Throughout 2014, like many readers, I have been making a conscious effort to read women. After looking through my bookshelf earlier this year, I realised that it contained fewer books by female writers than by male writers, and that my reading habits had subconsciously perpetuated the marginalisation of female writers. Over the course of this year, I have deliberately expanded the titles and authors I read, leading me to discover some incredible books by women: beautiful novels including Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by, NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah; heartfelt memoirs with a feminist bent, including Lorelei Vashti’s Dress, Memory and Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, and the extraordinary short stories of Lydia Davis.
But just as I was beginning to feel self-righteous, I realised that the issue was much bigger than I originally thought. Inspired by the launch of the Stella Prize Schools Program, I thought back to what I had read at school and tallied a whole swag of books by dead white guys from England and the United States.
The classics I studied at school were certainly great works – George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and of course plenty of Shakespeare – but how relevant are these books to young Australians? Yes, they were valuable to study as examples of technical skill, and they each boasted broad, sweeping themes that teachers were painlessly able to distil into essay questions. But they were all by men, all white and all dead.
I could appreciate the books we studied as great works, but I couldn’t relate to the characters or their surroundings, and the stories weren’t representative of my life or the lives of those around me. This left me with the belief that the only great works of literature were by a very small portion of the world’s population. It also made me think that my own stories, and the stories of the country I live in, were not worthy of greatness. In fact, their invisibility made me think they weren’t worthy of being written in the first place.
With the recent launch of the Stella Prize Schools Program and release of the 2013 Stella Count data, Executive Director of the Stella Prize Aviva Tuffield noted that currently 68% of Victoria’s Year 12 English texts are by male authors. Why is it the case that over two-thirds of set texts are written by men, and why has this imbalance remained for so long? Is it because teachers and curriculum bodies are naively unaware of the issue? Is it because books written by women are often designed and marketed in a way that sells them short? Perhaps these titles do not receive the recognition they deserve for reasons beyond the control of their authors. The problem is an international one (as the VIDA count shows), but its pervasiveness should not prevent readers from recognising and working to consciously correct their own reading habits. Tuffield’s discussions with the many parents, teachers and school librarians who contacted the Stella Prize to support the Schools Program confirms that I am not alone in my desire to not only make up for the shortcomings in my own reading habits.
I started to make a list of books by Australian women that I have always meant to read, which I thought could act as an antidote to the one-sided literature of my high school education. Included on my list were classics like Ruth Park’s The Harp In The South, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, and contemporary releases like Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem and Favel Parrett’s When The Night Comes. With these titles as a starting point, I began a mission to read more Australian women. I wanted to prove to myself and others, that not only are classic works by Australian women as well written and important as the books I read at school, but that the themes they explore – themes of race, class and gender – are still relevant today. And crucially, these themes are presented within the context of Australian issues, in an Australian landscape, told in distinctly Australian language.
Ruth Park’s The Harp In The South is set in the slums of Surry Hills, well before gentrification strikes. It’s a bold, colourful novel that contains all the love and catastrophe of a Shakespearen tragedy, and questions race, class and humanity as deeply as an Orwell or Steinbeck novel, or even a contemporary realist novel like Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Significantly, it does all this in a conspicuously Australian tone that still resonates today.
The cockney Australian brogue and dialogue of Park’s characters, though balanced by a more traditional narration, is difficult to parse initially, but ultimately rewarding. There is pleasure to be derived from reading such colloquial language (‘bunging’; ‘mangy’; ‘sheila’). These terms may seem quaint now, but they were part of the language of working and middle class suburban life in the 1940s. Though the story unfolds in familiar places – Surry Hills, Potts Point, Collaroy – it’s interesting to read about these suburbs with knowledge of their contemporary contexts. Some descriptions remain relevant (‘Them flash night club hoppers from Rose Bay and Potts Point.’), but it’s almost impossible to imagine modern Surry Hills as the poverty-ridden, slum-filled setting of The Harp In The South. The gentrification which now characterises these areas is an example of the increased pressures of Sydney’s real estate market; comparing Park’s descriptions of these suburbs with their current incarnations provides a fascinating portrait of class divisions within a city constantly evolving.
The explorations of race in The Harp In The South are powerful and confronting. There are marked examples of racism towards migrants, a reflection of the political context surrounding the novel’s publication in 1948 (a strong general post-war anti-German and Eastern European sentiment is briefly touched on when ‘square-heads’ are blamed for an act of street violence). The central protagonists, the Darcy family, hail from Ireland and their experiences of ghettoisation and poverty reflect universal realities for migrants of the time; however there is a terse aggression that accompanies their interactions with neighbouring Chinese and Italian families. The Darcys and their fellow Anglo community are quick to condemn their Chinese neighbours as ‘Chinks’ or ‘Chows’, and the children of an Italian family are dismissed as ‘black-haired little Siciliano brats’ who at one point dance ‘gipsy-like around the bonfire, yelling shrilly’. Park emphasises the ‘otherness’ of migrant communities through repeated descriptions of their skin colour, and attacks perpetrated on recently arrived migrant communities have strong relevance to Australia’s current social and cultural climate.
There is also marked tension between the Darcy’s and Indigenous Australians, heightened by eldest daughter’s Rowena’s relationship with Charlie, a man of Indigenous heritage. His presence creates real fear and tension for Rowena’s mother, while for her father it comes down to a hierarchy of colour and pureness:
‘It’s because there’s nigger in him, Hughie. I’m scared of it, and no mistake.’
Hughie said defiantly: ‘It’s better than Chink. It’s real Australian and no matter how bad it is, there’s none better.’
The relationship between Rowena and Charlie conveys loaded questions of race and acceptance in Australia, and also highlights attitudes towards women and their place in the world. Earlier in the novel, Rowena falls pregnant out of wedlock and is abandoned by her father, two occurrences that bring enormous shame on her Catholic family. Rowena’s sense of shame is so great that her miscarriage is a relief – nature has solved the problem, without the sacrilegious trauma of an abortion. Rowena is isolated, believing she is a source of pain and derision for her parents, and is fearful that she risks being cast out of society. Though Rowena’s storyline is sobering and confronting, for modern readers it is likely to provoke frank discussion about sexuality, contraception and the interplay of religious faith and sexual activity.
Park’s characters make statements like, ‘You don’t know what it’s like being a woman. Everyone’s got it in for you, even God.’ The authenticity of her writing is breathtaking, and the power of her female characters in particular is unmatched in the fiction written by her male contemporaries. There are poignant moments of proto-feminism elicited in the process of Rowena’s redemption; when she marries, her younger sister Dolour asks, ‘How could Roie have discarded her own name for that of her husband, so easily and unresentfully?’ Rowena’s tragedy, reinvention and redemption speaks powerfully about sexuality, choices and consequences.
The Harp In The South demonstrates that the ability of Australian women writers to reach readers of any age, and to show male and female readers they, too, can tell Australian stories. Park’s novel uniquely renders the realities of women’s lives in a particular time and place, exposing readers to a lived experience beyond traditional, masculine stories.
The works of authors such as Park, (and Helen Garner, and Joan Lindsay, and other great female writers) were not taught when I was at school – and statistics on current gender ratios taught in secondary schools indicate that this is changing slowly, if at all. By omitting their works from school syllabi, not only are we disrespecting the work of these important writers, we are telling girls from a young age that their words, their stories and their ideas are not as important as those of the male writers who are put on pedestals by the education system. This must change, or we risk inadvertently silencing the voices of this generation, and of those who will follow.