Novelist Charlotte Wood: ‘The female body seems to provoke this bizarre hatred’

Charlotte Graham-McLay talks to acclaimed Australian author Charlotte Wood – who is appearing at the New Zealand Festival this weekend – about sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and ‘angry women’.

A journalist launches a national enquiry into sexual harassment and is accused of doing it “for clicks”. The Australian media decides to name the woman who privately accused Barnaby Joyce of sexual harassment – and then Joyce himself publicly claims that he might not actually be the father of his partner’s child. We’re told every day that time’s up for the men who abused their power to harass and assault women, but we still get the message, in a lot of these stories, that it’s somehow the woman’s fault. These messy hypocrisies form the heart of Charlotte Wood’s award-winning fifth novel, The Natural Way of Things. A group of young women – all of whom were named in the media as the victims of various sex scandals – are kidnapped and brought to a prison in the Australian desert, where their captors (a shadowy private prison corporation) have one message for them: they were sluts who should have kept their mouths shut.

It is at once a modern commentary on the polarising, divisive discussions we have about women who come forward to report abuse, a magical-realism dystopia, and based in historical fact. Wood was horrified to learn of the 1970s abuses carried out on young women at the Parramatta Girls Home, and the even more notorious Hay Institution nearby. There, the residents were sometimes young women who had reported sexual assault or rape to the police. They were forced to keep their eyes to the floor and perform hard labour. Their lives were rife with abuse, for which no one has ever really been held accountable.

Thanks to a clear, streamlined, and often funny prose style, and the fact that our society remains fucked, The Natural Way of Things (reviewed in 2016 at the Spinoff by Holly Walker) has all the hallmarks of a timeless classic. I spoke to the author by phone ahead of her appearances this weekend at the New Zealand Festival in Wellington.

Charlotte Graham-McLay: When I woke up this morning they were discussing a story on the radio about an intern at the Human Rights Commission who left the internship early because she was groped by a man in a management position at the HRC, and he is still in that job. And they were discussing whether an internal process at the HRC that had resulted in that man being allowed to keep his job was a good process. It was just funny that I woke up knowing I would be speaking to you today and that was the first thing I heard, because your book is about the consequences for women who speak up. But at the same time, not that strange because these stories are a daily occurrence at the moment.

Charlotte Wood: It’s the subject that keeps on giving.

The idea that your book really hammers home is that this treatment of women is not new. It’s not something that started happening in mid-2017 when people started talking about it. And you explore the double-edged sword of what happens when women come forward. Do people tell you that you’re prescient and prophetic for writing this book back in 2015 when it’s something that’s been going on forever?

Yeah. It’s funny that people do say the book was prescient. And I feel the same as you – that it wasn’t really prescient; it was just opening my eyes to what’s going on all the time. The initial spark for my book came from hearing about a real girls’ prison in Australia that was operating in the 1970s when I was just coming into my adolescence. That was the leaping-off point for me, and I started off writing a book set in the 70s. But then because my antenna was up for thinking about what happens to women when they speak – because the speaking is the crime – I suddenly saw it was everywhere now.

It’s not old, it’s not a historical problem: it’s never gone away. It’s just that we at certain points just close our eyes and ears to it. Because as women, you kind of need to do that to get through the day. If you responded to every instance of insult and double standard and just sexist crap that is a tsunami around us all the time, you’d just never get out of bed. So I suddenly opened my eyes to what I was seeing around me here in Australia.

Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1987, and in a depressed kind of way I expect that in 30 years, my book won’t be irrelevant. I hope it is irrelevant. But that’s an unlikely wish.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Agreed. I don’t ask this judgmentally because I end up writing and speaking about these issues a lot too, and it’s a vicious cycle that once you start writing and talking about an issue, you get asked to write and speak about it more. Until you get to a point where – well, obviously I’m grateful to be working in this economy, but also you wish you’d put yourself out there on a more pleasant topic like pastry or dogs. So I wonder, since you know how exhausting these topics are for women to hear and read and write about, and how much you sometimes want to shut off this catalogue of mundane sexist bullshit so you can get through the day, whether you wrestled with putting a book like this out there?

When I was writing it, and it came out in 2015, there wasn’t the level of discussion that’s happening now. There wasn’t a level of public critique, even though sexual harassment was going on everywhere. We weren’t having global conversations about sexism like we are right now. So I felt like I was in a bubble – a weird, dark, horrible bubble.

I’m very wary now of being typecast as the spokeswoman for angry women, and I’ve had a lot of people asking me to speak about that and write about it, and because I’m an artist not a commentator, I do want to be free to just abandon the topic if I want to. As a person, I can’t abandon the topic because it’s what we all live with. But as an artist, I feel like it’s really important to be able to just switch completely away from that. I don’t want to stay in it imaginatively – which was really crucial during the three years it took me to write it. It’s not a fun way to spend your days.

You manage to be very evocative in the book about the things that have happened to these women, both in the past with the sexual harassment or assault that led to them being brought to the compound, and also the terrible things that happen to them while they’re imprisoned, without it ever feeling like gratuitous violence. I was relieved by that. Was it deliberate?

Yeah. It was really important to me, and a really difficult line to walk. I didn’t want to write a book about the exploitation of women that in itself exploited women. And I didn’t want to write about that degradation and psychic violence, more than physical violence, in a way that was titillating or gratuitous. And yet I wanted to convey how painful it is.

I had a rule to myself from the outset that I was not going to put any graphic sexual violence in the book, and I’ve had quite a few readers say to me, “I really didn’t want to read this book because I was afraid how violent it was going to be,” and then when they did read it, they were so relieved that it wasn’t full of horrible scenes that would haunt people.

It’s strange when people say how violent the book is; it’s got no more violence than most Friday night crime shows on television. I think what it has is the fear of violence through it. There are a couple of instances of actual violence, but mostly it’s the threat. And that’s what people are responding to when they feel that it’s a tough read. It was a hard line to walk but it was important to me to avoid violence to women as entertainment. Television is full of that. You can’t seem to have a crime show that doesn’t involve a horrible, mutilating rape. Deborah Oswald, a screenwriter here, talked about how she was sick of seeing dead women on slabs as entertainment. I felt that myself.

But your book does have that clammy, sweaty emotional truth that’s very confronting – those little phrases about the women that feel like they’re taken from the news media and from the way these discussions always play out. In some ways, those are even more powerful than a description of physical violence.

I have to take responsibility for that as well. It’s not like, “I didn’t put any actual rapes in it so everything is fine!” I understand the responsibility of bringing the reader into that darkness, and I didn’t want to leave them too long in that state of fear. As an artist, I tried to compensate for that by drenching the book in beauty as much as I could, and in moments of absurd humour, and focusing on the friendship between [two main characters] Yolanda and Verla. After a certain point in the beginning, there’s possibility for lightness and love and beauty in amongst all the darkness.

One of my favourite ways you do that is through writing about the food the girls eat, even though the rabbit soup sounds gross. There are some great jokes where one of the girls in particular is still clearly pining for Jamie Oliver. You write so beautifully about food elsewhere, so it’s cool to see that get a spin in this book, even though they’re in a gross, dirty compound with almost no food.

Thanks. I did have one friend who said, “I can tell it’s your idea of hellish prison because they have to eat packet food.” There’s something in that. It’s interesting that our contemporary media world and food is pretty weird, really. The Jamie Oliver thing was a reference to the place that they’re in, and how looked at in a certain light, it could look like Jamie’s little cooking shed on the TV show – shabby chic and tin plates, like a fashionable hipster thing rather than a horrible, deprived prison. It was a little joke with myself about contemporary food culture.

Given that you have so thoroughly explored in your writing the connection between food and the mind and body and the self, was your physical and emotional wellbeing something that you were thinking about during the writing of this book?

When you’re writing fiction, as everybody knows, you need to mentally inhabit it as much as you can. I think if you’re really, really imagining well, those feelings do play out in the body. It’s not like I had any terrible physical breakdowns while I was writing the book. I felt claustrophobic, but I could come out of it at the end of the day and go and have dinner with my husband.

But also the book is about bodies; it’s the female body that seems to provoke this bizarre hatred of us. I will never, ever understand what it is about women’s bodies that so disgusts and frightens and threatens a certain kind of man. Because of that, women have internalised that hatred of their bodies, so when the girls in my book are away from all the usual methods of controlling and corralling and constraining their bodies, they start to have a sort of bodily return to nature. It freaks a lot of them right out, that they have body hair and have to deal with periods in this horrible place. The understanding that they are physical beings, and the fact that their physicality is what’s put them in this place, is something I wanted to play around with.

Charlotte Wood talks about women (Screengrab: Youtube)

One of the ways that that plays out throughout the book is their sizing up, and for some of them judging, of each other other’s bodies and each other’s past acts. That is a really authentic thing. When you see the aftermath of rape or sexual harassment cases on the internet where people are judging the actions of a woman who’s come forward, it’s not just men doing that, right? It’s other women too. So in your book, even though variations on the same thing have happened to all of them, they’re not perfectly sympathetic to each other and they want to say, “Oh, but that girl, it really was her fault.” It’s an interesting dynamic.

That was important to me. It seemed realistic that just because you’re trapped in a place with people who ostensibly have the same circumstances as you, it doesn’t mean you’re all going to get along, be united, and like each other. At school, we’ve all been on a bus trip trapped with people you really can’t stand. That seemed to be a normal thing about any kind of imprisonment, that the guards wouldn’t all be united with each other and the prisoners wouldn’t all be united with each other. It’s much more complicated than that.

These girls have been walking around the world feeling like they’re individual, unique human beings. But when they’re kidnapped and imprisoned, they’re told, “You’re all the same thing. You’re only one thing: you’re a slut who should keep her mouth shut.” So part of their resistance of what’s happening to them is to hang on to their own individual circumstances and character. They don’t want to be seen as the same as each other.

One thing that happened near the beginning of my writing of this was that the CEO of [department store] David Jones sexually harassed a young woman and she took him to court. And I was at a function where there was a young woman who worked for David Jones, and my friend asked her what she thought about what was happening with the CEO. She said, “We all hate that girl. We think she’s made too much of it. He didn’t even rape her, why did she get all that money? He just snapped her bra strap a couple of times, she should get over it.”

It was really shocking to me that she had no sympathy for her colleague. I don’t think she knew her, but I thought, “That could have been you so easily, if you’d been working in a different part of the building. You could have been the one to cop this.” But there was a sense that the young woman who had spoken out was letting the side down and should just shut her mouth. That wasn’t coming from men, it was coming from young woman in virtually similar circumstances. That lodged in my head as an example of women not believing or supporting each other. And that’s not saying anything about women and how bitchy and catty they are – which is another whole load of bullshit you have to deal with – it’s just humanity at play, and wanting to have individual responses and reactions that don’t always agree.

A lot of people don’t like that about the book – they want the girls to be much more united, and they want them all to rise up and overcome. But it would be a lie.

Yeah, we’ve been on Twitter! That’s one of the challenging parts of the conversation at the moment though, that even when people agree that rape is bad – which isn’t a given – when you get down to the level of a date where there was a power imbalance and something goes wrong and the woman was upset afterwards – people just do not know what to do with those stories. In your book, that comes through with one of your main characters, Verla, who was a young intern when she had what she believed was a consensual affair with a Cabinet Minister. She initially feels like she’s different to the other women there because they were taken advantage of and she wasn’t, so how her mindset about that evolves over the course of the book is one of the more heartbreaking stories. But it’s the interesting part of this conversation right? Us realising we’ve been enmeshed in this culture where we begin to realise that we accepted things that really weren’t okay.

Thank you very much, I did really want to dig into that complexity. It’s not simple. I think about when I was young and various sexual encounters I had – there was one guy who basically talked me into it. I was like, “I don’t really want to,” and later on somebody told me that was assault. I was like, “It really wasn’t. I could’ve… I could’ve… I could’ve stuck to my guns. It was just complicated.” I thought it would be insulting to a woman who was raped to equate those two things. And yet… Why was I so compliant? Why did I allow his wishes to overrule mine? And so I just think there are so many layers and grades of this, and it’s so good that we’re talking about these layers now.

There’s a kind of difficulty in talking about it as well, because we still want women to be on the same page about everything! We don’t ask that of men. We don’t say that men have to all agree about the definitions of everything, but if a woman says, “I’m not sure about that,” then you’re either with us or against us. And that’s tricky as well.

I had my first job in journalism in 2006, so it’s not like it was 1956, but I was 20 so I didn’t know you could say no to anything. There are people being talked about now who I encountered in those early years, and I had no idea then that you were allowed to take issue with some things that happened. So there is a sense of sorrow for the impact that has had on us collectively. For you, the fact that there are adults leading some of the conversations now who grew up, like you, at a time when the Parramatta Girls’ Home still existed…

Yeah, I think grief is not too strong a word for that. I think it’s a good word. One thing that isn’t talked about enough is the sense of sadness around this, rather than the anger, even when it’s completely justified. There should be grief for the lost potential, all the times that women made themselves smaller or got themselves out of the way or removed themselves from some dangerous situation or shut up when they wanted to speak. You think, what amazing things could we have been doing all this time and we just wasted it? That what I feel sad about.

But also there’s another sort of layer of response to this. I think women of my generation have to be really watchful of how they’re responding. There’s an element of, “Oh for God’s sake, get over it, much worse things happened to me.” And personally, worse things didn’t happen to me, but I know women who endured intolerable, disgusting things in the workplace or at university to the point where our impulse now might be to dismiss what might seem to us like a minor issue, because we had bigger issues to deal with. I think that’s dangerous, because what we want is for nobody to have to deal with this crap. But there’s an unresolved grief about the stuff that my generation had to put up with and the losses that they endured because of it.

I’m also not suggesting that it’s gone away for young women, because just look at the news every day and you can see it’s happening all the time. Talking about this stuff is scary; it opens up a lot of old wounds for people and women are raised still to be non-confrontational and nice and pleasing and quiet, not to be vulgar. One of the things I had fun with in the book was making the girls turn ugly and dirty and not have teeth, and have dirt all over them in a way that isn’t sexy. It’s not like Mad Max with bombshells riding around the desert in loincloths. They actually look horrible and I think a lot of people are utterly repelled by that. Whereas if we have images of men being utterly filthy and running around in the bush, there’s something kind of sexy about it. In women it’s abhorrent and I wanted to throw that in people’s faces a bit. There’s a liberation in that for some of the girls in my book.

One of the stories that interested me in your book The Writers Room, which you wrote around the same time as you were writing The Natural Way of Things, was an interview with Christos Tsiolkas, who wrote The Slap. You asked him how he’d coped with the success of that book and you imagined it was complicated. Is his answer something you’ve returned to since The Natural Way of Things went on to do so well, and win the Stella prize, and create all this attention?

That’s very astute of you to pick that out, because when I interviewed him my book wasn’t published yet. I have reflected on it, and I was really glad I asked him those questions. The Natural Way of Things was my fifth novel, and I’d got to a point where I knew where I was and was kind of able to do my own thing without anyone noticing. My books had been well-received but they didn’t really sell a lot. A couple of them did okay.

So I was really unprepared for this book to go off in the way it did. I don’t want to exaggerate it, because it wasn’t anything like The Slap. But compared to my previous experiences, it was much, much more attention and sales. The thing that Christos said that I think is really amazing – he’s such a decent, honourable, thoughtful guy – was that he wasn’t prepared for the narcissism that that success creates in you, and he used the word “greed” – the “greed for more.” That once you’d had success like his, you wanted more and more and more, and it gives a kind of an acquisitive, grasping kind of quality to your own feelings. I’d never heard anyone say that, and now I can see exactly that it’s very true. It’s something to really guard against.

I’ve thought about that interview a lot and I’ve learned from him. I’m glad that my most successful book came a long way into my career, because I’ve seen enough of other people’s success to know that one big hit doesn’t mean the next one will be. When I was younger, I thought that if this book did okay and the next one did better, therefore it’ll be this slow but inevitable rise. And that didn’t happen. There’s no pattern or rhythm to it, and the only thing that matters is your own interest in the book you’re writing. I can’t guarantee that any of the people who loved The Natural Way of Things will give a shit about my next book.

I could get really stuck on going around speaking about this book for the rest of my life if I wanted to. I think it’s really lovely that people keep asking me to speak about it, but I have to really put some boundaries down because I don’t want to talk about it forever! I want to write a new book.


Charlotte Wood is chaired by Emily Perkins at the New Zealand Festival’s Writers and Readers programme on Saturday, March 10, at 2:45pm. Her great novel The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin, $32.99) is available at Unity Books.

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