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Winner of the 2016 Dorothy Hewett Award for an unpublished manuscript, Odette Kelada’s Drawing Sybylla is an intriguing novel about the challenges women writers have faced in pursuing the writing life.
Published in October by UWA Publishing.
Drawing Sybylla was partly inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. What was it about this story that inspired you?
This story is such a classic in feminist literature and the imagery Gilman conjured of women trapped in wallpaper never leaves me. I remember when I came across it as a young woman: I loved it and found it unforgettable. It is the best example of a gothic, claustrophobic narrative that spoke to so many things in both the historical and contemporary treatment of women. And that iconic scene: the narrator starts to see the shapes moving in the paper and then tries to free the trapped women by crawling on the floor, stripping the walls and even crawling over the figure of her husband who has fainted from shock at the sight of her. Then there’s the fact that Gilman wrote the story based on her own traumatic experience of a medical ‘rest treatment’ for mental illness that required her not to write or be stimulated. She sent this story to her doctor to illustrate the harm of his methods. It is literary activism. It distils centuries of suppression. This story was a perfect portal into the erasure of women writers in Australia.
The central figure in Drawing Sybylla references ‘The Sybils’ in ancient Greece. Who were the Sybils and what did they signify?
There is a complex and fascinating history to the Sybils that I cannot do justice to here. A brief version is to say that the Sybils were women who were seen as oracles in ancient Greece and Italy. They were channels for prophecies from divine powers and spoke at holy sites such as Delphi and Pessinos. There are descriptions of Sybils uttering their visions in states of ecstasy, which reminded me of the patriarchal tradition of labelling women as mad and hysterical. The name Sybil comes from the name Sibylla as the latter is the ancient word for prophetess. I was caught by this naming connection given that I was researching Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career with the protagonist Sybylla, who is trying to be heard and validated.
What are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman writer in contemporary Australia?
This is a question I asked numerous women in my PhD!
I grew up with privilege in Australia, benefiting from the colonisation of stolen land. Both my parents are migrants, my mother from England with Irish heritage and my father from Egypt. I had access to whiteness and western education as we moved from working class into the ‘comfortable middle class’.
Early on, I felt frustrated at the treatment of women, violence towards women and dismissal of marginalised voices and experiences. As I grew up in this country, I could feel the constructions of social conditioning around behaviour, appearance, and speaking out tighten and reward my conformity. Feminism spoke to me and I did not realise at the time that this was still exposure to a predominantly white feminism that often did not reflect the priorities and voices of Indigenous women and women of colour.
I completed a literature degree that passed onto me the canonical literature I refer to above. For example, I was much better versed in Shakespeare and Keats than Eleanor Dark or any voices that would fall under the problematic label of ‘diverse’. The models of genius and great literature that I internalised were masculine and not from Australia. I asked women in my research how they felt about the label ‘woman writer’ which feels relevant still to me even while it may reiterate the default norm of ‘writer’ as male.
Challenges remains a hard one for me to answer because I cannot encapsulate or feel like I can fully know the effects of all the subtle and loud influences on me or my writing except that I do not doubt and continually question how what I write reflects my own bias, conditioning and complicity, and that I am magnetically attracted to stories that speak to the spirit of fighting for voice, agency and stories that expose the ways that dominant power works to repress even through the most ‘benevolent’ and caring kind of violences—which brings us back to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ I guess.
Read an excerpt of the book here.
For your chance to win one of 10 advance copies of Drawing Sybylla, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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