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A Bonza Dux
18 / 10 / 2013
Monica Dux is our October Bonza Sheila! Monica is the author of two books, The Great Feminist Denial (with Zora Simic) and most recently Things I Didn’t Expect (when I was expecting), published by Melbourne University Press (Sheilas previously published an excerpt from Monica’s second book here). She’s a great Melbourne feminist author and commentator and we are very grateful she took some time out to be ‘Bonza’ – thank you, Monica! See below for details on how to purchase Monica’s book.
Your first book The Great Feminist Denial (with Zora Simic) looked at feminism and identity. What shaped your own identity as a feminist?
As a child I was always very conscious of how different my experience was from that of my two older brothers. They seemed to have more access to the world, they weren’t told to limit the way they used their bodies, and their toys were about action and adventure, not looking pretty and having tea parties. Boys were usually the heroes in the books I read, the movies I watched, and the stories I was told.
It often seemed that being a girl was all about being excluded, and having limitations imposed upon me. I found this very frustrating, and I think it was this sense of frustration that fueled my early feminist consciousness.
What was the catalyst for writing this book?
My co-author Zora Simic and I wanted to explore why feminism was being blamed for so many of the things that ailed women. We were part of a generation of women who came of age in the 1990s, and we knew that we’d enjoyed far more opportunities than the women who came before us – thanks, in large part, to the good work of feminists. Of course there were many problems that women still faced, yet so much of the public discussion about feminism at that time involved denouncing and criticizing it, often actually blaming feminism for the problems women were facing, rather than recognizing that feminism offered solutions. We decided to write a book about these attacks on feminism, in an effort to dispel the myths and refocus the debate onto feminist issues.
I started writing the book just after I’d given birth to my first child. I felt very vulnerable at that time, suddenly conscious of a whole new range of problems that women face when they become mothers, things that I hadn’t previously thought much about. Having a child reignited my desire to write about feminist issues, as becoming a mother challenged a lot of how I understood being a woman in the world.
In undertaking the research for this book you talked to many young women – many who didn’t identify as feminists. Since you wrote the book five years ago, do you think anything has changed – in terms of young women’s involvement in feminism?
There has been a real resurgence of interest in women’s issues since we wrote the Great Feminist Denial, and I think that many women are more comfortable calling themselves feminists now. But the important thing for me is not whether a woman calls herself a feminist (although that certainly helps), but making women aware of, and unashamed to speak out about the myriad of feminist issues around us.
I’ve been asked to participate in so many panels about feminism in the past year, it really does seem to be the topic of the moment. I also feel that the discussion about feminism has become, thankfully, less defensive. Instead of the nonsensical “Is feminism necessary?” media grab, there’s more of a focus on talking about concrete issues that affect women, and the different subtle ways that women are disadvantaged in society.
Although of course, the stupid questions (“Why don’t we change the label?!?” etc) still pop up, but hey, small steps!
When did you begin writing Things I didn’t Expect (When I was Expecting)?
I started writing Things I didn’t Expect when I was pregnant with my second child. I had a profound fear of doing a poo while in labour, so I wrote 5000 words on this topic. It was probably the best 5000 words I’d ever written, so I thought, why not write a whole book about the weird, unmentioned stuff that happens when we make babies.
Writers often talk about the ‘fraught’ nature of writing a 2nd book. Your 2nd book Things I didn’t Expect is about the ‘fraught’ (and often unspoken) realities of pregnancy and motherhood. In terms of the writing process, how did it differ from your first book?
Co-authoring a book is a very different process to writing one on your own. Collaboration can be really intellectually stimulating, but it also brings limitations, such as the struggle to get the “voices” in sync.
Writing Things I didn’t Expect as enormously cathartic. It felt so liberating, being able to purge all the things that had been gnawing away at me throughout my years of baby-making. (That all sounds rather gross, doesn’t it? I’m sure there’s a more literary way of phrasing that!)
I was full of fury and incredulity about the experience of pregnancy and motherhood, the amount of repression that goes with the experience, and the expectation that we are meant to be happy and glowing all the time. Care work has been traditionally undervalued in our society, and I think that the actual hard labour that’s involved in making babies, and caring for them, is frequently glossed over. So I wrote a book that looked at the history of baby-making, the forces that shaped the way we do pregnancy and childbirth today, as well as writing something funny and honest that other women could relate to.
What sort of feedback have you received from Things I didn’t Expect – I imagine some ‘relief’ has been expressed from other mothers or expecting mothers?
In the wake of my first book on feminism I’d gotten accustomed to criticism, and motherhood issues can also inflame very passionate reactions. So I expected to upset more people than I have, particularly as I didn’t pull any punches when it came to talking about controversial subjects such as breastfeeding.
But, much to my surprise, I’ve mostly had very warm responses. Which has been great. In particular, I’ve been touched by the many messages I received from women who experienced pregnancy loss (which I write about in the book), telling me that my story resonated with them.
I’ve also been told by a few people that reading my book made them laugh so much that they nearly wet themselves, which is the highest compliment you could pay me!
You’re one of the founders of the Stella prize (a two-year-old Literary Award for women). It was created partly in response to a long history of male writers winning and being short-listed for the Miles Franklin award (a little ironic, given Franklin was a woman – in fact, named Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, of which both prizes have been named after). Since the Stellas have been talked about and created, two women (Anna Funder and Michele de Kretser) have won the Miles Franklin. Do you think the existence of the Stellas has helped usher in some female Miles Franklin winners – or at least made the selection panel more conscious of female writers?
One of the most important first steps in changing a culture is raising awareness, and I think that the Stella has certainly done that, forcing a lot of people to be more mindful of the way they treat women writers.
Given the obvious gender imbalances in our literary world – the fact that books by women aren’t reviewed as often, that women aren’t doing as much of the reviewing, or winning as many prizes – the case for something like the Stella seems obvious. Either you conclude that women aren’t there because they’re simply not as good as the men (which is crap) or you conclude that there’s some kind of bias at work. And it’s conversations about the nature of that subtle, often unconscious bias that are the first step towards changing the situation.
What have you discovered, along the Stella prize journey?
I was greatly heartened by the response we had in setting the prize up, the amount of good will from across the publishing world, and the “let’s do something about this” spirit. I was also reminded of what grass roots organizing can achieve, and how open receptive people can be when you present them with a reasonable argument, pointing out a problem that they may have previously ignored.
I’ve asked a few bonza Sheilas about what they do to create a work life balance and it seems particularly relevant to you given your most recent book as well as your current situation as a freelance writer and commentator with two young children. How do you do it?
For me, the idea of a “work life” balance is hilarious. Basically, I work when I get the time, and the rest of my life is full up with looking after my kids and all that comes with that. Looking after small children is quite literally a 24 hour job, so it can feel quite relentless. You can’t just stop, or take a day off, when you have people so dependent on you for all their needs. I know many parents who joke about being hospitalized so they can get a decent night’s sleep!
“Balance” is achieved by having an hour of quiet in the evening. I don’t think I’d know what to do with myself if I actually had a spare day with no commitments.
If you could have a dinner party with any women from history, who would they be?
I subscribe to the idea that it’s best not to meet your heroes. But if I had to fill a table with people I admire, it’d choose a bunch of outspoken feminists. Jessie Street at the head of the table (an amazing Australian feminist from the early 20th century), Mary Wollstonecraft (poor Mary died of a post-childbirth infection), Germaine Greer; Adrienne Rich, Andrea Dworkin and Shulamith Firestone. Maybe I’d add Mary Magdalene, so I could ask her whether she pashed Jesus and Karen Carpenter (I’d want to hug her, which could get awkward). And I’d have Boadicea there to act as a bouncer, in case everyone stayed too late.
What next for Monica Dux?
I promised my family I wouldn’t start on another book this year, but I’ve got a few ideas brewing. In the meanwhile I’m hoping to get spotted by a talent scout who can launch my rock star career.
Monica Dux’ latest book ‘Things I didn’t Expect’ is available via Melbourne University Press. Well worth a read. Click HERE for more information.
Monica Dux is a writer and social commentator. She can be heard regularly on ABC radio and 3RRR, and has published widely, especially on women’s issues. In 2008 she co-authored The Great Feminist Denial. Monica studied for her undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, before moving to Melbourne where she worked as an academic research assistant. She later taught in the History Department at Melbourne University. Since then Monica has worked on The Monthly magazine, at Melbourne University Publishing and was the Founding Editor of the interdisciplinary journal Traffic. Monica was a founding board member of The Stella Prize. She occassionally tweets @monicadux and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website.