To celebrate the anniversary of the release of Being Jade, and my upcoming appearance on writers panels - F Word: Romance @ The Wheeler Centre and Risky Fictions @ Bendigo Writers Festival - talking about subverting stereotypes, I thought I'd republish a Q&A I did on Being Jade for The Hoopla. Some good meaty bits to chew on here - including all the big ticket items - love, truth, infidelity and intimacy. Oh, and art!
Jade is a character who stomps all over stereotypes and really challenges her fellow characters and the readers. Why did you make her so extreme?
Personally I’m tired of the restricted notions of femininity that keep getting dished up in our culture: The Good Wife, The Sacrificial Mother, The Whore-Lover, The Old Hag, The Chaste Virgin, The Ballsy Career Woman. These archetypes, which have their roots in Greek and Roman mythology, have become labels we use and apply without thinking. They’ve been repackaged and retold to us so many times we accept their limits as all women can or should be.
The biggest problem with these archetypal characters is that they’re defined by patriarchal values, which means women are constantly measured and judged against what is defined as valuable from a masculine world view. And in order to measure up, women suppress much of who they truly are in order to be what they are expected to be.
With Jade I was trying to imagine what a woman would look like if she were free of all that social, political and religious stereotyping, although I’ll be the first to admit it was an incredibly difficult task and only history will determine how far I’ve gone toward achieving it. I had to go back 5000 years, to a time before patriarchy when stories where formed within a feminine world view to find my inspiration for Jade. I discovered her in the ancient Sumerian and Hebrew mythology of Lilith, the dark Goddess, myths that were formed in a time before women’s sexuality was demonised and controlled.
To be honest I don’t see Jade as extreme, but I can understand how other’s will. Conceptually she’s very new. Our existing views of women are so entrenched I don’t doubt there will be resistance to her. We are not used to a female character who has as much agency as Jade does. She bucks all our expectations of women, not once does she toe the cultural line, and she rejects the masculine world view as the only valid world view worth of living by. She is an antidote to the latent sexism in our stories, a proud and defiant champion of liberated womanhood.
Early in the novel, Banjo says, “What we’re willing to accept in life depends on what we stand to lose if we refuse it.” Here is a man whose existence is built on enormous personal sacrifice. Do you pity him, hate him or admire him?
I love him. I love him for his struggle to love and retain his sense of identity, for his dogged persistence with Jade no matter how hard she makes it for him. I love him for his deep insights as he reflects on his situation. He is a little like the patriarchy as it struggles to accept a new vision of womanhood, one that is not controlled or confined by masculine values and expectations.
And the quote you make from Banjo is right, isn’t it? His is a common experience. At some time in our lives most of us will put up with an unacceptable situation because we can’t face the consequences of addressing the problem. It is exactly this notion that traps women in domestic violence situations and toxic relationships.
What sets Banjo apart as a character, a little like Jade, is that he debunks the autocratic male stereotype of a man who ‘must control his woman’. He is fully aware of what he’s sacrificing, but he chooses to do it because loving Jade is more important and it’s this that drives him to understand rather than reject her.
Banjo and Jade are a reminder that the only people who really understand a marriage are the two people in it. What ideas about marriage were playing through your mind as you created their union?
There is a quote from Kalil Gibran at the front of the book. This captures exactly my thoughts about love and marriage. Marriage is held up as such a desirable and respected institution in our culture, yet if you look at the statistics it’s pretty clear marriage isn’t working for us in its current form. Large numbers of people struggle with fidelity. Large numbers of people struggle to sustain a long term monogamous relationship.
I believe a lot of married people lie about their experience of marriage because they are ashamed to admit to their difficulties with it. People who read Being Jade will be compelled to question what it is they have sacrificed, or are willing to sacrifice, in order to maintain a long term relationship. This aspect of marriage is often reduced to ‘compromise’ but this minimalises the reality of what it really means. Just as Banjo does, people choose to suppress parts of themselves in order to make a relationship work. Or they don’t and have an affair or leave. No matter which way we look at it, suffering and sacrifice are an inherent part of marriage nobody wants to talk about.
Banjo and Jade give us insight into this suffering. Where she sacrifices nothing of her Self, he sacrifices it all. Together they show us that, no matter what course we choose, in love there is always a price to be paid.
Banjo is dead as he narrates his parts of the novel. That allows you as a writer to explore death as a meaningful part of existence. What made you decide on this as a narrative technique?
Oddly enough when Banjo arrived in my mind he was dead and insisted on telling his story from that perspective. I was advised many times to reconsider this as it posed significant challenges to the writing of the book, but Banjo quietly persisted so that’s how it had to be.
Personally I’ve always been fascinated by death and love talking about it (although it’s often difficult to find someone who shares my interest). I’ve read widely on near-death experiences and Buddhist theories on the process of dying and of life after death.
Our awareness of the inevitable ending of our life causes us to fear death so deeply that when we have a brush with it, either through accident, illness or the passing of someone close to us, it rattles us. The finality of it, the blank space that follows it, compels us to think more deeply about our lives, to reassess priorities and appreciate the things we take for granted.
In Being Jade it provides a powerful perspective for Banjo, because he can no longer control anything, he has no agency. As he becomes aware of his impotency his reactivity drops away. He is forced to reflect and become more philosophical about his life and relationships because that is all he is able to do.
Their youngest daughter Melissa discovers Jade’s sketchpad filled with drawings, some quite confronting, of the lovers she has had throughout her marriage. Do you think between parents and children there can be such a thing as too much information. Are children entitled to know all the facts of their parents’ relationship?
I think this really depends on the nature of the relationship between parents and children and the impact of familial history. When children are small all they need to know is their parents love and support them and will stay together. A mature sexual relationship between adults is too complex for most youngsters to comprehend.
As we become adults though, part of our evolution is making peace with our family history and that includes the parental relationship. All intimate relationships have their secrets and sometimes they have a negative impact on the wider family. It’s not always necessary to know what those secrets are, but sometimes that knowledge enables understanding and forgiveness.
Melissa is the eternal child in her family and deeply dependent on the status quo of her family home. Her confusion about her parent’s relationship is so entwined with her father’s death she can’t separate the two. If she is to ‘grow up’ she needs to develop an adult understanding of her mother and her parent’s marriage, which then allows her to accept her father’s death.
Both Banjo and Jade use art as a means of self-expression. In Banjo’s case, he is practical with his hands—building the house from local stone and timber, their dining table. However, Jade’s self-expression is a much darker beast. As an artist yourself, why was it important to you that Jade use her art in this way?
Art, particularly visual art, is often an expression of things that can’t be named. It captures the unconscious. Jade’s childhood was a dark and frightening place. Instead of safely reading about dark things in fairytale books, she was seeing, sensing, experiencing, them in reality. There is so much about Jade’s character that is difficult to understand. Throughout the book Jade feels the restriction and judgment of others as if it were a cage pressing in on her. Her drawings and paintings are her way of communicating how she experiences life, a way of showing the effect the expectations of her family, community and culture have on her. They are her attempt at naming the unamable.
Your novels constantly explore ideas of love, intimacy and truth. What is it about these topics that resonate with you?
These ideas define the core of our humanity. Without understanding these, we are bound to keep reacting to life from our small-minded egos. They are the key to escaping the endless cycle of hurt that plagues the human race.
The Buddhists say life is suffering and once we accept that idea we free ourselves to live a more compassionate and loving life because we are no longer trying to avoid pain. As a species we spend a lot of energy trying to control people and our environment to avoid suffering even the slightest discomfort, even if what we do causes the suffering of others. This especially plays out in intimate relationships because it’s here we are at our most vulnerable – hence the saying ‘we hurt those we love the most’.
I truly believe that deep down human beings don’t wish to cause others harm, but will do so because we can’t bear our own pain. If we want this to change we must learn that pain is not something to be feared or avoided and that by accepting our own pain we automatically relieve the suffering of others. At some level all my characters are exploring this notion of becoming aware of their own suffering and taking responsibility for it so they no longer hurt either themselves or the people they love most.
Well, it seems you are set to challenge people’s comfort zones again with Being Jade. What truths were revealed to you in the writing/ editing of the novel and what do you hope readers will take away from the experience?
My greatest hope is that readers will enjoy Being Jade and talk about its themes with their friends, family and colleagues.
People will take what they will from this book, depending on how willing they are to question their own assumptions about women, men and marriage. Many people will judge both Jade and Banjo against a set of values and stereotypes we culturally accept as true for everyone. Others will see the contrast Jade and Banjo pose to those values. All I really want is for people to talk about the questions Being Jade poses, because at this stage asking the questions is more important than coming up with any definitive answers.
F-Word Romance: moderated by Maxine Beneba Clarke with Beth Driscoll, Kat Mayo and Kate Belle - Thu 25 June SOLD OUT
Risky Fictions: Emily Sexton, John Purcell, Anna George, Kirsten Krauth, Kate Belle - Sat 8 Aug, 1.15pm, Trades Hall - being LIVE STREAMED to The Wheeler Centre.