I Don’t Know What to Say or If I Should Hug Her

 

Do we read enough books by women?

Simple question. Not so simple answer.

A few months ago I was chatting with Julie Koh about The Australian Women Writers Challenge. Since the publication of last year’s Sleepers Almanac, Julie and I have kept up a steady online correspondence, often discussing our current reading lists. I mentioned Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing and When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett. No big deal, I thought. A no-brainer. Two very good books by two very talented writers. Shit, Birds won the 2014 Miles Franklin! Julie’s response, though, got me thinking.

“So great that you’re reading fiction by AUSTRALIAN WOMEN!” she said. “Not that you need a pat on the back, but here’s a pat on the back.”

Wow, I thought, thanks. But do I really deserve a pat on the back?

Scanning my bookshelves, I scribbled down a list on a blank sheet of A4.

Books by Australian women I’ve read or reread in the last year:

Monkey Grip Helen Garner

Postcards from Surfers Helen Garner

The Spare Room Helen Garner

Floundering Romy Ash

Foreign Soil Maxine Beneba Clarke

Holiday in Cambodia Laura Jean McKay

Forecast: Turbulence Janette Turner Hospital

Like a House on Fire Cate Kennedy

Past the Shallows Favel Parrett

All that I am Anna Funder

Road Story Julienne Van Loon

Only the Animals Ceridwen Dovey

Excluding the two yet-to-be-read titles, this works out to be one a month. Is that good? Or do I need to pick up my game? Should I include the one hundred or so short stories by Australian women I’ve read and admired in literary journals, magazines and anthologies?

What about online? Does that count?

 

The Australian Women Writers Challenge asks the question:

Are male authors more likely to have their books reviewed in influential newspapers, magazines and literary journals than female authors?

According to the 2012 statistics compiled by Bookseller & Publisher, well, yes, they are, or at least, they were. Men get more than their fair share, and it’s time for women to even the balance. Bloggers, far and wide, are encouraged to read books by women and share their reviews. The AWWC question is valid, no question, and deserves thoughtful debate, but as far as I’m concerned, it is but one of many avenues that require exploration.

Call me naïve – or perhaps even ignorant – but I believe the contribution of women to the contemporary literary landscape in this country far outweighs how many – or how few – are reviewed in, say, the Sydney Morning Herald or the Australian.

As a fledgling Australian writer, three years into the heady rush and often lonesome heartbreak of a hobbyist grinding out short stories that most people will ignore, I’ve never once thought women to be underrepresented or undervalued. Again, maybe I’m just naïve. Maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. And I probably don’t. My literary education was a decade of cheap paperbacks, midnight cigarettes and beer. No classrooms. No lecture theatres. No professors, tutors or mentors shining the light.

Or maybe, just maybe, I rocked up to the party at the best possible time.

Women are doing incredible things in Australian literature. Nothing new, of course, but the appreciation and recognition have never been greater. Walk into a bookstore, scan the shelves. Australian women are national and international bestsellers. As well as taking out the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award for the last three years, Australian women are attracting significant attention and praise in the global market.

Authors Hannah Kent, Michelle de Kretser, Favel Parrett, Cory Taylor, Anna Funder, Brooke Davis, Ceridwen Dovey, Kate Morton, Gillian Mears, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Sonya Hartnett, Evie Wyld, Kate Grenville – and a host of others – are kicking some serious literary arse.

Women, too, are thriving in the local scene. Feminine grace, intelligence and muscle, consistently fill the pages of Australian literary journals, magazines and anthologies. Sadly, annual publications – yes, real books with spines and covers and everything – like Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing and the Sleepers Almanac, never achieve the sales they deserve, but they are, without question, a showcase of our national talent. Having followed these publications with great interest for the past few years, I’ve been introduced to the work of dozens of fine short story writers, both emerging and well-established. Many have published single-author collections, novels, and won national and international awards, fellowships and residencies. They are among the best and brightest this country has to offer, and there’s never been a shortage of women.

I won’t name them all – far too many, in fact, to risk an obvious omission– but I will mention a selection of short-form writers I’ve become familiar with in the last couple of years and deserve, as far as I’m concerned, greater attention from the general reading public. And when I say general reading public, I mean readers other than creative writing scholars and freelance critics.

Cate Kennedy, Josephine Rowe, Karen Hitchcock, Paddy O’Reilly, Jenny Ackland, Eleanor Limprecht, JYL Koh, Carmel Bird, Ruth Wyer, Rebecca Howden, Krissy Kneen, Beverley Lello, Angela Meyer, Vicky Daddo, Margo Lanagan, Susan McCreery, Kate Rotherham, Michelle Wright, Tara Cartland, Brooke Dunnell, Marion Halligan, Sarah Holland-Batt, Eva Lomski, Zoe Norton Lodge, Meg Mundell, Lee Kofman, Jennifer Mills, Debra Adelaide, Leah Swann, Rebecca Giggs, Georgia Blain, Romy Ash, Laura Jean McKay, Rebecca Jessen, Ellen van Neerven, S J Finn, Eliza Henry-Jones and Claire Aman.

Again, these are just a fraction of the incredible talent at work in Australia today. Granted, writers of short fiction are rarely, if ever, household names. Only a precious few enter into the territory of popular culture. But for those of us keen on discovering grassroots literature – the type pushing boundaries, asking questions, often developing into works of greater length and depth – it’s becoming apparent that a woman’s voice is seldom ignored. Of the 23 contributors included in Best Australian Stories 2014, 17 were women.

The Queensland Literary Awards – no longer the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards due to a cut in government funding in 2012 – offers further insight into the current strength of women’s writing. In 2014, women won 7 of the 10 categories. The previous year, they won 10 of the 11 categories. By no means are these statistics a definitive representation of the contentious gender rift in Australian publishing, but they may just challenge the notion that women consistently receive, so to speak, the short end of the literary stick. Throw in the success and esteem of the Scarlett Stiletto Awards, the Stella Prize, and, for example, the fact that women took out 32 of the top 50 spots in Booktopia’s 2014 Australia’s Favourite Novelist poll, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue a lack of exposure. A pattern is emerging. No doubt about it. Don’t believe me? Check out the longlist for the 2015 Miles Franklin.

Is it any surprise that 8 of the 10 nominees are women?

Ok. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe I’m just having a man-look. It happens. But in my experience, however limited, a good woman is NEVER hard to find. Not only are Australian women writing great books, winning awards and receiving due praise, but they are publishers, editors, bloggers, critics, judges, booksellers, journalists, event coordinators, librarians, campaigners, book-clubbers, mentors, tutors, manuscript appraisers, agents, marketers, designers, professors, illustrators and patrons. Perhaps most significantly, though, they are READERS.

The publishing industry simply wouldn’t exist without them.

 

In April last year, Louise Swinn – chairwoman of the Stella Prize and editorial director of Sleepers Publishing – wrote a playful and timely piece for the Sydney Morning Herald entitled, ‘Why should men read books by women?’ The article, unsurprisingly, generated some lively debate. Read the article. Go on. And then read the comments.

How’d you go? What do you think?

In my view, some people missed the point. Did they read the same article I read? Ironically, the scattering of snide opposition only reinforced Louise’s point. Yes. All readers, male and female, have their personal literary tastes. That’s fine. That’s great. Read anything you bloody want. Just read. It keeps the industry humming and you entertained. Shit, you may also learn something. How good is that?

But I agree with Louise when she says that women tend to read a broader scope of stories. Yes, I know there a lot of men out there who read books by women and appreciate strong female characters – don’t bother rolling your eyes or planning a razor-sharp retort condemning my gross misrepresentation of an entire gender – but they are definitely in the minority. Interpret the article however you like, but I believe Louise has made a valid comment. Rather than telling men what to read, she’s simply encouraging some to expand their habitual fare.

Sure, some books by women are shit, just as some books by men are shit. Shit, as they say, happens. All writers are flawed. But if you ignore the creative work of a gender based simply on the fact that you hated reading Pride and Prejudice in Year 10 English, you’re destined to miss out on so much good stuff before and since.

How many women do you think read Hemingway, for example, hated it, and said, ‘That’s it! No more books or stories by men. Ever! No man for a hundred years will write in a different style or offer an opposing point of view. They’re all misogynist arseholes intent on primping their masculine egos!’ Okay. Maybe a few said that. But they’ve probably read The Great Gatsby – international sales of the 1926 novel spiking after the Baz Lurhmen film release starring Leo Di – and seriously flirted with some Haruki Murakami or Raymond Carver.

 

Just for the record, I never read a book based on an author’s gender. I buy and read books I think I will like. No more. No less. My taste – as you may have guessed from my Australian women reading list – usually falls into the genre of literary fiction. Something you also may have noticed is that I’m partial to a good short story. Yes, I’m one of a rare breed who actually buys and reads collections of stories. I know what you’re thinking. Crazy, right? Who does that? Just when a story is getting good, it ends. All very frustrating.

Seriously, though, I have to make a confession.

I didn’t always read books by women.

No doubt it has something to do with my upbringing. I grew up on Queensland’s Darling Downs, a typical country boy. I played football – Rugby League, that is – cricket, volleyball and basketball. I enjoyed camping and fishing. I rode motorbikes. I built fires and learned to shoot a rifle at ten. For pocket money, I mowed lawns on weekends, and during summer holidays, chipped cotton, drove tractors, tended vineyards, picked and packed fruit. Yes, I was athletic. I got outside. I was fit. Often sunburnt, I was lean and strong.

But it was books that started it, the idea as a teenager that there was a world waiting to be discovered beyond the Range, the red soil of Toowoomba, the ancient volcanic dust that stained bared feet and hands, clothing, streets, pavements, and everything else in town liked dried murder. Anything to do with history and war I devoured. I wanted to visit battlegrounds, the sites of revolutions. But most of all, after getting into the novelists, I wanted to see Paris, visit the Louvre, Notre Dame, and sit in the cafes on the Left Bank where the old writer’s used to sit. After The Call of the Wild, Tom Sawyer, and The Lord of the Flies, I read everything by Hemingway, Joyce, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald.

The men in my family – like many of the characters in the books I enjoyed – were tough and hard-working, men by any man’s standards. Yes, they smoked and they drank and they brawled, but never once, as far as I know, swore in front of a woman.

My grandfather on my father’s side was a butcher and a boxer before he was killed in a road accident long before I was born. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a truck driver, a fire fighter, a soldier. Enlisted and shipped off to New Guinea to hold off the Japanese in 1942 as a twenty-one year old, he suffered the horrible jungle sufferings of Port Moresby, Milne Bay and the Kokoda Track. He told me stories when I was a boy about the things he’d seen – savage night battles, the enemy like ghosts in the scrub, the bombing of airstrips, villages burned, destroyed, the scattered bodies of the natives naked and mutilated, Japanese POWs gaunt and scared and weeping like children, the malaria sweats, the nightmares, and once, after six weeks in the jungle, removing his worn soggy boots for the first time and peeling not only his socks from his feet but several layers of flesh so that the bones shone white through the rot and the blood and the mud. I marched with my grandfather every Anzac Day, his medals hanging heavy on my small boy chest, and long before he passed at eighty-seven, still smoking and drinking and telling stories, I kept his ID tags and rising sun AIF badges as my precious things in a small wooden chest and wept proud silent tears every time I heard a bugle play the Last Post, and still do.

My father like his father was a boxer. He was a boxer before he was a small town business owner, a draper. He boxed with his brothers, my uncles. He’s shown me newspaper clippings from the local paper, yellowed and faded, announcing in the late 50s and the early 60s the emergence of the Fighting Thomas Brothers. My father was the youngest of four brothers, all Champions, but unlike his brothers, who were tall and rangy and raw-boned, my father was short, stocky. With thick forearms, powerful hands, he taught me the left jab when I was a boy, the right cross, the hook and the uppercut. On the weekends we spent together after he and my mother divorced, we sparred together in the kitchen, the lounge room, the garage. I pounded his open palms with everything I had until my fists stung and bruised. Punching my father’s hands was like trying to crack concrete with an over-ripe plum.

Yes, I come from tough country stock, an undeniable masculine influence – an image, if you will – that some urban gents may ridicule as archaic, but inanely attempt to replicate. The rugged, outdoorsman aesthetic is the costume of the modern hipster – picture a soy latte-sipping lumberjack with the hands of a concert pianist – and note the increasing numbers of heavily-tattooed, protein-fuelled gym bodies, barber shop short-back-and-sides, bushranger beards and plaid shirts worn by some city blokes who never in their lives have ridden a horse, shot a rifle or cut down a tree. Yes, city blokes are getting blokeyer, but in a stylised, comfortable, self-conscious sort of way. Perhaps in an emerging world of empowered women, many young urban men are struggling to preserve their masculinity.

 

Ok. So what’s this got to do with reading books by women? I don’t really know. Maybe I got a little side-tracked. It happens. But maybe, just maybe, this whole image of masculinity thing is why, for many years, I neglected women authors. I will never apologise for being born a straight, white, Australian male. It’s not like I had a choice. Like everyone else, I was born, and will spend the rest of my life working out who I am.

Still, over the years, I’ve come to realise that the true toughness I hope I’ve inherited – physical and emotional – is directly contributed to the women in my life.

My grandmother on my father’s side. Dearest Nan. A Lady. That’s how I’ll remember her. Always immaculately dressed, polite and gentle. A widow in her thirties, she raised four sons – the Fighting Thomas Brothers – only to lose two of those sons in subsequent road accidents. Still, she endured with tenderness and quiet grace. How she got through those years, I’ll never know. Cancer cut her down in her seventies, and I was too young to ask.

My grandmother on my mother’s side. 92 years old and living alone in the same house my grandfather built when he returned home from the war. She nursed my grandfather through the malaria sweats, the nightmares, the drinking, and remained his wife for the sixty-five years before his death. Raising four children in a fibro home at the end of an unlit dirt road – the nightly darkness so complete save for the stars that the end of the universe was conceivable – she cooked and cleaned and clothed in a time long before the luxuries of modern appliances. No fridges. No electric ovens. No washing machines. No dryers. A resilient, no-nonsense woman, she may have sometimes lacked the gushing affection society expects from mothers today, but she no doubt loved her children and raised them with the ingrained discipline and survival instinct of the WWII generation. Extravagances were a porcelain doll for each of her daughters and a cubby house under the tank stand. She received a BEM in 1987, honoured by the Queen for her services to the youth of the Pittsworth community. With a talent and passion for painting, cooking, arts and crafts, she won numerous local and state awards and became a mentor and inspiration for countless young people across the Darling Downs.

My mother. What can I say? Where to begin? Words are insufficient, especially words written as part of something as self-indulgent and ephemeral as a blog. The greatest mothers not only give life but carry and protect and nurture that life with selfless dedication and sacrifice. They give up their passions and dreams to foster those of their children.

Born and raised in Pittsworth in that fibro home at the end of that unlit dirt road, my mother dreamt teenage dreams of wandering springtime Parisian streets and rocking out in black leather like Suzi Quatro. But like most small-town, working-class dreams, they suffocate under the weight of reality. Sadly, Paris for the young country woman in the late 60s and early 70s is not in Europe, part of this world. It is an intangible, fairy-tale fiction. And rock n roll stardom, crackling on sacred vinyl and beaming as grainy shadows on black and white television, is reserved for rare deities with unearthly abilities. Within reach and reason was a conservative, steady job, and for most young women of the time, the duty of procuring a husband, a home, and rearing children with the least amount of egotism and complaint. These were times when Australian working women received NO superannuation, their fundamental role was to perhaps earn a bit of pocket money before retiring to the hobby of domesticity. And so my mother gave up a bank job and married – despite graduating high school with exceptional marks, old school mathematical abilities before the invent of calculators and computers, and the most beautiful handwriting you can imagine – contributed to the formation of my father’s small business, and gave birth to two sons. There were plans. There were new dreams and possibilities. Perhaps they were less glamorous than teenage fantasies, but they were attainable.

Marriage, however, as most of us know, is a delicate and complex concept. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Divorce is an ending, no question, but it’s also a beginning.

I have no recollection of my parents together. Photographs of my infancy and toddlerhood are vague artefacts of an abstract time rather than discernible retentions. My memory begins in a small Toowoomba flat, a bedroom and bunk bed shared with my younger brother, and my mother – now single and back at work to shelter, feed and clothe us – sobbing in the next room into her empty purse. Never a particularly religious woman, she once lit a prayer candle at the altar of a Toowoomba church. I was too young at the time to understand the gravity of the act, too young to comprehend her desperation. If the world beats you down, perhaps faith can lift you up.

Maybe she thought something like that. I don’t know. And maybe god had nothing to do with it. All I know is that she got us through. She was there when I learned to ride a bike.  She was there on my first day of school. She was there, two years later, to lecture the bully who punched me in the guts and stuffed my face into the dirt. She was there when I scored my first 50 in junior cricket. She was there every weekend when my club footy team was thrashed by 60 points. She was there when it was time for the dreaded sex-talk. She was there when I crashed the car a week after getting my license. She was there for my graduation. She was there, months later, when I left home and moved to Brisbane. She was there at the airport when I bought a one-way ticket to Europe and, years later, when I returned. She was there when relationships broke down. She was there when relationships began. She was there for my successes and there for my failures. She was there. And because she was there, it wasn’t until well into her middle-age, two sons raised to the cusp of manhood, that my mother remarried and finally realised her life-long dream of visiting Paris and strolling those fabled streets. Of course, there’s no way I can possibly know how she felt while she was there, but I’d like to imagine her crying a little in quiet awe.

I know she cried, years later, when I was 25 and called her from a phone box beneath the Eifel Tower.

She wasn’t upset, my mother. She was happy. Happy because I was in Paris and that I remembered to call her for her birthday.

 

Sure, the stories of these women, my personal heroes, may be common.

They weren’t Olympians, rock stars, writers, screen idols or feminist icons who changed the world. They didn’t have to be. They were ordinary women – strong, intelligent and hardworking – who got things done within the working-class boundaries of their respective generations. Perhaps now, in the cyber age of overt narcissism and throwaway celebrity, a little old-fashioned selflessness and humility is something worth celebrating.

Ironic, I suppose, that I present these thoughts as a blog, an exercise in shameless self-promotion. But it’s honestly why I read, and will continue to read, books by women. I’ll read them and there will be curiosity, enjoyment and inspiration. As a white Australian male in 2015, I’ll read them, not out of some obligatory gesture, but as an affirmation of a collective voice often ignored in less progressive times.

Yes, I’ll read them, these books by women.

But I’ll leave the reviews to the experts.

One thought on “I Don’t Know What to Say or If I Should Hug Her

  1. Pingback: i don’t know what to say or if i should hug her | Julie Koh

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