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A Bonza Amy Gray
30 / 10 / 2014
Amy Gray is a feminist writer who has been contributing to Sheilas (and many other publications) as a freelance writer. Recently she took over the ‘Ten Things’ column at The Vine (click here for the archive), which can provide essential reading for politics and news nerds on the early morning commute! In this Bonza Sheila interview, she responds to Editor Sarah Capper – many thanks, Amy Gray.
SARAH CAPPER [SC]: Amy Gray, thank you for being October’s Bonza Sheila – it’s become quite an esteemed feminist nod to a ‘damn good woman’ and you are a deserving addition to our growing list of Bonza Sheilas. I often begin by asking people a little bit about their childhood, and how this shaped their feminism. Tell us a little bit about (a) the environment in which you grew up, and (b) what sort of influence this had on developing your opinions and politics.
AMY GRAY [AG]: I’m your stereotypical suburban kid. Came from honest country and inner-city working class stock who bought into the Australian dream and worked like hell to give us a good education. The eventual Catholic education was an odd blessing because it brought me into contact with what I view as the working class Irish-Catholic social justice model and it also taught me there were power structures that exist to control people and they’re fun to fight against.
SC: Can you recall an event or catalyst in identifying as a feminist?
AG: It took me ages to understand this. I still clearly recall as a barely co-ordinated child blow-flying about my dad and his friends one weekend as they sat on the front verandah laughing with each other and watching the street. This was rare for him but it had been a long day of all of them working in the yard together. As they all laughed and talked, a neighbour walked by the house. Seeing her was always amazing – I thought she was the ultimate woman, was always so kind to the roving throng of snot-nosed kids that seemed to just bounce from the gutters in the early 80s with no suggestion of parental attention. Plus she had an amazing afghan hound – obviously this was the 80s and I think they shared the same hairstyle. As soon as this neighbour walked by the house, I noticed the men suddenly hushed and just watched her walk. And even though I was young and could barely form a thought for myself, to me it was clearly evident the neighbour was incredibly uncomfortable with the silent, almost predatory, attention. The energy just changed and in the space of two metres male attention had made her switch from a confident bounce to a harried, defensive skitter. Had I been allowed to swear, I would have summed it up as “shit be whack”. The whole experience clearly explained to me the level of power men have – even without words, simply by existing – and how uncomfortable, even afraid, it made women. Didn’t take me long to work out why.
But the full card-carrying femmo membership happened when I became a mother. Despite clocking sexually harassing workmates, clashing with people over gender stereotypes and every thing else – I didn’t realise I was feminist until I became a mother. I chafed at the expectations placed on me and the expectations my daughter would see. And that’s when I realised my life was going to be quietly scrutinised by a small person – just as I had quietly scrutinised my father and his friends that day – and that I had better make sure my life was up to scratch. That’s how it began. The act of becoming a feminist was switching from a solo struggle to a collective.
SC: You’re a freelance writer and have contributed to a raft of publications. Firstly, what’s your relationship with writing – as in how did you find yourself interested in the art of using words to tell stories / communicate?
AG: I can’t stop writing. I will never stop writing. Even on days when I tell myself I won’t write – I will sit there, obsessing over ideas until I get cranky and steal away to the computer or – if really thwarted – my phone to tap into notepad. It’s always been that way. As a child I was an obsessive journal-er and that’s continued. It’s just that I ended up realising that people might be interested in my thoughts and, in a sign that there’s a market for absolutely anything, would pay for them. But the amazing thing no one ever really says about writing is that the whole “oh we’re isolated hermits” is a total con. Writers, especially op-ed writers, are scuttling bugs moving from one topic to the next, one conversation to the next. It’s highly social and requires a lot of extroverted curiosity. But it’s compulsive because it’s a rare opportunity to insert your writing into conversations, see how people respond (not always positively and I’m now almost forensically aware how wildly some disagree) and realise that writing is a very dynamic energy that flows through the conversation of the day. While that sounds almost grand, it’s equally important to realise your work just as quickly flows out of the conversation.
SC: For me, writing really was an extension of teenage angst and escapism into this wonderful notion of independent thought – I’ve often seen writing as a form of therapy! How did writing appeal to you?
AG: I can’t explain why writing appeals. I’m obsessed with words. I’m obsessed with ideas. I’m obsessed with not doing any other job than this. It’s the perfect balance.
SC: At what point did you make the decision to freelance – I ask because I think it takes a brave soul to freelance, and a particularly brave woman.
AG: The decision to freelance as a writer came as a personal challenge, something I actively do now I’m a parent because I refuse to shy away from risks. I want my daughter to see me tackle things and fail or succeed. I’ve always wanted to write but I was really afraid to show my work and, as I overcame that fear, I decided I wanted to concentrate on it fully and see how far I could take it. As it was, I was so consumed with writing and see what people were saying I was never properly doing my day job anyway.
SC: What are your best and worst experiences with freelancing?
AG: When things bomb or go really well, I become quiet and terrified. I realise I should be excited when things go well but I find it overwhelming and just hide the phone and computer. If a piece goes really well, as in viral, I actually find it really hard to write the next article, which is particularly hard given I am a freelancer. Also, you know, the poverty. The poverty really goddamned sucks. The all time best experience with freelancing aren’t those high points or what others would consider to be awesome – the best experience with freelancing has been this homecoming to an amazing community of writers and feminists. This has been the tribe I’ve been searching for all my life. That’s the bliss of this.
SC: You often write and get asked to comment about women’s and children’s experiences – providing analysis and opinion on policy issues and/or current events. I know having worked in the women’s sector for over a decade, and particularly in the area of addressing issues like violence against women, that in terms of maintaining work drive, while it can be incredibly despairing and exhausting at times, it can also be very motivating. As someone who has a daughter, is a single parent, who works from home and spends a lot of time researching and writing about heavy social and political issues, how do you navigate time to separate yourself from your work?
AG: I wish I had some pithy statement for you but I don’t. I have no separation of self from work. It’s 1am and I will probably write for another hour, then rise at 6am and write some more, drop my daughter off at school, write some more, go do a radio interview, and during the day, email and text friends about the issues of the day that consume us and end up in our editorials. There are possibly really well compartmentalised people who can separate themselves from their work – I can’t. My work is there when I see friends and we discuss rape law, when I go sit at the justice centre and support a friend getting an AVO, when I open my Twitter account and am asked questions or can’t restrain myself from commenting. The reasons why these social issues are so important is because they affect us every day, they surround us every day – that’s why there is no separation for me.
SC: You recently took over from the beautiful writer Andrew P Street to become Fairfax’ Vine’s 10 things columnist. Congrats, it’s a great gig and it’s a heap of regular writing, and very content heavy. And I note you have ‘snuck in’ a feminist themed edition. As with Street’s style, and the type of column it is, it seems to include a fair dose of rage – and pisstaking, that glorious Australian political tradition we need more of. How are you dealing with the new gig – having to be across, well, everything, current affairs wise, and getting suitably fired up about it in your writing? Do you file a piece and require an immediate bex and a lie down?!
AG: I love the gig because it combines my love of having erratic sleep schedules with yelling at people. It’s also a great opportunity because any regular writing gig for a woman is a chance to broaden the platform for women’s voices. The column can be really liberating to write and can make me feel lighter about sharing my frustrations, yet that’s also balanced against this foundation of dread that the same shit happens every day, the same rights are under threat every day and that so often the world feels like such an uncaring place. But having to dig for news stories every day also helps me find new things to thrill over. I’m obsessed with space research and this gig has really allowed me to revel in that subject to a degree I hadn’t been able to roll in so joyfully before.
SC: You’re very active on social media – which I’ve found is a great place to connect with other feminist writers and thinkers, but it can also be a pretty brutal landscape attracting the whole crazy world of online “Men’s Rights Activists” and just general abusive/sexist trolls and tools. How do you deal with such a landscape – and with your newfound column and profile. Any tips?
AG: I liken online trolls to cat calling – it’s an attempt to distract you from the work you should be doing. If someone stops me on the street, I will feel pissed off but I will move on and use that energy to spite them in some way – and let me note here that spite is the most underrated and yet most productive energy available. I’ll often use the same approach when it comes to online abuse. I may mock them a little but so often the abuse is so fanciful as to be a surreal performance you can laugh at. I get more upset when I fail to be an ally to someone or if I screw up a point.
SC: I read you are writing a novel – Yes / no? Any details to share?
AG: Yes, I am, and no, I won’t!
SC: Dang, Ok, then, who inspires you and why?
AG: I’m inspired by my friends and what they do, the example they set and the kindness they show. People like Roxane Gay and Ayesha Siddiqi are huge inspirations – unique takes on the world and expressed in the most amazing way. Siddiqi’s work with New Inquiry is really amazing to me.
SC: Advice you would give your 18 year old self?
AG: Relax – it’s even stranger than you could ever imagine. Quit being shy – you will miss out on so much and honestly no one is looking at you . Also, let’s talk hair care.
SC: Tips on raising a feminist daughter?
AG: Get out of their way and let them try things. Remind them that kindness, curiosity and effort will always be more important than popularity, beauty or intelligence. Get them into the habit of questioning everything and then work out how to dismantle or rebuild things in a more compassionate, equal way.
PS. shyness sucks, please don’t do that.
SC: If you could pick any women from history and host a dinner party, who would they be?
AG: George Sand – the French firebrand writer after whom I named my daughter? I don’t really know – why bother reaching for impressive ghosts from the past when the world is filled with amazing living women? But really, no one needs me to host a dinner party, I can really only make pumpkin soup, scrambled eggs and cigarette ash. No, this isn’t a fabulously whimsical Heston Blumenthal recipe. It’s the making of a very bad dinner party.
SC: Does feminism need Eddie Maguire?
AG: If our feminist allies look like Eddie McGuire, what fresh hell awaits us when we see our enemies?
SC: Is Australian politics better off with Jacqui Lambie?
AG: I want more women in government, I want more women grabbing the mic – but, generally speaking, a stupid woman in parliament is just as useless and damaging as a stupid man in parliament.
SC: Putin v Abbott, who’s your money on?
AG: Machismo is the only victor because dignity sure as hell never stood a chance.
SC: Advice to anyone considering a freelance writing career?
AG: Never be afraid to fail, write honestly and live as simply as possible.
SC: Amy Gray needs feminism because … ?
AG: … Because a world of opportunity is always superior to a world of denied potential.
SC: Brilliant. And what is next for the marvelous Amy Gray?
SC: Thank you, thank you, thank you. We’ve loved publishing you at Sheilas and all strength to you for providing the voice that you do.
Amy Gray is a Melbourne-based writer. Her work has appeared in the Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Guardian and ABC. Amy blogs at her website Pesky Feminist. She is also a regular contributor to the Vine. Follow her on Twitter @_amygray_.