Double Bonza ‘Spinifex’ Sheilas

29 / 08 / 2016

Spinifex Press is an award-winning independent feminist press, publishing innovative and controversial feminist books with an optimistic edge. Spinifex Press was set up in March 1991 by Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein and is now celebrating it’s 25th birthday (!). It publishes a diverse range of voices from many backgrounds, cultures and countries. This month for Sheilas, VWT ED Mary Crooks had the pleasure of interviewing Renate and Susan about their journey. To join in Spinifex’s 25th Birthday celebrations starting Sept 9, check out their program in detail here.

Mary Crooks (MC): Twenty-five years of publishing wonderful feminist books, a quarter of a century of radical feminist publishing in this country. Renate and Susan, what an achievement!  There are probably not a lot of examples of that happening around the world, so how did it come about in Australia?

Susan Hawthorne (SH): It happened partly because I was working at Penguin at the time and I was no longer able to get books that I really wanted to see published, because the recession had hit the minds of the sales people at Penguin, and therefore things were not good; really exciting books, risky books, non-mainstream books were not being taken on as they had been in the previous three to four years that I’d been working there. We were also noticing that the feminist sections of bookshops were being cut back and in a lot of instances they were being replaced by really impossible to read post-modern texts that didn’t actually have much political content. So, that was one reason.

Renate Klein (RK): Susan knows the fiction part of publishing really well. I was working at Deakin University at the time, as Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and so I knew the non-fiction part, and I had also been an editor of Women’s Studies International Forum and an international books series, so we thought we had enough knowledge between us and it was a really great adventure. We had no idea what we were actually getting ourselves into.

MC:  Would you have imagined that the venture would last for 25 years?

SH: No. We thought that we would experiment for a year, and so we worked out our first four books and we didn’t know if we would go beyond that. Three were translated, three were reprinted very fast and three won some sort of award, and that was across the four books. So, we thought, “Well, it looks like we’ll have to keep going.”

MC: Off the top of your head, how many books are we talking about that have been published by you?

SH: About 230 to 240. I’ve lost track.

RK: Yes, we are in the process of doing a full catalogue for our 25th anniversary, and that’s why we only know the number roughly.

MC: That’s fantastic. Apart from being able to boast two and a half decades of keeping on and publishing well over two hundred titles, what would you list off the top of your head, as the greatest publishing achievements?

SH: I think there are several. One is the book called Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin which Diane Bell wrote along with the Ngarrindjeri women in South Australia, because I think that changed the eventual outcome of the Hindmarsh Island Affair. It was a massive book; 700 pages and it was an extraordinary achievement by everybody that was involved with it. So, that was one.

RK: Another one is that we still exist after 25 years! That’s a big achievement.

SH: And there are some particular books like Sandy Jeff’s Poems of the Madhouse which sold 6,000 copies. Poetry doesn’t usually do that.

MC: More than 6,000 copies exceed the benchmark in this country in terms of publishing success.

SH: It sure does, yes, for a poetry book. As well as that, the fact that we published so many diverse voices including very local books, like The Kindness of Strangers about the Lort Smith Hospital that was started by women so that people could take their animals to have veterinary care, but also Zelda D’Aprano’s book, so very local to the very international such as Haifa Fragments by khulud khamis; she’s a Palestinian citizen of Israel; you know, right on the edge. Our Botswanan author, Unity Dow who was a High Court Judge; I think she’s stopped being it now, but the first woman to be a High Court Judge in Botswana, Vandana Shiva in India and a host of others. We’ve also published a significant number of Indigenous writers such as Judy Atkinson from Australia, as well as Indigenous authors from New Zealand and North America.

RK: Our authors also write about working class issues, disability and much more. Basically, all the issues that these days you hear you have to cover to be be ‘intersectional’. I mean we did this long before the term was actually being used.

SH: Yes, we have books about class, books about sexuality and lesbians and disability and globalisation and ecology, war and torture. All of this. Some fun subjects, some not so fun subjects.

RK: We complement one another. We have this policy that there are some books that I want to publish and Susan, thinks, ”Oh, well, you know…” but we’ll publish them if the other feels very strongly about it, but if for instance one of us feels really strongly about a book and the other does not want it published, or in fact one of our employees feels very strongly about the book that shouldn’t be published, we don’t do it.

MC: I think they’re amazing achievements – to be local, national, global, across the gamut of feminist women and issues. I’m working on the assumption that you didn’t exactly make your fortune of 25 years of feminist publishing, so a lot of it has to be about your passion because a lot of it sounds to me as though it’s been part money, part labour of love. Correct?

SH: Correct!

RK: Absolutely. From the beginning until 2006, it certainly helped that I had a position at Deakin University so that paid for both of us. But yes, it has been a BIG labour of love as well.

SH: I’ve not actually ever received a salary, apart from when I worked for somebody else, which I do from time to time; I mean quite regularly, actually, and occasionally my poems get published and I get little bits.

Spinifex25years.102314

Click the image above to buy tickets to Spinifex’s 25th Birthday Celebrations and find out more! 

MC: So the phrase “cobbling together the resources” would sit comfortably with you?

SH: Absolutely, yes!

MC: Has the need gone away, the need that has inspired you? You saw what you thought was – not so much a niche but a gap, 26 years ago, is there still a gap? Is there still a hunger?

SH: Well, the thing is that we did start selling overseas very, very quickly. Within six months of starting we had some books for sale in the USA. The niche for our market in the US is as big as the entire Australian publishing market. That has helped, so the fact that we were able to get our books out there; and it’s also why we’ve been assiduously international and to our Australian authors, we say, “Come on, think about if you were reading this in another country, how would you say that then?” So, those sorts of things are important. We felt that it was important that – I mean Australian feminism is slightly different from some of the other variations that you get in other English speaking countries, and we wanted to be able to represent that in different ways, but not just that because we need the exposure – the other books help us to sit alongside – so Australian feminist writers get some sort of extra mileage out of the fact that we also have writers from the US and Canada.

RK: I think the gap is still there and the gap is especially still there for radical feminist books, because radical feminism often gets really bad press, mostly because people have no idea what it is. Many feminists are very mainstream and there is a definite need for something more radical that you can actually read and maybe disagree with. Certainly our books on prostitution and pornography fall into this category. All of us working on these books feel very strongly about the fact that we see prostitution and pornography as forms of violence against women and so we have a really big collection of these books, and some people don’t like them. Fine, but at least they’re out there for people who want to read the other story of the sex industry.

MC: You’re talking about not fearing to go into less glamorous and a lot edgier topics that sit within your framework of feminism.

SH: We do find that we’re a bit ahead of the curve so that these days the curve is almost catching up, books that we published – you know, we published several books about domestic violence ten, 15 years ago and they were too far ahead at the time; nobody was really very interested. But, this is a big topic now.

MC: So, 25 years is a long time, especially as we’ve talked of a labour of love and so on, so what’s the secret to your motivation?

RK: I think one thing is that we’ve always had wonderful women working with us; that really makes a big difference. So obviously we have had changes in personnel over the years, but really, I can say that everybody that worked with us has been fabulous, and that really, really helps. Our Office Manager, Maralann Damiano, has now been with us for 19 years; that’s definitely one thing, and increasingly – and this is really over the last four or five years, it’s really heartening to see more and more groups of young women who call themselves radical feminists or radical lesbian feminists and many of them had never heard of us, especially on international social media and they’re discovering us. It’s kind of really nice, because obviously we are getting on in age!

MC: You’re now elders.

RK: We’re now elders and it’s really nice, actually. So we recently had a seminar on Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed which was published 20 years ago and we had over 70 people at the RMIT event. It’s just good to see that. We get plenty of people who say, “Oh, Spinifex, still the same things” where it’s not the same things; they do change. We have changed; we’ve changed with the times, but it’s good to see that our ideas are actually more seriously looked at than maybe ten years ago.

SH: I think we also get nice little bursts of energy out of things like Merlinda Bobis’s book, Locust Girl which just recently won the Christina Stead award, which is the New South Wales Premier’s fiction award, and that’s a book that’s very edgy, it’s about climate change and it’s about borders and about refugees and not being allowed to do things like sing, and it’s a beautifully written book. It’s also just been shortlisted for the ACT book pf the year! It’s great to get that sort of acknowledgement as well. We also have a novella, Wave by Hoa Pham, which is being turned into a movie right now, so things like that come along and make a difference. And, even my own work, my bibliodiversity book which is about the publishing industry has gone into French and the Arabic copies have just arrived.

MC: So the burst of energy becomes the sustaining thing. I love the idea of the two of you in this deep partnership of personal and professional over such a long period of time. So, let’s start with you first, Renate. What are the things that really continue to inspire the respect you have for Susan?

RK: I think the best thing about living with Susan, both personally and also as my co-publisher, is that she’s endlessly inspirational; she just really is. Like for instance, at the moment she’s writing a poem every day for her book so I get to be read a poem every day. Now, you don’t live with too many people who read you a poem every day, and I really admire Susan’s incredible breadth of knowledge. She really knows so much – and her knowledge of Sanskrit which is really kind of Greek for me, but she also speaks Greek, so I really love that. I really also love Susan’s kindness and enthusiasm and willingness to basically embark – and sometimes I am the one who says, “Oh! I’m not sure whether we should.” She says, “Yes, sure, let’s do it”, so her incredible energy and being positive.

MC: We don’t want to talk about her strengths all day!  Are there times when there’s something that annoys you about Susan?

RK: She leaves all the cupboards open.

MC: Fantastic! Now, Susan, the shoe is on the other foot. What are the positive things that would be your take on Renate?

SH: I don’t know anybody else who can walk into a room in multiple countries and move between several languages.

SH: Here is a case in point. Luce Irigaray was giving a talk on the stage in French. Renate was translating for me into English and checking her translation with the German as we went, and I just think, “Wow!” I have some languages but I can’t speak any of them fluently apart from English.

RK: And Sanskrit and Greek.

SH: Yes, but they’re not fluent. I have to read the words; I have to read them on a page and look up a dictionary. The other thing is Renate’s passion for the political things that she does, and she can just go for it and she’s so knowledgeable, also, about the industry of reproductive technology and all of the things around women’s health, and I learn things from Renate all the time. And, I think the third one is probably Renate’s love of animals, especially dogs. She will go up to any dog in any street and have a conversation in any language that’s necessary.

MC: And those little idiosyncratic things that might cause irritation?

SH: t’s difficult. I used to have to edit her Swiss sentences but she’s learnt to write short ones, because they used to be really curly and long. Beyond that, she is not good at washing up dishes!. And she can at times be more reluctant to do things than me.

MC: It goes up against your optimism.

SH: Yes, yes.

MC: So now, two more things to talk about. One is your ideal dinner party. Let’s say the two of you are going to co-host a dinner party in the next month in the springtime when it’s not so cold and when you’re down from Mission Beach. Who would be the three to five or so people that you would love to sit around your table?

RK: That’s a really tricky question. I mean, when you ask this question, the immediate person that comes to my mind would be Julia Gillard. I’ve never met Julia Gillard; I was critical of a lot of the policies that I felt she had to do, but I would really love to have the time to talk to her.

SH: I would also invite Farida Akhter who is from Bangladesh and who works with probably 150,000 people across the country and is also a publisher, and I find that what she does incredibly inspirational. That would be interesting for Julia and Farida to meet one another.

MC: And some others?

RK: Kitty Flanagan. We actually asked her to do something at our event and she said she’d love to, but she’s not here in September. And you, Mary, that would be nice too. I’m not just being polite!

MC: Don’t worry, I’d love to be there. Now, it’s time to talk about your celebration on the 9th and 10th of September. It sounds like a remarkable two days in Melbourne.

SH: Well, it’s going to be great because we’ve got a fabulous program of about 40 writers and performers. On the opening night we will have Kavisha Mazzella singing who was so enthusiastic when we asked her that that really made it great, because she’s such a fabulous performer. And Sue Ingleton is the MC!

MC: They should come to the dinner party.

RK: Yes, they should indeed.

SH: Yes, indeed, indeed. And, the Friday evening will be a more performance-oriented thing, whereas during the day it’ll be a lot of short, sharp, ten minute presentations which we’re going to put a call out for and we want women to put forward poems, radical ideas, controversial ideas, ten minute presentations about what they’re doing. And then, on the Saturday we’ve got a fabulous line-up of Spinifex writers who either we’ve published books with or else they’re contributors to books. We’ve got a session on the ‘radical’ in radical feminism, another two sessions one on sexual violence and another one on medical violence, and then in the afternoon we’ve got sessions on fiction and poetry and biography and autobiography, so it’s going to be fantastic.

RK: We hope to finish the conference with writing a radical feminist manifesto, because we’ve learnt that from conferences in Bangladesh and India. You have to write a manifesto at the end which is written by everybody. So, lots of butcher paper will come out.

MC: Well, I don’t know whether you know this, but in 1903 it was the first global conference on the suffrage movement in America, in Washington, and Vida Goldstein went from Melbourne and she ended up being one of the three authors of the manifesto to come out of that conference.

RK: We do have one other announcement, but we don’t want to make too much of it. We have something very special. Anyway, after 25 years, what do we do? We publish our first book by a man, because we’ve had male authors in anthologies but we’ve never had a book by a man, and his name is Robert Jensen. He’s very well-known. He’s an American Professor and has written very important books against pornography and has been a co-author with Gail Dines, for instance, and he’s worked together with her and many other radical feminists. He sent us this manuscript and I thought, “Well, we are probably not going to publish this but I’d better read it before I send him a polite response.” And, I started to read it, and I thought, “Gee, I agree with almost every sentence.” So, it’s called The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. And it does have an Afterword by a woman (Rebecca Whisnant). After all women have to have the last word!

MC: It sounds an inspired inclusion. Susan, Renate, this has been a delight. Congratulations on your great endeavour over a quarter of a century!

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