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Image: Tina Tiller
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BooksJuly 18, 2022

‘It was just part of her story’: Tessa Duder on writing periods into the Alex novels

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

When it was published in 1987, Alex introduced many young New Zealand readers to their first protagonist with a period. Alex Casey spoke to author Tessa Duder about the series’ quietly groundbreaking legacy. 

All week we are examining our relationship with menstruation in Aotearoa. Read more Bleed Week content here. 

The night before her big race, Alex is struck by a familiar feeling within. “I was beginning to have a very unwelcome suspicion. It was another ten minutes before I could bring myself to get out of bed and investigate.” Her period has arrived, a whole week early. “Oh no, no! Damn, damn, damn,” she yells out from the bathroom, before deciding to internalise her rage. “It was a complication I didn’t need,” she thought to herself. “But not an excuse either. I decided not to tell anyone.”

Periods come and go in Alex, the iconic 1987 young adult novel, just as they do in real life. Following the 15 year-old swimmer as she strives to qualify for the Olympics in 1959, the book is packed with mentions of menstruation from the second chapter. “Strange things happened to my body that third form year,” Alex recalls. “Fortunately, my periods soon settled into a regular routine, hardly noted from month to month.” She ponders the impact of her period on her races, and the swimmers who take pills to stop it, all the way to the very last page, where she packs her gym bag full of “towels, caps, glucose and tampons”. 

For many young New Zealanders it was their first introduction to a protagonist with a period in local popular culture, but author Tessa Duder never considered it a particularly groundbreaking inclusion. “I didn’t put it in there deliberately, it was just part of her story growing up as a 15-year-old in a competitive sport,” she says. Growing up in the 1950s herself, Duder saw Alex as a chance to challenge the stuffy social attitudes of the time. “I don’t remember any chat in the dressing rooms, nothing at school, I just don’t remember it ever being a subject of discussion.” 

Tessa Duder (Image: Supplied)

Half a century later, Duder is more than happy to discuss her own early period experiences openly. Getting her first period at age 11 in 1951, she remembered her mother giving her a curious elastic belt with two half-moons of pink satin on the front and back with safety pins attached. “She then tore up two towels which I had to pin to the front and back and that’s what I had for my first few years of menstruating.” Bulky? “It was.” 

As a teen swimmer herself, dealing with periods in the pool was a fact of life for Duder. “We swam through our periods, we were very careful and we didn’t hang around for long after we got out of the water.” They relied on schoolgirl pseudo-science that cold water temporarily “stopped the blood” as they weren’t wearing tampons yet. So, when it came to writing about a young woman swimmer,  it was natural that periods would feature. “When I was writing, I wasn’t really thinking about ‘how much emphasis am I going to give this’, it just sort of happened.” 

Her editors at the time never pushed back on the inclusion, but Duder does recall criticism after Alex was published from beloved Wellington children’s author Jack Lasenby. “We all loved Jack but he was a bit of a curmudgeon. He was absolutely horrified, he thought it was highly inappropriate in a children’s book,” she chuckles. “That just made me laugh, really, because of course he wouldn’t quite understand how important they are.” 

Although Alex didn’t elicit much outrage beyond Lasenby, Duder remembers several instances where she herself was left astonished by period coverage elsewhere in the local media. She recalled a New Zealand Herald front page that heavily featured “some chap” who was starting up a new domestic airline, photographed grinning next to model airplanes. Beneath it was a short news story about a young woman who died after leaving a tampon in for too long, with a doctor warning about the chance of developing infections. 

“I remember looking at this page and thinking that those two stories were upside down – the most important one should be the one affecting 50% of the New Zealand population and not the one about some chap flying a kite about his new airline.” 

Fu Yuanhui post-race. (Image: YouTube)

In 2016, swimmer Fu Yuanhui made headlines around the world after she revealed that she was on her period after her 4 x 100 metre relay race. Doubled over in her post-swim interview, she told a reporter the source of her pain. “Actually, my period started last night, so I’m feeling pretty weak and really tired… But this isn’t an excuse. At the end of the day, I just didn’t swim very well.” Duder remembers being shocked by the viral response. “What astonished me was that the world’s media thought this was a subject that was worthy of headlines at all.” 

Duder’s no-nonsense approach to periods is also evident in her upcoming novel The Sparrow, set in a women’s prison in 1840s Australia. Once again, Duder says the inclusion of periods just makes sense for the world of the book. “When you’ve got a very young girl in with about 200 women in a prison, you couldn’t fail to be aware of periods,” she explains. There’s a scene where one young woman asks another if periods only happen during urination, to which she replies ‘it just drips all the time’.” Duder isn’t fazed if it is too much information for some. 

“Now, if that kind of conversation is going to upset some readers, well, I’m sorry, that’s just how it is,” she says. Although she never imagined that she would be talking about Alex’s periods in 2022, Duder is pleased that she followed her instincts to include her period in the plot at the time. “I am really glad that I did because, for 50% of the population, it is a major thing. From the age of 12 or 13 into our 50s, it is an incredibly important part of so many people’s lives.”

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