Academic relevance, Academic research, science fiction

Academic research that matters: women’s bodies and speculative fiction

51Lc7FlfDPL._AA300_Many times I find myself justifying the validity of a doctorate not only in Creative Writing, but also my chosen research area – speculative fiction.

I am reminded by many critics that I’m not doing something heroic like researching a cure for cancer or launching a satellite into space. And yet my research exploring animal and women’s rights in the creation of hybrids in science fiction has never seemed so relevant.

The critically acclaimed TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1980s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a chilling world where women are reduced to their basic biology as childbearing machines.

Women’s reproductive rights are denied in the face of a ‘greater good’ – a widespread decline in female fertility which results in fertile women being hunted down, captured, traded and forced to bear children for the elite via sanctioned imprisonment and rape. Women’s wombs and fertility are seen as such a socially and economically valuable commodity that these actions are justified and enshrined in law.

As Naomi Alderman argued in The Guardian what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so terrifying is that everything that happens in it is plausible. The politics of fear, she writes, are always the same. “They are easily recognisable in retrospect. They are easy to acquiesce in at the time. On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, one popular placard read “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again”. There’s no gain the women’s movement has made that can’t be taken away – a fact that will sound terrifying to some and a gleeful plan of action to others.”

“We let them [women] forget their real purpose,” is a chilling quote from TV series, and one that resonates with many women who fear the draconian rules and backlash under the Trump administration when it comes to women’s rights. Kaylie Hanson Long, the national communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, says President Trump has laid bare the real motive behind the war on reproductive rights waged by antichoice politicians and extremist groups. ‘It has very little to do with abortion and everything to do with keeping women in our place by limiting our options and freedom.’

There is more truth to Atwood’s fiction than we care to admit. And more reason than ever to be proud of how speculative fiction we are writing and researching can test the future for us by critically exploring what is happening now and asking – and then?

Alderman argues: “feminist science fiction does tend to feel fresh – its authors have a habit of looking beyond their particular historical moment, analysing the root causes, suggesting how they might be, if not solved, then at least changed.”

Let us explore the many ways that women’s wombs are contested spaces both during the reproductive years and beyond.

Just as in Gilead, women’s fertility is privileged. As standard practice, the media has an ongoing fetishization of pregnant celebrities.

The spectre of Gilead is one all women live under. In Australia there is currently an HRT shortage that has been dragging on for months and affecting many women in midlife. Yet there has been no media outcry over this. We can view the lack of interest in the HRT shortage as a disregard for women’s health now that their reproductive days are over. Atwood argues that under Trump, women have been put on notice that hard-won rights may be only provisional. “It’s the return to patriarchy,” she said, warning that whenever tyranny is exercised, “it is wise to ask, “Cui bono? Who profits by it?”

This obsessive and misogynistic link between female worth and reproduction is also at the heart of the medical profession’s patronising conspiracy of silence about the long term health risks associated with vaginal birth.

Mavis King breaks this taboo, writing about ‘the things that can last a lifetime after a vaginal delivery, such as a weak bladder, reduced feeling or even pain during sex, a heavy feeling in the vagina where your insides feel like they are falling out (and quite literally can be)…If I had been presented with some clear and simple possibilities, which every obstetrician would know, then I feel I could have made a more informed decision and been better prepared for the recovery.’

Cui bono? In the UK, there are claims that women are being pressured not to have caesareans as part of an NHS culture of ‘policing pregnancy’ – this is because it costs the government money. The surgical procedure costs the NHS more than double a vaginal delivery. No wonder the alarm at the rise in caesareans worldwide. Of course, there are very good medical reasons for having a caesarean birth, and good reasons for not, but it is interesting, and not widely publicised, that there is a financial incentive on the part of governments in the worldwide campaign to stop women accessing this option. Women are pressured into vaginal delivery even when they will end up with life changing consequences.

In September 2017, Australian recipients of vaginal mesh implants gave personal accounts of their suffering to a Senate committee in Sydney. The women received the mesh in a bid to correct urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse as a result of damage to their pelvic floor after childbirth. The hearings come as 800 women fight in a class action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, claiming their vaginal mesh implants have left them in pain.

Throughout their lives, women are silenced about speaking about their embodied experiences as women. We are shamed about frank and open discussion regarding birth trauma, the long term impact of vaginal birth, and caesarean birth (I was accused of being ‘too posh to push’ after Handle With Care my book on high risk pregnancy came out).

Once the reproductive years are behind us, we find that the taboo shifts to silencing, dismissing or trivialising women about the menopause.Research has found women find it hard to talk about experiences of menopause at work because they fear aged-based discrimination.

UK broadcaster Lorraine Kelly who went public with her struggle with menopause said that it is still the last taboo. “We still don’t talk about it, even with our own girlfriends…. It’s natural! As a woman you get periods, you have your child-bearing years, and then you have the menopause.”

Indeed, we haven’t come that far in the past 70 years when it comes to discussing menopause in the media. In 1948, when obstetrician Dame Josephine Barnes gave a series of talks on women’s health on BBC radio covering bleeding, hot flushes and hormonal changes, there was uproar.

Earlier this year the Australian Health Department confirmed a shortage in the Estradot oestrogen patch, along with Estalis, which combines progesterone.

Endocrinologist Dr Roisin Worsley said the shortage wasn’t being taken seriously by authorities and that this was because it’s a female issue.

The manufacturer Novartis advised in April that they were working to ‘resolve fluctuations in supply’ and estimated this would be resolved by mid 2017.

Yet the shortage of the commonly used transdermal patches continues, forcing women to seek alternative forms of HRT which can have increased side effects.

The Health Department has updated its advice that the transdermal patch shortage will continue until November 2017.

This means that if the shortage does indeed end before the year does, women will have been without adequate and consistent supply of the drugs for 12 months.

Imagine if Viagra manufacturing was disrupted for an entire year.

The trouble with all this silence about women’s bodies is that the many varied narratives and nuances around the different stages of women’s reproductive lives are lost. Only the most ‘sensational’ and ‘news worthy’ see the light of day. But just as not all women experience life changing birth trauma after vaginal delivery, not all women suffer from debilitating menopause symptoms. Just as not all men after a certain age need chemical assistance from the little blue pill to maintain their sex lives.

Let’s flip it around to see what applying a women-centric narrative to men’s health issues looks like. If menopausal women’s need for HRT to resolve complaints like hot flushes and insomnia isn’t considered important enough for the government to put pressure on the manufactures to come through with reliable drug production, then it seems only fair that impotent men’s desire for erections should be deemed similarly inconsequential.

Something however tells me that the reliable supply of Viagra will never dry up.

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Creative Writing PhD, Creativity

In praise of the PhD in Creative Writing

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The Creative Writing doctorate is viewed with suspicion for not fitting into the accepted binaries. It is neither a literature doctorate nor the accepted Romantic idea of a writer expressing their ‘natural’ talent. Even celebrated, experienced writers are dismissive of courses that “teach” you to write.

It is this autodidactic baggage that so many writers carry around with them and drag into their first session with their doctoral supervisor. It weighs down on them as they trudge to the library with a heavy heart. They are warned – the Creative Writing doctoral student must put aside their intuitive writing abilities in order to hone their research skills, think critically and be self-reflective.

The doctoral journey also forces those who undertake the Creative Writing doctorate to examine what impact their research has had on their own writing, on their creative project and it’s usefulness – to themselves as writers, the academy and also the impact of the research they undertake for their exegesis.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the majority of Creative Writing students, at least to begin with, struggle with the research component of the course, and see the exegesis as “the price you pay” to do a PhD in Creative Writing.

The PhD in Creative Writing has at its heart a tension that is inherent in the exegetical-creative writing binary.

Yet I have found my research to benefit my creative writing. Indeed, this can be seen in the enormous flights of fancy and fantasy woven into Stealing Back the Relics, my 15,000 word short story published in And Then…a new adventure anthology. Critics can be assured the years spent in academic research has not crippled my boundless imagination in the least. Mine is, as a fellow writer drily observed, ‘a robust muscle’.

Stealing Back the Relics appears in And Then …the Great Big Book of Awesome Adventure Tales Vol 1, (published by Clan Destine Press) and is my Dan Brown style romp through catacombs, private museums, art galleries and grand houses that takes readers across Germany, France, England and Greece.

The brief from publisher Lindy Cameron was simple – write a page turning adventure romp with two protagonists of equal weight. What to write about? Well, as I work in an art gallery, and spend my free time in art galleries and museums, the murky cauldron of images and off-the-wall ideas that fed into Stealing Back the Relics were all about art theft and archaic reliquaries.

On my three week visit to the other side of the world, I was up cathedrals, down catacombs, and sketching in museums where I was drawn to the grotesque and beguiling reliquaries – ornate vessels that hold sacred pieces of saints.

What, apart from the re-charge of the conference trip, is the relevance to a doctoral blog, you may wonder? Well, dear reader, the one of my story’s protagonists is completing his third PhD and still hasn’t got tenure…inspired by many a real life story on the fringes of academia, and by one very intelligent soul in particular.

In fact, his wife, a very successful and well known author, has just embarked on her own doctorate.

Not surprisingly, given the circles I move in, many of my friends and acquaintances have doctorates, are finishing their doctorates or – gulp – are on their second or third doctorate. Out of all of this cohort, I can count on one hand how many have tenured positions as academics. This desire for a groundbreaking research discovery – that might lead (hopefully!) to tenure is what drives Stealing Back the Relics. Yes, more than a nod to David Lodge, reimagined for the 21st century.

Stealing Back The Relics also neatly reflects what I strongly believe – that the rigour and research and mindset that goes into a Creative Writing PhD is not ‘wasted’ if you don’t teach. Indeed, my obsession with reliquaries, and the oddly grotesque veneration of saints and macabre obsession with death in European museums and churches, is simply an offshoot on the years I have spent exploring such manifestations of Gothic excess in fiction past and present.

 

AND THEN…THE GREAT BIG BOOK OF AWESOME ADVENTURE TALES VOL 1

AND THEN – DETAILS

What:  And Then…the Great Big Book of Awesome Adventure Tales Vol 1.

Edited by:  Ruth Wykes & Kylie Fox, with title page illustrations by Vicky Pratt and cover art by Sarah Pain. Stories:

Stories by: Sulari Gentill,  Jason Nahrung, Alan Baxter, Jason Franks, Lucy Sussex, Amanda Wrangles, Evelyn Tsitas, Peter M Ball, Narrelle M Harris, Dan Rabarts, Kat Clay, Sophie Masson, Tor Roxburgh, Emilie Collyer and Tansy Rayner Roberts.

To buy: Vol 1 is now available as an eBook from this link.

Doctoral completion, Graduation ceremony, post doctorate

Is there a Dr. in the house? The gendered use of honorifics

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Last week, ABC radio broadcaster James Valentine pondered if Ms had really caught on. ‘How many people used it? If not, why not? And why do so many younger women prefer Miss and Mrs? Had this campaign for equality failed?’

Up until three years ago, I used the title Ms all my adult life, and I have a woman called Sheila Michaels, who died three months ago, to thank for bringing the honorific into common usage half a century ago. In 2007 Michaels told the Guardian that she was seeking ‘a title for a woman who did not belong to a man’, and her inspired uptake of Ms on a radio program caught the attention of Gloria Steinem, who used it for the title of her feminist magazine Ms. Which was launched in 1971.

A decade later, Ms was an obvious choice when I went to university and had no intention of being addressed as Miss. In my mid twenties, I kept both my own name and the honorific when I got hitched. It seemed unthinkable to me as a journalist to change my name – my byline – for the simple social act of marriage. Men do not have to leave their identity at the altar. Here’s the thing – none of my relatives had an issue with my continued use of Ms – or my Greek surname.

Over the intervening years, those who were confused by my refusal to play by the gender rules (drones in banks, usually) became creative, opting to call me Mrs Tsitas because I was married, so I had to be Mrs, right?

Valentine says that while Miss and Mrs are still used, Ms will take on meaning not intended by the user. People will think it a term for lesbians and divorced women, and won’t accept it as marital neutral. However, the thing is, once I divorced, I didn’t get mail addressed to Ms.

Given the current push to eradicate binary assumptions around gender, the umbrage still taken to the honorific Ms seems very old fashioned. A growing number of businesses and government agencies now permit people to identify as the gender neutral “Mx” on official forms and paperwork. The title is pronounced “mux” and is becoming more widely accepted as an alternative honorific.

In April, the local arm of global banking giant HSBC started offering customers the choice of multiple “gender neutral” honorifics as part of a push to accommodate those who do not identify as strictly male or female, such as “Ind”, short for individual, “Misc”, for miscellaneous, “Mre”, meaning mystery, and “Msr”, a combination of Miss and Sir.

Of course, society frets about how to address people who marry outside the binary. There is a whole section of the internet devoted to this new etiquette, with MissManners@unitedmedia.com advising that as the plural of Mrs. is Mesdames and the plural of Mr. is Messrs, a married female couple with the same surname would be Mesdames Jenna and Aurora Acorn, and a married male couple would be the Messrs. Jackson and Hal Thornton.

Still, Valentine has tipped that the use of Ms is on the wane. “Life changes,” he warned, “and our language always reflects that. The hard thing is that it may not reflect the change you want.”

I have found a neat way around the gendered debate of honorifics. I no longer have to tick the box Ms, Miss or Mrs. Mind you, being Ms is certainly a sustainable honorific, seeing me through life as a single, married and divorced woman. Yet, as of three years ago, I ticked a box that will never go out of fashion, and will never reveal either my gender or marital state.

I became Dr Evelyn Tsitas.

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The day I graduated with my PhD, I stopped being Ms Evelyn Tsitas. I became Dr Evelyn Tsitas and found a whole new collection of haters to complain about my new honorific. Make no mistake, using Dr is not a neutral choice, because there is no neutral choice for women. Ever. We are dammed if we do, dammed if we don’t.

‘Oh! How dare she call herself Dr! She isn’t a full time academic!’ or ‘She isn’t a medical doctor! How dare she use the title!’

Welcome to the 21st century world of sessional academia, where the notion of a tenured workforce is as old and dog earned as a coffee stained paperback of David Lodge’s 1980s campus novels. I earned the right to be called Dr, and so, therefore, I will use it. It’s great for the apologetic gasp on the end of the line when someone from an overseas call centre asks robotically if you are ‘Miss or Mrs?’

‘Neither,’ I delight in replying. ‘I am Dr.’ Indeed, getting a PhD is worth it simply to have, as a woman, an honorific to use that a/ commands respect and b/ squashes forever the question of relationship status.

In fact, having Dr in front of one’s name is the ultimate finger to society intent on categorizing women.