Kate Mildenhall is an award winning writer and teacher. Her gripping second novel The Mother Fault is set in a not-too-distant dystopia.
Is there a moment you recall that shaped your own idea of feminism?
When I was a kid, my mum used to play my sister and I Don’t Be Too Polite, Girls until we knew the chorus by heart.
Don’t be too polite girls, don’t be too polite,
Show a little fight girls, show a little fight,
Don’t be fearful of offending, in case you get the sack
Just recognise your value and we won’t look back.
(Glen Tomasetti, 1969)
She also stuck the pages of nursery rhyme books together so we couldn’t see What Are Little Girls Made Of. Needless to say, I grew up thinking girls could do anything.
The equal pay argument was never personal, until I was preparing to handover to my (male) replacement as I went on maternity leave and I was accidentally looped in on an email outlining my replacement’s significantly higher wage (because he asked for it). It was the moment I got really, really mad.
It was also a moment that forced me to really look outside my own entitled wedge of the world and listen to women who had vastly different experiences to me.
I’m still listening. And still being shaped.
There are many, big topics in this novel — surveillance, ecological ruin, a pandemic — but motherhood runs throughout. (Much like juggling motherhood daily!) How did you achieve the thematic balance ?
Did I achieve balance? Do we ever?! The Mother Fault is very much the product of some big questions and issues that I’ve been obsessing over for the past four years. What will the future look like for my kids? How do I change that vision if it scares me? What individual responsibility do we have to stand up to corrupt or dangerous power? Who is watching me and do I care? When should I start to care? When is safety a privilege?
But there were other questions too: like how come most days I can want to run away from my kids, but at the same time know that I’d kill for them?
I wanted the book to reflect the way Mim, and so many women, have to tackle these issues — in between life which keeps happening with its tasks and dishes and bullshit of every day even when you are trying to save the world.
The epigraph to the book is from a poem by Gwen Harwood — what is the significance of that piece to you?
I first read Gwen Harwood as a year 11 literature student (thank you Hermione Burns!). In the Park was my favourite, which seems so strange now. A poem about a mother who feels ‘eaten alive’ by her children, watching an old flame walk past. I thought it was heartbreaking, but I didn’t truly understand it until I sat in my own parks, watching my young kids play and wondering if this is what my life would now be.
Mother Who Gave Me Life is exquisite and it never fails to make me cry. I urge you to read the whole poem (find it in Harwood’s Collected Poems.) For me, the poem is about recognising where and who you come from. It is about the generational strength and gifts passed down from mother to daughter. The kinship of women and earth, bonds as strong and elemental as rock.
Could you share some feminist recommendations; which authors/books/podcasts/ social media accounts, are you reading, listening to, following right now?
One of the current book stacks on my desk includes the 20th anniversary edition of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman by Professor Aileen Moreton Robinson, Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, Why I’m No Longer Talking About Race by Reni Eddo Lodge & Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad. It’s a stack I reckon a bunch of white women have on their desks right now and I’m committed to doing the reading, the listening and the work.
Some accounts I’m loving in my Insta feed right now are @tiddasfortiddas, @lucyspeaches, @clementine_ford (always!) and I always look out for thoughts from @msmichellelaw, @Nakkiahlui, @annaspargoryan and book recs (and more!) from @frippet and @justine_hyde on Twitter.
Recently I’ve loved Loner by Georgina Young — a smart, funny coming of age novel, and I’m so looking forward to Laura Elvery’s Ordinary Matter — short stories inspired by the twenty times women have won Nobel Prizes for science. For the younger feminists in your life, Me and My Boots by Penny Harrison is a firm favourite, as is Girls Can Fly by Ambelin Kwaymullina & Sally Morgan.