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Writers refuse to bite their tongues... Posted by Maralann on 12 Apr 2012

By Spinifex intern, Veronica Sullivan

The Australian literary community reacted last week with outrage and disbelief to Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s decision to cancel ‘his’ awards – the QLD Premier’s Literary Awards – after just three weeks in office. Newman’s decision, announced on Wednesday 4th April, raises a litany of issues about his motivations and their ramifications.

The cost saved to Queensland taxpayers, according to Newman, will be $240 000: a $230 000 prize pool, and $10 000 in administration costs. This is only a small portion – less than 0.04 per cent – of the Queensland Government’s 2011-2012 budget. The sum is not a substantial one to the government, but it is to the state’s arts community, as is the retraction of this important avenue of recognition for authors who are often otherwise overlooked.

Outside of the industry, literary news isn’t generally a hot-button political issue. Newman will have been relying on a general disinterest or ambivalence amongst Queenslanders, hoping they would accept his supposed budget-consciousness with no complaints about the long-term cultural ramifications. Ironically and hearteningly, the resulting public outcry in Queensland and around Australia has given the awards and the literary community far more publicity than they would ever have attracted ordinarily.

Newman failed to anticipate the passionate and vociferous response of Queensland’s readers, authors and booksellers, who abhor the possibility of being the only State without a literary awards program. In just over a week, an online petition for the reinstatement of the awards has already garnered over 3000 signatures.

With 14 categories, including an emerging author award for an unpublished manuscript, the Premier’s awards are a valuable platform for publicising new and unheard voices. One of the categories was the lauded David Unaipon Award for best unpublished Indigenous manuscript. Aboriginal writing is underrepresented in Australia generally, and the David Unaipon award is unique.

The premier has been unrepentant about the potential devastation he has released on Queensland’s literary community. Newman says he’ll make “no apologies” for his decision, which ironically comes in the midst of the National Year of Reading. Newman’s election campaign included a commitment to preserving the state’s arts and culture. His retrograde attitude raises worrying echoes of a previous narrow-minded Queensland government – the paradoxical mix of conservatism and institutionalised corruption which ran rampant under Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the wake of the axing another parallel arises, with Spinifex author Francesca Rendle-Short’s childhood in 1970s Queensland. As relayed in her memoir, Bite Your Tongue, Francesca’s mother, Angel, was an evangelical Christian who campaigned for strict censorship of school English texts and conducted book-burnings. Her targets were books which she perceived as immoral and depraved, including To Kill a Mockingbird, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the works of Virginia Woolf.

Ironically, from this creatively repressed environment, Francesca grew to become an artist, author, poet and creative writer. She is also Program Director of the Creative Writing degree at RMIT University.

While retracting funding from literature does not equate to condemning or banning it, it does demonstrate a disregard for the importance of the arts which is cause for concern. Francesca has observed the unfolding of these events with sadness. “I really didn't think that Queensland would return to being a one-party state again, but it has,” she says. “I thought we had learned lessons from the past. The LNP's current hold on a 78 seat majority to Labor's 7 seats, without an upper house to oversee the business of government and its policy and decisions, shocks me deeply. All sorts of terrible decisions will now be made with this kind of mandate.

“The other shock is how quick Campbell Newman was to axe the award – after only ten days in office and as one of his first decisions – what will happen in 100 days? Given the decision was made over such a paltry amount, and given the timing, this act of his is acutely symbolic. It says so much about Newman and the LNP's view of literature and writing and reading, and the value of the arts in our community.

“But I also know that in adversity there is hope and life, and that some of the best writing will come out of Queensland over the next term of government. The state will produce writing that is incisive, inspired, inventive, resonant and bountiful."

In the wake of the decision to cancel the awards, the Queensland literary community has rallied. An alliance of booksellers, authors and various industry figures have been vocal in expressing their determination to continue the awards in some form, with or without government support. The group is calling for the awards to be renamed the Queensland People’s Literary Awards, in recognition of their new grassroots nature.

The group is fronted by Krissy Kneen, who has reiterated her opinion that literary prizes are not about the money, but about attaining wider recognition for deserving authors who otherwise go unnoticed. She says, “the most important thing is the kudos of the nomination”. Although authors may welcome financial recognition of their work, money is not generally a prime motivator in the choice a writing career.

In an interview on the ABC Radio breakfast program on Wednesday 4th April, Queensland-raised journalist and writer Matthew Condon confirmed the awards would go ahead without prize money. He said that while sponsorship and monetary prizes are strong incentives, the awards would be given this year without financial recompense for the winners. He stated his hope that “as long as the awards are kept alive in this new form, then one would hope down the track, that patronage is attracted to that”.

As scary as it is to acknowledge that a state government can completely discard its recognition of literature, the reaction around Australia has been passionate and overwhelmingly optimistic. Readers and writers are not prepared to give up on the awards, and judging by these responses their survival is assured, whatever form they may take.


Follow Veronica on Twitter: @veronicaahhh

Francesca Rendle-Short's website: http://francescarendleshort.com/


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The Precariat Posted by Maralann on 26 Mar 2012



'It’s a global phenomenon so widespread that a new name has been coined for it: the precariat,’ wrote workplace editor Clay Lucas in The Age, 21 March. Precariat is a term describing the millions of people who finding themselves without job security are forced to take insecure, poorly paid and precarious jobs.

I  came across ‘precariat’ meaning casualised, insecure labour in The Lace Makers of Narsapur by Maria Mies. Author and theorist Mies, claims that economists have invented the word ‘precariat’ because they are reluctant to have us understand the brutality that lurks behind this concept. Politicians proudly report that employment has risen but fail to admit that most of these  jobs have no holiday or sick pay and lack security of tenure.

The Lace Makers of Narsapur was first published in 1982 and is a ground breaking and sensitive study of women at the beginning of globalisation.  Maria Mies examines how the poor  women of Narsapur are used to produce luxury goods for the western market. The rural lace makers are marginalised and responsible for the subsistence of the family and due to the patriarchal norms of society are  unable to compete  with men for the small amount of  paid work that is available. The lace makers combine their work with domestic chores; their piece work is invisible – regarded as housework, even though it’s often the only family income.

Like the lace makers of Narsapur who could not survive without their precarious, low paid work, Australia, once a  country where  permanent jobs were the norm, now leads the way in the casualisation of labour with job seekers forced to move from one short-term contract to the next. In her preface to the 2012 edition of The Lace Makers of Narsapur, Maria Mies asserts that such precarious employment where millions of people lead lives of social and economic uncertainty suits the owners of capital very well. Just as the lace makers did not produce a full lace garment but parts thereof,  workers in the today’s global market produce components for products such as cars, computers or phones for unknown foreign contractors. There is little job security, scarce ability to pay for health insurance, a house, or sick pay- just dependence on the vicissitudes of the international market.

Forty years ago it was thought that by now we’d  be working just 20 hours a week, but as  the author of The Precariat - The New Dangerous Class, Guy Standing says ‘we have experienced the growth of a new and dangerously angry class, the precariat’. This global phenomena consists of people who have lost working – class jobs, and  others such as migrants and the disabled,  along with the educated and frustrated who form much of the  protest movements that spread across Europe and the Middle East last year.

But did it have to be this way? What if there had been a change in the sexual division of labour? In The Lace Makers of Narsapur,  Mies theorised that if men had to share non-wage work equally with women requiring them to spend more time at home and less at the office or factory,  the labour power needed to produce ever more commodities for the capitalist market would shrink.  Under such equal conditions, according to Mies, capitalism could not have developed in the way that it did. Instead, the atomised and disorganised lace makers working for sub-subsistence wages, ‘are now the image of the future for us’.

Guy Standing, is also Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath in England. He warns politicians  to take note of this rising precariat whose members are suffering from anxiety. Uncertainty  is spreading rapidly throughout society, leading to alienation and despair – in turn feeding  into the growth of the protest movements around the globe, says Standing.

‘The lacemakers show the way,’ writes Mies.  ’The conditions under which they worked never disappeared, as we can see now.’ ‘Their working days are hard and long and so is the working life of these women – from the age of 8 to the age of 70 or 80. The lace-making women virtually never stop working until they die.’ These conditions have returned to the rich countries of the west from where they were exported’, she says.

While the proletariat has disappeared  the precariat is on the rise.

Maria Mies is a German theorist, activist and author. She is Professor Emerita at the University of Applied Sciences (Fachhochschule) in Cologne. She is the author of numerous works of women and globalisation including: Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalised Economy with Veronica Bennholdt-Thomsen and Ecofeminism with Vandana Shiva.

The Lace Makers of Narsapur  is an important book.  Published by Spinifex Press , it’s due for release in May 2012.

Helen Lobato 


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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.

 http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=128/ 
http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=129/
Where the HeArt Is http://peajayar.blogspot.com.au/
 


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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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