Book review: Who Was That Woman, Anyway? by Aorewa McLeod

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Who Was That Woman, Anyway? Snapshots of a Lesbian Life, by Aorewa McLeod, opens with: ‘All these stories are inspired by real life events. Some details happened in real life, some did not. The characters are fictionalised and given fictional names.’ As readers, what are we to make of that?

You could argue that to write a fictionalised autobiography is to cheat: you take the story of your own life, but then you’re free to make bits up, smooth things over, change what doesn’t fit, add your own ending. Instead of writing what was, you can write what could have been. Instead of presenting yourself how you are, you can make yourself better, more intelligent, more narratively interesting.

Alternatively, you could argue that to pointedly describe your book as fictionalised autobiography is more honest than pretending that your recollections of your own life are – or could ever be – non-fiction. You’re making it clear to the reader that memories are inescapably subjective, that we’re always telling ourselves stories about ourselves, always self-fictionalising. To pretend that objective reflection is possible is to deliberately mislead the reader.

Either way, if you heard that your intellectual writer friend/relative was embarking on her embellished memoirs, you would do well to be nervous – the ‘you’ in her book will be part fact, part fiction, and readers won’t be able to tell which is which.

Who Was That Woman, Anyway? is an interesting enquiry that is not entirely answered or answerable. The title raises all sorts of other uncertainties about who we are and how we view ourselves, questions that are addressed indirectly throughout the book.

Looked at from one angle, this is a fascinating piece of social history, showing us one woman’s experience of the development of feminism and lesbian culture in twentieth-century New Zealand (from the 1960s on). Through the eyes of author/protagonist Ngaio, we are introduced to ‘white rabbit’ femmes, pub dykes, ‘gay ladies’, Maori lesbians, women’s co-counselling groups, female vegan communes, women who the law has punished for coming out by taking away their children, women who believe homosexuals are dangerous deviants, women who think feminism means hating men, women who stay in heterosexual relationships for the sake of their careers. Ngaio’s stories of her encounters with all these different types of people are lucid, simply and conversationally told, allowing us a fascinating glimpse into a side of late-twentieth-century New Zealand that is not often discussed.

What makes Ngaio’s stories of this culture so compelling is that they are all personal. She talks candidly and engagingly about the trials and delights of coming out and of forming and breaking relationships with women (and men) throughout her adult life. Sometimes she moves in such a swirl of matching and dissolving partnerships that I lost track of who was who – but the main characters are easily identified and eventually I just stopped worrying about the B-list cast.

From another angle, this is a personal history of the development of late-twentieth-century feminist critical theory. Author/protagonist Ngaio was an academic during a turbulent and productive period of feminist critical thought. I especially enjoyed her recollections of conferences she attended overseas, where notions of gender, society and sexuality were being enthusiastically taken to pieces and argued over in new and interesting ways. Ngaio’s intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for new ideas is contagious, and I found myself wanting to look a lot of these women up and read their ideas for myself.

But there again, we run into one of the strange pitfalls of fictionalised autobiography. I want to trust Ngaio, I want what she tells me to be true. I want her book on early New Zealand feminist author Bassalena Penfold to really exist. But it is an odd sort of literary trap – ‘Bassalena Penfold’ is one of the very few collections of English words that returns no Google results whatsoever. And when I check the Acknowledgements, hidden away on the imprint page, I see that ‘the quotation attributed to Bassalena Penfold on p.97 is adapted from Hermione: A Knight of the Holy Ghost; a Novel of the Woman Movement (1908) by Edith Searle Grossmann’ (real woman, real book, according to Te Ara, the online encyclopedia of New Zealand). I had to look it up, because the sort-of-real Ngaio has even got me mistrusting the book’s editors.

Viewed from another angle again, Who Was That Woman, Anyway? is an engaging and determined attempt to look at the ways in which we structure our own identity in terms of gender and sexuality. Why do we act the way we do? Why do we feel sexual desire the way we do? What determines who we are attracted to? To what extent is gender a cultural performance, and to what extent is it biologically determined? Ngaio doesn’t definitively answer any of these questions; her life in this book becomes a process of examining and querying and arguing. One of the characters declares: “I’d like heterosexual women to be as curious about how and when and why they became heterosexual as I have been about how and when and why I became lesbian.” And it is extraordinary to think for a while how our ideas about sexuality would be different if that became the case.

The woman who emerges from these stories is rambunctious, articulate, interested in ideas and the life of words; she is also egotistical, unstable and addicted to alcohol. As an unreliable narrator, she reminded me of the mother in We Need To Talk About Kevin – while I was in her head, I was with her completely. It is only when I emerge again at the end of the book that my critical cogs start to turn. I cannot trust her happy ending.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Who Was That Woman, Anyway? Snapshots of a Lesbian Life
by Aorewa McLeod
Published byVictoria University Press, 2013
ISBN 9780864738783