NZF Writer’s Festival: Harry Giles Poetry

Elizabeth Heritage reviews Harry Giles’ poetry session at the NZ Festival Writers & Readers Week. 

Sometimes at literary festivals you get those HOLY CRAP moments. I had one at Auckland Writers Festival in the signing queue when I thanked Gloria Steinem for helping make me who I am and she said “someday, someone will thank you in the same way”. I had one at WORD Christchurch when Ivan Coyote ripped my heart out, made it better, and gave it back to me. And I had another at this year’s Writers and Readers gala night when Harry Josephine Giles performed their poem about the bodily experience of being trans.


This is the first festival where I’ve been both a chair and a reviewer, and so I had the cool but awkward experience of seeing the people I’ve been reviewing backstage in the green room. I bumped into Harry a few times and they were so friendly and pleasant to me; but all I was able to say were anodyne phrases such as ‘your poem was really good’. That isn’t what I meant. Harry: your poem wasn’t really good, it was a bloody revelation. In those few moments you had on stage at the gala night you performed that poem with your entire body and I could feel mine moving in response. All the little hairs on my neck stood up. I shivered. In the silence immediately following someone near me quietly said ‘Fuck’. Like the end of a prayer.

The purpose of the gala night, as well to open the festival, is to make you immediately rearrange your schedule to spend as much time as possible with your new favourite writers. I was gutted to realise I had clashes with nearly all of Giles’ events. But on Sunday I got to squeeze myself into the hot and uncomfortable small theatre at Circa to see Chris Tse interview Giles.

Word had got around: the theatre was full. (Good news for Cantabrians – Giles is coming to Christchurch next.) Wellington poet Tse was a good interviewer, obviously very familiar with Giles’ work and asking short, interesting questions.

harry and chris

Photo taken by Elizabeth Heritage

Giles grew up in Orkney and writes in English and Scots. The decision to write in Scots – a ‘minority recovering language’ – is conscious and political. They are trying to escape from the idea that you can only discuss local things in the local language, and are instead writing on all kinds of topics in Scots. They performed a few of their poems. Scots is a sister language to English, and after a while we could pick up the meaning of most of it. It’s easier to understand out loud than written down, so Giles provides free audio downloads with their poetry books.

The challenge to become bilingual or multilingual is a theme that has run throughout Writers and Readers. Giles said our nation states are formed through the erasure of language and identity, and the state finds it threatening when the languages want their existence back (*cough* Don Brash RNZ *cough*). Our brains are made to know multiple languages: ‘it’s a crime to squeeze your brain into just one language’. On the downside, writing in a minority language can limit your audience. Giles said ‘I write what I want to write and the audience is either there or it isn’t.’

Giles said they struggle to write good personal poetry (the poem they performed at the gala is unusual in that regard). Instead, they channel it through someone else – for example, a series of poems written from the perspective of a drone. ‘I was figuring myself out during that book.’ Now they have a lot more questions about gender and identity to ask: ‘poems should start with questions. Poems that start with answers are terrible.’ Giles says they’re ‘itching to write about that drone again.’ A show based on the drone poems will be touring next year.

Tse asked about Giles’ performance work, related to the ways in which queerness is often performative. Giles said ‘I’ve never really tried to hide that to be honest.’ When your body and your life is at odds with what normal is – ‘not that anyone is normal really’ – you recognise that everyone is performing all the time. ‘And I realised, oh, I can play with this.’

Giles also wants to bring something queerer into Scottish poetry. ‘What’s been published and celebrated in the Scots language has been incredibly masculine and macho – but the kids are so over that.’ Instead, Giles wants to bring in a more feminist sensibility, and acknowledge the women poets who have always been writing in Scots.

Harry Josephine Giles: ngā mihi nui ki a koe. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to about Writers and Readers so far has named you as their stand-out experience. Please come back soon. Arohanui.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Harry Giles was brought to New Zealand by LitCrawl with the support of International Literature Showcase and Writers’ Centre Norwich.



NZF Writers & Readers: Cousins Talk it Out, reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Yes you have seen this session reviewed in pictures, but it was so good we’ve got some words from Elizabeth Heritage as well.

This session was cousins Tusiata Avia and Victor Rodger in conversation, chaired by Anton Carter. Avia and Rodger are both Samoan New Zealanders from Christchurch who have become writers and performers.

tusiataRodger is known for his work as a playwright. He said he wanted to be an actor as a child, but after hearing Kirk Douglas say ‘there are no roles for fat leading men’, he changed his career trajectory and focussed on writing. He had ‘a fire to tell the story’ of his tumultuous relationship with his father, who he never lived with. His Samoan father left his Palagi mother when she was a pregnant 15yo. ‘I couldn’t respect him even though I came to love him in my own way.’

Avia, who is now known as a performance poet, said her poems started coming when she was about ten years gold, but that by the age of 15 she had cut them off. ‘I became aware of who I was in my society – a brown girl in Christchurch in the 80s, at the bottom of the pyramid. I had internalised that girls like me don’t become writers, so I decided to aim lower.’ As a young adult she backpacked around the world and had all kinds of crazy adventures, but it caused her ‘beautiful pain’ to read really great writing because ‘that was the thing I most wanted’. It wasn’t until her mid 30s that she gave herself permission to write.

Both Rodger and Avia talked about the importance of role models; of seeing other Pasifika people write and make art and succeed, and then thinking, I could do that.

Avia read her poem about having epilepsy, which in Samoan translates to ‘death sickness’, and Rodger read from his essay in the Journal of Urgent Writing about his journey towards embracing his Samoan self. ‘I went from factually brown to actually brown.’ He credits the work of James Baldwin for helping him become ‘woke’ as a young man.

Although the session title was “Cousins Talk it Out”, and both Avia and Rodger are normally charismatic performers, I was struck by how little they interacted with each other and by the quiet, almost stilted vibe of the session. Often they would say their piece and then silence would fall. Carter asked good questions, and, although he hadn’t been billed as part of the event, I was glad he was there to keep things moving.

Carter asked about the risks of writing openly about difficulties in their families. Rodger said his first play, Sons, was very autobiographical. ‘I had a strong desire to speak my truth, in fact so strong that I didn’t really take into account that I was speaking other people’s truths.’ His mother sees herself as the villain in Sons, which is painful for Rodger because he wrote that role as a tribute to her. He’s still not sure whether he has a right to tell her story.

Avia said, ‘I’ve been writing my family since the beginning’. She sees writing as a release: ‘I just had to get that shit out’. Her father, who is now dead, never read her work but always carried around her books in his satchel. Avia lives now with her 10yo daughter and 84yo mother. Her mother said ‘it’s all got to come out’. Avia is working on a performance with her mother and daughter.

Carter asked about what it was like growing up Pasifika in Christchurch, a city not known for its diverse population or excellent race relations. Rodger said: ‘There’s a real tension between me and Christchurch. I love people in that city but I do hate the city itself. It gets my back up.’

Rodger and Avia both spoke about Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, a play written by Avia a while back that she has performed as a one-woman show. The current production at the NZ Festival, starring six Pasifika women, is co-produced by FCC, the production “entity” that Rodger set up to connect Pasifika practitioners. ‘It’s for doing the stuff that wins people awards, rather than serving a Palagi narrative.’

Avia spoke about her experience being racially profiled at Unity Books 15 years ago. ‘It remains a breach in the va.’ She has received a written apology from Unity, from which Avia has just this week created a found poem. She performed it for us in the session. ‘In this poem I take their words and I choreograph the dance for once, to reveal what lies behind the innocuous language of racism.’ It was a powerful poem, repurposing words from the email and repeating phrases such as ‘which you feel was racist / you feel’.

Both Rodger and Avia have lots of projects on the go. Rodger will be releasing a collection of short fiction later this year called Warmish Pacific Greetings, and is working on a film adaptation of his play Black Faggot. Avia will be at WOMAD and is writing a novel and another collection of poems.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Cousins Talk it Out

NZF Writers & Readers – Nick Earls: High Five

This is a review of Nick Earls: High Five, which was a discussion between Nick Earls and Elizabeth Heritage at 5.45pm, Friday 9 March at the NZ Festival Wellington Writers & Readers Festival.

Nick_Earls_High_Five_WR18_c_Candid.2e16d0ba.fill-300x250We are here to discuss Nick’s five Wisdom Tree books, which I haven’t yet read – though I bought Gotham soon after the session.

When he submitted his last novel to his publisher Penguin Random House in 2013, he realised that the next 5 ideas that excited him most were 20,000 word stories, each about Australians visiting countries overseas. Of course, most publishers won’t touch them – they will collect short stories, but not novellas. So he had to design a bandwagon so he could get his novellas published. So he did, a PhD into whether novellas are the future of reading and an economically viable way to publish content: the answer, he has proven with his set of novellas, is yes. The novellas were set simultaneously as e-books, print editions and audio books. Nick appears not to do things by halves!

Elizabeth was a good chair, and the two had a rapport throughout the session. One of her first questions was about how he chose the places for his protagonists to go. Nick says, ‘I wanted to push them out of their comfort zone. Sometimes there were obvious choices, but sometimes I got to be quite creative.’

Many of Nick’s stories have an element of fictionalised reality in them – something Elizabeth came back to with him later in the session. He told us the story of his mysteriously lost ‘great great uncle’ who came to Australia from Ireland in the 1890s. It was a story of bad mental health and misconception caused by psychosis: and the more he researched, the more he realised he wasn’t the only one with this type of story. This formed the central story of Juneau, which was about a father & son seeking a long-lost relative who disappeared during the gold-mining era in the 1890s.

On the topic on another of the novellas, Vancouver, he talked about modern research. The book opens with the character flying from Calgary to Vancouver to meet a long-lost friend who had to be in a university for the plot to work. He found a place that was right for this, then to set his scene accurately, he used Google street view and virtually drove the streets three days in a row.

‘I have taken moments or ideas and watched things come together as they didn’t in the real world. Then I make the most of it.’

This came through in Gotham as well, which is based in New York. He spoke of having to choose his protagonist without appropriation of other lives – this is about an 19-year-old African-American rapper from Brooklyn, which he knew he couldn’t write as. But a 40-year-old rock journo: yes. In this story he wove a family, a four-year-old with the freshness of view of the young, seeing things and realising they are real – a four-year-old who needs to be a superhero for some reason.

‘You bang two narratives together and a narrative happens.’

Nick can relate to being an outsider, which each of his novellas deal with. He emigrated to Brisbane from Ireland, when he was 8. He spent a lot of time in the library – until he could work out a way to speak in an Australian accent. Having been an outsider gives him an excellent perspective of learning from observation. Relating to other cultural voices ‘This makes you to consider whether it is really your place to do that .’

Another interesting point Nick made was that life doesn’t always place you where the action is, but the actions still have consequences – ‘fiction isn’t like the news’. Some things are better observed by the character.

We moved on here to his fifth novella, NoHo. In this, the teller of this story is the brother of the person who wants to be a child star so badly that she made her family upend their lives to get her there. ‘I chose him because I wanted a naive and less judgemental pair of eyes. He is an observer. And he has his own life too.’

Elizabeth noted the intertwined short fiction collection is one of her least favourite forms, but these novellas gave her the buzz of recognition of seeing relationships, without being totally intertwined. Nick seemed happy with this – he wants to make people feel clever.

We then moved into a phase of the discussion that I did my best to keep up with. The question was how he managed three different types of publishing at once.

Nick has done his PhD on just this: to begin with, he looked into how people are reading.

I didn’t realise that the first commercial ebook was Steven King’s novella Riding the Bullet, distributed as a PDF on a computer. There has been a lot of change, beginning in 2007, when the Kindle emerged and ebooks surged – ebooks increased 1270% over three years to 2010. ‘The publishing industry panicked, then focussed so hard on ebooks that they don’t notice the rise of audiobooks.’

Nick noted that the early adopters of ebooks were people who read a whole lot, and they were avid readers of romance, crime and fantasy, meaning the Kindle store was dominated by these genres.

Looking into the change in reading habits, he thought there’s a pitch to made here. The thing with reading novels on ebook – you forget who everybody is by the end of the book. A novella is easy to devote your attention to. It gives you something the short story can’t – you read it in an evening. It’s a better fit with our lives.

At the time Nick wanted to approach audio books too, Audible had worked out they had a revolution on their hands: podcasting was getting longer, and novella sized material was what they were looking for. At the time Nick was pitching to them, they were working on channels in the US. So he figured he’d try something else and said to them ‘why don’t we cast it like an Aussie drama series’ – they said yes, and the marketing for the series used the voices of these actors as a hook.

Nick noted that far from cannibalising his paper book sales, the audio and e-books pushed it – there more synergy than we think across the markets, thanks to reader / listener recommendation pushing the novella through into other formats.

Nick’s had three test for the connections between his novellas: 1. Does it make the work better? 2. Does it not make the work worse? 3. Does it avoid being cheesy?

He is excited about this work and the scope of it into the future. The 20,000 word novel is the largest thing you can hold in your head in one go. He says, ‘I like being able to deal with that intricacy while still having that string in my head.’

I am a brand new fan of Nick Earls’ work and look forward to exploring more of it in the future.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Booksellers NZ.

NZF Writers & Readers: Tikanga Now, with Emma Espiner, Māmari Stephens and Morgan Godfrey

Tara Black and Elizabeth Heritage have both reviewed Tikanga Now, Tara in pictures, and Elizabeth with considerably more words.

Emma Espiner, lecturer Māmari Stephens and unionist Morgan Godfery discuss why Pākehā need to understand and embrace tikanga Māori, alongside Paula Morris. A timely conversation for all  New Zealanders.

NWF18 Tikanga Now

Big chunks of the Renouf foyer had packed out for Tikanga Now to hear Paula Morris chair a panel with Emma Espiner, Māmari Stephens, and Morgan Godfery. They all have essays in the Journal of Urgent Writing.

We started with definitions of tikanga. Godfery said people think of tikanga as magical, ‘but it’s simply the right thing to do’.

Stephens said it’s a Māori approach to things and mode of doing. Tikanga can be uncertain, but that uncertainty is positive and generative. Tikanga provides a framework upon which practices can hang – it saves you from awkward silences. Stephens also noted that there are ways in which tikanga can be used to exclude. For example, there are tensions between groups saying that te reo Māori is for all Māori, and those who say it is for everybody. ‘The same thing could be said for living our lives with tikanga – it’s a gift for beyond just those of us who are Māori.’

Espiner said that, for example at a tangi, the tikanga helps take the pain out of it a bit because you know what to do. Sometimes people are frightened of getting it wrong, but that discomfort is part of it. Look for the situations where you don’t feel safe. If you’re feeling comfortable it’s probably because you’re within the dominant culture.

Espiner said that as someone who is both Māori and Pākehā sitting across two worlds, she notices how things could be done better if you apply the principles of one to the other. She spoke about the importance of representation, noting for example Mihi Forbes’ essay on The Spinoff about being invited to a prestigious event celebrating International Women’s Day and Suffrage 125 but then being nearly the only Māori in the room.

There was an interesting discussion about ‘Maussies’ – Māori people in Australia. Māori are the tangata whenua of this land, but not of the land in Australia. Is it appropriate for them to build marae there? Godfery thinks it’s unacceptable. Stephens pointed out that ‘as Māori, we were not born to be just in one place’, and talked about the Māori diaspora.

Another point raised was about how cultural familiarity with te ao Māori can vary enormously even between neighbouring suburbs. Damon Salesa has written about segregation in Auckland and white flights from South Auckland. Espiner said that one of the most harmful things about our society is that we don’t live together.

Morris noted that te reo is having a cultural moment. Espiner is very optimistic about this, especially about the recent increase in enrolments in beginner te reo classes. She says the next step is to have lots of places where te reo is spoken, to support te reo teachers, and to have excellence all the way through.

Stephens noted the learning te reo isn’t just about learning the lexicon and the grammar, it’s also about engaging with the practices of Māori life and with real live people. ‘Whanaungatanga is the act and art of creating relationships.’ She spoke about the importance of marae, and how small rural marae are in danger of ‘going cold’ through neglect. She noted that, often when Māori are faced with threat, they build a wharenui to come together and discuss. In the 1960s and 70s especially there were massive marae built because of all the political ferment. Pan-tribal marae in urban centres are particularly important.

Morris brought up the question of tikanga and gender. In the 21st century, is it fair to ban wāhine from doing certain things? Stephens said it makes more sense if you take a step back and look at all the history. Tikanga can be changed, but it has to be the people of that particular marae who make that decision. Espiner pointed to the most recent episode of Kaupapa on the Couch, a web series about all things Māori from Te Ātea editor Leonie Hayden at The Spinoff. In it, Hayden addresses gender issues and mana wāhine in tikanga. She points out that, although men and women have traditionally had different roles in te ao Māori, women were not regarded as less than men. And many Māori gods and supernatural deities that we now think of as male may have been female, since te reo has gender-neutral pronouns. Maleness may have been imposed upon them by colonists.

The standard of audience questions in this session was very high. One question was about combining tikanga with environmentalism and business practices. Godfery said that on the issues of whether tikanga Māori can coexist with capitalism: ‘Hell no! But reasonable people have different views.’

Reviewed in pictures by Tara Black, and in words by Elizabeth Heritage


WORD: Ask A Mortician, Caitlin Doughty interviewed by Marcus Elliott

Caitlin_Doughty_in_red_evergreen_background-copyDeath is an odd thing to be chipper about. LA-based mortician, ‘death positive’ advocate and YouTube star Caitlin Doughty is definitely chipper, though: she has that extreme chirpiness that I’m going to assume is compulsory for anyone living in Los Angeles. And yet she is not flippant: in amongst her ebullient humour is a serious intellectual and moral engagement with issues of death, grieving, funeral customs, end-of-life care and spirituality. I felt immediately drawn to her. If it were possible to pre-book one’s own mortician, I would consign my corpse into Doughty’s hands without a second thought.

Doughty was interviewed by local coroner Marcus Elliott, who did a good job of asking interesting questions and then giving Doughty plenty of space to answer them. (I must also give him props for his dapper blue cravat.*) Doughty entered the death industry as a young woman fresh out of her medieval history degree. “My relationship with death is the best relationship of my life.” When she was 8, she had seen a small child fall from a balcony, and “the spectre of death began to haunt me … [but] dialogue with my parents [on this topic] was not open”. She spoke about the ways in which children are curious about death, but we tell them that their interest is dirty, or weird, or wrong. This is one of the many things Doughty wants to change.

Another is the way that the professionalisation of death has distanced us from the dead body. A century ago in the Western world, the family cared for the corpse; dead bodies lay in state in the home and then were carried out for burial. Only in the 20th century have we developed a professionalised class of death workers, who come and remove the corpse from the home (or, more likely, hospital) and take it away. “Nowadays, being around a corpse causes terror and confusion … We have a weird, ‘uncanny valley’, creeped-out relationship with the dead body.”

One of the many things I learned from Doughty in this session – and I look forward to learning more from her book that I bought, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – is the history of embalming. “Originally embalming was an American thing – you’re welcome – and was used during the civil war to keep bodies preserved long enough to transport them back to the north.” Embalmers would follow the battles and set up stalls, sometimes embellished with a heavily embalmed unclaimed corpse to serve as advertising. And then, after the war ended and the demand threatened to dry up, the embalming chemical companies invested heavily in training people as embalmers and selling their services. And so the funeral industry developed. “New Zealanders are the second most regular embalmers after Americans, you’re welcome for that as well.”

One of the most common objections to embalming that Doughty hears from mourners is that it makes the corpse look strange, which interferes with the grieving process. This is something else Doughty wants to change. “Sitting with the corpse is always difficult and beautiful … There is a sacred quality to caring for the corpses of those we love.”

One thing Doughty warned us about, which reminded me of Atul Gawande’s talk at the Auckland Writers Festival last year, is that “the good death isn’t handed to you … you have to have the conversations and do the planning.” Particularly under our current medical system, which will try and keep you alive as long as possible, even when quality of life has deteriorated horribly. Doughty worked on the campaign that led to California recently passing a law that allows for assisted dying.

Recently Doughty has opened her own business, “the only non-profit funeral home in LA”. She offers a service of coming to your home to look after the corpse, but is finding that “once you explain to people that it’s safe and legal and how to do it, they do it themselves. It turns out they didn’t need a professional at all.”

Elliott asked about alternatives to traditional burial and cremation. There’s composting: “composting bodies is really quite a beautiful process … they turn to soil in 6-8 weeks”. And aquamation, using very hot water and lye, which “flash decomposes the body down to something like ash.” Or conservation burial, whereby you have yourself buried on some land in order to prevent it being developed, “like chaining yourself to a tree, but you’re dead”.

There was the inevitable audience question about the afterlife. Doughty says she visualises her life being like a film reel, which flaps off at the end into an empty white nothingness: “that brings me comfort”. And comfort, overall, is what I took from her session.

* I think it was a cravat. The names of different kinds of clothing isn’t really my area of specialty.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Ask a Mortician: Caitlin Doughty interviewed by Marcus Elliott

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
by Caitlin Doughty
Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN 9781782111030


WORD: Work / Sex, with Kate Holden, Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff and Julie Hill

Event_WorkSexIf Ivan E. Coyote did one of the best things a literary festival can do – broke my heart and then put it back together again made better – this session did another: forced me to examine my own unconscious bias and realise I was wrong.

Sex work is something I’ve never really thought much about, which means that most of the ideas I have about sex workers are those I’ve passively absorbed from the society and media around me. And, if there’s one thing feminism has taught me – and as Debbie Stoller said on Friday – it’s that received ideas, particularly about women, need to be carefully rethought. So thank you to Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff, and especially Kate Holden, for prompting me to do some important rethinking.

They were on a panel chaired by Julie Hill. Conversation was lively, intelligent and stimulating (as per the usual very high standard of WORD), and all three women read from their latest books, which I tried in vain to buy from the bookstall afterwards (they had sold out).

Hodgkinson was working as stripper at the same time as editing student magazine Canta while studying. “I found the unregulated vibe of the industry really alluring … Writing is more difficult, it requires an element of emotional truth in order to succeed. With stripping, you can fake that.” For a long time she kept her stripping life secret. “I regret not having owned that part of myself publicly earlier … It annoyed me that people were making judgements about me based on what I did for a job … I was not personally ashamed, that shame got put on me from outside.”

Doff is a New Yorker who told us tales of working the champagne hustle in strip joints and bars in Times Square in the 70s and 80s: “I always wanted to be a hurly burly girl … I probably qualified as a drunk by the time I was 13 or 14.” She spoke unflinchingly of the danger of those times and the brutal rape she suffered that went practically unpunished: her rapist was just banned from the pub for a couple of weeks. “The mafia owned all the strip clubs and gay bars, the places where people couldn’t complain … Women were very, very replaceable … We formed foxhole friendships [with each other], under fire in the front lines of the war.”

Holden, an Australian author, says she was “such a dork” as a teenager, “really intimidated by other humans”. She had “a grand fantasy of doing something radical … Grunge was the making of me because it didn’t matter what you wore, I could just leap in and fake it … I wanted to do something that scared me … Heroin led me into sex work through force of economics.” Holden spoke eloquently about the custodial side of sex work, and how a lot of it involves caring for men who are lonely – and educating them about sex. She also spoke of the consorority: “In some ways it’s a perfect female society … We had such a range of womanhood on any shift [at the brothel] … It was exciting to see women experimenting with different kinds of boldness.”

I was particularly struck by Holden speaking about “the assumptive public discourse about sex workers … Whenever there’s violence against sex workers, the emphasis is always on their work … If plumber comes to your house they don’t need to bring a bodyguard in case you ravenously sexually attack them. It’s so arse about face that we think a sex worker is in charge of not being raped … Sex work is rated as a separate, exotic category of work. We’re not having panels about writers who have also been sandwich makers!”

I felt that tingle in my brain when you hear something and agree with it, but believing that new thing requires you to let go of a pre-existing idea you weren’t even aware you were holding. I felt some old ideas dissolve. I will be tracking down Holden’s book for sure.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Work / Sex
with Kate Holden, Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff, chaired by Julie Hill

Under My Skin: A Memoir of Addiction
by Kate Holden
Published by Skyhorse Publishing
ISBN 9781611457988

Two Decades Naked
by Leigh Hopkinson
Published by Hachette Australia
ISBN 9780733634833

WORD: Speaking Out – Tara Moss interviewed by Joanna Norris

Tara-Moss_Speaking-Out-promo-shot-1At the 2050 session yesterday about climate chaos, panellists spoke about the danger of going from denial to despair. I was thinking about that a lot as I watched author and feminist activist Tara Moss give a presentation on sexism in the media, politics and society. The statistics are unrelenting, and I was too sad to write all of them down: women comprise only 11% of protagonists in top-rating US films; worldwide, fewer than 1 in 4 people we hear from or about in the media is female; a third of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence. One third. That’s literally billions of us. Christ. She encouraged us to photograph her slides but I was too depressed.

Moss herself was very calm; charming and warm. She is an Australian writer who has moved from writing crime novels to feminist non-fiction. She’s here promoting her latest book, Speaking Out: A 21st-century handbook for women and girls, which I have duly purchased and she has kindly signed for me. But in the face of stats like this – women worldwide are 27 times more likely to experience serious online abuse than men; one fifth of women worldwide have been raped – what on earth are we meant to do?

As Moss said, “everywhere you look there’s an imbalance”. Even down to the way words are defined in the dictionary: take a look at bossy, where all the examples are derogatory of women. On the plus side, I now have a new interest: feminist lexicography. On the downside … this is how we develop unconscious bias, when our cultural places of authority have sexism woven into them so deeply we can’t see it.

After she had given us her presentation, The Press editor Joanna Norris interviewed Moss. They spoke about rape. Moss herself is one of the one in five women who has experienced rape, and she acknowledged matter-of-factly that there were a lot more of us in the audience as well. It’s still an issue that triggers a huge response. She made the excellent point that “we have a toxic silence around this issue but it’s so shockingly common that it shouldn’t be shocking to talk about it” – yet it still is.

Norris asked Moss whether there’s such a thing as oversharing. “There’s no such thing as overshare when you’re talking about important issues … Toxic silence does a lot more damage than oversharing … Actually there’s no such thing [as oversharing], that’s crap … I don’t think there’s anything we should feel we can’t talk about. Silence has never solved anything.”

Her solution to addressing sexism is, as the title of her book suggests, to speak out, together. “The calling-out needs to be done collectively, none of us can do it by ourselves. The women’s movement has been done collectively over the centuries … There are so many women we need to thank … That’s how things are going to get better. We need to normalise the discussion.” Personally, I’m going to start with a stiff drink in one hand and Speaking Out in the other, and then see what I have to say.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Speaking Out: Tara Moss interviewed by Joanna Norris

Speaking Out: A 21st-century handbook for women and girls
by Tara Moss
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781460751336

The Fictional Woman
by Tara Moss
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781460751206