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Reviews

Mar 8, 2012

‘A writer first and a woman after’: Overland journal’s Women’s Work

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Women’s Work is Overland’s new anthology of short stories by emerging female writers launched today as part of International Women’s Day.

The collection was developed in conjunction with the Stella Prize as a response to debates about the gender imbalance in literary publishing. As editor Clare Strahan writes,

The underrepresentation of women in writing is something with which Overland has long been concerned. We’ve debated this inequality in the Overland online community, and our desire to address it contributed to the establishment of the CAL Connections essay project, and is now the driving force behind Overland publishing this fiction collection Women’s Work.

There is much to recommend in the politics of this collection: its project of giving voice to new writers as well as providing a space dedicated to addressing the underrepresentation of female authors. But, above all, it’s the quality of the writing itself that recommends this work – the five accomplished stories by Anne Hotta, Georgina Luck, Helen Addison-Smith, Susie Greenhill and Cheryl Adam.

Strahan ends her introduction to the anthology with Katherine Mansfield’s assertion: ‘I’m a writer first and a woman after,’ and the politics of Women’s Work is in the project, not the stories themselves. These are simply five beautiful, stand-alone tales about yearning, loss, temptation, anger, isolation, and the struggle for empathy and understanding – told from both male and female perspectives.

Like the wonderfully strange and otherworldly Jenny Terasaki image on the cover, many of these stories have a fable-like quality – such as Anne Hotta’s ‘The Art of Ikebana,’ an elegantly written, almost mystical tale about an all-consuming, obsessional longing, and the invisible ties that can bind one person to another: ‘The end of the string was tied around the ankle of the boy who would be her husband. It was an invisible string, one only they could see and one that could only be cut by death.’

Susie Greenhill’s similarly mysterious ‘Forest,’ set in the wilderness of a threatened Tasmanian reserve, presents a male protagonist’s increasingly dreamlike search for unity with nature: ‘he pulls his wings close to his body like a cloak. They smell musty, they scratch against his skin, they tickle him, they are as soft as fur.’

I was particularly impressed with Georgina Luck’s luminous and affecting story ‘Calving.’ Luck writes beautifully from a father’s point of view about his attempts to understand his talented, but almost alien daughter:

Rachel sings to the boy. She is transformed. The young man opposite me sits up straighter, seeing my daughter for the first time. It is something I have witnessed often. The notes peel back an invisible veil to reveal her true self – all the beauty, passion and strength that usually stay locked away behind her shyness.

Luck deftly employs the phenomenon of the breaking off of an iceberg from a glacier for all its metaphorical implications in the context of a woman’s loss of a part of herself. It was, for me, one of the stand-outs in the collection.

Helen Addison-Smith’s ‘She’ is a dark, angry and terribly sad look at the ends of an enduring love, and the uncomfortable duties and commitments that age and sickness bring to a relationship. ‘I couldn’t find her in the body that lay in front of me. She had left without me. Now I was frightened of her, what was left of her.’

And in the final piece in the anthology, ‘Under the Bridge,’ Cheryl Adam brought a lightness to a serious topic, where two women from vastly different backgrounds connect when a natural disaster turns the power dynamics between them on their head, ‘It struck Erlinda that fate had thrown them together, equalised them… Inching forward she looked over the edge of the pipe and called to Kay. “Pass me your bag.”’

I commend Overland and editor Clare Strahan for this collection – a wonderful way to commemorate International Women’s Day, not by simply noting the lack of female writing but by actually creating something worthwhile out of the imbalance. I hope this will be an ongoing, annual project.

I enjoyed my time in the worlds created by Hotta, Luck, Addison-Smith, Greenhill and Adam, and look forward to seeing more from these skillful and exciting new writers.

Women’s Work is being launched as part of the Stella Prize panel at Readings Carlton in Melbourne today, Thursday 8 March for International Women’s Day.

Women’s Work will be available as an e-book via the Overland website and Readings from Friday 9 March. RRP $5.95

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