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Sam van Zweden

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sophie cunningham

Women In Culture at MWF

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Susan Hawthorne, publisher at Spinifex Press, opened Women in Culture by asking for a show of hands on names of women writers dating back to 5,000 years BCE. Possibly the first known writer was female – yet not one person in this session knew her name. Out of the maybe fifteen names that Hawthorne called out, only two were recognized. If the same test were conducted with the names of male writers from similar periods (Homer, Cervantes, etc), we can assume that many more hands would have gone up. Hawthorne’s point (which was later echoed by Sophie Cunningham) was that women’s writing slips quickly from history.

Sophie Cunningham (one of the brilliant women behind the Stella Prize) is all over the statistics about women in publishing. According to statistics that she shared in this session, the best that women can currently hope to represent in publishing is 30% of the whole. Even with that nowhere-near-even figure, women’s writing fades quickly in the public mind. One of the concerns of the Stella Prize is to slow that fade. Prize-winning writing often sets VCE reading lists, according mainstream interest to worthy writing by women, and encouraging younger people to pay attention to more than just the dead white men who make up the literary canon. Writers who win prizes are also far more likely to follow writing as a career path. The Stella Prize (like what was until recently the Orange Prize in the UK) affords women part of the “room” that Virginia Woolf pleaded for in “A Room Of One’s Own.”

Sophie Cunningham gets better every time I hear her speak. After attending an addled Germaine Greer’s session earlier in the day, it was fantastic to see a feminist as articulate as Sophie speaking.

Tamil writer C.S Lakshmi (who writes under the name ‘Ambai’) shared an extract from a story of hers which poetically, beautifully, argued for the importance of women’s ability to tell and share stories with other women, rather than having their lives dictated by the stories that men tell to and about women.

Emily Maguire argued that “women’s writing” (a label that nobody felt comfortable with), is different from writing by men, in the way that every individual’s writing is different. “Not better, not worse, not more of less true, but different,” said Maguire.

The thread of conversation (unfortunately, only briefly touched upon) that set my cogs spinning was raised by Emily Maguire. She raised a similar point earlier in the year at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Maguire teaches creative writing to young children. While young girls will write 50/50 male and female protagonists, young boys almost exclusively write male protagonists. Where does this come from? Well, boys read boys’ books with male heroes. Books with female heroes aren’t as common, and when they do appear, they’re marketed as “girls’ books” (complete with sparkly pink cover). Butt-kicking feminine and female protagonists just aren’t represented the same way as butt-kicking male protagonists are. And heaven forbid little boys look up to a strong woman hero character!

This is a really interesting question for me as a reader and a bookseller. It made me think about what books are selling now with strong, feminine heroines. The EJ12 books series is great. I’m not all over kids books as a genre, but what I can think of is mainly about girls chasing boys, or being chased by boys. Trying to think of the strong female characters I admired when I was younger I came up with Ellie from Tomorrow When The War Began, Rosie from Guitar Highway Rose (who, though she’s eccentric, is still really just chasing a boy)… Apart from that, I don’t really know.

What strong women do you remember in books you admired as a child? Who do you hope your children could use as a strong female role model in a book?

Essential Reading

I really, really enjoyed Sophie Cunningham’s essay in Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings, titled “A Prize of One’s Own: Flares, Cock-forests, and Dreams of a Common Language.” Now it’s online, so you can read it too. And it’s not just a great title (which it really, really is) but it’s also got some really shocking statistics in there. Very much admire Sophie’s work to correct this, because it’s so easy to pinpoint a problem and whinge about it, but to make moves toward a better state of things is hard. I am looking forward to seeing the Stella Prize take off.

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