The right kind of problem: harm minimisation in an intersectional anthology

No Award is very pleased to bring you a guest post today from Rivqa Rafael about the Problem Daughters anthology, and the processes the editors are going through to create a diverse and inclusive anthology. 

Problem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, with a specific focus on the lives and experiences of women of colour, QUILTBAG women, disabled women, sex workers, and any intersection of these.

Continue reading “The right kind of problem: harm minimisation in an intersectional anthology”

Setting Jane Austen’s cads, bounders and douchebags on fire

Our own post on books we love to re-read has sent me diving into Austen. Again. Specifically David M. Shapard’s annotated editions, which are only US$9.99 on Kindle, and are full of fascinating facts and context and whatnot. I’m quite bummed that the annotated Mansfield Park (my favourite Austen novel, FIGHT ME) isn’t out until next year.

This re-read got me thinking about Austen’s troupe of terrible jerks. Each of her books presents its heroine with a Bad Romantic Option, but they’re all terrible in different ways, and to different degrees. But I think we can all agree that they deserve to be set on fire — the only question is, who do we burn first?

Continue reading “Setting Jane Austen’s cads, bounders and douchebags on fire”

Destroy the Joint versus women with disabilities

Destroy the Joint is an Australian feminist … movement?  Hashtag?  Group? that took its name from Alan Jones’s complaint that women were “destroying the joint” by turning up to things and doing their jobs and having opinions, and also, at the time, being Prime Minister.

We at No Award have long had a bit of side-eye for DtJ, because while it does many good things, it’s also super white feministical, for example, spearheading movements to make the government provide tampons to refugees in detention.  (We’ve already talked about the reasons why this is not always culturally appropriate.)

(White feminism: shorthand for feminism that isn’t intersectional, so-called because it usually ignores or outright erases the needs and experiences of women of colour.  It’s essentially feminism that’s applicable only to white, middle-class, able-bodied, cis women.)

Destroy the Joint have a history of excluding women of disabilities, as the late, magnificent Stella Young discussed in 2013.

Destroy the joint? Shit, I’d be happy just to be allowed in the joint.

Continue reading “Destroy the Joint versus women with disabilities”

service: tell my jerkbrain that i can do this thing

Dear all who were raised whilst being told they weren’t as good as white men, here is an article that tells you nothing new.

The Confidence Gap

A review of personnel records found that women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements. At HP, and in study after study, the data confirm what we instinctively know. Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.

Australian ladies are in no way exempt from this terrible phenomenon, and although I’m struggling to find evidence, I suspect they are further constrained by the frustrating Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Photo: smiling quokka (Fin Popper/Creative Commons)
a quokka – secretly a killer (like all australians)

And non-ladies will also find this relevant; basically any member of any minority group who was told they weren’t as good as a conforming white man. Please ignore the USA tech industry biases in this article and apply its truths to your life as you see relevant. Note that what is considered self-confidence varies across cultures, traditions and upbringing, and can be exacerbated: when this article comments that assertive women are often considered bitches, it fails to note that black women (and men) in North America are considered uppity; that Asian women in Australia are considered dragons; that Aboriginal people are ignored as if they are not even there.

In light of this not new and completely unsurprising information about the role of misogyny in our established societal systems and jerkbrains, No Award and Penguin Productions are compelled to offer a new service: the I Can Burn It Down service.

Services provided in this program:

  • You ask: No Award, can I do this thing and crush this city to the ground? No Award replies: Indeed, you can do this thing, and lists you why so you can shut up your lying jerkbrain.
  • Positive reinforcement is aided by motivational sharks, an evil cat, and adorable penguins who will assess your abilities (all excellent) and experience (so great) and confirm for you that you can do this thing.
  • Reassessment of negative feedback from jerkface other parties, and confirmation that you can indeed burn it down.

This service was designed with Australians in mind, and please note that it is opt-in for all self identifying ladies, gender non-specifics, those who were forced to be ladies against their actual identity, and any others who were raised whilst being told they weren’t as good as gender-conforming white men and currently feel a need for this service.

The management recognises that sometimes it will not be available to provide this service, as all service operators are currently located in Melbourne, Australia. To that end, we also provide a handy toolbox below.

Techniques for those momentarily lacking the confidence to burn it down:

  • Armour yourself for battle. Stephanie likes to do this wearing wings and bright pink clothes, but this is not suitable for all world-destroying tasks.
  • Confirm it for yourself: Can I do 50% of this thing; if I were marked on my performance for this thing, would I earn a passing grade? If the answer is yes, then do the thing.
  • Is your jerk brain telling you no? Literally do the thing anyway.
  • Say this out loud: I contain multitudes. They will swarm out and subdue my enemies if I do not get my way.
  • Don’t take responsibility for things outside of your control. You are not a godling, despite your multitudes.
  • When someone tells you you can’t do the thing, put your feet firmly on the ground, cross your arms, and assert your dominance through an eyebrow raise.
  • Do not give ground.
  • On public transport, always establish your dominance, especially against those who consume more spaces than allotted. If you push back against their lavaballing, they will give way in surprise. Take advantage of this, and the endorphins of success it provides, to push harder. Hold onto this feeling when you disembark the tram.
  • Accept negative feedback, but only after running it through a trusted third party. You cannot have any of the best friends associated with No Award, but they are very good at their jobs and we recommend someone with similar skills.
  • ALWAYS ask someone society says is better than you to move their bag from the train seat. (Please don’t put your bag on the seat, anyone else, because I don’t want to have to consume you with my multitudes)
  • If you have something to say, say it.
  • Remember that your failures belong to society. Blame it accordingly.
  • Do not say sorry (except if you run over a cat. Then, maybe. MAYBE).
  • Always check the emails you write and remove excess apologies. Do not feel regret.
  • Do not run over a cat.
Creative Wombat - Common Wombat (Vombatus Ursinus) /
wombat – definitely a killer

Leave a comment below to receive useful feedback from the No Award service. Others of the
No Award community are encouraged to aid this No Award service by also offering useful feedback. White cis men are allowed in the comments but will be gazed upon with non-yielding eyes.


Good Lorde!

(Sorry.  Sometimes the opportunity presents itself and I can’t resist.)

I’m a big fan of Lorde.  That’s not really news, because she’s the first New Zealand solo artist to top the US charts.  She’s not exactly underground.

But she feels underground.  She’s a New Zealander, singing in her own accent about the experience of being on the receiving end of the USA’s cultural imperialism.

Some Americans find that uncomfortable.  Consider this post and its follow-up, which essentially boil down to “please perceive American culture from an American perspective, not your own.”

On the other hand, let’s reiterate, number one song on the US charts.  I’d imagine lots of Americans have taken her to heart.

And why shouldn’t they?  We live in a time of shocking disparity between the wealthy and the poor, so a song critiquing consumer culture in music is going to strike a chord.  (So to speak.)  And I’d argue that the Feministing posts are incorrect when they argue that Lorde singles out African American pop culture for critique.  “Royals” also refers to rock culture (“trashin’ the hotel rooms”), pop (ball gowns), and more.  It’s not just about consumption, but destructive consumption.

Maybe Feministing’s blogger would have preferred if Lorde had taken an apologetic approach to discussing the different experience of the Antipodean pop singer.  Take, for example, Australian Iggy Azalea, who raps:

Walk a mile in these Louboutins
But they don’t wear these shoes where I’m from
I’m not hating, I’m just telling you
I’m tryna let you know what the fuck that I’ve been through
Two feet in the red dirt, school skirt
Sugar care, back lanes
Three jobs, took years to save…
But I got a ticket on that plane…
People got a lot to say
But don’t know shit ’bout where I was made

Azalea is kind of the anti-Lorde.  And not just because of the traditional (loving) rivalry between Australia and New Zealand.  Azalea is older and tougher, and in contrast to Lorde’s apparent overnight success, Azalea is still bubbling under.  She has a mix tape, she’s supporting Beyonce, but her actual debut album isn’t out until next year.  Lorde sings with her own accent; Azalea raps with what the local media call a southern drawl that she picked up in Miami, although many Americans have told me the Florida accent is not actually considered southern.

(Azalea also raps about being a “runaway slave master”, and put out this video for “Bounce”.  So, yeah.  This is why I have a playlist called “catchy/problematic”.  Well, that and Amanda Palmer.)

She’s also overtly sexual, where Lorde appears ambivalent about romantic and sexual themes in music, and is critical of pop songs she considers unfeminist.  Lorde sometimes comes off as a bit judgemental in this respect, but it’s a natural phase that teenagers go through, I think — well, I did — and I’m really just as happy for a teenage girl not to explore her sexuality in public, especially in light of Charlotte Church’s comments about young women in the pop industry being coerced into doing so.

(I have a lot of feelings about how the current discourse around sexuality in pop music features a lot of ugly remarks about sex workers, and how these remarks are generally applied to women of colour, or in Miley Cyrus’ case, women appropriating the culture of women of colour.  Lady Gaga was an actual burlesque dancer, but you’ll note she’s never the subject of such “concern”.

On the other hand, I also have feelings about the exploitation of women in the guise of empowerment.  It’s complicated!)

Billie Piper (SHUT UP, SHE IS AMAZING) tells a story in her autobiography (SHUT UP, IT WAS AMAZING) about how, at eighteen, releasing her “sexier” second album, she agreed to do a photoshoot for a particular magazine, but she flat refused to pose in underwear.  She arrived at the shoot and found an entire rack of bikinis instead.

In short, it’s difficult to be a young pop star, or even an adult performer, and still own your sexuality.  Lorde walks an interesting line — she is young, beautiful, white, slim and has amazing hair, and photographers take advantage of that, but she’s always fully dressed, looking straight at the camera with a solemn, uncompromising expression.  I’m really curious to see how she grows up, and what her next moves will be.

Because they are moves.  As this fantastic blog post discusses, Lorde’s image is as carefully crafted as any other pop star’s.  The level of control she herself exercises might be unusual, but the image that we see is not necessarily the genuine Lorde.  (And why should it be?)

But people are oddly uncomfortable with the idea of a woman’s image being artificial.  We see that in the way women are criticised for wearing make-up, slimming underwear and heels, even as we’re also criticised for not doing these things.

And it’s particularly true in the music industry.  We want to believe that Stevie Nicks and Tori Amos are really manic pixie dream girls, that the Spice Girls really were/are BFFs (despite all evidence to the contrary).

There was a lot of backlash when PJ Harvey abandoned her raw, indie persona to wear heavy make-up and hot pink catsuits, and some fans I know can’t forgive her for plucking her eyebrows, wearing make-up and performing in a Victorian dress with a bird on her head.  (I was there.  It was great.)

Harvey herself has said, “Some critics have taken my writing so literally to the point that they’ll listen to ‘Down by the Water’ and believe I have actually given birth to a child and drowned her.” (Source)

Men aren’t immune from the expectation of honesty, but they seem to have more flexibility.  Well, whichever way they go, they have flexibility — Lindsay Buckingham has been writing songs about his ex for decades, and he doesn’t get half the shit that Taylor Swift does.  (He’s still the better songwriter, though.  Sorry, Taylor.)

With all this in mind, it’s quite interesting that Lorde is often compared to Lana Del Rey.

Del Rey, again, stands in opposition to Lorde.  (Although Lorde was listening to Del Rey when she had the inspiration for “Royals”, and in my opinion, the musical influence is visible — audible? — when you look for it.  Listen for it.)  Her image was carefully crafted, and is frequently derided as “fake”.  Her first two albums (one released under her real name of Elizabeth Wooldridge Grant) bombed, and her stage name was created by her managers.

But all this works, because it’s part of the mythos she has created:  whoever Elizabeth Wooldridge Grant is, Lana Del Rey is “a gangsta Nancy Sinatra”.  She’s Doris Day after a bender.  Lorde may paraphrase Joan Holloway, but Born to Die is an entire album about Betty Draper.

Both artists are critiquing the American entertainment industry, and both do it through highly produced pop music.  Del Rey’s take is glossier, and appropriately so — she adopts the persona of the girl who has swallowed the American dream myth and is choking to death, “a freshman generation of degenerate beauty queens”.  On her Paradise EP, she responds to critics, describing herself as “a groupie incognito posing as a real singer”.

Lorde, by contrast, sings as an outsider who has an ambivalent relationship with the trappings of the American dream.  She knows it’s an illusion, but still, “We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.”  In “Tennis Court” she sings:

Baby be the class clown
I’ll be the beauty queen, in tears
It’s a new art form, showing people how little we care (yeah),
We’re so happy, even when we’re smilin’ out of fear,
Let’s go down to the tennis court, and talk it up like yeah (yeah)

It’s introspection and adolescent melancholy wrapped up in the language and cliche of the American high school drama.  Whether or not it’s a true reflection of Lorde’s experience almost doesn’t matter, because the feeling is surely universal: “These feelings don’t look like they did on TV.”

Lorde sings, “And I’m not proud of my address, In a torn-up town, no post code envy”.  But Ella Yelich-O’Connor comes from a well-off middle class suburb in Auckland.  Does it matter?  Is she lying to us through song?  (“I hate when people do that!”)  If her next album is a synthpop confection with videos full of pole dancers and bikini shots, has she betrayed us?

“Pretty soon I’ll be getting on my first plane,” Lorde sang.  That first plane trip was long ago, now.  She’s an international pop star, not a kid from the suburbs.  How far can you critique the system in which you work?  Will she be allowed to grow up, or will she end up like Avril Lavigne, still looking and acting like it’s 2002?  Am I just asking rhetorical questions because I’m not sure how to end this post?


66th down under feminists carnival

Hello! Welcome to No Award and the 66th edition of the Down Under Feminists Carnival! I last hosted the 54th edition over at one of my other eleven million blogs, which means it has been exactly twelve months! I guess November is just the time for me (Steph).

We’ve got some categories here for ease of perusal; and just a note that things without categories only mean they were singular in their category this month, not that we don’t love them! And there are some amazing articles here this month, as there are every month – but just because the month is over don’t think you need to hold back! If you have a comment to make or somewhere to go with the conversation, go for it, even if you’re encountering these bloggers for the first time through the carnival! More chat is great. Thank you to everyone who contributed links – and of course all the great antipodeans writing awesome things.

Next month’s edition is planned for 5 December, 2013: MJ at Kiwiana (inked). Submissions to burningthescript [at] gmail [dot] com for those who can’t access the blog carnival submissions form. Previous carnivals can be found on the blog carnival index page. Please do submit if you think something is relevant to interests, you can submit your own work and/or someone else’s.

On Sex and Sexuality

At A Life Unexamined, Fixed and fluid sexual identities (from an ace perspective).

Claire at Sextracurricular Studies brings us two great posts this month: Mythbusting the Hymen by Claire at Sextracurricular Studies, on virginity and education and the dangers of this myth; and on pornography and sexual culture.

Nausea Nissenbaum presents us with Hot & Hotter: interviews with sex workers’ rights activists.

On Misogyny and support for women

Women need resilience to rise to the top, by Zoe Krupka at New Matilda.

Over at Hoyden About Town, Maybe if we all went barefoot by Mindy, on how ladies buy too many shoes which means they can’t buy houses, amirite.

Sikamikanico writes “I don’t need feminism”: The Women of a Voice for Men (a Voice for Men is a group with a MRA agenda).

In Ministerial responsibility, Ben at CXLI writes on Tony Abbott as the Minister for Women and what this might mean.

Rachel Rayner writes Spare us from idiots, on a particularly gross piece of opinion piece published in the NZ Herald re: women.

“A Dirty Game”: One woman’s retrospective on the UQ elections looks at the reinforcement of patriarchy (and also in harassment) in the UQ elections. Also up at Womynews is a 2013 Reclaim the Night recap.

On Anonymous Hatred

Broken at Fat Heffalump. This is also about fat hate and also a nice story about people being nice.

By Amy Gray, the text of a speech: Reading the Trolls

Things to Read and Watch

Molly Eliza at Womynews reviews Destroying the Joint: Why Women Have to Change the World, edited by Jane Caro.

Chally reviews About Time, the latest Richard Curtis movie.

Fi at Reading Kills talks about Every Breath, a Melburnian YA murder mystery by Ellie Marney.

Amy Gray has put up the text of an ACMI speech she gave: Enlightenment and the need for unlikable women.

Here at No Award, Liz read The Deep by Tom Taylor (who she later met!!!), an Australian comic about a multiracial family of aquanauts. (I really want to read it)

Media and Representation

At HaT, Today in Fantasy Film Sexism: Disney tries to pat some feminists’ heads, on Frozen, the new Disney film.

I navel-gaze about Chinese dating show If You Are The One (非诚勿扰) and discuss what it means for dating and stereotypes, and why it’s so popular in Australia; and in love me long time ugh help i’m dying I talk about the ongoing representation of South East Asian women in Australian media as other and hypersexual and ugh.

Also at No Award and by me, I have been reviewing the ABC-TV HBO Asia coproduction Serangoon Road, set in Singapore in 1964 and featuring way too many white people (primarily Australians). In my reviews I discuss the show but also colonialism and imperialism and white attitudes in the SEA region in the period.

Stalking, Sexual Assault and the Gilmore Girls is a look at the character of Jess on the show. Includes discussions of sexual assault and rape (and pop culture as vehicle for rape culture).

Fi writes from eighteen to thirty with nothing in between, about the dearth of crime fiction featuring protagonists under thirty.

Scarlett Harris compares Book VS. TV: Stephen King’s Under the Dome. Scarlett also writes in Defence of Sex and the City and The Problem with Sex and the City 2.

On Health (including Mental Health)

Elizabeth at Spilt Milk writes A Good Mother, on motherhood and society and mental health.

Rachel Rayner writes The Cost of It, a beautiful piece about getting an IUD and the situation around it. (Beautiful as in, it’s a poetical and lovely piece of prose)

The Little Pakeha writes Presents well, on living with depression; and Coley Tangerina writes It’s Mental Health Awareness Week.

On Racism, Race, Ethnicity

Te Ika-a-Māui and Te Waipounamu are not second-class names, by Queen of Thorns.

Australian feminists need to talk about race by Kelly Briggs up at the Guardian.

Jennifer at No Place for Sheep presents Immigration Minister Morrison instructs his staff to lie.

On Specific Women

friday feminaust: Nabila Farhat

A Friday Feminist over at HaT: Soul singer Tina Harrod.

Feminists in Fiction: Mulan at a Life Unexamined. (No Award note from your resident Chinese lady: This is a great look at the Disney Mulan but I’d just like to remind everyone that Hua Mulan is considered by many to be an actual figure in history, not just in fiction)

On Julia Gillard in conversation with Anne Summers: Carly Findlay: Julia Gillard in conversation with Anne Summers: “You have a decision to make: you could have a crap rest of your life”, [or you can move on]; Catherine Fox: The Gillard Effect: A role model we are lucky to have; Scarlett Harris: Anne Summers in conversation with Jullia Gillard.

On Marriage

Thoughts on being married by Gaayathri at A Human Story

O Brother, Where Art Thou On Gay Marriage? by Rebecca Shaw.

The logic behind Julia Gillard’s same-sex marriage opposition by Simon Copland at Ausopinion.

Poverty, Classism, Society, and getting a free pass

Poverty is Political by Anjum at Kiwi Stargazer, on the politics of poverty (and the assumption that poverty can be reduced through individual action).

The Left must own its shit and stop defending abusers by Queen of Thorns.

Dreaming of Home, by El Gibbs, on housing in Australia.

Fat Hate

Kevin Hague jumps aboard the fat-hating bandwagon, by Queen of Thorns.

Rebecca Shaw at The King’s Tribune: What do you see?


At Idealogically Impure Queen of Thorns writes Teacher abuses position to slut-shame a teenager, gets a slap on the wrist – how moral! and From a prochoice position, changing our abortion laws DOES MATTER (the laws referred to here are NZ laws). Also by Queen of Thorns, 25 ways to be a smug slacktivist antichoice wanker.

Talk about Assault (warnings for discussion of rape, sexual assault, rape apologism, victim blaming, people being jerkfaces)

Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones? by Luddite Journo over at The Hand Mirror.

Chally discusses Sexual assault discourse where the listener is the cautionary tale.

The News with Nipples makes two posts on Mia Freedman’s rape apologism: Ah Mia Freedman, it all makes sense now and Today in what Mia Freedman has done now. And further on Mia (though not really), Ben McKenzie writes re: Mia Freedman et al and their “advice”.

At Hersute, Alcohol is a Misdirection When We Talk About Rape; and at Sikamikanico, Sexual Assault and Alcohol: it’s not common sense, it’s not true, and it’s not helping.

On Bob Jones and related: Gaayathri at A Human Story writes Bob Jones: An advocate for violence against women; One girl’s response to Bob Jones at Rape Crisis Dunedin; Fuck off, Bob Jones: and advertisers? Be warned at Idealogically Impure.

Tangerina reports that Wellington Rape Crisis might have to cut its services again.

And the gold goes to… by ShoniaS at Hoyden About Town (includes warning for discussion of child sexual abuse).

The Little Pakeha writes The vast majority of rapes are committed by shrubbery.

Andie writing at Women’s Agenda: To the unconvinced: the perpetrators of crime are responsible for crime.

Tigtog at HaT with Advising women to prevent their own rapes is not brave or edgy or helpful.

Clementine Ford writes Excused for sexually humiliating a woman at Daily Life.

Misc Stuff

Five Questions to Kelly Briggs is about this week’s Indigenous X tweeter – and if you’re not following the Indigenous X twitter, highly recommend.

freedom, by Stargazer, is about burqas and prejudice.

A letter to my non-black friends by Pheeby at Different Strands, talking about black hair (and what not to do).

Veronica Foale writes My disabled body, my choice, on disability and fertility.

Can HECS debt be privatised? at HaT.

Sarah Burnside at Overland on Helen Razer’s beauty myth (this post is actually from today Nov 1 but I went to school with Sarah and you can’t stop me hahaha)

Why the opal card could be a bad thing by Mindy over at HaT, on the introduction of a new PT smart card in Sydney.

feminist fashion? feminaust fashion?! by MsElouise is a look at whether truly feminist fashion can exist.

Kate Davidson looks at Bikes, sexism and Australia over at Overland.

Permission to geek out – granted, by Fat Heffalump, on women geeks and geeky interests.

At the Washington Post, How British colonialism determined whether your country celebrates Halloween, brings up some interesting notes about Victorianism, colonial social mores, and colonialism.

Are women underselling themselves at maths? A post by Sarah Macdonald at Daily Life

On Stigma and Violence by Gaayathri at A Human Story.

A Public Confession by Morgana Lizzio-Wilson at Womynews.

A poem! Refuge, by Anna Caro.

Yay! See you next time!

solidarity for white women and the (white) face of aUStralian feminism

Las week Mamamia chose to blog about Miley Cyrus twerking, but I know you’ll be surprised to know that they didn’t touch on the racial aspect at all. Or will you be surprised? Maybe you didn’t notice the racial aspect yourself. We’re Australian, right? How can we be expected to know the nuances of USAmerican Feminism’s racism if it’s silent about its racism?

This is a valid question! How CAN we, Australians of an intersectional nature, be expected to know about the nuances of racism in feminism? Uh, by learning it, my friends. By recognising our own and how it’s reflected in our media. By recognising that USAmerican feminism and social justice is an imperfect fit for Australia in so many ways, not least of all because of its racism and its USCentrism.

Betty Mamzelle has written an excellent article on the racial implications of Miley’s twerking, covering all sorts of aspects including expected knowledge, commodification of black bodies, representation and sexuality. Solidarity is for Miley Cyrus: The Racial Implications of her VMA Performance. It is very USA, obviously, and it is an illuminating read in many ways if you are unaware of how racial sexualism and its politics works. And the theories within it are applicable to Australian racial politics!

As Australians I don’t think we need to be experts in the racial politics of other countries; but as Australians heavily influenced by USA media and more importantly heavily influenced by USA social justice blogging and articles, I think it behooves us to understand exactly what it is that we’re consuming. It also behooves us to more critically examine why it is that we are consuming it. (there are three links in that sentence for your further reading)

Remember when the Jackson Jive thing happened on Hey Hey It’s Saturday? A totally racist thing of blackface, for sure, and then dismissed as a USA thing that we couldn’t have known. Aside from the massive prevalence of US narratives in Australia from the period in which blackface was a huge thing, blackface is an Australian thing, too, something Australian history chooses to forget as it picks and chooses and copies from White American Feminism. I recommend reading White Australia has a blackface history by Maxine Clarke at Overland for some backgrounding; it was an important piece to me in 2009 and is still an important piece to me now on this issue.

Look, there is a limit to the USAmerican-ness of our Australian Feminism. Did you know that Australian intersectional commentators (myself included) were also expected to know that Jackson Jive = a shuck and jive reference = intentional reference to shucking and jiving? We were. And how could we? There is only so much USCentrism we can suck down. And this is not new. The Amazing Chally has long been at the forefront (for me) of Australia is not the USA and we don’t need their White Lady Feminism

By the way if you missed #solidarityisforwhitewomen on twitter, well, I’m sorry, I meant to post about it but it just didn’t happen. At some point I’d like to talk about how this applies to Australia and the ways in which it doesn’t, but for now you can read (USA narratives) Why “solidarity” is bullshit at Bitch and Solidarity is for white women (but it doesn’t have to be) by Betty Mamzelle.

Some links:

The Sea and Summer

I’ve never been an advocate of the idea that you must be familiar with certain writers and works in order to call yourself a science fiction fan, but sometimes I find a gap in my reading that’s frankly embarrassing.

So it was with George Turner, the Australian, Melburnian author of acclaimed SF and literary novels. Until The Sea and Summer was quoted in Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne, I had never heard of him.

Born in 1916, he was already an accomplished critic and novelist (winner of the Miles Franklin Award in 1962) before he started writing SF in the late ’70s. Wikipedia describes his science fiction writing as being remarkable for “detailed extrapolation and … invariably earnest approach to moral and social issues”. Joe Haldeman called The Sea and Summer “didactic”, and apparently meant it as a compliment.

My curiosity was piqued, and The Sea and Summer — published in America as The Drowned Cities — has recently come back into print. I bought the ebook and settled in.

Francis Conway is Swill – one of the millions in the year 2041 who must subsist on the inadequate charities of the state. Life, already difficult, is rapidly becoming impossible for Francis and others like him, as government corruption, official blindness and nature have conspired to turn Swill homes into watery tombs. And now the young boy must find a way to escape the approaching tide of disaster.

What the publisher’s blurb doesn’t tell you is that this is a novel about two brothers, Teddy and Francis. As the novel opens, they’re “little Sweet” — in a society with 90% unemployment, their father has a job, which means they’re lower middle class. Then their father is laid off and cuts his own throat, and so the Conway family becomes rapidly downwardly mobile. They are not actually Swill, but fringe-dwellers, living just a few blocks from the vast skyscrapers that hold the Swill population.

Teddy is “gifted”, so he’s swiftly spirited away by the State, to train in police intelligence. Francis, left behind, is a skilled mathematician in an age where mental arithmetic has been forgotten, and so he becomes involved with a white collar criminal who needs to hide her records from the government.

As a kid in the ’80s and ’90s, I read a lot of didactic science fiction about climate change. I didn’t really enjoy these books (for one thing, my parents were/are climate change skeptics, and regarded environmentalism as a left-wing plot, and as a wee child I absorbed these ideas), but in those heady, pre-internet days, reading SF filled the gap between episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

(The best of those earnest middle grade novels was The Lake at the End of the World by Caroline MacDonald, which surely deserves an entry here if I ever find my copy.)

The Sea and Summer reminded me very strongly of those books. It’s grim, largely humourless, and contains long passages of conversation explaining human nature. I had hoped that Turner’s literary background would be reflected in the quality of his writing, and it was, but it was an assemblage of the traits that put me off “literary fiction” as a genre: a narrative that speaks for the characters instead of letting them demonstrate their qualities through dialogue, and, when they do speak, they all sound basically the same.

Part of this might be down to the framing device: The Sea and Summer is a novel written in the very far future, after humanity has survived the Greenhouse Years and is preparing to face another Ice Age. I wondered if we’re meant to think the author of the novel-within-the-novel is just not very good, but all the far-future characters are written in the same way.

(The far-future setting has no narrative of its own, save for one character — an Indigenous Australian actor who plays caucasians in whiteface — who is seeking to write a play featuring the novel’s characters. There are lots of earnest discussions about human nature, many featuring a Christian character who, as the stereytype goes, cannot speak without moralising. He’s thoroughly judgmental and unpleasant, but apparently we’re meant to find it appalling that he’s studying church history, because what a waste of intellect?)

It’s always hard to judge near-future science fiction without sniggering at the things it gets wrong. (Remember the Eugenics Wars of the late 1990s? Well, who doesn’t?) But I tried very hard, as I was reading, to separate any feelings of superiority I might have at spotting the “wrong” history from my response to the story itself.

This was difficult, though, because the novel deals with issues that are happening right now — financial collapse, harsh austerity measures, chaotic weather — and the responses of the characters, and society in general, bear no relationship to reality. If millions of people are crammed into 70-story buildings and all but left to rot, is it really going to take decades for social unrest to develop? Is it going to be years before people start thinking of re-learning the homesteading arts and becoming self-sufficient?

(As I write, within 24 hours of the government announcing its inhumane policy of sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea, protests were being organised by the inner-urban left wing. The Swill v Sweet policies affect the urban poor of the western suburbs — if we tried treating that demographic the way we treat refugees, there would be riots.)

The novel discusses — at great length — the extent to which this status quo is deliberately maintained by the government, but again, it’s not convincing. Coupled with the explanation that the lower classes need to be coaxed into revolution by intellectuals, and the portrayal of the Swill as anarchic and dangerous, I was increasingly uncomfortable with the subtext. There are lots of scenes where characters realise to their amazement that Swill are, in fact, people, but there is such emphasis on the special qualities of Billy Kovacs, the Tower Boss who is an object of fascination throughout the book, that it starts to feel tokenistic. Our best look at an “average” Swill is a scene with a 14 year old prostitute, who is animalistic, violent and frankly a bit stupid.

The novel’s treatment of race, such as it is, is similarly troubling. We have the intellectual, elite Aboriginal in the framing scenes, which is a nice change from the usual absence of Indigenous Australians from any future setting. (I’m troubled by the whiteface aspect, but I can’t quite articulate how. And it’s just a one-off line that I may be blowing out of proportion.) On the other hand, in the novel-within-a-novel, we also have a reference to Asians — okay, a series of racist slurs — moving into central Australia and promptly destroying the environment with artificial weather programs.

Later, Teddy recoils from the realisation that his future mentor is ethnic. I mean, he’s Greek. Now, racist bigotry against Mediterranean immigrants was big in the ’50s and ’60s, but it was dying out in the ’80s — save for a few last gasps in the form of bad comedy — and is pretty much laughable now. Nick is a great character, by far the most likeable in the novel, but I’m still confused by the attitude towards his Greekness.

I don’t mean to be ticking off social justice talking points, but I really can’t not discuss the women of The Sea and Summer. It won’t take long, because there aren’t many. There’s the scholar in the framing device; Alison Conway, mother of the heroes and lover of Billy Kovacs; Nola Parkes, a public servant or businesswoman; and Vi, Billy’s wife, who is immensely fat (“gross” is one word that’s used) but also his political confidant. Oh, and there’s Carol, the love interest for one of the Conway brothers — but don’t worry, she has a couple of scenes, then vanishes from the stage as soon as they become a couple.

I found this interview illuminating:

Do you think there is a difference between the way you set your female characters and your male characters, or not? For instance in The Sea and Summer, the two mothers: were they two characters that were already set?

No they weren’t. The middle-class mother (Alison Conway) was an afterthought.

[The rest of the interview goes into some detail about Turner’s processes for creating female characters, and how that differs from his writing of men.]

It’s a bit silly to complain that a 78-year-old man, speaking in 1994, holds attitudes that aren’t compatible with mine, when I am a 31-year-old woman in 2013. On the other hand, one needs to balance that against the ageist idea that old people are automatically less enlightened, etc. I respect Turner’s attempts to create women with strength, but I disagree that the outcome is successful.

(Not to ding the interviewer as well, but “the two mothers” he refers to are Alison — and Nola Parkes, whose maternal status is completely irrelevant to the role she actually plays in the novel.)

I have to say that I wouldn’t have guessed Alison was a later addition, but I found her character incredibly frustrating. She’s terribly passive, sometimes passive-aggressive, held up by Billy as a figure of ideal womanhood to be protected, kept ignorant and generally put on a pedestal. This was quite annoying, because there were occasional glimpses of a really strong, brave character, but the narrative kept undermining her.

Although I have to say, the narrative didn’t do a great job of supporting her sons, either. Much is made of Francis being unlikeable and generally unpleasant, but until the very end, and an incident that frankly didn’t match up with his earlier behaviour, he didn’t seem like an especially weak or nasty person. Desperate, yes, and somewhat conniving, but his behaviour made sense in the context of his life, and seemed quite understandable coming from a young boy and teenager. Until the very last moment, his punishment doesn’t seem to fit his crime.

I think perhaps the age of the protagonists misled me into approaching this as a young adult novel, ie, it wouldn’t take it for granted that its audience hated and feared teenagers. The lack of sympathy for Francis — and apparent support of Teddy, who is essentially a member of a secret police force — was confusing.

With all these complaints, why did I keep reading?

Well, stubborness, and a strong sense that I wanted to talk about this book.

And it’s an Australian novel that’s set in Melbourne, my adopted city. I really loved the glimpses of the future city (even as I wonder, if rising oceans necessitate the building of sea walls, is the central business district really going to be that dry and well-maintained?), the vast towers dominating Newport and Richmond.

There’s also a glimpse of the past city, as Teddy walks through the long-abandoned Jolimont Railyard, a landmark that no longer exists in 2013 — wiped out by urban renewal, not decay.

The Sea and Summer was described as a novel of Melbourne that advanced its science fiction presence beyond Neville Shute’s On the Shore, updating the apocalyptic city for a new threat. I wonder if perhaps Melbourne is due to be destroyed again, fictionally speaking, and what the 21st century approach will look like.