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Self-indulgence

Apr 29, 2008

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I have been tagged by P.D. Smith, author of Doomsday Men.

The rules are:

a. Link to the person who tagged you.
b. Post the rules on your blog.
c. Write six random things about yourself.
d. Tag six random people at the end of your post by linking to their blogs.
e. Let each person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment at their blog.
f. Let your tagger know when your entry is up

Here are my six random things, in the literary-minded spirit of this blog:

1. I have just begun working at Bookseller and Publisher Magazine in Melbourne and I love it.

2. The last book I read was Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which I dog-eared to death with lit-love. It was recommended by Peter Bishop at Varuna.

3. I fear I won’t have the time or money to attend the Sydney Writer’s Festival and thus miss out on meeting Matthew Condon, Charlotte Wood, Merlinda Bobis, David Kowalski, and many others, as well as hearing my favourite writer speak again, Gail Jones. I hope I will see them at Byron, Brisbane or Melbourne festivals (or even Ubud if I can make it).

4. My novel manuscript Smoke & Dancing is much more solid after Varuna, some words Peter Bishop used for it happily include ‘poetic’, ‘unique’, ‘romantic yet existential’, and he believes it is fascinating to see a book from someone of my generation exploring my parent’s generation (the 70s) in this way. I will be persistent yet patient in pursuing publication (and it’s important even to be choosy as it’s my first novel and I want writing to be my career).

5. Forthcoming on this blog are reviews of a Scribe book The Miernik Dossier, and an Aduki book Stick This in Your Memory Hole, as well as the much-awaited video blog recorded in 12 countries – I have to wait until I have my own computer to complete editing.

6. I have now romantically been living out of a suitcase for about three months. I do look forward to a bit of stability, also so I can focus more on my Honours (in literature of course). Anyone literary-minded in inner-city Melbourne looking for a roommate?

I’m choosing to disrupt the meme and not tag anyone because I’ve had an incredibly busy week and would rather go and read (look forward to my Bookseller & Publisher review and possible interview of Jim Sharman’s [director of Rocky Horror] much-awaited autobiography!)

Commentary

Apr 23, 2008

5 comments

At Varuna

The decision to create an unconventional blog post. My book – what is it about? Shattering the fake, bogus, counterfeit, persuado, phoney, pseudo, sham, similar, supposititious,

The decision to create an unconventional blog post.

My book – what is it about?

Shattering the fake, bogus, counterfeit, persuado, phoney, pseudo, sham, similar, supposititious, artificial, celluloid, ersatz, imitation, plastic, assumed, imposturous, ostensible, professed, so-called, soi-disant, meretricious, flash, painted, adulterine, spurious, untrue, apocryphal, fabulous…

Oh, but it is fictitious.

Embroiled in our own complexity. Contradictions. For my characters it is life or death. What else is there? What else is IN there? Some want to maintain surfaces, save face. Others sense more. Some even fight for it. Some discover it. Some can’t handle it once it’s present.

It is set in 1970. War and society, people within society, people at war, people looking at war. Inner battles. Battles behind doors. Battles wanting to be fought. A need of conflict. A run from conflict. A running into each other with all this going on.

I write and work. Peter Bishop’s knowledge of good fiction fills me – passion, intimacy and control. I strive to create a connection with readers. I am inspired by the other writers, their stories. I eat Sheila’s warm food. It nourishes my sore throat. I have blanket and heater. I don’t sleep well at night so find the morning hard. I stretch out on my yoga mat. I write and I take breaks, listening to The Doors and reading the thesaurus under the desk, curling over into plough pose. I don’t know my motivation. I just want to write. I go for walks in the low cloud. I keep remembering home (my new home) in Melbourne. Uni essays to write, many book reviews, work possibilities. Finding a flat. I try and rest these thoughts.

I’m going to enter the Vogel. If I don’t win and get published through that, I want Random House Vintage. I want to have a book. I will work on my short stories for my thesis. I will rewrite my 1st manuscript as a young adult novel. I will write my 3rd manuscript, set in WW2 in Victoria and in Norway. I will never stop. I love it. And I love being at Varuna. The freedom to get things done. The privilege of being here where so many writers have come. The inspiration and guidance of a brilliant mentor.

What happened to feminism? Ariel Levy asks. Her book explores how a predominant culture of ‘surfaces’ has produced women who admire ‘sexiness’ without necessarily being sexual. What happened to pleasure?The interviews Levy presents and the sub-cultures (eg. ‘Girls Gone Wild’) she immerses herself in are disturbing, in that most of these women feel lost and confused despite being accepted for their looks and their ability to plasticise sensuality. It’s also disturbing that raunch and pornography has reached a level of accepted normality in western culture. What kind of a world is it when Hugh Hefner believes himself a liberator of women, when he keeps ‘bunnies’ young enough to be his granddaughters under strict control in a gated mansion? Others can look but not touch.

One thing lacking from Levy’s book is a counter-argument, interviews with women who are either not aspiring to female chauvinism, who may be collecting notches in their belt for true satisfaction, or who are all out feminists in the 70s liberatory style. Perhaps she couldn’t find too many of these women, or perhaps she just felt so strongly about her point that she didn’t want to contradict it. The problem is, at times the narrative is confused within itself. Levy seems to enjoy ‘Sex and the City’ for its entertainment value, but then believes it may have had an adverse effect on female attitudes. She notes how integrated the show is with consumerist culture, displaying shoes and handbags as interchangeable as boyfriends. But then, she notes, buying expensive shoes is Carrie’s way of asserting her independence.

Levy has a very strong point in that there is a danger for young people in confusing sexual visuality with sexual desire or pleasure. And due to the levels of exposure of sexual imagery, and sexual denotation, children and young teenagers are ‘experimenting’ as play, well before they are actually aroused by one another. Levy interviews high-school students and finds that the more ‘skanky’ ones are considered popular. Again, though, it doesn’t look like she attempted to interview the quiet, bookish girl, or any other group besides those indulging in these behaviours. Perhaps she would have found that behind their back, these ‘popular’girls are not respected by everyone just because they wear a ‘headband’ for a skirt.

Levy explores a short history of feminism, its subgroups and its manifestations in literature and other industries. She also looks at lesbian culture and questions how ‘liberating’ it is to ‘act like a man’. She wonders where women and society have gone wrong as they no longer seem to define themselves as a sex with unique attributes, equal to man without an aspiration to be him. This argument is very strong. If the trend of female chauvinism and raunch culture pervades, it is true that there will not only be lost women out there, but unsatisfied men. While men naturally enjoy the visage of a woman, is it healthy for them to grow up with ideals of submissive Barbie dolls who wear masks of pleasure? They themselves will be missing out.

Overall, the book is provoking. And it has caused discussion and debate. It would be great to see a follow-up with some examples of modern-day open-minded feminists that Levy could bring together as a positive ideal. In my own experience, while I have been frustrated time and time again with raunch culture (especially its effect on socialisation), there is most certainly a counter-culture. Many young women know their bodies, find their way through a variety of cultural influences (as we are none of us completely autonomous) and are not saturated by plastic ideals of sexiness. These women have voices, satire, elegance, and often partners (men and women) who happily share in equal pleasures.

Purchase Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture

See Ariel Levy’s website.

Angela's Publications

Apr 5, 2008

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This review was first published in Idiom 23, 2007. 

In the opening pages of Feather Man (Aus, US), amongst the stench of wet chook feathers and shit, something is taken from the young female character. ‘Lionel robbed me of naturalness’ she later reflects. It is a beginning and it is an end. ‘Sookie’ (as her Dad calls her) was an empty sort of child anyway. Small pleasures; like drawing pictures with clean pens, or joining the dog under the bed in a storm; take the edges off loneliness. But she had been seeking a somebody when she started hanging around Lionel, the grandfather-figure next door. She had been empty, friendless, unable to please her parents. Her mother and father she views in opposite sides of the kitchen, barraging her with cliches like ‘grin and bear it’, reminding her of the worthlessness of her existence. She is attention-starved and Lionel’s hungry eyes sense her vulnerability. For a while there is a strained friendship, moments of belonging, and then a violation that creates an internal chicken – scratching at her heart. 

Throughout the novel the chicken pervades, as does other imagery of feathers, cages, and a heirarchy of hens. The book is in four parts, citing the names of four men that influence Sookie’s life. We don’t actually know the protagonist’s true name until the end of the book, when some semblance of her identity, her true desire, has been not necessarily fulfilled, but confessed – exposed. This coincides with the majority of negative occurences in the book being due to secrecy, unspokenness. In this way, Rhyll McMaster has delved into the loungeroom and neighborhood of suburban Brisbane in the 1950s. She captures the rigidity of the era well, the skewed perceptions of what was important. The female characters unfortunately all suffer from willingness of denial, and in this way are often portrayed as being even worse than the perpetrating males. Sookie’s mother stands by while her husband has an affair and leaves her for another woman. Lionel’s wife next door is as blank as canvas, she exists only as a gossiping mouth, reminding Sookie of what is ‘proper’. Friends and co-workers she encounters later on are all one way or another tied to their reliance on patriarchy and the males closest to them. So while Sookie struggles with the void of abuse, she also notices the imbalance of the sexes at every level. In the narrative there is one female she encounters that she admires – Redmond’s girlfriend Rosie. Redmond is Lionel’s son – the boy next door. But when Rosie dares to speak the unspoken, she too is shunned. This doesn’t stop Sookie from later marrying Redmond, the negative offender, in her own form of denial and self-abuse. He tells her to ‘be an asset’ while he chases his own selfish and whimsical dreams from Brisbane to London. He imagines himself heroic, intellectual, solid. Sookie ends up painting him as transparent, but her triumph is blasted when it fails to have an effect on his calloused shell. 

Her means of expression is painting. Ironically it ends up being a man who helps her to success. It is almost a difficult thing to accept in a book that seems mostly feminist in its sensibilities. But McMaster justifies the true fulfillment of a relationship with another human being that is chosen – not merely constructed from needs: 

‘What’s happening, if it does occur, is unviewable. I know that much. It lies between the lines of spoken words, housed in the silent gaps. It cannot be represented – or only obliquely. It is as hard to explain as consciousness. It has an imprecise name, this non-representation. It is swamped with desire.’ 

Juxtapositionally, this non-explanation sums it up perfectly. Elsewhere, McMaster employs her poetic ability to illuminating effect. The book is loaded with symbolism and metaphor, from the aforementioned chook allusions, to physical disease and other bodily features, the pristine and the dirty, wet and dry, art, aesthetics and colour, to the significance of places – indoor and outdoor. The first person internalisations are never dull, as the reader is privy to Sookie’s figuring out of the connectedness of things. This includes the blurred lines of sexuality and desire, social expectations, and artistic endeavours. The paintings themselves are described vividly so that the reader can envision them. It is an interesting experience because not only in your mind’s eye are you viewing a painting, but you are learning of its physical and material process, and also its psychological motivations. Each painting is a journey and an unveiling for the character and for the reader.A lot of time is spent with Sookie’s childhood, the shaper and maker of her burgeoning identity. Some time is devoted to her as a teenager where awkwardness can cover for the things she already knows, and realises she shouldn’t. As a young woman she encounters the first expectations upon her societally functioning self – to marry? to work? or dare she try it, to paint? Fate plays a small part in the final stages of the story, and it is overtly referenced as thus. While fate is in masculine form, it is still explored as the fact that all the paths Sookie took brought her to that finality. Without revealing the ending, positivity comes from the revelation of the truth, and in revealing the chicken pecking at her heart, Sookie can set it free. 

Rhyll McMaster has had six books of poetry published, many of them prize-winning, but this is her first novel. For a poet she shows restraint and delicacy in her prose while still embellishing it with apt imagery. This is a beautiful and worthy Australian novel with absorbing characterisation and layers of resonant themes.