Feminist tissue, Kathryn Walls

Me and Marilyn Monroe
Cathie Dunsford (ed),
Daphne Brasell Associates Press, $32.95

Dr Cathie Dunsford, inspired by the female forms created by female sculptors, and convinced that women should be speaking out against the maltreatment of their bodies by the ‘dominant culture’, invited women to submit stories under the heading ‘Writing the Body’. She received 214 in all, thirty-two of which made it into Me and Marilyn Monroe.

‘This book began in clay,’ Dunsford begins (referring to the above-mentioned sculpture, but also suggesting Creation with a capital C). She incorporates some sensational imagery (the Cervical Cancer Experiment is only ‘the tip of the scalpel’, while enlightened women fight back with tongues that are ‘razor blades slashing through centuries of illusion and mythology’). One could cavil at the length and spiralling structure of Dunsford’s discussion – but it does have personality.

What I do seriously object to, however, are Dunsford’s attempts to muzzle criticism of her anthology in advance – her suggestion, for example, that negative comments on a previous (similarly conceived) collection are symptomatic of parochial narrow-mindedness, sexism and fear. This pre-emptive strike only succeeds in making you nervous about the quality of the stories before you read them.

I have similar reservations about the mini-essays covering all of the stories that occupy the second half of the introduction. They summarise, interpret and praise (‘Koea draws us into this alluring and repulsive world with a deliciously wicked wit that has become a trademark of her successful writing style’). This is over-protective.

Oddly, not all of the summaries are accurate. Diane Greig’s’ Anosmia’ is the story of a woman who loses her sense of smell when her husband leaves her, only to regain it when she banishes a more recently acquired lover. Dunsford’s summary misses a crucial step in the narrative and therefore conflates the husband and lover into a single character. This looks like an ordinary slip. But some other inaccuracies appear to ‘adjust’ the stories in a direction which is more feminist (or more clearly feminist) than that given to them by their authors. These adjustments reflect Dunsford’s hope (clearly allegorised in her own optimistic story, ‘Celebration’) that her anthology will show readers the way. The narrator-protagonist of Ro Cambridge’s ‘Moving Pictures’ reacts to the death of her mother by overeating and becoming as fat as her mother had once been. But when she recalls the good side of her mother, she stops putting on weight, at the end of the story she reports ‘I was slimmer now’. Dunsford’s summary suppresses the fact that this character ever becomes (dread word!) slim; rather ‘she is able to … redefine her own body as acceptable’. Sue McCauley’s ‘Said Linda’ is a dry and rather sad story narrated by a happy-go-lucky wife (Fay), whose equanimity is destroyed by the Linda of the title. Linda, having taken a women’s studies course, ‘was the most ardent kind of convert, having been at fifteen, Miss South Beach, and at eighteen a Miss Taranaki finalist’. She spoils Fay’s enjoyment of television programmes by pointing out their ‘subliminal message’, which ‘had to do with disempowering women’. More seriously, she makes Fay self-conscious about her appearance by directing at her a barrage of reassurance and advice (‘You have to love your body’). The women’s studies course is clearly crucial in McCauley’s characterisation of the hypocritical Linda But Dunsford refers to Linda as ‘a new age woman’ (although there are no crystals in sight), and does not mention the real source – in women’s studies – of Linda’s rhetoric.

Some of Dunsford’s more interpretative remarks seem driven by the same ‘positive’ thinking. Beryl Fletcher’s ‘Letters to the Interior’ is a sequence of messages from an anorexic to her beloved spirit within. The anorexic speaker has a strong aesthetic sense (inseparable from her rejection of ordinary food), and she manages to make her insane perspective compelling. While not denying this in so many words, Dunsford – through her essentially vague statement that the work ‘radically questions a society that worships thinness and blames the victim’ misrepresents the nature of its subversiveness. Claudia Bell’s ‘Story’ is a conversation among three rather unenlightened adolescent girls. Touching on one serious issue after another, these girls are like people: playing hunt the thimble who sometimes get ‘hot’ but never actually find the object. But Dunsford refuses to be discouraged. She focuses upon the best insights of the girls, and notes: ‘By repeating and analysing the stories, women come to an awareness of their position and their own ability to redefine the myths, reclaim their bodies for themselves.’

When it comes to the stories themselves, it is difficult to generalise. As Dunsford states, ‘Fiction both reflects reality and invents reality’, and her collection is an interesting demonstration of this. There is realism, caricature and fantasy. There are elaborate plots, slight plots, and purely meditative structures. Some stories are satires, while others are what we might think of as defiantly feminist versions of romance (in which the female hero moves towards triumphant independence).

Given the way in which the anthology was constructed, it is not surprising that certain themes recur. Beryl Fletcher, Stella Duffy and Catherine Dale confront us with the killers anorexia and bulimia. The more ordinary dieter is also at risk. In Eva Petro’s ‘Eating Your Words’, a writer of formula fiction (of the type in which the heroine has ‘café au lait skin’, ‘spun-toffee mane’ and is a dieter), suffers a surrealistic death at the hands of a mob of women with ‘dimpled thighs and dough-like arms’. While dieting is bad, eating (there is a lot of it in this anthology) is rarely beautiful – although the central character in Powhiri Rika-Heke’s story finds some relief from her just anger by discussing it with a new friend in an atmosphere made comforting by the aromas of bacon bones and Earl Grey tea. It is not only the ‘lady novelist’ who describes women as food. Many of these feminist writers do so (sometimes mocking the perspective of the ravenous male). Pat Quinn’s ‘Salad Days’ is unusual in its association of a male with food (he has ‘alfalfa-sprouted curls’). While the slimming diet emerges as the body’s most prominent enemy, the medical profession comes a close second, here a feminist preoccupation draws on the Gothic convention of the mad scientist. Doctors are more or less villains in at least a quarter of the stories. Of course it is not only when they are doctors that men appear as judges and critics of the female body throughout the collection. Bronwyn Civil creates a crude chauvinist, who classifies women according to their shapes (‘Best Arse’, ‘Fat Cow’, etc).

And what of men’s bodies? I emerged from this anthology with a composite image of a man who has dandruff, grunts, and farts in bed, no wonder his sexual overtures are typically resisted. Barbara Else’s ‘Vengeance’ provides the exception that proves this rule in Byron, the doctor (note) who – once his yellow teeth have been extracted – is suckled by the woman he has formerly harassed.

Mothers recur as influences both good (as in Geraldine Oliver’s title story, for example) and bad (Jane Gray’s ‘Hothouse Flowers’, in which a mother’s pressure on her daughter to become a model is seen as suffocatingly restrictive). They also recur among the numerous corpses in the collection ‑ and I was struck by the number of stories in which dead mothers almost literally haunt their daughters. Denise Cush’s ‘Black Rose’ ‑ a particularly convincing story combines the three generations; there is the grandmother (who dies), the pivotal mother, and a sweet, small grand‑daughter. Monica Ratclive’s ‘Arohanui’ comes close to reversing the more usual dead mother/ anguished daughter pattern, here a loving mother (Aroha) tries to reach out to her daughter – an unconscious accident victim. (She does so through poetry, being one of several artist protagonists.)

Friendship is perhaps less fraught. As if to provide a positive version of the ‘three foolish girls’ scenario of Claudia Bell’s adjacent story, Lesley Curnow’s ‘Halfway to Seventy’ describes a gathering of three older and wiser friends. Making up their own version of a patented game called ‘Explain Yourself’, they regale each other with personal anecdotes under headings like ‘Obstetric Misadventure’, thus consoling themselves for the fact that they are, as the narrator puts it, ‘shit workers … kept in [their] place’. I don’t think that these characters are writers (as Dunsford describes them), but they do suggest the authors represented in Me and Marilyn Monroe. As I read this collection, I felt I was meeting real people (many of them angry), people with definite points to make, from experience. The stories will stimulate readers to reflect on their own lives, think of their own stories. Of course, being full of conviction, they are unlikely to make anyone stop and say (with Katherine Mansfield’s Laura at the end of The Garden Party), ‘Isn’t life –?’.

 

Kathryn Walls is a senior lecturer in the Department of English, Victoria University of Wellington.

 

 

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