Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby…

“Nothing wears me out so, body and soul, as anger, fruitless anger…” – Josephine Butler, September 1869

Nothing gets people crankier than sex.  They’re either not getting enough, or not getting it good enough, or telling others who they can and can’t have sex with.  People pretend sex is a personal matter; however those most coy about it seem to be the most interested in the sex lives of others.  Our holy men and our politicians have a long, well-deserved reputation for being nosey bastards when it comes to sex – entire legislative acts have been devoted to governing the sex lives of others out of the bizarre belief that people women will drag entire nations into moral disrepute and economic failure should they have sex without permission and/or with someone other than a socially sanctioned partner.  Honest discourse about sex has historically been curtailed by the protestations of upper middle class white men whose entire understanding of the female sex organs fell into two categories: our clitorises either made us whores or made us hysterical.  Both were moral and medical failures we could neither challenge nor confront without being told our very indignation was supporting evidence of us either being  whores or hysterical.  What’s a girl to do?
 
There was a Sister in the 19th century who refused to look at women’s bodies as crime scenes on legs, brazenly walking the streets waiting to lure innocent men into disease ridden traps.  Men had long been thought to be the innocent victims of prostitution, the wounded prey of their own uncontrollable desire coupled with a surplus of tarts on the loose.  My Sister shined there, getting behind the Moral Reform Union in 1884 which petitioned Parliament to criminalize the Johns as mercilessly as they did the tarts.  But it was her work against the Contagious Diseases Acts (passed in 1864, 1866 and 1869) that leads me to champion her as the Queen of Crank.   I speak of Josephine Butler, and she had sex on her mind.
The Contagious Diseases Acts were virulently anti-female and although there were many mumbles, even some of the most courageous feminists of the time were shy of attaching their names to this cause.  Doing so would not only destroy their own reputations, but that of their husbands also.  But Josephine got cranky and began demanding that her highfalutin feminine sisters wake the fuck up and begin to recognize that all women were victimized and abused by what only a few had to suffer.  (No vapours please).
 
So what were the Contagious Diseases Acts?  Here’s the rub: they began as a way of stamping out the rampant spread of STI’s in Army and Navy bases in Great Britain.  (That’s our fault, right?)  The law stated that any woman even suspected of being a prostitute in areas where the CDA was in force (mostly ports and towns near army bases) could be forcibly removed from the street (“But I was just going to buy apples!”) and taken to the nearest police station for a non-consensual and invasive intimate medical examination.  If she had an STI she was immediately committed to a “Lock Hospital” (name says it all) until such a time as she was deemed “clean”.  If she was not suffering an STI, she was given a shilling and sent on her way (“You keep being a good girl now!”).  Of course her hymen had been broken by the examination, she was bleeding and no longer thinking about apples, but at least the armed forces were safe.
 
It was working class women who bore the brunt of this, and my Cranky Sister Josephine exposed herself to unimaginable abuse as an upper class woman championing the rights of her lower class Sisters.  Josephine Butler argued, quite rightly, that if there were any unclean women on the streets they didn’t get that way all on their lonesome.  There was a dick involved.  So either arrest and punish both guilty parties or…neither.  In 1886 and CDA was finally repealed.  But it had been a 20 year battle for Josephine Butler.  She formed the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1869 and her anger kept her going until she saw success.  Not pity.  Not moral indignation.  Josephine was the ultimate Cranky Sister.
 
Josephine Butler died on December 30th 1906.  She was 78.  She outlived a husband she adored and predeceased sons who respected her.  Josephine formed many of the strategies still now used in feminist discourse and called a spade a spade at a time when euphemism threatened to cleverly cloak some of the darkest crimes against women in history.  Her triumph over the CDA has been overlooked, as has her anger.
 
And so I celebrate my Cranky Sister – Josephine Elizabeth Butler (nee Grey) – born 13th April 1828, died 30th December 1906.
 
If I were half the woman…
 
 

This post is written as part of the Women’s History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour. If  you would like to read more about cranky ladies from the past, you might like to support our Pozible campaign, crowd-funding an anthology of short stories about Cranky Ladies of History from all over the world.

The View Through Concrete…

I think in terms of the day’s resolutions, not the years’.  – Henry Moore  (1898 – 1986)

Having a predisposition toward over-analysis and self-flagellating internal monologues I generally avoid the siren call of reflecting upon the year that has been.  Having a personality that is hard-wired for more ups and downs than a hooker at a blowjob convention, I tend to like to leave the past in the past and run like buggary from it.   However I am going to break all my own rules (because I don’t like rules, even my own) and have a wee look back because it’s been a good year.
October 2012 saw the publication of my first novel Creepy & Maud (Fremantle Press 2012), whilst 2013 saw it Shortlisted in the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards, Older Reader’s Category.   Well, that’s good news!  No problem having a look back at that.  It received (mostly) good reviews and came out in audio format thanks to the Association for the Blind.  It was also listed in Australian Book Review “Books of the Year”.  A lot of people were involved in bringing Creepy & Maud into being, and they took more risks than I did (I just had to write it).  Extraordinarily, they’re all still talking to me, too!
I got to talk to lots of nice people.  From my very first “Author Talk” at Christchurch Grammar School (mouth so dry tongue kept sticking to roof of mouth) all the way through to breaking into ‘The Lady is a Tramp’ in a session at the Kimberley Writers Festival, I’ve met a slew of gorgeous people and made some really good new friends.  That’s worth dragging this year into the next.
And income.  Coming from a place of excitement and gratitude for the opportunity alone, my response to my first royalty cheque was an email to my publicist which read: “I forgot this shit pays!”  And pay it did.  2013 was the first year ever I was able to nonchalantly take one of my babies to the vet without checking my bank balance first.  And for those of you who consider it gauche for me to talk about money – I am gauche.
I also received an unparalleled amount of support at my day job, a job I will never leave because I love the construction industry.  I just love it.  It fulfills me.  (She’s probably reading this).  I have taken a lot of time off this year for appearances and festivals.  This would have been impossible without my employer, Jacqui Croon-Hargrave, being as excited as I was.  You don’t take that for granted.
So thank you, all of you, who made 2013 nice to look back on.  You know who you are.  Now give me a moment to recover my cynical, moody center before the schmaltz police turn up.  And watch this space for some BIG news January 2014.
Post Script: A special shout out to my best friend, Joscelyn Evans, who once booked a hotel room for the weekend just to read one of my manuscripts.  She who has believed in me since the dawn of time must be acknowledged.
 
 
 

Kimberley Writers Festival 2013

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.” 

– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

We were sitting in a copse by the edge of the river, listening to authors reading from their works, when thin dust coloured leaves began pinwheeling toward the earth with the most extraordinary grace.  They seemed circularly suspended, independent of gravity, travelling in wide loop-de-loops, their mother tree whispering over them.  I was so astonished by the little leaves that I held my hand out hoping one would eventually come to rest in it.  Ali Cobby Eckermann leaned a little closer to me and said: “Spirits”.

I have spent the last four days in the Kimberley, having been invited to present at the Kimberley Writers Festival.  I’d only been there a couple of hours before I understood why this is the Festival everybody wants to be invited to.  And invited back to.

It’s the joy.  There are few, if any, formalities here – just a love of stories and the people who tell them.  And this is a place full of stories.  You can feel it.  The air tastes different and the rocks speak.  The sun simmers your bone marrow and the river listens.  I pressed my palms against the hot skin of a paperbark on Sunday and hoped for just a little transference, hoped that when I had to leave some remnant of the place would continue to thrum in me.

The community embraced us with an affection and enthusiasm that is representative of the Festival itself.  The school day presented the opportunity to speak with some remarkable young adults as well as coordinate a writing workshop for Year Sevens.  On the public discussion panels I was fortunate enough to share a couch with Deb Fitzpatrick, Robert Schofield and Marie Munkara – and when I wasn’t on the couch I was in the audience listening to Julienne Van Loon, Terry Denton, Ron Elliott, Craig Smith, Susan Duncan and Ali Cobby Eckermann.

Jo Roach and her inimitable, tireless team managed to keep us all where we were supposed to be when we were supposed to be there (or as she calls it “herding cats”), and provided me with a real experience of this community and the hot, living earth that cradles it.  I haven’t just felt well looked after, I’ve felt real affection in the enthusiasm I’ve experienced here, and I reciprocate wholeheartedly.

The food, the wine, the people, the stories, the spirits.  It all comes back to the stories and the spirits for me.  I had that moment encapsulated by those little leaves.  One of them skidded past my index finger but refused to be caught.  In that moment, when the spirits were mooching about in the shadow of those blood-rust cliffs, and people with stories to tell were telling their stories, I realized just how insignificant we are.  That’s comforting.

Squeezing The Cat, Stroking The Guinea Pig…

“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” – Somerset Maugham
I have been shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year – Older Reader’s Category.  (Pause for that to sink in for me yet again).  I know I should probably be taking this maturely in my stride, writing sage words about the honour and my gratitude (both of which I obviously feel), but I’m too busy squeezing the cat and jumping up and down in secret.
Here’s the thing: I used to be a bookseller.  As a bookseller we waited for the CBCA shortlist announcements in the same way we waited for our birthdays when we were six.  How many sleeps?  Will I get to see my favourites?  This was the big thing.  The Day of the Year.  Mecca.  When I was six, my mum and dad bought me a baby doll and a pram.  The pram had big orange flowers all over it with white tassels dangling from the hood, as soft as my guinea pig.  I got up so early for that present, it was still dark outside.  When I saw my name on the CBCA shortlist I could feel those downy tassels in my hand again.  (I broke the arm off my baby doll because I got frustrated trying to dress her.)
I never imagined I’d be on the shortlist.  I’m gob smacked by the company I’m in.  I only ever wanted to write honestly, in a way that cuts through the bullshit and recognises that young people have real lives that can be fraught and dangerous and poignant and relatable.  And I wanted to write about them without judging them or their judgments about the world they’re navigating.  Don’t you remember what it was like to be teenager? Awful.  Wonderful. 
Katharine England of the Adelaide Advertiser has written that Creepy & Maud “is perhaps the bravest shortlist choice for some years.”  I love this assessment.  I love it because this boy, Creepy, and this girl, Maud, do find some bravery in each other and, as a result, within themselves.  I realize that a “brave” choice for the CBCA may allude to this novel’s ability to push certain buttons and boundaries, however I embrace the term “brave” as representative of even one young adult who reads this book and realizes they are right to feel out of whack and misunderstood, and that the pain of that marginalization will make them stronger before it dissipates.
The CBCA Shortlist – Older Readers Catagory

Neil Grant – The Ink Bridge
Margo Lanagan – Sea Hearts
Doug MacLeod – The Shiny Guys
Dianne Touchell – Creepy & Maud
Vikki Wakefield – Friday Brown
Suzy Zail – The Wrong Boy

“A book has got smell” – Ray Bradbury

Sometimes when I’m walking past one of my book cases, or a table that is laden with books, I’ll just do a little rearranging.  I’ll move them about, or build asymmetrical stacks, or open one and bury my face in it like it’s a fat baby, and sometimes even be happily surprised by something I had forgotten I owned.  I can’t walk past the shelves in the hall without touching a spine. 
 
Sometimes I’ll open a book to a random page and just read that page. A book I remember having beautiful words in exactly the right place will draw me to just dip in.  And I might write a note in a margin and leave the book face down, covers splayed, spine cracking, and advice about good book care will pinch me until I realize I have a secret relationship with this book and it understands.
 
Sometimes I’ll think about the house moves I’ve done – how I had to pick and choose what to slow boat back to Australia – and I’ll grieve the books left behind.  All those Shirley Hughes MacGyvered together with lacky bands and yellowing tape; the Toni Morrison, John le Carre, V.S. Naipaul, all left behind because they can be replaced, can’t they?  Well they can be replaced, but not those copies, which still have crumbs in them because I like to eat crackers in bed while I read.
 
I have a Tohby Riddle picture book I read aloud to myself when I’m feeling sad.
 
Where does this relationship with books come from?
 
My sister recently suggested I take up meditation to cope with some physical pain.  I told her I couldn’t quiet my mind.  Then I picked up The Transit of Venus (Shirley Hazzard) for the umpteenth time, and fell quiet.  Or distracted.  Or involved.  Or removed.  All those things books do.
 
Best not to analyze it. 
 
I love books.

“Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.” – D.H Lawrence.

I have been honoured to be in the presence of some hot speak during the Perth International Writer’s Festival 2013.
“Being Bold” with  Julia Lawrinsonand Vikki Wakefield, chaired by Bonnie Davies.  What was interesting was that each of us took to the topic as if it were anathema.  Each of us having been labeled “bold” in the past (with varying consequences) we argued that the “bold” tag can almost be a hobble in our market.  Where we write for our audience (or in my case with no audience in mind) we find ourselves nose to nose with the gatekeepers of young adult literature time and time again.  With adults deciding what is appropriate and what is not, what opportunities for authentic, contentious discussion are being lost?  Is this fair?  We didn’t answer that question as well we shouldn’t.  Our job is not to anticipate the response to our writing lest that inhibit the honesty from which we draw our motivation.  To be on a panel with Julia Lawrinson whom I have read and respected for so many years was wonderful, even though now I have a permanent mental picture of her with her legs out the sunroof of a Yaris.  And Vikki Wakefield and I discovered quite early on that we are actually twins separated at birth. ‘Nuff said.  (Check in with Vikki if you need validation of this).

“At The Edge of Darkness” with Caroline Overington and Emma Chapman, chaired by Jane Cornes.  Having read the latest from these extraordinary women (Sisters of Mercy and How To Be A Good Wife, respectively) I was very excited to meet them.  Both of these women have credentials and prizes the listing of which throw me into an alcohol/codeine induced depression.  Just as well I was wearing my “Artist” lanyard, otherwise someone would have shoe-horned me out of my seat on the panel gently explaining “The audience doesn’t sit there, dear.”

What a ride!  With the faultless, and gentle, direction of our chair (Jane Cornes) we covered realism in literature, the process by which our experience with the real morphs into fiction, our favourite characters in our own books, where we draw from to create our worlds, the editorial process, and the future of publishing (p-book, e-book, online). 

It was so good to be given the opportunity to have these public conversations with such extraordinarily talented writers, to interact with other readers, and to sit in the signing chair earlier occupied by Andy Griffiths (I kept it warm for you Andy…).