Book Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Book Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Red Clocks is not a book for the faint hearted. It is a book worth reading. Set in an easy-to-believe alternative and highly conservative America, Red Clocks explores the complex issues of motherhood as personal and political.

Seen from the perspective of four women, all coping with different facets of women’s maternal lives, Red Clock delves into this deeply personal aspect of womanhood. Zumas doesn’t balk from the gritty, visceral details of both the emotional and physical experience of maternity. Her explicit, and at time confronting, portrayal the processes of pregnancy and the emotional toll of motherhood as a social construct gives voice to the experiences of women from many angles.

Zumas challenges motherhood as a natural or desirable outcome for women, while empathetically representing women who for a multitude of reasons are unable to become biological mothers themselves.

Overlaid with these deeply personal narratives of mothering, is the socio-political aspect of women’s bodies and futures as being determined by, and at the whim of, social policy. She raises difficult questions about autonomy, freedom and ideology that run frighteningly close to current political contexts.

This is a hard read, but Zumas give us rounded, sympathetic characters that makes us evaluate where we stand on maternity as a personal experience and as a social and political issue.

Creative Work: Five Limiting Factors

Creative Work: Five Limiting Factors

For me, creative work is very much an up and down enterprise. It’s one of those careers that requires (often) many years of unpaid work before it takes off, and taking off is not the same thing as earning a liveable wage.

There are parts of writing for a living that make it an easy job.

It’s flexible. You can write at two in the morning, or one in the afternoon because it’s not dictated by so-called normal working hours.

It’s interesting. You get to escape into your thoughts and explore literally any idea that comes to mind. (Watch this space for my future children’s book: “Snails Bums on Toast”.) You get to think creatively, with each new project presenting a completely different set of problems and while there are elements of writing that are tedious drudgery (like any job) much of it is puzzle solving and fun.

On the down side, like many artistic-based endeavours, writing isn’t the biggest money earner in the world and sadly, in our society at least, money equals value. Jobs that earn less money are afforded less respect and given lower priority than those that earn more, and this hierarchy isn’t necessarily a reflection of skill, ability or education—or even how useful they are to the community as a whole.

I’ve been pondering the things that act as road blocks to committing to writing as a career and have narrowed it down to:

  • External: societal, economic
  • Internal: priorities, permissions

I’ve tried to work through them below. This is from my perspective, namely from someone embroiled in the machinations of family life, and I don’t pretend to speak for people whose personal and financial situations are entirely different to mine.

It’s hard to find the right balance between financial/responsibilities and the desire to pursue a creative career.


1: Financial

Author work is often secondary to paid and family work:

Without money, at least according to the world and the harsh realities of family life, writing is a hobby. And when do you do hobbies?

When all the other, “valuable” work is done.

This happens because money is often, sadly, equated with value. It is easy to set boundaries, prioritise tasks and say “no” when there is a tangible, corresponding financial result. 

When your work doesn’t yield financial benefits, there’s an almost unspoken understanding that writing is a distraction from a real job. Like reading a book or doing yoga. It’s mediation. It’s an indulgence.

The average wage for an author in Australia is $12,900 pa*. I’m not joking. And that isn’t all from book sales. That’s from author talks, and workshops and all the million other little things authors must do justify their existence. And so, for many authors, writing is something that doesn’t get to take centre stage in their lives.

2: Social

An extension of this is the relative value placed on creative work. Often people don’t consider writing “work” unless you are being paid. This fails to recognise the many hours, and years of work that most writers put in with no remuneration at all.

For many, writers are lucky to have a “hobby” that they love.

There is nothing as infuriating as the patronising notion that writing is a great way for a mum at home to keep herself busy. As if mum’s at home need extra things to fill their day.

3: Priorities

While writing for a living may appear to be a perfect companion with busy family life because of the nature of its flexibility (location and time,) it is also, at times, a necessarily selfish pursuit. In our imaginations we see a writer locked away in a room, daydreaming and spinning tall tales. What a writer actually does is many hours alone, working. Yep, its work. Yet finding those hours, between the economic, emotional and physical needs (particularly of a family) of a household are often accompanied with guilt. Afterall, it’s not as if you are contributing financially.

4: Permission

It can be difficult to get real permission from others and from yourself. The kind of permission where they are willing to sacrifice their time, their productivity or even their income to support the author in their lives. Getting permission from your family and yourself to treat writing as a career, whether it ever earns money or not, is constantly deferred by the elements listed above.

For example, I found out this week I came second in my heat of a short story writing competition. Yay! I was elated. This was justification for my desire—even need—to write. Because, having a PhD, a novella published, a positive manuscript assessment and the possibility of the publication of my novel on the horizon isn’t enough to legitimise my job description. Why? Because I don’t earn any money.  

The next day? I discovered how out of touch with the world I am in terms of how well other, often less skilled, professions are paid.

Pouty face.

The problem is this: I’m a poor decision maker in a financial sense. My work in all its forms is universally underpaid: Veterinarian, Mother, Writer. The skills and education that I value don’t pay the bills. Bubble burst. Oh, woe is me.

Then optimistic me kicks in again. Pish-posh! I don’t need money! I’m chasing personal satisfaction. That esoteric dream where I concern my days with higher thoughts and principals than mere money. I am a writer. It’s a real job. I can do that. Sort of. Well, not really.

Return of pouty face.


5: Main hustle or side-hustle?

Finding that tipping point where you can justify both the job title of author, and the time that is needed to make it happen is an individual and delicate balance.

This is the Catch-22 (thanks Joseph Heller!)

I want to write for a living.

Unknown writers don’t get paid.

The best way to get known is to write, write, write.

Don’t give up your day job.

Treat your writing like a job.

Do it for the love of it.

 I’m hungry. And so on…

There is little I can do about my low earning capacity if I want to stay in this career. What I would love to see, however, is a shift in the understanding of what work is. Not just writing, but care-work and other jobs than are given less respect and less consideration than their higher-paid counterparts. Equal measure should be given to those fields that contribute to the larger fabric of our society. Chances are, if you get paid huge sums of money for your work, you aren’t any smarter or working any harder than those with less. You are just lucky. You got a lucky break or chanced on a good opportunity.

As for writers? We all love stories in one form or another. We love books, TV and film. We voraciously consume the latest book, the newest TV shows. Those stories are written by someone, and most likely not someone earning the big bucks, who gave up their main hustle and made the people around them understand that writing is a job like any other and deserves to be treated as more than an indulgent hobby.

*This is income derived from working as an author. The average total income (including from other sources is $62,000 p.a.)

Source: Australian Authors: Industry Brief No. 3 – Author’s Income.

Beyond Superheros: Why You Must Watch “The Incredibles 2”

Beyond Superheros: Why You Must Watch “The Incredibles 2”

This week I’m in Sydney for the Feminist Writer’s Festival and I had planned to repost an older blog post that pretty no one read. It’s lazy, but practical in the midst of an incredibly busy and blustery week. However, last night as I flew over from Perth I watched The Incredibles 2 and was so taken with this lovely little film that I changed my mind and decided to write about it.

Confession: Life is tough at the moment. I’m in The Queen Victoria building, waiting for my coffee to arrive. I slept in until 9am. Seriously, 9am? And am a free agent until six when the first lecture of the festival starts. Pity me.

The Incredibles 2.

The first Incredibles movie is one of my favourites. Anyone with small people in their lives will know what it is like to have to continuously watch the same trite, vacuous and irritating animated films on repeated loop for say… ten years? The Incredibles was one that I got into. It’s take on life after superdom. That is, life after the romance, the adventure, the thrill of the chase. Married life. Family life. How do we reconcile our young, beautiful former selves with this ragged person just trying to hang on. This, all mixed in with a super cute super-hero storyline.

The latest iteration of The Incredibles somehow does it better again. This time we follow the rebooted career of Elastogirl (The mother, wife and carer of the Incredibles family). The husband and wife team reverse roles and while there’s nothing new in that plot-line it is handled so beautifully and poignantly that I almost forgot I was watching a kids’ film. The film begins with the family saving the city from “The Underminer” (where the first film ended). When the action scene ends, the family is arrested. Superheros are still illegal. The insurance won’t cover the damage of their intervention. Now homeless and unemployed the family is destitute. This is when Elastogirl is offered an opportunity to raise the image of superheros through a suit-cam and PR campaign. Like the first film, the superhero plot is an absolute aside to the relationships and identities this film is exploring.

It is overwhelmingly exciting that the protagonist of a kids’ superhero movie is a middle-aged mother-of-three who is trying to recapture her own sense of self as autonomous and important while balancing her need to care for her family. Layered over this is the equally amusing but touching narrative of Mr Incredible. He too struggles to give up his past identity in order to do maths homework, care for a baby and steer his teenage daughter through adolescence. COupled with this is his own identity crisis in which he must manage his ego and expectations as he is outshone by his previously second-fiddle wife. While the film draws on familiar jokes about a father’s inability to cope in the home it swiftly dispels the rather insulting notion that it can’t be done. Mr Incredible adapts, learns and copes in order to give Elastogirl the space and the time she needs to thrive outside the home.

This film is funny, beautifully made, and full of pop-culture references. It engages with the social and political sphere in its ongoing storyline about doing what it right versus what is legal and the way that governments and legislation can lose sight of people.

Why do I think this film is important?

This film is about family. It is about the relationships that make us who we are. It doesn’t valorise youth and beauty. Nor does it dismiss its young characters as incapable or reliant. Rather, The Incredibles 2 is a film I want my children to see because it shows a family working together to navigate life and reminds us that every member has value, both within the family and as a member of the larger community.


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‘You Belong, We’ve Got You’: Can advertising to women change the message?

‘You Belong, We’ve Got You’: Can advertising to women change the message?

We’ve all heard them. The positive body-image messages being shouted from the rooftops. The idea that ‘you are enough’ is slowly seeping into our collective consciousnesses. We say it but in our heart of hearts do we actually believe it?

So, if ‘you are enough’ is just a platitude, a bumper sticker, a thing as elusive as weight loss chocolate and imaginary as the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, how can we shift the message to make it tangible and believable?

It isn’t enough to tell women that they are just fine the way they are. I sometimes wonder if the constant telling is part of the problem. It feels like a trick. Like your mum telling you that your five-year-old drawing is the best she has ever seen. It’s nice. It feels good and your love her for it but even then, deep-down, you know she has to say that.

It’s this fault line between good intentions and our own sense of the truth that I think we (or at least I) are detecting in some of the body-positive rhetoric that is circulating. My *bullshit* meter is twitching.

We even try to fool each other. Maybe fool isn’t the right world. No, it’s ourselves that we try to fool. I will, with complete sincerity tell a friend that she is beautiful. I don’t care what size she is, whether she wears makeup or how she dresses. I honestly DON’T CARE.  I just don’t look at those indicators. To me, the women in my life are all the things we are supposed to love about other people: funny, kind, smart, sweary, cynical, jaded, (okay, maybe some of these might just be my criteria), HONEST.

Yet, in the same instant, as I extol their virtues I will remind myself of the number on the scales that morning. Those three vicious little numbers that glow like a possessed demon-child and spew-forth all the self-loathing and inadequacies that I would never impose on other women, and that, from the best I can tell, other women don’t impose on me.

Why is the body-positive message only partially grafted onto our consciousnesses then?  Why can’t I succumb to a sense of self-approval that lets me stop whining and just get on with the business of my life? Once again, this is where story (for me) comes into play.

Storyline A:

Once there was a beautiful princess. She was meek and mild with flowing golden hair and a teeny-tiny waste. She liked men (NOT women they were all against her), but not too much. Just enough though, that the first one to come along and do something nice for her would do. Babies, babies, babies (we think, the stories don’t go that far). Blah. She dies (probably killed by a younger female rival), the end.

After a while, women decided that this story sucked, so with a ‘little’ convincing (thousands of years) they were able to shift it—somewhat.

Story-line B:

Once there was a beautiful woman. She was quite smart (just the right level, in certain areas) and always made time between her long work hours, perfect children, home and career to get her hair and nails done. She always looked amazing in active-wear and never missed a workout. She was so supportive of her partner’s amazing career—without her they’d be nothing. Babies, babies… blah. She dies, the end.

Better?  A little?

My story-line:

Once there was a girl. She liked school and was pretty good at it. She met the person that understood her and together they shared a family They like to travel and do sport together. She isn’t perfect, but that’s irrelevant because she is healthy and they are happy.

At least, that’s the gist it what I want my story to be, but damned if Story-line B doesn’t keep sneaking in there. Why? Because Story-line B is sill the one (to a greater or lesser extent) that we see out there: on TV, in the movies, books, and advertising. (I promise I’m getting to the point soon!)

Obviously, Story-line B is about as subtle as a heavy mallet smashing you over the head when spoken out loud, but it pervades (like a soft, soothing mist) through the images and stories that surround us. If telling us that we ‘are enough’ isn’t working because everything else we see suggests that we aren’t. So how do we fix it?

I had one idea.

Appeal to capitalism.

I won’t shop in certain shops because, based on their advertising, I assume that they won’t have any sizes or styles that fit me (I’m an AU12, US8). Especially sportswear (because only really slim ladies play sport, right?).

I’m going to ping Lululemon here. For years (and even in an earlier blog post) I have scoffed at their advertising and their merchandise. It’s only for tiny women. I don’t know more than three women who could, or would wear such skimpy clothes, etc… etc… moral high-ground, angry feminist, feelings of sadness and shame. 

Then I had reason to actually go into the shop. I gave the (admittedly young and tiny) shop assistant a hard time about never being able to find anything to fit. But then it did. It was attractive, supported my body-shape and was (choking on my own self-righteousness, splutter, splutter) comfortable. So, they did have clothes in their range that fit me, and women bigger than me. Their advertising, however—with the exception one set of slightly heavier-set legs on their website— had completely alienated me.

My challenge to advertisers, then, is this:

Stop telling me I’m ‘enough’ (see Dove’s campaign for real women.) It’s condescending and cynical. Don’t market ‘plus sizes.’ Don’t stop marketing to the thin, muscular, power-women that intimidate me so much (they actually do exist and also deserve nice clothes.) Just advertise ALL of your range. Show women in your small sizes AND in your larger sizes (trust me, selling me a size 12 or 14 that I have seen only a size 4 model NEVER ends well). That is, show us what you sell. I don’t need an explicitly body-positive message, a pat on the head or a special campaign. Like everything, just include me. If you make it in a fourteen, or a sixteen, or a twenty show me a woman that size wearing it. She’s not a ‘plus-size’ model by the way, she’s just a model.

And to those shops that assume women bigger than fifty-five kgs don’t exercise—your time is coming to an end (and you are missing out on a profitable market-share.)

Check out these guys as an example of amazing advertising to women. Their mission statement at Active Truth says:

“….We believe in size inclusivity and not segregating plus size activewear and standard activewear ranges…”

While some normalising buzz words could be removed there (plus-size/standard) at least this company is making an effort to change the story they are telling. The big brands in women’s clothing could learn a lot and gain customers without actually changing much.

Actions speak louder than words and inclusion speaks louder than platitudes.

(I get the irony of this last sentence btw.)


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“Sunny”, you’re actually a smug little git: cars can’t and shouldn’t buy girls

“Sunny”, you’re actually a smug little git: cars can’t and shouldn’t buy girls

Let’s talk about boys, girls, and cars. Volkswagen’s television commercial that has recently been aired in Australia portrays a group of “adorable” children at a birthday party and is, at first glance, a sweetly innocent way of pointing out the many features on their vehicles. Fine. Awesome. You have park-assist, collision prevention, headlights (bestill my beating heart), though I imagine Volkswagen doesn’t deliver on the transformer capabilities they allude to in this particular ad.

Haven’t seen it? Check it out here before reading any further. As you watch, really think about what is going on in the story being told.

“Sunny” RoboBoy Volkswagen Ad

Seen it? Okay, so what bothers me is the narrative which Volkswagen has chosen in order to spruik their car. A three-way love triangle of jealousy, competition, and aggression in which two boys vie for the affections of the girl. OBVIOUSLY, the girl chooses the boy with the car.

Because that’s how attraction works.

Not only does the little girl pick the car over her previous love interest but she delights in the displays of ridicule and bullying that the new, shiny version partakes in in order to win her affection.

The end of the ad sees the boy’s father come and collect him in a matching “real” version of the dress-up car and together they laugh and drive away. The end scene makes us understand that the father and son have hatched this scheme together, almost as though the father is passing down some long-held wisdom about women and sexual rivalry.

Sigh. Grumble. Grumble. Grumble.

What does this ad say about the girl?

1: She is attracted to shiny things: i.e. wealth and power.

2: She enjoys watching boys fight over her.

3: She knows she is a prize to be won by the highest bidder.

4: She will choose the boy who is most capable of caring for her, with Volkswagen playing into the cliché of girls needing the physical (and financial) protection of men in order to advertise their collision prevention technology (groan.)

5: She’s a shallow idiot (aren’t we all? Volkswagen seems to think so.)

What I wonder, however, is do girls really get that excited about cars? Or do they just pretend to because it makes boys like them better?

The car in this ad isn’t exactly a luxury or muscle car. That is, this isn’t a car that I imagine appeals to many men, so is Volkswagen actually trying to sell to a female market through this story? Are they really saying “look ladies this car is the equivalent of a gentleman taking care of you”? I find it highly confusing. Is the so-called “romance” seen through the so-called “cuteness” of obnoxious children supposed to appeal to women in some way?

And the boy?

1: Girls are a prize he can win through money, showmanship and bullying.

2: Girls value material wealth above personality or ethics.

3: His father had bestowed upon him the secret truth of women’s shallow natures.

4: If another boy has something you want, you can simply take it if you have more material wealth.

5: The joy in gaining the affection of a girl is as much about triumph over another male as it is about the relationship with that girl (note the expression of smug satisfaction when the boy in the car pushes his rival to the side.)

This ad is an example, to me, of these dangerous and ingrained narratives that exist in our daily lives. It is moderately cute. They are, after all, only selling a hatchback car—nothing sexy about that—but they are playing with old ideas of sexual politics, reinforcing clichés and stereotypes of how romantic relationships are supposed to look, and suggesting (because of the age of these “characters”) that there is some universal truth those representations.

I’m surprised the little boy in the car costume didn’t pull the girl’s hair, or push her over as a sign that he “liked” her.



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