I am the criminal Sister of the Pen
Crime fiction was my first literary love as a reader. As a writer, it took the support/intervention of my Sisters of the Pen (aka SoPs) to let go of the paralysing pressure to write the Next Great Australian Novel, and embrace the genre I love. I was a wannabe writer with hangups, and now I am a productive crime writer. And lovin’ it!
But there are gaps in my knowledge of the crime genre. I grew up with four big brothers (hi, bros!), and I mostly read their hand-me-downs: Phantom Comics and Ian Fleming. I was a ‘bonus baby’, so my parents were older and had drinking problems and were generally not up for going another round with another kid. I received a good education and all that, but I was neglected in a few crucial ways. Having dealt with the substantive psychological and behavioural fallout (thanks, rehab), it’s now time to redress some of the less harmful yet still formative oversights in my upbringing.
Reading the girlhood canon
As a girl, no one curated my reading. On the upside, this meant I avoided some negative aspects of girlhood literary indoctrination. And here’s a grainy picture to prove it (and yes, that is a Mack Truck shirt I am wearing, plus faded clown makeup!).
But this Boys Own literary diet produced a woman crime writer who has never read Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden!
With the help of my SoPs, especially Kim, I am being guided through a girlhood reading list ranging from Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna, through Nancy and Trixie, to Little Women. I’m abandoning myself to it, setting aside my adult critical faculties for now and inhaling the stories as would a ten-year-old girl. It is producing some unexpected results…
My blossoming idealistic and utopic girl’s sensibility is sitting uncomfortably alongside my adult self; a self drawn to understanding the hidden violence and injustice of the world. Today I was grocery shopping and, as usual, on my mind were the things I’ve read recently: Anne of Avonlea, and this compelling MotherJones article exposing the conditions of warehouse workers who pick, pack and ship our online purchases.
There is so much cruelty in the world. It’s in the chemical-drenched food we eat and the sweatshop clothes we wear and the war-fuelled cars we drive. The contrast to gentle Avonlea is stark. It breaks my heart, and gives me torturous nightmares.
If we live in a system where all wealth is based on growth – of population, productivity, and consumption – and yet the earth’s resources are finite, well, any girl could tell you that the end game is approaching. Like Ursula LeGuin’s wanderers who, upon viewing the tortured child in the basement cupboard, realize they must leave Omelas for the unimaginable world that lies beyond, I want to find another way.
The power of the crime narrative
I believe crime fiction is such a popular genre because it reveals the wounds of that hidden violence we all perpetuate and are victim to, while also offering hope for justice and retribution.
My novelette ‘Provocation’ (just out, in The Review of Australian Fiction) is about a young woman in recovery from anorexia who is triggered into psychosis because of a stalker. It is dedicated to a real-life young woman I knew and loved as a girl, who died after a covert attack—she was dependent on medication for a chronic illness, you see, and her stalker was court-ordered to keep his distance from her, her house, and her workplace. But he put two and two together, and loitered around her neighbourhood chemist. She spied him, ran home, and died there, alone.
Her death was never recorded as a murder. There were no charges laid, nor action taken.
Crime fiction allows me to tell stories exploring a topic that means the world to me: the survival strengths of girls and women. As an adult, I have avoided reading the girlhood canon out of fear it would make me soft-hearted and conventional. I was wrong. Sure, it is opening my heart. But is also ramping up my rage, and calling into question the ethical choices I make in my daily life.
Girlhood is powerful. Am I strong enough to be my girl?
If you have any titles to add to my reading list of the girlhood canon, please jump on in and leave them in a comment – suggestions for crime, fantasy, and Australian titles especially appreciated.
Posted on March 22, 2012, in Meg Vann and tagged anne of green gables, crime fiction, girlhood, motherjones, omelas, Provocation, psychological thriller, the review of australian fiction, ursula le guin. Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.