As I boarded my flight back to Sydney, I turned to my friend who’d accompanied me to the two-day festival and said, “You realise we just spent two whole days listening to women speak? Only women?”
It felt – and still does – unprecedented and extraordinary. It’s as though I finally reached the waterfall after days of thirst; the dehydration finally having its moment of relief. I’m still thirsty, my thirst had been quenched momentarily as I sat in the Melbourne Town Hall for 12 hours of talks, discussions and debates about the state of feminism in 2019.
Guests speakers flew in from across the country and across the world; there was an America-centric focus with big names including Aminatou Sow, Jia Tolentino, Tressie McMillian Cottom and Ariel Levy.
Here are the top five highlights from the feminist festival:
Zadie Smith with Jia Tolentino
Two years ago, Jia Tolentino, a writer for The New Yorker, whose sharp critical and cultural analysis feels like Botox for my brain – interviewed the novelist and writer Zadie Smith. I was irritated I wasn’t in New York to see, what seemed to me, a monumental, historical event. And it was.
Two extraordinary writers, who just happen to also be women, and persons of colour.
When the press release for Broadside was released earlier this year and I saw that the two were again re-uniting for an hour long discussion about writing, culture and the state of the world, I knew I had to go. Melbourne, despite being in another state, was at least a shorter distance to travel than the U.S and financially less painful.
My friend Ally and I took a barre class at 8am on Saturday morning, anticipating a full day of corporeal laziness, sitting down for six sessions of talks, one of which would be more than 90 mins long.
If you haven’t read Jia Tolentino’s debut collection of essays “Trick Mirror”, you’re walking around with fibreglass mesh-glasses that’s obstructing your reality and your own sense of self.
One of the essays in her collection “Always be Optimising” unfurls the confronting truths about the female body as a moneitizable machine and how we are mostly oblivious to my our complicity in the capitalist patriarchal systems of working towards ‘The perfect body’ by exercising so much.
After our class, we popped into a local high-end hipster brunch spot for some breakfast. While waiting in line (and yes, of course there was a line) my friend tugged at my sleeves and pointed out to a plate of food she was eyeing. The meal eater was a stylish woman sitting alone on a stool, reading a book.
“Oh my god, that’s Jia Tolentino,” I said, in my usual abrasively loud tone.
Tolentino looked up from her book and avo/egg/hummus on toast and proceeded to graciously endure my attacking praises of her as a human (if you’ve listened to interviews of her and read her writing, you’ll know that she’s one of the most down-to-earth, no-pretense kind of rare geniuses on this planet)
A few hours later, she was on stage opposite Zadie Smith, chatting about the crippling anxieties of modern-day life; extracting quotable gems from the imminent author and tenured professor at New York University.
In fact, they poked fun at sites like “10 Zadie Smith quotes on Life, Love and Everything” and “Midweek Inspiration: Zadie Smith’s most beautiful quotes.”
I’ll save an analysis for later, but there were definitely some quotable gems that came out of the interview; like Smith’s remarks about our iPhone “Smart” phones – “How are they ’Smart’ when they take away your ability to actually think?” And how home-support systems like the Alexa and Google Box actually encourage a harmful slave/owner dynamic.
Interestingly, the word ‘self-disgust’ came up, once, when Smith was talking, as it had been when Helen Garner talked about herself. No use of the word ‘feminist’ here. That itself might serve as an interesting statement.
Helen Garner – the importance of keeping a journal; of noticing, of paying attention
Helen Garner is often hailed as a ‘National Treasure’. She doesn’t do much publicity. Perhaps one or two talks per year.
On Saturday morning, she was interviewed by Sarah Krasnostein, author of the award-winning non-fiction book ‘The Trauma Cleaner’. The interview focused on Garner’s latest book, her first published diaries titled “Yellow Notebook: diaries between 1978-1987”.
Krasnostein asked Garner about her early days of diary keeping, her literary habits, and the discipline that’s required to stay curious and questioning as a writer. Garner said keeping a diary is a way of preserving a version of some truth inside one’s head. A lacerating activity of self-reflection, but also, self-improvement, perhaps.
Garner’s desire to pay attention to things, to notice the unnoticed; to not let life pass you by; is something I relate to. Like Garner, I want to “move fast but not be trapped in speed.”
— Sarah Firth (@sarahthefirth) November 9, 2019
Tressie McMillan Cottom – reinventing a new system of beauty
Cottom was in conversation with black cultural writer and podcaster of the popular “Call Your Girlfriend” Aminatou Sow.
The Associate Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University was asked about the challenges of being an academic as a black woman and her insistence on end-notes as a way to project full authority.
I found myself nodding to much of what she was saying, about the strength women of colour need to hold and perpetually grasp, of constantly needing to back yourself, because the world is not incentivised to provide for people who are not white, not straight, not cis, etc.
“You don’t have to cleave the parts of yourself for the world,” she told the audience.
It reminded me of what Jia Tolentino calls a body neutrality movement, where the aesthetics of our physicality no longer have any meaningful metric.
“What does beauty do? What does it mean to want to be beautiful, in the eyes of the capitalist feminist system?” she asks.
For Cottom, the desire to become beautiful means you are subscribing to terms set by the patriarchal system; that you want to have straight hair, that you want your body to fold into a certain shape; your body performs an economic and political strength, but these are desires that have been co-opted by the mainstream; by men – they have set the terms of what is deemed beautiful.
But as Sow says, that truth felt liberating for her. She spoke about knowing from an early age that she didn’t fit into the narrow construction of ‘beauty’ – white, blonde, thin; and that that awareness and acknowledgement meant she was able to redirect her attention to other things; reading, and becoming very good at making valuable friendships based on the exchange of knowledge and ideas.
“There’s a freedom to that,” Sow said. Cottom said some people don’t want freedom. “Freedom is uncertainty. Some people don’t like freedom. It’s terrifying.”
Aileen Moreton-Robinson: “What would I do if I didn’t have any power?”
Moreton-Robinson wrote ‘Talkin’ up to the white woman’ in 2000. That’s almost twenty years ago. Over the weekend, she participated in a panel alongside Fatima Bhutto, Intan Paramaditha and Ruby Hamad and told audiences that it was the first time she was invited to speak in Australia about her book.
The title of the discussion, “Decolonising Feminism” invoked harrowing insights into the reality of what is happening in today’s world regarding feminism, climate change, and the system of white patriarchal power that seeks to annihilate the agency of both women and Mother Earth.
Why do we continue to lean towards the white western patriarchal ideology as the default knowledge? Whose knowledge is assumed?
Feminism is an overused term, Moreton-Robinson claims. “What exactly does that mean?” she asked. She wants the world to begin ‘centreeding’ the other – to create an “alternative to the apex of humanity which is the white male patriarchy.”
I appreciate members of a panel who participate in a discussion and outrightly refuse to work on the terms set by the panel; bringing in their own perspective to dismantle the potentially narrowed-lens which can sometimes arise in topics that involve individuals whom hold various views on a controversial subject.
“Whose voice are we listening to? Whose voice is being legitimised?” she asked.
Moreton-Robinson spoke of the need to no longer operate on a white feminism framework and instead, to dismantle relations of power.
“We need to invent different theories of power. We have to start being less possessive.”
“What would I do if I didn’t have any power? What would that feel like? If I didn’t feel better than you? What does it mean to be a different kind of human? A different kind of woman?”
— Sarah Firth (@sarahthefirth) November 10, 2019
Mona Eltahawy: “Fuck the patriarchy”
Eltahawy is a proudly abrasive and outspoken feminist. Many people, myself included, find her appealing precisely because of her unapologetically abrasive tenor. She was on the now infamous Q&A episode which was taken down from ABC iview following complaints it had breached editorial standards.
She appeared on a conversation titled “Necessary Truths” with Pakistani feminist Fatima Bhutto where they were asked by moderator Sisonke Msimang about their feminist origins. Eltahawky said she was “traumatised in feminism”.
She advocated for a ‘Radical Rudeness’ repeating a sentiment she made on the ABC last Monday night that profanity must be used as a political weapon, and calling our PM, Sco-Mo a ‘white supremacist, evangelical’. At the end of the talk, she had the audience stand up and scream ‘FUCK THE PATRIARCHY’ in unison. I’ve always felt uncomfortable about things that feel performative. I’m not sure screaming an obvious remark among other insanely woke feminist would achieve anything.
Evidently, I could go on and on about the things I saw and the people I spoke to this weekend. Alas, wait for my next piece.