The Name Game

Image of c1880s stereo-optic view of Burmese pagodas via WikiCommons

Image of c1880s stereo-optic view of Burmese pagodas via WikiCommons

By Unpublished Manuscript Fellow Michelle Aung Thin

Four years ago, I started writing my first novel, set in colonial Rangoon of the 1930s. In my writing I explore what it was like to be a young woman of mixed race - a sexual icon - in a place ruled by European men. In the private space of my imagination I was interested only in the truth of things – those ways of being in the world obscured by familiar and unchallenged worldviews. I wanted to mess with modern perceptions of how men and women belong: to show that things were never as rigid as they seemed. I wanted to subvert things. I wanted to redirect the discussion. In other words, I did my best to write like a woman.

My novel will be published this September by Text and I am currently working towards the final draft with my editor, Mandy Brett. One of the things we’ve been talking through is the title - in the rush to finish the book I was happy to leave it until last. Text has suggested The Monsoon Bride. They love it. My writing and reading friends think it has a certain ring to it, the hint of a satirical edge. Brian Castro, my PhD supervisor at the University of Adelaide, reckons ironically that it is a title that will sell. But I have all kinds of reservations. It’s the word ‘bride’. It seems too girly. You see, while I write like a woman I find that I am worried about being read as one.

This is not some exercise in self-loathing, or a wringing of hands over my political marginalization. My misgivings are all about avoiding pigeonholes. I want to sell lots of books. But I also want my work to be part of the literary conversation - the main conversation, not an alternative sidebar. I think that my novel has something to contribute to debates around race and cultural belonging; that it is worthy of the conversation. So will the word ‘bride’ in the title limit the way it will be read and reviewed? Will being read like a woman also mean being sidelined or dismissed?

None of this was an issue when I was writing the book. I didn’t even think about it. But now that my novel is finished, I find myself treading carefully. Instead of cutting through entrenched and biased worldviews, I have to take them into account as I negotiate my way through the marketplace. Four years of hard work is at stake. And I am wondering, how do you get in the game without playing the game? How do make sure you are part of the conversation and yet keep your self-respect?

I’ve seen the pie charts from VIDA showing how only a fraction of women are reviewed in the major literary magazines compared to men. I’ve read Kirsten Tranter’s take on the corresponding Australian magazines. I am tuned in to Leslie Cannold’s campaign for 51% representation. I saw the fallout when the shortlist for the Miles Franklin was announced (including one respondent to Alison Croggon’s piece in The Drum Opinion who maintained that “men do write better books”). I am sensitive to the suspicion that writers who complain about being overlooked are simply not good enough to be published.

It strikes me that this bias masquerades as ‘commercial reality’. Editors responsible for putting together the literary section of a newspaper or a magazine - major marketing vehicles for books - know that reviews of titles by men will be read by the broadest audience as a matter of default because, as Eileen Myles writes in her essay ‘Being Female’, “female reality always contains male and female”.

Readers also want to be part of the literary conversation. They are more likely to engage with books that are brought to their attention by taste-makers. If the majority of literary fiction reviewed is written by men, then of course it will seem like books by women are not as critically interesting - hence the partiality, unconscious or not.

But what seems equally important is not to get stuck in the narrative of winners and losers. The way this issue is reported, it can seem as if women writers and men writers are two teams playing a football match and ours is the dud side. It’s depressing.

No writer – female or male – can control how she or he is read. I know this. I also know that my name on the front cover and my photo on the back will raise certain expectations of what is on the pages inside. All I can do is: write as well as I can; be aware of my own blind spots not only in my writing but also in my reading; think critically about what is before me; acknowledge the fact that this is a complex issue, that all sorts of things get mixed up together (like, what is quality? what type of writing belongs to women?); and try to have some integrity and expect it in others.

Besides, my first novel is about to be published by a publishing house I admire. I should be happy, right? That is what irks me most; I have to think about this instead of just rejoicing in getting my work out there.

So in the end I went with The Monsoon Bride. It does have a certain ring to it. It does have sales appeal. And I really like it. I’ll just have to leave it up to readers to get the irony.

Michelle Aung Thin’s first novel, The Monsoon Bride, will be published by Text in September. This is the third and last in our series of essays by the 2010 shortlisted Unpublished Manuscript Fellows.

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