She said, I said
I love Margaret Atwood. She is one of those writers whose words ruthlessly wrap around me the moment I turn the first page and plummet my mind and body deep down into the darkness of the world she imagines so that, as she suggests, we might “bring something back out to the light” (On writers and writing, 2015, p. xxii). Her speculative fiction often overflows with feminist revisioning of patriarchal dystopias and in the climate of #metoo, March4Justice, and TeachUsConsent, her writing seems more relevant now than ever. I love her work because Atwood’s words speak directly to the “swimmy swammy swampiness” (Woolf, 1989, p. 21) matter of what being a woman in this moment means, why it matters, and how it might come to matter differently. Although I didn’t watch it, following the release of the TV series in 2017, I fervently read The handmaid’s tale (1985) and its sequel The testaments (2019).
Both books skate horrifyingly on the edge of real in their portrayal of a patriarchal society which cruelly takes away women’s individuality, agency, autonomy and authority. Yet, it was while reading Alias Grace (1996), that I began to pay attention not only to the Beauvoir-like observations of life as told to us through the imprisoned Grace Marks – “If I am good enough and quiet enough, perhaps after all they will let me go; but it’s not easy being quiet and good” (p. 6), “I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices” (p. 24), and “her strongest prison is of her own construction” (p. 421) – but also to Atwood’s writing style. I love the way Atwood gives Grace Marks her voice and her freedom through repetition of two words, “I said”. “I said” responds and reacts in dialogue to “He said” and “She said” which enables Grace to speak her mind honestly and matter of factly, and the ordinariness of such communication highlights the extra-ordinariness of her circumstance.
My love of Margaret Atwood led me to what I thought were her musings as a writer about writing in the republished version of Negotiating with the dead (2003) titled On writers and writings (2015). At the very beginning however, Atwood explains that it is not a book about how to write, or a book about her own writing, but rather the “sort of book a person who’s been laboring in the word mines for, say, forty years…might think of beginning, the day after he or she wakes up in the middle of the night and wonders what she’s been up to all this time” (p. xvii). She asks of herself, “what has she been up to, and why, and for whom?” (p. xvii), and it is this contemplative three-ply I shamelessly take into my hands to share with you what I have been up to over the past eighteen months – writing a book in love with the theory, words and language of women writers.
In love with theory, words, and the language of women writers
Writing feminist autoethnography: In love with theory, words and the language of women writers, is a book I have dreamed of writing for sometime and this week that dream came true when I was able to hold her – not “it” for these words are truly alive – in my hands. She arrived on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon, in an ordinary cardboard box, encased in ordinary packaging and yet, there was nothing extra-ordinary about the moment when after carefully unpackaging her, I clasped all 109,000 words and 249 pages of her to close my chest. First the hardcover; and, then the paperback.
There are many reasons I wanted to write this book. In On writers and writing, Atwood shares a collated and exhaustive list from the words of fictional writers which answers questions of motive – to record the world as it is, to delight and instruct, to express myself beautifully, to thumb my nose at death, to justify my failures at school, to speak for those who cannot, because an angel dictated it to me, for my children, to give back something of what has been given. All of these are true of Writing feminist autoethnography, but the word I find myself using most often when explaining why I wrote this book is “love” – like an organza ball gown, it swirls and sashays lightly across around pages, letters and chapters, inviting readers to embody the footless and fancy free frock and join the dance.
I loved writing this book; from beginning to end, and everywhere in between, it is a book written with love. The very first words read, “For my mother and my grandmothers – Lynette Helen, Doris May and Daphne Abigail”, and honours the three women who filled my world with love the moment I arrived, and whose love I think back through and with every time I put pen to paper. I loved immersing myself in the words and worlds of feminist thinkers, writers and scholars whom I love and have loved for a very long time to share my reading of what and how they write as women. My love affairs with Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Weil, Ursula K. Le Guin, Hélène Cixous, Kathleen Stewart, bell hooks and Ruth Behar are laid bare. It is a book about the way that their words have wrapped themselves around me with love and set me on the path to love in writing feminist autoethnography. I hope that you fall in love with them too.
The first chapter “In acknowledgement” is one that I particularly loved writing for it remembers the gift of love given to me by women from my Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Mara and Kudanji families at Burrulula and in Darwin – Annie a-Karrakayn Isaac, Dinah a-Marrngawi Norman, Eileen a-Manankurrmara McDinny, Jemima a-Wurwarlu Miller, and Hilda Jarman Muir – when I first began writing as an academic in 1993. Their gift of love held lessons about what it means to be a woman and women in the world—Indigenous, non-Indigenous women as feminists, as writers and women whose love shapes, and gives even more important lessons about how I might write autoethnography in a way that reciprocates my response-and-sense-abilities of being in relationality with them as a white-settler-colonial-woman. It is a gift I am still working to return, with love.
Guess what? You are a woman. You can write like a woman.
I love and loved writing Teaching and learning like a feminist and Critical writing for embodied approaches and gave my heart in both books to the words and works of feminist scholars and women writers. Yet, I can’t help it – I love Writing feminist autoethnography not only because I loved the writing and the content but because in this book I was being taught as I wrote, by women writers I love, how to write like a woman . When she needed it most, the women’s movement said to Ursula K. Le Guin, “Guess what? You are a woman. You can write like a woman“, and she passed these much needed words onto me. At first I heard them as a quiet whisper but soon the lioness Le Guin was roaring, her “fangs sharp” and her “fire-yellow eyes” fixed on my heart (Le Guin, “Written in the dark”, from Late in the day, Poems 2010-2014). Remembering and drawing courage from the defiance of Tenar in the final book in the Earthsea Quartet, Tehanu, she declares, “We have lived long enough in the dark. We have an equal right to daylight…Women, come on up out of the basement and the kitchen and the kid’s room; this whole house is our house” (Words are my matter: Writing on books and life, 2016, pp. 86-87). “I am sick of the silence of women”, she continues, “Listen, listen, listen! Listen to other women, your sisters, your mothers, your grandmothers…I want to hear you…speak with a woman’s tongue. Come out and tell us what time of night it is! Don’t let us sink back into silence. If we don’t tell our truth, who will?” (“Bryn Mawr commencement address“, 1986) – we have to rewrite the world. Hélène Cixous laughs her beautiful Medusa’s laugh in agreement , “From now on, who can say no to us? We’ve come back from always! Let’s smash everything!” (“The laugh of the Medusa”, 1976, p. 878, 888) and Virginia Woolf nods excitedly in reply, “I have enough powder to blow up St. Paul’s!” (Selected diaries, 2008, p. 314) I’m listening Ursula – to you and all of the other women whose writing I love – for if you are a woman seeking to write like a woman, what is there not to love about those and these words?
I have written this book with love from the depths of my whole being – body, mind and soul, yet I know that know everyone will love it, and some may not even like it. I am mindful of Anne Lamott’s advice warning that “publication is going to drive you crazy. If you are lucky, you will get a few reviews, some good, some bad, some indifferent” (Bird by bird, p. 215). The reality is, as Atwood reminds me, “by the the time the book comes out, the text is set…and the writer’s job is done. Informed criticism may be of some help for the next book , but the current one, poor thing, must take its chance out in the wide and wicked world” (On writers and writing, 2015, p. 42). It is up to readers, as Virginia Woolf would say, to “decide whether any of it is worth keeping” (A room of one’s own, 1929, p. 5). With a flourish then, I release the lock on the cage and let this book fly the coop in the hope that you might catch it and be carried along – this is my set of love words, language and writing to you.