From 'himpathy' to power bottoms: six things we learned at Sydney writers' festival

Masha Gessen, Helen Garner, Emma Glass and more shared words of wisdom on #MeToo, power play, science and the ‘language of hatred’

“This was a year in which old power structures began to tremble under the collective weight of the bullshit they held up,” wrote Sydney writers’ festival director Michaela McGuire in March, when announcing that the theme of the 2018 program would be “power”. “Finally, long-silenced voices rose together and became a movement.”

The 2018 festival was the first full program put together by McGuire, and the first of the festival hub’s temporary move from the Walsh Bay waterside to Carriageworks in Redfern – a less scenic venue, but one which in many small ways worked better.

While there were less big-ticket names than in recent years, the program was broad, diverse, rousing and relevant, and pulled off its urgent theme. Which means it did that thing the best writers’ festivals do: it got uncomfortable.

A panel of emerging writers of colour reckoned eloquently with a tone-deaf question from the audience; an inspiring #MeToo event ended with an angry man; and, in the festival’s most newsworthy moment, Junot Díaz withdrew from his remaining appearances after being publicly accused of sexual misconduct.

But it also got brains bouncing off each other in corridors, cafes and bars. Below are some of our talking points.

1. There’s power in uncertainty

Last time journalist Masha Gessen spoke at Sydney Writers’ Festival she said something that was misinterpreted by right-wing media and got her “driven out of Russia,” she told us during the Power gala on Friday night.

For that reason, she joked, she would focus this year’s talk on uncertainty. “I will try not to make any definitive statements.”

“Certainty is my business. The journalist’s job is to write assuredly, to write things they know nothing about,” she said. “The thing is though, the older I get and the longer I write, the more interested I am in uncertainty ... There is great power in uncertainty”.

Journalist Masha Gessen speaking at Sydney Writers Festival, May 2018
Journalist Masha Gessen speaking at the Power gala at Sydney Writers’ Festival. Photograph: Jamie Williams

In her work, she said, uncertainty has become a way to interrogate truths we think we know about how we live: about how we work, how we learn, how we govern; how we define borders, and how we define gender.

In her life, it has become a way to interrogate herself. “I’ve actually been experimenting with the personal power of uncertainty,” she said. “When people ask me what my pronouns are, I tell them I don’t have a preferred pronoun; I say, in fact, that there’s no reason to refer to me in the third person in my presence. And in my absence they should refer to me as they see fit.

“When I was going through security at LAX on the way here, I found myself in the familiar position of standing between two officers who were trying to figure out which one should do the pat-down. For the first time, I said, ‘I don’t care’. And discovered that the situation could be made marginally less comfortable and humiliating, because I got to claim my tiny island of uncertainty.” – SH

2. Don’t rat on your sisters

“You don’t want to rat on your sisters,” said Helen Garner, after being asked by a young woman about deviating from feminist doctrine in the time of #MeToo. “You want to be part of the sisterhood, but stick to your guns … and don’t get victim-y. That’s the thing I hate the most.”

In a frank and hilarious discussion that saw the 75-year-old crawling across the stage in a recreation of a faith-healing experience for a sore back (which was ultimately healed by changing the type of pen she wrote with), the author was asked about current feminist orthodoxy in relation to the criticism she received for her 1995 book, The First Stone, about a sexual harassment case at Ormond College at University of Melbourne.

Garner said after the release of The First Stone she was “horrified by the ferocity of the character-destroying attacks” – including that she had set feminism back by 20 years. But in Garner’s typical self-interrogatory style – the session was called Helen Garner’s Savage Self-Scrutiny, after all – she said: “When people attack you, you have to think carefully about what your role is.”

The #MeToo movement, she said, was a “wonderful uprising … seeing all those thousands of chickens coming home to roost”. – LC

3. Beyoncé is a power bottom

SWF 2018
Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, hosts of the New York Times’ popular Still Processing podcast, at Sydney Writers Festival. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, hosts of the New York Times’ popular Still Processing podcast, riffed off this year’s festival theme of power with a somewhat raunchy game of “guess the influencer’s influence”.

The game took the concept of a “top” or “bottom” a step forward. A “power top” is someone, erm, riding high and commanding everyone’s attention; while a power bottom behaves a bit more passively while nevertheless being very much in control.

Beyoncé, for example? The ultimate power bottom. It’s her world; she just allows the rest of us (and Jay-Z) to live in it. But come into contact with classic power top Rihanna, and prepare to bow and scrape to the queen.

But it gets complicated. Kanye West, as Wortham said, thinks he’s a power top – but actually is just a very ordinary bottom. (Kim K’s the real power top in that household.)

my wife just called me and she wanted me to make this clear to everyone. I don't agree with everything Trump does. I don't agree 100% with anyone but myself.

— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018

And there’s Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg, who pretends to be a power bottom, there for our pleasure, but actually has dirt on all of us. – AS

4. Sausages can help you write

The Body Politic session focused on three young writers – Carmen Maria Machado, Emma Glass and Sharlene Teo – whose varied works share a fascination with women’s bodies and horror. The hour-long talk introduced me to the horrifying concept of the “husband stitch” (Machado named one of her short stories after it), and the subversive South East Asian myth of the pontianak that Sharlene Teo draws on in her book Ponti: a cannibalistic monster that takes the form of a beautiful woman, which wives use to scare their husbands from cheating. (“Now the woman is the one to be feared. She’s the predator.”)

But one of the more inventive writing tips came from Glass, the author of Peach: a surreal debut novel in which the protagonist is a peach, whose boyfriend is a tree, and whose brother is a jelly-baby. In Peach, the central act of violence that drives the text is sexual – and the perpetrator had to be represented by a pure embodiment of hatred.

Angela Saini
Angela Saini appearing at Sydney Writers’ Festival on a panel about how science has neglected women’s bodies. Photograph: Jamie Williams

“I was trying to find authentic language for hatred,” Glass said. “And at the time I was vegetarian and the thing I hated most in the world was meat, and sausages, and the smell – so I got physical. I physically dismembered a sausage, and I burnt it, and I wrote down the words that came to me, smelling the cooking, and what it looked like. And those are the words that I used.” – SH

5. Scientists need to stop ignoring women

Across, countries, cultures and ages, women have lived longer than men. But why? Well, no one has been that curious before – so we just don’t know.

In her myth-busting and challenging book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, British science journalist Angela Saini charts how biased assumptions and lazy science have dramatically failed to understand women and people with a uterus.

Among the lazy scientists? Charles Darwin, who failed to extend the meticulousness of his research to his hypothesis on women’s inferiority; and the guys who came up with the theory that menopause happens because older men don’t find older women attractive. You might be surprised to find out that this “theory” has been largely debunked.

But what else has been assumed on behalf of women’s bodies and brains? Saini’s book adds to a strong line of recent releases in what’s shaping up as a burgeoning genre of books that expose scientific neglect of the female body. Also out this year is a merry book on the vagina by Norwegian medical students Ellen Stokken Dahl and Nina Brochmann; The Women’s Brain Book by New Zealand neuroscientist Dr Sarah McKay; and Maya Dusenbery’s Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick.

Women account for three-quarters of people with autoimmune diseases, which also just happen to be among the most under-diagnosed, under-researched and under-funded diseases of modern times. Can these books help science find its sense of curiosity which, until now, has been strangely missing in action when it comes to the female body? – GJ

6. ‘Himpathy’ explains why #MeToo happened now

Sydney Writers Festival panel
Tracey Spicer, Washington Post reporter Irin Carmon, New York Times reporter Jenna Wortham and Sophie Black from the Wheeler Centre, at Sydney Writers’ Festival 2018. Photograph: Jamie Williams

At the #MeToo panel on Saturdaysome were taught a new word: “himpathy”.

Coined by philosopher Kate Manne, the term was introduced by panellist Irin Carmon, who led the Washington Post’s investigation into allegations against Charlie Rose. She used it to describe why the #MeToo movement started with Harvey Weinstein, rather than the high profile men who had been exposed before him.

“‘Himpathy’ is the disproportionate empathy that we extend to men,” she explained. “So many of these [abusive] men we’re talking about are men that we have an emotional relationship with – from reading them, from watching them on TV ... but with the Harvey Weinstein story, the women who were coming forward were women that we also had that relationship with.

“And all the victim-blaming-playbook mechanisms that would normally happen – like, ‘well maybe she’s just mad that her career didn’t work out’ or ‘she wants attention’ – didn’t apply. Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t need attention. Angelina Jolie’s life was pretty good before she decided to go on the record.”

The Weinstein story was different, she said, because we were able to extend empathy to victims, who usually – thanks in part to a failure of journalism – aren’t afforded it.

The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham also brought it back to the intersection of feminism and race that dominated so many conversations this weekend. Is it taking so long for R Kelly to be “muted” because his alleged victims were black? And what about the male perpetrators who aren’t working in glamorous industries?

“We’re still predominantly talking about a certain type of woman, an archetype of a woman,” she said. “And it feels really outrageous to think about Harvey Weinstein’s [attacks] against these certain types of women: mostly white women, mostly famous women, women who we think have a certain type of power. I’m curious to see if we keep talking about these cases when they aren’t marquee names. And how we deal with that.” – SH


Steph Harmon, Gabrielle Jackson, Lucy Clark and Alexandra Spring

The GuardianTramp

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