Posts tagged tara moss

Looking beyond the labels: Tara Moss

Tara Moss' new memoir The Fictional Woman
Tara Moss’ new memoir The Fictional Woman

At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, crime fiction writer Tara Moss appeared on a panel with Irvine Welsh and Damon Young, talking about writing the body. As she held her new memoir ‘The Fictional Woman’ up to the audience, I was drawn immediately to the cover, a close up of her face, with labels written on in black: Dumb Blonde mingling with Feminist, Model with Bleeding Heart.

It started me thinking about the names I’ve been called, especially when I was a teenager, and how they’ve defined or ignored the essential parts of me – and how often they were contradictory, exposing the labels as fabrications.

Here are some that people have aimed and fired at me (friends, bosses, family, boys yelling out of cars as they drove past): Stupid Girl; Aloof; Too Nice; Passive; Aggressive; Party Animal; Desperate; Brainy; Up Yourself; Leso; Ugly Dog.

It’s a good list, isn’t it? It feels quite liberating to throw them out there. And these are just the ones that have stuck with me. What are yours?

In her memoir, Tara Moss looks beyond the surface to examine the fictions that surround her (and other women), tracing her life as a teen model then writer, and the way she sees herself versus how others perceive her. I spoke to Tara about personal fictions, public perceptions of women’s bodies and feminism’s place in contemporary culture.

This article and interview originally appeared on the Australian Women Writers blog.

*Although you have written lots of fiction, your first nonfiction book is called ‘The Fictional Woman’. Why did you decide to call it that?

‘The Fictional Woman’ centres on the stereotypes, limiting labels or ‘fictions’ that hold people back. It is an issue that has impacted a number of groups along the lines of race, class and other categorisations, but the book specifically focusses on how this reductive labelling has impacted women and men along the lines of gender. I highlight the issues using some of my own personal experiences in the book, along with other people’s stories, wide-ranging data and a look at the historical context of these experiences. As mainstream films are arguably our most dominant form of storytelling today, I also explore the way in which women in particular are fictionalised in line with archaic archetypes, and how, incredibly, of the top grossing films 91% of directors are men, 85% of writers are men, 98% of cinematographers are men and so on, shaping what stories are told and from what perspective.

*How was the writing process different from your crime fiction?

I have always been very motivated by research, statistics and data, though obviously in my crime novels I approached issues of violence and social justice through fiction. The process of writing non-fiction is very different, but as I had been writing OpEds, blogs and advocacy work for a few years, and was also working on my doctorate in social sciences, a full length non-fiction book on the issues I am passionate about seemed like a natural progression. The addition of endnotes was a necessary part of ‘The Fictional Woman’ but I needed to spend a lot of time on collating that data.

*Did you feel like an investigator looking into your own past, searching for clues, for what was concealed?

I knew my own story very well – some experiences really stay with you – so there was little research needed for the memoir components. What I did do was to send any draft chapters dealing with family to all of the people who were mentioned in those chapters. My mother’s death, for instance, was not simply my story to tell. It was my father’s story too, and my sister’s story, so I consulted with them for that section and any section dealing with my childhood. The memoir component of the book was necessary to the story I wanted to tell and the way I needed to tell it, but it only makes up about 10% of the overall book.

*The striking cover features labels written on your face like ‘Dumb Blonde’ and ‘Brainy’. How liberating was it to acknowledge and bring these labels to light?

I chose those labels or ‘fictions’ and the idea for the cover because it seemed like the most raw, honest and authentic way to represent the book between the pages. My face, my fictions. Everyone has labels that have been hung on them, and those ones on the cover are mine. Some of the terms are positive or dictionary-accurate (feminist, mother, wife) while some are blatantly false and pejorative, but all of the words are labels applied to me and all of the words bring their own baggage and assumptions. Everyone has their version of these labels – men, women and school children.

*Why have you encouraged other women (and men) to write labels on their faces too?

The idea of visually expressing labels (and then washing them off, which can feel quite liberating) came naturally. The first person to do it once ‘The Fictional Woman’ came out was book reviewer and author John Purcell. We talked for a while about what fictions had haunted him, and he had me write them on his face. (There is a video here.)

At the book launch for ‘The Fictional Woman’, makeup artists helped people to apply labels relevant to them. A Facebook page was even started and a wide range of people have taken part.

*The book moves between memoir and broader feminist issues, framed by a series of themes. Why did you decide to structure it in this way?

‘The Fictional Woman’ found its structure organically, albeit with a lot of hard work and research. I wanted to create a book that was accessible, enjoyable to read, but also had something to say. Because there are so many issues to discuss, and because I was using some memoir as a jumping off point, it made sense to structure the book in an essentially chronological way, touching on each issue in its own chapter.

*You mention a number of very personal stories in the book, including a scene where you were raped, and your experience of miscarriage. You wrote that you were initially uncertain about whether to include these stories. What made you change your mind?

It became clear to me that if I was to continue to move into the area of advocacy for women and children, as I have been doing in recent years, I could not avoid the discussion of violence against women, as it is such a prevalent and serious issue. And I could not in good faith address that issue without also sharing my own stories, because one of the arguments I make is that the stigma and silence around sexual assault and harassment is damaging to individuals and the general community. I wanted to show solidarity with others who had these experiences – sexual assault, miscarriage, and other difficult but common experiences. There are many of us. 1 in 3 women will be physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime and about a fifth to a quarter of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, so these are issues that must be discussed and issues that we need to get better at dealing with. I am not arguing that everyone needs to tell their story, and certainly not in such a public way. You need to do what you need to do to cope. But in my case, because of my advocacy work, it was a natural progression to share my own experience in the context of the much broader issues.

*The book forced me to question my own judgements, what I tend to sum-up about people after taking a cursory glance. How do you step away from such quick judgements?

We all do it, but we can lessen our biases and assumptions by simply trying. Awareness can be powerful. When we are aware of our biases and the historical contexts for them, we are more easily able to reject lazy assumptions.

*Much of the harrowing early part of the book is about your experiences as a teen model, often isolated and sometimes in real danger. Why do you think there was no system in place at the time to support and help you? Has it changed now?

The modelling industry is an industry – a business. It is essentially about making money and as such the industry in general is not particularly concerned with the health and wellbeing of those working in the industry. Thankfully there are many individual people and individual businesses with high ethical standards, but a model does not generally work for a single business, but rather for a different client on practically every job, and often in different countries, so standards vary enormously. Notably, there is no modelling union I am aware of. There wasn’t at the time I was modelling and I am not aware of one now. Without collective bargaining there is little hope that working conditions will improve significantly across territories. Working conditions, particularly for underage models, need to be addressed more effectively.

*Your statistics outlined in the book and arguments reveal a world where the fight for equal rights still has a long way to go. What are the crucial next steps along this path, as you see them?

Activism and awareness are needed on many fronts, including but not limited to prevention of violence against women and domestic violence, creating more equal pay, preventing discrimination in the work place, addressing problems in superannuation and savings for older women, childcare, valuing unpaid care (which is extremely important for the community and is disproportionately performed by women), allowing women greater access to positions of power without stigma and allowing men to engage in flexible work and unpaid care without stigma.

*Your chapter on mothering and childbirth had particular resonance for me (I also went the CalmBirth way!). Why do you think women are increasingly afraid of childbirth?

There needs to be a better balance between quality, accessible specialist medical care where needed, quality midwifery care, and informed choice. Many experts working in maternity have expressed concern about the balance as it stands. The studies I drew on in that chapter pointed to the culture within a given health care system as being a significant factor in both health outcomes and what is known as ‘extreme’ birth fear, along with popular media portrayals that naturally focus on the worst possible scenarios for dramatic reasons. That conclusion seems to bear out in the different attitudes encountered in different countries. People’s birth experiences vary enormously, the subject can be a very sensitive one, people can find themselves judged viciously, and unfortunately the remaining taboos around birth make it difficult to get a balanced view.

*Women’s bodies can be seen as public property. This is often particularly the case for young women and pregnant women, where strangers approach and sometimes feel they have the right to touch. What can women do in these situations to assert themselves?

One of the most important moments in my life was when I realised that I cared more for my own dignity and sense of self than I did trying to please everyone all the time. That meant that I didn’t care if it upset someone to be told that they could not touch me, or that I did not accept their point of view. There has unfortunately been a history of women’s bodies literally being the property of others, and bodily autonomy remains a battle in some ways. It may not always be easy, but it is always worth it.

*I’m interested in the grey area between what girls/women would like to say and what they end up saying and doing in the moment. How do you think we can bring up girls to be more assertive, to express their sexuality confidently, and to move beyond the surface impressions?

There are still some negative stereotypes, or ‘fictions’ about assertive girls and women. We need to reject the idea that girls who simply want to participate in life are ‘bossy’ or leaders are ‘dragon ladies’ or ‘ice queens’ simply for being women and doing their jobs. There is a cultural shift still happening and cultural attitudes often lag behind actual changes in the law. For instance, women in Australia had the right to vote and stand for office 22 years before any woman actually did enter federal parliament, the longest lag of any western country, and incredibly, this right to vote was not extended to Indigenous women until 1962 (see Australian Women in Politics). We need to realise that just because something is, doesn’t mean it is right. We can challenge our own assumptions about what is possible, and challenge the assumptions of others.

That is part of what ‘The Fictional Woman’ is about, creating change by starting from within, challenging our own assumptions and refusing to participate in the limiting and damaging stereotyping of women and girls, and others.

~

Australian Women Writers founder, Elizabeth Lhuede, would like to acknowledge Tara Moss as the inspiration for the creation of the AWW challenge. Without Tara’s original blog post in 2011 wrapping up the Sisters in Crime conference — and the outrage it generated — the AWW challenge and blog wouldn’t exist.

Shyness is nice: the beauty of inarticulation

An autobiography of Christos Tsiolkas
A biography of Christos Tsiolkas

At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, David Marr did a wonderfully incisive interview with Christos Tsiolkas, author of Dead Europe, The Slap and, most recently, Barracuda. Throughout the session, in response to Marr’s questions, Tsiolkas took many minutes to speak, occasionally with his head in his hands as if trying to squeeze out the answers. The loud silence filled the room. But when he finally was able to seize the words, his ideas were rich in detail, nuanced, worth waiting for. Marr quipped that ‘he writes loudly and speaks quietly’.

As I waited patiently for Tsiolkas to frame himself, I realised how rare this was: the chance to see a writer composing, having the courage to be uncertain, to not reach for the quick answer, to feel, as Tsiolkas said, a ‘real sense of responsibility … to what language means’. While Tsiolkas initially saw his writing as an effective way to channel rage (against himself, against others), he also wanted to fight off the ‘bad habit’ of being nice. Marr responded: ‘But you are nice, aren’t you!’ Being a writer, and performing in public, is so often about trying to reconcile these contradictory forces.

In her memoir Shy, Sian Prior uses this perceived dualism as a literary device. She intertwines the thoughts of Shy Sian (the interior monologue of a woman whose hands shake at parties, who’s always on the periphery, who runs for cover when things get too rough) with Professional Sian (the radio announcer and interviewer; the teacher; the activist; confident in front of crowds). When Prior takes to the stage or the street, she’s always anxious her shy version will seep through, but Ms Professional usually comes to the rescue. The whole book is searching for what Prior is really afraid of. Rejection? Grief? Being alone? Vulnerabilty?

If you’re feeling shy, you’re worried about something. If you’re a persistent worrier, you’re anxious. If you’re anxious, your mind enters into a pact with your body, sending it into the world with an armoury of self-protective physical responses. Danger! The adrenaline, the sweating, the rapid breathing, all preparing your body to run. Ensuring your hands will shake but your legs will move faster when you need to take off.

Except that you’re never sure why you needed to take off so fast in the first place.

Shy is the first book by Sian Prior
Shy is the first book by Sian Prior

What Tsiolkas does, in those long moments of public hesitation, is let us in, share some hidden part of him. These days, there is much pressure on writers to be perfectionists in all aspects of their lives. Not only on the page but under the spotlight too. To have the right answers. To be funny. To give the audience what they want. To be entertaining. But vulnerability can be a powerful thing.

In Brene Brown’s very popular TED talk (over 15 million hits) on vulnerabilty, she interprets shame as the ‘fear of disconnection’. While Prior in her memoir may be keen to do all the research and categorisation (shyness vs introversion vs social anxiety), the residue of her writing, the success of her book, is when she meditates on loneliness and what it means to feel ashamed, to wear a mask in public — and how she tries, often unsuccessfully, to get beyond the ‘I’m not good enough’ to build relationships with others.

It’s something I’m all too familiar with. A year ago, my first novel was released. It’s about a 14-year-old girl caught between the private and public worlds. It’s about characters who fail to connect. But most of all, it’s about the grey area: those gaps between what the characters want to do and say, and what they actually manage. As the time came for the book to be released, there was the slow dawn of dread: that I would have to stand up in public and articulate. In the past I had quit jobs, taken to my bed, manipulated and evaded, to avoid exposing myself. I had stayed in my comfort zone. Behind words. A computer screen. Like Prior I had run from a party in my teens, a panic attack in the car, paralysed. I had called on Professional Kirsten many a time, to various degrees of success. But I had never stood up for myself.

Tara Moss's memoir The Fictional Woman covers some of the same ground as Sian
Tara Moss’s memoir The Fictional Woman covers some of the same ground as Sian Prior’s Shy

It wasn’t looking good. The first call came out for radio interviews, appearances at bookshops, public readings. The fear in my guts started to bleed out. My brain quickly sought angles and innovative ways to say no. Like Prior, I was a master of the what ifs. But then it finally came to me. If I couldn’t stand up and talk about my own book, where could I go? I know! I could be cultivated as mysterious, hermit-like, Patrick White. Who was I kidding? A debut author can’t do that these days. Perhaps that was the problem. Like Prior, I was shy and mysterious — even to myself. I gave myself a pep talk. I had chosen this career as a writer. I had been lucky to be able to do it. The process, and the result, was a joy to me. It was something to share. And in the end it came down to six very small and extraordinarily powerful words: ‘Whatever I do is good enough.’ No what ifs. No buts. No calling in sick. Leave it at that.

Tara Moss’s memoir, The Fictional Woman, is a good companion piece to Shy, and shares some of Prior’s themes: how pain is written in and on the body; how others’ perceptions can be elevated above your own; how beauty can be worn as a shield; and how science, stats and semi-truths can be interweaved to make a compelling narrative. But in both these books, what it all comes down to is sharp writing. While Moss’s book is themed around common (mis)conceptions, Prior uses wonderful sleight-of-hand to draw me in and push me away: lists, short chapters, vivid description, strong characterisation, positing herself as the unreliable narrator, juxtaposing the two Sians in interviews, bold statements, wry humour, and the charm (and betrayal) of falling in and out of love:

On the computer screen we could be nutty, nuanced, nonchalant. Nothing seemed to be at stake, nothing required except to entertain each other with words. We told each other stories from our past, we compared our reactions to novels we’d read, we even offered tidbits of regret about past relationships. Writing to Tom, I felt weightless.

 And in one of those early emails, when I confessed to being shy, he simply replied: As Morrissey says, shyness is nice.

 I felt like I’d been found.

A year on from releasing just_a_girl, a piece of my identity has clicked into place too. The Land of Writers is where I feel I belong. Writers are weird, shy, crazy, eloquent, bumbling, provocative, curious, fringe dwellers — and often drink too much. Just like everyone else I like, really. As I challenge myself on the festival circuit, many writers have come up to me, confessed their own fears, keen for guidance. They’re shy. They’d rather be looking on. It doesn’t come naturally to them. They want to run. I feel their pain. But I can now point to Tsiolkas and Prior and Moss. Do I think any less of them (as writers, as people?) now I see their vulnerable side? Do I judge them critically, knowing what I do? In reality, it’s exactly the opposite. What remains is enormous respect — and a desire to know more about them (as writers, as people). Just read any blog about how to cope with mental illness, how to move through grief, how to come out as an introvert (via Susan Cain), and go to the comments section. People want to see the inarticulate, the not-so-slick, the grasping for meaning; it’s what generates passion and compassion in the reader.

Sian Prior’s memoir may not be a how-to or reveal-all, but it does connect. It dares me to challenge my own perceptions, see beneath the surface, and come out the other end, shyness intact. She has a talk on shyness coming up at the Wheeler Centre tonight. I hope it’s Shy Sian rather than Professional Sian who turns up on the night.

 

A version of this article originally appeared at the Wheeler Centre’s daily blog.

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