At a recent conference on excess and desire in twentieth- and twenty-first century women’s writing, one of the presenters quoted from Natalie Kon-Yu’s 2016 essay, in Overland, ‘A testicular hit-list of literary big cats‘. In particular, she quoted from the section in which Kon-Yu describes the depiction of Jake Whyte’s gender in Evie Wyld’s Miles Franklin winning novel, All the Birds, Singing as a reason for feeling ‘unsettled’ that it had won the award, and/or feeling unsettled that the win was subsequently celebrated as a (statistically rare) example of a woman winning a writing award for a book about a woman.
Kon-Yu’s essay is, I think, overall insightful, intriguing and even exciting, touching as it does on issues around the visibility of women’s writing, and particularly women’s writing about women, in the literary landscape. She touches on some of the themes and research triggered by various contemporary conversations and research, particularly around literary prize culture. She draws on and teases out the implications of some of the research on the visibility of women’s work in reviewing by the VIDA count, the Stella Prize’s work in similar and related areas, and Nicola Griffith’s observations/research on the visibility of works by woman and about women in literary awards.
For me, however, the essay takes a troubling turn when the author discusses Evie Wyld’s novel, All the Birds, Singing. Kon-Yu writes, in part:
I was unsettled that the novel won the Miles Franklin, not because the writing isn’t beautiful or the story isn’t urgent, but because the book features a female protagonist who, for most of the novel, could have been a male character.
The novel’s protagonist, Jake, is moody and insular and lives on her own with her pet, Dog, for company. Praised for her physical skills, Jake – already masculinised through her name, short hair and manly clothing – is told by one of the shearers she works with that she is ‘a good bloody bloke’. In his review, Geordie Williamson writes that ‘wearing a self-cut fringe and habitually clothed in grimy dungarees, Jake has so successfully erased her gender that the reader is driven to confused re-reading’.
Kon-Yu goes on to state that her concern is less about the masculinity of the female character, than over the ways in which the book has been praised in terms of tropes and stylistic approaches that are largely associated with male writing, or at least with masculine writing. This is muddier water, and raises interesting questions about the ways in which women’s writing is read, criticised, analysed, assessed and otherwise compared with that of other men’s and women’s writing. I think Kon-Yu does a wonderfully elegant job of raising and exploring, if not resolving, these questions of what makes a book an instance of women’s writing. She also alludes to the ways in which women’s writing that is lauded is often lauded in reference to men’s writing. As if (straight white) men’s writing is the standard to which all other writing should be, and is, held.
However, it’s the essay’s attention to the gender performance of Jake, within the novel, as ‘unsettling’ or ‘confusing’ that really gets my goat.
I was troubled by Kon-Yu’s seeming dismissal of Wyld’s book as representative of women’s experience because Jake can be read as masculine, and her conclusion that, at least partly because of Jake’s gender non-conformity, the book is a less-than-legitimate win for women’s writing than we might, as women, immediately suspect. The win, she suggests, is something of a tainted victory for us girls.
Wyld’s book is built out of two inter-twining narrative threads. It opens with Jake Whyte living and working alone on an isolated sheep farm, on what might be the Isle of Wight. Another sheep has been gruesomely killed in the night, and, as this thread unfolds, it becomes clear that Jake feels constantly under threat from whatever it is that lurks out there in the dark.
Interwoven with this forward-moving ‘now’ of the novel (albeit in past tense) are the scenes that slowly reveal Jakes’ backstory, moving backwards in time from her time working on an Australian sheep farm in Boodarie, to the childhood trauma that scarred her body and, perhaps, her psyche.
One of the key themes I think that the book engages with is the visceral, bloody, embodied nature of violence, and perhaps particularly violence against women; the book draws attention to the ways in which, as a woman and an outsider, Jake is constantly at risk from lovers, clients and other men. Farming sheep, the work seems to suggest, is as bloody, bodily, dangerous and demanding as prostitution. Death or dismemberment are never far away. A hand (or blade) can as easily remove dags and maggots, or fleece, remove something rotten or valuable but inessential to life, as cut a throat. There are even scenes in which the violence done to animals in a farmer’s care, and the violence done to Jake by various men, are closely aligned, as in the a scene in which Otto shows Jake how to slaughter a ewe: here, we see the brutal ‘necessity’ of violence in animal farming, and the way Otto’s physical power and ability to kill an animal are clearly intended not to teach Jake how to kill herself, but how easily Otto can kill a (female) animal. This act of instructive violence is performed by Otto after he drags Jake back from her first, failed, attempt to escape him, and is eerily aligned with the absent former wife whose clothes hang in the wardrobe, and whose earring Jake finds in a dim corner of the same shed where the sheep are slaughtered. (Has she, this ghostly former wife, been slaughtered like a ewe?). Otto is, as the text notes mid-scene ‘enjoying seeing [Jake] scared’ (95) and later, when Jake blinks back tears, but ‘womans up’ and demonstrates her own ability to kill, Otto’s response is appropriately muted: ‘Otto is silent and watching, and he glances at the knife I’m still holding, his smile gone, ‘ (96).
I’d been amused/infuriated enough by Geordie Williamson’s confession of ‘confused re-reading’. Could a male reader, I wondered, really not maintain in his mind that a character could be tough, grimy and short-haired and female? Even in the face of pages and pages of explicit scenes in which the same character engages in, or is offered, same-sex sexual activity. Sex that is largely ugly, violent, often only marginally consensual, and deeply upsetting. These scenes in which Jake’s female body are marked in the text are not rare or incidental. Her sex, it seems to me, is remarked on or exposed by either herself or other characters in almost every chapter.
For example, in the first ‘flashback’ chapter where the overseer, Clare, lets her know that he has found out about what happened between her and Otto, and says:
What you’ve got, is you’ve got two options here. Maybe I’d be persuaded to keep my mouth shut … You can show me some of what you’ve shown everyone else here at Hedland … Little bit of affection–I’m not asking for much–I wouldn’t fuck a mate’s lay–maybe just the mouth. (16)
Not much later, we discover that Jake escaped from Otto, who was keeping her as a kind of sexual slave without the means to escape his isolated farm, or his woman-hating dog, Kelly. And that earlier still, stepping back in time as we do, she has worked as an independent prostitute, giving head-jobs for $10 or $20 in a park, or providing anonymous but noisy penetrative sex in the back of a ute for $55.
When I read Geordie’s comment, this is the book I remembered. One that I found difficult to read for a range of reasons, but particularly because of it’s brutal, uncompromising and explicit scenes of gendered violence and oppression. Scenes in which the narrator Jake’s sex, her femaleness, was in no way obscured or doubtful. Scenes in which her identity as a woman was the precise reason for, and instrument of, her oppression and trauma.
In some sense, Jake’s increasingly masculinised body and gender performance might be read as a response to being wrenched, squeezed, flipped, dragged, hit, caged, locked in, pulled, pushed and fucked. As in the scene where she cuts a ewe’s throat after Otto has forced her to watch him do so as some kind of veiled threat, Jake’s strength and own capacity for violence can be read, in some ways, as a defence mechanism, and a response to the violence enacted on her body. Her own strength, and her refusal to appear to be the kind of body that men want to use, can be read as responses to being used, beaten, and raped. Jake fights back, or at least develops the capacity to do so, and it is this violence, I think, that the novel might finally suggest is the most troubling to her as a character. Not the violence that is acted out on her body, but the violence of which she herself is capable. The monster which she becomes, or perhaps has always already been.
Violence, too, is a language she understands, as we, in reading her story, increasingly come to realise. Violence is written on her body in the scars that one client fearfully realises after he’s finished having sex with her:
‘What is it, girl? Fuck, I didn’t even wear a rubber.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I try to say, and he almost throws me out of the back tray into the white, with my shorts around my knees and his wetness all on me. He charges out of the truck a moment later, as I am pulling my clothes back on and I think he’s going to hit me, he comes so close to my face.
‘What the fuck is that on your back?’
‘Just scars,’ I say. (180)
[Fascinating, in this scene, how this idiot sex client mistakes burn scars for some form of sexually transmissible disease, perhaps AIDS. The elision, within the text, of scars that the reader often suspects–or at least I did until I got to the end!–are a product of sexualised/gendered violence, with unwelcome and violent desire is really fascinating and complex. Whatever scarred Jake may be the reason she is in such dire need that she will provide sex in the back of a ute, but the evidence of other men’s violence and desire on her body both attract and repulse her various lovers and clients. Marking her as a victim, threat, and mystery, but also as a survivor.]
Violence is there, too, in the book’s final scene, in which the source of those scars is made explicit. A fire. A boy. Sex and jealousy and the threat of violence (‘You need to know that you are fucking dead … Did you hear what I said, were you paying attention, you massive fucking ape? I’m going to kill you’ (218) / ‘you’ll get the beating of your life’, 222).
I’m curious about this idea of the character’s self-conscious erasure of femininity as a response to the threat of violence that is targeted at her as a woman. It’s a conceit that’s often rehearsed in literature, including in one of my favourite Perrault fairy tales Peau d’Âne (usually translated as ‘Donkeyskin’ in English, first published in 1697).
Donkeyskin is the story of a young girl who becomes the subject of her father’s incestuous desire. Her fairy godmother advises her to put off her father’s advances by making increasingly unreasonable demands for gifts: a dress as bright as the sun, a dress the colour of the moon, a dress the colour of the sky. Finally, she demands from her father, on her fairy godmother’s advice, the flayed skin of his favourite animal: a donkey that shits gold (I shit you not), and which is the source of all of his wealth. The king, so consumed by lust that he accedes even to this act of violence against an animal he both loves and needs, has the donkey killed and flayed, and presents his daughter with the skin. She dresses in it, and flees, becoming the despised and ugly ‘Donkeyskin’ of the title. [The story goes on, and has something of a happy ending.]
The point here, however, is the interesting correlation of images between this old fairy tale, and Wyld’s novel. Unnatural or unwanted desire. Animals that are loved pets and economic assets, and murdered. And a woman–the object of unwanted lust–who is both complicit in the death of a valuable and loved animal in order to save herself, but who also obscures her beauty (code for her femininity, or sexual appeal) as a form of self-preservation and protection. Her violence (second-hand in the fairy tale, but still, like Salome’s demand for St John the Baptist’s head, her command is what results in the beloved other’s death) is a reactive and desperate attempt to escape, and perhaps might be read as an attempt to wake her father up: to disrupt his unwelcome and unnatural desire.
[Becoming transgender or transsexual (it is unclear in Oyeyemi’s text which is being portrayed) as a response to trauma is also very problematically depicted in Helen Oyeyemi’s recent novel Boy, Snow, Bird, particularly in its concluding pages. Wyld’s book in no way, I think, comes close to Oyeyemi’s text’s suggestion that being trans is always-already a result of sexual trauma or abuse and, therefore, is some form of mental illness aligned with psychotic, aberrant and/or violent behaviours. Nor does Wyld’s text ever suggest, as Oyeyemi’s seems to, that a loving relative’s response to discovering that someone is transgender should be to try to help them ‘recover’ their cisgendered former identity within themselves, and thereby ‘cure’ them.]
In Wyld’s novel, Jake’s genderqueerness has, however, no clear point of origin, and is not textually linked to any particular site of trauma within the text. In fact, when Jake is a child, in those final pages, she refers to herself as ‘Jake the Flake the Dyke’ (222), suggesting that her queerness predates any of the traumas the book describes. Perhaps she is the adult version of one of my favourite childhood characters: Enid Blyton’s George Kirrin (from the Famous five series of books). A girl with a boy’s name, short hair, who wears shorts and likes dogs more than people. And is a bit of a loner even when she’s part of a group: who is both liked, and always-already ‘outside’ the cosy heteronormative four-square grouping of her friends.
This leads me to another possible reading of Jake’s gender identity within the text: one not in conflict with any of the others I’ve outlined above, I think, but one that can be productively read alongside them (and others): that is, recognising that the text suggests, in complex ways, that gender identity and performance are complex, evolving, sometimes unconscious, sometimes difficult and problematic, and mostly poorly understand aspects of character and identity.
One way to think of Jake is as a gender non-conforming heterosexual woman. Or gender variant. Or just plain old queer. Jake the Flake the Dyke. Jake the bloke, good or otherwise. With boobs and hips and broad shoulders, scarred and afraid and tough, vulnerable and capable, violent and nurturing.
Kon-Yu is right in saying that at one point one of the shearers calls her a ‘a good bloody bloke’, but there is more to this gender-flipped nickname than her reference to it might suggest. Jake is called a bloke a few times in the book, including right near the end of the book (the beginning of Jake’s life story), when her childhood friend, Denver, on whom she perhaps has a crush, calls her a ‘good bloke’ but ‘with a smile around his voice, in a way that I’m pretty sure says he doesn’t really think I am a bloke at all’ (218).
In the end, this is how I see Jake: as a complex and fascinating depiction of a woman character who is too rarely shown in literature, and when she is shown, is even more rarely the focus of a book that wins a literary award like the Miles Franklin. She might have a boy’s name, and dress like a man or boy sometimes; she may be gender atypical, but that doesn’t mean that she is not a woman, or shouldn’t be celebrated, welcomed, and applauded as a fascinating, important and complex portrayal of a woman-as-character. A woman who is not overtly cisgendered or even heterosexual, but whose gender and sexuality are slippery, reactive, uncomfortable, perhaps even inconsistent or (more positively) evolving and changeable. Who is wild, and sometimes — even more uncomfortably for some readers — not reducible to her sex.
So, in summary, here are the key reasons that I think this (mis)reading of Jake as too masculine a character for us, as readers interested in seeing women’s writing about women characters celebrated, should be set aside:
- Jake Whyte is, I think, an insistently female-sexed character within the novel. There is no doubt that the character is a woman: her sex is marked in the text repeatedly, and without any ambiguity.
- The idea that Jake Whyte is not feminine enough to count as a female character suggests a troublingly narrow idea of what a woman might be and, by extension, of what a female character can be.
- The depiction of Jake Whyte’s gender performance in the novel can, I think, be read in a range of interesting, challenging, fascinating and troubling but overall positive and exciting ways, none of which rely on mis-reading her as a man. These include, but are not limited to, a consideration of:
- what ways do violence and strength relate to ideas our understandings of gender, power, and autonomy;
- the ways in which women and girls who have been traumatised in/through their female identities might take refuge in gender performances that obscure their femininity;
- the ways in which women and girls, including but perhaps not limited to those who have been the subject of violence, might both naturalise or seek, AND fear the capacity for, and evidence of, violence within themselves;
- the depiction of a character who has a complex, evolving understanding of their own sex/gender identity: who grows from a cisgendered girl in a crocheted Target bikini, to a gender non-conforming adult in a pair of dungarees.