SL Lim’s novel Revenge rages against capitalism, hetero-supremacy, mothers, fathers, families – the whole damn thing.
Is there a moment you recall that shaped your own idea of feminism?
There are so many! When 53% of white women voters in the US chose Trump, when Jacinda Ardern contributed $25 million towards a ‘stop the boats’ campaign as part of her ‘wellbeing budget’, or when Penny Wong defended Kristina Keneally’s dog-whistling ‘Australians First’ rhetoric – proof that the dead hand of electoralism can choke morality from anyone regardless of gender, colour or creed. And that ‘representation’ of women is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a liberatory feminism, or for liberation more broadly.
These days I find it kind of a red flag if someone lists their primary political identification as ‘feminist’ without some kind of qualifier – abolitionist, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, etc. Otherwise it’s purple cupcakes for Women’s Day breakfast and more female cops, that sort of thing. Lynndie England you’re my hero.
Speaking of Ardern, people need to stop talking about New Zealand like it’s some kind of feminist paradise. It’s a gated community based in Indigenous dispossession and settler-colonialism. Like all the rich world it exports environmental destruction for wealth, then clings to the ill-gotten gains by brutalising victims via the global apartheid system of borders. So I don’t care if there’s a woman Prime Minister.
Yet as tempting as it sometimes is to rage-quit feminism, the depth of insight and courage to be found in the aforementioned abolitionist, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist feminisms is unendingly generative. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s concept of racism as ‘the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death’ is an insight I come back to every day. Sarah Schulman’s work on non-carceral responses to interpersonal disputes in ‘Conflict Is Not Abuse’ has moved me deeply, as has Leila Raven’s lived experience and documentation of such response to real abuse.
Also, while a good proportion of self-identified ‘feminists’ are terrible, so are 100% of anti-feminists, so here we are.
Your protagonist Yannie was ‘born in the wrong time and place’ – how much did this idea of timing and opportunity drive you to write the story and how does it particularly apply to women?
Yannie is someone with a lot of talent and a yearning for beauty. But she lacks the cash which would enable her to pursue this, to achieve ‘escape velocity’ from the pre-determined parameters of her life. Because of her gender she is sucked into a black vortex of obligation, the harrowing work of taking care of the old getting older. As a result she ends up furious – in ways first corrosive, then explosive.
I’m happy for readers to find any kind of resonance in this story. Clearly caring responsibilities fall disproportionately on women. Men seem to feel or be socialised to feel, a kind of entitlement, a ‘range of allowable desire’ – to slightly misquote a phrase I use in the novel – which enables their convenient disappearance at such time as tasks arise. However for me this is a story about borders as much as gender. There’s a scene where Yannie’s young Sydney-based niece, Kat, is sprawled on the bed listing all the cool things she might do with her life while Yannie listens, fuming. To be poor in a rich country is not the same as being poor in a poor country (not that Malaysia is ‘poor’ these days, more middle income).
That said, my imagining of Yannie’s early life is just that, imagining, based on second-hand memories and accounts which may well be selectively curated, redacted or unreliable in other ways. There’s this mythology, this narrative of generational sacrifice in many East Asian migrant families, which can be both true and a means of gaining leverage for abuse. I hope Revenge conveys a taste of these complicated feelings.
What does it mean to write a coming-of-age story that features a middle-aged woman, especially in a landscape that prioritises narratives from teenage girls and young women?
It’s well-established women and femmes have an expiry date in popular culture – though perhaps more in visual media like TV and the music industry than in novels. I hope that change and self-discovery are possible at any age – I’ll let you know as I go. While fully accepting critiques of a culture which prioritises a very narrow framing of sexual desirability in women, over such qualities as courage, kindness or clarity of thought, I’m in the odd personal position of being fairly frequently validated based on intellect but rarely praised for being hot. Which is quite disappointing because I honestly think I am very good looking. This has precisely no broader ramifications.
Could you share some feminist recommendations; which authors/books/podcasts/ social media accounts, are you reading, listening to, following right now?
Wendy Trevino has been a revelation lately. Her poems on the urgency and romance of political commitment, of ‘taking a side’, have changed my conception of what poetry can do. For political writing: Angela Mitropoulos on risk, borders and most recently Covid-19. Andrea Long Chu for vulnerability, funny-depressive shitposting and a theory of gender by turns compelling, trolling and tender. Not Miles Franklin, she was a Nazi. Noname is a rapper, poet and activist whose presence on Twitter is basically prophetic. She’s been called a ‘propaganda machine for the Black left’, as if that’s an insult.
This is years late but I’ve also been watching ‘Steven Universe’, which is wonderfully casually non-binary and matriarchal. That there is a character called ‘Onion’, and his brother ‘Sour Cream’, absolutely destroys me.