When Ryan Broderick, Deputy Global News Director at BuzzFeed, went about trying to find “social justice” literature at a London bookstore in a bid to poke fun at a male feminist, the only books that he could find for a pose were: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

While these may be feminist reads, the picture goes on to show that in your average bookstore you are not going to find an accessible stack of books written by feminist writers. After so many years of feminist writing, shouldn’t bookstores have more to offer? Where is all the feminist writing?

The first of its kind... well, sort of

The inaugural Feminist Writers Festival, the first of its kind as far as its name is concerned, has just been announced in Melbourne, Australia. This is not to say that it will be unique in terms of intended agenda and content, but surely there is no other writers’ festival with the f-word so prominent in its banner.

Panels that discuss feminist writing have been an integral part of all major literary and writers’ festivals around the world and one needs to only glance at the international literary calendar to know that many local variations of women writers’ festivals already exist. So why a Feminist Writers Festival?

Cristy Clark, chair of the festival, says it all started with a Facebook post she shared in 2015, in which she wrote about her hope for a space to engage diverse voices of feminist writers across the country. She received overwhelming encouragement that indicated a need for a more in-depth engagement with the scattered community of feminist writers which does not always get the support and visibility it would like.

Is writing the hardest job?

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A few minutes of glancing through tweets of Australian feminist writers makes it clear that it is no easy feat to openly call oneself a feminist writer. One of the most outspoken feminist writers in Australia is Clementine Ford. On January 25 she tweeted a seemingly harmless line:

“Writing a book is the hardest thing I have ever done. #homestretch”

In response, Youtube user Gary Orsum introduces the tweet by saying:

“I like this one. This one’s f***ing hilarious.”

After displaying Ford’s tweet, he goes on to show the picture of a male sewer worker and addresses the worker:

“Excuse me mate,” he drawls, “um, Clementine Ford’s having a pretty hard time of it. Would you mind letting her do your really cruisy job as a sewer worker for a week, while you take on the hardest job ever in the world of writing a book and stopping whenever you feel like it to make a cup of tea and get on twitter and abuse men?”

The video has over nine thousand views and four hundred likes. Social media abounds in such responses. Feminist writers are often inundated with messages on how and what they should write, where they are going wrong, and what their aims should be in expressing themselves. Even voicing that it is just too difficult to be a woman writer brings more brickbats than empathetic nods. In short, feminism has a long way to go in helping women writers write in voices they are comfortable with and still be acknowledged as equals in the literary world.

A more empirical evidence of bias on the Australian literary scene is provided by the Stella count, which shows the ratio of books by men and women reviewed in twelve major Australian review publications. It continues to indicate a clear bias by male reviewers towards male authors.

As Gloria Steinem aptly proclaimed recently at the Sydney Writers Festival:

“Just don’t ask us if feminism is still relevant.”

Cristy Clark, Chair of the Festival
Cristy Clark, Chair of the Festival

Breaking through barriers

I asked Clark what she would say to people on anti-feminist forums online who allege that the festival is a separate box, an exclusionist space with a label that even today makes some women squirm.

“We see it from a political perspective. We see it as progress, as freeing people from historic boxes. People who hold the most privileged position in society are going to resent people who dismantle those privileges,” she says.

The ambition of the festival is evident in the diversity of its committee members. Among other members, the committee is represented by Celeste Liddle, who is of aboriginal origin, Maxine Beneba Clarke, who is of Afro-Caribbean descent, and Shakira Hussein, who has Pakistani roots. These are Australian writers who continue to disrupt the status quo by asking difficult questions.

In an article in Overland, Clarke asked, “How can our major prize for the best book written by a woman in Australia have so far only been won by white, tertiary-educated women with academic backgrounds, whose (albeit very excellent) work is largely concerned – in character and ambit – with white Australia?”

Shakira Hussein, author of From Victims to Suspects: Muslim women since 9/11, says, “We must step up to more intersectionality. We need to bring into mainstream, women writers with disabilities, transgender writers, and women writers of different religious and cultural backgrounds.”

A work-in-progress

Clark is cautiously optimistic about the impact of a single instance of such a festival. And she hopes it opens up conversations about pressures faced by women writers.

“One of my areas of interest is what happens when women writers want to step back from the personal narrative and want to write from research-based, big-picture political perspective. I think they are pushed to take the memoir approach. Such kind of pressure empties an important space of feminist perspectives,” she says.

Hussein hopes that apart from visibility and debate, the festival also provides avenues for mentorship and connections between the well-known, the not-so-well-known, and aspiring feminist writers. “It can’t all happen this year but we hope that we can open a few channels,” she says.

Nikki Anderson, deputy chair of the festival, writes, “We hope you’ll be able to join us at the campfire in August, and in the lead up to the Feminist Writers Festival. To question, to challenge, to affirm, to assert, to gather, to gasbag, to party.”

We can’t wait.

The Feminist Writers Festival will be held in Melbourne over the weekend of August 27 and 28 in partnership with the Melbourne Writers Festival.