The life-changing magic of actually listening to women

By Amy Gray

The past 12 months has taught us that stories can change the world. #MeToo has sustained itself into an ongoing movement through the power of personal stories, traumatic testimonies and calculated action.

When you listen to what women have to say, it is truly extraordinary.

Yet, when it comes to publishing, we still aren’t listening to women, let alone printing their stories. For an industry overwhelmingly staffed with them, it is still men in positions of power and higher salaries.

This has a flow-on effect to what gets published…and guess which way it goes? More men will submit or pitch their manuscripts, more men will get signed up or commissioned, more men will get reviewed by the media, which will lead to greater promotion budgets, stock levels, then sales and, finally, literature prizes.

Taking it further, most publishing professionals across the US, UK and Australia are white, generally heterosexual and cisgendered. It has exactly the sort of impact you’d expect: we are left with bookstores stocked with the same characters written by the same writers all coming to the same conclusion.

Sunili Govinnage discovered the impact of this when she spent 2014 reading nonwhite writers: it was bloody hard to access recommended, reviewed or rewarded literature in the usual sources in mainstream press or even online bookseller lists.

For women writers of colour, this is further complicated by the racial bias they face. Not only are they published less, but they are often forced to perform their race within their work for a readers the industry assume are white, forcing them into dual roles of artists and translators.

As Nayuka Gorrie wrote in a speech for ACMI’s screening of James Baldwin doco “I Am Not Your Negro?”, this often translates into forcing writers of colour to perform their trauma to entice a white audience to believe white supremacy exists, despite a bounty of daily evidence doing the same.

The art of trauma – whether highlighting white supremacy or misogyny – is the literary cul-de-sac where women writers reign. The dominance is a combination of trauma memoirs’ popularity with readers and editors, plus…it’s easy to cover your trauma when you’re a woman living under a white supremacist patriarchy.

There’s something decidedly uneasy about this. Women’s stories are being fenced into pens with restrictions on what they can discuss for a marketplace already conditioned to dismiss women’s work as niche novelty. Whether fiction or memoir, we want trauma, a performance of womanhood and race.

Even if these works are amazing and informative, it places a standard or stereotype on writers which is impossible to escape and limits their ability to tell stories. It can even hamper careers, with writers defined by their trauma rather than their talent.

Perhaps it comes back to whether we actively read broadly and entertain the radical notion that white male writers are not the default in either expression or experience. It’s rare for a male writer to be tokenised – his issues are considered universal, his interpretation rational rather than emotional. White male writers are given an access-all-areas pass – their work is considered universal and will be sold to all audiences.

The rest of us are not so lucky. Neither are readers, who are missing out on a universe of stories through this restriction

If there is power in a story, there must be power in a reader. Because if sharing your story is a radical act, seeking out those story tellers to listen is just as radical.

Join 2018 Stella Prize winner Alexis Wright and artist, writer and researcher Evelyn Araluen for a special conversation about the process of recording and crafting history that is both intimate and national. June 12 – QVWC – Waitlist available here.


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Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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