Inconvenient Truths

Wednesday, August 10, 2016
By: 
Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke
Photo by Nicholas Walton-Healey

Can you tell me how being a woman writer has influenced your work?

And then, I feel it: on the women’s writing panel at every Australian festival. The momentary confusion. The invisibility. And sometimes, the anger and the grief. Mostly, I qualify the question. I’m a black woman writer, making work in Australia, for a largely white audience. Overtly political work. Most of my characters are black, and disenfranchised men and women. I can’t really think about being a woman writer, in isolation from that.

What I mean is: I don’t really understand your question. What I mean is: do you even see me? What I mean is: how don’t you understand?

I try hard to answer with a semblance of coherence. I don’t want to let down the side. Or perhaps, more accurately, I’m not sure which side to let down, this time.  I don’t know why I must choose.

There are hundreds of diverse Australian women writers – queer women writers, women writers with disabilities, ATSI women writers, women of colour writers, and combinations of these, who negotiate this falsity the Australian writing community has somehow constructed around women’s writing.

We sidestep. We avoid. We smile. We bite our tongues, and try to stay whole while the various parts of us are boxed and dissected to suit the current dialogue. To suit the dominant dialogue. To suit the convenient dialogue. Women are more likely to write about relationships or about the home. Women are more likely to have their work sidelined as ‘domestic fiction’. Women’s writing is often quieter, and less showy. Women’s writing is often disparaged as ‘middlebrow’.

For a community of intellectuals, the simplicity of analysis is astounding. This can’t be where we’re at, in Australia, in 2016. This can’t be where I’m at: invisible, still

And yet, it’s mostly on these panels - these women’s writing panels, which purport to advance the work of all Australian women, that this strange and false uniformness is championed.

We have to choose. They make us choose.

Even now, as I write this, I’m letting down the team.

The myth of the male genius, we keep saying. The genius male artist is a myth.

What we mean, in this country, is the white, able-bodied, heterosexual male artist genius. Not my brothers of colour, by and large. I am writing while female, but I see also their battle. I am also writing while black. It’s different battle to that women writers face. But perhaps, in this country, even more of a fight. When Jamaican Booker Prize winning author Marlon James said that authors spend too much time pandering to the white woman, he was making an extraordinary point. There was such loaded clarity in this assessment.

The current dialogue around women’s writing in Australia is bias and stagnant. Few commentators seem game, engaged, or interested enough, to ask the uncomfortable questions.

Perhaps the answers would not serve the current women’s writing zeitgeist well.

I want to see an analysis of the fact that the majority of literary fiction writers in Australia are (white) women, and the majority of readers of literary fiction in Australia are (white) women.

This seems to suggest, to me, an extraordinary advantage.

I want to see sales figures examined the same way awards lists have been over the last few years. I want to see statistics which show the number of diverse women published in any given year, as a percentage of overall  Australian women published in that same year. I want to read an overview of work published by queer women writers in Australia, and of women writers with disabilities. I’d love to read a measured analysis of how that work has been received and reviewed.

The danger of a single story, we keeps saying. The danger of a single story.

Yet we keep being asked. How has being a woman writer has influenced your work?

How has being a woman writer has influenced your work? Ignoring the nuances.

I want to be asked: as a black women, do you think your work is perceived, and judged, differently to that of Ango-Australian women? I want to hear: as a woman writer with a disability, what do you think is the single biggest barrier to publication? I want to ask: how do you feel, as a queer woman writer, about the tag ‘domestic fiction’.

The danger of the single story. The single story we keep singing. The all too inconvenient truth.

Toni Morrison once said: Black women write differently from white women. This is the most marked difference of all those combinations of black and white, male and female. It is not so much that women write differently from men, but that black women write differently from white women.

But we are so afraid to complicate things. It’s all just too hard.

You’re letting down the team. You’re being divisive. Which team? Which divide?

Perhaps there’s a valid fear that highlighting this lack of diversity dilutes the primary cause of advancing women’s writing in general. White Feminism has operated on this basis, for time immemorial.

Perhaps, there are some inconvenient truths. Perhaps we are those inconvenient truths.

I don’t know the answer. I don’t have the answers.

What I do know is the momentary confusion. The invisibility. And sometimes, the anger and the grief. I’m a black, political woman writer, making work in Australia, for a very white audience. I can’t really think about being a woman writer, in isolation from that.

What I mean is: we don’t really understand your question. What I mean is: do you even see us? The women writers with disabilities, the ATSI women writers, the queer women writers, the women writers of colour.

We are right in front of you. Right in front of you.

We, the inconvenient truths.

About Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean descent. She is the author of two poetry collections. Her short fiction book ‘Foreign Soil’ won the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished manuscript, the 2015 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction, and the 2015 Indie Award for Debut Fiction, and saw her named a 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist. Maxine writes for ‘The Saturday Paper’ and is an acclaimed spoken word poet. Her memoir ‘The Hate Race’ and her kids picture book ‘The Patchwork Bike’ will be published in 2016.

Maxine will be speaking at the Diverse Women Writers event at Writers Victoria in September 2016.

This story was originally published in The Victorian Writer (June/July 2016).