life is shaped in every way by the fact that she’s a woman in a brutally sexist culture. Things are different now, of course, but not that different. Looking at the world of the past lets us see our own more clearly.
A Room Made of Leaves is an intimate portrait of brutal marriage. Feminism has had a troubled relationship with marriage. Does the history of marriage have a bearing on your views about marriage in the present day?
At the time my novel is set, marriage was a woman’s only life-choice – it was essential to financial and social standing or any scrap of power in a world that closed every other door for women. Marriage today happens in a different context for us. We have options about how to live, and we have divorce. That frees marriage to be a celebration of love rather than a one-sided legal contract. Just the same, I’m afraid there’ll be aspects of Elizabeth Macarthur’s marriage that will feel very familiar to some women today.
Could you share some feminist recommendations; which authors or books are you reading right now?
I’ve just read Bri Lee’s book Eggshell Skull – a young woman’s courageous battle to hold a man responsible for abuse. It’s not so common for a story like that to have a good outcome, or to be so eloquently written – I strongly recommend it.