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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Academic Study, creative writing, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management

PhD on Board: the agony of the final trimester

IMG_3490I can’t sleep. I dream about the chapter I have just written.

People have started asking for advice – on starting their doctorate. To them I seem like a –sort of – old hand now. They want to do one, but where?

Wait – where have I had these experiences before? Oh yes, when I was pregnant. As a mother of two teenage boys, it has been awhile, but it is coming back to me. The anxiety of the final few weeks before birth. Getting advice from everyone, women desperately wanting to be pregnant asking me for advice on when to have a baby and what’s it really like?

The end of a doctorate is just like the end of a pregnancy – the sleeplessness, the anxiety, the all-consuming nature of it. Then there is the sinking realization that you alone are going to have to birth this baby. And it keeps getting bigger and bigger the less time you have.

My supervisor sends me an email. “You’ve put on too much weight!” (Actually, what she said was – “it’s too long!” But you get the picture)

When you are pregnant, it’s a sad fact that people rarely give up their seat on the train for you, but everyone has advice on what you should or should not eat or drink, and especially what to call the baby.

So it is with the doctorate. “What are you doing reading the paper – why aren’t you studying?” or “you can’t have a glass of wine! What are you thinking – you have to hand in soon.” Or “You are calling your exegesis – what?!”

I am taking two week’s leave from my day job at the gallery before my due date. I know the drill. At the last stage, there is no sleep, just swollen ankles, exhaustion and pure fear. Luckily, just as mother nature takes over in pregnancy and washes your brain with hormones that render you somewhat numb to the impending total eradication of your former life, it’s the same with the doctorate.

But this time, what floods your body is adrenalin. It washes through your blood with copious amounts of coffee – like a runner’s high. It’s the result of those endless sessions at the desk, those late nights, those editing sprints and rewrites that give you study high. Or at least that inspired, slightly crazed state that searches for the 4 am miracle. Usually, at 4 am.

A writer I know with a doctorate that’s at least 10 year’s old, almost finished primary school, really, nodded sagely as I related this state of anxiety to her the other day.

“Yes, I remember,” she said, gently. In the same way I’d tell a heavily pregnant woman I remember what it was like. You never forget.

Then she added, “you know once you hand in, it just goes away – all the pain, it just goes…”

Yes – that’s just what they say about labor.

Ah – the actual birth. For women who have been there, a collective shudder. And for those about to hand in their doctorate – nothing is birthed without pain, be it a doctorate or a child or a work of art. At the end, it’s all intense focus and draining, hard yakka.

But just as there is a support team for birth, there is one for the birth of a doctorate. I am so grateful for how people have pitched in to help and offer emotional and practical support. It’s like a collective group around me urging me to – push!

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Here are five reasons why birthing a doctorate is like birthing a baby:

1. Women about to give birth say and do some really, really stupid things. This is a true story.

Just before the birth of my first child, I rang the labor ward and asked a nurse what sort of reading material did she think I should pack? Did she think that I should start off with say Margaret Atwood, then progress to genre crime and onto chick lit and finally, a range of magazines from Vanity Fair to the trashy women’s mags? Her reply:

Nurse: Ooh…so you think you’re going to be reading? (gales of laughter)

And it’s the same with the doctorate. You are too distracted to do anything else. Forget multi tasking. The cat and dog brought in a rat the other day. It has taken up residence under the couch. It comes out to saunter around when I am proof reading. We look at each other. It goes back under the couch. My kids scream and ask me what I am going to do about it. I said “think of a name for it”. What’s the worst that can happen? Plague?

2 There are many forms to fill in. There are forms that were filled in at the beginning of the PhD but have to be filled in again, or are they different forms? Wait, some forms were missed at the beginning, or did they change at the middle? Forms must be sent to the right place at the right time. The website says “It is your responsibility to ensure all forms are completed and correct and done at the right time.” Hospitals are like this. You can’t even get an epidural without filling in a form and by the time you need one you’d sign your firstborn away to aliens. No wonder people freebirth. What’s my course code again?

3. Women are very competitive about birth. Pregnancy is a whole competition in itself. It’s worse after the birth. Men might compare cock size, women compare length of labor, scars, stitches, pain. Don’t even get me started on competitive breastfeeding. PhD students are the same. Who worked longest, latest, hardest, had the least sleep, the biggest bibliography, quoted the most journal articles, had the longest footnotes. 

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4. Conflicting advice Being overwhelmed by conflicting advice is what happened when I was pregnant with my first child. By my second pregnancy, no one bothered to give me advice. Why? I knew all the secrets.

I suspect those doing a second doctorate never get unsolicited advice, either. People just walk away and shake their head, muttering “don’t they know the world has too many doctoral submissions as it is? What about global warming and the environment and overcrowding in the academic job market?”

5. Nothing fits – you’ve grown too big. Everyone, even supermodels, look like they have swallowed a fridge in the weeks leading up to the birth. This is what it is like with the doctorate. Sure, in the early stages, it’s all small bump and looking cute in that outfit, right? Yeah, and your exegesis was small and manageable at the start as well, wasn’t it? The first year of the doctorate is like a babymoon. Then, once the reality sinks in, you wonder why you ever got up the duff with a doctorate in the first place.

In the last trimester, nothing fits – into the word length. You have too much information, too many footnotes, references, ideas and – stuff.

You know what women worry about before they give birth? How are they going to push out something that big. You know what PhD students worry about before they hand in? The same thing. 

Academic Study

100 Days to the Doctorate – and Beyond

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Dr Evelyn Tsitas started 100 Days to the Doctorate in 2013 with literally 100 days to go before she handed in her doctorate in Creative Writing at RMIT University, investigating the human animal hybrid in science fiction.

As a journalist exploring literary journalism and creative non fiction through blogs, Evelyn decided to go public with the trials and hopefully, triumphs ahead in her doctoral journey, and the intense pressure-cooker of life with two kids, two pets, and a full time job and part-time teaching load on top of full time doctoral study. It was a wild ride!

In the second year of this blog, Evelyn offers hard-won advice for completing a doctorate, and explores writing, life and career opportunities after post graduate study. Reflection about this is useful – why do a doctorate when academic employment opportunities are rapidly shrinking around the globe? Doesn’t a Creative Writing doctorate by its very nature suck the life and creativity out of a creative writer? How do you fit in full time doctoral study around parenting and a full time – and unrelated – job? To also teach or not to teach as part of the doctoral journey?

This blog is now called 100 Days to the Doctorate – & Beyond to encompass the reflective nature of the post graduate life. What was it all about, anyway? Was it worth the long years of delayed gratification? Evelyn knows all too well the questions that plague successful doctoral graduates at this point: What do I do with my career now I have a PhD? How do I get my novel published? Can I turn my Creative Writing exegesis into a book as well? How does not just what I have studied – but how I studied and learned to research – impact on my thought process?

Evelyn also blogs about doctoral and other matters at Online Opinion and The Thesis Whisperer, and on her main website  evelyntsitas.com and also motherland Evelyn Tsitas Motherland. She writes about the academic journey, the writing life, parenting, feminism, social change and social commentary.

A literary journalist, Evelyn puts herself in the story. As the late Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Heartburn) observed, “everything is copy”.

Please join Evelyn in this (mostly) weekly blog about the doctorate – and beyond!