The Women Who Wrote My Story
Updated: Apr 30, 2021
Reading gave me empathy. It opened me to the worlds of hurt others experienced that didn’t infringe on my white, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, English-speaking, able-bodied world.
It started early. I was reading well past my bedtime in primary school and I had my family and friends acting in plays about the weak and vulnerable (mostly animals about to meet their end at the hands of a predator-or mass production farming-but that’s another story for another blog…) from the age of five.
By the time I had reached upper primary school, I was reading mostly adult fiction, and the blinkers had well and truly been yanked clean off. I can’t remember my school library as a repository of progressive knowledge, but my mum was adamant about me having books; she took me to the town library often and had a fairly extensive collection herself that she shared with me. And that was how I came to devour most of the romance novels that stock the bookshelves of middle-aged housewives across the nation before I even started high school. Maeve Binchy, Jodi Piccoult, Danielle Steel, Monica McInery, Belinda Alexander.
Most of the time, during this phase, I read because I was angry, despairing or hopeful; Why were all these women wasting their boundless potential mooning over men (and it was always men, make no mistake)? Why couldn’t women be anything they wanted? Why are all these stories the same: same women, same heroes, same plots, same setting – doesn’t this sort of thing happen anywhere else to anyone else?
I felt a growing void where reading had once taken me out of my own experience, it now seemed reading the same genre by the same mould of author was taking me further into, further entrenching me in the very experiences I had enjoyed being taken away from and learning to break down barriers around. I was in a reading rut; what a first-world problem, if ever there was one!
It was then that I found the wonderful world of diversity: Kate Grenville, Alexis Wright, Anita Heiss, Helen Garner, Oodgeroo Noonacul, and then, later, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Alice Pung, Sulari Gentill, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Clementine Ford, Melissa Lucashenko, Tara June Winch, Kim Scott, Melanie Cheng, Claire Bowditch.
For those of us with privilege, it is our obligation to research and inform ourselves as much as possible about the experiences of those who do not enjoy our same benefits and who necessarily suffer for our gain. What I initially thought, as a teenager, was that I had the ‘right’ opinions; I argued a lot against prejudice, I defended the downtrodden on a million theoretical fronts but I couldn’t see the hypocrisy of my very rigid standards about the others around me who didn’t do this in the way I chose to. There were good guys and bad guys, and we all know which camp I belonged to.
When I read The Secret River, I was shell-shocked for weeks. Kate Grenville sucker-punched me to the stomach with the way she so certainly condemned even herself with the plot and characterisation of the Thornhills and their land-claiming neighbours and allies. I had to read Finding the Secret River to allay some of my confusion; was she somehow saying that she was also culpable for the actions of Thornhill and the others she had researched and brought to life? But she has all the right opinions! I scoffed to myself. I read the novel three times. I thought about nothing else for three months while I tried to figure out where all her guilt came from.
When I first started writing seriously, it was Kate Grenville’s style I found myself trying to emulate. I wrote to shed light on the ways we were all still culpable, still profiting, still benefiting. But I made a fatal mistake, that Grenville herself never did. I took the voices and perspectives of others and tried to embody their experiences. I was gently directed to read some of the academic work of Anita Heiss and I blushed at my error in judgement. I had taken the voice, but endured none of the pain and hardship that had shaped it.
I re-relegated myself to the domain that I could inhabit; the space of a woman of the majority culture, who provides a platform for those who write about their authentic experiences, especially those from diverse and intersectional backgrounds.
I was reminded of how much arrogance there was in a writer who was not first and foremost a reader and a learner. I had given myself ‘airs’ as a writer that I was not entitled to, I was not listening enough in the literary landscape. The woman seemed a repository of all knowledge on the subject, so I started my re-education with the poetry of Anita Heiss, in particular, her collections ‘Am I black enough for you?’ and ‘I’m not racist but…a collection of social observations’. My favourite aspect of Heiss’ writing is that it put me firmly in my place. That no matter my intentions, by writing of experiences with layers and generations I couldn’t possibly feel or understand, I was just as guilty of ‘Making Aborigines’ as the others who ‘project (their) own identity issues onto (her)’. The truth was, I was struggling with who I was because I now had nothing to say (how did you know, Anita?). Heiss had identified it correctly in me and exposed it, that fear: how could I be a writer who had nothing to say? I felt that, all around me, brilliantly diverse women were already saying it all, and so much better than I ever could.
It was Clementine Ford who helped me understand what it meant to be an ally. She wrote passionately about the plight of women in a post-feminist world, but never professed to speak for all women, and she regularly acknowledged that, despite her oppression at the hands of the patriarchy, she knew her suffering was mild in comparison to women of colour, of diverse language groups, of low socio-economic status, of non-cisgendered women, of female-identifying women who were outside the binary categories and of women of homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, intersexual or asexual orientation. And then, she encouraged those of us who have some privilege, to use it on behalf of those who have even less than us, not to engage in debates about who is a bigger martyr, or fight every individual from a personal position.
By the time I came across Yassmin Abdel-Magied, I was ready to hear the very direct and helpful instruction to not take up space, to not monopolise the conversation about issues that involved or affected me, but instead, give my space, the space that my voice would have occupied, to someone who needs it more but has less access to the space, or for whom the space comes at a higher premium.
And that has been my path to Mona: reading, and a mission to, as a writer, carve out and reserve space for those who need their voices heard the most, encourage them to speak if they feel unable to, facilitate an audience who are open and receptive to their message and grow a community that will continue to champion their voice, their rights, their interests after the initial platform of the magazine fades.
A Reference List (I’d like to think of it as a place to start…)
Novels, Memoirs and Collections of Poetry:
The Secret River, Finding the Secret River and A Room Made of Leaves – Kate Grenville
Am I Black Enough For You? and I’m Not Racist But…A Collection of Social Observations – Anita Heiss
Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia – edited by Anita Heiss
Growing Up African in Australia – edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke
The Hate Race – Maxine Beneba Clarke
Fight Like A Girl and Boys Will Be Boys – Clementine Ford
Yassmin’s Story – Yassmin Abdel-Magied
New Daughters of Africa – edited by Margaret Busby
‘A little too close to the sun.’ – Yassmin Abdel-Magied (Griffith Review, 2017)
‘What does my headscarf mean to you?’ – Yassmin Abdel-Magied (TED Talk, 2014)