Books

Natalie Kon-yu, Christie Nieman, Maggie Scott and Miriam Sved (eds)
#MeToo

When Kaya Wilson, a writer and scientist, transitioned to male, he suddenly realised he could own the streets. In his contribution to this pioneering anthology, he writes about passing a group of drunken men on a dark street, soon after transitioning. He felt his body tense “as history had taught me”. What happened next enraged him: “they wished me a good night in a pal-to-pal kind of way”. For the first time, he felt “greeted” rather than “hunted”. His fury was that it “had been so simple”.

The Me Too movement was initiated in 2006 by Tarana Burke, an African-American activist, and entered the global consciousness 11 years later when Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct in Hollywood hit the headlines. That it took largely white celebrities to force people’s attention onto an issue first raised by a black woman is not lost on the editors of this anthology. Natalie Kon‑yu, Christie Nieman, Maggie Scott and Miriam Sved have ensured the 35 voices featured here include Indigenous and migrant women, as well as those whose disadvantage or sexuality has made them exceptionally vulnerable to the abuse, harassment and violence that the movement is designed to call out.

There are reports from the frontlines of nursing, waitressing, sports and the legal profession; a discussion of online harassment by Troll Hunting author Ginger Gorman; and a look at the difficulties faced by rural victims of domestic violence. Given the sex-abuse scandals that have plagued the Australian military for years, it’s a pity the anthology has nothing on this topic. Another regrettable omission is anything addressing the question of female predators: the abuse of power is still toxic even when it’s a woman doing it.

The essays vary in style from the analytical to the personal, with much crossover. Among the most heart-stopping of the personal essays is that of Sylvie Leber, who was brutally raped, strangled and left for dead as a young woman in the ’70s. In “How Come You’re So Sane?”, she recounts the severe impact the experience had on her mental health and how she was inspired to set up Victoria’s first rape crisis centre.

There is also some poetry, much of which is strong, and a handful of short stories. The weakest of the latter seem concocted purely to fuel outrage, casting little light on the complexities of human nature and behaviour. Rashmi Patel’s “Who’s Afraid of Hindi?” is a shining exception. Three immigrant women, workmates and friends, learn that a supervisor has coerced a junior colleague into an abusive sexual relationship. They urge her to report it. But the victim worries about the consequences reporting could have for her visa and regrets confiding in her colleagues. “Can ‘helping’ be an act of aggression?” the narrator ponders, further confounded by the revelation of the abuser’s identity.

Shakira Hussein, who is always worth reading, addresses related matters in her essay “#MeToo and the Uneven Distribution of Trauma”. In the early days of the movement, she notes, few paid attention to how retraumatising it could be to speak up. She also points to the dilemmas faced by women from marginalised backgrounds who fear that calling out harassment will reflect badly on their already-beleaguered communities. Thus, when #MeToo went viral, Hussein found herself feeling “isolated rather than connected, helpless rather than empowered”.

Another thoughtful contribution comes from Kath Kenny, whose “#MeToo and Déjà Vu” opens the anthology. Kenny was a young feminist and editor of the University of Melbourne student newspaper in 1992 when students there accused their college master of inappropriate behaviour, events that Helen Garner wrote about in The First Stone. Kenny reconsiders those events in light of #MeToo and her own evolving understanding of the underlying issues, including Garner’s controversial stance. She now ponders whether the slogan “no means no”, albeit necessary and correct, also hamstrings feminists’ discussions about “the complexity of desire and power”. Greta Parry, meanwhile, regrets the “reductive approach” of #MeToo’s social-media-friendly binaries, where nuance is “sidelined in the name of impact”. She questions the movement’s treatment of female partners of the accused: “how much must they lose, as a result of sins that are not theirs and a movement that should be?”

Other standouts include Maggie Scott’s family memoir, in which her grandmother’s “distinctive, reactive weirdness about anything to do with sex” turns out to have a sinister backstory, and Natalie Kon-yu’s reflections on the burdens of beauty. Eleanor Jackson gives us one of the book’s most memorable passages when she describes confronting a man who assaulted her. “You know that was rape, don’t you?” she says to him. “He barely looks at me. ‘Please. I got an H1 for Criminal Law. You think I don’t know what rape is?’” Figuring that he’d also know what defamation is, she ends the story there.

The editors call the book a kind of “map of the world with the grid laid down … by women”. If so, it resembles that old New Yorker cover depicting the entire world outside Manhattan squeezed into a thin band between the Hudson and the horizon. Here it’s Melbourne, with the rest of Australia just visible across the Yarra. What’s more, it’s a Melbourne in which a contributor can be righteously “astounded” that a Caucasian female writer didn’t know the term “intersectionality”. The collection reaches peak wokeness with Sarah Firth’s cartoon “Start Where You Are”, in which a group of friends inhabit a cafe and discuss #MeToo. Following some accidental friction, they discover to their relief that they all agree. Here’s another term: “bubble”. The movement should not push away those who aren’t across the jargon. It needs all the allies it can get and should work to broaden the conversation.

This admirable anthology has much to commend it, even if one occasionally wishes it were even better. The message of #MeToo, women’s rightful sovereignty over their bodies, is urgent and vital. In Hussein’s words, “The monsters are not vanquished and the struggle is not over.”

Linda Jaivin

Picador, 368pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "Natalie Kon-yu, Christie Nieman, Maggie Scott and Miriam Sved (eds), #MeToo ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Linda Jaivin