This episode, 'Domestic Spaces', was recorded live at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival on Saturday 26 October 2019. It features Fiona Wright, Megan K. Stack, Archana Pidathala and Fanny J. Poyk in conversation with Astrid Edwards.
The domestic, the interior and the personal have traditionally been relegated to the realm of women’s writing, which in recent years has been dismissed as too small to attract significant readership, critical acclaim and writing awards. Our panelists look beyond the censure and speak out in praise of the domestic.
Fiona Wright is a writer, editor and critic from Sydney, Australia. Her book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance won the 2016 Kibble Award and the Queensland Literary Award for non-fiction. Her poetry collections are Knuckled and Domestic Interior. Her new essay collection is The World Was Whole.
Megan K. Stack has traveled the world to chronicle war and political upheaval. A journalist and author, she was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize for Iraq coverage and her first book, Every Man in This Village Is A Liar, was a finalist for the National Book Award in non-fiction.
Archana Pidathala is the author of Five Morsels of Love, a cookbook based on her grandmother’s 1974 Telugu cookbook, Vanita Vanṭakālu. In 2017, Five Morsels of Love was shortlisted for the prestigious Art of Eating Prize, which recognizes excellence in food writing.
Fanny J. Poyk was born in the city of Bima in East Nusa Tenggara and has been writing short stories, novels, biographies, and motivational books and articles since the 1980s. One of her short stories was included in 20 Cerita Pendek Terbaik Kompas, and her book Narkoba Sayonara won Penerbit Erlangga’s writing competition.
ASTRID: Welcome everybody. And good morning. My name is Astrid Edwards. I'm from Melbourne Australia. I've been chosen to host the panel because I host a podcast, called The Garrett: Writers on Writing, where I interview writers about their craft and I also teach writing at RMIT University in Melbourne. It gives me great pleasure to be on this panel today to discuss women's writing in domestic spaces.
I'd like to introduce our panellists for you. Firstly, we have Fanny Poyk from Indonesia. She was born in the city of Burma and she is known for her short stories, her novels, and her creative writing. We also have Archana Pidathala from Bangalore India. She is the author of the beautiful cookbook, Five Morsels of Love, a cookbook based on her grandmother's 1974 work. She also writes about the art of food writing. And then we have Megan Stack, an American journalist and former foreign correspondent. Her first book, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar, chronicled the aftermath of war. She has now taken a very different path and her second work, Women's Work, a personal reckoning with labour, motherhood, and privilege looks at what happens in our homes. And finally, we have Fiona, my fellow Australian, and author, editor, and critic. She is best known for her personal essays about the body, spaces, and home, including her most recent work, The World Was Whole.
I'd like to set the tone for this session. All of these writers write in very different genres about very different elements of our domestic spaces, and our personal experiences. And traditionally women's writing, especially women's writing about the home, about cooking, about cleaning, about the family, and about the body, have traditionally been dismissed as irrelevant or insignificant. I'm very happy to be on stage with these women from different countries, and different cultures, who are putting that myth to shame. So, today, I'd like to discuss how women's lives, works, and bodies are written about, why this writing matters, and how we value it. So, I'd like to open it to the panel. Can you each introduce your work to the audience, perhaps starting with you Archana?
ARCHANA: Good morning, everybody. As Astrid mentioned, I'm the author of a cookbook called, Five Morsels of Love. And before I became a writer, I was working in technology for about a year and a half and I decided to do this book to honour the memory of my grandmother. So, I mostly write about food, and before I was coming here a friend of mine asked me, 'How do you define a domestic space?' So, I said, 'Let's Google it.'
ARCHANA: Let's Google it. And all you get is pictures of kitchens, pictures of women, pictures of women in kitchens. I didn't see a single man. And you just went on and on, and you know, a lot of times when I'm invited to literary events, people ask me, 'What's a cookbook doing at a literary event?' And when I was put on this panel, I was like, 'I own this panel! I'm a domestic goddess!' (laughs) So I thought I would.
MEGAN: This book is a very personal book that I have written. It came out of I think everything that I have chosen in my career to write about seriously and especially to sort of try to do a book about. It's usually come from the experience of having something happen that is nothing like the way that I expected that it would be. And it's in that kind of trying to unpack it and trying to make sense of it, I end up, you know, writing. I ended up writing this book. In this case, it was, you know, I had always been as a younger journalist I was out in the world. I was very much... I was a foreign correspondent, I was covering a lot of conflict, I was doing a lot of foreign affairs reporting. I was very much in the world of, I guess, what we would think of, I used to think of, as the world of men. When I became pregnant and I started writing books in my house, I was living in China. Later I moved to India. And, so, in order to work at home – I had left my newspaper job by then – I hired a series of women to come and help me take care of my children so that I could keep writing my own work. And it's just that whole process of having these other women who were themselves working mothers who were migrating out of their own places in order to be able to support their children, they had to leave them and work in the city, and they ended up in my house. And it was... I went through a huge process of kind of grappling with that, and my feelings about that, and how to navigate it ethically, and then beginning to kind of interrogate some of the broader structural issues around it. And it sort of led me into this, you know, philosophical path into you know global economics and migration, and cheap labour, and how to behave ethically in this, you know, often dystopian globalized world that we're all occupying.
So, that's what my book is about. Yeah... but it's from a personal... I tried to do it through personal stories. I tried to get my own story. I wanted to accurately portray the ways that it had gotten entangled and sort of braided together with three other women who, and how, we were all working mothers and how we were sort of navigating these trades of money and time... and how we were all kind of trying to somehow fill each other's needs in the ways that that was not working – and the ways that it was – and how those relationships were actually lived. Thank you.
FIONA: I was nodding along there when you spoke about experience... about experiencing things that didn't turn out the way that you expected them, because I think more and more now a lot of my work is about precisely that thing... these narratives that that we're given as ways to live, And when they... when they fall down. And for me those narratives all fell down when I became unwell at about 19 years old and I'm still sick. And it's something that I live with every day. And that affects my interactions with the world, every single day. And usually, many times a day... And I started writing this book thinking that it was a book just about the ideal home. Because, I've always been interested in these spaces because the city I'm from, Sydney, has very... it's a very diverse city. It has all these different little pockets that are culturally, and geographically, very different from each other. And I'd moved between them a little bit and never quite felt at home anywhere. I was trying to figure out... what it means to feel at home and why that just isn't available to some of us.
And then it sort of... one of the things that I think is strangest about writing is that you don't really know what you're writing about while you're writing about it. It's not until you get close to the end that you sort of figure out what this what this actual project has been about. And, in fact, when I got to towards the end of this book, and this sort of second last or last essay that I was writing, I realized that it's really a book about grief and about that changed relationship that I have with a sense of being comfortable, being at ease, being at home in the world, and trying to come to terms with the fact that that's just something that I'm gonna have to live without – probably for the rest of my life.
Sorry, that was a bit of a downer! (laughter) It's a happy book too, I promise.
ASTRID: It's a beautiful book.
FIONA: Thank you.
FANNY: Maybe before I am into this myself, I want to give you a special... special performance. Not too long, it's a little bit. I'm a singer too. Where I'm from we have a community, a community in Jakarta, in Taman Ismail Marzouki... We always read a poem for the community in Taman Ismail Marzouki, I want to read my little poem when I stay in Morotai, you know Morotai, the island near Ternate.
This is from Indonesian singing.
[Resumes singing and then reads a poem in Indonesian]
It's always... remember me to come to... belong the Morotai island. Thank you.
TRANSLATOR: This is... I will summarise it. I haven't had a chance to actually do it justice in translation, I've just read it. But it begins with a small song of longing for home, and
it's about the island of Zoom Zoom, a small island called Zoom Zoom, which is just off of Morotai, which was the... which his moment of fame was... as a launching base for General Douglas Mathias MacArthur's return to the Philippines. So, it was a massive World War II area of focus.
FANNY: Okay. My name is Fanny Jonathans Poyk. I am from [speaks Indonesian]. I am writing, it is about 45 years. Before I am writing I am children writing, short...
TRANSLATOR: Children's stories.
FANNY: Teenager story, so yeah... [speaks Indonesian]
TRANSLATOR: She writes for all types of media in Indonesia... from the 80s until now. She has been a journalist for 25 years in Jakarta... and a consultant to the Ministry of Education for Language and Culture. So, she's a Bahasa Indonesia editor... she edits fiction and biographies, in Bahasa Indonesian.
TRANSLATOR: And she travels for the Ministry now, in all provinces of Indonesia to teach people about short story writing and poetry... to engender some enthusiasm in the younger generation how to become a writer.
FANNY: Thank you.
ASTRID: Thank you, Fanny.
ASTRID: Thank you for your performance, and also congratulations on engendering enthusiasm in the younger generation. I like the sound for that! Now, because this panel all has different... all comes this panel with different writing and different skills, I have a few questions for each of you individually and then I'd like to provoke a discussion between you all.
Archana, I'd like to start with you. You are the custodian of your grandmother's recipes you have been bringing them into the 21st century in a wildly beautiful way, I have to say. You also write about the art of writing about food. I'm interested... because sometimes women's writing particularly writing about food and cooking is dismissed, did you ever hesitate to move into this area?
ARCHANA: Yes, of course. Also, because I was brought up as this bright young girl who was meant to go out and go into the world and not sit in the kitchen, and cook, and maybe write about the act of cooking, and recipes, and food, and culture. And, both my mother and grandmother consciously kept me away from anything to do with food in the kitchen. So, I did what, you know, I was... I assumed was the right path and... I did go and I went to elementary school, I went to business school, I had a career and I was doing very well. Then I lost my grandmother and... it was a way... for me it was personally a way of getting back to her. To do... to not lose what I have. So, that's what got me into food, but I quit my job. My mother would tell anybody who would ask me, 'So what is Archana doing now?', 'Oh, she's on a sabbatical. She couldn't get back to work very soon–'. And I was like, 'No, Ma. I quit my job to write a cookbook!'
And she... she was embarrassed to say it herself to a point where I was questioning if, you know, if it's... it's a different point that anything a woman writes gets suppressed and looked down upon, and I recently wrote a piece for the national newspaper about how I was at the losing end of both gender and genre because, you know, as a woman writing about food is enforcing, you know what, all the stereotypical notions of what a woman should be, could be, has to be.
So, yeah, it was a struggle to let go of a career to... to, you know, just what I wanted to do. And, once I started writing, I enjoyed the process so much that, you know, I saw more fulfilment in what I was doing – than what the world assumed a modern contemporary woman should do. So, I think it's... to just go to the example of the poet Maya Angelou. She wrote two cookbooks, but she's known well for her poetry... and she was once asked, 'Don't you think it was unworthy of you to write cookbooks? You should have used that time writing more poetry.' So, she said, 'I'm not apologetic about the fact that I wrote two cookbooks.'
So, of course, all these questions and all these dilemmas and dichotomies of, you know, should I be a man, and be out and earning money, and you know, be the boss in the world? As opposed to just finding my space, and peace, and fulfillment with my own life. So, I think it took a while to come around that confusion, and finally finding my space.
ASTRID: I'd like to go back to what you said about your mother, and how she didn't quite believe, or was maybe embarrassed about telling people that you'd quit your professional job to write about cooking. That's your mother's reaction – that's not a public reaction – but your mum was obviously feeling maybe... social approbation or judgment? Can we unpack that a little bit? Like... why is it embarrassing, or not nice, for your daughter to want to write a cookbook?
ARCHANA: So, I do not know if it is a cultural thing, but in India the minute a woman starts earning money, there are three things that get outsourced. Cleaning the house, taking care of your children, and cooking. So, these are three things, once a woman is financially independent, you're not supposed to be doing that... And, you know, I grew up in an upper middle class family which could afford all of this as I was growing up. So, it was always work that was not worthy. You know, all this that fell in the domestic sphere was... was something that you could easily outsource. So, to see passion and desire a creative pursuit of any of the quote unquote 'domestic spaces' was... unheard of, at least, in the culture I grew up in. It was something you had to give up to do better stuff in life.
ASTRID: I suspect this is a worldwide phenomenon, not just in India. And, your comments segway brilliantly into Megan's book, which is about... outsourcing domestic labour and who gets to do that, who gets to pay for that, and that balance of time and money. Megan, can you give us an insight into your experience and why you felt it was important to write about it?
MEGAN: Big question... I'm thinking. Well, I mean, this is something... it was a thing that kind of went on for years, that whole process of, as you say, outsourcing. In some ways, I feel like – and I think I wrote this in the book – that we kind of like back ended into it a little bit blindly because my husband and I had been, sort of, living overseas for a long time.
We were both foreign correspondents and for years we... we had lived together even before we were married, and we were always in this sort of like high adrenalised constant traveling. Something happens, you jump on a plane. maybe you don't come back for a month? So, for years we'd had, you know, we'd had women we'd hired to – I don't think we ever had hired a man at that point? We eventually did but that's another story – who would come in, you know, for a few hours, I don't know, a few times a week and just kind of give the house a cleaning, and, you know, keep an eye on things when we were gone. And so, when we came home the whole place was like... when we were living in Cairo and Moscow, and just so the whole place wouldn't kind of collapse in our absence, so there would be a steady presence.
When we had a baby and I suddenly was... everything changed because I quit my job. I was starting what I thought would be my second book. We were in China and we just sort of... we didn't really engage with it – this is like our starting point. We just... we, you know, we still had this woman who was coming in a few times a week, and she was just kind of giving the place a quick spiff up, and leaving, and we had a very friendly cordial relationship with her. But, you know, she came and went on her bike and we didn't, you know, it was a very transactional kind of a thing. I wouldn't say it was a deep personal relationship for her or for us.
But then I sort of... when I had the baby and I was sort of hit by this realization of how much labour there was going to be from that point on... all around me – the whole time I was pregnant – there had been this sort of like a hum of people around me saying, 'You're so lucky you're having your baby in China because help here is cheap.' Everybody kept saying that to me, 'Help here is cheap.'
And, you know, this sort of assumption that OK you're here so obviously you're going to hire a full time person to come in and help you take care of the baby because this is your sort of advantage as a Westerner living on Western salaries that you'll be able to hire somebody for what is not, for you, a significant sum of money that you can have full time help.
So, that... you know, which we hadn't done, but then suddenly when I had the baby all these voices kind of came back to me and I was like, 'What am I doing? You know this is crazy.' And even some of our neighbours in our apartment, where we were living were saying, 'What are you doing?' You know, to hire an 'Āyí' which is what you say, you know, this is sort of like a term used in China it means Auntie, but it's you know it's someone who would come in full time and be with you or with you in the house.
And so, we did. At that point... it was like this desperation hire because I was, you know, the baby had colic... I hadn't slept. I didn't sleep for four days, I think? Giving birth, and then came home, and had to start breastfeeding, and so... I was just out of my mind. We were in China and it wasn't... in the beginning, I was so... my husband had a job where he was still traveling all the time. And so, in the beginning it was very much like... I just, I was... it wasn't like an intentional act. It wasn't like I wasn't analysing it. I was just drowning, and it was like, here's this person who's helping me.
And so, it started like that, but then it kind of, you know, the process just kept evolving, because as I became closer and closer to Shao Li – who was the woman who was working for me there – and became more aware of her life, and then more aware of my ambivalence about her life, the fact that she herself had a daughter who she'd had to leave with her with the grandparents in a village, and that... I could see, I could feel that one part of what was happening in our house was that she was transferring her own maternal instincts onto my baby, that there was this sort of... you know... that she was getting some emotional like... there was a hole inside of her that she was being able to kind of fill with this maternal love that she was also lavishing on our child, which I wasn't, you know, that... that was very painful.
And, I think, for a long time I kind of perceived it but I... It took me a while to be honest with myself about it. And, in some ways, the book is about that. And then, it was sort of, you know, I mean I could go at length about this... but then I, you know, I moved. Eventually we ended up, you know, we went through a lot of things with Shao Li – she became pregnant again, she ended up leaving the house. We moved to India and there it was again like sort of, you know, having... we had two more women coming in India and it was also, you know, just sort of the whole process of dealing with their lives, and our lives, and how they were intersecting, and just the... all the problems with it, like all the things that were wrong with what we were doing, and all the things that were kind of, also, in some ways, like devoid of the sort of economic and global context that were very natural. Because in some ways I felt like... I felt like there were moments where – I think I said in the book somewhere – it takes a village to raise a child and, you know, damn it... I've hired one, you know. So, I had these people in my house, and I was sort of reconstituting this natural situation of having a lot of women around you, which I do think is natural. I don't think as human beings we are designed to be alone with one mom and one baby I think it's a very difficult thing to do psychologically. I think we're sort of meant to have, you know, our family and our female relatives around us at that time. So, anyway and just... it went on and on and kind of... well it's all in the book. But yeah, I feel like I could talk for an hour, so I won't retell the whole...
ASTRID: It is a whole book. It offers a different insight into what we think of at home. And one of the points that you make in the book is that women's lives are often erased, and in this context that you're talking about hiring in labour so often that is erased in our literature. And you go back to meet women and talk to those who came into your life. I'd like to discuss it – in a little bit – But before we go on, I just want to ask if you felt any hesitation in putting your own story, and the story of these other women, out into the public?
MEGAN: Yeah I... that was, that was a big, that was kind of... I wouldn't say a stumbling block but that was something I had to work through. I was hesitant about this entire book. I felt like... and I've since then I feel like I'm still in the process of unpacking why I wrote the book and how I feel about the fact that I've written the book and it's months after it's already been in the world. But I do feel like there's also... I mean I can say sort of self critically that when I look at my own attitudes towards it when I started to write it I feel that there is a certain amount of internalized misogyny in it because I really did feel... one of my early feelings was I don't want to be, you know, I don't want to write about motherhood. I would talk to my husband, who is also a writer, and I would talk I would tell him some of the things that were going on and he would often say, 'You should write about all this. It's really interesting.' And I was like, 'I'm not writing about this,' you know, 'I'm not going to be a mummy blogger.'
I was very disdainful of this idea of what you were saying before... this idea that somehow if I start writing about the domestic sphere, I'm... I'm like... I'm lowering myself. It's not, you know, it's like I'll be giving up... I'll be giving up this other work that I fought so hard to be able to do, and I've competed with the men, and I've been in that world, and I'm not, you know... now that I'm, you know, middle aged with kids I'm not going to just like retreat to the house. And I felt very defensive and very kind of angry about it. So that was hard.
As far as writing about the women... I mean I had conversations with them about their level of comfort, but they were all for it. And since they were all for it, I really wanted to write their stories because one of the things that I... that I felt most shocked by was how complicated their lives were and the things that they were doing. I mean, I felt like the choices that me and my husband were making were very trivial compared to what they were what they were dealing with. I mean, these women were, you know, fiercely intelligent, very limited in their possibilities and choices, and the strength... I would always try to imagine when – I mean I still think about them every day because I think about like... if I have to do something that I find challenging I think about, you know, the idea of growing up in a village and finding yourself so unable to... to take care of yourself and your family that the only choice you have is to, with minimal education and no money, get on a bus and go to a huge megacity, where you don't really know anybody, and find your way alone in the world, and get these jobs, and throw yourself into these households where... I mean there is horrible exploitation in the domestic labour sector. You never know what's going to happen to you. You don't know if you're going to be physically abused, sexually abused, exploited. So, I... you know, and the idea that they would do this and that they would, you know, that... that they had... that millions of women do this and that they find this strength inside of themselves to keep going and to keep moving forward. You know, that I... I still feel like, you know, I'm so humbled by that and I'm so... and I wanted to explain to the readers I wanted the readers to see them. And I wanted to see that these women are... this network of women is not only underlying my life, and the life of so many women, and men, and families who live in places like Indonesia or some of the countries that I've lived, but all of us including in the developed world, and that's a very important bridge for me in this book. This idea that migrant labour, an impoverished migrant labour is... is central and foundational to our entire economy. So, it's not just like, you know, you're in India or China so you're doing this thing, and it's a little bit ethically questionable. Those ethical choices are inside of all of our lifestyles and everyone in this room is making them. So, I wanted to kind of also... kind of put that to people, a little bit.
ASTRID: You do it well. I'm very well aware that we are holding this panel in English and most of us write in English. The stories that you tell aren't commonly published in a major English publication yet, but I do hope that that starts and continues to change, and we translate it more works from other languages. Fiona, I'd like to go to you. It is lovely to be on stage with you here.
You take a third different approach to writing about what it means to find home and feel at home. Can you talk to us about that?
FIONA: Well that's a big question! [laughs] There are... a lot of domestic spaces in the book because I think one of the things that I was grappling with – and it took me a while to figure this out – is that I've... I'm a homebody. I think... is that, you know, the term that people use? And I... part of that is because of my illness that the domestic sphere is just available to me in a way that the public sphere isn't a lot of the time. I work mostly from home and I do that because it suits me temperamentally, but it also suits me physically. I can't do eight hours in an office it's... I break. So, my... my home space for all of my adult life has always been a working space as well as a home space. And I think that does change the way you relate to the place.
But I think where I started writing from was thinking about the part of Sydney that I grew up in which is a long way from the city proper and right out in the suburbs. And it's very... it's quite it's very nice. It's very beautiful and... but it's also very... it's very middle class, very ordinary. And I always felt very ambivalent about that. That these have... that it's a kind of its regular in its ordinariness. There's something kind of very honourable and... and special about that that I really wanted to tap into. How do we write about ordinary lives in ordinary spaces in a way that doesn't diminish them? That... that lends them the importance that they deserve as the sites in which most of us live out most of our lives. But at the same time, is a place that I never felt comfortable in and always felt a little bit estranged from just because I'm a strange person [laughs]. I'm just wired a little bit differently from a lot of my peers. So, I think that's... that's the kind of grappling that I started... that I started with.
But the more that I read, and the more that I thought, I realized that there was a lot of stuff around gender tied up in this. A lot of assumptions about what kind of lives count, and what kind of stories count, and why we don't kind of think about domestic spaces as having the same kind of narrative importance as kind of... as stories of travel, for example, or you know that... I had to think about that a lot because, you know, I do love to travel, but it's not something that I do easily or particularly well. And I also was finding out at the time that one of the things that keeps me well is sticking to routines and having a good solid foundation where I don't change much on a day to day basis, and to do the similar things at similar times, and that's what I need to do in order to stay well. And I was very embarrassed about that for a really long time that it doesn't... it's not a very exciting story. It's not a glamorous or transformative way to live but it's what I need and it's what I've got. And it's special and it's beautiful. And I wanted to kind of get a get that across that... that there's a certain beauty in repetition and in homeliness and in just being okay in the world not trying to shake things up all the time.
ASTRID: Can you talk to me about the word 'embarrassment'? It came up earlier in the panel with Archana and her mother's response to, you know, writing about the domestic arts and home. Why were you embarrassed? Can you unpack that for us?
FIONA: Oh yeah [laughs]. There's... I think there's a few things that play that... but, Archana, your story about these... growing up with these narratives of supposed to... I went to a school that was always telling us that we were, you know, the leaders of tomorrow and that we were gonna have these wildly exciting international globetrotting, you know, lives. And 'the creme... the creme de la creme', they said that a lot. And every time I hear that phrase now, like, something in me just shudders. It's a terrible thing to tell people because you know it doesn't... it doesn't make sense to tell everybody that they're the leaders of tomorrow, right? Because who's gonna be doing the following? Quite happy to be doing the following. It's much more comfortable. You know, and then... and then I got sick and the idea that there were parts of the world that were going to be closed off to me because of this was horrifying at the time, and it's... and it's a big adjustment to have to kind of come to terms with that, and try to be okay with that, and making the best of the parts of the world that you do have. I think part of it came from to... one of the hallmarks I guess – for want of a better word – So, I have a very rare stomach condition that... makes it difficult for me to keep food down. And as a result of that, and probably temperamental and personality factors, and genetic factors – because we now know that's it that's a huge part of these things – At some point that developed into... into an eating disorder as well. So, it's a kind of two-pronged problem in my approach to food, and energy, and keeping myself alive.
But one of... one of the things that happens to people who are malnourished, for whatever reason, is the brain gets very rigid and... and people develop quite intricate routines around food and eating in particular and sort of eating the same things at the same times in the same order at the same places. And they don't really know why that happens. They think it has something to do with the neurons in the brain have a kind of fatty coating on it called myelin... myelin sheath and we know that, you know, when you lose fat from your body you lose it from everywhere including around your neurons. So, they can't conduct electricity as easily as they do when you're healthy and well. So, you know, your brain doesn't function in the same way. And you get very kind of... your brain is very, very interested in food because it wants you to be able to pounce on it the moment you see it. It's kind of a survival... a survival tactic. And that kind of the combination of those two things leads into this very ritualised routine eating. And when I first was in treatment one of the... one of the first things I tried to shake up was routines and rituals around eating, trying to make people eat different things and different – well at the same times – but, you know, trying to introduce variety, which is the thing that causes huge anxiety if that's not the way that, you know, your brain is kind of wiring you. So, I think part of it too was that I had this story that my routines were part and parcel of my illness, rather than being what I need in order to manage my illness and, you know... and manage my body. I'd been told that they were pathological. And I think trying to move away from that caused me a great deal of anxiety and embarrassment too.
ASTRID: When you decided to put these stories into the world and publish them, what response did you get from publishers? Did people want to publish this kind of story?
FIONA: I'm very lucky that I work with a very special and wonderful publisher. They're a small publisher and they're a literary publisher. So, all of the books they do unusual and often kind of sit in between genres and do different kinds of work. So, I didn't actually have any trouble in that sense. One of... one of the very first essays I wrote I performed. So, I was working with a writing group that did a lot of performances at the time. Stupidly, didn't warn my parents what I was going to be talking about and they were sitting like right in the front row and I could just see their faces and I was like, 'Whoops!' Probably should've given them a heads up, hey! But my publisher was at that event too and kind of, you know, I think at the time... And he sort of came up and spoke to me afterwards and said, 'I hope you are thinking of writing more of those,' and 'That would be an excellent book,' which was... which was wonderful and exactly what I needed to hear.
I think they're – I write essays, so, these aren't kind of narrative memoirs. They're more kind of collections around an idea and around a theme. And I think there's more and more of that happening now, which is really exciting. At the time it wasn't so much. But I was keenly aware of the fact that... I was suddenly made aware because I'd entered into treatment and was meeting other people with eating disorders for the first time, and realizing how much we had in common even though I thought for years that I was nothing like them, nothing like that, not me. Suddenly being made aware that I had a very different perspective on the world. And I was trying to understand what that meant, I guess. And I think the publishers were really responsive to that. That this is a perspective that they weren't really seeing and I'm so excited that is more and more of that work happening now.
ASTRID: I think we all should be. Fanny, you have been writing for longer than anybody else on the panel. I'm interested in how you have seen... how your own writing has changed and what you write about, how that has changed over time. But also, how the publishing scene has changed. What different stories can get published these days?
FANNY: Okay, thank you. [speaks Indonesian]
TRANSLATOR: So, she says she's very interested to hear from all the different panellists, and to hear the different perspectives on how they write based on their personal experience in their own personal space.
TRANSLATOR: In Indonesia lots of women want to write about what's happening in the spaces around themselves in which they find themselves.
TRANSLATOR: She says she thinks they would like to write about what about their environments and their stories. But writing in Indonesia is quite difficult for most women.
TRANSLATOR: So, if you write a series of stories, for example, and you want to put them in the book she says it's really very expensive because you have to pay for the editors yourself, you have to pay for the self-publishing, that there's very few publishers that are willing to take the risk.
FANNY: Yes. [speaks]
TRANSLATOR: So, what she finds is that many women come to her and they tell her their stories. They tell her stories about... about their husband's behaviours, about their children, about their lives and the complications. And she ends up writing stories for them.
FANNY: [speaks] to depict the dead side.
TRANSLATOR: She says she's very fortunate in that her father is... she's from Eastern Indonesia, and her father's was quite a well-known intellectual in Eastern Indonesia, and gave her a lot of space, a lot of opportunity, to take in these stories and to write different stories from different perspectives.
TRANSLATOR: She says her vision for the future is to see these women empowered so that they can write their own stories and publish these stories, so that these experiences are put down on paper in a concrete way and they're not lost for future generations.
ASTRID: That is a beautiful vision. Can I also ask you if any... why have the women of Indonesia, why have their stories not been valued yet? I understand it's difficult to publish but is there... do people want to hear these stories? Is the readership there?
FANNY: [speaks] interest that had up fully signed by to the Indonesia skyline.
TRANSLATOR: When she was growing up books were the thing. There were no hand phones, there was very little television, and she says entertainment and reading was the activity.
TRANSLATOR: And in this era of gadgets the capacity for really meaningful reading has declined substantially among the youth.
TRANSLATOR: She says the real challenge today is how to... how to revive that the desire to read and so that women are more interested in actually putting stories down because people will read them. And is it... she questions whether the government needs to actually come in with a law to say, 'Oh, you can only limit the time that you spend on gadgets like hand phones and other things.'
ASTRID: Now that is a big idea.
TRANSLATOR: She says it becomes a very closed circle if women write stories about their lives, there in limited publication. They're read by other people, other women, just like them and it becomes a very small circle. She says, what happens when youth and other people, other the broader society, doesn't read... they're only fixated on the... on their cell screen and they don't read those things. So, she worries about that.
ASTRID: I think that we maybe all worry about that here. Fiona I think that you are the only one on the panel who hasn't necessarily said that there was a difficulty in getting your stories published or being received but I'd like to ask you all... In the domestic sphere stories about what happens at home, what happens in our families, the cooking, the cleaning, the labour at home... it's often not published. But so too, the happy stories of home, the joy, the joyful experiences of making a home and enjoying the child raising are also not published. Does literature, does writing, does publishing have a responsibility to help change that perception?
FIONA: Can I speak on this?
ASTRID: You can.
FIONA: One of the things that I found really challenging and that I had kind of hovering in the back of my mind when I started writing this collection and thinking about it as a book about ordinariness, and a book about the everyday, and a book about home, was sort of sat in the back of my head was... how do I make these interesting? Because by its very nature ordinariness, repetition, the things we do again, and again, these don't lend themselves to narratives. You know, we all taught about narrative arcs where, you know, they're at you... someone starts out, complications, things, you know, it's supposed to be a journey that involves – I hate the word journey, by the way – but, you know, a narrative is supposed to have progression and change. And, so, that was kind of a big hurdle for me that I was sort of keenly aware of that. Without transformation, without change, without problems that are overcome, how do we write about ordinariness? That... I really felt like that was it a big struggle that I was butting up against in the writing. I kind of approached that by writing these sort of fragmentary essays that are littered across the book that I also think of as prose poems, because I have a background as a poet, that are just about capturing small moments, and some of them are painful moments. A lot of them are small moments of beauty, or respite, or joy, and just trying to build up this pattern of what ordinary imminent repetitious... but okay and lovely living looks like.
And I think that's one of the reasons that essays were helpful to me too, because they don't depend on narrative in that way. I think the narrative tension is a real problem or a real difficulty that you have to kind of butt up against when writing about these sorts of spaces or these sorts of experiences. That's... sorry.
ASTRID: Don't apologize, Fiona. Your own thoughts?
ARCHANA: My story is slightly different because I independently published. I published it independently because my grandmother did that 50 years ago with her cookbook. And that was kind of inspiring me to find my own collaborators and do it. And you know the more I got into food, the more I realize everybody's got to eat, you know, and every...
FIONA: Not true. Not everybody has to. [laughs]
ARCHANA: Oh sorry [laughs]. So, the thing I realized about food is it's personal, it's political, it's culture, it's people, it's places, it's a sense of time, it's a sense of place. There's a lot more than writing five lines of, you know, this is how you make a masala or a dahl or whatever it is. And I think every culture and every country now has a... a, you know, has a food political story. And where I come from beef is banned because, you know, because we are in this far-right political ideology, at the moment. And I wrote a piece on beef and how for centuries as a nation we have eaten beef, irrespective of which religion we came from, and it's obviously a political angle to food. So, what I hope to do, you know, getting back to your question about publishing and is a difficult? So, what I what I really hope to do is... I can get to publish more women who can talk about every day, who can talk about, you know, who's... if somehow this idea of woman can't exist in their thoughts and words... It's just been perpetuated and this battle with publishers is, as she mentioned too, that it's... you know, I hope I can enable that for women where I come from.
MEGAN: I think that... I mean... I have come to think that everything in the household is incredibly interesting and also very relevant. I mean, everything that exists in the world comes through the house, whether it is, you know, a drug addiction, or a political situation, or the economy. I mean all of that ends up getting directly into people's lives, in the space of the house. And I think there is a huge interest from the time of, if you look at children's literature and children's books in stories set in homes, I think people at all age points do you like to read and like to see stories about people's homes. I think one of these like newspaper features that we that we all kind of enjoy, I think – I know I do and I feel like this is one of these things that we see a lot because people really like them, are these features where you have like, you know... what do families around the world eat in a week, and you see the photograph of, you know, or, you know, what are the toys that children around the world play with and you see a photograph of all these different cities in different parts of the world.
And you can see, you know, it's so interesting because it's such a space of commonality. And it's also a place where cultural differences, or economic differences, or religious differences, will kind of exert themselves in ways that are very intimate and very revelatory as someone who's looking at the piece of work. So, I think there is a hunger. I think there's a bigger question about who is telling the stories and whose versions. Because if you think about it, I mean from, you know... I'm a huge reader I'm sure most of us are. But, you know, I read a huge amount of fiction and if you think about the great Russian works almost all of them are domestic and in many ways, like Anna Karenina is a domestic work, the Brothers Karamazov is a is a domestic work. If you look at, you know, wherever you're looking in world literature even... even in the classic canon which is now being somewhat subverted, and that's probably a good thing. Those books are often... they are, they're love stories, they're family stories. They have a strong domestic –
FIONA: But they're not called domestic because they're by men.
MEGAN: Exactly. This is what I'm getting to. They're written by men. And even for example like The Home and the World, Tagore, that is a man's personal... that's a man sort of putting himself in the place of women. And so that's crossing that line. I mean, I feel conscious of having done that because I... I did want to tell the stories of the women who worked in my house but I'm also a white person with more money who is in effect telling their stories. I mean, they're telling me their stories and I'm writing them. But I'm filtering them, I'm shaping them, I'm taking over that narrative power. I'm not 100 percent happy with doing that, but I felt like it was better than not having their stories in my book. I did want to have their stories.
But if you look at like Roma... I don't know did Roma come out here and Netflix? It was, you know, a domestic workers story and that that was very powerful. I think Downton Abbey was actually quite revolutionary because that was sort of a mainstream TV series that took seriously, not only the dramas of the sort of the wealthy family upstairs, but also the people who were working in the house and brought in all those elements of their stories and their love affairs and their family dramas.
So, I think there is a huge widening right now, culturally, not only in these stories which I do think we have always lived with, but who is who is being able to tell those stories, and who is profiting from the distribution of those stories. So, I think that... I think it's actually, I think there's a lot of good news in this area. Personally, that's my... That's what I think.
ASTRID: I think that's a topic for the entire panel.
TRANSLATOR: She's very fortunate to have been born as a writer.
TRANSLATOR: She's very fortunate to have written other people's stories from housewives, to people who have been marginalized, from the very, very poorest, to the rich and they all come out. She's able... she's lucky to have been able to present them through her stories.
TRANSLATOR: she's published about 45 books now.
TRANSLATOR: And now she's writing about how the younger generation can be free from drugs. These are... this is the focus of her stories.
TRANSLATOR: So, she's always thinking about how after she's no longer here, what is it about her writings that would speak to someone else and would say to them, 'Oh, this is a really interesting set of ideas about the future and about the younger generations.'
TRANSLATOR: So, this is a collection of 11 short stories she's written about women from Eastern Indonesia which are very... is a very different life. And this one is also in English and for sale here.
ASTRID: Thank you, Fanny. I would like to open the panel up to questions from the audience.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Thank you for the very interesting discussion. And I'd like to ask the panel whether or not you don't think... that, you know, in a way this discussion is about social class and power. I grew up... I mean I brought up three children by myself with a chronic disease and it was at the time there was very little support of any sort, because I'm so old that when I began work women didn't even get equal pay in Australia.
ASTRID: We still don't.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: [laughs] No but even if you... the man next door was doing the same job day and... And my friends who were able to mainly work part time and live in their domestic space I just looked at as being incredibly privileged. And so... I sort of wonder if this whole notion of the domestic space and that is not just an issue about class and power.
FIONA: I'm... one of the one of the essays I have in this book is about being a long-time renter in the third most expensive city to live in in the world, which is Sydney, and precisely those sorts of questions. How do you make a place of home when your home is by necessity unstable and something that can be taken away from you, whenever the landlord decides he wants to sell? So, it is something that I'm keenly interested in and I think a lot of these questions about home and belonging have changed for my generation, where so much more of our lives are precarious and more changeable and subject to sort of forces that are all your fault [laughs]. Just to get intergenerational on you. You know, we don't... we don't have access to the same... the economic situation is different, career progression is different, housing is different. You know, it... and that's very much a big part of what I'm grappling with in this book too. How do you how do you understand home when it's not secure?
ASTRID: I think your hand was first and then our final question at the back.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Hi. My question really leads on from that a little bit and it's about gender in writing about domestic spaces. And I think Megan made the point that all life ultimately comes back to the household and is filtered through the household, and we all grow up in homes and families. So, I'm interested to know why domestic spaces and writing about family and home is seen as female? Because men also have homes and families. And it's... when men write about home and family, is it interpreted differently and not called domestic? Is it called literary fiction or a masterpiece?
MEGAN: That's exactly... that's such a good point! It's true. I think that the big question that I have as a writer and it was a point I meant to make before, but it slipped my mind in the moment, is it's not so much that the stories are existing and that they're being told it's also who is reading them. For some reason, there is a real wall which I was not fully aware of until I wrote this book... that men do not see these books as being for them. I actually wrote my book thinking it was for the world, like my first book, and like everything I've ever written. I did not realise that because it has the word women in the title that men would not... I get notes from readers almost every day and there are all women. I would say with one exception, everyone who has reviewed the book or written about it has been a woman. I feel like I've suddenly been siphoned off into this side room and I'm quite offended by it, actually, because I really intended the book... I love to have women readers and I'm all for that, but I didn't realise that men would not take this as theirs. And then I start to read all these studies about, you know, men, you know, don't buy books if they have a woman's author name on it, women authors have a harder time selling to publishers. If they change their name to a male name with the same manuscript, they'll have a higher rate of acceptance. I think there's a huge there's... there's a question, who's consuming the books and how the perception of having to write as a woman shapes our access to audience which is ultimately translating into both political, and real, and financial influence in the world. So, it's a... that to me is the bigger question is why men aren't reading.
FIONA: I'm very happy to not be writing for men. That doesn't bother me at all. I know my readers are women and I am thrilled about that.
[laughter and applause]
ASTRID: I'm well aware that most of our audience is not male. So, thank you, for all who came. We have run out of time. Can you all join me in thanking the panel.