Monday, October 21, 2013

Sharing The Love

Jane Campion
(photo Duncan Inns, courtesy Arts Foundation)
It was a beautiful end to a beautiful week for New Zealand women writers. There’d been celebration all the way. One hundred and twenty-five years since Katherine Mansfield's birth (14 October). And on October 15 – in NZ or the UK – Ella Yelich-O'Connor (Lorde) and her co-writer Joel Little won New Zealand's most prestigious songwriting award, the APRA Silver Scroll, for Royals – it was also Royals' third week at no 1 on the US singles charts – writer/director Jane Campion was made an Arts Laureate by the New Zealand Arts Foundation – at last a formal New Zealand acknowledgment of her brilliance – and Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries.

‘What do you have in your water there?’ someone emailed me from overseas, and that reminded me of a passage in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One’s Own–
…it is time that the effect of discouragement on the mind of the artist should be measured, as I have seen a dairy company measure the effect of ordinary milk and grade A milk upon the body of the rat. They set two rats in cages side by side, and of the two, one was furtive, timid and small, and the other was glossy, bold and big. Now what food do we feed women as artists upon? I asked…
What foods do New Zealanders offer women artists, especially the writers?

And then I opened Facebook to read this: Free Masterclasses With Jane Campion.

I love Jane Campion’s description of the masterclasses–
SHARING THE LOVE, A TRIBUTE TO RICHARD CAMPION (1923 – 2013)
My father, Richard Campion, was passionate about theatre, about performance, about creativity, about people having a go. He was a wondrously generous man who breathed warmth and belief into my fledgling hopes of making film and television. In his memory and honour, I am offering three free workshops at Circa [Theatre] on Monday 4 November 2013.
And I love the message that came on Facebook later, via the masterclass hosts, The Casting Company
In an age where everything is recorded Jane would like these sessions to be live and would like those taking part not be constrained by delivering for camera. These sessions will not be recorded and we ask everyone attending to be respectful of that. Thank you all.
All I had to do was click ‘Join’ and I could spend most of a day with up to 239 others and Jane Campion (and no cameras!). Extraordinary nourishment for this woman artist.
‘Sharing the Love’ immediately reminded me of an interview with Eleanor Catton a few days earlier, where she said ‘Money doesn’t transform a person – the only thing that can is love’; and I imagined Circa Theatre glowing with transformations.

And then I thought about similarities in reports about Jane Campion, Eleanor Catton and Ella Yelich-O’Connor: Jane’s mother Edith Campion was also a writer; and an actor, who co-founded the legendary New Zealand Players with Richard Campion. Ella’s mother is the award-winning poet Sonja Yelich. Eleanor’s mother is a librarian. And it seems that Ella’s and Eleanor’s fathers are also 'wondrously generous' men who breathe warmth and belief into their daughters. I remember reading an interview where Ella spoke with enthusiasm about a way of thinking that her father’s given her (can't now find the article); and Eleanor’s recently published an essay about a trip with her father that conveys a similar feeling of love and appreciation. Everything I’ve read about these women’s childhoods seems to show that their parents created family environments that provided nourishment through love, through ideas, debate and adventure, through books, and through opportunities for creativity including – I imagine – lots of playfulness and laughter. And from this sturdy basis each woman is free to work hard to develop her remarkable talents and to achieve excellence (‘I love what I do so much. I've never been so happy, or worked so hard,’ writes Ella Yelich-O’Connor) – the 2,000 words a day for a novel, the six pages a day for a script, the eighteen hour days in a studio, on location, in an editing room, on the road. And to enjoy the rewards with delight and with grace that I've found inspiring to watch and to read about.


But, beyond family, are there distinctively New Zealand elements that make a difference for these three women and for others? Consider a longer list. Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield were New Zealanders. So was Margaret Mahy, who won two Carnegie Medals and a Hans Christian Andersen Medal. And except for various Commonwealth Writers Prizes (seven New Zealand women including Janet Frame have won, and five men), all the New Zealand international writing award-winners are women. There’s Patricia Grace who won the Neustadt Prize and Keri Hulme who won the Booker, who both identify as Maori. As well as her many awards as a director, Jane Campion won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay for The Piano, one of only four individual women to do so in over 70 years (four more were in winning teams). Few women, individually or in teams, win the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay either, but Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens won for Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, with Peter Jackson; and Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson were nominated for the same award with Heavenly Creatures. Women writers also do well in the annual New Zealand Post national book awards. In the last decade women have won eight out of ten Fiction awards, seven out of ten Poetry awards and six out of ten Non-Fiction awards (the 'General' Non-Fiction category). That's 75% of the fiction and poetry and 70% of all three (there are other categories too), within a rigorously run award structure where the group of selectors changes every year. Maybe there is something in the water.

In a Dazed Digital interview, Eleanor Catton says:
New Zealand is a wonderful place to be a woman. There’s a practical equality which is very much written into the Kiwi life. It’s not the case that the girls will go off with the girls and the boys will go off with the boys. It’s a much more inclusive environment… We were the first country to give women the vote, in 1893. It’s quite interesting to think that New Zealand has so much in common culturally with the UK [and the US and Australia] and it does still, but that their gender politics are still quite different.
I like the concept of ‘practical equality’. And I’ve observed it in action, although New Zealand, established as a bicultural nation through Te Tiriti o Waitangi/The Treaty of Waitangi, isn’t a perfect place for women. Particularly Maori women, whose life expectancy is lower than Pakeha women and men, though not as low as Maori men’s (and it's noticeable that only two Maori women appear in the New Zealand Post award lists, Patricia Grace and Paula Morris.) Pay equity is also an issue and there is an increasing rich/poor gap where single mothers and their children are especially disadvantaged. Domestic and sexual violence are issues. Care for the disabled and the elderly is problematic. And New Zealand isn’t a perfect place to be a woman artist. Creative New Zealand's research published in Portrait of the Artist, provides the state’s only-ever gendered statistics about artists (including writers and filmmakers). It's more than decade old, but from anecdotal evidence nothing has changed; the figures the research records may explain why some distinguished older women artists are unable to afford heating in the winter.
Artists' median income from all sources
Men – 113 percent of national median income
Women – 54 percent of national median income

Median income from principal artistic occupation
Median income for all women artists less than a third of the income earned by men; and 7.5 percent of the national median income.

Median income from all arts work
Women artists' median income just over a third of the all-arts-work income earned by male artists; and 11 percent of the national median income.
Joel Little and Ella Yelich-O'Connor at the APRA Awards
Although 'practical equality' doesn't result in economic parity, it may provide other long term benefits, one of them women writers’ successful collaborations with men. Does 'practical equality' ensure that New Zealand men often appreciate women writers with talent and ideas? And love to collaborate with them? And do its effects spread beyond New Zealand, so that our women writers are accomplished at identifying men who have similar qualities, wherever they come from? The Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens collaborations are legendary. And the nourishing, generous qualities of the men who collaborate with Jane Campion, Eleanor Catton and Ella Yelich O’Connor come through so strongly in reports, regardless of the kind of collaboration. In this clip, as the pair accept the Silver Scroll, Joel Little, Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s co-writer on Royals, is upfront about how it feels for him–
It's taken me ten years to get up on this stage and it's taken you ten months, so you're kind of annoying (laughter). But I guess that's just a sign of the true talent you are. And I think that the scary part of it is you definitely haven't written your best song. I'm excited to see what you do next and I'm excited to see what we do together and just generally excited.
I loved how he steps back from their writing partnership and and places the spotlight firmly on Ella: 'you' (not 'we') haven't yet written your best song; I'm excited to see what 'you' do next. 


Eleanor Catton and Steve Toussaint on either side of the book poster, with Eleanor's NZ publisher Fergus Barrowman on the other side of Steve
When I watched that clip, I thought of Eleanor Catton's description of the qualities of her domestic partner Steve Toussaint – an American, a poet and her first reader – in her superb speech when she accepted the prize:
I must also thank my beloved, Steve Toussaint, whose kindness, patience and love is written on every page of my book.
I thought too of Jane Campion's Top of the Lake co-writer, Australian Gerard Lee, who also co-wrote Sweetie (1989) and co-wrote and co-directed Passionless Moments (1983). Clare Young's lovely doco From The Bottom of the Lake documents aspects of their recent intense co-writer relationship and Gerard Lee speaks so beautifully about Jane Campion and her work.

And is the cultural environment that Eleanor Catton describes one reason why each of this week’s award winners acknowledges that she's a feminist as though it’s a natural thing? And why each is a fearless feminist, as Jane Campion has demonstrated for a long time, as Ella Yelich-O'Connor demonstrated in a recent essay and as Eleanor Catton showed this week, in her criticism of the way women writers are treated.

I've written elsewhere about Ella Yelich-O'Connor's essay, which I read as a landmark manifesto from a woman artist. And you can read Eleanor Catton's criticism for yourself. But essentially, I believe, both women are speaking out against behaviours like those that Virginia Woolf describes in A Room of One's Own, behaviours that discourage women writers within and outside New Zealand, behaviours that have generated activism like VIDA's in the United States and The Stella Prize's in Australia, including the Stella Count.

I believe that it's important to talk more about how this fearless feminist perspective matters for women writers, because it can generate interesting ideas in sometimes surprising ways. And it may contribute to a kind of spaciousness that I’ve observed in the work of Jane Campion, Eleanor Catton and Ella Yelich O’Connor. Yes, they’re familiar with, resist and condemn contemporary discouragement of women writers. That discouragement which, according to Virginia Woolf, can cause a mind to become ‘slightly pulled from the straight, and made to alter its clear vision in deference to external authority’ and to think ‘of something other than the thing itself’. But they can at the same time – I believe – maintain their clear vision and think only of the thing itself – a film, a lyric, a novel. And maybe the rest of us can learn from that.


Writing as a fearless feminist may or may not mean placing women at the centre of a story. As I see it, it stimulates invention, using a variety of reference points. It affects, for example, choices about form. Eleanor Catton again, in the Dazed Digital interview about The Luminaries
In the early stages of writing the book I was … thinking about how few women write long books. In terms of literary fiction, that tends to be true. There isn’t an equivalent of Infinite Jest or Gravity’s Rainbow written by a woman. Long historical books get written by women, but not contemporary experiments, which still seems to be a very male-dominated field. So I think that was definitely in my mind. When I started the book, I had this Yeatsian idea that I wanted the 12 parts of the book to dwindle. So each part would be exactly half the length of the part before.
Writing as a fearless feminist is also (of course) about challenging conventional ways of portraying women, inventing new ways to do this, taking on the old masters. The Dazed Digital interviewer: ‘The treatment of women is an interesting facet of [The Luminaries, where ‘12 men were fixed in their relationship to one another and seven other figures move in and out of this fixed wheel’]. Is it something you’re concerned with as a contemporary issue?’ Eleanor responds–
… I read Madame Bovary, House of Mirth and Anna Karenina back to back and it was so depressing! The woman who wakes up to herself is always fated to die. Because we can’t countenance a world with wide-awake women in it. I think the suicide, or the attempted suicide, that people are so keen to pin on Anna (a prostitute) in The Luminaries was a way of showing literary convention as something desperate or too easily resorted to as a solution: ‘Oh dear, what do we do now? Better get rid of her...’ In the way that in romantic comedies, the third person in the triangle is always got rid of absolutely. Writers turn them gay or kill them off.
Oh! Oh! I went, when I first read 'we can't countenance a world with wide-awake women in it'. What a fine line to inspire all women writers to be alert, to pay close attention. And that sends me back to the ways that New Zealanders feed women writers, to check out some significant awards and funding for writers, by gender.

Arts Foundation Awards (philanthropists)
The Arts Foundation is an umbrella organisation for philanthropists who wish to contribute to the arts: 'We love the arts, the people that create it and the people that give to it!' At the end of 2012, the Arts Foundation had awarded 141 artists and donated more than $4 million to artists. There are three primary tiers of awards made. At the top is the Icon Awards, limited to a living circle of 20, 'artists whose work represents a legacy to, and a mark on, our culture...are world class'. They receive a medallion, passed on to a successor, and a pin.  Of the six writer Icons appointed,  four have been women – Barbara Anderson, Janet Frame, Patricia Grace and Margaret Mahy. One woman – Patricia Grace – is among the living Icons, and one man – Maurice Gee. Then there's the Laureates. These awards are given as 'an investment in an artist with prominence and outstanding potential'. They each receive $50,000 and a statuette. Of the twelve writer Laureates, seven are men and five are women. All four of the New Generation writers 'the hotshots, the ones to watch,' are women, and received $25,000 and a statuette.

International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) awards (university/philanthropists)
Awarded annually to graduates of the MA Creative Writing courses. When I went through the lists, I wondered, as I have in the past, why so few Maori women go through the MA course and why – as far as I know – there is only one Maori woman in these lists, Paula Morris again. I think this is an important issue because of the opportunities that this course provides. Does it make a difference that there are no Maori staff members (more than one is probably necessary for change)? And there's just one man from the Pacific awarded, one man from India.  Is the International Institute of Modern Letters perhaps a bit too Pakeha?

Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing (for the page)
Women (including Eleanor Catton) have received ten of the 15 prizes awarded.

David Carson-Parker Embassy Prize in Scriptwriting
Women have received seven of the 12 prizes awarded (still very pleased to see my own name there).

Biggs Poetry Prize
Women have received six of the seven prizes awarded.

Glen Schaeffer Award (2000-2007)
Provided the opportunity for Victoria's leading MA graduates to go on to grant-aided study at North American co-centres of the IIML, such as the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and the University of California (Irvine). Women (including Eleanor Catton) received eight of the nine awards.

Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship (state, trusts, philanthropists)
This entitles the fellow to spend a year in Menton and comes with a significant cash grant, currently $75,000. In the last decade the fellowship has been awarded to women only three times, and in 40 years it has never been awarded to a Maori woman.

New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) Feature Film Development Funding
The proportion of women writers in projects that the NZFC funds has been low for a long time (I measured it in my PhD; and have continued to monitor it since I finished, though less regularly). In the year to October, the NZFC invested $1,509,014 in development of feature films. Projects with women writers received 29%. Projects with women and men writers received 13%. Because there were two large development grants to documentary projects with women writers, and I'm more concerned with fiction, I did a further calculation excluding those projects. The result was 19%. And although Maori men written and directed many features over the last few years, yet another year has passed with no feature written and directed by a Maori woman. (The last one was Merata Mita's Mauri, 1988.)

Four out of the nine laureates have been women, none of them Maori. Laureates are appointed for two years and work very hard for those two years.

For the last eleven years there have been three awards of $60,000 a year, one for fiction, one for poetry and one for non-fiction. Women have won six of the fiction awards, three of the poetry awards and two of the non-fiction awards. This means that of $1,980,000 allocated women have received only a third.  

Robert Burns Fellowship (university/philanthropists)
The Robert Burns Fellowship for writers was established by an anonymous group of Dunedin citizens in 1958 and is run by the University of Otago. 23 of the 54 fellows have been women. In the last decade eight out of ten of the fellows have been women. (The later-established visual arts equivalent, the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, has been awarded 46 times, 18 times to women. In the last decade five of these fellows have been women.)

I was tempted to establish a star system to evaluate how well these organisations feed women writers, in the context of our bi-cultural nation and its multicultural population, Creative New Zealand's gendered artist income statistics and our women writers' achievements internationally and in the New Zealand Post book awards. But I desisted. (I hope someone else will do a more comprehensive and precise analysis with a view to making change, because who knows what would happen if New Zealand invested in women writers at a level commensurate with their collective achievement? And, of course, in women artists who work in other mediums, especially film.)

But there are a few things that strike me, of course! I was surprised that women writers feature so strongly among the Robert Burns fellows, and that over the last decade they're represented at almost the exact proportion that they're represented in the New Zealand Post Awards (although the names are mostly different). The statistics for the most lucrative awards, the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship and the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement seem to show that something needs to change in their selection processes, so that women writers' achievements are more appropriately acknowledged. The NZFC needs to institute some change too, perhaps to follow Sweden and Norway and France who are experimenting with a range of strategies for increasing women's participation in feature filmmaking. Even Screen Australia now provides comprehensive gender statistics, a great start.

I'm intrigued by the Arts Foundation and its long list of generous donors, many of them women. It has ten trustees (two of them women) and eleven Governors, who self-select but get approval from a trustee before appointment. The Governors are almost all arts practitioners and seven of them are women. This is how the award recipients are selected
Our Trustees and Governors appoint panels, or individuals from the arts community, to select recipients for awards under pre-determined criteria. The selectors must be independent from the Foundation, or its funders, and there must be a reasonable turn-over of selection panel membership from year to year. Through appointing volunteer arts experts to select recipients for us, we trust the arts community to select its own champions.
Isn't it great? According to Executive Director Simon Bowden, Jane Campion said last week that she knew of nothing like it in the world and that it reminded her that kiwis were great generous people. The Arts Foundation also runs Boosted, a crowd-funding site.

It feels just right that four of the six writer Icons have been women and that at the combined Icon and Laureate levels there is an exact gender split (though perhaps a couple more women Laureates would fit even better?); and it's understandable that all the New Generation writer awards have been given to women writers. 

But given the book award statistics and the poet laureate statistics, it's disappointing that four men poets have received Laureate awards and only one woman, Jenny Bornholdt. And when I dug a little deeper, I found that only 30% of all the Icons are women and only 37% of all artists awarded in the three categories plus some additional specialist awards. Are those Governors, especially the women Governors, keeping track of gender? Are they checking the numbers? Do they know how much of that $4m has gone to women and whether women artists are more likely to receive the less lucrative New Generation awards than they are to receive Laureateships? This matters in the context of the Creative New Zealand statistics and other evidence like the NZFC's poor record of investment in women, and, especially, the history of women writers' achievement.

Finally, I wondered why Jane Campion received a Laureateship rather than an Icon award, because her work has made a deep mark on our culture and provided a legacy to it; and she is absolutely world class. In the larger scheme of things, why hasn't New Zealand acknowledged her achievements with more honours? Let's share the love with her: it's time.
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Wellywood Woman links

More on New Zealand's attitudes to women artists (as well as the Gender Issues for NZ Women Filmmakers page links)

More on women in film and generosity

11 comments:

  1. Another superbly thoughtful and informative piece, and further proof that this blog of yours is a vibrant, living thing. I look forward to reading your thoughts about the Campion workshop!

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    1. Thank you very much, Lee. It's heartwarming to read this, from a stranger. Truly. :)

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    2. PS I may write a little bit about the masterclass, because I like to share and appreciate your interest, but probably not directly for two reasons. Firstly – and most importantly – Jane Campion's made it clear that the sessions are not being recorded and we've been asked to honour that. 'Recorded', to me, includes taking notes for possible publication. And anyway, I've never been able to listen and participate *and* take notes (and couldn't live tweet if that were possible on my primitive phone!); and I want to listen and participate wholeheartedly. But, a friend's coming all the way from the States, especially, and maybe we can talk/write about the masterclass's effects on us (or something!

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    3. Wonderful article, Marian. I hope you'll check at the masterclass and see how Jane Campion feels about reporting on it after the fact. I would absolutely want to honour her wishes but my fingers are crossed that you might be able to write about it with her blessing.

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    4. Thank you, Shaula. Because it's you, and The Black Board is so endlessly generous to a wide diversity of screenwriters including me, I will check, with the proviso (as I wrote earlier) that the 'not writing' is also about my own limitations.

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  2. Totally fascinating yet again! Loved the exploration of the parent's role in nurturing creativity - reminded me how much my mother influenced all her children - advocating for speaking out, following dreams and placing ehtics at the centre of every choice.

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    1. And then I thought – I'm slow sometimes! – you're a fearless feminist New Zealand writer, an activist in all kinds of ways and a multiple award-winner. That parenting thought may have legs! :)

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  3. Thank you Mandy, also 'again'. I felt very uncertain about writing about real people's families when my only knowledge is what I've learned from the media, so it's good to know that what I wrote resonated with you as a writer. I think there's also room to explore the effects of NZers' reading habits: that we are a nation of readers; that we still have – though under-resourced – an amazing state library system; and to explore the historical effects on writers, artists and children of state-funded publications for children, like the School Journal, which included many stories from wonderful women writers like Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley.

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  4. Tino pai! When people ask me what it is about Aotearoa New Zealand that produces such creative over-achievers, I reply that there's a feeling that 'In New Zealand no one can hear your dream.' That growing up on islands that seem so far away from anywhere else we tend to make our own fun without worrying too much about what the rest of the world thinks. And that helps us be 'original'. 'Practical Equality' would seem to be a work in progress, but I think a good tradition of strong, independent, bolshy women just getting on with it helps us all to give everyone a fair go now. cheers from Canada DG

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    1. Sorry, that should be - 'In New Zealand no one can hear you dream'

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    2. Kia ora David. I love your 'in New Zealand no-one can hear you dream' and to read that we tend to make our own fun. Spot on, I reckon! Thinking of you making your own fun in Canada and hoping you'll be back here before too long.

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