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God, the mother and the book Posted by Maralann on 19 Mar 2012

By Pat Rosier

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson, published by Jonathan Cape, London
Bite Your Tongue Francesca Rendle-Short, published by Spinifex Press, Melbourne

How many of us, I wonder, blame our mothers for our failings or disappointments? Not these two writers, anyway, even though their childhood experiences were disturbingly extreme.
I grew up in a family where religion was just one of those things, punishment was by private disapproval, not public shaming or violence, and “do your bit” (for an unspoken general good) was the guiding principle. I am still shocked when I read about families like those in these two books, families controlled by parents with extreme beliefs that are justification for treating people—children—badly.
 Winterson and Rendle-Short come from families where religion ruled, in both these cases via their mother. For each as a child there was the danger of being thrown into a turmoil of embarrassment, loyalty and fear at the public behaviour of her mother. (For Winterson, add physical treatment that would have social services at the door today.) That each woman has come to some kind of resolution with her childhood shows in the dedications. Rendle-Short dedicates her book to her deceased mother, Winterson hers to “three mothers: Constance WInterson, Ruth Rendell, Ann S.” with Ann S. being the birth mother she makes contact with towards the end of the book.
 It is well-known that Winterson wrote a fictional version of her childhood in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Rendle-Short creates a fictional character, Gloria, within Bite Your Tongue to tell the childhood part of her story where the mother, so help us, is on a mission to “purify” the Queensland school curriculum by banning and burning certain books. The adult writer Rendle-Short fossicks among newspaper reports and other records for details of these events and interweaves the fictional and the factual. (“Dr Joy’s Death List” (of books) can be found at the end of Bite Your Tongue.) For Winterson’s adoptive mother, it’s more personal, the child herself appears to be the enemy, being told when her mother is angry with her, “the Devil led us to the wrong crib.”
 These two books keep inviting comparisons. Rendle-Short’s actual mother’s first name is—yes, really—Angel. Her character Gloria’s mother is called MotherJoy. Winterson’s mother is always referred to as Mrs WInterson and she is cruel and punishing. Both authors survive their mother, developing emotional muscle on the way.

 The writing, however, is very different. In Why Be Happy there’s a lot of space around the words, much that is not said, and the tone is matter-of-fact while the statements are often passionate, sometimes shocking, especially when the young Jeanette is being grossly mis-treated. Defiance, refusal to see herself as a victim, a small child gouging out a space for herself in the world, is what we are shown. “Books,” she writes, “for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home —they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside.” In the fiction of her childhood, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, she says she tempered the actual events, making them more believable. Goodness. Are there moments of melodrama? Or just the truth? We, her readers, can’t know, but we can feel her conviction that she is not a damaged person, no victim, (though not good at longterm relationships). “I was very often full of rage and despair. I was always lonely. In spite of all that I was and am in love with life.”
 Winterson’s statement “The trouble with a book is that you don’t know what’s in it until too late.” could have been made by Rendle-Short’s mother.
While Winterson invokes with spaces around the words, Rendle-Short accretes detail, in words and metaphors that make everything explicit. One example is in the two pages where MotherJoy matches “the parts of the pig’s head in front of her with an imaginary map of the female anatomy” for her daughters. And there are the sheep tongues, the full detail of their preparation and eating expanding the extended metaphor of the book’s title. 

I like it that both of these books include dedications to the mother many of us would condemn for the way they treated their daughters. Both Winterson and Rendle-Short complicate easy judgments and neither has allowed her childhood experiences to define a limited adult identity. And each demonstrates powerfully, albeit in different ways, the power, and revelatory potential of books. 

Pat Rosier was the editor of New Zealand's feminist magazine, Broadsheet, for many years. She is the author of Poppy's Progress and Poppy's Return both published by Spinifex. She has just released a novel Where the HeArt Is which is available as an eBook.
Where the HeArt Is

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Gail Jones launches Fish-Hair Woman at Adelaide Writers Week Posted by Maralann on 13 Mar 2012
Merlinda Bobis and Gail Jones

It is a great honour to launch Merlinda Bobbis’s book .

Some books are very easy to describe – they fall into well-known categories or genres, they carry with them a kind of commercial promise of familiarity, a kind of complacency, if you will, that reassures the reader of a certain comfort and ease. Then there are those books, like Merlinda’s, like Fish Hair Woman, that are utterly singular, books that challenge and excite us because they are like no other, books that transport and transform us, that require us to imagine larger, richer, more profoundly and more audaciously...

So my job this afternoon is to give you a sense of the qualities of this remarkable book without reducing or summarizing it, without spoiling the plot…

Fish Hair Woman is a kind of magical history, set in the Philippines, mostly in 1987, but with an investigation, a sort of detective narrative, set much closer to the present. To say it is magical is not to suggest it is escapist fantasy; but that it is magical in the sense of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Gunter Grass or Angela Carter, writers who – paradoxically – employ the marvelous in order to suggest the irrepressible richness of real life, its folded and intricate dimensions, its weird interiorities and inexplicable goings on. And like those writers, Merlinda has a political purpose; to challenge the social order of received and simple explanations. This is a kind of magic, then, that speaks truth to power, but it is a literary truth, conceived in an ambitious register which figures calamity, grievance, brutality, depredation, but also – and crucially – its radical counter: intimacy, eroticism, the wonderfully implausible persistence of individual heroism and love.

1987 was the year of a war on terrorism in the Philippines, a time in which the military tried to extinguish the New Peoples Army, insurgents calling for social renewal and justice for the poor. It was a time of atrocity, disappearances and irreparable social damage. Within this terrible context, within the dark spaces of history, Merlinda has chosen to focus on particular individuals in order to remind us that those who disappear in any catastrophe have faces and names and personal stories and families; they have loved and experienced tenderness in the context of their suffering; they can be recovered within story in their all-too-human complication. The fish hair woman is a woman who has 12 metres of hair; she is condemned to retrieve the bodies of slaughtered villagers from the river, to fish them out, dragging the awful corpses with the net of her own making, trawling the depths to bring the truth of violence to the surface.

 Desaparecidos. Our disappeared, ay, so many of them. And the lovers left behind became obsessed with doors – one day my son, daughter, husband, wife, will be framed at the doorway. Behind my beloved will be so much light.

It’s a metaphor for the writer’s task, of course, to return what is hidden or unacknowledged to the light, and to loving attention and appreciation; but its also an extraordinarily bold conceit, that a woman might perform so grotesque and necessary a task, that she might carry the hope and the mourning of everyone in her village. So this is a painful magic, and this novel is sorrowful and serious; it requires us to imagine mutilated bodies and the savagery that produced them.  Most writers would be daunted by so very large a theme, and so difficult a history, but Merlinda is courageous, and committed to her moral storytelling. She has cleverly structured her book through intertwined stories, so that we learn slowly of the characters and become enmeshed in a different kind of net, if you like, in which threads of story stretch and contract, open and knot, and gradually begin to form a discernable pattern.  There’s a wonderful sense, reading this book, of continuing revelation, of coming to know the plot through this careful net-like structure. And as you can tell from the tiny piece I’ve just read, the prose has an elegiac beauty to it, a compelling lyricism and loveliness, so that the reader is also emotionally involved. It’s always a mystery to me how beauty and atrocity can co-exist in writing, but this too is central to the work of art: I’m reminded of the French philosopher, Maurice Blanchot, who believes that in a sense we write to acknowledge the dead, that the corpse is the reason that we have art, and that the decent of Orpheus to rescue Eurydice, for example, is paradigmatic of the metaphysical function of writing. In this sense the bravery of Merlinda’s vision is to lead us all to the point of witness, then allow us to sense the precious, if frail, affirmation of so terrible a journey.

Fish Hair Woman is social history, lamentation, magic, cultural investigation, but it is also a romance, working indirectly, with a poetic logic. Throughout the book, Estrella, the fish hair woman, is writing a kind of love letter to an Australian adventurer, Tony – though this is a clumsy way of describing a subtle device (there’s a mystery to the status of the love letter). Par-da-ba, the word for beloved, echoes within the book, and reminds us that weeping is possibly like singing, that there are forms of desire and mourning that are both implicitly musical. The metaphor of the heart is central too; the fish hair woman has a “tricky heart”: there is left ventricle and right ventricle love; and there are broken hearts aplenty and a deep reverence of the body and its capacity to be hurt and to find pleasure. The poetic logic – a wholly distinctive feature of this book – is no less important than the plot; and it means that we are enjoined in dense imagining of the community of the suffering, that there is a solidarity – if you will – required of us, that we are addressed through the animation of our necessary fellow-feeling.

In the investigative thread of the novel a young man, Luke, is searching for his father Tony, who is one of the disappeared. In inserting a white Australian man into the Filipino situation Merlinda raises some of the most vexatious political questions in the book: is the body of a white man more important than the body of a Filipino woman? Why might we ask this question or even dare to contemplate it? What relations of power and colonialism give more weight and prestige to the disappearance of a white man? We share a bodily vulnerability – an existential vulnerability – and in representing so sincerely, with such pertinent care, the grief of indigenous Filipinos, Fish Hair Woman is above all an ethical novel and one that requires us to be circumspect about the politics of which it speaks, and the magnitude of forms of loss we might find it easier not to consider.

I want in closing to offer my gratitude to Merlinda. We all read a great deal, and what matters finally are those books that come to rest within us, that have taught us something – not with a message, but in the process of encountering a richly imagined other-world. So I commend this book to you for its ethics, its complication, its wonderful writing, but also, finally, for reminding us that the dark human shape in the doorway, the shape surrounded by light, is what we need to recall and attend to, to vouch safe and to treasure.

Gail Jones March 2012

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Equal rights to school play areas Posted by Maralann on 13 Mar 2012

By Pauline Hopkins

On International Women’s Day I walked my 11-year-old daughter into school, early enough that there was time to play and socialise before the school bell rang to mark the start of lessons. A couple of her friends came bounding up to say hello to her, before declaring that they had been intending to play on the basketball courts but they couldn’t as the boys were there. I pointed out to them that just because boys were playing on the court, it should not mean that they could not play there as well. I was shocked that they seemed surprised at the suggestion. It was a revelation that they were entitled to occupy and claim some of the court space for themselves, rather than allow it to be exclusively for boys just because they were there first.
So I told them a story. A story of my youngest sister who in 1975 was excluded from the kindergarten’s outdoor playground equipment and who was told by the boys to go inside and play with the other girls, playing pretend cooking and quiet indoor games. This single-minded girl refused to comply. So the next day, she decided to become “Peter” for the day, and made my mum help her dress as a boy, with her hair tucked into a cowboy hat. She did not want to be a boy, but she certainly wanted to be allowed to access the exciting, active equipment that the boys had laid exclusive rights to. 
To see my sister’s experience reverberating in 2012 with a new generation and at a progressive modern school, certainly made me think on International Women’s Day. Yes, there are far more pressing and desperate issues facing women around the world-issues of discrimination and exploitation that are causing death, disease, poverty and distress. Yet it is still worthwhile remembering that simultaneously there are little incidents happening everywhere, like this one in the playground, that are sending either overt or implied messages to girls about their place in the world and their power, or lack of it.

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High cholesterol levels and women Posted by Maralann on 06 Mar 2012

Last week The Age reported that cholesterol – lowering drugs increase the risk of diabetes and memory impairment. This is really bad news for around two million Australians who take these medications believing they’ll lower their heart attack risk. While the report is concerning, it is also comforting to know that there is now too much evidence for health authorities to ignore the side effects of statins.

Statins are drugs that block the enzyme in the liver responsible for making cholesterol.But the reality is that every cell membrane contains cholesterol, vital for the production of hormones, cellular repair and overall good health including that of the brain. Medication with statins such as Lipitor, Zocor and Pravachol rob our bodies of cholesterol, crucial for neurological function, so it’s no surprise that there’s an increase in dementia. Rising rates of diabetes are also understandable as cholesterol is required for the regulation of blood sugar levels.

But there is much more to the myth that is the cholesterol story. Dr. Uffe Ravnskov, author of The Cholesterol Myths explains that it all began with the landmark Framingham Heart Study, which followed healthy people in the early 1950s to see who had a heart attack and what distinguished them from the people who did not. High cholesterol was one risk factor–but it was only one of more than 240 others. Ravnskov said that the public health officials and cardiologists, confused a statistical association with causation, resulting in a new disease called hypercholesterolemia, the health issue of the 21st century.

According to researchers Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, many people who feel perfectly healthy suffer from high cholesterol– in fact feeling good is actually a symptom of high cholesterol. Living longer is an effect of high cholesterol with Dr. Harlan Krumholz of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Yale University, reporting in 1994 that twice as many elderly people with low cholesterol died from a heart attack than did elderly people with high cholesterol.

It is pleasing to hear that a recent study has found that clinical and public health recommendations regarding the ‘dangers’ of cholesterol should be revised. This is especially true for women, for whom moderately elevated cholesterol may prove to be not only harmless but even beneficial. ‘High Cholesterol is not a risk factor for women’, says Dr Uffe Ravnskov, but in spite of this many women are being treated for high cholesterol.

The Cholesterol Myths begins with a story about Karla. She was a fit and healthy 62 year old cleaner when she learned she had an elevated cholesterol reading. She was instructed to change her diet and lose weight. ‘I was as fit as a fiddle’, Karla told Ravnskov. Even so she followed her doctor’s orders changing her diet to one of high fibre and using vegetable oils instead of butter and cream. Failing to lose the prescribed weight and unable to lower her cholesterol she was put on medication.  In no time her ravenous appetite had disappeared and her positive demeanour was gone, but her cholesterol was way down.

Karla is not alone. Mary Adams began to notice slurred speech, balance problems and severe fatigue after she had been taking a commonly prescribed statin drug for three years. Her symptoms included loss of sleep due to restless and twitching limbs. She soon began to suffer loss of balance and problems with her gait and her fine motor skills were not what they had been. Once Mary took the next step and ceased taking her regular cholesterol-lowering pill she recovered her previous health.

So if cholesterol isn’t the villain what does cause heart disease? According to researchers Mary Enig and Sally Fallon, heart disease was very rare in 1900 responsible for about 8% of all deaths in the US compared with today’s figures of approximately 45%. The type of heart disease prevalent today is a myocardial infarction, or a heart attack where a blood clot obstructs the coronary arteries with the subsequent death of the heart muscle and is a form of heart disease that was almost unheard of before 1910. By 1950, coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death in the US.

We do need to counteract the high rates of heart disease. But rather than swallowing drugs that interfere with vital cholesterol function we need to adopt healthy lifestyles such as eating fresh foods, not smoking, avoiding pesticides and chemicals and taking up daily exercise.

Helen Lobato 


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Amazon's land grab for intellectual property Posted by Susan_Hawthorne on 24 Feb 2012

Susan Hawthorne, Director, Spinifex Press

Amazon this week made a land grab for the intellectual property of small and independent publishers.

Amazon has switched off the ability to sell Kindle titles which are distributed by IPG (Independent Publishers Group). When the period for the renewal of the contract between IPG and Amazon came around, Amazon wanted to change the terms of the contract – but not in IPG’s favour. As Mark Suchomel, President of IPG points out:

“IPG’s terms are … acceptable to everyone else in the book business … If half the accounts weren’t buying from us, I’d have to question it, but everyone else is [accepting our terms].”

Spinifex is one of a considerable number of independent Australian publishers distributed by IPG. While Amazon’s actions has had media interest in the USA, the silence in Australia is deafening.

When colonists arrive in a country they quickly grab what they can. They make land grabs. Via their distributor, Amazon is attempting to get those publishers who work through IPG to make a direct deal with Amazon. But IPG does more than distribute eBooks. They also distribute print titles, do marketing and for some, help in selling rights. Amazon doesn’t offer these services.

Small publishers sit somewhere between large multinational publishers and self-publishers. Amazon is also wooing self-publishers, most of whom are authors who have little clout. Amazon can sell these books more cheaply because self-publishers do not have overheads and because self-publishers are a dispersed workforce. It is the piecework approach to outsourced publishing. In addition, many have little experience of publishing. Amazon, I expect, would like small publishers to sign the same contracts as self-publishers, but small publishers operate on a different business model.

Amazon is using a divide-and-conquer strategy and it’s unlikely a small publisher signing up to Amazon on its own will have anywhere near the clout of a large distributor – and who knows what terms Amazon will begin to offer small publishers in the event that distributors like IPG are taken out of the picture. Nor do small publishers have the clout of publishers such as Macmillan and others who were able to stand together against Amazon in early 2010.

Macmillan and the other major publishers won that battle because this was a fight between two reasonably equal partners. Are small publishers to be cast to the wind?

Here is how Amazon framed the battle with Macmillan:

“Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it’s reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book. We don’t believe that all of the major publishers will take the same route as Macmillan. And we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an opportunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative.”

So here we are: Amazon, like Dymocks in the argument about parallel importation, is driving a wedge between consumers and publishers. Most consumers want cheaper goods, but when the long term effect of that is to drive those same businesses to the wall, it is not in the interests of consumers to think only of prices. Small publishers offer an alternative to the mainstream. Our biggest struggle is to survive. The shift to eBooks is costing everyone working in publishing a great deal of time and money.

Every eBook that is produced by a small publisher has to have all of the following done by the publisher: acquisition, editing (both structural and copyediting), typesetting, interior design, cover design, conversion of files to multiple eBook formats, creation of metadata, uploading of files to multiple distribution channels, promotion (including creating media releases), contacting media, using social media, organizing events, paying of royalties, negotiating contracts and so it goes on. These are the value-add services that a publisher provides.

While the large publishers get to set their own prices, small publishers – already faced with lower returns – are expected to allow Amazon – another business – to set their prices for them. IPG’s battle with Amazon is important because it suggests that this might be a first step in subduing the colonised.

While some have said that this is an individual fight about terms of trade, I do not believe it is that simple. It reminds me of the moves by Coles and Woolworths with farmers (my parents were farmers). Without some kind of industry response, Amazon will keep on pushing and pushing and later we will ask: why did no one speak out when this began to happen to the small – and some not so small – players?

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