Shark in dolphin’s clothing

It’s early – before 7am and the dawn of rational thought – a time when only a small subset of the population is at their best. Sadly, I am not among them. Luckily Rosanna Stevens, who I’m meeting this morning, has such warmth and genuine enthusiasm that I quickly forget I’m not practiced at proper conversation before breakfast. As we settle in to a comfortable sofa in a favourite cafe, small talk quickly makes way for more interesting subject matter. Like how hormones contribute to a sense of self and altering them through contraception can have unexpected emotional consequences. Why the Philippines is the kind of place where you can discuss periods with a passerby on the street. And how “douchebag” is the perfect insult for a sexist jerk, because actual douchebags are completely sexist and outdated.

Rosanna is a widely published writer of fiction and personal essays, a newly minted novelist turning her essay ‘The Right Kind Of Blood’ into a book about periods, a PhD candidate at the ANU, an organiser of literary events through the Scissors Paper Pen collective and a top-notch conversationalist. In fact, we talked so much that the parts of the conversation I mentioned above aren’t even covered in the interview below. But that’s ok, because we also covered her upcoming travels in South America to research her novel, the differences between writing as an academic and writing as a novelist, how to deal with being a collector of stories when all your friends discover you’re a shark, and how to keep going when you’re not so certain of your path.

First up, I wanted to ask about the shamanic midwifery workshop you’re attending in Peru. How do you even find out about something like that?

While I’ve been writing the period book, I’ve been trying to find awesome people all around the world who can contribute to a narrative about the menstrual experience.  A friend of mine had been living on a property belonging to this shamanic midwife and had a home birth there. The midwife, Jane Hardwicke Collings, is really experienced with this style of midwifery and runs a newsletter with a steady following, so she can offer these really amazing international workshops.

Another friend had gone to one of the workshops and said it was really intense, not what she’d expected, and that I should try to go to one. So I signed up to the newsletter and hoped an opportunity would arise – like maybe I’d get to go to a workshop in Bowral or something. Then this “women’s mysteries” workshop in Cuzco popped up. And I thought, “Well, artsACT has given me some pretty awesome funding to go out, investigate and put myself in some uncomfortable positions so I can write about something that affects everyone”.

I like that it’s called “women’s mysteries”, since one of the takeaways I got from ‘The Right Kind Of Blood’ was that periods shouldn’t be this thing we all keep shrouded in secrecy.

One of the things that interests me about the workshop is getting the opportunity to find out more about what ancient cultures deem mysterious. What is sacred knowledge? What is the difference between knowledge that needs to be kept safe and knowledge that has become secret because it’s been shamed, and is there even a difference? Periods have been shamed constantly in so many cultures. So I’m interested to learn about that and also explore Peruvian society a bit to understand the contrast between the attitudes in this workshop and contemporary society in Peru.

What is the difference between knowledge that needs to be kept safe and knowledge that has become secret because it’s been shamed, and is there even a difference?

You recently won the people’s choice award at the Trans-Tasman 3-Minute Thesis competition, which aims to make academic research more accessible. What’s something you think academics need to do more of in their writing to better achieve this?

It’s a tough question because there’s a lot of research that’s difficult to break down into non-academic language. I think what academics need to remember is that there’s little use in complicated terminology if the wider public can’t get a sense of what you’re doing.

With the 3MT, if you sat down with someone and they told you what my thesis was after hearing my presentation, they’d tell you something that’s not quite what I’m doing, because I only gave them a snippet. It can be complicated to give anyone who isn’t in your area of research a complete description of your whole thesis. You kind of need to go “here is this bit” and make it make sense in a way that people feel empowered to ask questions about it. That to me is the most important thing. I feel like academics need to write material that anyone can be unafraid to ask a question about.

On the flipside of that, you’ve mentioned that when you’re writing a personal essay or creative piece, you like to have a teachable element that’s not immediately obvious. I think you called it “being distracted by shiny things”.

I think that’s it – I think the reader enjoys being distracted with shiny things – that’s how the Internet works! And there’s nothing wrong with that until the wrong people start using the right shiny things to teach lessons you might not necessarily agree with. Nobody likes to be tricked or hoodwinked. I think what I’m trying to do is to write about really human stuff to communicate a much more complex idea.

I think the reader enjoys being distracted with shiny things – that’s how the Internet works!

We were also talking about how acknowledging your place in a narrative can provide you with a way to write about a topic you might not otherwise feel is your story to tell. Can you talk about a time you’ve done that?

I feel that my thesis is the best example of that. Or writing fiction that involves characters from a range of different cultural backgrounds.

You have to put yourself in this territory where you can’t possibly understand every racial perspective or experience of privilege or oppression because you haven’t personally experienced those things. You have to write from the perspective of someone with your privilege, but acknowledge it. That means that what you’re ultimately recognising is a really personal story and a personal experience.

In writing this thesis, for example, I’m relying on listening a lot more to people who do have those experiences. Then I go back to them with what I’ve written and say, “How does this fall in line with, or stray from, what you’ve experienced?” Because that’s the best possible thing I can do.

You often write about experiences you’ve had with friends and family – have you ever had someone tell you that certain events are off-limits?

Since writing the period essay, I’ve definitely had people come up to me and say “Oh, I’ve had this experience” and I’ve kind of become the collector of menstrual experiences. Which I don’t object to in the least! But I don’t know if people have censored themselves around me as a product of that. I don’t want that to be the case, but I can also see that I’m possibly a bit of a shark, or maybe a shark that looks like a dolphin. And everyone’s like, “Yay! Let’s play with the dolphin!” And then I’ll go away and kill one of them.

And everyone’s like, “Yay! Let’s play with the dolphin!” And then I’ll go away and kill one of them.

And this shark just happens to write about periods, which aligns nicely with most sharks’ general interests.

Yeah! But people have joked about it to me, and I do wonder if some of them veil themselves around me now, because I’m a collector of stories.

My Dad pulled me up on it once, about my coming out story that I had published in Feminartsy. He was like, “Oh, so I found this story…” and it involved an old friend of mine that he knew very well at the time, when I was going through an experimental phase at a young age where you don’t even realise that things are sexualised or things are more than they are. And he was like, “So, that was weird. That I read that.” And we both kind of just sat awkwardly in the car. At the time, I thought I really have to own this, and I have to own this moment, and I have to be prepared for this to happen all the time. I think it’s a good thing to get comfortable with.

I have a final question to ask, and it’s a “typical things that people ask writers” question, but what is the unsexiest piece of advice you would give someone about becoming a better writer?

I think the unsexiest (and maybe in some ways the sexiest) piece of advice I can give relates to times when you’re feeling terrible about writing – maybe you feel uncomfortable, or like you lack authority on the subject, don’t know what you’re doing and are just feeling generally pretty lost.

Those tend to be the times when you’re doing the most worthwhile work – when you’re on the cusp of getting somewhere exciting, creative or new. When something’s scaring you a little, it’s probably a sign that you’re on the right track and should keep on going.

Photo credit: All images by Adam Thomas.