Not shutting up

Jenny Lindsay has written a piece that goes from quiet to angry, from moderate and reasonable to fierce, retrospective to poetically prophetic. It pins down a particular time in a specific community and place – a section of the literary, arts and live performance establishment in Scotland with some further out ripples – that fell for a pernicious fashion of witchhunting. As ever, there are many who would rather join in with the witchfinders than run the risk of being suspected themselves.

She does not write as a victim although she was undoubtedly victimised. After being unfairly and thoroughly denounced herself she does not denounce named individuals but manages to rise far above her detractors. Jenny Lindsay warns that through their timid compliance and adherence to whatever the new rules might be today, those who either denounced or passively betrayed her will be left themselves with nothing much of interest to say to anyone. Is she being romantic in expecting more and better of people who want to be known as writers? There’s a history of official writers’ unions controlling access to publishing and being controlled in turn to make sure no unorthodox, non-approved ideas escaped into the public realm. But then looking back we tend to be more interested in what the writers they expelled or excluded had to say.

Her article, published in The Dark Horse Issue 2020 this autumn, reminded me of another time in Edinburgh a lifetime ago – the 1983 conference on feminist writing. It was not an academic conference but an event filled with writers and feminists. My paper later became an article in the 1987 anthology In Other Words: Writing as a feminist edited by Gail Chester and Sigrid Nielsen. Much of it resonates today. Here it is. The book was republished by Routledge in 2015. Like Jenny Lindsay’s article it is about the importance of not shutting up, especially when people are trying to shut you up.

I’m also struck that it was already relevant in 1987 to make points like

The idea of ‘correctness’ implies that there is some higher authority waiting to judge what we write…

…some women stay silent altogether rather than risk criticism for saying or writing something that others may interpret as racist, heterosexist, imperialist, class-biased, oppressive towards disabled women or mothers, and so on. I do not wish to trivialize the serious study of language, or to dispute how important it is for us to take care when we write not to use offensive words and phrases. But we need a more open way of confronting one another and of keeping debate going…

…when we pay obsessive attention to correct and incorrect vocabularies we are not necessarily changing what we think; we could just be learning a new set of rules.

Dena Attar, 1987.

Not shutting up

Virago stories, and giving up on International Women’s Day

Is it time to give up on International Women’s Day? Yesterday Melania Trump hosted an IWD lunch and Slate carried a story explaining that no, Trump wasn’t actually launching an escort service in China that same day but merely protecting his brand name. Even without that stuff, it’s struck me that IWD has become a marketing opportunity for any kind of culture or publishing event with the politics drained out of it. The Soviet Union’s promotion of it was always tokenistic and maybe there were only short periods in the last 100 years when it was genuinely radical. Still we can always look forwards to KFC advertising a cheap deal family bucket for IWD (‘Give mum the day off’) like they already do for Mother’s Day. And now for a genuine, worthwhile event that was part of the British Library’s programme for the week, as International Women’s Day has turned into at least an eight day festival.

On March 7 a panel of women who worked at Virago Press along with its founder Carmen Callil spoke about the history of Virago from the early 1970s onwards, what it still meant to them and to its readers, and what the Press is doing now. The chair was Claire Whalley whose documentary, Virago: Changing The World One Page At A Time was shown last year. They had lots of good stories. A couple of gems: when Lennie Goodings visited booksellers in Northern Ireland in the 1970s they told her ‘we can’t sell any of your books here because there are no feminists in Northern Ireland’. Carmen Callil had to get two men to guarantee her bank loan (the women who first worked at Virago put their own homes on the line to fund the business). When Virago ceased to be able to survive as a small independent there were furious rows about whether to let Bloomsbury or Little, Brown (a much larger American company) taken them over. Margaret Atwood’s comment on that saga was ‘the smaller the cheese, the more ferocious the mice’. They all agreed the rows had been ferocious, but about principles, because they all felt it mattered. Their differences with other second wave feminism publishers such as The Women’s Press were more about how they worked – they were less collective – than about what they published. Lennie said she was once asked accusingly if Virago was ‘the acceptable face of feminism’. Carmen shrugged off the suggestion that she and Marsha Rowe of Spare Rib both being Australian helped them work together originally (right at the beginning it might have become Spare Rib Press) since Marsha was from Sydney and she was from Melbourne – totally different worlds apparently.

Virago had already become part of Little, Brown by the time they published my book, Wasting Girls’ Time, but I had no idea about the rows. I only had dealings with the small Virago team and they were great. I especially loved the cover design they came up with. The artist Laura Knight’s image of a woman in the foreground looking away from a smoking disaster behind her in the kitchen was perfect and is still apt. Only last week I ruined yet another saucepan by forgetting all about it while I was out of the room at my desk. (The book’s now out of print but email me if you need a copy – the prices I’ve seen advertised online are mad.)


Virago stories, and giving up on International Women’s Day