MARIA KATSONIS & LEE KOFMAN (Eds) Rebellious Daughters: True stories from Australia’s finest female writers. Reviewed by Shelley McInnis
The authors in Rebellious Daughters write about family honestly and without clichés.
It’s been a while since, in My Mother, Myself, Wellesley College graduate Nancy Friday invited Baby Boomer women to reflect on their first impressions of life and how these formed ‘the grooves of character’ through which their experiences came to them. Friday’s book was deeply serious, psychoanalytic in tone, and full of an honesty that is still bracing. Its first sentence is: ‘I have always lied to my mother.’
In Rebellious Daughters there is, as you might expect, a fair bit of lying: not only to mothers but to fathers, too. There are arguments, as well, such as whether Pablo Picasso could have really painted a recognisable picture if he had wanted to, and whether there is any value in the study of mathematics. Jo Case, one of the 17 Australian writers featured in this book, didn’t think there was. Case, child prodigy and all-around nerd, decided in her second year of high school that it was much more fun being a troublemaker. In her contribution, ‘Rebelling to Conform’, she writes:
My mother seems soothed by the existence of rules and boundaries, letting them guide and contain her, and trying to teach her children to do the same. She’s always been able to disregard those who don’t respect authority as misguided. I’ve never met anyone so naturally resistant to peer pressure, or so it seems from the outside. I admire and envy this about her. Maybe she likes maths because if you learn and follow the rules, you’ll get the right result: there’s no ambiguity. I can see how comforting this would be. Unfortunately, it bores me stupid. Where’s the story in it?
In most of the true stories featured in this collection, the objects of rebellion are maternal, and the arenas in which the dramas are played out are sexual. The book features many sexually repressed mothers against whom daughters rebel by, for example in the case of editor Lee Kofman, dragging her unsuspecting mother along to Sexpo. Lee’s hilarious comeuppance is worth the price of the book. Of the cases where fathers feature in the tales of rebellion, none is sadder than Leah Kaminsky’s brilliantly crafted essay ‘Pressing the Seams’ about her Polish Jewish father who escaped Europe in 1938. In Melbourne the loving man set about making a living for his family as a tailor, but young Leah, ‘cocooned inside the reluctance of her youth’, is impressed with nothing: his past, a visit to the Land of Milk and Honey, his tailoring:
My father had cut the pattern for my lime green skirt – put in the zip and carefully hemmed the edge. The teacher gives me an A+ . The truth is I do not even know how to thread a needle and I have absolutely no intention of learning. I want to wear the latest fashions bought from department stores and trendy shops. I am a modern girl. I don’t want my father’s life and the frayed remnants of an old world threaded into mine.
Some of the pieces in the book are tinged with guilt and regret for pain caused, words said and deeds done that, alas, cannot be undone. Authors wish their younger selves had been kinder and yet, as Caroline Baum suggests in her piece, ‘Estrangement’, dramatic ruptures are sometimes necessary. In her case, rebellion didn’t come until she was in her mid-forties. By then, a lot of individuation needed to take place:
Slowly I felt myself taking shape. My blurred edges became sharper, as I made decisions free of the sound-track that had colonised my consciousness for years: an endless imaginary judgemental chatter, a parasitical presence that gnawed away at my confidence. It was a sad state of affairs, but with such a porous sense of my own borders I felt I had no choice but to make a complete break.
Happily for Baum, three years later when her personal boundaries were firmly established, she was able to make peace – on adult terms – with her parents. A couple of years afterwards, when her father lost his sanity and her mother suffered a nervous breakdown, she was in a position to help. I longed to read more of this story but, alas, its allotted space – around 15 double-spaced pages – had expired.
In their introduction to this book, editors Lee Kofman and Maria Katsonis say they recognise that writing honestly about family isn’t for the faint-hearted. They say they wanted a risky book, one that would be minus clichés, stereotypes, and happy endings. According to their own yardstick they have succeeded, for in this book all of the messiness and cruelty of life is on display, without the consolations of understanding that can come from reading a book of greater revelatory and explanatory power. I have returned to My Mother, Myself. I’m up to chapter three.
Maria Katsonis & Lee Kofman (Eds) Rebellious Daughters: True stories from Australia’s finest female writers Ventura Press 2016 PB 232pp $32.99
Shelley McInnis was a fairly well-behaved daughter until she hit her early twenties, when she gave the whole world a run for its money. She is all better now, thank you, although she remains a wee bit (well, a fair bit) rebellious.
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