Wāhine toa: young feminist writers of Aotearoa

Inspired by the recent publication of Lizzie Marvelly’s That F Word: Growing up Feminist in Aotearoa, and of Women Now: The Legacy of Female Suffrage from Te Papa Press - as well as #suffrage125, The Read this week is investigating the rise and rise of young, outspoken feminist authors publishing in Aotearoa. We spoke to publishers Claire Murdoch of Penguin Random House New Zealand, Nicola Legat of Massey University Press, Kirsten McDougall of Victoria University Press, and to booksellers Gabrielle West of McLeod’s Booksellers and Tanya Gribben of The Women’s Bookshop.

The Read also went straight to the horse’s mouth and chatted to young feminist writers Lizzie Marvelly, MaryJane Thomson, Sarah Lin Wilson, Steff Green, Rem Wigmore, Chris Tse, Sam Orchard, Steph Matuku, Helen Vivienne Fletcher, Madeleine Chapman and Ray Shipley - all of whom are just the tip of Aotearoa’s feminist literature iceberg.

Why Now? 
In recent years we’ve seen many wonderful young feminist writers emerge: from Hera Lindsay Bird to Emily Writes to Courtney Sina Meredith. Tanya Gribben says: ‘I have been working at The Women's Bookshop for about 10 years. When I first started there was a trickle of new feminist titles being published. Now it's a flood. It's magnificent.’

claire murdoch
Claire Murdoch

Claire Murdoch, Head of Publishing at Penguin Random House New Zealand, says: ‘Publishing is always a reflection what's going on in the world and right now the rights and concerns and experiences of women are of great urgency and import. That's inevitably going to show up in our writing and reading behaviour. But also, some people (including the data analysts at The Bookseller looking at Bookscan numbers) think more readers are gravitating away from slick consumerism towards serious books that frankly help us understand the world and our place in it - and feminist writing is a gigantic part of that.’

'I have been moved very deeply by the simple effect of seeing on the page inspirational stories about girls' lives in books like Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and here in New Zealand, PRHNZ's own Go Girl by Barbara Else, and by reading those stories to my two young daughters. The gap they have filled seems so vast. They really did need to be written. Go Girl has been a big popular and commercial success for us - meaning loads of real people in Aotearoa really, really want to read it to their kids. '

Kirsten McDougall of VUP adds that we’re experiencing a flowering of feminist writing ‘because there’s a bunch of women who are seeing what their mothers and older sisters have put up with and they don’t want to be in the same situation. They’ve seen that the career and babies argument is a farce. They’re growing up in an economic system that is harsh – where are the jobs that pay the rent? They’re not there. Damn right, it’s not fair.’

three books from VUP

VUP has seen a lot of success with books by young women over the past 18 months in particular. McDougall’s Tess is just one of these books. Tayi Tibble’s debut collection Poūkahangatus is another - also Annalees Jochems' award-winning Baby. The New Animals, by Pip Adam, about a group of women in the fashion industry won the $52,000 2018 Acorn Foundation Prize for Fiction.

Chris Tse is a gay Chinese-Kiwi poet whose most recent book is He’s So Masc. He attributes the upsurge in feminist writing to the internet and social media. ‘It’s still a cesspool of trolls and human terribleness but what it does provide is a place for people to write and visibility of other feminist writers. I think this generation has been galvanised to speak up because progress requires constant momentum. The internet means we see and hear so much more, which in turn highlights other injustices and pockets of inequality.’

Chris Tse
Chris Tse 

Rem Wigmore is a non-binary Pāhekā writer based in Pōneke. Their most recent work can be found in issue 9 of Capricious, the gender diverse pronouns issue. ‘The more someone makes or says a thing, the more someone else can find it and go, oh, we can do that, that’s allowed? I’m going to do that but better or different or mine. And then it’s easier for the next person, and we carry on with the conversation.’

Why Feminism? 
Inequality is rife, and feminism is one of many possible philosophical and political responses. Why is it so popular?

Sam Orchard is Pāhekā trans man who creates webcomics and resources about gender identity. ‘The world has some pretty intense and scary things going on with it, and intersectional feminism can help equip us with the tools to cope with that, and to create something better. For me, being part of trans and queer communities, intersectional feminism helps explain the impacts of living in a cissexist and heterosexist society. It explains why certain voices get heard and valued, and other voices get pushed aside or laughed at. Basically, my work would be way shitter if I weren’t interested in feminism.’

Lizzie Marvelly is a bisexual columnist of Ngāti Whakaue and Pāhekā descent who started the feminist media site Villainesse. Her first book That F Word: Growing up Feminist in Aotearoa was recently launched at Mcleod’s Booksellers.

jemma pirrie lizzie marvelly gabrielle west
Jemma Pirrie, Lizzie Marvelly and Gabrielle West

Gabrielle West from McLeod’s says the launch demonstrated an appetite on the part of young Kiwi women for this sort of writing. ‘I especially like that Lizzie does not shy away from discussing the difficult topics, and that she dives headfirst into issues that need to be addressed within the framework of feminism.’

One of the difficult topics Marvelly addresses in That F Word is body shame. ‘Young people now are consuming so much more media than ever before, but not everyone gets taught media literacy in school.’ We are subject to a constant bombardment of white supremacist body images that equate beauty and desirability only with people who are white, thin, etc. Marvelly says ‘it’s our responsibility as a sisterhood to talk through the ways in which those messages are bullshit.’

Ray Shipley is a genderqueer poet and comedian based in Christchurch. ‘Feminism is what got me writing in the first place. I remember first identifying as a feminist when I was 22, around the same time that I was first getting comfortable with my queerness - these revelations paved the way for me to begin writing with intent.’

ray shipley
Ray Shipley

Helen Vivienne Fletcher is a YA novelist and playwright living with a disability whose most recent book is Underwater. ‘We’re at a point where there are a lot of things going on in the world at the moment that don’t feel safe. We’re all going “What can I change? I can’t fix everything, but what do I have influence over?”’

Profusion of Voices 
One comment made over and over again in our kōrero this week was that feminism enables us as readers to hear from a much wider diversity of voices than we ever have before.

Steff Green is a feminist romance author who is legally blind. ‘Romance novels are often called unfeminist, usually by people who've never read one. On the contrary, this is a genre where women write for other women about the desires and fantasies and agency of women. I use my writing to explore stories that challenge ideas about who gets the right to a happily ever after.

‘One of my favourite books I've written deals with a heroine who is a below-the-knee amputee. I get a lot of letters from fans who find hope in Willow's story. I've also written main characters who are bisexual, who aren't stick-thin, who aren't white, who live with various mental illnesses, and I'm about to start tackling a series with a blind heroine.’

steff green
Steff Green

MaryJane Thomson is a writer and photographer whose memoir Sarah Vaughan Is Not My Mother tells of her experiences with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. ‘I would like to see more writing from people like me. I don’t see a lot of brutally honest writing about the inner workings of the mind, which is my favourite thing to read about. It’s my reality. And the way the world’s heading people need to be more aware of that stuff.’

Mihi to the past
Another common refrain was that the feminist writers of today are able to do what they do because of the mahi of feminists who have come before them.

Sarah Lin Wilson is a Nelson-based poet and journalist living with a disability. ‘Every wave of feminism walks easier the paths laid by those before. Without their work ... I would not be an independent woman writer today. Therefore, everything I produce is inherently feminist, because I am writing in a space created by feminism, even when my topic isn't an overtly feminist one.’

tanya gribben
Tanya Gribben, The Women's Bookshop 

Gribben says ‘I commend our young women. They are vocal, strong and courageous. They are reading these books, writing these books, and most importantly demanding them. But this has all been made possible by our history of feminism in New Zealand. I also commend all the mothers (and fathers), aunties, grandparents, teachers, librarians and mentors who have encouraged our young people to read.’

Women Now: The Legacy of Female Suffrage from Te Papa Press is part of the wider Suffrage 125 celebrations. Publisher Nicola Legat said they were ‘keen to mix the voices of first- and new-generation feminists, which is why essays by Sandra Coney and Dame Fiona Kidman sit alongside texts by Holly Walker, Golriz Ghahraman, Grace Taylor and Megan Whelan.’

Kia kaha! 
Madeleine Chapman is a journalist of Samoan, Tuvaluan, Chinese and American descent. Her first book is the Steven Adams biography, My Life, My Fight. ‘As more and more people realise that to speak of women is not to silence men, feminist writing will continue to grow. There are still many, many women who do not feel represented and that’s something that needs to be addressed but the scope is widening, and right on time.’

Madeleine Chapman
Madeleine Chapman

Steph Matuku (Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Mutunga, Te Āti Awa) is a children’s writer whose books Whetū Toa and the Magician and Flight of the Fantail are due out from Huia next month. ‘Young feminist writing is so heartening to read. Women are finding a voice that is daring, uplifting, wise and so, so funny. We’re past being disillusioned with that older, male, white view that colours every aspect of our lives. We’ve had enough of the viewpoint defines our literature, our art, our politics, that tells us what to buy and what to wear and what we should value in ourselves and in our environment. We’re sick of it. And we’re bored with it.

'And now we're in that phase of turning it around and laughing at it. It’s like our boggart. You need to show it how ridiculous it is to make it go away.'

The growth in sales of these books tells us that the trend is one that won’t stop any time soon.

Article by Elizabeth Heritage