Brass plaque smashing? Barbara Duke

Subversive Acts: New Writing by New Zealand Women
Cathie Dunsford (ed),
Penguin Books, Auckland, 1991, $24.95

To call an anthology of short stories Subversive Acts and to begin the introduction with the assertion ‘Writing is a subversive act. It is an act of survival’ is not only setting up an ambitious project but also raises some challenging questions. Is all writing really subversive? And if so, what is especially subversive about this?

To be subversive means to seek to overturn or destroy something, usually understood to be established structures, material or ideological. There was a time when the simple publication of an anthology of stories by women only fulfilled this function. However, with work by women increasingly being published and well received, the challenge now is to be subversive in more than mere existence, and perhaps even to justify the separate publication of such work.

Miss Colhoun, a character in Beryl Fletcher’s ‘Dressmaker to the Queen’, connects rather nicely with Cathie Dunsford’s opening comment in a statement about her own life: ‘I am skilled at the art of subterfuge, my dear. A woman must be subtle to survive, and survival is everything, there’s nothing else’.

This story, set during the Depression, shows Miss Colhoun surviving under both economic oppression and prejudice. The wonderfully eccentric ending sees her smashing a brass plaque advertising herself as the granddaughter of a ‘dressmaker to the Queen’, symbolically, but only thus, so destroying a powerful part of the existing order – and, ironically, an object which played an important role in her survival under it.

The implication in Dunsford’s introduction is that oppression creates subversion. This can be true – but often members of an oppressed group have enough difficulty with the very act of survival to effect much subversion. Subterfuge, it must be admitted, is a slight step down. Dunsford mentions that she received over a hundred submissions for this book which contemplated the murder or death of a partner. There are some fine stories here on this theme, which tell of varying degrees of success, but none really begin to question why so many women want to kill their partners or what can be done to change this.

This is an excellent selection of a range of storytelling techniques, including some memorable tales. Julie Glamuzina’s example of the subversive possibilities of science fiction adds a particularly nice touch. The well-crafted collection moves through various interlocking themes, often playing with the same ideas in different forms. However, it is this very cohesiveness which seems to question its subversive nature. The themes covered are very much what is expected of this genre of ‘women’s fiction’ – power and control over lives and sexuality; strength in alliances between women; witchcraft, play with language, both in theme and form; detail of everyday life playing a significant and symbolic role; women’s bodies and expectations of perfection; and revenge, up to and including murder, for men’s sexual crimes.

If one of the reasons for publishing women’s-only fiction is that there is a similarity within the material which creates a well-formed anthology, then this is surely generated by women’s position in society, despite attempts to subvert that position. The characters in this collection, however clever their subterfuge, have in common that they are usually trapped by economic and ideological structures bigger than they know how to deal with. The question remains as to whether the writing down and publication of their stories has any significant effect as an attack on these problems or whether it is merely the smashing of another symbolic brass plaque.


Barbara Duke has an Honours degree in English Literature from Victoria University, Wellington.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories
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