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Emilie Collyer, who had an awesome piece in the latest Torpedo, has a creative, thoughtful and immediate kind of blog, between the cracks

- Literary Minded


Feminist Literary Icon Double Act

On Monday 16 May, Melbourne put on a heavyweight feminist literary icon double act. I attended two talks, back-to-back and recorded some messy, immediate thoughts ...


Walking down the steps of Flinders Street Station I am hopeful. I’m booked in to see Gloria Steinem and Jeanette Winterson and I imagine these women, these writers, might have some words to inspire. I feel like I need it. A non-specific malaise has settled over me, within me. Partly to do with being between major creative projects, waiting to hear about a few outcomes and being not quite sure what my next new work will be. Partly a sense that no matter what I do, what project or piece of writing, it will never quite be enough. I will never quite be enough. In lighter moments of the heaviness I’ve phrased the question to myself: Is it genetics? Is it capitalism? Or is it just me?


To be specific, I’ve booked in not so much to see these two women, but to listen. And I think wow it’s a lot of pressure. For them. Hundreds of people like me scurrying along the city streets, clutching our printed out tickets and smart phones, eager to hear words of wisdom, to be reminded of why it might all be worthwhile and how we, as humans, might find ways to get it more right.


My boast post on Facebook about the feminism literary icon double sparks much interest and a few friends ask me to write about what these women say. I don’t take notes so this record will be imperfect. A gathering of paraphrases and recalled words. Probably I will get much of it wrong but I’ll try and capture an impression of the things that were said that hit me or moved me.


Gloria Steinem is in the Melbourne Town Hall. She gets a standing ovation when she walks onto the stage. The amplification on her lapel mike is not quite strong enough. So she takes the microphone off and holds it close to her mouth. She uses both hands to speak. She has long fingers. Elegant. Like a musician. Or an artist.


She speaks about #BlackLivesMatter being an effective grass roots movement that has as its philosophy, among other things, Low Ego and High Impact and Move at the Pace of Trust. And reminds us it was started by three African American women.


How violence against women is the root cause and concomitant cause of so many other forms of violence including racism and entrenched poverty. How the measure of how likely a country is to enact violence on its own people and on other countries connects directly with how much violence in that country is enacted against women. Whether that is domestic violence within homes in countries like USA and Australia, child marriage, genital mutilation, war rape, the murder of girl babies in countries where only boys are valued.


She speaks about how important laughter is. This is in relation to her relationship with an indigenous American friend and leader who died recently. Gloria spoke of how much more this woman knew about history than she did. And in particular the history of how much knowledge and power women have had in many indigenous cultures. And how important laughter is because laughter is the only free emotion. You can force fear on people and even love, but not laughter. And laughter is like prayer because it is about the unknown and in fact prayer cannot happen without laughter.


When asked what feminism has got wrong, how it might have failed us, she says: We have been too nice. Because, as women, we are socialised to be nice and make things easy for other people.


She speaks about wombs and how patriarchy is, by definition, about controlling the means of reproduction i.e. wombs and the people who have them.


She also speaks, finally, about how it would only be possible to perpetuate the strange notion that one kind of person is ‘less than’ another if those considered ‘less than’ have somehow internalised that idea. And how then, if people from that group refuse to wear that identity, they may be pulled down, by both men and women, all of whom have internalised the notion of ‘less than’ and ‘better than’. And how in fact we need more of that and more. All of us refusing to wear particular identities that we have inherited and taken inside. And how we must support each other, all of us, to speak out more and stand up more and refuse more.


And how unhelpful binary and bifurcated ways of viewing human identity is.


Did you know Gloria Steinem is in her 80s?


She encourages us all to talk to people in the crowd that we don’t know. She is a big advocate for talking circles and what can be achieved when people come together and act. Her overall message is about externalising and refusing and creating alternatives.


She has a gentle but passionate way of speaking. She met earlier today with young people from the Fitzroy High School Feminist Collective and says they were fan-fucking-tastic.


I leave while the applause is still resounding.


Down the stairs, out onto Collins Street, into the Athenaeum Theatre, up some more stairs, to sit and listen to Jeanette Winterson.


She walks onto an empty stage, carrying a book. Over the loudspeaker we hear a male voice. He seems to be reciting Shakespeare. We join the dots and assume the speech must be from A Winters Tale, as Jeanette’s new book – the one in her hand – is a novelised version (a ‘cover’ she calls it) of this play.


Jeanette talks us through the first act of A Winters Tale and speaks of how unusual it is for a play of that time. It is one of Will’s later works and is notable for two things. One, is that women of three generations play key roles in the play and are all alive at the end. Two, is that it is a play where the action is driven by the internal, not the external. It is about what a man imagines his wife and friend are doing, not what they are actually doing. In this way, Jeanette says, it is a Freudian play written several hundred years before Freud.


She says the play is like Othello on speed. That everything that happens in Othello happened in this play in the first act. She speaks about the trajectory of the story (a baby banished because the father cannot be sure she belongs to him, the baby taken in by a shepherd and his son, fast forward to sixteen years later, the baby is now a teenage girl) and how there can only be three outcomes: tragedy, revenge and forgiveness.


Jeanette posits the notion that this play is striking because it takes the third option and it seems likely that the reason it can take the path of forgiveness is because of those three generations of women alive at the end and how they choose to forgive rather than punish or seek revenge.


She goes on to speak about this same choice in all of our lives. And how the only way to forgive ourselves and others is to be conscious of what it is we need to forgive. And of how painful but how very necessary it is to be conscious. Rather than to simply suffer in our re-telling over and over of the past. I sense that this is what creativity is for her. For all of us. The capacity to imagine and re-imagine our way into consciously being human, with all of our flaws and failings. Not to fall prey to fantasies – or realities - of tragedy or revenge.


We are then treated to a spectacularly theatrical reading from the novel. It goes for about twenty minutes. There are sound effects. Eleven sound cues to be precise. We know this because at the end Jeanette berates the tech team – with a light touch – about how they managed to fuck up even such a small number of cues.


The language is mesmerising and her delivery a lesson in poetic narrative and crystal clear story telling.


It is question time and she is jovially merciless with a slow speaking audience member who wants to say thank you but has no actual question. Only 14 minutes to go! Jeanette cries. Let’s keep it moving!


She is asked about arts funding, here and in the UK. She extemporises with unabashed passion. The arts are integral and essential to every human being. They are not elitist. They are not disposable. The story of austerity and how we can’t have hospitals and education and roads AND art is just that – a story. A narrative made up. It is not the truth.


She speaks about the human imagination and how it is the beginning of everything. Of all things that happen. And how we need to feed that imagination with books and plays and music and art and all of these things so that the imagination is rich and varied and well nourished. How the more language we take into ourselves the more language we will have with which to express ourselves. How robbing people of language (by taking away their access to art and books and words and stories and theatre) is what disempowers people because then all they have is rage and sadness and anger. And without the language to express these things, people will act out their rage and sadness and anger. Acts for which they can be put in prison. Given language, humans can – and will – articulate what is wrong and ask for what they want.


Jeanette too, speaks about the absurdity of binaries. Black or white. Male or female. Hospitals or art. How reductive and ridiculous this way of labelling the world is.


She speaks of how difficult times can shape us, how they shaped her, the strange oppressiveness of the woman, her adoptive mother, whom she refers to as Mrs Winterson. Who wanted Jeanette to be a missionary. And asked Jeanette why (now famously), when Jeanette left home at 16 because she was in love with a woman, Jeanette would choose to be happy when she could be normal.


And how this shaped Jeanette because here she is now, a missionary, preaching to us, her audience, about art and imagination and creativity. That she sees it as her job to inspire us and give us something to take away. A kind of hope or purpose.


And so these two women have presented a kind of yin and yang and given me two hours of energy. They both spoke about the liberating moment, in their youth, of realising they did not have to live the life laid out for them by society or family. They were – I muse – blessed with the insight, fortitude and circumstances to see that they could choose another way. And they did.


They take their mission seriously, both of them, and they have lived up to the pressure I had placed on them as I walked down those Flinders Street Station steps.


I leave feeling connected and energised. They have given me a way of re-imagining my own imagination and creative life that is something other than the heaviness I have been wearing. The heaviness of: is it enough? Am I enough? A reminder that this very way of thinking is something I, we all, have inherited or internalised and it is just one way of thinking. A story that doesn’t suit and never fitted.


I arrive home. Buoyant. My tax return has arrived in the mail. For the first time in years, I owe the government money. How will I pay that off? I don’t have a spare few thousand dollars to give. Why should I when they are so intent on ripping money from the arts to stop funding our so-called artist lifestyles?


My buoyant bubble bursts.


I recall another thing Jeanette said, about contemporary life being so very focussed on the external, the superficial. That of course we all need to earn money and pay bills and watch the nightly news.


But that much more importantly, we need to pay attention to the life of our imagination. Our internal world.


A final question she was asked: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? She takes every question seriously. She says yes and no. Because, she says, sometimes the urge and the expression is conscious and sometimes it is not yet conscious but it is still there. She says she likes this phrase: the unthought known, rather than the unknown thought. That there are things we know that aren’t yet ready to be articulated in thoughts and words.


But they are still there. The knowns. Inside of us. Waiting to be discovered.

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Reader Comments (3)

What a fantastic article Em. I'm gonna share it!
And reminds me to talk to you about Broome!

May 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMari Lourey

Thank you so much Emilie. Lived vicariously there. Even for a moment. Great points you isolated there for us. I have printed it up and have up on my notice board. Hope you don't mind xxxx

May 19, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjulia zemiro

Thanks Mari and Julia!
I'm glad the piece has resonated. It was a fast and furious response. With two full hours of profound insights I tried to grab what I could in recollection.
Emilie x

May 19, 2016 | Registered CommenterEmilie Collyer

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