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Jill Dawson on women and writing: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

RLF Fellow Jill Dawson celebrates the authors whose words shaped her life.

A woman looks into a broken mirror.

The year is 1978. I’m sixteen years old. I’ve just begun in the sixth form of Boston Spa Comprehensive West Yorkshire — a brand spanking new sixth form, opened that year.   Anna Ford has become the first woman news reader (the telly is always on in our house); the news that she’s reading is about the Yorkshire Ripper, who has just killed his eighth victim, a young woman working as a prostitute in Huddersfield, and Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Opposition, is becoming a vocal alternative to the Labour government and one my mother thoroughly approves of. ‘About time a woman was in charge’, she says, as my dad, in his favourite armchair obligingly lifts his feet so that she can hoover under him.

No need to mention that for a young woman, in that environment, the middle sister of three, questions about my place as a girl and a woman are at the forefront of my mind. I’m outspoken and supposedly confident, chosen by my school to make the Opening Day speech to assorted dignitaries — the first time in my life I stood up like this to make a formal speech, and if I say so myself I don’t think I did it too badly. I have a boyfriend and a Saturday job in our local newsagent, which involves me cycling there at 6am to mark up the papers for the nearby Deaf School and prison. My favourite subjects are English and History. I’ve already decided I want to be a writer, and have sent my first poem to the letters page of 19 magazine where I’m surprised and faintly embarrassed when they publish it. Oh and I’m severely anorexic.

One day my English teacher, Mr Foggin, brings a book for me with a casual ‘Here, this might interest you’. The book is by Susie Orbach and called Fat is a Feminist Issue. I’m rather startled. My hair has started to fall out, and is growing in dark visible clumps on my arms. The boys in the sixth form sing ‘I know a girl called Bony Maloney, she’s as skinny as a stick of macaroni’ to me when I walk past. Does Mr Foggin think I need to lose more weight? I accept the book and hide it at once in my bag. But when I get home I realise at once that Mr Foggin is trying to help me. I don’t know how conscious he is of it but he’s trying to save my life.

The next day he asks if I read it. We both pretend that the bit I’m probably interested in is the word ‘Feminist’ in the title, as we’ve been having some heated discussions in English lessons lately about Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and whether Tess’s fatal dreaminess leads to her downfall; also whether she was raped by Alec D’Urberville or seduced and therefore partly responsible. ‘Was she a victim or how far did she collude in her own fate?’ (Strange now to realise how much that question was going to plague me for the next thirty-odd years and how much of my work would be informed by it.)

I have read Fat is a Feminist Issue of course, cover to cover. It has only just been published. This Susie Orbach, I discover, is an American psychotherapist and feminist. She quotes John Berger: ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. […] This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves’.

She then writes: ‘This emphasis on presentation as the central aspect of a woman’s existence makes her extremely self-conscious’. And then: ‘Women […] frequently reach out to body transformation as a cure-all for other issues’.

Orbach, despite admitting to no clinical experience of anorexia at that time, seems to know so much about me. She knows about my mother, she knows about my secret eating habits, my calorie-counting, my diaries. She knows I’m a high-achieving girl who others might describe as happy, even confident. And Orbach writes about me:

‘In projecting into the future, this girl sees that the world is made up of men who are rewarded for being out in the world and women who are either excluded from activity in the world or, even more devious, included but not rewarded’.

I look at my mother, angrily stirring soup at the kitchen stove, at my seven-year-old sister, lying on the floor in front of the television, one hand in a packet of crisps; my older sister, applying mascara in her bedroom, priming herself to go out.

To me, reading this in my purple-painted bedroom in Boston Spa is nothing short of revelatory. To have my own, small-scale, private concerns – my painful, secret little battles and calorie-counting diaries – reflected back to me. I exist! As if what I think, what I experience, might actually matter. It seems incredibly simple to write that, to say that.  James Baldwin puts it best. ‘It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.’

I suddenly found through reading, through this book, through the voice of this warm, young, American woman, my connection to half the human race, at least to the half I belong to: women. Orbach’s analysis of the vexed relationships between daughters and mothers, the anxiety girls feel about becoming a woman especially if her mother’s life feels unhappy or limited in some way was as eye-opening as her analysis of our relationship with food. This makes my own terrors clear to me on so many levels.

I never really know how to express my family life in a way that does it justice and is neither untrue, exaggeratedly adolescent, or vengeful. I was the first child to go to University. My mother did have a part-time job outside the home but we three girls could be under no doubt about what was expected of us. Be pretty and well turned out, find and keep a man, marry and have children. To say to myself, as much as to my parents or anyone else, that I wanted to be a writer was a deep secret. I don’t think I ever did say it, actually. I might just as easily have said I wanted to be a Martian.

And so the secret grows and I begin sending short stories and articles out to magazines, and another one of them publishes me – Honey magazine – and pays me the thrilling sum of £50. This sending out of work becomes my secret way of tasting the outside world I deny myself. Will I ever have a place in it? Will I work outside the home, will anyone know I exist, that I’m alive?

In 1982 I’m at Nottingham University and the eating disorder still has me in its grip though, because I’m struggling with it, it has morphed into bulimia. Bulimia is much less visible, and it suits me that I now look normal-sized — I’m twenty by now and people no longer tease me about my skinniness or sing insulting songs at me as I walk past.

I’m studying American studies and a component of the course is Women’s Writing taught by another wonderful teacher, Jennifer Bailey. There are many fabulous things about Jenny, but I’ll mention one anecdote which will give you the measure of the woman.  During one of the lectures she was giving, Jenny freezes mid-sentence and widens her eyes. She is facing a large window onto campus; we have our backs to it. Jenny leans forward towards us and says confidingly, ‘In the big window I’m facing there’s a flasher.   Flashers rely on women’s embarrassment, the fact that we always pretend we haven’t seen them and yet they can always tell they’ve alarmed us. In a moment – when I count to three – I’d like you all to turn, point and laugh at the same moment’.

And that’s what we do.

It’s Jenny Bailey who introduces me to the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood. The novel of Atwood’s I love is not just The Edible Woman – drawing as it does on Atwood’s own struggle with an eating disorder – but her second novel Surfacing. Atwood is in her thirties at this point. She has been hailed very quickly as a star of Canadian literature. I love the way that she is described on the back jacket of Surfacing as ‘important’. That word again. Does what women have to say, then matter? Why is this concept so interesting to me? Perhaps I’m not yet convinced, fully, because why do I need it reinforced so often?

Surfacing is a novel of spiritual seeking and it is written in fresh provocative prose, in a young woman’s sassy voice, in the present tense. It is about our place in nature, the future of our planet; it heralds all the themes that the magnificent Atwood, now in her prime, is still addressing. But it is also about one young woman coming to terms with an abortion. And here are the lines in it that stick with me all my life:

‘This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that, I can do nothing. I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I do will ever hurt anyone’.

Not to be a victim. What does the refuting of victimhood mean for women? Taking me right back to that early debate in the classroom, was Tess of the D’Urbervilles a victim? Did she have any choice when Alec D’Urberville seduced her, or was it a rape? How can we all refuse to be victims when there is so much around us that is, to put it simply, violent, oppressive and unfair. Is Atwood suggesting we blame women for their own oppression? You might hope I will debate it here but I feel that it’s one I’ve tackled in much of my work. Two of my novels, Trick of the Light and Lucky Bunny, deal directly with women struggling in violent relationships; Watch Me Disappear deals with a character who is dazed and damaged by her childhood and unable to crystallise her own thoughts.

But then, back in the eighties, then, on reading Atwood, what it says to me is not to be content with pontificating but to begin. To act, to do. I begin my first novel. And soon after, a second. This one is about a woman who is shrinking, like a childhood favourite of mine, Mrs Pepperpot, tiny enough to put in a pocket, tiny enough to become invisible. The novel is called Small Fry. It’s around 1985, I’m twenty-three years old, my eating disorder is receding, I personally am not shrinking quite so much. I’m having weekly psychotherapy with a woman I find via the Women’s Therapy centre, the same therapy centre that Susie Orbach founded. I’m signing on the dole, and of my forty quid a week thirty goes on therapy, ten on food. I’m living in a squat in Hackney. I send poems off to magazines. I’m hanging out with rather a lot of unsuitable types; it seems I’ve found a new way to defeat myself.

By my mid-twenties I’m pregnant and I’ve sent my first story off to the Women’s Press, where it is published in an anthology called A Girl’s Best Friend. A Girl’s Best Friend is…her mum? Her dog? Or, as in my case, her books. By my late twenties I’m embroiled in a new crisis – a violent, exhausting relationship, care of a child who is wilfully difficult, non-communicative, and disruptive ­– that leaves me little time for reading or writing.

That brings me to Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor provides the story that gives me my title: ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’. It’s a strange, freakish story, as all of O’Connor’s are. Set in the Deep South of America, in it a one-armed man is persuaded by a cunning old woman to marry and carry off her disabled daughter, in return for a car. He agrees, but after the wedding, dumps the daughter at a café. That is more or less it. What did it have to teach me? Well, the title is something the man sees on the highway as he’s driving — a warning sign for motorists about speeding. And he doesn’t heed it. He does nothing to save his own life. As so often in O’Connor there is a twisted, damaged core at the centre of all. There is no redemption for any of the characters in the story, although it’s shot through with a powerful spiritual yearning. O’Connor’s other great lesson for me as a young writer is what not to write, what to leave hovering or simmering under and above the text.

On the copy of the book I have (1980, The Women’s Press) Flannery O’Connor is described as ‘the best woman Southern writer of her generation’. We still had a way to go back then but on my recent, current edition it says of Flannery O’Connor: ‘One of the most original and powerful American writers of the 20thcentury’. And by the New York Times: a ‘genius’. So that place she writes from, the Deep South of brutal poverty and fierce cruelty, of ordinary people living lives that so often tip into violence but where the writing itself holds out an offer of transcendence that no one ever takes up — that place has become the world.

Another vital lesson for me: Write not what you know but what you want to know more about. And don’t let anyone persuade you that your world is not worthy, is not important.

I have sometimes regretted that I came late to Virginia Woolf, that I abandoned Austen after only two novels, because other writers always seem to cite these as inspiration. But I’ve also felt that not doing an English literature degree has been the making of me. Knowing how lacking in confidence I was as a young woman, it now seems such great good fortune that I was nourished by so many writers outside of those parameters. I was reading American literature and it was all about landscape and the vernacular, it was all about ‘lighting out for the territory’ and pushing the frontier further and further West. I was not reading novels about making a successful love match rather than one based on economics (Austen) or struggling with a disembodied intellectualism that never involved the physicality of sex, motherhood, birth, all those down-and-dirty things that Woolf leaves out. Given that I have a child already by the age of twenty-six it is lucky that I read Adrienne Rich’s Of Women Born rather than novels by men and women who give the impression that birth and motherhood are not topics for great literature or that all great writers are childless.

Toni Morrison and her novel Sula; Maya Angelou’s series of autobiographies that show her own triumph over rape and elective mutism; Toni Cade Bambara with her rallying cry: ‘There is more than one way to participate in revolution’: these books offered me options, a shape to discover myself in. I didn’t want to go on feminist marches or join women’s groups; I only wanted to be on my own and write. Alice Walker with her brilliant iteration of a child’s voice in The Color Purple and her radical suggestion in In Search of our Mother’s Gardens that uneducated women might need to express their creativity too; Ntosake Shange with her extraordinary prose-poem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf.

When I begin to write fiction in my late twenties it is these voices I hear. It doesn’t seem to occur to me that I’m a young white woman from Yorkshire. The voices of African-American women speak to me in a way that Charlotte Brontë – from up the road in Haworth – never did. Voices of writers who are also mothers, like me. Poets and novelists whose words have a physicality and frankness I’ve longed for, where words enter not through the brain but through the blood. I see how much this vernacular tradition, this interest in voices, and rhythm and cadence, has shaped my own work and this belief too that I don’t have to write about the chattering classes to be taken seriously as a writer (though according to at least one writer friend I might win a few more prizes if I did!).

People in my novels long to be better educated. The characters of Lily, the single mother on a Hackney council estate, or Nell, the maid, or Madame Guerin the cook, or Edie Thompson the aspirational milliner, or Willie Beamiss the rebellious Fenlander, or Drew Beamiss the sixteen-year-old expelled from school, they all know how lack of education excludes them, sidelines them, and they all fight against it.

In my forties I am lucky enough to meet Susie Orbach at an event in Norwich. She is a small woman with curly dark hair and big intense eyes — and at that point she and I are at a conference together. I have published about six novels by now. I hold the Creative Writing Fellowship at UEA. If that skinny, sixteen-year-old from Yorkshire with her embryonic despair could see me on a platform with all those world-class intellectuals she would be astonished. Someone introduces me to Susie, but I’m too shy to say much.

But once home writing comes to my rescue once again and I pen her a short postcard.

Dear Susie Orbach, it was a pleasure to meet you today. We didn’t meet properly but I’d like to say thank you. Thirty years ago a book you wrote saved my life.

Susie assured me I’d saved my own life, as Flannery O’Connor urged, and all of us must.

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