Type
Review
Category
#MeToo
Reading

August in nonfiction

9781760785000#MeToo: Stories from the Australian Movement – edited by Natalie Kon-yu, Christie Nieman, Maggie Scott & Miriam Sved (Picador)

In the introduction of this collection, the editors acknowledge the challenges they encountered in the process of the book’s curation: ‘challenges of representation, in a movement started by women of colour to empower women in under-privileged communities and brought to notoriety by rich white celebrities’; ‘challenges presented by those lines, which beg questions about where the movement begins and ends, who it is for and where it might go.’ These are challenges grappled with, and often answered, by the curated pieces themselves.

In response to a movement begun by a black woman but co-opted by predominantly white celebrity feminists, Eugenia Flynn rejects the white gaze and its oversimplification – or straight-up denial – of how gendered issues are complicated by intersectionality. Flynn condemns the widespread misappropriation of the term ‘intersectional feminism’, writing that it is ‘being used incorrectly to mean the inclusion of difference and cultural diversity, rather than any real understanding of the multiple oppressions that Aboriginal women face.’ This call for genuine intersectionality and representation echoes throughout the collection. In her essay ‘#MeToo and the Uneven Distribution of Trauma’, Shakira Hussein analyses the compounding effects of race and disability on gender inequality and sexual violence:

I was alienated by the inevitable focus on famous white women in a movement that was meant to represent all of us … Resources need to be directed towards the most vulnerable women and girls, and the multitude of responses need to be acknowledged and validated.

As well as a call for – and example of – wider and more genuine representation from marginalised groups in the #MeToo movement, this collection explores other complicated facets and consequences of #MeToo. Rashmi Patel wrestles with ethical dilemmas involved in deciding how to respond to a victim’s story of abuse; Greta Parry considers the impact of #MeToo stories on the partners of accused men; Kaya Wilson explores the complicated experience of being a trans man in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

#MeToo also includes many firsthand accounts of sexual and gendered harassment and assault. In giving survivors space to tell and analyse the stories of their own experiences in their own voices, this collection furthers the work that the #MeToo movement does at its best: it puts survivors’ stories and voices at the centre of the ongoing discussions about sexual abuse. The result is a formidable anthology of diverse, well-informed and compelling voices and stories, and a collection that works hard to uncover and examine the extremely complex and multifaceted subject of gendered and sexual violence. It is important work, and this book does it well.

 

Basic RGBYellow City – Ellena Savage (The Atlas Review Chapbook Series)

Yellow City is a long essay, one which will be included in Ellena Savage’s debut essay collection Blueberries (Text Publishing 2020) but has also been published by The Atlas Review as a standalone chapbook. It follows Savage on her trip to Lisbon in 2017 – the first time she has returned to the city since experiencing a violent attack there eleven years earlier. Ostensibly, on this return trip Savage is seeking archived court documents – official information, black-and-white answers– but this essay is not primarily about navigating bureaucracy, or even about justice.

Like all of Savage’s writing, Yellow City is driven by complicated, sometimes unanswerable, questions; the clinical nature of the bureaucratic process serves as a foil to the messier internal search for memories, beliefs and versions of self that feel trustworthy. Told through shifting points of view, as parts of the author’s fragmented self converse with and contradict one another, this essay asks questions about memory and control, and their role in self-conceptualisation after trauma (‘If memory is not a tape recorder starting at zero, then how can a self exist, truly?’). Savage navigates delicate and difficult terrain with wit, ruthless scrutiny and painfully sharp analysis. No thought goes uninterrogated, and the essay complicates rather than resolves itself as it unfolds. The result is an unsettling and thought-provoking essay that can hold its own contradictions. If Yellow City is any indication, Blueberries will be one of the most exciting debuts of the new year.

 

9780143788294Witches: What Women Do Together – Sam George-Allen (Penguin)

Witches tracks author Sam George-Allen’s mission to ‘intentionally put [her]self in positions where [she] can learn from other women – only other women’. Each chapter focuses on a different group, demographic or field in which women collaborate, and the scope is wide. George-Allen interviews, observes, and learns from ballet dancers, weightlifters and farmers; there is a chapter on teenage girls, and another about nuns, and she talks to and writes about midwives, sex workers and musicians. Many of the communities written about in Witches are ones to which its author does not belong. The book demonstrates an acute awareness of this fact: its research is immersive and wide-ranging, and George-Allen is frank about her own positioning. She is genuinely open to learning from and being changed by the women she encounters in her research, and through both the interview-based chapters and the two co-written ones (written with Liz Duck-Chong and Aunty Dawn Daylight, respectively), Witches gives these women space to tell their own stories. One of the great strengths of this book is its author’s self-scrutiny (the authorial analysis is often directed at George-Allen herself), and her willingness to honestly own up to and interrogate her past biases and mistakes.

The single-authored nature of this book, focusing as it does on such a wide range of communities and experiences, does leave some inevitable blind spots exposed. At one point, for example, George-Allen writes ‘I feel fat’ to illustrate her self-consciousness, but the underlying assumption that fatness is inherently negative goes uninterrogated. The absence of recognition of the fat acceptance and body positivity movements feels conspicuous, given the recurring focus on vanity and body image throughout the book (which does include a chapter on online beauty communities, as well as a particularly fascinating one on the effect of sport on women’s relationships with their bodies). Another conspicuous blind spot stems from the author’s personal horror of childbearing and parenting. George-Allen’s reflections on her own feelings about motherhood are bracingly honest and well-articulated, but this bias does seem to bleed, at times, into her analysis of other women’s experiences. In an otherwise brilliant chapter on midwifery, mothers are recurringly depicted as lonely, oppressed, isolated women who depend on midwives for connection and support, and while oppression and isolation are very real experiences for many mothers, this seems to be the only experience of motherhood Witches is prepared to acknowledge.

Within the context of a book about communities of women, it’s jarring to see mothers othered as lone, unknowable figures through an us/them dichotomy: ‘maybe [our culture sneers at mothers] because we’re scared of them, maybe because we don’t understand them.’ As a result, the long, rich histories of mothers building communities together and supporting one another are effectively erased, which feels like a missed opportunity in a book about women working together. For the most part, though, Witches is keenly insightful and is often delightful to read. It pays attention to the magic of women working together in small and powerful ways, and recognises this magic in places that others may overlook. It’s curiosity-driven, self-searching and celebratory approach makes it a refreshing contribution to contemporary feminist discourse.

 

Growing Up Queer in Australia (online)Growing Up Queer in Australia – edited by Benjamin Law (Black Inc)

The contributors to all four books in Black Inc’s Growing Up in Australia series so far write from vastly varied viewpoints, identities and experiences. These books make clear that there are myriad and complicated ways of growing up in Australia. The core message in Growing Up Queer in Australia is particularly important for queer youth – that your experience as a young person is valid, even when your community is targeted or discriminated against or when you do not see yourself or your experience reflected in the world around you. As Benjamin Law writes in the introduction:

while other forms of prejudice – like racism – can make you feel just as alone and isolated, ethnic minorities like me go home to families and communities who share our backgrounds and experiences, and affirm who we are. Queer kids growing up typically don’t have that … That feeling of belonging – of understanding you are not alone and not insane – is a core human need. If we can’t get that from the people around us, we need stories.

Growing Up Queer in Australia gifts us stories from fifty-three LGBTIQA+ people. And they are gifts: each contributor writes of themselves and their experiences with deep generosity. There are stories of grief and loss, of coming out, of discrimination, of joy and shame, of awkward sex and great sex, of navigating identity, family, community and love. These stories come from a wide range of viewpoints, and from people at varied stages of their own personal journeys. This anthology is recurringly interested in language – in its power and its limitations. ‘A word can be a wonderful thing,’ writes Fiona Wright, reflecting particularly on the word ‘queer’. ‘It can be a container. A mirror. It can click everything into place.’ For others, words hold a power that is both empowering and frightening: Cindy Zhou writes that in working up to say the word ‘lesbian’ out loud, ‘I’d say it on the count of one … two … even as a muted thought, it seemed both dangerous and wild’.

Vivian Quynh Pham tries to find the right words to come out to her mother, to do justice to how she experiences her sexuality and her identity: ‘there isn’t really a word in Vietnamese for girl-that-is-my-romantic-partner … My arsenal of queer theory, which in English allowed me to argue fiercely against [derogatory] words, d[oes]n’t exist in Vietnamese.’ Recollections of slurs, too, are peppered throughout the collection; words are used as weapons, language wounds. But language can also be used to build community, and it is this that the contributors of Growing Up Queer in Australia articulate best of all. In reaching back through language, to their own childhood and adolescence, they reach forwards across time and space to today’s queer young people. A strong sense of welcome and encouragement is extended from these writers to emerging generations. This is perhaps best summed up by Rebecca Shaw, in the closing of her essay to young, queer readers: ‘You’re part of something special; get here as quick as you can.’

 

Image: Nicole Honeywill / Unsplash

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