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Defying Gender Expectations - Sarah Hall on Feminism and Female Leadership

Using Speculative Fiction to Examine Female Traits and Gendered Behavior


Sister (the narrator) seeks out Carhullan because it is the last free place. Do you think that Carhullan has appeal for the rest of us?

I suppose the fictional Carhullan becomes attractive because it is still 'natural'. The food there is not reconstituted. Women are not low down in the pecking order, or subject to government regimes. It is an alternate place. And though it requires a certain level of physicality and labor from its residents, it offers a rural tonic to the unhealthy subsistence offered in the novel's urban centres. Those who run out of patience with governmental arrangements and authority, those who want to escape the proximity of human failure, and those who want a new leader, go to the farm.

It's important to stress - and I have been utterly amazed by how many people have made a literal reading of this book - that a straight interpretation of Daughters Of The North is not advisable. That's not to say you can't read the book simply for its story – I think the story itself provides a very decent, hopefully page-turning ride. But to look for the beliefs or politics or social ideas of the author in the work is naive. I'm a passionate advocate of this novel, and the contemporary issues it explores are issues I am very interested in. It is not, however, a straightforward, reliably narrated tale.

And I wonder if female authors are more likely to be read into their work than their male counterparts. I've been asked if this book is a manifesto, and it has certainly been discussed as if it is. I wonder if women are perceived to have less range when it comes to literary intellectualism, subject matter and genre; whether they are less able to detach, ventriloquise, experiment, postulate, imagine and present. If there is this perception, then it's ludicrous. A female author is no more transparently present in her fiction than a man is in his.

You state very specifically that you're not interested in writing a book for women who obsess about the size of their thighs.

No, I state that I'm not interested in writing about women who obsess about fat on their thighs, which is a character choice. I'm interested in writing books that appeal both to men and women, but I hope women especially may find the thrill of empowerment and adventure through some of the characters in my work.

Women obsessing about fat on their thighs might like to read this novel though – I feel it contains interesting perspectives. People have said to me – 'you write like a man'. So I'm left wondering if this is a compliment, a proposition that I reach beyond female style and subject matter, or whether it is meant in another way, that I simply emulate masculinity, that mine is tomboy literature. But really, I write like Sarah Hall.

Is there something innate in women that understands that in our present society, in the way we live and cohabitate and breed and raise families, that women are confined, limited, held captive by gender roles and expectations?

I hesitate to answer questions about what women innately feel, or the nature of female acceptance. We're all individuals - willful and programmed. I can say that all these centuries on, our societies still seem incapable of reconciling the potential of the female brain with the reproductive imperative. We seem not to be able to accommodate childbirth and child-rearing with female professionalism. But the issue is complex; it's not just about historical and biological roles; it also pertains to the economy, the wider community, and shrinking social units.

Yes, I think there are still gender roles, expectations, and gender conditioning – and subsequently there is discrimination. I think sexism has become more subtle; it's become housebroken. It's important to distinguish between subservience and family unit choice/support though. I don't think motherhood is confining, unless we make it so. Where we fall down is in polarizing the roles of women, the failure to create functional egalitarian societies. Perhaps also, with its misdirection, 'new feminism' has failed to work over ground that still needs working over.

Do you think most women would find an undeniable appeal in Carhullan, even if they could never picture themselves living there?

The idea of a pro-female, greener society has merit and potential, it has good intention, like every imagined utopia. Equality and a beautiful setting are probably very attractive to many people. The idea that you are free to choose a role and an occupation, free to have children or not, free of male expectation and judgment, is wonderful. But in the novel, Carhullan is a failed utopia. There is a hierarchy in place, fractures occur within the group, and the consequences are dire. The group moves from peaceful agrarian self-rule, to hostile in-fighting and war, and it does so under a wholly female directive. Finally, paramilitary rules are implemented, which are the least flexible of all rules.

Carhullan's leader, Jackie Nixon, mentions that a Constitution had once been considered. Yet the community never formalized their rules by writing them down. This seems to play into the belief that women practice collaborative leadership - that we come to consensus more easily - whereas men require some sort of hierarchy and codification of laws.

Does this reflect your own beliefs about how women might live together in community? Do you think it has to do with how women are hard-wired, or is it easier because of the absence of men (who would automatically assume - or attempt to assume - control)?

This is a book that revisits the ideas of radical feminism presented in the last quarter of the twentieth century, some of which I admire, some of which I think are problematic and untenable. There's no definitive verdict presented either way in the novel on what works and what doesn't. I don't necessarily believe women can do it any better, simply because men might be doing it badly. We are not the human obverse; we are not necessarily softer, more gracious or better equipped to rule. Female qualities, instincts, and opinions are as complex as male; we are as full of potential and as flawed.

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