TEXT review

Wonder tales

review by Jessica Gildersleeve


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Rebellious Daughters: True Stories from Australia’s Finest Female Writers
Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman (eds)
Ventura Press, Paddington NSW 2016
ISBN 9781925183528
Pb 325pp AUD32.99


In her contribution to Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman’s collection, Rebellious Daughters: True Stories from Australia’s Finest Female Writers (2016), Krissy Kneen cites fairy-tale scholar Marina Warner, who notes that the original term for the fairy tale was Wundermärchen, the wonder tale. ‘To wonder’, writes Warner, ‘communicates the receptive state of marvelling as well as the active desire to know, to inquire’ (40). In the same way, Kneen observes, the (often horrific) fairy tales told to her by her grandmother, stories which did not at all adhere to the philosophy of characters who lived ‘happily ever after’, filled the young girl ‘with a powerful and dangerous curiosity’ (40). It is that desire to know, that epistemophilia, which not only drives the women and girls of the stories collected here, but those about whom they read, and whom we now, in this collection, voraciously follow, hungry for knowledge, for endings happy or otherwise.

Rebellious Daughters comprises contributions from seventeen emerging and established Australian women writers, including recent major award winners Kneen (Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize 2014), Michelle Law (Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award 2016), and Leah Kaminsky (Voss Literary Prize 2016). The tales are not short stories as such, but more often take the form of the memoir (a genre in which many of these writers already work) or personal essay, drawing on the angst-filled journals of the writers’ teenaged selves and reflecting on the ways in which these processes and periods of rebellion fit into the broader histories of their own lives and those of their families. It is often seen to be a dangerous assumption that women’s writing is always already about their own lives, whereas writing by men is seen to be ‘universal’. However, in Katsonis and Kofman’s collection, to write the self is to claim it, concomitant with the process of growing up, of becoming woman. Indeed, as Rebecca Starford makes clear, ‘I couldn’t write my story as fiction. For me, the act of writing a memoir was important to the process. If I’d written my experiences as fiction, I would have been hiding behind the genre, and that would have been self-defeating, less courageous, and less honest’ (156).

Some of the tales included are more simply about the self, the ‘becoming self’. Others reflect on the roles the women have played and continue to play, or which change, even simply switch with others, throughout their lives, as when a daughter becomes a mother – to her own child (as in Rochelle Siemienowicz’s ‘Resisting the Nipple’, Jane Caro’s ‘Where Mothers Stop and Daughters Start’, and Nicola Redhouse’s ‘The Peacock House’) or, as in Eliza-Jane Henry-Jones’s ‘Just Be Kind’ and Amra Pajalic’s ‘Nervous Breakdowns’, becoming mother to one’s own parent. Often in the stories this takes the form of Carl Jung’s mother complex, a ‘resistance to maternal supremacy’, Siemienowicz quotes, in which one’s motto is ‘[a]nything, so long as it is not like Mother!’ (285). It is also, however, a theme common to the many stories which reflect on the demands of ill or dying parents, or those of migrant parents who have often suffered hardship and trauma and invest utterly in the expectations of their luckier children.

As such, rebellion takes a range of forms in these stories – sometimes as serious as lengthy and intentional separation from the suffocations of those parents (in Caroline Baum’s ‘Estranged’), and sometimes as simple as a clandestine visit to the home of a romantic crush (in Law’s ‘Joyride’): ‘I didn’t want Liam’, Law reflects. ‘What I’d actually wanted was freedom. And something as simple, as unremarkable, and perhaps laughable, as a solo bike ride’ (272). The term ‘good girl’ rings as a key note throughout the tales: to be the good girl, the stories repeat, is to deny the self; to rebel is to find the self. Often, too, it is the sisters of those good girls who act as foils, as reminders of other ways of being, of rebellion as freedom (as in Marion Halligan’s ‘Daughters of Debate’ and Jamila Rizvi’s ‘The Good Girl’).

Where the stories are perhaps most interesting is when the rebellion of one woman enables the rebellion of another, offering them freedom and independence. Halligan’s younger sisters are permitted to ride their bicycles because of her own decisive act in refusing their father’s orders. And in Silvia Kwon’s ‘Looking for Happiness in Australia’ it is the daughter’s pursuit of an alternative way of life from that which was expected of her South Korean foremothers which offers her own mother the possibility of independence from her oppressive husband. Kwon’s insistence on her mother’s own engagement with the community, rather than relying on her daughter as translator and mediator, gives the older woman the confidence to leave her husband and shape her own life. Rebellion, the story reminds us, is not just for the young: it is a continuing act which, over and over, enables the freedom of choice for the women in these stories, not just those writing them. ‘This is the way with fairy tales’ – with wonder tales – as Kneen puts it: ‘the tellers die but the stories live on in each subsequent generation’ (42).

To see the stories as simply a collection of tales of ‘going wild’, of ‘good girls gone bad’, of smoking and shoplifting and sex, is to miss the story of the rebel as the story of the pathfinder, the explorer. Just as the tale of Bluebeard, Kneen notes, depicts the young wife who comes to see ‘the world as it really is instead of blindly accepting a fabrication of reality’ (42), so too the women of these stories follow alternative narratives. If these daughters are modern figures of Cordelia, as Baum’s father laments, then, it is Cordelia as one who sees the truth and is unafraid to speak it. These Cordelias, these Bluebeard’s wives, these good girls and their mothers ‘marvel’ at the world, but more importantly, they inquire of it. It is in that pursuit of knowledge that they are most rebellious, and most brave.



Jessica Gildersleeve is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Southern Queensland. She is the author of Elizabeth Bowen and the Writing of Trauma: The Ethics of Survival (Brill/Rodopi 2014), as well as essays on other twentieth- and twenty-first-century women writers, including Rosamond Lehmann, Jean Rhys, Agatha Christie, Sarah Waters, and Pat Barker. She is co-editor of Queensland Review and associate editor of Hecate. Christos Tsiolkas: The Utopian Vision, Don’t Look Now, and Memory and the Wars on Terror: Australian and British Perspectives (ed with Richard Gehrmann) are all forthcoming this year.


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste