Beyond the silencing process Lauris Edmond
It’s said that as you grow older you become more au fait with the past than the present. Along with many other myths of aging, this one does not fit my experience – or not so far. However this year, prompted by celebrations for a landmark birthday, I have been looking back with great interest over my own 25 years of writing and publishing. It is a momentous quarter-century in my own life, marking a late arrival in the occupation I always longed to enter, and the sudden and crowded fulfilment of long-delayed ambitions which followed.
But it is more than that. Writing in the wider sense, as the raw material of a vigorous national literature, has changed dramatically in that time, and women’s voices have had a defining influence on the process. 1975, the year I published my first book of poems, In Middle Air, was International Women’s Year, and the year in which a number of other New Zealand women, now well-known as writers, appeared for the first time. Not that any of us would have thought of ourselves as part of a movement – we were far too engrossed in the thrilling process of finding our own voices, and discovering to our amazement that readers listened to us.
It is clear now, if it wasn’t then, that New Zealand writing badly needed these new voices. We were, indeed in some ways perhaps still are, a pioneering society; male valour and feminine accommodation had been useful as qualities. It is not at all surprising that they should become elevated to the status of value systems and, naturally, celebrated in our emerging literature. However, this powerful culture of men’s writing reflecting men’s experience – the tradition that Kai Jensen in Whole Men (1996) called “masculinism” – held within it limitations which, as Jensen points out, were damaging to male writers themselves. For women, they were crushing.
My own experience, partly because I defined it in a very detailed way in my autobiography, was a vivid manifestation of this larger phenomenon. During the 20 or 30 years when I could have tried to publish my own poems, but did not (I wrote them, but in secret), there was no visible opposition to my sending them off to editors and publishers. The silencing process was, as we say these days, in my own head. This of course is how prejudice works, and we now know to call it “conditioning”. Harsh and condescending criticism of women writers had been an accepted – even entertaining – part of the public utterance of writers like Fairburn and Glover. Portrayals of women in the work of Sargeson, an admired and influential writer, were both ugly and absurd.
It is probably fortunate that in the emergence of new traditions nobody thinks in these large terms at the time. I myself – and many other women writers – simply wrote about what we knew. “The life” and “the work” were inextricably related; they were simply different aspects of the same experience. Some of the most poignant events in my life were built into my knowledge of family relationships, so that’s what I wrote about. Fiona Kidman in fiction wrote about women’s real lives, including their sexual desires and frustrations; Rachel McAlpine made sharp fun of men’s power systems; Elizabeth Smither brought her mordant wit to a contemplation of social behaviour. All four of us were outside any recognisable tradition; all had published our first books of poetry in 1975.
We were condemned for being “confessional”, “domestic”, “over personal”, “vulgar”, “trivial”. Now, 25 years later, it is interesting to reflect that New Zealand writing has expanded to encompass far more of those very qualities that prompted such disapproval. Writers now cover a much broader range of experience, and present it with greater candour. Of course this is not only because women’s writing has joined the literary mainstream; the world we live in, and reflect in our books and plays and films, has itself become far more diverse and more adventurous, and at the same time more intimate and emotionally explicit.
However poetry, as always, presents a different case from prose. And whatever the reason, I do observe that women’s poetry written here still has far more emotional freedom in it than its male counterpart. There are notable exceptions like Hone Tuwhare, whose poems show a positive pleasure in exploring the messy underworld of human emotions. It’s a territory that is still avoided by many poets who, skilful as they may be, prefer to write poems in which the greatest adventures are verbal ones. The reason, I suggest, is that the skewed culture which made male writers, and indeed men in general, wary of the “weakening” effect of too much emotion still has a powerful hold, though rationally we would deny such a proposition.
If these reflections are valid, do they give any of us, readers, writers, editors, critics, observers of our own culture, any greater control over the direction our literature takes? I do not think so. But we do something more important – we construct it as we go along. Only those making other assessments, another quarter of a century ahead, will really be able to see what it is we have made.