To whinge or not to whinge: Marginalising feminist writing in Australia.

The following article was first published on the Spinifex Press blog on 16 May 2012 (http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Blog/display/id=84/comments=show/). In it Susan Hawthorne, one of the co-founders of Spinifex Press, raises some important questions about the continual marginalisation of feminist writers from the mainstream of Australian writing/literature.

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About Spinifex Press

Spinifex Press was established by Renate Klein and Susan Hawthorne 21 years ago (1991). Both publishers have PhDs in Women’s Studies and have lived and worked feminism for many decades. They are authors of hundreds articles on feminism as well as dozens of books and have organised local, national and international feminist events.

Spinifex Press is named after an Australian desert grass that holds the earth together.  Their aim has always been to publish innovative and controversial feminist books with an optimistic edge.

Spinifex titles cover a wide range of subjects from politics to mythology, humour to international relations, ecology to relationships, literary fiction to cultural critique, women’s health to poetry, as well as specialist lists on African, Asian and lesbian writing. They have published writers from every continent including Indigenous authors from many countries.

Always technologically innovative, Spinifex was one of the first Australian publishers to tackle the challenge of digital publishing, and around 80% of their books are available as eBooks.

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To whinge or not to whinge (with apologies to Shakespeare)

Let’s be up front about the title of this piece. You get to decide whether I am whinging or making justifiable arguments about discrimination. You get to decide if highlighting silence, indifference or sidelining is reasonable to discuss in public. Some of you will already have decided that I am a whinger. I hope some will applaud the attempt to make known what usually is not spoken about.

Spinifex Press is a feminist press, that means that we have specialist knowledge about the international women’s movement, the histories of women in many places, that we have opinions and have carried out research on subjects where the experiences of women have important social, political and even creative ramifications.

The Abbotsford Mysteries by Patricia Sykes (Spinifex Press, 2011) was one of the more impressive poetry releases of last year.

Feminism is a huge subject area and feminist writers and thinkers have much to say about this area. Feminist thinking can be applied to almost any area of knowledge. From time to time the media decides to run some kind of commentary on feminism. They ask this social commentator or that political commentator for their views. You would think that we would be rushed off our feet answering such questions from the media about what is important to half the world. But we are not. In fact, the media almost never talks to us or to the many authors published by Spinifex about the subject of feminism. In recent years a number of writers’ festivals have had panels to discuss whether feminism is still relevant (the wrong question in my view). Again, you would expect that Spinifex Press would be an important place to source writers who are well versed in discussing feminism. So far, we have never been asked to suggest a writer to speak on such a panel in spite of the fact that we publish more feminists per square inch than any other Australian publisher. Occasionally our international writers are invited to participate, but Australian feminists like Diane Bell, Sheila Jeffreys, Bronwyn Winter or Betty McLellan are not on the festival circuit. Let alone Renate Klein or myself.

In the last couple of years a group of brave women writers have come forward to highlight the asymmetry of awards given to women writers. Out of that has come much discussion about the Stella Prize. There have been fruitful discussions about the poor levels of reviewing of books by women, and it is having some effect on the level of awareness in the media of these issues. You would think, given our specialty, that the media would ask Spinifex Press whether these statistics were reflected in our experience of publishing women writers over the last 21 years. To date, we have not been asked that question, we have not been asked for our opinion in an area in which we have obvious expertise. This is so even though we participate in blogs, online discussions, Facebook and twitter commentary.

Spinifex Press has recently republished Finola Moorhead’ classic feminist novel ‘Remember The Tarantella’ which had been out of print for many years.

The issue of gay marriage has become mainstream in the last twelve months. Spinifex Press probably publishes more lesbian writers than any other publishing house in Australia. You would think that the media who are often caught short-footed in this area would come knocking to ask for comments from some of our out writers (many writers in the mainstream as well as those published by presses like ours still keep the lid on their sexuality to avoid being pigeon holed). To date, no festival organiser or journalist has asked us this question.

Ecofeminism is an area in which Spinifex has considerable expertise. What is often forgotten is that like human rights, women have always been at the forefront of discussions on ecology. Think of Rachel Carson, Donella Meadows, Maria Mies, Helen Caldicott, Vandana Shiva. Feminism and ecology go together. However, there remains great ignorance among many in the media who want to keep feminism out of ecology. But ecology would not exist as a discipline without feminist thinkers.

In a multicultural society like Australia you would expect there to be commentary on women’s experience. And if you thought about a feminist perspective on these issues, you would find plenty of expertise at Spinifex from writers with diverse backgrounds. You would find Indigenous writers, writers from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and many other places. For commentary on the political changes taking place in the Arab world, you would find several of our anthologies packed with information as well as books by writers like Nawal el Saadawi and Evelyne Accad.

We, of course, wish that the issue of violence against women would go away. But it continues to grab headlines. The increasing sexualisation of girls and women has garnered a lot of comment; sexual slavery, prostitution, pornography and rape of women in war as well as violence against women in the home are regular subjects in the media. Spinifex has been responsible for a significant number of books in this area and we have dozens of authors who could make comment, could speak at conferences and festivals and yet few are ever asked to do so, or when they are, they are frequently expected to be targets of hostile interlocutors. It is unusual that a group who is subjected to violence should also be expected to be apologists for the perpetrators of that violence, but women who speak out against men’s violence against women are frequently expected to defend men. The vilification of women should be as important as the vilification of people based on race, ethnicity, religion, class or caste, sexuality, disability or any other form of oppression. Hate speech based on a person’s sex is just as hateful as all the other forms of hate speech I have listed. But pornography is strangely exempted as a form of hate speech. And those who speak out about it in these terms are called prudes and whingers.

The publishing industry has gone through massive changes in the last decade, and none more so than the advent of eBooks and digital publishing. Spinifex Press began creating eBooks in 2006. While we have often been asked to participate in industry forums on this subject, the media and most festivals have not asked for input or commentary from us. It’s hard to say whether this is because we are feminist publishers and therefore would not know anything (although we were innovators in the field in the 1990s also) or whether there is the assumption that we would only know about feminist issues (but why are we well qualified activist publishers not asked to comment on feminism either?).

You can see that I am caught in a whirlwind and cannot get out no matter whether I shout or remain silent, no matter whether I put forward a critique or try to make jokes and be good humoured about it, or whether I whinge.

That’s all very well, say the doubters, but perhaps these books are badly written or didactic, perhaps they are poorly argued or rushed to print with lots of editorial problems, perhaps the designs are sloppy or the book covers unappealing. If any of these were issues, you would read about it in reviews. While it’s not possible for every book or every writer to win awards, many Spinifex authors have won awards for their books, state awards, national awards and international awards. Some books have been named in best-of-the-year lists, some authors have been recognised for their work. Spinifex Press has won awards, as have the publishers. On matters editorial, it is something we pride ourselves on and we have been known to spend several years on getting a book right. Our book covers are frequently remarked upon. Internationally, we have numerous translations, including Betty McLellan’s Help, I’m living with a man boy in 17 languages. Other books have been translated into Spanish, German, Korean, Chinese and Turkish. I ask, given all this, should you be able to hear our writers at festivals or read features on them in the media?

Don’t get me wrong, we are more than grateful to those festival organisers and media who do support us, as well as to readers who buy books and writers who have stuck with us over the years.

There are many others areas Spinifex authors have written about. Here is a beginning list: war, terrorism, economics, water, health, creative writing, poetry, autobiography, GM foods, holocaust, trauma, sanity and madness, peace, literature, the politics of knowledge, globalisation, climate change, lesbian culture and history, mythology, religion, Indigenous knowledges, abortion, cyberfeminism, ecofeminism, reproductive technologies, menopause, international relations, violence against women, international feminist movements, intimate relationships, exile, masculinity, revolution, history, prehistory, politics, ecology, animals, colonisation, biodiversity, trade unions, education, children, theatre, circus, art, photography, humour, feminism.

When a group of feminist artists in New York began protesting about the number of women artists represented in art galleries, they donned gorilla masks and called themselves Guerilla Girls in part to avoid reprisals from the art establishment and the media. What we see in public fora in Australia is feminism sexed-up, feminism cat-fights, feminism lite. Any attempt to engage seriously with the ideas of feminism, ideas that have changed the lives of millions of women and girls around the world, is met with derision, distortion, exclusion and silence. I say let’s have feminism noisy, feminism fun, feminism serious. In short  guerrilla feminism.

– Susan Hawthorne

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For more on Guerilla Girls:

For information on the Stella Prize:

Reviews of Spinifex Press books on Rochford Street Review/Printed Shadows.

3 thoughts on “To whinge or not to whinge: Marginalising feminist writing in Australia.

  1. It’s important that analysis like Susan Hawthorne’s becomes public. The real living literature is not reflected in the public realm, in writers’ festivals or elsewhere. The exclusion of Spinifex authors is only one example of this. There’s an array of apparent variety in these festivals that masks the fact that they’re basically an exercise in exclusion whilst appearing to be the promotion of different literatures.

  2. We’re here, and we don’t think this issue is confined to Spinifex. We won’t leave it up to Spinifex and a few others to raise these issues. Shout it from the fucking rooftops, everybody, even if it feels like you’ve been saying the same thing for years. Of course you have. We all have. We reckon some of these blokes – events people, for example, journal editors, reviewers – they think they’re doing all right, they think this stuff doesn’t apply to them.
    But maybe they need a nasty shock.
    The numbers don’t lie. So fucking whinge away. Reclaim the whinge.
    Go on. We do.

    Love
    Guerilla Girl Writers – Australia (no relation)
    @gogirlwriters

  3. Pingback: Issue 4: May – August 2012 Contents | Rochford Street Review

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