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Natalie Kon-yu is a feminist first
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Conversations
3 February 2020

Natalie Kon-yu is a feminist first

Interview by Eleanor Jackson
Photography by Gregory Lorenzutti

There is no doubt Australia has made great progress towards gender equality in the past decades. And yet, despite important changes in community attitudes, women and girls in Australia continue to experience significant inequality and discrimination in many areas of their lives. What’s more, since 2006, Australia has dropped from #15 to #44 in the Global Gender Gap index, a yearly benchmarking report by the World Economic Forum that provides an overall ranking for countries on the gender gap between women and men. Our near neighbours, New Zealand, come in at #6.

Against this disappointing regression, Dr Natalie Kon-yu is a writer, academic and editor who consistently strives to bring Australia women “to the front”. Through her research, writing and advocacy, she questions why women’s voices and experiences are less likely to be considered worthy of public attention and respect, particularly in Australian literature. She is the co-commissioning editor of #Me Too: Stories from the Australian Women’s Movement (Picador, 2019), Mothers and Others: Why Not All Women are Mothers and All Mothers are Not the Same (Pan Macmillan, 2015) and Just Between Us: Australian Writers Tell the Truth about Female Friendship (Pan Macmillan 2013). Collectively, these anthologies reflect the extraordinary range of Australian women’s experiences of motherhood, friendship, sexual assault and the complex, changing social norms that continue to define their lives.

Forthright and determined, Natalie has been at the forefront of research and critique about gender and racial inclusion and representation in Australian books and stories. She was Co-Director of the Stella Diversity Count in 2016 and currently leads research into cultural diversity in the Australian publishing industry. She was at the vanguard of calls for an Australian women’s museum and is co-founder of the Victoria University Feminist Research Network. An hour with Natalie is lively, bristling with wry humour and “truth bombs”. Unlike many academics, Natalie isn’t afraid to call it as she sees it, blending research with experience and storytelling to tackle the enduring barriers to gender equality.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

ELEANOR: You are a writer, academic, a critic, advocate, teacher and editor. Each of those roles really strikes me as a very particular way of looking at the world. They’re not necessarily just jobs. What hat do you put on first? How do you see yourself?

NATALIE: Oh that’s a really good question. I always think…as soon as you said it, the first hat I put on is “feminist.” So I guess the advocate. Because I’ve always seen things as unfair through a gender lens my whole life. And I don’t know why. Well I do know why, because things are unfair through a gender lens! But the first thing I would say is that I’m an advocate and that the various other hats like writer, editor, teacher enable me to do that work in different ways.

But feminist is the very first category. And it’s on my list and I didn’t read it! Is that why you do so much of your work in collaboration? Because you’re someone I really admire for the way that you connect people together.

Collaboration is very important to me as a feminist act because I think we live in a culture where men have been very good at helping each other get to the places they get to. They don’t do it alone even though they like to think they do it alone. Especially in, say, an academic setting. They actually have a lot of hands up along the way. And so for me collaboration is a feminist act because I think we all need to help each other to get to the places we need to go. So one of the things that I’ve done at work is set up a Victoria University Feminist Research Network and that is all about helping women. Helping women apply for promotion, getting them formal mentorships. Just helping them navigate the workplace in the ways that women have to navigate the workplace.

Is that a question, I suppose, of power?

I think so. I think that I have been in the situation where I have seen women who are wonderful struggle to get to places that men I think are quite mediocre get to.

You’re not naming any names.

No I’m not naming any names! Because there are so many names. But…and I look at these women and I think, “no, no, you should be informing that policy” or, “you should be putting together that book” or, “you should be doing this.” And how can we work together to help you to do that? That makes me sound a lot more altruistic than I am ‘cause I also want to do those things as well. But it’s a big passion for me, helping women…you know, achieve the things that they should be achieving.

Also I wonder that it doesn’t have to be “either or”.

No.

We can also want to see ourselvesas a real agent of change. I would hope that one of the things feminism offers is seats at the table for more people, not just changing out who sits on the existing seats.

Exactly. We don’t want that same model of that masculine idea of merit. “Well if you’re good enough you’ll be here.” We know that’s not true. We know that the stats don’t support that. And I want that too. More feminists driving whatever bus I’m on, that’s what I want is more women taking charge.

What we’re talking about though, it’s not new.

No.

We are meant to be riding this fourth wave of feminism – suffragettes, civil rights, legal rights, reproductive rights, and then now a postmodern disintegration of feminism. Why is it still that we need people to bring women’s voices to the front?

‘Cause there are too many men in charge still of industries. I think if you look at the publishing industry, I know we haven’t done the statistics in Australia but in the US Lee and Low published their Diversity Survey. They found that the people who made the most money in the publishing industry were the men. Even though they comprised something like twenty percent of the industry. And then it was white women and then it was women of colour. And it’s the same in places like academia. And our ideology, the stuff that we get fed through television, through watching or engaging with politics is that men are in charge. So there’s this huge ideological shift that actually hasn’t had a chance to go forth. Like it’s still there. Men are in charge and women are helpers or whatever. Or secondary. We haven’t actually made that shift yet ideologically.

You’ve been a really articulate critic about Australian literary prizes and that prize culture. Is that a reflection of that change that we think needs to happen? That we still see men winning, that men’s writing is “better”…?

Oh God yeah. I mean I see it…I think I work in one of the most poisonous industries for it and I’m going to make no friends whatsoever saying this, but I think we still see too many male academics putting other men on class lists. Setting texts by men. Setting, you know, the “classics.” Because that’s what their standards of literature are. I think we still live in a culture where we don’t like to think of women as having an intellectual life. And we’re actually not really interested in women having an intellectual life. That doesn’t really suit our purpose of what women are for. So that’s one of the most difficult things I think. And so when it comes to literary prizes we don’t see women winning as often as they should. Or for the books that they should win for. They tend to win more if they’ve written about a boy or a man than they do if they’ve written about women or girls.

You said something that I want to come back to.

About men in the industry? In academia?

You said that you weren’t going to make any friends.

Mm.

What risks do you think it poses as a writer, as an academic, to call out some of these things? And why do you take on those risks?

(laughs) I don’t know! I probably haven’t thought them through enough. Well yeah. I mean there are…I guess there are risks in bagging your colleagues or, you know, a subset of your male colleagues. Considering especially that they tend to be the professors among us.

Because I’m assuming that most people are saying the reason Patrick White is on the syllabus is because that’s “good writing”. So when you call that out are you saying that Patrick White is not good writing? Or is it a different challenge?

It’s a different challenge. I’m saying that we are not thinking hard enough about why we think Patrick White is good writing. We think Patrick White is good writing because we’ve always used those measures of good writing where women were not included in the canon. Where women were not even permitted to write, or when women had to write under pen names. It was only when men started getting involved in literature that things started becoming canonised. So I think when I’m saying that I think we’re not being critical enough about what good writing is. And what good writing excludes. And why it excludes it.

So then why do these prizes still matter? Or do they? Should we be challenging the fact that there are prizes like the Man Booker? Or the Pulitzer Prize? Or the Miles Franklin? Or the Stella Prize?

I would hesitate to say that because I know how important prizes are for writers and for the industry. But I admire the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I think it was the first prize that started up for women. Was it the Orange then?

Originally the Orange.

Yeah, back in the 90s. And the Stella Prize. By virtue of holding up another set of books they’re saying, “Well, actually these are really important too.” I think showing people that there are other ways of defining greatness. And that maybe our way of defining greatness is not so great because it’s built on a whole bunch of exclusions.

Is that one of the benefits that you think we would see if we were to diversify our literary culture?

The benefits would be to get other people reading and other people writing. I’m really interested in getting other people writing and getting other people published. And as a migrant woman, you know, even though I was born here I come from migrant families, to actually see yourself reflected as the centre of a narrative I think is a very powerful thing. Likewise I think it’s very important for white men to see themselves standing back from the narrative. To see themselves on the sidelines. Because we know that there are issues around a certain kind of masculinity which says, “You can be the centre of everything, you can be great,” you know? There are dangers to that as well. There are harmful gender stereotypes in both of those. The man at the centre, the woman at the periphery and the woman of colour even further away. But I think it’s important that people get to reflect their experiences authentically. So that means people of colour and women of colour writing about their experiences themselves.

You do a lot of writing about how institutions hold stories. I was surprised to learn that we don’t actually have a women’s museum in Australia.

No.

What would be important about having some kind of institutional stronghold for these sorts of stories?

The idea for the women’s museum, there are women’s museums all over the world I should say, virtual and physical, came from a trip that we took in Vietnam. My husband and I. And my husband loves seeing monuments and historical things and I get very…I get what I call, “dude fatigue.” I don’t want to hear about any more men who have built this country. I don’t want to hear about any more scholars. I don’t want to go to the Confucian museum, even though I admire Confucius as a person and that was an option on that particular day. And I do, I get dude fatigue. And so we were looking through our guide book and there was a women’s museum. And I was like, “I want to go to the women’s museum.”

Okay.

And it was the most amazing experience. It was just all women and it was really unexpected stuff as well. So you know, you have the typical, “this is the tools that women used in ancient Vietnam” stuff. But then you also have, “these were women who posed as vendors or market sellers or, you know, fruit sellers, and then took in like twelve American soldiers in one go.” You know, it was amazing! And beautiful. And I left there completely transported and really moved. And then immediately angry that we didn’t have one in Australia because one of the things I’ve noticed, and I think anyone who’s gone to a museum has noticed, is how much the stories of who we are or how we came to be are stories about how men got us here. Or important men. And when I was thinking around this museum stuff I went to New York for a research trip and going to the MOMA and The Met and seeing how few women are held in those exhibitions in the permanent collections of those great galleries. And I think it’s something like five percent of the permanent collections are of women artists. It might be better now. So that’s why I thought it was important because it was like if we are not going to represent women’s intellectual and creative life adequately in our existing institutions, let’s just build our own.

And do you think that would give us other opportunities for Indigenous and migrant women too?

Absolutely. And that’s one of the hopes I have around the “Her Place” museum is that it does do that. And it’s something that we try to focus on. And making sure that we are being inclusive and we are telling these stories in an authentic way.

If that first thread of your work is all about bringing women’s voices to the front, I think the second thing I notice is that it’s all about embracing difficult topics really directly.

Yes.

You don’t shy away from talking about inequality, injustice, motherhood, illness or mental illness. I mean you’re looking at things really head on. And difficult topics, not just saying, “It’s nice to be nice to women!”

(laughs)

But, instead, “here are these really difficult parts of their lives.” And you’ve collaborated on a couple of anthologies already. One is around women’s friendship and the next around women’s experience of motherhood and the differences in those experiences. What did you learn, as an advocate, as a feminist, about bringing topics like that to the foreground? How do people react?

Oh. I mean when we did our first book that was amazing. Any time we had a public event we had so many women coming up to us and saying, “Oh, I need to tell you my story about me and my friend.” I think there was this real need for women to hear about these experiences that are not well reflected in the popular culture and to realise that they’re not so alone in their experiences or they’re not, you know…there’s nothing wrong with them. That these experiences are normal, we just don’t like to talk about them. And that’s been the impetus really for both of the books was like, there’s so much fluff sold to women around friendships and around parenting that…

It’ll be nice! BFFs forever!”

(laughs) That’s right. That’s right! “What could go wrong? You know, we know each other’s every thought!” Or, you know…

“You’re so whole now that you have a kid!”

Exactly. You know. Mothering is like nothing else in the world and that’s true, but not in the ways that we’ve been told. And so yeah, it is my desire for women to feel less alone in those experiences. And to feel like they are less wrong. So that’s always been what has driven me and the group of editors I work in.

You’re about to launch a third anthology in the same series. Really centering women’s voices and looking at difficult topics. And this time around you’re taking on “#MeToo”.

Mmm.

Why those stories now?

Well there was a story floating around about a male journalist who’d been commissioned by a major publisher to write a book around the “#MeToo” movement and around women’s inequality…men and women’s inequality. And we thought basically, what the fuck? Why are you getting a man to write about this? Women have been writing about this for years. Why don’t you listen to those women? Why aren’t you asking those women to write about it? Why should a man be writing about “#MeToo?” Isn’t that the wrong way to talk about it? Haven’t we heard men’s stories around sex for, you know, a million years? And so why shouldn’t we get a whole bunch of women to tell their own stories instead?

The #MeToo movement in Australia, though, it’s been criticised perhaps…criticised maybe is not the right word. But people have certainly noted its kind of muted nature.

Yes.

In the US you might see not just tens but hundreds of high profile figures across a range of industries really being held to account. In Australia, we’ve seen more defamation lawsuits.

Yeah.

Why do you think these writers in the collection, or even yourself as editor, why do you feel brave enough to speak out when really many others haven’t?

Well firstly we’re really careful around areas of defamation and protecting the authors and that’s something the publishers are really careful about as well. So there’s not that big risk because we’re not saying, “hey, this person assaulted us.” But at the same time just because…because the conversation has in Australia been hampered by those concerns, because I think we’ve got different laws than the US. So, you know, taking that consideration carefully, we still thought it was important for women and non-binary folk to tell their stories. And I think so many women have because it’s such a big issue. And I don’t know a single woman that it hasn’t affected in one way or the other. And some women have had their whole lives blighted by it. Other women have turned that rage and done amazing things with it. Which is incredible, you know.

There is still a real risk though for women who do share these stories and stories of this nature. In one of the essays which I’ve been lucky enough to have a read of in an advanced copy by Ginger Gorman. And she’s talking with Julia Baird from the Drum on ABC about how aware women are that to come into those forums, those spaces, to speak out opens you to trolls, opens you to online harassment and abuse. It’s a kind of double-edged sword. That there is the experience and then there is the ongoing trauma that comes from speaking out. Do you feel worried about that? Or how does that affect this particular work and how you’ve brought ixt together?

Oh look I think anyone who is in the book would feel concerned about it. But at the same time I think you can’t let people bully you into silence. And that’s been important for me in talking about my story and I think it also feels a bit safer when there’s a collective of women saying, “Hold on, it’s not just this person, it’s not just that person. It’s like thirty of us in this book have said…” And you know, we had to turn away so many submissions because there was just too many to take on. Which was a real pity because we wanted to publish everything, but that would have been bigger than Harry Potters.

I wonder though, with that original commission you’re talking about, asking a singular male author to write a kind of mass survey of #MeToo, you assume that’s probably more of an academic book. What’s different about sharing first person stories?

I think story draws you in in a way because you can relate. I think when you’re having people talking at you about a situation that’s very different from hearing someone who’s gone through something themselves. And also having such a broad range of women talking about a broad range of experiences in different forms I think is really powerful as well because it’s…the book is saying…it’s not just a simple thing that is the problem. It is all these things. You know. It’s a sliding scale of sexism that we’ve all had to put up with our whole lives that has sometimes culminated in just the most horrific violence. But I think it’s broader and it’s more personal at the same time.

There was some recent research from Jesuit Social Services around men and masculinity and their identities. The findings corroborate lots of other existing research saying that men who hold really traditional normative ideas of themselves are more likely to suffer harm both to themselves and then to those around them.

Yeah.

So it’s not just women who suffer from this kind of toxic masculinity. It’s men themselves. What do these stories tell you I suppose about the state of men and masculinity in Australia?

Oh the state of men and masculinity in Australia is such a big issue here in a very particular way because of, you know, what we might call “blokey culture.” Which is predominately white. Is born from a rural ideology about a man standing alone and suffering …

Against nature.

Exactly. Suffering against whatever to make a good go of it. And no one can do that. No one can do that alone. No one can do that without a community. And I’m not surprised that there is genuine mental health issues around…or in men who hold that idea because that’s such an awful amount of pressure to live up to. And it destroys any notion of asking for help, which I think is very important for us. We are humans, we are social creatures, and we should be able to ask for help when we need it. This is at the core of a certain kind of masculinity which is really toxic to men and women.  And it perpetuates this horrible myth of the solo hero who doesn’t need any help. It’s not possible and it’s not true. And I don’t know why men do it to themselves. But of course it’s not men doing it to themselves because you look at the men who are, you know, in charge of our industries, of our politics, of our entertainment industries, of our book industries, and they are not only white straight cis-gendered fully abled heterosexual – I said straight. It’s worth repeating twice.

(laughs)

But they are also middle class. And often have been given huge advantages. But they don’t like to talk about that, or that’s not really reflected, because that’s not very romantic to say, “Well, you know, I faced this and I won because my parents helped me or my parents paid for it.” So there’s a kind of fallacy that men who have made it to the upper echelons have done it in this solitary pioneer way, which I don’t think is true. You know, broadly true. And I think they perpetuate that myth because it makes them feel better about themselves. And then when other men are trying to live up to it, they can’t.

But whose responsibility is it to change those rules or shift those norms? Or who is going to be able to? Is it all of our responsibility?

Mm.

Who do you see having the ability?

(laughs) Wonder Woman. (laughs) I don’t know. I don’t know. I think you’re right in that it has to be all of us and I think one of the things that men can do, particularly middle class men who have good jobs who are secure can take time out and do some caring around family. Children, elderly parents, sick relatives. We have to start valuing those other kinds of work that are not in the spotlight or ego driven. I think men are slowly…especially men who live in urban centres who are well educated are slowly realising that they’re missing out on things. That it’s not just about going off and having the fabulous career and providing for your family and then being able to pat yourself on the back and say, “I’m a good man,” but that they are actually missing out on their children’s lives and those kinds of things. So I hope that men can do their part. And I think obviously the work will fall to a lot to feminists because it always has fallen to feminists to, you know, point it out and hopefully enable some real structural change.

Or how do you think people will respond to these stories in the #MeToo anthology?

I don’t know. I think a lot of people will see themselves. A lot of women will probably see themselves in the stories and I think that’s both sad and good. I would hope that men might see aspects of their behaviour or aspects of their friends’ behaviours in the stories and start to critically examine those behaviours and what they mean and how they can be construed by others. Because we have a…there’s this horrible semantic debate around, “well that wasn’t meant as abuse, so it’s not abuse.” Whereas I think if it’s experienced as abuse then it’s abuse. You know. I don’t think it’s up to the perpetrator to create the definitions. I think we have to listen to the people who’ve been, for want of a better word, victimised by them to create those definitions. So I would hope as uncomfortable as it is that there will be a little bit of reflection. But I also don’t kid myself that a lot of the men will read the book. I don’t think they will. It will be predominately women who read the book.

In one of the stories, by the writer Kath Kenny, she is talking about successive waves of feminism and what the #MeToo movement reminds her of in relation to Helen Garner’s, “The First Stone”.

Yes.

In that that was a high profile interrogation of where sexual harassment was at in Australia and we’re still talking about it decades later.

Mmm.

What do you think is different about this moment now and what does “Me Too” offer for that?

I think sadly the movement has become popular because you’ve had a whole bunch of white actresses say it’s happened to them when we know that “#MeToo” was started by a woman, Tarana Burke, who was an African American woman who’s very concerned about her community. So I think, you know, it’s one of those things that’s become popular because of the white actresses involved. And so there has been a bit of momentum behind it. And there has been not just one or two women but lots of women coming forward. So the use of social media and of that hashtag, “#MeToo,” has been really important and galvanising. So I’m hoping that’s the difference. That it has global coverage, that it is easily used or recognised by social media and that women have been emboldened to speak up about their experiences collectively.

I’m going to cross my fingers for that one.

Yeah me too. It takes courage to speak up, and to see so many women feeling like they can speak up, that this is something important that they should say, that’s been wonderful.

I’m really…I am hopeful though. Because I think that there is traction and change. But it was sobering to start the collection with someone looking back so recent histories that hadn’t necessarily delivered all of the change that you…I mean you just have to say, that women deserve.

Yes.

Women deserve lives free from these kinds of harm. So I’m going to keep crossing my fingers. I love though that you mentioned Tarana Burke because I think that she is not necessarily someone who receives the same media attention here in Australia, you know. We’re really guilty here, as a society, of thinking of harm as only important once it begins to happen to quite a privileged class of women. But Tarana also talks about really wanting to move beyond the statistics. Like we all know the statistics. But she talks about wanting to move to solutions.

Yes.

In the stories that you’re helping bring together, did you and the other editors see solutions emerging?

I don’t know if we have pinpointed a solution. If we did we would have written a book about it! But I think the way towards a solution or solutions is, number one, it’s always more important to have women talking to each other about these things. And to hold up women’s voices and to prioritise them. And number two, it is that uncomfortable recognition of male behaviour, of accepted behaviour, that I would hope women will talk to their partners or their friends or their family about and, you know, start some conversations. But I think it has to be…look, I think it’s still entrenched in the ideology and I think really nothing is going to change until we have more women making stories that make it to the mainstream or writing policy that affects everyone.

Your story really stayed with me from the anthology. You talk about the sexualisation of children. Essentially particularly the way we let young girls know from an early age how much they are other peoples’ property, by virtue of how we’re allowed to sexualise them. Do you know what I mean? I get to see you, I get to own a little bit of part of you, I get to take from you. And that sense of peoples’ entitlement to women.

Yes. Yes.

It was really devastating for me to think about how that happens at such an early age. And I just wonder how this sits for you as a mother?

It scares the living shit out of me. I can’t put it any more eloquently. It terrifies me to think of my kids being subjected to that very pervasive idea that you are…you are as important as you look and how you look is pleasurable to me and I take this weird perverse satisfaction in how you look. It’s really distressing. And I think it’s…you know, as a parent you have to be really vigilant against those messages of, number one, you don’t want your kids to think they’re important because they’re beautiful anyway. But number two about how they take that on board. You have to be really vigilant in critiquing that…those kinds of comments when they comes up. I have people who call my daughter ‘princess’ and I say, “well you can call her a princess, if you call me a queen.” Because then that makes sense. So if you’re going to refer to me as “Your Highness” then you can call her princess, but otherwise no. You know? Because the way in which we think of princesses is that they are there for decorative purposes only. They have no real power. And so it’s that disempowering narrative around the princess trope that I find particularly problematic.

Do you hope both as a parent and also a writer that this story that we’re telling to each other now will be of relevance to your daughter or son? Or are you hoping it will be like…?

“What a weird thing you guys did in 2018!” (laughs) Yes, I’m hoping that it’s going to be like, “that used to happen to people? I can’t believe it!” You know. I’m hoping it’s going to be this weird relic. Like, you know, wearing lycra to the shopping centre – which I do. (laughs)

(laughs)

I wear my tracky pants. You know. But they’re going to look at it in that same strange…

Yes.

Disconnected way. That’s…you know. That would be wonderful.

Well I mean it was alien for people of my grandparents’ generation to think of women working outside the home. Now people can do both. It’s a struggle to do both at the same time. But it is not a forbidden impossibility. Women don’t lose their jobs when they get married in the public service these days.

Anymore. Yeah!

But how do you feel…? I mean to read an anthology like the “#MeToo” anthology I wasn’t sure if I came out feeling hopeful or horrified.

Both. I think both. You can’t…I felt both. Because it is horrific and I remember when I read your story or a story of anyone else I knew and you heard about this horrible thing happening to someone that you care about, and you’re like, “my God.” It’s devastating. Personally devastating. But at the same time that you are able to articulate it, that you are happy to share it, that you were talking about it, that’s the hopeful part to me. So I’m hoping it’s both.

Is there a story within that that gives you the greatest pride as an editor to know that you’ve helped bring it to more people?

Well there was a story by an older woman who hadn’t done much writing before and she had been raped in the 70s. And she was very…very keen to share her story and very happy for editorial help. And there were a couple of stories like that actually that, you know, they weren’t the typical white middle class writerly types. But their stories were important and we wanted to help them get as far along as they could. So that…to me that was satisfying. To help bring those other stories out.

Eleanor Jackson

Eleanor Jackson is a poet, performer and advocate for cultural diversity.

Photography by Gregory Lorenzutti

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