Notes on Womanhood by Sarah Jane Barnett (Otago University Press, 2022), 169pp, $30; You Probably Think This Song is About You by Kate Camp (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022), 223pp, $35
These two books, written from the vantage point of midlife, adopt different approaches to tell their stories. Sarah Jane Barnett’s Notes on Womanhood is the first in a new series from Otago University Press, Ka Haea Te Ata, that aims to cast light on issues of importance in Aotearoa today. It interweaves Barnett’s own experiences with a wide range of secondary research in order to bring the deeply personal into dialogue with broader cultural concerns and the structural inequities that shape women’s lives. Kate Camp’s book, by contrast, takes the form of linked essays, an increasingly popular mode in memoir writing, perhaps because it allows a writer the freedom to present relatively self-contained episodes from life, without the need to fill all the gaps that a single linear narrative might require. In both cases, though, the difficulties of growing up female are approached with candour, allowing readers the space to recognise or reflect on their own experiences.
‘What stories of womanhood and midlife do women have available to us? How do we create these stories ourselves?’ Barnett asks, after her experience of early menopause as a consequence of hysterectomy triggers an emotional-psychological reset in every aspect of her life. ‘To write this book,’ she goes on:
I pulled on the thread of my womanhood to see how it unravelled. And how quickly it did. The act of looking showed me the stitches: Western society’s beauty standards, the male gaze, a fear of ageing, hair and gender, care work, my grandmother, life-stage transitions, orca whales and tramping … The result is what I am calling my ‘coming-of-middle-age’ story.
That is quite the list of topics, or ‘stitches’, in Barnett’s terms. Stitches and their unravelling, of course, bring to mind traditionally feminine occupations like knitting or needlework. In the context of surgery, though, the suturing of flesh can be a painful process, leaving a scar, and may never achieve the precision of embroidery. I sometimes felt that the disparate parts of Barnett’s book did not come together seamlessly, even as I admired her willingness to show her scars and to voice her uncertainties about the writing process. Barnett prevaricates, for instance, between drawing on her ‘academic training [that] wanted me to weigh up all the different arguments’ and writing ‘in an instinctive way’ from ‘my gut’. She decides to bracket off ‘expert’ conversations because they ‘belong to a different sort of book’ and draws a distinction between ‘the lecture hall of the mind’ and the ‘soft bed of the body’. Surely, though, it is precisely binaries like hard/soft, mind/body, public/private that need breaking down if women are to find new ways of telling our stories to each other and new forms for doing so?
As can so easily happen in trying to straddle two forms or approaches, there is a risk of falling between stools. Barnett further distances herself from her academic training by limiting the resources she consults in her research to those ‘that could freely be found online or in a public library’ because her goal ‘is to help other women, in some small way, think about their own womanhood and … anyone should be able to read through my reference list if they want’. A laudable aim, but perhaps it might have been equally laudable to present more cutting-edge or complex research not otherwise available to those without university library cards and thus make such research more widely accessible. Some of the research Barnett includes feels like dry digressions or may already be familiar to readers, such as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (a courageous inclusion, perhaps, given Wolf’s recent descent into anti-vax diatribes and conspiracy theories).
Barnett’s desire to be inclusive in this way at times curtails the kinds of conversations she seeks to foster. When an author says, ‘After doing some googling, I discover …’, a reader can’t help but feel short-changed. We can all Google, but we read life-writing for the opportunity to imaginatively enter the life of another. A memoir gives us something that we can’t find on a Google search: an immersive encounter with someone else’s life, sustained over the duration of time it takes to read their story, a qualitatively different experience from skimming the internet. I came away from Barnett’s book wanting to learn more about her experience parenting her young son and her relationship with her father, Nikki, a transgender woman. The vignettes and episodes on these topics, as well as her lyrical accounts of tramping with female friends, carry an emotional force that the sociological summaries lack. More than that, her personal stories allow Barnett to foreground her reflections and insights and thus to feel her way towards more challenging ideas about the experiences of the female body at midlife. Through describing the interrelation between body, mind, emotion and thought in action in daily life—from the mundanity of bedtime routines with a small child to sublime encounters with pristine forests—Barnett comes closest to presenting her readers with a new understanding of womanhood as ‘loose and beautiful and contradictory and pleasurable’.
Kate Camp, although perhaps best known as a poet, crafts beautiful prose in You Probably Think This Song is About You. She is able to take familiar observations, like the segregation of parents in the front seat and children in the back on road trips, and turn them into explorations of the distinct worldview of childhood:
In the front seat they had all the power … And yet, on some level, we looked down on them. There were many things about their adult world that we utterly disdained … How they drank black coffee in the heat of summer. The boringness of their life, with its droning sound of the National Programme coming from the leather-cased Sanyo …
Such detail is not merely nostalgic but almost forensic, implying a bright young mind keenly piecing together knowledge of the world so that she might understand her place in it. Over time, she will learn how to smoke and drink and be with other people while always observing herself and fearing she is ‘such a phony’. The self-surveillance of girls and young women is shown to be an unavoidable part of growing up, with high stakes in terms of social acceptance and personal safety if you don’t get it right. After the teenage Camp has watched her older boyfriend sentenced to jail in the District Court, the dissonance between the hard reality of his fate, unimaginable in her comfortable middle-class life, and her sense of performing ‘upset girlfriend’ crying on the bus afterwards is poignantly captured.
There are other dangerous boyfriends, and there are drugs and petty crime and precarious jobs, all tempered by the safety net of a secure family that mostly holds in place even after her parents’ divorce—an event that takes place off-stage. But a violent attack on her mother in her own home shatters the divide between risk and safety that Camp had negotiated through much of her early life and allows for a deeper and more extended exploration of what it is to be vulnerable. The impact of her mother’s home invasion is traced over a period of years including recovery, changed domestic arrangements, and parole hearings. For the women of Camp’s immediate family—her mother, her sister and herself—life afterwards takes on a new fragility: familiar houses and streets become threatening spaces, and the dynamics of family relationships realign. Camp is, by turns, fearful on her mother’s behalf and yet still capable of petty annoyance with a parent’s lifelong habits. The understated ways in which Camp shows how the devastation and ordinariness of trauma co-exist make this part of her story unforgettable.
Before the essay devoted to this painful experience, however, there had been a tendency to dwell in scenes and settings, letting description and anecdote do much of the emotional labour of the book, while that title, You Probably Think This Song is About You, hangs in the air, as it were. Is the title meant to imply a deep unease about speaking of the self? Or invite the reader to identify with the speaking self? It’s hard to know. In ‘You’re So Vain,’ from which the title is drawn, Carly Simon is scathing about the narcissism of the man she sings about. That man imagines everything is about him, but—irony—the song is, in fact, about him.
A similar problem faces any memoirist. In your own memoir, everything is about you; even the bits about other people are focalised through the memoirist’s recollections and interpretations. Life writing, putting intimate stories in print for strangers to read, always involves a negotiation with narcissism and the limits of self-disclosure. Camp often invokes her mother’s motto of ‘never apologise, never explain’. It is hard to think of worse advice for a memoirist or indeed anyone who wants to reflect honestly on their life or make amends for an imperfect past. Without explanation, without reflection, memoir is simply the recounting of memories for dramatic effect. The writer of memoir knows more than they did in the heat of the moment, or during a sad childhood or the withering of a relationship. It is that wisdom after the fact that shapes their retelling of the story and gives it the power of authenticity.
Camp’s book ends with ‘Surface Paradise’, about a childhood summer holiday at Waikanae. There is nothing like a bach, with its dated decor and limited facilities, to evoke a rosy, simpler past and here Camp is also able to conjure her family back together again—before her mother’s assault, before her parents’ divorce. She describes, in richly sensory detail, a night on the beach with her family before questioning the reliability of such idyllic memories of childhood. ‘Maybe everything only happens once’, Camp concludes, implying that searching for patterns below the surface can only ever be wishful thinking. But, of course, that is not true: the very act of retelling makes it happen again on the page. More than that, though, we all carry formative memories that, consciously or otherwise, are relived in our ingrained patterns and beliefs and habits, bringing the past into the present again and again, over and over.
Towards the end of Notes on Womanhood, Barnett makes the powerful observation that ‘I have found that my experience of midlife depends on how compassionately I can welcome these changes’. Change, like the passage of time itself, is unavoidable, yet how often do we seek to avoid it or ignore it? Never apologise, never explain. Don’t look back, ever onwards. But courage, as well as compassion, is vital in life writing—as in life. ‘All you can do is write the truest thing you can’, Camp says at one point, and there remains no greater challenge for any woman writer, as these two books attest.
WENDY PARKINS is the author of Every Morning, So Far, I’m Alive: A memoir (Otago University Press, 2019).