A smorgasbord of intellectual and spiritual nouishment


By Rose McCann

A love of reading and writing plus an abiding interest in feminism proved to be an irresistible combination for the 24,000 fortunate souls who made it to Melbourne on July 27-31 to visit, participate and revel in the sixth International Feminist Book Fair. And what a smorgasbord of intellectual and spiritual nourishment it proved to be.

Held in Carlton's vast Royal Exhibition Building, the five-day event included a book trade fair featuring 250 publishers, booksellers, distributors, women's presses and organisations from around the world. "Browsing" took on a new meaning. In addition, there were continuous and concurrent (up to 18 per day) panels of international speakers, plus discussion, in full rooms each the size of large auditoriums!

The qualitative and quantitative growth in the international connections among women, greatly fuelled since the United Nations International Women's Year in 1975 and the subsequent Decade for Women, was in evidence at the event. During the past couple of decades, hundreds of thousands of formal and informal women's groups have emerged in countries around the world in response to the needs and interests of women of different beliefs, races, ethnic heritages, sexual identities, classes, religions and regions, and as a result of the deeper percolation throughout society of feminist ideas.

The last book fair, in Amsterdam in 1992, attracted some 8000 women. Besides this year's event being three times the size, the breadth of representation of women writers, including from eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America, made this celebration of women's writing and achievement a particularly rich affair. Combined with the strong participation of Aboriginal, Pacific and Torres Strait Islander women writers and storytellers, as well as writers from South East Asia, audiences were treated to the sort of broad perspective on literary culture and international politics rarely accessible to most.

Noteworthy from many sessions was the growing sophistication in the evolution of feminist debate and the extent of its areas of inquiry. The inadequacies of most existing ideologies, whether they be Marxist, liberal or authoritarian, to solve problems from women's perspectives is encouraging more thoughtful approaches. Also evident was how much feminist debate is increasingly moving away from simplistic notions of essentialism and universalism towards more socially encompassing and complex analyses of human society, its structures, and the varying roles and behaviour of women and men within them.

Hearing the diversity of women speak of the issues and concerns that move them to write and read, brought home the fact that seeing gender-based inequities as inextricably linked to racial, ethnic and class division is virtually received wisdom for perhaps most feminists today. Also gratifyingly evident was how increasingly multicultural and anti-racist feminist thought and practice is becoming in the 1990s. In fact, it must be said that the feminist movement worldwide (and women's writing and publishing is a powerful part of that movement) is becoming an important arena for anti-racist and multicultural activism. The theme of the literary fair, "Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Writing and Publishing" had a lot to do with demonstrating this.

Many women writers said that they consciously approach their work with the understanding that the richest, most varied and typical area of women's political activity is found in the politics of everyday life. This insight, they said, guides the way many of them choose to write. For example, Siobhan McHugh, author of Minefields and Miniskirts, an account of the experiences of a range of women living and working in Vietnam during the war, said that she was accused by one male reviewer of "trivialising a weighty issue to the level of personal experience". But thinking that women's experiences and perspectives are trivial, and thus ignoring them, means missing a vital social perspective on life and politics that only women, because of their distinctive position, can supply. It can also mean ignoring the power of women's everyday experiences to be a mobilising force.

While the event was primarily a celebration of women's writing, the importance in many cultures of the oral traditions of storytelling, song and poetry, and the use of modern technologies to preserve these voices for the enrichment of future generations (for example, the new CD ROM version of the Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia, which includes 50 video and audio clips) was explored in a number of sessions.

The ongoing idealism of the women's publishing houses (many of them set up in the very earliest days of 1960s second wave feminism) in resource-rich Western countries was most heartening to see. Many of these presses' highest priority is to seek out, translate, publish and promote women's writing from the world's poor countries, or the writings of indigenous, black or other women of colour. These publishers were the first and continue to break new ground in publishing the writing of such groups.

One of the most powerful messages from the event was the extent to which any issue can be important to women anywhere. Sensitivity to context and diversity does not negate the simultaneous recognition of common experience, and the need to build alliances. No region or culture in the world is immune from violence against women — individual and state violence — and much of women's writing deals with aspects of this. Also interesting is the way in which the causes and nature of violence is being dealt with in women's writings today. Discussions took place on the reasons for: violence towards Aboriginal women within their own communities; violence towards women in societies where religious fundamentalist practices hold sway; and women's own violence to others, such as infanticide, which, worldwide, is largely carried out by women.

The obstacles women face in putting pen to paper were also scrutinised. These included: political repression involving censorship, surveillance and periods of imprisonment (speakers from South Africa and the Philippines); the accusation that writing, or certain types of writing, are a luxury or bourgeois affectation (from the revolutionary left particularly in Third World countries which included speakers from Namibia, Vietnam and the Philippines) and; cultural stereotypes that place restraints on the individual writer's confidence in herself, or on the topics permitted to be freely explored, such as women's sexuality and religion. On the other hand, many women also spoke, in most moving and personal terms, of how writing was a healing ritual, a method of survival and an expression of anger. "Our anger and its expression in writing is what gives us and others the courage to fight," many insisted.

While in many countries there is a thriving feminist culture that is often not connected to broader political activity, the necessity for alliances, including international alliances, was discussed in a number of sessions. One example is the International Network of Women Living under Muslim Laws, set up in 1984, and organised from bases in Uganda and Manila, with links to 500 anti-fundamentalist women's groups worldwide. Discussion around this and the ways in which women writers and activists are attempting to deal with the complexities of a resurgent religious fundamentalism, which is inherently patriarchal and anti-woman, was just one of the fascinating issues covered.

The fair wasn't all serious stuff of course. Whether your addiction was cartoons, children's books, sci-fi, crime novels, or lesbian romances, there was plenty of opportunity to discuss these popular forms of genre writing by women writers, many of whom claim they have a conscious political agenda, as well as offering a much-needed avenue of escapism. Also on offer was loads of practical information and advice to librarians, teachers and would-be writers about subjects ranging from cyberspace and copyright, interactive media and education, or how to get your manuscript read (last year Penguin Australia received 100,000 unsolicited manuscripts and published three).

Here we came full circle again to the importance of the feminist presses. Maori writer Keri Hulme's Booker-prize winning novel The Bone People was rejected by some ten mainstream publishers before it was finally accepted and published, to subsequent world acclaim, by a local feminist press. The next international book fair is to be held in Sao Paulo, Brazil.