I have the fortune and/or misfortune to be a cisgender woman, citizen of Australia and a writer. Variously combined, these elements have yielded some noteworthy experiences; made me a party to some singular conversations. Take, for example, the friendly lunchtime chat a few months ago, in which one writer friend refuted the criticism that our national poetry community was overly ‘white’, rattling off a list of leading contemporary poets that included Michelle Cahill, Eileen Chong and Samuel Wagan Watson. Taken aback, I had thought it self-evident to anyone participating that the Australian literary scene has, since Anglo-European colonisation, been dominated by a white male voice and gaze. The success of creative writing diverging from this prevalent discourse has been both exceptional and relatively recent, given the ‘decades of systematic exclusion’.
Gender, race, class, ability, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation all differently intersect and inform the focus of this article: Australian women writers encountering sexism and misogyny within their professional domain. No doubt my discussion has been influenced by last year’s revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein et al., though any conscious comparison is loose, with sexual harassment only one weft in the often less tangible warp of a wider functioning misogyny. ‘It’s tempting to think,’ muses James Poniewozik over the screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace, ‘of this series…as especially timely, with today’s revelations of sexual abuse in places of power. But to say that would suggest that there have been moments when these ideas would not be timely’. Writing this article coincides with an evaluation of my annual dip into the Auslit scene as I leave, once again, for more open, variegated landscapes where my job isn’t as value-laden, or is differently value-laden. In the purest, rarest scenario, this involves moving through places with such well-timed velocity that you’re accepted as a creative practitioner before the name of your agent, current publisher, latest publication, history of accolades—or indeed, demographic categories—registers or matters.
The ‘underrepresentation of women is real, and has continued over time,’ states Julianne Lamond in her examination of the historic and contemporary literary value of Australian women writers. Echoing Cunningham’s ‘brisk [statistical] jog through’ of the gender-based distribution of major Australian fiction prizes up to 2011, Lamond concludes that there ‘is a bias at work here, but it is a bias that is embedded in the structure of our thinking about literary value, seriousness, importance, about gender difference, reading and writing’. It is a bias that intersects the concerns of different groups within Australian literature, such as Michelle Cahill’s observation of the ‘naming and labels’ applied to CALD women writers and their work:
Whether women writers are Aboriginal, Anglo-Indian, Burghers, Eurasians, Malaysian-Singaporean or Afro-Caribbean Australians, their genetic complexities seem to require naming only if they are different from ‘whiteness.’
While not specifically addressing gender, Evelyn Araluen expands on the burdens related to such labels, explaining that CALD writers ‘are expected to write with sustainable difference, while providing a language to describe and understand experience for those who are without that language’.
If Cunningham, Lamond, Anne Jamison and Jane Sullivan do not explore the bias they identify by offering up subjective examples of its impact and the playing out of its underlying power structure, others do. Cahill intertwines her identification as a woman of ‘multiple heritage’ in her writing on gender and race; Benjamin Law, examining the debate over gender differentials in literary prizes, recounts that
In the book world, I’ve…heard writers, editors, critics and publishers complain that female writers don’t write about the ‘big picture’ enough, as [if] families or interior lives aren’t part of something panoramic and worldly.
In her discussion of sexual harassment in Australian theatre, Alison Croggan points out the insidiousness of this behaviour across other sectors of the arts—including literature:
Being a young poet…I can’t even remember how many sleazy men I encountered, although the prominent poet and editor who wanted to meet me in his hotel room and made a pass at me after he published a poem of mine when I was sixteen (sixteen!) stands out. I heard, many years later, that this was a regular occurrence with this man.
Elsewhere, Natalie Kon-Yu and Enza Gandolfo describe one example of ‘embedded misogyny’ at the juncture of creative writing and academia, noting the ‘most disturbing’ outcome was that so many conference attendees ‘just sat there, mute, polite, civil’ while a male plenary speaker addressed ‘three artistic fields in such a way to erase women’s contributions entirely’. Describing her experiences as a ‘biracial, bisexual’ poet within the Australian slam scene, Eleanor Jackson writes
…my softer feminine voice never seemed as authoritative; sometimes I was the only woman on a bill; sometimes I felt shouted down by louder, typically, male voices; and even I wasn’t naïve enough to ignore that audiences (both men and women) preferred work that was less political, less ranty, less mouthy from women. Perhaps most distressing for me personally, was that I still felt acutely aware…that my attractiveness (or otherwise) as a woman could, in fact, be a key determinant of whether or not people thought the writing was good.
Melody Paloma’s ‘call to action’ for establishing arts community-based procedures to deal with sexual harassment and assault connects to her involvement in ‘a process that detailed three incidents of sexual harassment perpetrated by a fellow poet’ and the ‘exhausting’ effort of jointly reporting the man to ‘his employer…individual publications, publishers, festivals and organisations’ without guidance from existent policy.
Nothing much surprises me about the content of these articles: whenever I return to Australia with the refreshed perspective significant absence affords, what stands out most is this country’s conservatism, as well as its high ratio of blondes. After reading, I made a rapid list of times I have witnessed or experienced instances of sexism and misogyny in the Auslit scene, ranging from male colleagues’ diminishment of women’s writing to defining the role women writers should occupy. Upon hearing that an essay of mine was forthcoming in a particular journal, two separate male writers immediately put down its reputation; another, unable to grasp my name despite numerous encounters, once desperately introduced me as ‘a very fine poet’; yet another, who evidently does not consider me anything like, asked me how I made a living. A male reviewer described my first poetry collection as repeatedly exploring ‘the frustration of unresolved relationships’—I’m not sure on what basis, but it seems an apt enough theme for women’s poetry. When I was offered a slot in a high-brow literary reading following the publication of this book, a writer friend commented that if he was a ‘young, attractive woman’, he might be put on the bill too. As said young, attractive woman (now somewhat older and altered—whither my career?) I have been the target of too much of what Rosamond Lehmann memorably describes as ‘feeble pawing’ from men in the Auslit community to recount. Most recently, amid a bustling literary event crowd, a male writer friend advised that I ‘should be nicer to people’, which I took as being akin to telling me to smile.
There are, of course, a number of possible rebuttals to all these examples; myriad excuses to be made for these men, their comments and actions. Some examples of dismissal, exclusion, condescension and sheer blundering wrong-footedness by men in the literary community were not, I decided on revision of my list, demonstrably sexist or misogynistic. And, of course, I am only too aware that by articulating these incidents, I leave myself open to accusations of humourless whining; hypersensitivity; victimisation; misandry; biased misinterpretation; overreaction; ingratitude; hard-faced bitchiness, and an inability to handle just criticism. Yet I am also aware that this positioning is another outcome of the sexism towards and subjugation of those identifying as women, working to undermine our self-confidence and our claims to legitimate experiences and reasonable perspectives. Striving for conciliatory abstracts like ‘second-guessing’, ‘benefit of doubt’ and ‘fair-mindedness’ is part of fulfilling an expectation to be ‘the better person’—or perhaps adhering to an upbringing as a ‘nice girl’: never challenging; always demurring. All too often, women remain silent about needle pricks that, throughout a career or lifetime, have the accumulatively damaging effect of being stabbed with a butcher’s knife.
I regularly choose to leave Australia and its literary scene to inhabit countries and experience cultures where misogyny and patriarchy are supposedly more deeply entrenched. This helps to keep my perspective around issues like sexism sharp when confronted by its different forms at home and overseas; allows me to take advantage of my short-lived awareness before it becomes dimmed by complacency, and try, through interrogation, to become less immured and immune. There is a reason why a friend describes me as an ‘escape artist’—privileged in my mobility, I nevertheless find I need the distance to be able to keep returning, and keep writing. Although detrimental and fragmenting in other ways, my itinerant habit may even be an instinctual search for a way to become genderless, perhaps even category-less.
If this is what my intermittent experience of the Auslit scene has yielded, what is it like for those who are more prominent, deeply engaged, or spend much of their time in it? I sent an ad hoc email to fifteen female colleagues of various backgrounds, identities and ages to ask what, if any, instances of sexism and misogyny they’d witnessed or experienced within the Australian literary community. Some didn’t reply. Others couldn’t recall any circumstances they had come across or that had personally affected them. One respondent, describing herself as ‘remarkably lucky’ in avoiding sexism and ‘abuse’, added that she knew of women colleagues who hadn’t been so fortunate, but could not ethically relay their experiences second-hand. Another replied that while she had heard ‘a great deal of anecdotal evidence’ about misogyny in the Auslit scene, she had no personal experiences to relate—ending with the resonant point that
sexism and misogyny are so ubiquitous that much of it flows past me unnoticed as a survival tactic. If I let it penetrate I’d be in a permanent state of incendiary rage.
Similarly, another writer replied that since she had ‘certainly’ seen and been subjected to sexism in other contexts ‘(well, yes, I’m a woman…)’, it seemed ‘hard to believe that I haven’t even witnessed any misogynous events’ within the writing community.
Other writers did have incidents to relate. One described hearing a recent research paper examining the sexism of elite writer’s residencies that do not offer child care facilities, thereby deterring (predominantly female) applicants with children. Another recalled offering her services as a reviewer to the male editor of a leading Australian literary journal, pointing out that ‘he had approximately 99% male reviewers’ in the latest issue (statistics that are not uncommon in the Auslit scene). The editor’s reply? ‘He said he would like to publish more women but “it takes time,” which I thought was pretty extraordinary. Do we have to wait for all the male reviewers to die?’ The same writer, sitting on the judging panel of a literary prize not long ago, revealed that she ‘had to argue quite hard to get women’s life-writing (which was outstanding that year) included in the shortlist’. Eventually the prize was awarded to a memoir by a female author that would not otherwise have been a contender, based on the choices of the other two ‘(one male, one female)’ judges. Following another literary award ceremony, where the major prize was won by the female author of a young adult book, one respondent related a conversation shared with male writer colleagues:
…the male author said, ‘I mean she looked real nice in her little pink dress,’ and raised his eyes, smiling, and then the other man did too and they shared a little laugh. ‘But come on, she’s going to beat Robert Dessaix?’ That pissed me off. I didn’t say anything. I felt insignificant.
With specific reference to the Australian poetry scene, a woman who has escaped much of its ‘pervasive (& racially inflected) sexism’ was nevertheless one of three women writers sexually harassed in similar ways by the same male poet during the same evening at a recent literary event. Another writer confided that she has been ‘hit on pretty strongly’ and made to ‘feel uncomfortable’ within her writing community: after a poetry performance one night, a male poet who ‘didn’t want to take no for an answer’ managed to ‘force himself into my home and touch my leg’ before backing down ‘in the end’. Deeming the experience ‘quite traumatic’ in retrospect, the writer added: ‘I just feel like the general pattern is the problem’.
What I notice about these replies is the overwhelmingly matter-of-fact tone—with the odd twinge of wit or archness or deflation—in which they are related, as well as the doubt many respondents expressed over whether their narratives could be counted as ‘relevant’ examples. Since misogyny is so variously defined, it’s of little surprise that it can be difficult to discern, particularly when internalised across genders and bound up with other forms of discrimination. When I discussed the topic of this article with a male writer friend, he reflected that the quantitative presence of women in the Auslit scene served to counter, in his eyes, incidents of sexist and misogynistic behaviour—though Cunningham’s article, as well as subsequent studies, suggest that the visibility of women doesn’t necessarily signify they are the ones in the inner sanctum, making decisions and holding power. Women, including myself with my long-running shtick about the multifaceted charms of a certain unattainable female poetry editor, also demonstrate this insidious, internalised misogyny. My literary prize-judging email respondent, discussing a non-fiction contender who had written ‘a brilliant book…about a normal woman having a normal baby’, confessed the ‘rather chilling thing’ was that she too thought reductively of the subject matter until she ‘woke up to what was happening’. Another email respondent wrote that when she used to facilitate writing classes,
there were always more women in courses than men because women felt they needed to learn and men felt they didn’t need help…[A]lways women would underestimate their ability and put themselves in the beginners level when they were more advanced and men would overestimate their ability and put themselves in masterclasses when they were actually complete beginners. It was infuriating.
At a poetry event in the middle of last year, a woman I’d never met before commented that she had first seen me in the university bar wearing a short skirt and talking with two men. Overhearing this, a female friend, also a writer, remarked: ‘That sounds like our Kat!’ I laughed; we all laughed.
More than mere anecdotes, different women’s experiences of misogyny and sexism in the Australian literary scene exist. What, then, do we do with them? Particularly as writers, the pen (for what it’s worth) is in our hands. Do we employ it—and to what end? Are articles like this one, where data is less than stringently gathered and those involved remain (deliberately) unidentified, just one instalment of a perpetual, toothless illustration? Croggan insists that ‘we do have a language. We can name this behaviour. And people have been working…on actions to combat this problem’. I wonder if one of the ‘tools’ of recognition Croggan alludes to will take the form of an unofficial verbal initiation for every writer new to the Auslit scene, wherein senior colleagues whisper warnings that, unless you fancy getting groped, not to stand too close to [insert name of one of several male writers here]. This seems more efficient than a trial and error approach with outcomes isolated to the individual. Accordingly, Cahill promotes interceptionality, in the form of widespread social media and other written communication, to ‘unmask entitlement and inaugurate dialogue’ around institutional racism and to demarcate the spaces of ‘absence’ and ‘resistance’ CALD writers of any gender do/not inhabit. Jackson describes her ‘queer approach’ to resistance as persistently ‘taking up space’ as a ‘woman with a sexuality and an ethnicity’ in order to contribute to ‘erasing the kind of shame that has been appended’ to certain minority categories. Paloma, pondering ‘what might change actually look like?’, is in the process of formulating ‘with fellow female artists and arts workers’ a set of guidelines for arts organisations to follow when called upon to respond to ‘incidences of sexual harassment and assault’.
Yet I am doubtful of the unfettered success of praxis, whether it concerns the implementation of policy or of theory, given Paul Mitchell’s comment that ‘a friend who’d served at a high political level told me…he’d never seen any group whose decisions were as political as the Australian poetry community’. More than that, I suspect the purging of issues like misogyny from the Auslit scene will be complex, not only given its patriarchal foundations but its self-aggrandizing view of intellectual-artistic enlightenment; its reluctance to acknowledge the undesirable influences that pervade it—favouring instead, in the words of Sunil Badami, ‘assimilative myths in which differences are smothered or repressed’. Those problems, we writers declare from the pinnacle of our idealised liberal conceit, are for other people.
More and more I am drawn to what a radical feminist bisexual brown migrant psychologist-lawyer friend of mine believes will solve most of world’s conundrums: ‘Destroy the categories’. This is because, despite the length of my skirts and the expiry date of my passport, I am growing more serious and even more tired. Not even tired: I’m post-fatigued by reactionary ideology to do with gender and other inherited or acquired aspects of identity, and I know I’m not the only one. Sexism and misogyny are among many facets of identity politics that aren’t just passé, but damaging—to individuals and to their overlapping communities. Instead of participating in and perpetuating this damage, I’d prefer to know, not just believe, that the work writers do, the research we engage in, the poems and essays and stories we write and read aloud with appropriate feeling, are flowing into a community that shows them the respect of being the product of someone’s creativity, intellect and critical analysis. I would like to know that Australian writers are contributing to a literature that doesn’t just belong to an exclusive few—figurative descendants of those who long ago established a structure and are so busy keeping it mainstreamed that new voices, alternative voices, challenging and uncomfortable and unwanted voices, are being raised but unheard, or quickly suppressed.
It is an ideal tentatively grasped and almost embarrassing in its earnestness that writing, as with any art form, exists to comment on our social and political contexts but also to illuminate and express ideas to which humanity might collectively aspire. In her acceptance speech of the 2016 Stella Prize, Charlotte Wood admitted:
It often feels to me that we have entered a new dark age—an age in which science is rejected in favour of greed and superstition, in which our planet is in desperate need of rescue; an age in which bigotry and religion are inseparable, and presidential candidates promise to punish women for controlling their own bodies. I feel that in the midst of this gloom we need art more than ever. Art is a candle flame in the darkness.
At other times, I am not convinced that even art can dispel the gloom. Too many narratives, no less important than those widely distributed, go unacknowledged simply because they or their authors are not of a marketable literary/political/linguistic/social category. ‘Consider,’ muses Cahill, ‘how many CALD women writers with vibrant, intelligent voices have suffered from stifling stereotypes and restricted readings of their work, if they are lucky enough to be published!’ But then, Australian literature is not a meritocracy, as we all pretend not to know.
The danger of relying on anonymous readings—on meritocracy—writes Law, ‘is assuming one actually exists’. Rather than assume any longer, I’d rather consider that, as writers evoking the very best of our vocation, our education is ongoing: that it is as important to be consciously thoughtful of different positionings within our community as it is to display a flamboyant command of language. ‘Encouraging and applauding the success of women might become an elegant and subversive act of cultural freedom,’ said 2017 Stella Prize winner Heather Rose.
This, it seems to me, is an ingeniously-framed challenge.
I gratefully acknowledge the contribution of friends and colleagues who spent time discussing ‘misogyny in the Auslit scene’ in person and via phone and email; who read drafts and gave feedback, and who allowed me to cite their stories in this article.
Dr Kathryn Hummel is the author of Poems from Here (Hobart: Walleah Press), The Bangalore Set (Bangalore: Kena Artists’ Initiative), The Body That Holds (Adelaide: Little Windows Press), splashback (Sydney: Stale Objects dePress) and the forthcoming Lamentville (Singapore: Math Paper Press). Uncollected, her digital media/poetry, non-fiction, fiction and scholarly research has been published and presented worldwide. Winner of the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Dorothy Porter Award for poetry (2013), Kathryn’s writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (2013), The Atlas Review’s Open Non-Fiction Chapbook competition (2016) and was shortlisted for the 2017 Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize. Kathryn holds a PhD for studies in narrative ethnography and lives intermittently in South Asia. Her activities can be tracked @ kathrynhummel.com.