Reading Out of the Box

Not a literal box. I could do that, as I own more books than even my imagination can fit into the available number of shelves, but the box to which I refer is metaphorical rather than physical, and relates to my recent discovery of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. It was begun last year by Elizabeth Lhuede, who one day walked into her local library and found that the staff there could not recommend a single book by a living female Australian author. In the lead up to 2012, Australia’s National Year of Reading, Lhuede threw out a challenge to book lovers all over the country, asking them to re-examine their reading and start reviewing more books by Australian women.

The challenge was wildly successful, garnering much attention both online and in the media. So job done, right? Well, not so much. While the popular vote on forums like the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club still place living women writers as 10% of the whole when surveying Australia’s favourite books, it’s obvious more needs to be done to get the work of Australian women more attention.

You know what’s weird, though? Apart from the fact that a librarian could not think of a single recommendation for this woman. I cannot see this happening at any library I have ever been to. I mean, they have stacks of little slips offering suggestions from all genres, they put staff picks on a rotating display, they WANT YOU TO READ.

No, what’s weird is I saw the First Tuesday Book Club advertising this particular survey on the ABC a while back, and I automatically thought, “Oh, but they’re not talking about books I like.” I had an immediate mental image of the list. It would include the big serious literary works that everyone who loves books is meant to have read, books that examine the human condition in various depressing (but uniquely Australian!) ways. I don’t know if that’s actually true, mind you. It’s just what I’ve been trained to assume every time someone compiles one of these things. Discovering the AWW Challenge was like a wake up call. It doesn’t have to be like that. The great Australian novel can be something by a woman. It can be speculative fiction. Hell, it might even be funny.

I sort of wish I’d been a part of the challenge last year. It’s not hard to rattle off a small catalogue of the books I’ve read over the past twelve months that were by authors I know are Australian women – Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth, The Shattered City and Reign of Beasts by Tansy Rayner Roberts, Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood, Tallow by Karen Brooks, Halo by Alexandra Adornetto, The Troika Dolls by Miranda Darling, The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood, Besieged by Rowena Cory Daniells, Fire of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier, An Older Kind of Magic by Patricia Wrightson. Most of them, I liked. Some I’ve written glowing reviews for, or at least passionately recommended to people. All without knowing this was an actual issue.

Which is very reassuring, but also makes this year a harder act to follow, because this time my List did not happen to include as many authors I can confidently name as Australian and female. I don’t generally have a plan for my reading, I just pick books that look good at the time. But sexism is an insidious beast. You think you have it out and it sneaks around to the back of people’s heads where it’s harder to see. Anything I can do to keep kicking it out has to be a good thing.

2012 was also the year I officially became one of those female Australian authors. I think adding a few extra names to my ‘To Read’ pile is the least I can do to support a movement that was made to support people like me.

Let the challenge begin!


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