The Ledger March 2019

March 2019

The Ledger

Women around the world saw and brought about momentous change in 2018. Last May, Irish voters delivered a mandate for legalised abortion in a landslide referendum, and in June, Saudi Arabia permitted women to drive. In October, Ethiopia’s parliament unanimously elected Sahle-Work Zewde as president, and the country became the third in Africa—following Rwanda and the Seychelles—to fill its cabinet with at least as many women as men. Iceland made it illegal for employers to pay men more than women, requiring those with a staff of more than 25 to show a government certificate demonstrating pay equality (or face a fine). The #MeToo movement restructured workplaces worldwide. Women in a range of fields tallied a great many achievements, especially in male-dominated STEM disciplines: Professor Evelyn Teller’s team of scientists created the first-ever lab-grown human eggs; Zhengchu Tan, a doctoral candidate in engineering, worked with a team to make 3D-printed brain and lung structures. The Canadian physicist Donna Strickland became the first woman in 55 years to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, and the American chemical engineer Frances Arnold shared joint honours in the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, whose male supervisor was awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize for Burnell’s discoveries around pulsars, received the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics—a three-million-dollar grant that she immediately announced would be used to create physics scholarships for women, underrepresented minorities and refugees. The year wasn’t all rosy, of course. There was Donald Trump’s proposal to freeze government funds that subsidise birth control and abortions—the so-called global gag rule that would endanger $8 billion in funding for HIV-affected sex workers and programmes that reduce teen pregnancy. Kenyan lawmakers voted against an initiative that would give one in three parliamentary seats to women. And lamentably, gendered violence remains an ever-present plague. We stay the course annually by celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March, and the remarkable women—some of whom feature below—whose bold achievements speak for themselves.

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An activist of lifelong conviction and courage

Long before Barack Obama adopted the slogan for his 2008 presidential campaign, Dolores Huerta  was telling fellow activists and organisers, ‘Sí, se puede’—‘Yes, we can.’ Now 88, Huerta is one of America’s most important labour activists as well as a powerful force in the Chicano civil rights movement. She was born in 1930 in New Mexico and raised in Stockton, California. While getting a teaching degree, Dolores married and had two daughters, divorced, and subsequently married Ventura Huerta, an activist with whom she had five children and whom she ultimately divorced. As a schoolteacher in the 1950s, she was troubled by the malnourished farm children in her classes, and decided that she could best help them by agitating for better pay and working conditions for their parents. In 1955, Huerta co-founded the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization, which set up voter-registration drives. An associate introduced Huerta to the activist Cesar Chavez, and in 1962, the two founded the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers’ Union/UFW). In 1965, Huerta organised the Delano strike of 5000 grape workers and negotiated a fairer contract. She was also instrumental in the late 1960s’ nationwide table-grape boycotts that produced a union contract in 1970. As vice-president of UFW until 1999, Huerta consistently advocated for safer working conditions and for unemployment and healthcare benefits for agricultural workers. In the 1990s and 2000s, she turned her attention to electoral representation, working to get more Latinos and women into political office. Obama awarded Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. In 2018, she told Time that ending racism, misogyny, homophobia and bigotry requires an overhaul of the educational system. ‘We’ve got to include, from pre-K, the contributions of people of color... beginning with Native Americans, whose land we took and… never compensated them for, to the African slaves who built the White House… and then the immigrants who came from Mexico and tilled the land and built the railroads and then the Japanese, the Chinese, people from India, the Latinos, all these people who built the infrastructure of our country…. [We need] a big giant eraser [to] erase the ignorance that we have right now in the United States of America.’

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Transformative journeys into country and culture

Arnhem Land is a wilderness in a northeastern corner of Australia’s Northern Territory, spanning nearly 100,000 square kilometres and encompassing rainforests, gorges, escarpments, rivers and dense bushland as well as a breathtaking coastline that opens onto the Arafura Sea. The Yolŋu people are the traditional custodians of East Arnhem Land; Lirrwi Tourism is a Yolŋu-run company that hosts short trips throughout the area, introducing visitors to its topography, flora and fauna, and expounding a complex culture that is tens of thousands of years old. Its popular Gay’wu Tour for Women is a five-day experience offered exclusively for small groups of girls and women (with larger groups hosted on demand). Named for the dilly bag, a traditional container woven from pandanus leaves and used for carrying food and medicines—and in a spiritual context, knowledge—the tour emphasises the nurturing influence of the land, with Yolŋu women generously sharing their knowledge of ‘the bush, the ancestors, the sky and the universe.’ Specific activities are planned in accordance with the seasons, and might include gathering oysters and mud crabs to eat, and discovering local plants used in bush medicine. Guests also learn about Yolŋu kinship, philosophy, astrology and arts, and are invited to participate in the Yolŋu women’s Nathi crying ceremony—a rare privilege for non-Indigenous women. As with all Lirrwi tours, they are encouraged to leave watches and smartphones behind, the better to attune to gentler, more fluid rhythms effected by the landscape, climate, and daily passage of the moon and sun. (For comprehensive details on other First Nations-run tours Australia-wide, there’s no better reference than Marcia Langton’s excellent Welcome to Country, published last year.)


Poetry that dances, roars and rouses

The poet, scholar, critic and performer Rosamond S. King begins ROCK | SALT | STONE (Nightboat Books), a collection of verse, by reimagining ‘My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean’, enlarging it to include Afro-Caribbean diasporas and the Yoruba gods Eshu, Oshun and Ogun. ‘My brawn it belongs to the Ogun / my blood it flows into the sea / the two meet inside a black body / and whisper you fight to be free’, she writes. The manuscript dances across Africa, the Caribbean and the US, sampling English as it is spoken in a variety of ways. The poems are interested in what it means to feel like an outsider, to live as an immigrant, to be female and queer. Prose poems, Anansi stories, spells, Yoruba legends, ancestral memory, Wolof words and Caribbean vernacular all jostle against each other in this startling work. King’s approach to mythology and history is both playful and profound. Each poem exists simultaneously as a print object and as a moment of music that begs to be read aloud. Her language and themes remind us that vibrant literature is often both thrilling and humbling, and can effect political change. ‘Our leaders should go to the theater’, King wrote in The Paris Review. ‘They should go to museums and poetry readings and opera and dance performances. They should read books and listen to music—and some of it should make them feel uncomfortable, and perhaps even unsafe.’


Deeply personal forays into the feminist condition 

‘Emotion should have a comeback’, the London-based experimental filmmaker Beatrice Gibson said in a recent interview in Frieze. ‘I like making films because I like going to the cinema and getting popcorn and crying. I want my work to do that, and it has high production values for that reason.’ In her recent short films, I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead (2018) and Deux soeurs qui ne sont pas soeurs (Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters) (2019), Gibson fulfills that ambition and then some: both are at once heartfelt, bracing, intimate and electrifying. Named after a poem by CAConrad, I Hope I’m Loud opens with a shot of Gibson experiencing a panic attack on the Tube. We’re treated to her thoughts via a montage of terrifying moments (capsized refugee boats, Grenfell Tower in flames), and tender scenes (home-video footage of her children on a windy beach and in the bathtub) that symbolise all she has to lose. We then follow Gibson as she meets up with Conrad and Conrad’s mentor, the poet Eileen Myles, in New York City. Myles’s studio is full of weird and witchy things: a dead frog in a splayed glasses case, Tarot cards for poem-generating rituals, a copy of Thomas Bernhard’s Concrete. In voiceover, Gibson quotes Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich and Alice Notley, wise and profound feminist voices that stitch together a letter Gibson is writing to her infant daughter, Laizer, and anchor us as we listen over Gibson’s shoulder. Inspired by Gertrude Stein’s film script ‘Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters’ (about Stein, Alice B. Toklas and their poodle, Basket), Deux soeurs is interested in the joys and anxieties of motherhood and definitions of home in a deeply unstable world. (‘Stein is the godmother of everything’, Gibson told Frieze.) The two films are part of the exhibition Crone Music—for the late Pauline Oliveros, whose music appears in I Hope I’m Loud—at Camden Arts Centre in London, which runs through the end of March. Oliveros, says Gibson, ‘made feminism explicit, with deep listening sessions and collective work… I work in an open-ended way, leaving things to chance and letting many voices help construct the work. I am also interested in the process of citation. The art world, historically, has not been great about citing the people, relationships or things that go into a work. In conventional film production, roles are clearly defined and people get credit for what they do. I think that’s the way it should be.’


Notes on an unsung twentieth-century classic

In the January edition of her monthly The Paris Review column ‘Feminize Your Canon’, literary critic and essayist Emma Garman pens a fascinating tribute to the Australian novelist Eleanor Dark, drawing our attention to Dark’s overlooked masterpiece Prelude to Christopher, the author’s second novel. In 1937, the book—about a physician’s experimental itch to create his own socially engineered society—was considered too intense, troubling and peculiar to publish in the US, despite its rapturous reception in the UK and down under. Despite—or perhaps because of—the rise of fascism across Europe, American publishers deemed the prospect of a woman skewering the madness of eugenics and biological determinism unpalatable. A gothic tale with a modernist frame, Prelude to Christopher folds together the perspective and memories of Nigel Hendon, a doctor who is badly injured in a car accident; his wife; his mother; and the hospital nurse who harbours a crush on him. Nigel, we discover, founded a now-defunct island utopia that admitted only the ‘mentally and physically fit’. The hitch from the outset was his wife, the bewitching, unstable Linda, and her family history of homicidal lunacy. Nigel begrudgingly permitted her to live on the island but refused to father children with her, lest they be tainted by her ill-starred DNA. Unsurprisingly, it is not Linda but the premise itself that destroys the experiment, and the couple have to live down the ensuing notoriety, which delivers headlines such as ‘Abominations Practised in the Name of Science; Powers of Evil Reign on Lonely Island’. Garman’s piece is all the more illuminating for tracing elements of Dark’s biography that permeate the narrative—including her mother’s nervous breakdown and early death, and her paternal aunt’s work as a sex educator and eugenicist. When the novel was published in Australia in 1934, one critic called it ‘the most mature piece of fiction yet written and published in this country’. Dark’s subsequent historical fiction explored the European colonisation of her homeland and sold well. Yet, Garman writes, ‘it is the bold experimentalism of Prelude that stands the artistic test of time.’


Bringing women’s observations and voices to Afghan journalism

Stories and images by female Afghan writers, reporters and photojournalists are in short supply in a country whose strict mores prohibit most women from speaking to most men. While the post-war Afghan press is robust, with 9000 working journalists, fewer than ten per cent are women. The NGO Sahar Speaks aims to correct the imbalance with a program of instruction and mentorship that gives agency to Afghan female reporters, giving them the tools to produce bold, accurate work about the issues they deem important. Sahar, a ubiquitous female name in Afghanistan, means ‘dawn’—signifying a new era for freedom of speech, one in which women are no longer marginalised. Before the organisation began work in 2015, there were no female reporters at foreign news bureaus in Kabul; Sahar Speaks has since trained dozens. The project was the brainchild of the British-American journalist Amie Ferris-Rotman. In June 2016, multimedia work by the first 12 participants was published on HuffPost. In 2017, the London theatre company Palindrome Productions turned three stories by Sahar Speaks alumnae into a stage production. The organisation is collaborating with The Guardian to publish another round of stories, and trainees have landed jobs at the BBC, Al Jazeera, and The New York Times.


A multi-faceted New Zealand gem

Waru (2017) is the result of producers Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton convening eight female Māori directors to piece together a painful, mysterious story about an abused child. Each director is responsible for one chapter—a continuous ten-minute take—related directly or indirectly to the funeral of Waru, a Māori child we never see. Slowly, the chapters begin to shed light on the social circumstances that led to this event. In the first film, directed by Briar Grace-Smith, a middle-aged woman named Charm prepares food for attendees of the funeral with a stoicism that borders on militancy. The segment directed by Casey Kaa shows the boy's kindergarten teacher, Anahera, addressing Waru’s classmates to determine which of them will take his assigned seat. Next, Ainsley Gardiner depicts a single mother struggling to make ends meet, short the cash she needs to buy gas and groceries. Katie Wolfe gives us another struggling young mother, this one a singer who drunkenly returns home at dawn to find her baby has been locked in the house alone. The central story, directed by Renae Maihi, occurs in the middle of the film and depicts the tangi, or funeral. There, Waru’s two great-grandmothers, representing different tribal groups, vie for the child’s body. The film then widens its scope to include a chapter about overt racism at a TV studio. Directed by Chelsea Cohen, it features a Māori anchorwoman who contends with shocking bigotry in her workplace and decides to speak frankly about it on live TV. In a complementary chapter directed by Paula Jones, a teenager, Mere, likewise finds the courage to speak up and confront the person who has been abusing her. The final short, directed by Awanui Simich-Pene, follows two sisters, Titty and Bash, as they drive to reclaim Bash’s children from a dangerous situation. We don’t know how it will end, but their determination is palpable. Waru’s innovative structure and oblique, delicate treatment of charged subject matter cohere in a feature that is poised, unflinching and unforgettable.


Complex tones and textures to transport musicians and audiences alike

Born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1961, Unsuk Chin moved to Hamburg in 1985 to study under the Hungarian heavyweight composer György Ligeti, then moved in 1988 to Berlin, where she still resides. Her music is restless and iconoclastic. Last October, the New York Philharmonic presented her with one of the most prestigious awards in contemporary music, the Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music ($200,000 plus a commission to write for the orchestra). Chin is perhaps best known for her elaborately madcap Alice in Wonderland, which opened the Munich Opera Festival in 2007. Lewis Carroll’s language was adapted for the libretto by David Henry Hwang, while Chin’s score hybridised an astonishing range of styles. Her notoriously difficult concertos (for clarinet, violin, piano, cello and sheng—a lushly polyphonic Chinese mouth organ) are similarly fashioned; and the technical virtuosity she requires of her soloists is nearly as challenging for the orchestra. ‘I’m attracted by virtuosity’, Chin has said. ‘A player trying to go beyond his or her boundaries: I like that. It’s a situation that I experience all the time as a composer: pushing the limits of your possibilities, not knowing whether you can do it—and then somehow succeeding. I ask every bit as much from a soloist.’ In an interview with The New York Times, the Finnish clarinetist Kari Kriikku, for whom Chin wrote one of her concertos, fondly recalled the composer’s one piece of feedback following its world premiere in Sweden: ‘Sound more like a bird.’



Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber 

‘Courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied.’

Millicent Fawcett