Women, Writing and Freedom

“A word after a word after a word is power.” – Margaret Atwood

This poignant and all too necessary event was hosted by Linen Press and the Contemporary Small Press on Thursday 19th October at the University of Westminster’s Regent Street Campus. Celebrating women’s writing and the achievements of the press and its writers, the event also delved into the complex struggles and injustices facing women and their writing in the current publishing climate.

Lynn Michell, the founder and director of Linen Press, welcomed us all and began the evening by sharing some of the home truths and hard facts about women writers in the publishing industry. She asked: “How do we get books into the big stores without paying them to sell the books?” Shedding light on the difficulties of gaining recognition in mainstream bookstores, when the fees for production are inordinately high, meaning that authors rarely see a profit from their labour of love. Male writers often take home book prizes and gain greater recognition for their work than both women and minority writers; therefore, publishers often do not want to take the ‘risks’ attached to publishing female writers and will not consider their work. Michell mapped out the lay of the publishing land for women, and the reality of how disparate the landscape is between female and male authors truly hit home – there is still so much work to be done in order to enable women to thrive in the publishing industry.

The keynote speaker, Maureen Freely, a writer, translator and senior lecturer at the University of Warwick, spoke of the often-neglected area of publishing translated works in the UK, particularly those written by women, as the works of male writers are more frequently translated. Freely is currently the president of English PEN, an organisation that campaigns for at-risk writers around the world whose rights to freedom of expression have been censored. English PEN’s inspirational work fights to remove inequalities in the literary world, facilitates the translation of foreign works into English and promotes such work in the UK, introducing UK readers to impeccable foreign works. Commercial censorship was highlighted as a huge and ongoing issue that shapes what writers say and, in turn, what readers are able to read. Freely gave the example of when a writer known for writing chick-lit was unable to publish work with themes around depression or anything “too dark”. Freedom of expression and writing are indivisible, which led Freely to help at-risk writers around the world, with a focus on women in Turkey who are currently either being imprisoned for their writing or are unable to work due to the risks of hiring them as writers. Their freedom to express themselves has been greatly impinged, costing them their writing, passion and voices as feminist activists, journalists and writers, and equally their own personal freedom to remain a part of their society. Freely has regularly contributed to the Observer, the Guardian and the Independent, and is hugely invested in writing on feminism and Turkish culture, where her written work complements her activist work by helping to assist these women writers in the process of gaining asylum in the UK and joining a community of writers, so that they can continue to speak out against the inequality and injustices they are facing.

Freely also shared with us the exciting news of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, which will be awarded on 15th November 2017, and aims to provide an opportunity for greater recognition of the invaluable work produced by women. The prize was set up for works of fiction, poetry or non-fiction by women, which have been translated into English by a female or male translator, published by a UK or Irish publisher, and translated and published between April 1st, 2016 and March 31st, 2017.

Women Writing Freedom
Hema Macherla, Avril Joy, Lynn Michell, Maureen Freely.  Photograph courtesy of Linen Press

Avril Joy, an awarding-winning short story writer and novelist, took us back to her years of teaching and management at a women’s prison, where she learnt the power of imagination, both for these women and for herself, when the writer-in-residence inspired her and prompted her own journey as a writer. Joy initially outlined the context of working at the prison – men would rarely visit the women and, therefore, letter writing and forms of writing in general quickly became a necessary and sought-after skill. More importantly, Joy found that these women were desperate to learn and hungry to thrive in ways that they had not had the opportunity nor freedom to before. It was strange to think that prison would in many ways provide a previously unknown freedom for these women, but within Joy’s cupboard-sized classroom, she was met with a desire to gain more from life, and writing became a way to explore this. Joy remarked that she often heard the women say that “they can lock me up, but they can’t lock up my mind” – a pertinent statement that may resonate with many women who may feel oppressed, their voices unheard and their freedom censored by a society that still retains double standards. Joy gave these women the permission to write their own stories, to voice their own lives and find power in imagination, a power they had so often been unable to access. Whilst many may have been victims in their lives, through the ability to voice themselves creatively, they started to recognise themselves as survivors, changing their relationships to themselves. Ultimately, Joy urged us, like those women in prison, to use whatever voice we have to tell our stories, and to survive.

Hema Macherla, an Indian writer whose works have been translated into English, poignantly articulated her own journey with writing, as well as the injustices faced by women in India when they do not conform to the male-instigated and deep-rooted traditions of Indian culture. It is shocking to realise how much is still needed in order to gain equality and justice for women in India, when men are still ‘justified’ in beating their wives, and the coercion into and practice of Sati (a funeral custom in which a wife immolates herself after the death of her husband) was only banned in its entirety in 1988 by the Sati Prevention Act. Women are struggling to have their voices heard and their freedom granted, since these brutal experiences often go undocumented or unspoken, as they are simply part of the way things are in India, and so Macherla bravely writes of these women within her novels. In her writing, she creatively expresses the cruel and shocking reality of a culture that still subordinates women and justifies the brutal actions against them through a hierarchical system of valuing men, their position and their rules, above the rights of women.

Michell closed this insightful and thought-provoking event by congratulating and thanking her writers and interns who make the work at Linen Press such a pleasure and inspiration. The audience then had the wonderful opportunity to view the trailer for her newly published novel, The Red Beach Hut, which is available online to purchase. It is a beautiful and sensitive portrayal of two lost souls who find themselves pacing along a beach together in a moment of their lives in which they both need a friend, someone who will be out-of-sync with them. To finish the event, we celebrated ten years of Linen Press over glasses of wine and had the opportunity to continue the thoughtful, powerful and much needed discussions with the event’s speakers.

Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.

Women Writing Freedom Books
Women, Writing and Freedom.  Photograph courtesy of Linen Press

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