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Male, female, masculinity, femininity: making crap up as we go along.

Male, female, masculinity, femininity: making crap up as we go along.

Proscrastination

This morning, after breakfast was done and the dog fed, and after sorting out the chooks for the day, I, feeling the need for just a few cheeky extra moments of procrastination, cleaned the loo and the sink and the mirror.  When done, I went into the garden and cut a small clump of pink geranium flowers, popped them in a little clear-glass bottle, filled the bottle with water, and set them out.  There: a sparkly, sparkling bathroom; and it always makes me feel brilliant.  Until I walk down to the writing-room with a strong mug of coffee in hand, turn on my computer and think, Oh Christ, I can’t remember where I’m up to.

Just activities

The point of all this? Manhood.  Or, at least, gender.  The thing is I’ve spent much of the last few weeks (on top of much of the last four and a half decades) thinking – worrying – about gender.  Along with most of Australia, probably.  Gender, sexism, equality: this is the stuff that’s currently flooding our radios and TVs and websites and newspapers.  But I don’t understand what any of it really means.  Last week over at Verity La I wrote an editorial about gender equality in terms of what the journal publishes, and I introduced the piece by saying that I simply don’t know what makes a man and what makes a woman.  Of course, we can talk in general terms, we can make observations based on assumptions.  Even though gender isn’t always black and white, it’s actually the notions of masculinity and femininity that are the hardest to define.  Is fixing a car a masculine activity?  Is cooking chicken soup a feminine activity?  Is tinkering in the shed with hammers and nails a masculine activity?  Is, oh I don’t know, blogging a feminine activity?  In the end the only rational conclusion is that these are just activities.  But if anyone knows of a logical definition of masculinity and femininity, do feel free to share it.

Political tedium

Yet one of the core precepts of human life is gender and what this enables and entitles us to do between being born and kicking the bucket.  In Australian political life, men wear dark-coloured suits with blue ties; woman wear whatever they want, more or less, though a pearl necklace, it seems, should be seriously considered if you’re in a leadership position.  Men can say whatever they want, even swear (hopefully off-camera), but it wouldn’t be right for women (even off-camera).  Men can be ruthless, but when women do the same we’re advised to approach with caution – she may be dangerous or mad, or even a witch.

The welfare of a child

Closer to home, I’ve been thinking about the welfare of children raised by same-sex parents.  I used to believe that as long as, say, the son of a lesbian couple had access to a good father-figure (an uncle or high-quality family friend), then all would be right with the world.  But what exactly is that father-figure meant to do?  Teach the son how to kick a footie and do air-guitar to AC/DC?  It’s just rubbish.  So my thinking evolved to this: as long as the son has access to masculine and feminine influences (both of which could be found in his two mothers) then all would be right with the world.  But does that mean one of the mothers has to be good at climbing onto the roof to clean out the gutters (a supposedly masculine trait) while the other has to be good at getting down on her hands and knees to clean the kitchen floors (a supposedly feminine trait)?  It’s totally absurd.  So recently my thinking has evolved to this: as long as the son is loved and protected and encouraged and challenged all will be right with the world; one day he might even climb the food-chain to be deputy prime-minister.

'Brokeback Mountain' by Annie Proulx: the best prose ever, as voted by me.

‘Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx: the best prose ever, as voted by me.

Best-ever novels, Fred Nile and the Australian soccer team

But here’s a thing: even closer to home, when I think of my favourite novels, you know, the ones that I’d rescue if the house was burning down around my ears, all but one (Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx) are written by men, and all of them (except, ironically, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tobin) are about men finding their way in the world and, quite honestly, fucking it up as they go here, there, and everywhere.  Further, as I pointed out over at Verity La, there is a distinct bias towards male writers in the work the journal publishes – and I’m the one who makes the decisions.  Surely it goes beyond my personal sexuality (which, sorry Fred Nile, is genetic) to something sinister: in society, and in the way we move through and within society, men have an access-all-areas voice while women must know their place.  Cue: the coach of the Australian soccer team and his completely and utterly ridiculous ‘private joke’.

Making crap up

It’s pretty handy that as Australians we live in an environment where these matters can be discussed so freely and openly (though I’d be brave to the point of stupidity to chew this stuff over with some mates down at my Goulburn local).  It’s also interesting that these issues have been brought to front of stage by a female prime-minister who is, rightly or wrongly (perhaps both), and consciously or unconsciously (perhaps both), using her gender to bolster her government (which has, it should be said, achieved a lot despite almost crippling political and economic circumstances).  But it would be good to reach the chapter – I thought we had already, but clearly I was wrong – where actions are just actions: they don’t have sex or genders.  Like picking pink flowers for the bathroom.  But it’s likely this is me just being a bit of a fairy.  And, as always, making crap up.

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Ten books that have completely and utterly moved me to the core so that even now, when I look at the titles below, something reacts in my heart:

  • Disgrace by JM Coetzee
  • Holding The Man by Timothy Conigrove
  • The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin
  • Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • The Riders by Tim Winton
  • Last Orders by Graham Swift
  • Eminence by Morris West
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishigo
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Twenty-three things these books have in common (and I’ve been thinking about this for ages, years really, and for a long long time I had this list up on my wall and I’d add to it and take things off until now I think it might actually mean something):

  1. They’re all late twentieth-century literature
  2. They’re all set in relatively contemporary times (i.e. 1980s and beyond), except, perhaps, Brokeback Mountain, In Cold Blood, The Remains of the Day
  3. The main characters are all men, except those in The Blackwater Lightship
  4. They’re all written by men, except Brokeback Mountain
  5. They’re all about men, even The Blackwater Lightship in a roundabout way
  6. The writers are all Caucasian, except Kazuo Ishigo
  7. They’re all fiction, except In Cold Blood and Holding the Man
  8. They’re all set in the Western World
  9. They’re all dramas
  10. Only one of them is gay-lit per se: Holding the Man
  11. Most of the main characters have clear occupations: academic, schoolboy, cowboy, butler, priest
  12. They all understand their political context
  13. They all ask questions about nationhood, except The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
  14. The passage and complexity of time is very important to them
  15. Family – in the broadest sense – is at their heart
  16. They all have strong senses of place
  17. Apart from Brokeback Mountain, they’re all single point-of-view narratives – simple
  18. They’re also all relatively straight-forward in terms of structure, but they lead the reader into tough and dark terrain: murder, mental illness, racism, religion, homophobia, right-wing ideologies, death, grief, the weight of history…but there’s also a whole lot of love
  19. They’re all driven by clear ‘what ifs’ e.g. Eminence: what if the Pope-in-waiting was in fact an atheist
  20. The prose is accessible, sometimes understated, but always beautiful
  21. The writers appear to be burning to find something out through the writing of their works
  22. There’s an overt sense of warmth and humanity – this is their true power
  23. My life would be less without them

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