Bright Lights and Girl Gangs

Young women writers have learned to take guidance where they can get it, writes Jessica Alice. But a new mentorship specifically for girls and young women can bolster spirit and solidarity among emerging feminist writers.

Photograph: Santiago Antonio Castro (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I was always one to go it alone. Growing up in Melbourne’s working-class west, a career in writing did not seem possible. I had loved poetry since my best mate called me up one night and, in a revelation, read out ‘Howl by Allen Ginsberg over the phone, but a career shaped around words was never suggested. To me, it did not exist as a possibility.

After high school, I found myself studying fashion design, steered by a need to escape the ordinariness of the burbs and, perhaps unconsciously, to be a better, cooler girl than the ones from school. It turned out I was more interested in theory than practice, and I dropped out. I spent the rest of the year writing poetry, after I discovered the Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing at TAFE. There, I finally met other writers. I became involved in the city’s spoken-word scene, and through boozy nights with some questionable poet-types, I met Kat Muscat, a charismatic teen punk who would become one of my closest friends, and the first friend I would lose forever.

Young women writers face particular challenges. We discover literary communities and publications that at first dazzle us, but inevitably disappoint when we learn they are not free from patriarchal influence.

Though I became and am now a part of many literary communities, my upbringing – so removed from the middle-class lit scene – left me feeling always like an outsider. I got to know a lot of writers, and I embarked on pitching and publishing. At the same time, I was discovering feminism, which would begin to influence and infuse my writing. But I had no one to guide me. I was still operating solo, feeling out ideas and approaches myself. I needed direction but I didn’t know it; I needed mentors.

Young women writers face particular challenges. We discover literary communities and publications that at first dazzle us, but inevitably disappoint when we learn they are not free from patriarchal influence. The voices of our white, male peers are consistently valued above our own. Our reviews are less likely to published and our work less likely to be reviewed. We push against biased editors who don’t think much of us for our age and sex. We want to write to liberate ourselves but no one will show us the way.

What coincided with my women’s lib rumblings was the realisation that patriarchy succeeds in dividing and isolating women in order to disempower us. Where I was isolated by class, I had also been conditioned to isolate myself by gender. I feel as if I am still learning now how to create the benefits for myself and my peers in the same way that men have enjoyed for so long.

Studies show that women face more barriers in finding mentors than men. The boys’ clubs never went away and our male peers continue to reap rewards, whether consciously or not, from structures created by men, and their own conditioning to look out for other men first.

Without structured mentorship when we are young, we take guidance wherever we can get it. Fresh on the writing scene, I took bad advice from older male poets whose interest in my work wasn’t genuine. It was other women who I now realise were guiding me: my wonderful teachers at TAFE; my classmates who already had several careers under their belts; and my mates like Kat who were feeling it all out, too, but somehow had all this wisdom.

When Kat died, out of the shock and the grief came a common thread - a celebration of her generosity and her unwavering support for her peers, particularly women and queer folk. Last week, Express Media announced the Kat Muscat Fellowship. That a fellowship designed to support young women writers should emerge out of the tragedy of her death is the perfect honour.

It’s still a thrill when I observe women publicly promoting and celebrating other women – it still feels new and revolutionary to have girl gangs and wide-reaching feminist cabals.

Kat’s own natural style of mentorship was unassuming. Though she was editor of Voiceworks for two years, she was a leader long before that, despite not always leading from the front. She demonstrated camaraderie and constructive encouragement; she challenged us and helped us do better; she created safe spaces and offered invaluable insight.

My mentors now are still mostly informal, but their influence is weighted and deliberate. They are friends and colleagues whose careers I admire, and whose attitudes allow me to see my own practice in new perspectives. Some are writers, but some are women from other fields whose ethics and attitudes inform my own tangentially.

It’s still a thrill when I observe women publicly promoting and celebrating other women – it still feels new and revolutionary to have girl gangs and wide-reaching feminist cabals, even though women have been figuring this out for themselves for centuries. That it feels so exciting and so necessary is because it is so.

Structured opportunities for young women like the Kat Muscat Fellowship build on these sprawling informal networks. They act as beacons for girls and young women who, like me, did not know where a knack for words and a feminist sensibility could take them.

Portrait of Jessica Alice

Jessica Alice is a writer, editor, broadcaster and speaker from Melbourne.
She is Poetry Editor of Scum and Sex & Gender Columnist for Spook magazine. Jessica was Co-Director of the National Young Writers’ Festival in 2014 & '15.

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