Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers

Bearing Witness

Google describes bearing witness as a term that refers to sharing our experiences with others, most notably in the communication to others of traumatic experiences. This term has been on my mind most of this year as I grapple with the hashtags of empathy and wondering why I had no desire to add #metoo to my status on Facebook. Maybe I just don’t believe in the existence of a global sisterhood. Maybe I don’t believe in the implied solidarity of a universal womanhood in need of rescue.  More specifically I question the efficacy of a white sisterhood with its awareness of intersectionality and its commitment to being my ally. But that, as they say, is another blog post.

It is the publicity given to Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger and their co-authored book, South of Forgiveness, that I wish to mostly focus on in this piece. Icelandic Elva was raped by the Australian Stranger as a teen and started up a correspondence with him which resulted in the pair getting together to talk and write about their experiences because, apparently, women bearing witness isn’t enough. When a man points out that remorse is possible and rape is wrong, it is suddenly a game changer in the narrative. Stranger raped an unconscious Elva for two hours. Now he appears on TED talks discussing his ‘repentance’ while Elva speaks of her need to establish contact with her violator as a means towards acceptance and healing.

Online forums hummed with dissent over this particular book for a while. Discussions polarised women; some advised strident feminists to listen instead of indulging in binaries and tired arguments about safe, sacred spaces. In one such forum, a woman made this extraordinary statement to another – ‘lynchings get us nowhere.’ The commenter appeared unaware of the charged racial connotations of the word despite having it pointed out to her several times. She also saw no irony in making that comment to a brown woman, offering up an apology of sorts a few comments later; acknowledging that words can be ‘funny’ sometimes and that a ‘fear of trampling’ over people’s feelings may prevent women from speaking out. It was hard to see the apology in that comment so I concluded that none was intended, and the word ‘lynching’ hung in the discussion like the proverbial post upon which the act was carried out in America. The concept of intersectionality came up often in the discussion as well, as a plea for understanding the perpetrator instead of condemning him. I prefer Kimberle Crenshaw’s take on intersectionality, where she advises bearing witness to the reality of multiple forms of exclusion. Such as the exclusion practiced in this particular forum when language was used specifically to disempower rather than authorise.

There are, however, other books written by women that put forward several passionate and reasoned arguments that may help change the narrative. One such book is Feeling the Fleshed Body by Brenda Downing. Downing uses somatic enquiry, lyrical prose and performance making responses to the trauma of rape. ‘Once touched, the body cannot be untouched,’ she says quietly at the start of her erudite and wide-ranging work on the body’s subversive capacity to express trauma through symptoms that are not always readily understood.

Feeling the Fleshed Body proposes that trauma significantly reduces the body’s capacity to be compassionate to itself, and that unacknowledged grief causes a fracturing of the mind and body that needs to be restored before acceptance and healing can begin. Downing refers to her ‘raped and censured body’ as crucial in finding the imperative for embodied forms of post-traumatic expression. ‘The struggle to speak and be heard’ is at the forefront of this enquiry into the aftermath of rape. The emphasis on ‘the feminine language of our bodies’ positions this work beside neuroscientific, philosophical and therapeutic contexts to argue that a separation of mind and body (inevitable when rape occurs) must be acknowledged before change can happen. As I read first hand accounts of the women Downing interviewed for her thesis, it is harder to accept that bearing witness must include a male perspective, as posited by Elva and her supporters. This is because women often relate their experiences of ‘not being heard’ by (male) health professionals, partners or parents.  They speak about feeling claustrophobic, disconnected, discounted and unheard. They report that they struggle with lifelong issues of trust and safety.

‘But how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognise the humanity of those who commit it?’ asks Elva. Really? Tom Stranger discounted the humanity of Thordis Elva when he raped her. He was a guest in her country and her home. He violated the expectations of her parents who thought he would look after her. He left her and went on with his life of privilege, education, employment and family, while hers fell apart. He did nothing to find out how she coped. She contacted him. And gave him a forum, a stage, a book deal. He accepts being labeled a ‘rapist.’ Should we applaud this enormous concession made by a man who raped a woman?

Clementine Ford speaks about the ‘mechanics of internalised misogyny’ in her excellent book, Fight Like A Girl. She says that women who dare to name and shame and call out patriarchy when they see it, are set upon by their own as well as men. She points out that she ‘doesn’t position men and their feelings front and centre.’ And this is an important point, which appears to be missing in the race to acknowledge Elva as ‘brave’ and her abuser as ‘perceptive.’ By positioning the feelings of a man at the centre of a narrative of rape, we discount the humanity of women like Ford who are routinely threatened and abused online by men for her activism and candour.

When women like Elva tell us their story, duly authenticated by a man, they push back the conversations Ford and Downing have made possible. Thordis Elva simply perpetuates the myth that a man’s acknowledgement of his crime will change the narrative of violence. Elva is entitled to her delusions but it is crucial to remember that the reality is far more dangerous. South of Forgiveness is not a game-changer. A 2014 news report revealed that one in six Australian women experienced sexual assault, making sexual crime in Australia, the third highest in the world. A man shoots his wife in front of her 4 children. Media reports indicate that he was a ‘nice’ man and this was ‘out of character.’ Ford suggests that society always finds ways to explain violence against women as an aberration, as a glitch on the radar, as the sudden breakdown of an otherwise ‘good bloke.’ Which is why reading Elva and Stranger’s story of redemption cannot be the only story. Humanising, normalising and validating a rapist because he happens to be educated and good-looking and remorseful, does us no favours. We need to continue to have nuanced discussions that truly bear witness.

Works cited:

Crenshaw, K. (2016) The urgency of intersectionality https://www.ted.com/taks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality/ TED Woman October 2016

Downing, B. (2016). Feeling the Fleshed Body. Berlin: Peter Lang

Elva, T. & Stranger, T. (2016) South of Forgiveness.  Melbourne: Scribe https://www.ted.com/talks/thordis_elva_tom_stranger_our_story_of_rape_and_reconiliation/ TED Talks February 2017

Ford, C. (2016). Fight Like a Girl.  Australia: Allen & Unwin

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The books I loved in 2015

2015 was the year I submitted my PhD and the year I intended to read ‘differently.’ I wanted to step out of my comfort zone by reading writers I had never read, or had not read for a long time. For several years now, my focus, while reading fiction and memoir, has been to read Australian women, followed closely by Indian and Iranian women. I thought I should make an extra effort to read more books by men, especially men of colour. I decided to make 2015 the year of reading more of the world, particularly because I knew I would be attending the Edinburgh Writers Festival in August.

I started the year by reading four American and one Canadian writer. Teju Cole’s Open City is about a Nigerian doctor who walks the streets of Manhattan, seemingly aimlessly, and encounters his past and present lives. A meditation on identity, race and love, this is a deeply introspective and cerebral novel.

I followed this by reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild. Strayed walked in far more inhospitable terrain than the streets of New York. She trekked 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail along the west coast of America, after her mother’s death from cancer. It’s honest, funny and difficult and details the casual misogyny she faces along the way.

Junot Diaz’s This is how you lose her, is a hybrid beast of a novel that reads like memoir, especially because the author/narrator, Junot/Yunior appear interchangeable and mercurial. The language and themes are often confronting but also poetic.

Finally, Toni Morrison’s Home rounded off the quartet of Americans I had decided to read. Morrison’s spare, elegant and devastating prose quietly tells the story of a black soldier returning home in 1950s America. “There was no goal other than breathing, nothing to win and, save for someone else’s quiet death, nothing to survive or worth surviving for.” Sentences like these mark the brutal emotional landscape of Morrison’s characters.

Padma Viswanathan’s novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, takes its inspiration from the real life tragedy of the Air India flight which exploded over the Irish Sea in 1985. It was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and you can read my longer review, published in Westerly.

The Edinburgh Writers Festival in August 2015 introduced me to a raft of writers, both Scottish and international and despite taking virtually empty suitcases to stuff with books, there is a limit on how many you can lug around a little island for 4 weeks. I was pleased (and guilty) that I bought 14 books, and could have bought a dozen more. Here are some of the books I bought and read.

Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel The Fishermen is rightly described as magnificent and remarkable. There is a strong dream-like quality to the storytelling but the story itself is grounded in tangible things like family secrets and nation building.

In Edinburgh, I listened to Val McDermid perform her stunning short story, The Road and the Miles to Dundee, from her collection, Stranded. I read, too, her re-telling of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, set during the Edinburgh Festival, a delightful and easy read. And I bought poetry, lots of it, Auden, Morgan, Burns; in Scotland it seemed impossible not to – the landscape demanded it and I obeyed.

Finally, my world literature list would not be complete without Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. A beautiful, clever, poetic, maddening book – fitting sequel to that other equally maddening Life After Life. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.

Then, it was time to come home. I finished the year with 4 stunning Australian women writers. The first of these was Karen Overman-Edmiston and The Avenue of Eternal Tranquillity. A richly philosophical novel about the vagaries of chance meetings and deep love, snow-bound landscapes and heartfelt conversations, this is a reflective and gentle book, almost languorous in its unfolding tragedy and hope.

In stark contrast is Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. This novel has been described as a howl of despair and fury, and it is a fair description. I have never read anything like it and I don’t suppose I ever will. It is chilling, furious and brutal and it requires emotional strength to finish reading it. But I had no doubt whatsoever that the dystopian world these characters inhabit is real, or has the potential to be. As a woman, it was a reminder that men can and will hunt, capture and control women if they are not stopped. Read Karen’s excellent review here.

S.A Jones’s novel Isabelle of the Moon & Stars is beautifully West Australian in its evocation of how fraught our lovely city can be for a young woman battling her ‘dark place.’ I fell in love with Isabelle and Evan and was reluctant to let them out of my life and was only able to do so when another delicious book appeared – Susan Midalia’s third short story collection, Feet To The Stars. The stories in this collection glow with intelligence, humour and compassion; a different, refracted light shines on each story. The title story of the collection explores the relationship between a teacher and his student, full of insights, dark truths and hope. It’s hard to pick a favourite so I’ll pick three – Feet to the Stars, Inner Life and Because were the ones I went back to.

There were several other books I read, and not all of them were wonderful. I realised something I’ve always known, as the song goes – that I feel most at home when I read Australian (women) writers. The further I travel, the more I need to come home to them.