There is a way of viewing the world that is the writer’s own. Different from those who blithely go through life without pillaging it for characters or plot points and different from those who don’t stick their fingers in any life cracks to see if they can prise out a few moments of writing time. It is a writer’s own dysfunctional, stressful and I guess, ultimately terminal, way of looking at the world.Read More
NOTE: I wrote this piece for The Nieuwe Vide Journal of Humanity which is an extension of the Nieuwe Vide Art Space in The Netherlands. It was published to co-incide with an exhibition and festival of the beats and I very much wish I could have been there. Some smart women gave me wise advice on this, thank you Carolyn Rickett and Bron Bates.
It is a formative experience to fall in love with a piece of literature. I suspect some people never do; it takes a lot of reading to find your way into the things that move you, the things that resonate with you on a cellular level. There is, in literature, that possibility – and it is rare, and thus precious – of finding such a raw representation on the page, that you discover things that you couldn’t articulate about yourself opened up in front of you. You become more, and quite often, you can love yourself more because of it. There are books that have made me more courageous, characters that have taught me things about love before I needed them and given words to the sort of pain that is soundless and bound. I have loved myself in the difficult pragmatism of Scarlett O’Hara, cringed at the ambivalent rage I recognised as my own in Hamlet, knicked my fingers on the razor satire of Terry Pratchett. I have been unravelled by the absurdity of Tom Robbins. But the way I fell for the road and the sky and the in-between worlds of open-heartedness in Kerouac’s works, has been an unparalleled literary love affair.
When I read On the Road, I was sixteen. I fell for the energy of the words. The expanse of the images. Kerouac wrote the text in three weeks, on a continuous reel of paper, single-spaced to save time. That energy infuses the text – it grabs you and drags you along with it. You want to taste it, it’s so visceral. I read more Kerouac, and then I read Cassady, and Ginsberg and Burroughs. I loved the world. I love the men in it. I loved how they shared themselves with each other and the world. Generously. They shared their weaknesses and flaws as openly as they did their passions. But I always had, and still have, that sinking understanding that there would have been no place for me in that world. There were no strong, fully formed and fascinating women in the beat world. There were women, certainly, but they felt like cardboard cut outs, something to move around, admire, shift gently out of the way when necessary In fact the only women Kerouac and Ginsberg seemed to genuinely respect, were their mothers.
When Kostas Myrsiades wrote in The Beat Generation that the Beats emerged in opposition to the dominant “square” culture of 1950s America- the sexual repression, xenophobia, nine-to-five work ethic, materialism and extreme patriotism – one glaring omission was any real reactive opposition to the parochial patriarchy that still viewed woman as significant less able in every regard (except perhaps as temptress or mother). There was a rejection of repressed sexuality, but not of sexism. The women in Kerouac’s literature are passive, submissive and often end up the abandoned victim rather than an active participant. In his work Jack associated women with two things – pleasure and pain. There was no middle ground, no deeper soul connection. Women were beautiful but difficult, pretty but dumb - “Marylou was a pretty blonde with immense ringlets of hair like a sea of golden tresses….like a long-bodied emaciated Modigliani surrealist woman….But, outside of being sweet little girl, she was awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things”. Women were something to look at, to admire, but to be wary of on any deeper level – certainly not an avant-garde idea. Women were often simply called “the girl” or “she” and described in terms of their looks: “she was about sixteen, and had Plains complexion like wild roses, and the bluest eyes, the most lovely hair and the modesty and quickness of a wild antelope.” In On the Road there was “the cutest little Mexican girl”, her breast sticking out straight and true, the wife whose “beautiful brown breasts were barely concealed” by her blouse, the “idiot daughter” that Dean dug and all the girls Dean “gunned” coming out of high school in the afternoon before asking Sal to sleep with his wife, just to “see what Marylou was like with another man.” Dean’s cry of “oh I love, love, love women! I think women are wonderful! I love women!” is disparate to his treatment of his wife. There is a gaze here that simply doesn’t engage on anything other than the physical plane – a watcher who sees nothing more than the level to which what he can find pleasure. It is not that Sal doesn’t aspire to more, making clear his desire to commune with women outside of sexuality- “real straight talk about souls” – there just isn’t any actual effort made to achieve that aim. There is the sense that Jack knows there is a way in which he could engage on a deeper level with women, to know them better and perhaps even write them as more fully-formed, but that he is simply too caught up in his journeys, both physical and emotional, to bother with this. “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every times I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.” He knows there is more, but has other relationships and journeys that are simply more important to him.
I have looked for well-formed female characters in the Beat writing. I looked hard. Carolyn Cassady, Edie Parker and Hettie Jones felt more like watchers than participants – muses perhaps, facilitators maybe, but not respected equals. These talented women, some of whom wrote their own incredible and revolutionary prose, were ‘the wives’, barely acknowledged by their male peers. They wrote memoirs about their identities in relation to the men around them and I wanted more than that – I wanted to read them. And I wanted them to write women. I found the beat women as outsiders in offside compendiums. As afterthoughts and even instigators, but rarely as the orchestrators and creators of their own place in literature. Diane di Prima was an exception, her poetry and prose is soul shaking, but mostly I found that the beatnik space was closed to me – I could look in certainly, but I couldn’t touch. A woman – Joan Vollmer - is often credited with actually creating the beat revolution, with bringing together the writers, inspiring them and according to Brenda Knight, who wrote the great book Women of the Beat Generation, becoming “the whetstone against which the great writers – Allan, Jack and Bill - sharpened their intellect.” The thing is, the writing - the words I loved, were still written by men about men. And they weren’t concerned with writing women well. As Joyce Johnson, author of the tellingly named Minor Characters, describes the beat scene as having “very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves. The real communication was going on between the men, and the women were onlookers… You kept your mouth shut, and if you were intelligent and interested in things you might pick up what you could. It was a very masculine aesthetic.”
Ginsberg is quoted as saying “Were we responsible for the lack of outstanding genius in the women we knew? Did we put them down or repress them? I don’t think so.” And in this I recognise that aged idea -“we’d celebrate them if they were actually talented and we’d write about them if they were interesting,” a simplistic explanation that fails to acknowledge disadvantage, exclusion or simple misogyny. Perhaps the beatniks just weren’t as revolutionary as they thought – bucking some social and political trends but falling into line with the gender bias and beliefs of their day. And if this is the case, why do women respond to the Beat writers at all? How does this love develop? I am certainly not the only woman to connect with the Beat on a deep level. Is it some self-destructive, self-reductive tendency? I don’t believe so. I think it is because we are human before we are woman or men, and the need for self-exploration goes very deep. We are also still emerging from a place of repression and conformity, which makes us seekers of truth and self – looking to find the edges of our new selves. I think it is little wonder we resonate with the Beat desire to shed expectation and find something more.
There are many ways to react to sexism and misrepresentation in literature. The first, and probably the most important, is to recognise it, point it out, make it known. And I feel that this has been done with the writings of Kerouac. It has not gone unnoticed that Kerouac and many of the Beats were a masculine collective interested foremost in exploring their love of each other and their place in the world. It has not gone unseen, the way in which they watched women from a place of self. It has been discussed by many of the far greater writers and scholars who have come before me. It is from here that we have to react - to reject his work altogether, to ignore what doesn’t suit us so as not to lose that which does, to rail against it, or perhaps to interact with it creatively. All of these are valid responses and I can only speak to my own. I have written myself into the narrative of the Beatniks. I have taken from their stories, particularly those of Kerouac, the freedom and raw openness, the rejection of traditional structures and the hope that I can gain some understanding of the world by moving a little outside of it. I have written them into my stories, created worlds where they are my characters to move around as I wish. As a woman, I have created a place for myself in the literature that I love. I did this by re-versioning Kerouac’s history and inserting a version of myself in his story. My novel, We ate the Road like Vultures, was at once the writer’s usual attempt to cleanse ourselves of the stories that possess us, but also a rewriting of my own youth and my interactions with Kerouac. In my story a woman is commanding her space in the Beat universe, interacting with Kerouac outside of sexuality, on a soul level - something he claimed he wanted. Something I needed.
Discussing feminist issues in literature is still contentious. It shouldn’t be, there is no inherent threat here to the canon and there is no desire from women to take anything away from what has been created – but it is. I wrote an article earlier this year for an Australian paper about the way I felt “outside” of the Beatnik writings as a woman, and the usual comments made the rounds – “blah, blah, blah feminism” and “women whining again” being a couple of the most generous (and reprintable - someone suggested I might just prefer to die, than opine). I’m not convinced that this is the established opinion of men in the literary world. I think it is more likely to be the opinion of men who comment on newspaper columns, but I still feel the need to say firmly and as loudly as my pen will let me – women are not taking anything. Feminism is not a movement designed to destroy or disempower. It is about adding new voices to a conversation, about adding new vision, fresh words, a different perspective. It is about looking deeper to find women’s voices where they were in their time, sometimes hidden, sometimes silenced and sometimes struggling through self-doubt. It is about balancing out the representations of life. Women have looked for themselves in literature and found paucity – and now we are creating our own place. This is not destruction – this is expansion. This is evolution. The way Jack Kerouac saw women was his own. I cannot say that he was wrong, only that I do not find myself represented in his writing the way I find myself in someone like Margaret Mitchell, Charlotte Bronte or Elena Ferrante’s works. I still love his writings, I am still woken and enlivened and filled up by them. I, by writing my own version of my relationship with him, do not want to take from him anything at all – I want to add my voice. I will happily take the backseat in On the Road, watching and listening and learning from him. But he can sit behind me in my novel and he can listen to my voice. As I may be able to in someone else’s story.
I was nineteen and out with friends, sitting around a tiny table in a dance club. It wasn’t late yet, maybe eleven, and the dance floor was still only lukewarm so we were just talking and waiting. At one point I got up to go to the bathroom and a boy leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette (it was long enough ago that you could smoke in a club), leaned towards me. He was in a leather jacket. I remember the lines in the leather on his sleeve when I turned my head so I could hear him above the music. He had blonde hair. I don’t remember his face. He was just someone I was walking passed. He asked me if I wanted to dance. I smiled. I know I did, because I smile at everyone. And I said “No, thanks.” That’s all I said and I turned back towards the bathroom. And he said, “Fucking bitch”, and put his cigarette out on my arm.
I find it so very difficult to talk about my feminism. And I think I know why.
I am worried that I will find out that you don’t feel the same way about women that I hope you do. I am worried that I will find out you secretly think feminism is nasty, cheap, foolish and whiny. That you will think that women have nothing to complain about. Nothing to fight for. I am scared that I will see in you a belief that you… as a woman, are okay with the status quo, or that you, as a man secretly do believe that you are just that little tiny bit more valuable and entitled.
And then we can’t be friends anymore. We seriously can’t. Because you are part of the reason that women get blamed when they are raped, when they are fired, when they are overlooked, excluded and when they are beaten.
But in the western world at the moment we have a proper, undeniable, insidious and dangerous misogyny problem. So I will speak of my feminism for a moment and let the chips fall where they may.
I march today for the girls I know who have been groped, hit, raped, drugged, and belittled. It is no small number. And for the ones who have had to make difficult decisions silently because other people feel they have some right to an opinion about their bodies. And for little girls who don’t know yet that they can’t walk home alone without being sure they have running shoes on, and their phone in their hands. For those who cringe before they walk past a construction site or a sports field or a pub. For those who have literally had their ‘pussies’ grabbed at a concert while they listen to music. For all the girls with a half dozen degrees working in shit hot jobs who are still earning less the men around them. It’s not a myth, it is a fucking reality. For the girls who work, parent and still do all the housework because… women. For all the women who have been mocked - ‘you must have your period’ - as though we don’t understand our own bodies. For the sportswomen who get half the pay and half the exposure even when they win more championships. For any women who has ever been called a slut. I march for the women who have so much worse than I do in the privileged life I’ve had – women of colour, refugee women, women of the LGBTQ community, trans-women, women repressed by religion, women in countries where their bodies still kill them. I march for every woman who has to negotiate her gender all day long, because this is something that only women have to do. I march for my sons, so they know that women speak up for what they believe, that they work and walk together, that they are a united front. So that they will march for their daughters.
A spectre is haunting Australia -- the spectre of Halloween. All the powers of parochialism have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: the guy in the office who keeps moaning about it being an “American tradition”, the two hour waiting line at Spotlight, and the stores who skip straight from Father’s Day to Christmas. Where is the voice for those who would paint their faces and wear cheap witch costumes in fabrics that do not breathe? Where is the voice for those who would be, even for a moment, a Jedi?
There was a moment during the zombie swarm when my son looked up at me, blood smearing an axe-wound across his nose, with mild panic in his eyes and I had a deep paradigm shift, one that left me asking myself, “Am I the cool mother who does special effects makeup on my sons and takes them to culturally unique events like the Sydney Zombie parade? Or am I the really weird mother who douses her children in blood and drags them to disturbing counter-culture events that they will eventually describe tearfully in therapy?” I wouldn’t let them watch a zombie movie, why am I here with bullet wounds in my jaw, dragging them shuffling up the main street of the CBD?
I love costuming. I have worked in drama and film for decades and I know that a good costume changes you. In the words of aphorist Mason Cooley “Clothes make a statement, but costumes tells a story.” Costumes are a mask; a full body armour that allow you, even if just for an evening, to be an entirely different person. Or gender. Or species. The grease paint and feathers erase a fragment of that worry that we aren’t good enough and people might not like us… because frankly EVERYONE wants to hang out with princesses and pirates.
Costuming isn’t an “equaliser” like school uniforms. Costumes are attention seeking. (And yet, somehow, not in the same way that a man-bun or platform thigh-boots are). When you see someone in a costume you want to talk to them and it feels okay to do it. I learned this from my youngest son, who at the age of two begged for his first costume- a Viking dragon-trainer – and has since spent nearly every day of his nine years in a costume. Even on school days he will have an accoutrement such as an army belt complete with handy sandwich box attachment, or a shemagh or steampunk goggles, or on a subtle day just a debonair moustache which he achieves by stabbing at his face with my expensive eyebrow pencil. What he knows is that people will stop when you are in costume. They will talk to your character – and then they will also talk to you. They remember you. They become your friends. It is also a sincere form of flattery. He knows the neighbourhood baristas, mail people, garbage collectors and law enforcement because he has dressed up like all of them at one time or another. (His barista costume was especially marvellous. It involved hand drawn sleeve tattoos).
Schools understand this need to dress up. The school book-parade can turn even the shyest child into a (foam) sword-wielding dwarf or a proud outerpants wearing superhero. Comicon understands that this need is also a part of adulthood. I take my son to the convention every year, knowing it is his spiritual home, and we walk amongst a few hundred thousand of the happiest people in Sydney. Batman chats with a guy from Halo about costume density. Sailor Moon poses for photos with Mad Max and Where’s Wally roams freely- visible to all. My son met Boba Fett and still thinks it might have been real. There is a great deal of flesh on display – some of it toned and tanned, some of it far less toned and Golden Retriever levels of hairy. All of it – accepted.
While it is possible to spend a huge amount of money on cosplay, a regular old homemade costume will only cost you a few dollars in fabric and sanity. The other beauty of the costume is that is doesn’t really have to last. You can hot glue it together if necessary, cover the rips with a patch or better yet, douse them in blood and recycle for Halloween. And that brings me to Halloween. Yes, it’s an American thing and yes; it’s a pagan festival of ghosts and death. But it is also about dressing up and meeting your neighbours. You know who has embraced Halloween the most wholeheartedly in my neighbourhood? The oldies. They have the door open, the cobwebs up and quite high-end candy ready for the kids. Last year one elderly gent had Guylian seashells and tiny plastic cups of champagne for the parents. It took two hours to get around the four streets closest to my house because everyone was busy talking to each other. Why? It doesn’t happen at Christmas, or Easter. It’s not just about a holiday. In my humble be-wigged opinion it is because people get into costumes, which means they are willing to look a little foolish and fences get broken down (occasionally actual fences – there is candy up for grabs after all).
In short, both of my children survived the zombie parade and the several thousand photographs and conversations as we caught the train home. They are already planning their costume masterpieces for Halloween at the end of the month. It’s coming whether you moan about it or not. Just go buy some candy and moan with your neighbour.
And to this end I say, let the ruling classes tremble at a costumist revolution. The people have nothing to lose but their dignity. They have a world to win.
From the 'Hauntings' Creative Project AAWP 2015, Published in Bukker Tillibul, October 2016.
When she had been told the valley was haunted she had assumed several things, an air of self-righteousness foremost amongst them. Ghosts were the realm of old people and children and she was neither. There were other assumptions though. There was an expectation that apparitions must be human; lost wafting creatures with sad tales of hypothermia or a fall from one of the knives of red stone that slashed upwards all around her. Mixed with her scepticism was the warmth of knowing she would never have to test her convictions. Only a fool would try to cross that pockmarked, frozen wasteland at night.
Yet now it lurched before her, the trees wavering in ice wind, the edges of the red cliffs blurred by low cloud. Stupid. It was so unbelievably stupid to be stuck out here. The crystal threads running through the cold air made her skin twitch and there was a heart shuddering moment when she knew her assumptions were as foolish as her attempt to find the boy. She was not alone. Her rational mind she knew she had never been alone out here. There were possums bolting up the trees as she moved down the trail and a myriad insects squeaking and hissing their displeasure at her disruption. There were slitherings in the low black grass. But this was something else. She turned around quickly. Darkness.Darkness barely penetrated by her small torch. Pivoting back she looked down the overgrown trail. And it was there. Watching her.
A dog. Perhaps. A ghost certainly. Silvery, threadbare, not completely there. It was bigger than a dog though. As tall as her hip. Its face was sharper. And its teeth needles of light. It glowed, though not in the torchlight; from within. Her heart stuttered to a halt, winding down and then attacking her chest wildly - get away from this thing! She couldn't. The boy was out there. Beyond.
The creature looked at her, turned slowly in a circle, like a wolf, its head low, eyes up. Could you be killed by a ghost dog? The adrenaline tearing at her veins told her she could. The side of its body took her by surprise. Thicker than a dog. A longer tail. In her muddled, frozen mind she felt a flicker of recognition.
The creature watched her and let out a low sound - a rumbling. Pulling back suddenly on its haunches, it lifted its front legs in the air, pawing at the air. The movement was strange and she stumbled back, off the path and into thick, sharp brush that held her in place. There was something odd about it, moving as it did - like a rat. Like a wallaby. It flicked its head quickly side to side and then turned to walk away, down the path. It wasn't going to kill her. Was she supposed to follow it? She mocked herself for the thought. Her limbs were losing sensation in the cold. It wasn't worse than being completely alone, was it? Unless it led her off a cliff. As she fell into step behind the apparition she saw the lines across its back and she knew it. It was a tiger. Thylacine. Only survived by its silver shadow.