A must-read list: The enduring contributions of African American women writers



File 20190221 148520 ceix1w.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen are on this short list of enduring must-read writers.
Left to right: Nobel Prize, U.S. Library of Congress, Yale archive

Nancy Kang, University of Manitoba

In Mules and Men (1935), anthropologist, creative writer and Harlem Renaissance upstart Zora Neale Hurston relays the evocative folktale “Why the Sister in Black Works Hardest.” Fatigued after the work of Creation, God casts a massive bundle onto the earth. Intrigued by the mysterious object, a white Southern woman during the antebellum era asks her husband to retrieve it. Reluctant to tote the load himself, the master instructs a slave to fetch it.

Soon wearied of the task, the slave then commands his wife to shoulder the burden. She does so, excited at the prospect of exploring the contents. When she opens the package, however, what leaps out at her and Black women for all posterity is none other than hard work.

Ann Petry (right) was interviewed after she won a fiction award for ‘The Street.’
All-American news 4 / All American news IV / All-American news reel no. 4/Library of Congress

African American women writers have tackled the hard work of representing a diverse spectrum of lived and imagined experiences, including and especially their own. This labour occurs against the backdrop of centuries-long struggles with racist oppression and gender-based violence, including — but not limited to — slavery’s culture of endemic rape, forced or interrupted motherhood, infanticide, concubinage, fractured families and egregious physical and mental abuse.

Hard work as groundwork

Renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass recalls in his 1845 slave narrative how witnessing the serial whippings of his Aunt Hester impacted him “with awful force.” He explains, “it was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle.”

These ordeals also emerge in slave narratives by women. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) emphasizes such travails. A target of relentless sexual harassment by her much-older master, Jacobs laments, “When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.”

Once emancipated, African American women still faced staggering impediments when pursuing educational, entrepreneurial and employment opportunities. Political participation meant restrictions on voting rights both as women and as people of colour. Racist caricatures impugned everything from a woman’s intelligence and moral capacity to her skin color, texture of hair and body shape. Stereotypes like the docile Mammy, the Tragic Mulatta, the clownish Topsy, the oversexed Jezebel, the greedy Welfare Queen, the amoral Hoodrat and the Mad Black Woman (still prevalent today) remain testaments to a history of disrespect and erasure.

Hurston’s tale symbolizes the enduring social struggles Black women have faced living in what feminist critic bell hooks has termed white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

In addition to influential autobiographers like Maya Angelou, dramatists like Lorraine Hansberry and poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, fiction writers have consistently demonstrated how imaginative art can simultaneously inform, persuade, entertain, catalyze social change and address individual as well as collective concerns.

Here is a short list of pivotal texts by African American women from the past century. These writers are but a small sample of the artists and intellectuals whose output resisted the force of what contemporary feminist critic Moya Bailey has termed misogynoir, or the corrosive fusion of anti-Blackness and misogyny prevalent in popular culture today. These women have completed the groundwork — and hard work — of envisioning a more just, inclusive society going forward.

Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen

These novellas follow mixed-race women whose uneasy status on the colour line (including the lure of passing as white) complicates their lives in dangerous, even fatal ways. Passing is revolutionary for its depiction of homoerotic tension between two upper-middle-class Black women. Quicksand offers insight into the exoticization of African American women abroad and the contest between art and domesticity as viable avenues for a fulfilling life.


Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston

This story is the lyrical account of thrice-married Janie Crawford who finds a mature vision of love and fulfillment amid incessant gossip and a difficult family history. The all-Black township of Eatonville, Fla., and the rich “muck” of the Everglades contribute to a portrait of community health, daily striving and resolute self-awareness.


The Street (1946) by Ann Petry

This social realist novel follows single mother Lutie Johnson as she attempts to make a life for her young son in a predatory urban space. Weathering sexism, racism, classism, poverty and intense personal frustration, Lutie attempts to resist the brutality of the environment that gives the novel its loaded name.


The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison

This book is a searing portrait of a young girl’s coming-of-age and eventual undoing in the years following the Great Depression. Tumultuous family dynamics, psychological trauma and incest, the quest for compassion and self-love, and the toxic myth of Black ugliness coalesce in this first novel by the Nobel Laureate and author of neo-slave narrative Beloved (1987).


Kindred (1979) by Octavia Butler

Oscillating between the 1970s and the early 19th century, this science fiction odyssey (re)connects a contemporary Black woman writer and her white husband with her ancestors on a Maryland plantation. The novel is buoyed up by the dramatic tension of time travel and the juxtaposition of the pre-civil War Antebellum-era with Civil Rights-era racial attitudes, including those about interracial love and allyship.


The Women of Brewster Place (1982) by Gloria Naylor

Structured like a narrative quilt, these interconnected experiences of seven women span different generations, professions, class backgrounds and understandings of their place in the world. The eroded apartment complex that links them is the backdrop for unbearable pain as well as the promise of transformation and reconciliation.


The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker

A tale of two sisters, Celie and Nettie, this novel constellates their love and longing via letters and imagined conversations across the Atlantic. Unsparing in its critique of domestic violence and toxic masculinity, yet tender in its treatment of various human weaknesses, the novel underscores Black women’s need for self-regard and mutual care. Not only are these acts revolutionary, but they also offer a glimpse of the divine.The Conversation

Nancy Kang, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Canada Research Chair in Transnational Feminisms and Gender-Based Violence, University of Manitoba

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Nigerian writers compare genocide of Igbos to the Holocaust


File 20190208 174864 ldpkgf.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Biafran refugees flee federal Nigerian troops on a road near Ogbaku, Nigeria in this 1968 photo. Between one and three million people are estimated to have died.
(AP Photo/Kurt Strumpf)

Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba, University of Winnipeg

During the massacre of Igbos in Nigeria between 1966 and 1970, one to three million people died. In the decades since, writers have worked to make sense of the immense human tragedy.

These literary representations of the massacres use the Holocaust as an important point of reference.

The war in Nigeria, with its associated mass atrocities, is arguably one of the first major moments in postcolonial Africa when accusations of genocide were made. Following military coups in Nigeria in 1966, the military and ethnic extremists systematically targeted and killed Igbos across the then Northern and Western regions of Nigeria.

Massacres of Igbos and other Easterners across the country led to thousands of deaths and the displacement of millions.

The massacres led the Eastern Region of Nigeria to declare its secession from Nigeria. The region was renamed the republic of Biafra. Nigeria invaded Biafra in July 1967, leading to a protracted war. The federal government used starvation tactics which led to upwards of three million civilian deaths in Biafra. Biafra officially surrendered to Nigeria in January 1970.

After its genocidal war, the Nigerian government proceeded to engineer a culture of denial.

To counter that propaganda, writers reflecting on that past have often framed the war as genocide. A common feature in the writings is the comparison of Igbo experiences of atrocities to Jewish ones during the Holocaust.

The Holocaust as cultural icon of genocide

During the Biafran War, U.S.-based Igbo poet, Onwuchekwa Jemie, compared the murder of Igbos in Nigeria to the Nazi German murder of Jews during the Second World War. His poem, “Requiem” (from his 1970 poetry collection, Biafra: Requiem for the Dead in War) reflects this:

Once in 53 
Three times in 66 
Nigerians shoot civilians
through the ears
rehearsing all known tortures
murdering all males
and raping old women
forcing teenage girls in leper clinics
hundreds butchered…
the 30,000 innocents
mowed down Nazi fashion
a final solution
that failed again. 

In “Requiem,” Jemie catalogues the systematic persecutions and murders of Igbo civilians, which he considers similar to the Nazis’ “final solution.”

The lines “a final solution / that failed again” encapsulate the poet’s defiant view that Biafra will survive the genocidal onslaught from Nigeria.

Global history scholar Lasse Heerten has explained in his work on Biafra, that such comparisons of Igbo suffering to the Nazi genocide of Jews reveal the growing awareness of the Holocaust in African conflict zones at the time.

The comparison of Igbo suffering to the Holocaust offers a way for the writers to internationalize Igbo experience in Nigeria. In so doing, they are sharing a moral message about the universal condition of human cruelty.

The cruel human condition

Similarly, the 1971 poem “Vultures” by Chinua Achebe reflects on the troubling realization that humans possess simultaneously a capacity for human care and a vulture’s inhumane savagery. The poet imagines a Nigerian military commander as a vulture and compares him to the Commandant of the Nazis’ death camp at Belsen:

Thus the Commandant at Belsen 
Camp going home for 
the day with fumes of 
human roast clinging 
rebelliously to his hairy 
nostrils will stop 
at the wayside sweetshop 
and pick up a chocolate 
for his tender offspring 
waiting at home for Daddy’s 
return… 
‘Christmas in Biafra and other Poems’ by Chinua Achebe was published in 1973 and includes ‘Vultures.’
Anchor Books

Achebe’s reference to the Holocaust evokes the Nazi death camps as a site of savagery: “fumes of / human roast.” He seems to be alluding to Paul Celan’s 1948 poem, “Death Fugue,” which describes the cremation of Jewish victims in the Nazi camps as a “grave in the sky.”

Reference to the Holocaust in Achebe’s poem provides a way to meditate on the ironic condition of human cruelty.

Another writer who used the Holocaust as a metaphor for moralizing about the human condition is Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who was jailed for his attempts to mediate between Biafra and Nigeria. His 1972 prison memoir The Man Died expresses his frustration over the unending cycles of brutality and the pattern of genocidal murders taking place in Nigeria. Soyinka’s other books, plays and poems on the 1966-1970 crisis equally draw on the Holocaust as a way to comment on cruelty.

‘And the World Has Remained Silent’

Half of a Yellow Sun.

Such comparison between Igbo suffering and the Holocaust intending to convey a moral message on human condition can be found in several other writings, including Flora Nwapa’s Never Again, Chris Abani’s Graceland (2004), Nnedi Okorafor’s fantasy novels, Who Fears Death (2010) and The Book of Phoenix (2015), and notably too in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).

In Half of a Yellow Sun, there are several instances comparing the experiences of Igbos to those of Jews under the Nazis.

For example, the title of the character Ugwu’s story, ‘The World Was Silent When We Died,’ echoes the original Yiddish title of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, (“And the World Has Remained Silent”).

Universalize can also mean generalize

I believe these literary analogies between Jewish and Igbo experiences have helped to make the atrocities public and known. However, these analogies can also overwhelm the particulars of the Nigerian context of the crisis.

Because the political contexts of such historical mass atrocities being compared vary significantly, these comparisons may come at the cost of our understanding of genocide in African states. Both African and European historical contexts within which these atrocities occurred may become de-territorialized and depoliticized.

In the meantime, local suppression of political questions of Igbo self-determination and justice in the war’s aftermath remain unaddressed.The Conversation

Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba, Assistant Professor, University of Winnipeg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Five ways to boost Australian writers’ earnings



File 20190130 108351 fgxk1c.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
By changing our approach to author rights, we can help writers earn more.
shutterstock

Rebecca Giblin, Monash University and Joshua Yuvaraj, Monash University

Who makes the money in publishing? Nobody. This often repeated dark joke highlights a serious issue. The most recent figures show that Australian authors earn just $12,900 a year from writing work (the median, at $2,800, was even worse). Indeed, authors can gross less than $5,000 for Miles Franklin-nominated titles that took two or more years to write.

Fixing this isn’t as simple as reaching more deeply into publisher pockets, because most of those are empty too. While the major international houses are thriving (Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House recently reported 16% profits), publishing Australian stories can be financially perilous.

In independent publishing, 10% of the book sale goes to the author, perhaps another 10% to the printer, and up to a whopping 70% for distribution. What’s left has to pay the publisher, editor, marketers, admin staff and keep the lights on.

But we can improve our approach to author rights. Here are five lessons we can learn from elsewhere to help Australian writers earn more money.




Read more:
Scrounging for money: how the world’s great writers made a living


#1: Give authors stronger out of print rights

Traditionally, contractual “out of print” clauses have let authors reclaim their rights when a print run has sold out and the publisher doesn’t want to invest in another. But in our recent analysis of almost 150 contracts in the Australian Society of Authors archive, we found 85% of contracts with these clauses allowed authors to reclaim their rights only when the book was “not available in any edition”.

These days, books can be kept available (at least digitally or via print-on-demand) forever – but that doesn’t mean their publishers are still actively promoting them.

A better approach is to allow authors to reclaim their rights towards the end of a work’s commercial life, determined with reference to objective criteria like the number of copies sold or royalties earned in the previous year. The Australian Society of Authors recommends authors only sign contracts that have this meaningful kind of out-of-print clause – but many publishers still try to get authors to sign up to unacceptable terms.




Read more:
How to read the Australian book industry in a time of change


A growing number of countries (including France, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Macedonia and Brazil mandate author rights based on objective criteria. The French law is an interesting model. There, authors can get their rights back if a book has been published for at least four years, and they haven’t been credited royalties for at least two. This opens up new possibilities for the author to license it to another publisher, or even sell it directly to libraries or consumers.

Rebecca Giblin on the problems with publishing contracts and the case for new author rights.

#2: ‘Use it or lose it’: return author rights when they’re not being used

Publishers take very broad rights to most books: in our recent archival analysis we found 83% took worldwide rights, and 43% took rights in all languages. It’s easy to take rights – but if publishers do so, they should be obliged to either use them or give them back.

To that end we can learn from the “use it or lose it” laws that bind publishers in some parts of Europe. In Spain and Lithuania, for example, authors can get their rights back for languages that are still unexploited after five years.

#3: Introduce a ‘bestseller’ clause to contracts

Of course, it’s not always the case that there’s no money in publishing: sometimes a title that was expected to sell 5,000 copies sells 5,000,000. That changes the economics enormously: but in many cases, the contract only provides the same old 10% revenue for the author. For works that achieve unexpected success, we can learn from Germany and the Netherlands (and the proposed new EU copyright law). They have “bestseller” clauses that give authors the right to share fairly in unexpected windfalls arising from their work.

#4: Legally enshrine the right to fair payment

Even where there’s not much money to be made, the author should still receive a fair share. Again, Germany and the Netherlands lead the way on this. There, authors are entitled to “fair” or “equitable” payment for their work – and can enforce those rights if their pay is too low.

These laws don’t set a dollar amount, since what is “fair” depends on all the circumstances. However, such laws at least provide a minimum floor. If the contracted amount is unfair or inequitable, authors have a legal right to redress.

#5: Put time limits on transfers

In Australia, copyright lasts for the life of the author, and then another 70 years after that. Publishers almost always take rights for that full term – only 3% of the contracts between publishers and authors we looked at took less. But publishers don’t need that long to recoup their investments. In the US, authors can reclaim their rights from intermediaries 35 years after they licensed or transferred them.

In Canada, copyrights transfer automatically to heirs 25 years after an author dies. We used to have the same law in Australia, but it was abolished for spurious reasons about 50 years ago. If we reintroduced a similar time limit on transfers, it would open up new opportunities for authors and their heirs (for example, to license or sell to a different publisher, libraries or direct to the public).

It’s true that there’s often not much money in publishing. But by changing our approach to author rights, we can help writers earn more and make Australian books more freely available.The Conversation

Rebecca Giblin, ARC Future Fellow; Associate Professor, Monash University and Joshua Yuvaraj, PhD Candidate, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Man Booker Prize 2018: when writers speak we glimpse the human behind the story



File 20181016 165900 1ed0ga4.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
booker authors.

Martin Goodman, University of Hull

Novelists are used to staring out of windows, not out at audiences. We write in solitude, and expect our readers to read in solitude. And then, for a few, the phone rings. A publicist has struck lucky with your book. It’s been shortlisted for a literary award. You can no longer be private. You have to perform live.

This year a leading independent publisher told me how he takes on a maximum of two new fiction writers a year. He knows that literary festivals and ever slimmer book review pages won’t want to hear about them. His sole hope for these books is that they win a literary prize. The big one, of course, is the Man Booker Prize.

Just one independent publisher made it to this year’s shortlist: Faber & Faber with Anna Burns’ Milkman. Faber has a kitty it can raid for the £5,000 charged to shortlisted publishers for promotional costs. And there has been plenty of promotion. As Burns admitted recently: “I can’t say anything more about my book … I’m talked out. My brain has pulled over the curtains.”

The Man Booker is something of a winner-takes-all contest. Check the current Top 20 bestsellers for original fiction and not a single shortlisted title reaches the chart. But the winner pretty much always leaps to the top. So how are the current shortlisted writers coping with this brief spell in the limelight?

First impressions

Two days before the winner was due to be announced the writers encountered each other for the first time for a Sunday night appearance at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The audience paid up to £35 a ticket to hear these writers read and talk. Take this Man Booker reading as its own performance contest, and which writer would win?

I settled in my seat with mixed expectations. In Britain, you can coax the occasional creative writing student into a soft-voiced reading, but most hate the prospect. On the other hand, writing classes in the US have spoken delivery and response at their core. In 2014, the Man Booker opened entry to US writers, so I expected the two shortlisted American writers, Rachel Kushner and Richard Powers, to leap out of the blocks.

Kushner obliged. “I recently started to wear these glasses”, she tells us, “because they’ve started to shrink all the texts in all the books.” For her excerpt from The Mars Room she pops in and out of dialogue for a tale of hotwiring a cement mixer, and laughter trills around the auditorium. Yes, she did do her own audio book, she tells the host. “I read out loud while I’m writing so I felt I’d been practising to do that.” Her big interest is in voices, their “formal syncopation – the first person is traditionally a confessional tone, a challenging voice”.

Robin Robertson’s voice is more than challenging. The Long Take is a noir novel in verse, in which a World War II veteran finds himself among the denizens of Skid Row in 1940s Los Angeles. Robertson grips hold of the perspex lectern and delivers his reading with measured threat in every line. In conversation, he tells the London audience how the book reflects the “sense of urban paranoia and panic” that gripped him on first reaching London, and the “deep sense of existential dread” felt by German filmmakers in their post-war Hollywood exile.

For Burns, her characters are nameless and appear as voices in her head. She reads in the shock of a character’s short sentences. We find ourselves shocked. We find ourselves laughing. Anna reads on. It’s tough stuff.

Esi Edugyan smiles, thanks us, tells us she’s pleased to be with us. We warm to her and recognise her nerves – but something gets stuck. The voice of the protagonist in Washington Black is of a young 19th-century boy, a slave – and his first-person past tense narrative is literary. It belongs not so much in the author’s voice, but on paper.

Richard Powers read from his novel, The Overstory, as though in awe of it, his voice close to breaking. At 502 pages, The Overstory is the longest book on the shortlist, and the five-minute reading somehow gave a sense of its length. As fellow shortlister, Daisy Johnson, noted: “There’s something treelike in the way it’s written” – and it’s true: his reading accrued detail like growth rings.

Performing arts

And so to the two “Writer in Performance” awards I took it upon myself to present for the evening. Every writer gets a special award for taking the stage yet staying true to themselves – but, for the most constant laughter and spontaneous applause, the Audience Award goes to Rachel Kushner.

I had other award categories, which Daisy Johnson nailed in reading from her Everything Under – including eye contact with audience and an urgent clarity in her reading. But ironically what clinched the Judge’s Performance Award for Daisy Johnson is the writing. She spoke as an “I” talking to a “you”. She stripped away the literary and delivered the directness of raw speech.

We all applauded, the writers walked off to sign books – and soon one Man Booker winner will be hurtled into months of celebrity. The others, surely, will step from the public gaze and return to the journey Kushner spoke of, going “deeper in myself and trying to form a rich dialogue with my own consciousness”.The Conversation

Martin Goodman, Professor of Creative Writing, University of Hull

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Should writers only write what they know? What I learned from my research


File 20180829 86153 6o6iww.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Writing is an act of imagination – but when it comes to imagining other people’s lives, it pays to do your research.
Shutterstock.com

Tresa LeClerc, RMIT University

As an academic in creative writing, I attend a lot of literary events. One question I can always count on being asked is, “can I write characters of other backgrounds?” This has been a growing concern since Lionel Shriver at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival unleashed a tirade against what she called “censorship” in writing – referring to criticism of her book The Mandibles.

The recent ABC Q&A episode, Stranger Than Fiction, in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, showed the many sides of the “write what you know” debate. Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Sofie Laguna argued that space should be given for marginalised groups to represent themselves. Maxine Beneba Clarke pointedly discussed when appropriation can be harmful, as was the case with Shriver’s representation of Latino and African American characters. Meanwhile, Trent Dalton argued that appropriation leads to a good story, which also takes empathy and care.




Read more:
Lionel Shriver and the responsibilities of fiction writers


But is taking a walk in other people’s shoes as effective a writing method as many authors believe? To find out, I wrote a novel manuscript about four people from refugee backgrounds. I did it in three drafts, each using a different method. I wrote the first draft while observing and empathising as a volunteer working with asylum seekers, and refugees. I wrote the second after interviews with 15 people from refugee backgrounds (some of whom I had observed) and the third after getting feedback from three of the interviewees about the manuscript. Then I compared the drafts. The findings were very interesting.

Even before I had begun my interviews I had an interesting instance regarding the fallibility of my own memory. I had kept a journal while I was volunteering. As I sat down to write the novel manuscript, I remembered an instance when a young girl, who happened to be in the same public place, approached the group with an origami boat she had made. She offered it to one of the volunteers. It was beautiful – with crayon scribbles on the outside and three different sized paper cranes lined up in a row inside. In my memory, the attendees recoiled and anxiously said, “we hate boats!”

I began to write this into the manuscript, when I remembered the journal. I opened it to the day of the event, and found I’d recorded that the attendees were not anxious at all, nor did they recoil. They were joking and laughing about how they hated boats.

One criticism of stories about refugees is that they tend to show refugees as helpless victims. Was I drawing on existing stereotypes when I remembered this instance? Another possibility is that my feelings about the highly emotional issue of asylum were influencing how I interpreted the conversation.




Read more:
Indigenous cultural appropriation: what not to do


In another instance, I wrote a character that was verbally and racially attacked on public transport. White Australians came to her rescue. I was thinking that was what I would have done. But after interviews with refugees, I discovered the instances of racial abuse were much more violent and common than I imagined.

One interviewee related a story about an apple being thrown at her head; another described how her foot was stomped on. Contrary to what I had written, they expressed resilience and stood up for themselves.

I once watched author Claire G. Coleman in a debate by ABC RN on the topic of writing what you know. She said that cultural appropriation is dangerous because authors can only “contextualise that character as a version of themselves”. That certainly seemed to be the case. I was just writing what I thought would happen, from my perspective – not theirs.

So how can we get it right? It’s difficult to tell unless we ask someone from the background we are writing about. In getting feedback, I found that there were parts of my manuscript that resonated with interviewees’ experiences, such as an instance where an Iranian man was told that he was lucky to be here by a white Australian. The character didn’t feel that he was lucky. One interviewee said that he felt the same, that he had everything in Iran, including education and a job, and now he had to start over.

But even gaining feedback from interviewees did not mean they were going to tell me everything I “got wrong”. Those giving feedback wanted to give advice, not to criticise.

Walking in someone’s shoes is useful as a method, but it is far from perfect. As writers, we need to ask ourselves whether we are contributing to the oppression of a group of people by speaking for them, and reinforcing racist stereotypes as we do so.

This is not to say that we should never write characters from other backgrounds, just that we need to accept criticism by people who identify from that group rather than dismissing it as censorship (as Beneba Clarke also pointed out on Q&A), and to be more realistic about our own limitations as empathetic writers.The Conversation

Tresa LeClerc, Sessional teacher, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Writers’ festivals aren’t an imaginary republic of letters – they are political arenas



File 20180803 41363 2yshx0.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
After Germaine Greer was apparently uninvited from the Brisbane Writers Festival, author Richard Flanagan questioned whether the festival was giving into the social media ‘mob’.

Leigh Boucher, Macquarie University

Once again, we are in the middle of a public spat about who should get to speak at a writers’ festival in Australia. It appears the Brisbane Writers Festival uninvited Bob Carr and Germaine Greer (the festival has said neither author had been signed to a contract for appearances). In a context where #metoo has demonstrated the potency of social media mobilisation, it would seem the festival has erred on the side of caution rather than inflame the Twitterverse with contentious speakers.

Richard Flanagan issued a forceful response, questioning the festival’s “courage”. Flanagan argued with palpable frustration that this was indicative of a tendency to silence ideas that rub “against the grain of conventional thinking” and it is in danger of becoming a festival “Approved by Twitter Bots”. For Flanagan, this and other moments like it endanger the operation of the “republic of letters” that nourishes our democratic life.

Carr’s and Greer’s publisher has queried the “disinvitation”, suggesting it seems “counter to the ethos of freedom of speech”.

This debate is, in part, a contest over the ethics of public life and what rules should govern speaking privileges within it. The writers’ festival is hardly a politically neutral space in which the most virtuous ideas win the day through their intellectual force and merit; these are curated programs that adhere to visible and invisible rules of admission.




Read more:
I’m right, you’re wrong, and here’s a link to prove it: how social media shapes public debate


Perhaps Flanagan would do well to remember that his ideal republic of letters was an intellectual community that took shape in specific ways during the Enlightenment. This intellectual community of philosophers forged many of the ideas we take as common sense, like the importance of freedom of speech to democratic culture. But it too had rules of admission.

The conventions of this imaginary republic were profoundly gendered and racialised. It was a space that assumed a white male perspective as the norm and tended to uphold rather than critique gender and racial inequalities. Some historians even suggest that women’s participation in public life in Europe declined over the 18th century as the imaginary republic exerted more influence.

While 200 years of political transformation has meant our public life can admit the ideas of people who don’t look like Voltaire or Rousseau, there are certainly cultural legacies of these formulations. Bucketloads of research demonstrates how, for example, university students grant male professors much more authority than their female colleagues. So too, all kinds of male misbehaviour is excused as the cost of genius. Perhaps the writers’ festival author that Flanagan expects to arrive drunk and tardy would be an example of this.

Gendered ideas are clearly part of the DNA of this contest, often in quite subtle ways. It is no coincidence that the forces Flanagan and others suggest endanger our democratic culture include young feminists emboldened by networks of support on various social media platforms. Social media have provided a space in which a new generation of feminist voices is holding older forms of authority to account.

Indeed, Flanagan’s examples of this dangerous policing of public life are revealing. Junot Diaz, Germaine Greer and Lionel Shriver have all had their sexual, racial and gender politics brought into question at recent writers’ events.




Read more:
Lionel Shriver and the responsibilities of fiction writers


Diaz’s gut-wrenching account of his sexual abuse as a child was soon followed by multiple female voices who raised questions about the impact of his adult behaviour on others. His authority was called into question and he withdrew from a set of public engagements. This represents for Flanagan some kind of calamity.

Flanagan argues that the stories about Diaz remain unproved accusations and, as a consequence, we do him an injustice if we let these accusations alone exclude him from public life. However, as the #metoo moment has demonstrated, the rules of admission for public life tend to conceal rather than reveal sexual misconduct.

We need to ask tough questions about whose voices are more readily heard and what these limitations make invisible. Sometimes that might mean different voices are granted authority and others step back. The social media world that Flanagan fears is limiting our democratic life has, in some cases, provided a space for the articulation of young feminist voices to call into question male authority and the gendered privilege of artistic genius.

The idea that social media is somehow destroying our public culture is hardly a new one; the mob mentality that sometimes unfolds to sustain the pleasures of virtuous condemnation are worth thinking critically about. So, too, it clearly encourages the polarisation of political views.

When Michael Cathcart ran into uncomfortable territory around race in his interview with Paul Beatty last year, the baying continued on Twitter for the next week. This was partly a moment in which Cathcart’s older ideas about how to read and understand texts crashed into more recent political norms about who can and cannot speak about what topics, and who can use what language.

To be sure, these voices certainly have a tendency towards virtuous outrage about harm. As Jacqueline Rose recently argued, rigid calculations of harm sometimes do not allow for the messiness of everyday life. A politics conducted in single images and outraged tweets will always struggle with political nuance.

However, #metoo can also be read as a politics that has flourished on social media because the present rules of public life will not fully admit these young female voices. The moment we are living through right now is, in part, a contest over how we should decide who gets to speak.

The ConversationI’m not sure Flanagan’s idealising of the profoundly gendered republic of letters offers a useful solution to this historically specific rupture. I suspect both sides of this debate might benefit from thinking carefully about the rules they implicitly and explicitly hope to enforce on our public culture, but I’m pretty sure dismissing young feminists as a social media “mob” is hardly productive.

Leigh Boucher, Senior Lecturer – Modern History, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.