This Shit’s Not An Aberration: An Interview with Charlotte Wood

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Words || Cameron Colwell

While attending the Newcastle Writer’s Festival, I was lucky enough to be able to speak with Charlotte Wood, author of the recently published The Natural Way of Things, which made the shortlist of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, is shortlisted for the Stella Prize, and was awarded winner of the the 2016 Indie Book Award. The book is about a group of girls, who wake up captured, shaved, and dressed in strange boiler suits somewhere in the outback, before discovering each of them is linked to a sexual scandal with a powerful man.

To begin, I asked Charlotte about the initial drive behind the book.

“Well, the initial spark for the idea came from a radio documentary on the Hay Institution for Girls. The girls were often victims of sexual assault, and the public response when they talked about it was to lock them up. I was horrified about it, it stuck with me. I tried to write a story set in the 60’s but it ended up with a realist, terrible, dead way of writing, and then I started to realise about the attitude that propelled the blame towards those girls.”

“It’s medieval, but that attitude of blame is still there.” She tells me about a recent case in which an army Cadet was sexually assaulted and branded as a “Skype Slut.” There is quiet fury in her voice as she speaks – “Every woman is told from birth there’s something wrong with them, and we internalise those message while we fight them, it was just something that I had to get out of me.”

In our chat, I drew attention to the visceral, body-centric style with a focus on the hair of the women, which grows unkempt throughout: “So I was writing this book, and it was frightening, there was darkness – subconsciously, the book came out of me. I tried to resist the darkness, go around it, and the writing turned to shit. I had to go and let it pour out of me. So the hair was about opposing all these messages we get about it, about resisting the idea we’re fed, that women have to be pretty, clean, quiet, completely hairless, I wanted to show women returning to a natural state.

I tell her the way she describes sounds like an exorcism, and Charlotte tells me she was just opening her eyes as she wrote, most of the time – “Women have to close their eyes to a lot of things, just to keep going.” At the start of the book, she felt completely “overwhelmed by the shit, and really, it was hard to keep up with all the contemporary examples, there was that young woman presenter who had an affair with a married bloke, overnight she lost her radio career, destroyed, she was labelled an adulterous tart, and he got away with it. It’s everywhere: Bill Cosby, Rolfe Harris, in every arena of life, sports, corporate, whatever. We see it as an aberration but it is not an aberration, it happens every day.”

Somewhat inevitably, we talk about the larger movement of feminism yet Charlotte Wood doesn’t necessarily identify as a feminist: “I’m not an activist or a spokesperson, I feel like I’m in a weird position where I feel slightly uncomfortable with the label. Artists should be free to change their mind. Art is about personal inquiry, and what I did was write a book where I externalised a lot of stuff.” She says. “You know, if I’d sat down and gone, ‘I’m going to write a feminist novel,’ I would’ve thought, ‘Stuff it.’

I interject, does she think a work of fiction can be truly apolitical?

“You can’t write an apolitical novel, and I knew that to a degree, but it was still an intensely personal process.”

“Do you think there’s a particularly kind of Australia misogyny?” I asked, curious about the striking characterisation of the two guards in the book: The typically chauvinistic Boncer, and the young, angel-faced Teddy.

“Well, you know, Boncer’s awful but everybody knows, Teddy…Teddy’s more complicated in that there’s trust and distrust, Teddy’s more dangerous in that he presents the perception peace and love. It took me a long time to realise that these things present themselves everywhere, you know, it is men putting you down behind your back, judging your body, just being mercilessly critical.”

There’s a section in the novel when three of the girls start grooming themselves and one another, and shaving their legs with whatever I can find. I asked if it was reflective of the idea of women being attached to their own oppression?

“I think that I felt (it was them) surviving in whatever they can, trying to hang onto something before they ended up with this. People go mad. I kept seeing all these images of incarceration…” She told me about Schapelle Corby in jail over the years, her eyebrows got finer and finer as part of her beauty regimen. “You know, even in a hellhole, people continue with domestic rituals, it’s just very sad., It’s just people trying to normalise things.”

Returning to the question of misogyny, I wondered are men better or worse than they used to be?

“I don’t know, I think, it (misogyny) hasn’t gone away. I feel like some things have gotten better and some have gotten worse. There’s still the idea that women are sluts if they’re sexual… A lot of this stuff is magazine crap, I mean, half of the time it’s capitalism, I know men who couldn’t give a shit. But it’s the overwhelming consumer-capitalist demands that make women feel terrible about themselves.”

“I feel that all this is very demoralising, It hurts to hear it about another woman, because, of course, you know it’s not just about her, it’s about you. It’s about all women.

I don’t think men have any kind of conception of the pain they cause with language.” There is a “shock for women when they understand somebody they thought was a friend or a colleague say these things.”  

This is “the overwhelming shit” that kickstarted her, I question her if writing about it helped her deal with it?

“Yeah, look, it did, but it hasn’t gotten away. It helped me feel stronger, braver, it made me feel that being angry isn’t a crime, but also the response I’ve had from young women is really moving, they feel powerful…A lot of people contacted me, young women, and some men, for voicing stuff. It’s really moving.  It’s about to come out in the States and Britain. I’ll be very fascinated to see how it translates (to their experiences).

Finally, I asked Charlotte where one of the most powerful scenes in the novel, wherein one of the protagonists, Yolanda, resists a guard, came from.

“Probably from fantasy, I mean, I didn’t want to write a book that was so bleak, with the girls ending up so powerless, even though a lot of them do. I wanted to give them a chance to arm themselves, Yolanda is the only one who does it by abandoning her womanhood. I wanted her to have real power and real strength to say, “I’m not doing this anymore.”

“A lot of the book is like that. Subconscious stuff. It sort of was a risk, this book: So much of it might not work, there was a real surreal element. I was aware the whole that time I was navigating the space between reality and dreams.”