Book Review: Tiddas by Anita Heiss

Tiddas by Anita Heiss

Tiddas by Anita Heiss, published 2014 by Simon & Schuster Australia.   360 pp.  RRP $29.99

Izzy, Veronica, Xanthe, Nadine, Ellen went to highschool together in Mudgee, a town in central rural NSW, in Wiradjuri country. Although they followed separate life paths during their late teens and twenties, they have reconnected in their thirties as one by one their careers and families took them to Brisbane.  Tiddas begins in the year they all turn 40.

Tiddas is crackling with warmth and vigour, and is a remarkable portrayal of mature female friendship. Heiss shows that there is competitiveness, anger and sharpness in the relationships – these women bite each other’s heads off, and throw the most personal knowledge of each other back in each other’s faces – but this only seems to underline the strength of their bond. Although the book is about the testing of friendship, in a way, it seemed to me that from the start each of the women knows that these are the safe people to throw yourself against, to rail at, and to give expression to all the emotions that are the most difficult and frightening.

Izzy is a TV broadcaster whose dream is to be “Australia’s Oprah”, the first Aboriginal woman to have her own mainstream-TV talk show. Izzy seems conscious that her big-picture career goals don’t quite fulfil the expectations of her mother, Trish, a Wiradjuri matriarch keen to see Izzy grow a family around her.

Nadine is a successful Australian crime writer who is also independently wealthy, having inherited a family fortune. Nadine is married to Izzy’s brother, Richard, and has two children. She is also, as becomes very quickly apparent in the first chapter of the book, an alcoholic with an escalating dependency.

Stunning Xanthe, whose father is Greek and whose mother is Wiradjuri, has developed her own consultancy in Indigenous cultural awareness training. Xanthe is desperate to have a child, and becomes increasingly obsessed with researching and project-managing her way to a successful pregnancy.

Veronica is going through the process of an amicable, but still horrible, divorce, her husband of many years having left her for another woman. Veronica struggles with depression and the need to find a new identity for herself now that her sons are becoming independent young men.

Ellen has the fascinating role of a funeral celebrant, which sits both oddly and perfectly with her no-nonsense approach to life and outgoing nature. It’s also a role that epitomises the pull she feels both towards and away from home; she felt fulfilled as a celebrant in Mudgee, incorporating Wiradjuri words and traditions into funerals for her clan, but also felt the pressure of helping people grieve when they were actually her kin and her community, and eventually had to leave and build a life and career elsewhere.

This is a ‘bookclub book’, following the tiddas as they meet each month to discuss a new book. It threw me at first that the narrative isn’t focalised strictly. In other books with mutiliple protagonists, each chapter is given over completely to the point of view of a single character. In Tiddas, the point of view moves fluidly between the characters, exactly the way that conversations – and thoughts – tend to be taken up and shared amongst a group of girlfriends.

I love that the discussion of the bookclub books actually makes it into the dialogue, and that Heiss provides a bookclub list at the back of the book, so that the reader of Tiddas can follow up on some of these intriguing-sounding reads by Australian authors.

Although the book is loosely structured around the monthly bookclub meetings, it is also structured around place. Each chapter begins in a different suburb of Brisbane, with the heart of the book seeing the five friends return to Mudgee for a funeral.

One thing I especially liked about Tiddas was that the women in this book aren’t characterised so much by the the traditional, inner space of the home, as much as by the suburb in which they’ve chosen to live. We see each of the characters mostly outside the home, interacting with her place and community (even if it is in quite a dysfunctional way), which seemed to me much more characteristic of contemporary Australian life in general.

The first bookclub is hosted at Nadine’s mansion and acreage in Upper Brookfield, a semi-rural suburb in the hills of Brisbane. Nadine, a character of contrasts, has bought a home that is isolated and practically self-sufficient, but at the same time depends entirely on her husband Richard to drive her even as far as the local pub and General Store. She loves everything about the place but hates the people.

The next meeting is hosted by Xanthe in her small but perfect terrace house in Paddington, where she lives with her much-adored husband. Heiss is extremely good at capturing a lot in a brief phrase: “The couple were happy and content in their own orbit, needing nothing more than each other, the local cafés and the hills”.

Ellen and Izzy, both single, both live around Kangaroo Point, in the funky heart of the city and right by the river, which Ellen in particular loves to jog next to and travel along on the ferry.

http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/brisbane-live-at-work-monday-january-21-2013-20130121-2d1tk.html#ixzz34DE5j5YH

‘Colours of Brisbane’ – an entry into the the 2013 Lord Mayor’s Photographic Awards by Michael Coombes. Photo originally posted in the Brisbane Times.

 

Veronica’s home suburb, The Gap, is described as one of those Queensland suburbs which is deeply tropical, and feels rather claustrophobic.

Heiss was great at capturing the momentousness of the shift in Veronica’s perception of herself. Her divorce is an event in her life that changes her thinking both suddenly and gradually. There is an all-at-once shift in her loyalties and her life’s focus, and also a gradual series of revelations that transform her perception of herself.  Veronica’s point of view is scattered with so many little remembered moments that demonstrate how little her husband had valued her or contributed to their family life and their marriage. Empathising with the character as I did, it was quite painful to read these revelations, but each one was accompanied by Veronica’s growing security in her self. I really liked the sense that she was realising just how much work she had done as a wife and as a mother. The story being told wasn’t the now-familiar one of the woman having lost herself in her motherhood, exactly – the work she had done as a mother still counted strongly – but of finding new work and a new identity beyond that.

While my favourite characters were Izzy and Ellen, who were the most likeable and who had perhaps the more familiar emotional journeys, I found myself fascinated by the character of Nadine. I spent quite a bit of the book thinking Nadine was loathsome, and really it was only the fact that she mattered to these characters I liked that convinced me to try to empathise with her. It nagged at me that it was never quite clear why Nadine became an alcoholic – she seemed to suffer from social anxiety, but also from a need within her own circle to be the centre of attention. Perhaps it is merely a story of gradual addiction, with messy and emotional rather than neat moralistic reasons behind it. There was a great sense of realism to all of the characters, and I felt it was achieved in part due to the ‘messiness’ of their lives and emotions, none of which were easily or finally resolved.

Each of the characters holds conflicts within herself. For example, even though she spends her day fielding “ignorant questions and comments”, and is very good at a job that must involve handling confrontations all the time, I thought Xanthe was a very gentle character, who was acting increasingly out of character as her obsession took hold.

One of the reviews of this book described as in part ‘a love song to Brisbane’.

http://blog.queensland.com/2013/10/28/purple-rain-gallery/   by @skinny_cap-Instagram

Photo by @skinny_cap-Instagram, originally posted at http://blog.queensland.com/2013/10/28/purple-rain-gallery/

Tiddas certainly makes a strong argument for Brisbane, but I feel it captured a lot that’s true of Australian urban life across the cities. The book captured so many of the joys of Australian life, the amazing food, the vibrant city life, a thriving arts culture, and suburbs that (in defiance of the American stereotype of identical, bland suburbia) are rooted in place, and each have their own personality an characteristics.

The book has a strong blend of politics and culture, which, in my experience anyway, is also a solid part of living in an Australian city.  The political and the artistic are closely related in the characters’ lives, their chosen careers, in the events they go to together and in the physical spaces they inhabit in Brisbane (and Mudgee). A couple of reviews of the book were just shy of being snide about this, as if the political and the artistic somehow didn’t belong together (please). As an enthusiastic reader, I appreciated the inclusion of the bookclub discussions, but I also recognised this as a political act, since these books depicted Aboriginal characters, history, and contemporary issues. Appreciation of Aboriginal art and literature is of course a political act in an Australia where the living traditions and cultural contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples are often sidelined. Many of the books in the bookclub are by Aboriginal writers, who are also featured in Anita Heiss’ Black Book Challenge, which you can learn more about on her blog. (Of the 99 books on Heiss’ list, I had read … one, a marvellous picture book, When I was little like you, by Mary Malbunka).

I liked that Tiddas ended the way it did, especially from Izzy’s point of view. In contrast to a lot of more genre-y women’s fiction (I’m thinking romance, saga, and chick-lit),  motherhood and pregnancy are not depicted as the glowing perfect prize at the end, but as a new stage of life, with struggles as well as joys, bringing pressure to a relationship as well as a deeper sense of connection.

The ending, in fact, was no ending at all. The tiddas had grown and changed, but life continued. Each of them was going to continue to need her tiddas as much as ever, but at the end of the book I felt I could leave the characters safely to each other. Their happy ending was that their friendships had been tested and tried and strengthened and they would always have the net of each other’s arms.

 

Other books by Anita Heiss:

 

Manhattan Dreaming by Anita Heiss Avoiding Mr Right by Anita Heiss Not Meeting Mr Right by Anita Heiss Paris Dreaming by Anita Heiss

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On Writing Anxiety and Academic Snobbery

 

I am in the middle of writing a book review. I like to think of myself as someone unaffected by academic snobbery, but all the same I find myself anxious about publishing a piece of writing in which I talk about which character I liked, and why I liked her as if she was a person, which character was my favourite, and which character I didn’t like as much, and saying over and over what ‘I loved’ about what the book was doing. A simple, naive, reader’s response to the book – which is what I want to write about, and certainly what people will want to read – is still just a little fraught with anxiety for me.

 

… Having posted the above on Facebook, and received … absolutely no reply, I think I can get the message.

Nobody cares.

And nobody cares about this problem, because it is a non-problem, born of the non-culture of academia that operates mostly inside the isolated heads of individual PhD students who never ever mention their deep anxieties about writing and impostor syndrome to each other.

I think I will go away and finish telling you about this awesome book I read, which I absolutely loved, and my favourite characters were Izzy and Ellen and eventually between them they made me like Nadine who I hated at first.

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Once Upon A Time at the Sydney Writers’ Festival

In this post, I recap and reflect on the Sydney Writers’ Festival session ‘Once Upon a Time: Myth & Fairytale‘, which was held on Saturday May 24 2014 at Walsh Bay.

On my way to the festival, I felt like a heroine in a fairy-story.

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I forged my way through echoing tunnels

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passed high castles

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stopped to speak to a rose

… and wandered up and down the steps of an empty tower (wrong wharf at Walsh Bay) until I finally walked beneath some fluttering pennants and came upon a crowd of people adorned in bright colours.

If I was in a fairytale, I would probably have been the first sister in the tale – the one who is easily turned aside from her quest by selfishness – as I looked aside from my quest for the right venue, distracted by the desperate need for coffee. And then the bookshop. And taking photos of the water, and the fabulous outfits surrounding me, and the internal debate of wanting a second coffee & cake vs already not being able to afford the five books I wanted.

You say the coffee is where now?

Arthur Rackham from ‘The Old Woman in the Wood’

All the same, I was pretty close to the front of the line, and soon shuffled in with the rest of the bustling, rock-concert sized crowd.

I was so, so excited about this panel, even though I knew nothing about two of the authors. All of the panelists turned out be extraordinary speakers, lucid and passionate in the discussion of their art. The discussion ranged from the place of fairytale in Australian literature, the role of myth in Indian political discourse and popular fiction, Aboriginal traditions in the past and present, and the uses of fairytale in escaping, interrogating, or enforcing a dominant ideology.

2014-05-24 14.02.32I had intended to live-tweet the session, which I love to do, but I couldn’t keep up with the words and ideas that were flying back and forth. Since I can write by hand faster than I can type on my phone (I was born in the 80s not the 00s) I began frantically scribbling, trying to capture, on paper, some tweet-sized chunks of what was being said. I didn’t always perfectly note down who said what; it was such a meeting of like minds that the panelists picked up the ball of conversation and rapidly tossed it to one another.

As each of the authors tended to loop back to particular themes, I have grouped my recapture of the session loosely by author rather than chronologically. The panelists included Vikram Chandra, Tony Birch, Cornelia Funke, and Kate Forsyth, with Judith Ridge as facilitator. Throughout the session Judith Ridge gently interjected with questions that expanded the reach of the discussion, or instead brought it back to the personal, which was great.

Australian author Kate Forsyth discovered the Grimm brothers’ collection of fairytales when she was ill in hospital as a child. She told a great story of how her mother, just before leaving her alone in the gothic, alienating space of a hospital, gave her a red leather copy of the Grimm fairytales. You can read about Kate Forsyth’s particular affinity with the story of Rapunzel here. It’s a fairytale in itself.

Kate Forsyth told the audience that she loves  the boundlessness of fairytales: anything can happen, and to anyone. A prince can be turned into a frog; goose girls are revealed as princesses. She said that she was drawn eto the beauty (especially of place and language) in fairytales, and to the fact that this beauty is always accompanied by danger, peril, and darkness.

Happy fangirl

Happy fangirl

Speaking of her recently re-released novel Dancing on Knives, Forsyth (who has been writing novels since she was 7) said that she had actually begun writing it at 16, and worked on it all through her young adulthood, putting it away in a drawer with the first Eileanan book was published. Dancing on Knives was finally published 10 years ago, but has now been re-released by Random House with a new cover. (As a fan, I felt a bit abashed, I thought I’d just picked up a new book by a favourite author but I hadn’t even known it already existed!)

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 12.12.19 pm

Dancing on Knives is Forsyth’s only book set in contemporary Australia. Its heroine is a young woman with agoraphobia, who feels, as Forsyth put it, “out of her own world” when trying to interact with society. The novel draws, as its title implies, on Hans Christian Andersen’s literary fairytale of The Little Mermaid, who pays for her human legs in pain.

Although the book is set in Australia, Forsyth was firm about the fact that the book does not draw upon Aboriginal fairytales, because those are not her stories to tell. Forsyth said that in Australia, we have to be sensitive to the issue of cultural appropriation. She pointed out that she has Aboriginal friends who are writers and who would never think of using the stories of another mob in their writing – and she feels the same.

As Judith Ridge reminded the audience in her introduction, “one person’s fairytale is another person’s sacred text.”

Tony Birch also started by telling us a story, about growing up by the Yarra.  His grandmother used to tell stories to scare the children away from the river. She told them about the Yarra Rat, which had enough poison on its one tooth to poison a thousand people. If they went swimming in the river, they would get bitten. And there were the death trees. Children in the water would be ensnared by skeletal death trees and pulled under for ever more. Birch said the stories never actually stopped him from swimming in the river, but he swam fast to escape the Yarra Rat!

And of course, these stories, like all fairytales, were more than warnings, and much more than lies, because they captured essential truths about the river. There are snags below the water, and the river genuinely had been poisoned by the industrial revolution. And there really were snags under the water.

In his current work as a writer and a mentor to other Aboriginal writers, Birch is working with other writers to tell Wurundjeri stories not to frighten, but instead to give respect to the river.

This tree bears the shape of a canoe that was burnt out of its wood

Scarred tree in the Fitzroy Gardens

Birch explained to us that the Wurundjeri have interchangeable words for “wood” and “boat”. Sure, that seems obvious, since boats are made out of wood, but Birch began to explain how much more there is to it. Personally, I recommend that you simply go right now and read his story “The Boat Becomes a Heart,” which draws the trees and the boats and the river all together and along another river of past and present stories.

When a child or a young person died, the funeral tradition of the Wurundjeri was to send the child to the river in a sacred canoe. The canoe, made of a tree,  goes back to the tree, and takes the child back to the forest. Seriously, read this story, the link takes you straight to it:

Tony Birch: The Boat Becomes a Heart

I should probably point out here that the theme of the ‘Once Upon an Time’ session was inspired by the 2013 fiction issue of the Australian literary journal Griffith Review. It features stories by both Birch and Forsyth, along with many other Australian authors.

Griffith Review 42 Summer 2013

Griffith Review 42 Summer 2013

Vikram Chandra began by telling the audience that in contemporary Indian fiction, the use of myth and fairytale has quite different implications. The mythology of classical India is present in culture in a way myth not present in the West. Chandra gave the example that in India, myth is often present in public discourse. Politicians can use tropes from myth and people recognise them.

Chandra himself was told the myths of the Mahabharata all throughout his childhood. (Judith Ridge asked Chandra to clarify here: they were indeed told, not read, to Vikram by older members of his family). Chandra said that what he remembers is how at the end of each tale, the  good guys would triumph, and he was told they ‘ruled happily for a few years, and then they had to go into the mountains and die.’ So he was always aware that even the good guys had to die.

Growing up, Chandra felt what was traditional (such as the myth) was set in opposition to the modern. He eventually saw this division “as a trap.” For him, those stories provide a way to talk about colonialism in a different way, a way that realism cannot achieve. ‘Tropes of realism,” Chandra noted, “are colonised themselves, inhabited by the rational and the modern.” I so want to listen to some of his lectures on creative writing.

Red Earth & Pouring Rain coverWith his novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Chandra thinks of himself as writing a literary re-appropration, taking the modern English realist novel and doing something very different with it. At the same time, very interestingly, he pointed that myth is far from innately subversive – he mentioned a hugely popular Indian fiction series that reuses Indian mythology very successfully, and generally in a very conservative way; with the divine hero characterised as almost a bourgeois ideal. (I did not write down the name of the series. Damn academics talk fast!) 

This was definitely a point where the conversation started looping and threading from one presenter to the other, so I here is what I captured of the final weaving:

Yes, the fantasy landscapes of myth are malleable, but, more often than not, they often end up reproducing the dominant cultural ideology of the time in which they are told. Chandra mentioned that living with his daughters, who are four and six, means living at the centre of the “Disney Princess industrial complex” – and there’s not much any individual parent can do to hold it at bay. The use of fairytales to serve dominant, contemporary ideology sits against the idea of myth and fairytale and fantasy as some irrelevant “escapism”.

Cornelia Funke noted that it is often hugely underestimated how manipulated myth can be, when fantasy can in fact, be the worst enforcer of the reality we are trying to escape, and myth can be the greatest prison. Funke had a powerful example: she told us that Germans don’t trust their fairytales and myths because of how the fascists used them. “The made the beauty [of fairytales] such a poisoned apple.” (Did I mention these panelists were entralling speakers).

At the same time, fantasy has the power to make us more aware of the problems and complexities of our  present time. Funke said that she had seen statistics which showed that fantasy readers are more politically active than non- fantasy readers, which, again, gives lie to the myth of fantasy-as-escapism.

Children's and Household TalesCornelia Funke told the audience that Grimm tales don’t have the same currency in Germany as they have in India. The traditional tends to be thought of as disconnected with the perception of reality. And perhaps they have become so; the whole panel certainly seemed to agree with Funke on the historical reification of the Grimm fairytales.

And this, by the way,  is what I loved so much about this panel, it was obvious that these were people that had studied fairytales in their historical and literary contexts.

This was the first time I had heard myth and fairytale discussed in a public forum without someone making a naïve declaration about their universal power. Fairytales are often described through an essentialist characterisation of fantasy that dismisses the fact that stories and their tellings (for stories are their tellings) are rooted in time and place. I have heard fairytales discussed as if invoking them is actually magical, having some numinous but transformative ‘effect’ on a reader that is to do with some essential quality of being a fairytale that is dissociated from the teller, the specifics of the tale, or any other cultural or immediate context. I couldn’t help but enjoy this Writers’ Festival panel more in the light (darkness?) of the similar discussions I had sat through before. Although a couple of times during the ‘Once Upon a Time’ panel the word ‘universality’ was thrown around it was offset by the nuanced debate about appropriation and colonialism. And it’s certainly hard to deny that (different) fairytales (and their varied uses) are always powerfully appealing, and seem endlessly able to engage readers.

The dragon is always a beast to be slain: Chalk art from SWF2014

The dragon is always a beast to be slain: Chalk art from SWF2014

Funke noted, to the agreement of her fellow panelists, that in the 19th century Grimm fairytales, almost all of the darkness and violence of the original tales has been elided. The exception, though, is the representations of nature. Funke said that in the Grimms’ narratives “the forest is scary, the animals threatening, the dragon is always a beast to be slain.” She said that this is very revealing of the strange relationship people have to nature in the West. And there are other kinds of darkness: in many and many of the Grimms’ tales, women are bargained.

Forsyth (who has studied the Grimms’ original sources and their revisions) said she finds the Grimm brothers’ versions of the tales so 19th century, and so bourgeoius: the hero now has to return home, for home is the best place to be, and home is where a perfect domestic woman waits. (Although, as I look for one of Arthur Rackham’s drawings to illustrate this point, I see a lot of pictures where the home has been invaded by fairies and is full of danger).

Arthur Rackham Cinderella

 “But”, said Funke, “the fairytale is older.”

The older tales, Funke said, are more rebellious, more connected to nature, and far nicer to women, who tend to be much more dominant heroines. These older fairytales, Funke said, are travel guides to the past, travel guides to a to a place, to a country. She proclaimed that all tour guide books should include the local fairytales! This comment received a round of impromtu applause. And my tweet about it got some very enthusiastic responses as well. I was surprised by how much response this comment received. I suppose it taps into the important truth about the in-placedness of fairytales … but I must admit I did also wonder whether the response had to do with the demographics of the audience, which had the appearance of being predominantly white, predominantly middle-class and predominantly middle-aged or older (and like most of the festival, had a majority of women).  Perhaps the category of people interested fairytale retellings overlapped with those with a passion for travel? If so, is this because the passions are implicitly related, or because both are made possible by a high level of education, disposable income, and leisure, as SWF attendance itself so noticeably is?

Funke herself has connected these two passions. She is currently doing a tour of the world, through its fairytales, collecting (and illustrating) the tales that she is told as she journeys.

Kate Forsyth and Cornelia Funke both seemed to have a yearning to access and rescue old and forgotten stories, but for both authors, this desire obviously competes with the consciousness that those stories belong to others. Funke seemed to have resolved the dilemma with the knowledge that she is always respectful, and because the tales she has been collecting are in a sense lost (presumably only to mainstream Western audiences?). Forysth said, similarly, that these stories only survive by being retold.

Forsyth also said “the stories that survive are the ones that articulate some kind of problem, some desire, some dilemma, for the teller.”I loved that she framed it this way: the articulation of a problem that seems to have no possible resolution has always been, for me, the best definition of myth.  But I did wonder whether this narrative of rescuing tales that would otherwise be lost is itself, here, working as a writerly myth, that resolves the problem of this desire for, and feeling of, ownership, over a tale that doesn’t just belong to another culture, but also often signifies belonging to and within that culture.

I wondered what counts as “survival” for a fairytale, when telling it in a new way fundamentally changes the story. And perhaps even more fundamental to a story is who is doing the telling. Australia is a place that is littered with culture, families, nations, story-maps, that have been interrupted. The survival of Aboriginal stories is threatened when they are taken up and retold by non-Aboriginal storytellers.

I was glad that Tony Birch interrupted here to shift the conversation back into this Australian context that my mind had immediately jumped to. He reframed the discussion kinda perfectly, saying that people who have had their stories taken from them need to keep ownership of their stories more than other groups. He said that we need to give those people the dignity of telling the stories in their own voices. Aborigines’ voices have been silenced and misappropriated for so long, that we need spaces for young Aboriginal writers to tells those stories. Allow those who are the custodians of those stories to tell those stories – and then such stories could be retold, by others.

I thought this was  a wonderful vision, of non-Aboriginal artists being able, in the future, to have new relationships with culture in an Australia where Aboriginal stories are strongly recognised and understood to be owned by their true custodians.

During the audience question time, the problem of ownership over stories came back in a different way, as the audience of readers and aspiring writers voiced the usual fears about the new digital universe.

I loved this: in the fearful narrative that was being voiced, a capitalist system could no longer protect what was sacred: the expression of individualism and labour that is copyrighted material. The published and copyrighted book suddenly had the provenance of fairytales themselves: it could be copied, shared, transformed without compensation and without legal acknowledgment of ownership.

The setting of this story is a terrifying ocean of digitally uploaded self-published stories. These books have proliferated to such an extent that the gates of traditional publishing cannot be kept closed against them, and they threaten the destruction of canon and the discovery of greatness! (In a previous panel at SWF2014 I heard self-published novels described as a ‘tsunami’.)

Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 7.27.22 pmRefreshingly, the authors on the Once Upon a Time panel were not swept under by this narrative around digital content, but were all busy reframing it. Tony Birch is a writer-in-residence for the Weather Stations project, which ‘places literature and storytelling at the heart of the conversations around climate change’ using a website that is linked to authors and stories across the globe.  Cornelia Funke has developed not only gorgeous website for her new “Mirrorworld” series for young adults, but also an interactive book app which she calls her “breathing book”.

Geek Sublime Cover

Vikram Chandra‘s most recent book, “Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software” (also published as Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code) is about the interrelationships coding and writing, and draws on 11th century Indian philosophy.

And Kate Forsyth replied to one questioner, “Writers have to accept that we cannot control rights over stories in this age. We have to figure out new ways of getting paid.”

It seems that those who are used to working with  ancient myth and traditional fairytale might actually be the best equipped to deal with the digital age.

More about the Authors

Australian author Kate Forsyth  who is the author of The Wild Girl, Bitter Greens, and the fantasy series The Witches of Eileanan and its continuation in Rhiannon’s Ride, among many others. Her blog is a wonderful source of recommendations for great books to read, especially if you like historical fiction.

Bitter Greens cover Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 12.14.33 pm

Tony Birch is an Australian writer who works as a presenter at the Wheeler Centre and lectures at the School of Culture and Communication at UniMelb. He is the author Shadowboxing (Scribe 2006) Father’s Day (Hunter 2009), Blood (UQP 2011) and most recently The Promise (UQP 2014).

The Promise cover Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 8.29.56 am

Vikram Chandra is an Indian writer who currently teaches creative writing at the University ofCalifornia. Chandra is the author of Red Earth and Pouring Rain  (1995), Love and Longing in Bombay (1997) , Sacred Games (2006), and Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software (2014).

Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 12.26.43 pm

Cornelia Funke  is a German writer and illustrator of children’s books. Many of her books have been translated into English, including The Thief Lord (2002), Dragon Rider (2004)  Inkheart (2003), Inkspell (2005), Inkdeath (2008), Reckless (2010) and  Fearless (2013).

Inkheart cover

The panel’s facilitator, Judith Ridge, is a teacher, editor, writer, critic and teacher of children’s literature and creative writing. She currently works at the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature Development Project, and she blogs at misrule.com.au/wordpress.

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You’re Not a Princess, Dearie.

So my friend just sent me a link to this article on Daily Life about a girls’  school’s recruitment campaign:

http://www.dailylife.com.au/health-and-fitness/dl-wellbeing/youre-not-a-princess-school-ad-campaign-goes-viral-20131117-2xoi6.html

I’m not a fan of it.

According to the Daily Life article, the campaign addresses middle-school girls, telling them “You’re Not a Princess”, “Don’t Wait for a Prince”, “Be able to Rescue Yourself”, “Life’s Not a Fairytale”, “Prepare for Real Life.”

That last one, sure, I can get behind. The rest of the slogans set my teeth on edge, for several reasons.

Firstly, the majority of fairytales are peopled with, and were once told by, clever, resourceful, creative, and ruthless peasant women, not princessess!

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Even in the staid collections of the Brothers Grimm, there are lots and lots of fairytales with resourceful trickster heroines that get themselves into and out of trouble.

These girls – and not just girls, older women and mothers too – are dirt-poor peasants, who sometimes, as a result of their machinations, manage to become princesses, or just as often, queens, as a social, sexual, and financial reward for their adventures.

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I for one would love to see some of the traditional oral and  literary tales that features gutsy, amoral heroines come back into our use of the word “fairytale”.

Secondly, how empowering is this message really? Does it actually situate the girl at the heart of the adventure?

“Be able to Rescue Yourself” puts the girl in the traditional role of victim, with the reversal only as the second part of the story. This is a slight improvement, but there are better models of narrative (in fairytales themselves!)

What about “Cause the Trouble in the First Place?” “Rescue the Other Girls”? “Capture the Golden Apple First”? “Convince the Sausage to Jump into the Pot”?

Also, thank-you self-congratulatory grown-ups for letting the women of tomorrow know they have the option to reject the option of waiting for a prince. BE MORE PATRONISING.

Assuring girls that they don’t need to wait for a prince has the effect of reminding them that that’s supposed to be their default … maybe give them some credit for the fact that of course that wasn’t their life plan.

Finally, I can’t help but feel unconvinced by the fact that it is a Catholic school behind the ads. Is a school controlled by an institution that is anti-safe-sex and anti-reproductive-freedom and anti-women-in-power REALLY very likely to be the best place for a young woman to learn and grow?

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Fuck off, Fred Nile.

In my career as a feminist so far, I’ve often found it hard to get past my own emotion about the issues I’m confronted with. It’s hard to take a step past that the visceral fear of seeing someone planning to take away my rights over my body, hard to move beyond the battling emotions that very physical sense of being threatened evokes. In other words, it’s hard to stop swearing a blue streak, and actually move into action.

When I sat down to read Fred Nile’s second reading speech introducing his proposed Zoe’s Law, which will be voted on in the NSW Parliament on Thursday – well, this tweet captures my initial response.

Fuck Off

My response to Nile and those like him tends to be emotional, visceral, expletive.

But today, I did get over that first reaction, long enough to do some actual research and writing about it. The post, Personhood, Foetal Rights, and Fred Nile’s Sideswipe at Abortion is over at the F collective blog, go visit an have a read.

I read a lot of stuff for this post; I am in particular indebted to the awesome Rachael Watts, and her article “Foetal homicide laws set up a competing set of rights for women”,  published on The Drum. In contrast to my steady stream of “fuck off”, “oh fuck off” while I was reading the anti-choicers, there’s this whole paragraph in her article, which instead made me go: “Fuck yeah!” This is what Watts writes:

“Assault on a woman is the result of someone else’s choice to be violent. Defining a foetus as a person does not address that choice. Women should not have to be deferential to society about the functions of their bodies. Women should know that should someone inflict violence upon her, pregnant or not, they will be dealt with seriously not because of a foetus within her, but because she has the same right as anyone else to live in peace and without fear.”

-Rachel Watts “Foetal homicide laws set up a competing set of rights for women”, 15 March 2012,  The Drum

Photoshop is almost as satisfying as swearing

Photoshop is almost as satisfying as swearing

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One of One Billion

Dancers' FeetYesterday, I participated in One Billion Rising, a demonstration staged in many countries around the world on the 14th of February to protest violence against women.

In Sydney we were one of the first groups of women and men to begin the dance, which right now (according to my twitter feed) is sweeping around the globe.

While we didn’t see one-third of the population of Sydney’s women, there were many women and men gathered outside St Mary’s Cathedral and some of us were starting to dance – to the EXCELLENT mix – just before 1pm. At 1:30 pm, we all danced together (or thereabouts) as we attempted to copy the dancers in front of us!

It was certainly a strange way to dance – I didn’t end up running into anyone I knew, so I was there, on the street, dancing by myself in a crowd of strangers, with my laptop in my handbag & a sunhat crammed on my head. I might have hung out on the edge of the crowd, but there were people filming and taking photos all over the place, and I wanted anyone who covered the event to see me dancing, to see all of us dancing, transforming silence and emotion into unrestricted, defiant, joyful bodily movement. So I dumped by laptop bag on the ground in front of me, nodded in appreciation as Aretha Franklin came on, and danced – and oh how different from getting up to dance by yourself at a club! Everytime I met someone’s eye I got a supportive, cheerful grin.

I have to admit there was a very uncanny mix of determination, anger, emotion, and joy to everyone’s faces, it is strange after all to dance & think about the overwhelming statistics of gender-directed violence, to think about the protests about to happen around the world where women who joined in this same dance were risking bodily integrity, risking their safety, while we in Sydney were really only representing that risk, at least in the public space of our dance. I was trying very hard not to cry (bad enough to be dancing alone in the middle of the crowd, but weeping alone too?), but then when we finished our dance, I saw I wasn’t the only one smiling in tears.

Although there were plenty of people filming & taking photographs, I did wonder whether that the idea of a protest as a demonstration in front of the media – as something staged so it could be recorded – meant that many victims of violence could not attend the event, out of fear that they would be photographed and identified? I certainly wasn’t sure whether people would be comfortable about me taking photos of them and putting them up on my blog without permission.

So I took photos not of faces, but of feet. As a mundane detail of the women-dominated dance protest, I enjoyed the mulitude of handbags that got discarded on the ground – you can probably see a few.

Here are some of the feet that were dancing around me, declaring with decided steps that end to all violence against women is a goal we must achieve.

Dancing Sneakers

Dancing in Red

More Dancing Feet

Dancing Feet

Dancing sandals

Legs and feet

Dancing Heels

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Settling in in Sydney

My favourite fashion blogger, the sequin cat, mentioned recently that this month is          No Excuses November in blog-land. My current, just-as-of-this-evening excuses include: I am using my (new!) smartphone as a wifi hotspot and it keeps dropping out; I am quite uncomfortable sitting up in bed (which is the only place we have for sitting) because we only have three pillows and J has two of them which is fair enough since he started watching REPO the Genetic Opera ago), I probabaly should be either unpacking some more, or, going to sleep early so I can get up early, and unpack some more, and I am exhausted from the week/day/last couple hours of doing dishes.
MOVING IS HUGE.
I spent so much time planning and thinking and imagining each step of our move, but my imagination focused very obsessively on certain details – where all the stuff I wanted to get rid of would end up, what going-to-job-interviews clothes I had, how I should “sell” us to the real estate agents as Perfect Tenants – but I don’t think I ever pulled the mental camera back and thought about just how much there is, how everything an interstate move is, and how ongoing it is.

The world is very topsy-turvy at the moment: doing the grocery shopping is thrilling; each load of laundry is deeply, comfortingly satisfying; and having to remember to enjoy the pool or decide to wander leisurely around a farmer’s market is suddenly stressful.

Last night we walked up to the train & went a very cool (ie small) number of stops to get into town. I definitely had the most fun just walking along the street, people watching & enjoying being part of the night, but I also enjoyed my glass of wine at the fairy-lit Winery, which being uber-trendy was packed, but had such a nice garden that Jason & I were quite happy just standing in a corner observing the skyline and drinking our surprisingly sour white “Sauvign”. J was entertained by my pocket list of Sydney fashion trends: colourful tight pants, big chunky necklaces, lots of bracelets, flat shoes, lots of blue, lots of white. “Flat shoes?” he said, looking around. And, OK, there weren’t really any at the Winery.

We rejected Mexican (a good call, I think) and pizza for Thai food because really, if you’re going to buy food out why not buy the MOST DELICIOUS and I had the most delicious Pad Thai. But my enjoyment in my meal was spoilt, utterly, by the cigarette smoke blowing directly from the outside garden through the small restaurant. I am always so embarrased and upset when I have to get up periodically & go outside to gulp the air and get over feeling sick, and when I can’t help but drop my fork and gasp disgusted when a particularly strong gust hits me. As has happened many times before I was almost crying with the frustration of having a lovely – and expensive- meal absolutely ruined, but I never quite feel allowed to be angry, even though I am angry, at how someone else’s choice, and the restraunt owner’s indifference, can interfere with & kinda wreck a total stranger’s night. I’m always especially angry that the smoker never knows what a horrible horrible time they’re forcing me to have, and angry too that I’m the one that ends up embarrased (& my dining partner too) and I’m the one that so obviously annoys anyone who notices my reaction. But at the same time, it’s equally not cool for me to make it the cigarette smoker’s problem. And I’ve never had anything but hostility from cafe owners or waitstaff when I ask to move or for the door to be closed or for the law that says the smoker can’t be within 5 metres of the entrance of the eating place actually to be enforced.  So, as a result, this is my feelings here, in my blog, because frustrated feelings of having no forum for complaints is the true origin story of the Internet (Maybe not the factual or historical one, but the true explanation in terms of human nature).
At any rate, I did manage to finish my meal, because the happily unconscious smokers finished their cigarettes, and luckily I’m not actually asthmatic, so I recovered before J ate all my tofu. Next time will make sure to pick somewhere that has no outside.

We spent the next hour or so walking off our full stomachs and looking for another bar in a pretty desultory fashion, but in very snooty manner decided not to bother when the pub we eventually did scoot into turned out not to have a wine list. Their exact words were, “You can see the bottles behind the counter.”

I fell asleep on the train on the way home, half-way through a twitter conversation (hi bogurk!). Sydney trains are warm and comfortable (especially when you’ve been drinking wine and walking around and around and around in the cool night breeze).

And then we came home to our BED (spare-room mattress sitting on the floor) and it even had my doona on it, which I’d found in a box earlier that day, and meant to hang out to air, but then there it was all dusty and snuggly.

No matter how nice I am about wine lists set out by varietal or breathable air in Oxford Street restraunts, I am sincerely, unpretentiously grateful to have shelter. I love my bed, in a comfortable, lazy, luxuriating way, but also understand with great preciseness how fortunate I am to have my comfortable, dry, clean, secure place to sleep, and be able to get my clothes clean & dry, & leave my things & not worry about them. I guess it is the great upheaval of moving that really brings home home. The essentials of basic food and shelter and soap are luxuries, too. I have been enjoying them that way, lately, with gratitude and relief that they’re available seasoning my more usual hedonism.

It may be a flavour that immatures as the acquisitive and indulgent season of Christmas draws near…

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