The Saturday Paper


Pi­cador, 368pp, $32.99

- Linda Jaivin Yugoslavia · Mary I of Scotland · Harvey Weinstein · University of Melbourne · Melbourne · Helen Garner · Manhattan · Australia · City of Yarra · David Malouf · Tarana Burke · Australian Defence Force · Sylvie · Déjà Vu · La Roux

Natalie Kon-yu, Christie Nie­man, Mag­gie

Scott and Miriam Sved (eds) #Me­Too.

Mary Nor­ris’s Greek to Me. Nam Le’s On David Malouf.

When Kaya Wil­son, a writer and sci­en­tist, tran­si­tioned to male, he sud­denly re­alised he could own the streets. In his con­tri­bu­tion to this pi­o­neer­ing an­thol­ogy, he writes about pass­ing a group of drunken men on a dark street, soon after tran­si­tion­ing. He felt his body tense “as his­tory had taught me”. What hap­pened next en­raged him: “they wished me a good night in a pal-to-pal kind of way”. For the first time, he felt “greeted” rather than “hunted”. His fury was that it “had been so sim­ple”.

The Me Too move­ment was ini­ti­ated in 2006 by Tarana Burke, an African-Amer­i­can ac­tivist, and en­tered the global con­scious­ness 11 years later when Har­vey We­in­stein’s al­leged sex­ual mis­con­duct in Hol­ly­wood hit the head­lines. That it took largely white celebri­ties to force peo­ple’s at­ten­tion onto an is­sue first raised by a black woman is not lost on the ed­i­tors of this an­thol­ogy. Natalie Kon-yu, Christie Nie­man, Mag­gie Scott and Miriam Sved have en­sured the 35 voices fea­tured here in­clude Indige­nous and mi­grant women, as well as those whose dis­ad­van­tage or sex­u­al­ity has made them ex­cep­tion­ally vul­ner­a­ble to the abuse, ha­rass­ment and vi­o­lence that the move­ment is de­signed to call out.

There are re­ports from the front­lines of nurs­ing, wait­ress­ing, sports and the le­gal pro­fes­sion; a dis­cus­sion of on­line ha­rass­ment by Troll Hunt­ing au­thor Ginger Gor­man; and a look at the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by ru­ral vic­tims of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. Given the sex-abuse scan­dals that have plagued the Aus­tralian mil­i­tary for years, it’s a pity the an­thol­ogy has noth­ing on this topic. An­other re­gret­table omis­sion is any­thing ad­dress­ing the ques­tion of fe­male preda­tors: the abuse of power is still toxic even when it’s a woman do­ing it.

The es­says vary in style from the an­a­lyt­i­cal to the per­sonal, with much cross­over. Among the most heart-stop­ping of the per­sonal es­says is that of Sylvie Le­ber, who was bru­tally raped, stran­gled and left for dead as a young woman in the ’70s. In “How Come You’re So Sane?”, she re­counts the se­vere im­pact the ex­pe­ri­ence had on her mental health and how she was in­spired to set up Victoria’s first rape cri­sis cen­tre.

There is also some poetry, much of which is strong, and a hand­ful of short sto­ries. The weak­est of the lat­ter seem con­cocted purely to fuel out­rage, cast­ing lit­tle light on the com­plex­i­ties of hu­man na­ture and behaviour. Rashmi Pa­tel’s “Who’s Afraid of Hindi?” is a shin­ing ex­cep­tion. Three im­mi­grant women, work­mates and friends, learn that a su­per­vi­sor has co­erced a ju­nior col­league into an abu­sive sex­ual re­la­tion­ship. They urge her to re­port it. But the victim wor­ries about the con­se­quences re­port­ing could have for her visa and re­grets con­fid­ing in her col­leagues. “Can ‘help­ing’ be an act of ag­gres­sion?” the nar­ra­tor pon­ders, fur­ther con­founded by the revelation of the abuser’s iden­tity.

Shakira Hus­sein, who is al­ways worth read­ing, ad­dresses re­lated mat­ters in her es­say “#Me­Too and the Un­even Dis­tri­bu­tion of Trauma”. In the early days of the move­ment, she notes, few paid at­ten­tion to how re­trau­ma­tis­ing it could be to speak up. She also points to the dilem­mas faced by women from marginalis­ed back­grounds who fear that call­ing out ha­rass­ment will re­flect badly on their al­ready-be­lea­guered com­mu­ni­ties. Thus, when #Me­Too went vi­ral, Hus­sein found her­self feel­ing “iso­lated rather than con­nected, help­less rather than em­pow­ered”.

An­other thought­ful con­tri­bu­tion comes from Kath Kenny, whose “#Me­Too and Déjà Vu” opens the an­thol­ogy. Kenny was a young fem­i­nist and ed­i­tor of the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne student news­pa­per in 1992 when stu­dents there ac­cused their col­lege mas­ter of in­ap­pro­pri­ate behaviour, events that

He­len Garner wrote about in The First Stone.

Kenny re­con­sid­ers those events in light of #Me­Too and her own evolv­ing un­der­stand­ing of the un­der­ly­ing issues, in­clud­ing Garner’s con­tro­ver­sial stance. She now pon­ders whether the slo­gan “no means no”, al­beit nec­es­sary and cor­rect, also ham­strings fem­i­nists’ dis­cus­sions about “the com­plex­ity of de­sire and power”. Greta Parry, mean­while, re­grets the “re­duc­tive ap­proach” of #Me­Too’s so­cial-me­dia-friendly bi­na­ries, where nu­ance is “side­lined in the name of im­pact”. She ques­tions the move­ment’s treat­ment of fe­male part­ners of the ac­cused: “how much must they lose, as a re­sult of sins that are not theirs and a move­ment that should be?”

Other stand­outs in­clude Mag­gie Scott’s fam­ily memoir, in which her grand­mother’s “dis­tinc­tive, re­ac­tive weird­ness about any­thing to do with sex” turns out to have a sin­is­ter back­story, and Natalie Kon-yu’s re­flec­tions on the bur­dens of beauty. Eleanor Jack­son gives us one of the book’s most mem­o­rable pas­sages when she describes con­fronting a man who as­saulted her. “You know that was rape, don’t you?” she says to him. “He barely looks at me. ‘Please. I got an H1 for Crim­i­nal Law. You think I don’t know what rape is?’” Fig­ur­ing that he’d also know what defama­tion is, she ends the story there.

The ed­i­tors call the book a kind of

“map of the world with the grid laid down

… by women”. If so, it re­sem­bles that old

New Yorker cover de­pict­ing the en­tire world out­side Man­hat­tan squeezed into a thin band be­tween the Hud­son and the hori­zon. Here it’s Mel­bourne, with the rest of Aus­tralia just vis­i­ble across the Yarra.

What’s more, it’s a Mel­bourne in which a con­trib­u­tor can be righ­teously “as­tounded” that a Cau­casian fe­male writer didn’t know the term “in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity”. The col­lec­tion reaches peak wo­ke­ness with Sarah Firth’s car­toon “Start Where You Are”, in which a group of friends in­habit a cafe and dis­cuss #Me­Too. Fol­low­ing some ac­ci­den­tal fric­tion, they dis­cover to their re­lief that they all agree. Here’s an­other term: “bub­ble”. The move­ment should not push away those who aren’t across the jar­gon. It needs all the al­lies it can get and should work to broaden the con­ver­sa­tion.

This ad­mirable an­thol­ogy has much to com­mend it, even if one oc­ca­sion­ally wishes it were even better. The mes­sage of #Me­Too, women’s right­ful sovereignt­y over their bod­ies, is ur­gent and vi­tal. In Hus­sein’s words, “The mon­sters are not van­quished and the strug­gle is not over.”

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