Friday, May 17, 2013

Books and authors: an evening with Isabel Allende

This week I had the pleasure of seeing Isabel Allende at iconic Bay Area independent bookstore Kepler's Books, Menlo Park. Allende is on tour promoting her latest novel Maya's Notebook, and a signed copy is now sitting by my bedside table.

I furiously took notes during her talk so that I could share the many insights she offered into the writing process, her novels and her life.

Before opening up the floor to questions Allende asked for a show of hands from the Latinos in the audience. There were many and appropriately the first question asked on the night was in Spanish.

On the writing process:

Allende described novel writing as an organic process: "The novel starts like a vague feeling in the womb." She sits with this feeling, and sometimes it develops.

She says she starts out with "no idea": "I just show up everyday in front of the computer and then something happens . . . It is happening in spite of myself."

Allende is the very opposite of a plotter or a planner. "You don't plan from one point to the end. It just happens."

Sometimes she struggles with the ending for months, and then out of nowhere - in the middle of a conversation about something unrelated - it just hits her. Other times she writes a sentence and knows it is the last, the ending.

Allende says that "if you write you have to write everywhere." To write Of Love and Shadows "I emptied a broom closet and put up a board and a lightbulb."

Allende now has that longed for room of her own - the pool house - and her disciplined approach to writing means no internet access, in fact nothing but her computer and dictionaries.

"I start all my books on January 8th. So can you imagine January 7th in my house. If I sit down and wait for inspiration it will never come."

On becoming a writer:

"I always liked to tell stories but I was growing up in 40s Chile. That was like the Middle Ages."

"I was a great reader. The women I read were all dead."

While in exile in Venezuela she received a call telling her that her grandfather was dying. She began writing him a letter which became the basis for her first novel The House of the Spirits.

On whether she will ever write a biography:

Allende made an interesting distinction between memoir and biography. She said "I don't have facts in my head. I have no idea where I've been." She prefers the memoir and has written two.

On her mother:

Allende has kept forty years of correspondence, letters and now emails, between herself and her mother who write to each other almost daily. What a gift to future biographers!

Asked if she shared her writing with others: "My mother was my only editor. She would fly to San Francisco" and "take out all the sex parts so I ignore."

She said that both her and her husband talk with each other about what they are currently writing but don't read each others work: "I don't read his because I don't want to fight with him."

On being a professor:

"I am a lousy teacher. When teaching I start to plagiarize my students."

And her advice to her undoubtedly lucky students:

"I tell them to write a bad novel. That frees them. How are you going to write a novel if you don't write."

On addiction:

Allende's spoke passionately about drug addiction, a central theme of Maya's Notebook, and the folly of criminalising drugs.

"The fact that it is penalised, criminalised makes it so much more dangerous. This is not a war we can win with bullets. This is a public health issue."

Allende spoke of her own experiences, three stepchildren who are all addicted to drugs, two having lost their lives to addiction. She shared with the audience that her family is currently grieving for a step-daughter who died only a month ago.

Maya's Notebook is about an American girl growing up in Berkeley with a Chilean grandmother (who she jokes is very much based on herself). She talks about watching her own grown children raising teens: "I saw their parents losing their hair trying to protect them."

Like all of her books, the novel was written in Spanish and later translated into English.

On her husband:

Allende elicited huge laughs every time she made reference to her husband - Willie Gordon - who decided on retirement from lawyering to take up novel writing.

She says "I was really pissed off" and told him that if he could be a writer then she would become a lawyer when she retired from novel writing.

Unfortunately her husband has been successful, with six books in print and - she told us with a dismissive flip of her hand - he was currently at a book festival in Brazil "or somewhere". She was reluctant to give us his name in case we decided to try his books which are crime novels all set in San Francisco in the 1960s. When pushed she said he would no doubt send us 'free copies'.

She decided to make her latest novel a crime novel to show that she could do this too, and better!

An ill-fated attempt to co-author a novel with her husband lasted all of an hour. She says she can focus for 11 hours, he for 11 minutes. Cue uproarious laughter.

On favourite authors, Allende graciously made reference to only one, the author of The Kite Runner and One Thousand Splendid Sons, Khaled Husseini, who was in the audience with his family.

While I waited for my row to be called to join the queue for book signing I entertained myself with some literary star gazing, all the while cursing the lack of zoom on my fruit phone. Husseini has a new book coming out soon and will be appearing at Kepler's (I promise to share and bring the 'good' camera for this one).

Asked if she has started thinking about her next novel, incredibly prolific Allende revealed it has already been written.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

happy mother's day

I unloaded the groceries, sorting the perishables from the non-perishables.

"Happy Mother's Day," the cashier sang out when she had finished serving the man in front of me, even though I had no children by my side. Perhaps the contents of the cart gave me away, organic squeezable yogurts beside string cheese and generic store brand graham crackers, marking me out as clearly as a giant M tattooed on my forehead.

"Are you a mother too?" I asked, feeling a little foolish with my earnest wish to not cause offense by making the same presumption about her that she had made about me.

"Thank you," she replied not catching my question, just hearing "mother" and assuming it had been proceeded by "happy". And then we talked about our broods as she ran my items through the scanner.

"Did you get to celebrate before coming into work?" I asked and she told me about the lunch she'd enjoyed before starting the 3pm shift, the flowers she'd been given and the daughter who'd taken her out to dinner on Friday night. She told me about the three adult children who lived close by and the three who were further away. She told me about the daughter in Vegas who'd remembered to call her and the son in prison.

"I'm sorry," I said, not sure of what else to say. "Do you get to see him often?"

"Oh yes", she said. And then with a weary sigh "Hopefully he has learned this time."

And I hoped along with her.

"Actually I had seven children," she said "but I lost one."

A stillbirth at eight weeks.

"He'd be twenty-eight now if he had lived."

She placed the last paper bag in the cart and asked "Do you need help out?"

As quick as that we were done, back to the pleasantries.

"No, I'll be right thanks," I said, grabbing hold of the cart. "Happy Mother's Day."

I looked back. She hadn't heard me. She was busy chatting to the next customer in line.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Paid Parental Leave: Are we throwing out the feminist baby with the bathwater?

Yesterday a furious discussion emerged on my twitter stream about Tony Abbott's (Australia's Tory Leader of the Opposition and no friend of feminism) proposal to grant women Paid Parental Leave for up to 6-months after the birth of a baby at full pay (at salaries up to $150,000). This is my response to the discussion that ensued. 

Is it considered class warfare, unfair, that employees get paid their FULL salary when they take annual leave, sick leave, a sabbatical, or long service leave? 

If your answer to this question is NO then why is it considered classist for women, who are not taking a vacation but are giving birth (with the obvious exception of adoption) and raising a newborn baby, to be paid at their full salary while taking parental leave?

If, on the other hand, your answer is YES then you are on solid ground. I assume that you are fighting like hell to make the case that all workers be paid at the minimum wage or receive a welfare payment while they are taking any form of leave from employment. 

If you are not fighting against these other classist payments - payments that trade unions have fought long and hard to have considered as entitlements for all employees - then perhaps you should rethink the assumptions that underlie your objections to a 100% of salary paid parental leave scheme. And maybe in your fight to smash capitalism you could start with a more worthy target than new mothers! You might also note that far more progressive and less capitalist countries than Australia, notably in Northern Europe, provide far more generous parental leave provisions than have ever been considered here and these are provided across the population rather than being tightly means tested (e.g. Iceland provides 100% PPL for 53 weeks).

Alternatively you could focus your energy on working to close the wage gap between the highest and lowest paid, and in particular the gender pay gap that starts before women become parents but gets steadily worse after they become parents. (Hint: lack of paid parental leave is a factor in perpetuating the gender wage gap.)  

I personally find it confusing that anybody would find it more objectionable that a woman who has gone through pregnancy and childbirth and is now engaged in around the clock care for a newborn (yes, this is a 24/7 occupation) is less entitled to full pay than a person taking a ski trip, having their wisdom teeth removed or enjoying a 6-month sabbatical or long service leave. 

In my view the only real failure of the scheme is that it is not gender neutral* **. It is my understanding that this is a provision only available to women, and while this might reflect the reality that it is overwhelmingly women who will take advantage of and benefit from this scheme for both biological and cultural reasons, government should be utilising policy measures to encourage greater gender equity in the care of children. (For a good example of how this can be done, consider Sweden's tax incentives for fathers who opt to be the primary carer for a portion of the period of parental leave.)

The fact is, a noxious and untrustworthy male Tory has put forward a scheme that makes surprising sense. It is funded by a levy on big business so it will not result in discrimination against female employees (as it is not paid directly by the employer and therefore does not provide an incentive to discriminate against potential employees who are of child bearing age) or a general tax increase, nor does it take money away from welfare measures. 

It will make it possible for women who have been in employment for at least a year before giving birth to have a real choice in deciding to either stay at home with their new baby in the 6-months after giving birth or return to work, not only those women whose partner earns a high enough salary to enable such a 'choice'.  And it is likely to improve rates of breastfeeding in line with WHO recommendations (exclusive breastfeeding for 6-months), particularly among women who otherwise would have been forced to return to work earlier than they would have chosen if money was not a factor in their decision. 

I agree that any policy put forward by Tony Abbott should be met with cynicism and that his proposal is unlikely to ever see the light of day if he forms a government at the next election due to opposition from within his own party and from the business lobby. 

My fear is that in objecting to the scheme so strenuously, feminists are shooting themselves in the foot. I am not arguing that anybody should vote Liberal because of one (in my opinion) good policy in a sea of truly awful policies and overarching ideology that will lead to greater inequality across the board, especially for people on welfare who the ALP has itself failed in many instances. But perhaps we should think a little bit harder before trashing the concept of treating paid parental leave as an entitlement rather than welfare and instead celebrate the fact that both major parties are now competing for votes over who can provide the best paid parental leave scheme.

*Update: there has been a lot of confusion in the reporting of how the proposed PPL will work. It has now been clarified that fathers are able to take advantage of the 6-months leave but at the mother's salary. 

** Demands for gender neutrality around parental leave can be seen as denying or minimizing the reality that it is women who get pregnant, birth and breastfeed. For a brilliant and nuanced discussion of this I recommend Cristy Clark's brilliant post 

For a much more incisive analysis of this issue, and from a feminist with a real track record on advancing the rights of women (and particularly disadvantaged women) read Eva Cox's piece here and this piece by Kate Ashmor makes points I haven't read elsewhere about superannuation and PPL.