Fight like a girl: Clementine Ford

As is often the case when I attend a literary event, I have not read the book of the person speaking (I have good intentions leading up to the event but life generally gets in the way). So I know Clementine Ford only by her reputation as an outspoken feminist and the target of online trolls (it seems, in the modern world, that the first of these things almost always leads to the second). Possibly that’s all you know about her too.

I warm to her immediately. She’s just so cheerful in the face of the abuse that gets flung at her, so “can you believe someone said that?!” about language that is filled with hate, ignorance (and yes, bad grammar). I admire her ability to take rancid, toxic lemons and make mocking, humorous lemonade from them.

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Clementine Ford with some of the tamer reader feedback she’s had, WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View at the Christchurch Arts Festival. Sunday 3 September.

Clementine Ford comes across like your best friend who is much smarter and more perceptive than you, and who is prone to dropping hilarious truth-bombs into the conversation while you’re chatting over wine. Except in the auditorium at Christchurch Art Gallery. With 150 other people there. And no wine.

This was obviously a flawed analogy but you get the drift.

She’s also very respectful (not of the trolls) of her audience, warning everyone that there will be some very strong, very unpleasant language shared in the presentation, most of it via screenshots of the “missives” she’s received from various men who feel the need to tell her that she’s wrong, stupid, evil, sexist, fat, sexually unattractive, a professional sex worker, as well as various terrible things that should happen or be done to her. The warning is needed. It’s cumulatively rather overwhelming and makes you feel sick for humanity, even as each one is dissected, commented on and ruthlessly pilloried.

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Slide from Clementine Ford’s talk at WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View at the Christchurch Arts Festival. Sunday 3 September 2017.

On the upside I’m surprised and delighted to hear Ford, an Australian, acknowledge not only Ngāi Tahu but also Ngāi Tūāhuriri (Christchurch sits in the traditional rohe/territory of this Ngāi Tahu hapu) and to use “Aotearoa” in preference to “New Zealand” because a friend of hers has challenged her to use indigenous names as a statement against colonialism. Also, her pronunciation was better than average.

But back to the trolls. Reading the messages Ford has received from various men makes you wish that they really were misshapen goblins living under bridges and not actual humans walking around with a cellphone in their pocket and the notion that they can say whatever they want to another person, if that person is a woman, with a complete lack of consequences. This is a situation that Ford has tried to turn around as she frequently adopts a “name and shame” approach. This may seem harsh but when you read the things that men have said to her it seems more like a public service than anything. The irony is, though Facebook is happy enough to be the medium of choice for threats of sexual violence and abuse by these trolls, the sharing of such by Ford often violates their “community standards” and has sometimes resulted in her account being blocked. But not those of the people doing the abusing.

Well, that seems a bit screwed up, Facebook. But Ford acknowledges that Facebook has its claws in us and a boycott simply wouldn’t work. Possibly advocating for a change to the laws around online abuse might help.

Ford has other helpful suggestions for dealing with sexism and sexist behaviour such as forcing someone to explain their sexist joke, with “I don’t get it. Why is that funny?” or pretending not to hear the sexist/offensive thing and forcing them to repeat it once or even twice. This subtly shifts the power dynamic in the interaction.

In the online world she is in favour of out and out mockery (with reference to Harry Potter and the boggart – your greatest fear that can only be vanquished by laughing at it). Ford advised deploying a series of gifs, the following of which is my favourite.

Inspirational little girl gif

Inspirational.

This was a really illuminating, funny, and challenging session but one which only a handful of men attended and relatively few young women, two groups I really feel would have benefitted a lot from the realness of Ford’s feminist experiences (and rude jokes about her genitalia).

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The crowd at Clementine Ford’s Fight like a girl session, WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View, Christchurch Arts Festival, Sunday 3 September 2017.

As it was it ran overtime and nobody wanted to stop, least of all Ford herself. But the talk was being recorded so I’d recommend giving it a listen when it becomes available or –

Making literary fiction exciting: Michel Faber – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Michel Faber
Michel Faber (Image supplied)

Michel Faber’s novels defy easy categorisation. He has written in genres as varied as historical fiction (his novel The crimson petal and the white, is set in Victorian London), horror, and science fiction.

Born in the Netherlands, Faber’s family moved to Australia when he was 7 years old, and he describes himself as something of an outsider, an alien, an outlier. He now lives in Scotland, which for a migraine sufferer, has a much more overcast and hospitable environment.

When he sat down to talk at the Auckland Writers Festival with Kiwi writer Paula Morris about his work (and life), I was woefully unprepared for how raw and heartbreaking the conversation would become.

Cover of The book of strange new thingsThis unexpected poignancy was largely due to his discussion of the loss of his wife Eva, who died in 2014 from cancer. Her diagnosis was made while he was writing his latest (and what he claims will be his last) novel, The book of strange new things, and he admitted that her illness had an affect on how the book developed. The novel has a dystopian, futuristic setting, with a pastor sent to a far-off planet to minister to the indigenous population there. He is separated from his wife and themes of love and loss permeate the tale.

Although the setting is sci-fi one, this Faber says, is just “the furniture”, and to some degree is there for the entertainment aspect. At its heart the story is about human beings, faith and love. Though he lost his faith himself when he was 11, he still feels that religion has a purpose for being and he’s interested in what it gives to people.

Religion is intrinsically ridiculous but there is a reason that people have needed it.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-15-IMG_1939

Regarding the adaptations of his books for the screen, he was very happy with The Crimson Petal and the White,  and on such good terms with the star Romola Garai that he stayed at her house at one point when they needed to be in London for treatment for Eva. He’s even happier with the film version of Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson.

His feeling regarding literary fiction is that it should be interesting and entertaining as well and that’s what he tries to achieve with this books. There’s a risk, he says, that literary authors will write for the entertainment of other literary authors thus forcing ordinary readers towards entertaining but not very good fiction, that doesn’t give them anything of depth.

He doesn’t want people to regret, after several hundred pages, reading his books – “how pointless is that?”

There is actually nothing worse than a really dull work of literary fiction.

Shortly after the session started, a member of staff appeared carrying a pair of red women’s ankle boots. They were placed next to Faber’s chair, he uttered a quick thank you and carried on with what he was saying. Later on as Paula Morris asked him about what Faber would be working on in the future, since no more novels were in the pipeline, he talked about the projects that involved his wife and explained the mystery of the red boots.

His next projects will be working on Eva’s unfinished short stories as well as writing a biography of her life, not for publication, but for the family. As for the boots, he was taking them to parts of the world to which she had never gone and taking pictures of them in contexts in which he thought she’d be happy…

Then he read several poems from a new book called “Undying” (due out in July) which deals with Eva’s illness, her death, and the grieving process. And this was when everyone started crying. In particular, the poem “You were ugly” which describes the physical changes to Eva’s appearance in illness is brutally honest and heartbreaking with its revelation that after death those changes are forgotten, that her beauty returns. Even Paula Morris was seen to be dabbing her eyes after that one.

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Accessing the creative mind – How fiction writers write

Wow! How can I begin to describe Sue Woolfe‘s workshop Discovering the Power of One’s Own Voice? Insightful? Inspiring? Life changing? Let’s say, all of those things.

Sue Woolfe is an award winning Australian author who teaches creative writing at the University of Sydney. Festival organiser and director of the Hagley Writers’ Institute, Morrin Rout, introduced the session by telling the  eagerly awaiting participants how lucky we were to be able to attend one of Sue Woolfe’s workshops. I heartily agree with her.

Sue Woolfe started the workshop by quoting publishing phenomenon, Stephen King, who said ‘Plot is the last resort of the good writer and the dullard’s first choice.’  This statement turns on its head any traditional notion of story writing which tells you take a blank page, write Chapter One at the top of it, start at the beginning and keep on going until the story is finished. Most budding authors facing this prospect don’t know where to start, feel they’re stupid and give up.

Early in her career, Sue Woolfe realised this approach didn’t work for her. She wrote her first novel,  Painted Woman, in what she describes as a haphazard fashion. She wrote fragments here, bits there and then put it all together. She spoke to fellow author, Kate Grenville, about this and discovered she did a similar thing. They decided to investigate further and interviewed other authors. In 1993, they published Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written. The results were conclusive – all these authors wrote haphazardly. It appears this is the way to write fiction.

The first thing writers need to do is still the mind. The imagination is a huge resource we seldom access. We live in our logical brain, ordering, sorting, reasoning, planning. To access our imagination we need to still the mind. There is neurological evidence to support this. In 1975, Colin Martindale investigated the thought processes of people he called Creatives and Non-Creatives. He asked them to think of  ‘table’. The Creatives all started with a stage of low brain activity before they burst into action. The Non-Creatives kept brain activity at a steady rate. The Creatives used more mental range. Their associations were more varied and unexpected.

In the workshop, Sue Woolfe encouraged us to still our minds and start blurting – let it all out. She set exercises which involved observing a real person in profile and imagining what was on the other side of her face. She got the person to leave the room. Where has she gone? Who is she meeting? Write freely and don’t edit anything until you’ve discovered your story. And then, edit only for suspense. ‘Plot goes on only at the end like a beautiful mantle,’ she says. ‘And that is why it is the last resort of good writers.’

If you’d like to read more about neuroscience and writing, get your hands on a copy of The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady. If you’d like to see how Sue Woolfe’s theory translates into practice, her new novel The Oldest Song in the World is a treat for lovers of literary fiction. Her website is informative and, if you ever get the chance to attend one of her workshops, go for it!

Valley of Grace by Marion Halligan

Last year at the Christchurch Writers festival I went to hear Marion Halligan read from one of her books. She is obviously very popular in her homeland Australia, but she was not an author I knew anything about, and unfortunately I found the excerpt she read to be a bit dull.

I was therefore quite surprised when I was intrigued enough by a review of her latest book, Valley of Grace to reserve it. I then spent a couple of days sick in bed, and found myself (and my dripping nose) transported to Paris, the setting for this book, and obviously somewhere that Halligan is very familiar with.

Central to the story is Fanny, who seems to embody all that is French; elegant, understated and chic. She meets and marries Gerard, a talented restorer of old Parisian buildings. Fanny works in an antiquarian book shop, so there is a ample opportunity via their two professions for Halligan to recount fascinating historical titbits about the history of the city, as well as the story of these two people and their desire to have a child.

For smallish book there are a number of side stories, including memories of the French resistance, a lecherous lecturer and his long suffering wife, death and the process of dying (with a wonderful visit to Lourdes), a heartbreaking story of a hidden and abandoned child, friendships, sexuality and the agonies and pleasures of raising children. There are detailed and luscious descriptions of houses and interiors, gardens full of fresh produce and dainty flowers, descriptions of cakes that sent me diving to the pantry, and a feeling that I wanted to pack my phrase book and head off to Paris tomorrow.

I’m wondering now if I judged Marion Halligan too harshly, perhaps she was just having a bit of a bad day at the Readers and writers festival and chose the wrong passage to read, (or perhaps heaven forbid, it was me, and I had festival fatigue), but whatever the reason I wish she had read a piece from this novel, because I know that I would have been first on the reserve list if she had.