How to turn warm rooms into war rooms

Claims by critics that fiction that draws on domestic themes fails to address important issues ignores the fact that the domestic space can be politicised.

When comparing literature written by men with that written by women, Virginia Woolf famously states in A Room of One’s Own: ‘…this is an important book, the critics assume, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with feelings of women in a drawing room.’ Nearly 90 years on, little has changed from Woolf’s sentiment: there are still critics of women’s literature that addresses domestic themes, and what is considered ‘important’ remains subjective. So why are women denigrated for writing about those experiences which contribute to defining their sense of self?

The answer to this might rest with the writers themselves and their greater emphasis on the physicality of domestic acts and not enough on the controls and forces behind them. Perhaps the real argument should be less about whether domestic themes are important and more about whether those themes portrayed in women’s literature have been delivered in such a way that the domestic is not domesticated and that they add value to the understanding of the lived experience of women.

Wars are usually considered in global or regional terms; bitter and bloody campaigns fought within political and cultural contexts. And this is obviously true. But equally, small intimate campaigns are fought in homes every day. Often these campaigns arise because of the differential power relations that exist between men and women. And as Australian academic Tony Fry says: ‘While every war is not a world war, every war is a war of worlds.’ With this in mind, writers have all the makings of a battleground in the kitchen.

One way fiction writers can take the domesticated out of the domestic is to explore this power differential. When drawing on the physicality of domestic acts, writers could also draw on the motivations, influences and controls that direct those acts. Ask who has the most to lose and who the most to gain in this space and why? How can the balance of power be shifted? How might domestic acts be performed differently to achieve this shift? Then make domestic actions work to answer these questions and don’t just allow them to be literary motifs that provide incidental realistic touches to a fictional work.

In my novel Grace’s Table, an analysis of the elderly narrator’s life is undertaken throughout the story almost exclusively by the culinary acts she performs. Through food, Grace recalls events from her rebellious childhood in a small and bigoted rural community, she examines the emotional bullying of her belligerent husband, explores the expectations around grief and questions her own shortcomings as a wife and mother. Much of this is achieved through the rituals and traditions of three generations of Grace’s family as they come together to cook and share meals.

There is a political doctrine to many of Grace’s culinary activities, especially as her marriage disintegrates following a tragic event. After this event, Grace’s domestic function shifts from caring provider to that of guerrilla tactician. What was once the warm room of her home becomes the war room. And like any war, there are casualties – some characters are wounded physically, others emotionally.

My aim with this novel was to exploit the literary possibilities of domestic activities in order to explore the fragile tapestry of family relationships, especially those that allow for family violence and the intergenerational legacies that spring from it. I also wanted to give voice to grief, love, blame and forgiveness in new ways. Therefore, food didn’t just represent how it sustained this family biologically or occupied a woman temporally, it also brought personal, social and cultural context to the characters’ lives.

Any serious evaluation of women’s literature will reveal that writers explore a great variety of domestic themes, and that many are not simply dull accounts of motherhood, marital problems or small family dramas. For example, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane examines race and ethnicity alongside domestic duty, and Helen Garner’s A Spare Room is a story about tough love, friendship and loss. Both Garner and Ali examine grand themes with precision in their novels, and much of it occurs within lounge rooms and kitchens. In this way they provide a framework of realism to demonstrate how the personal lives of women intersect with societal, political and cultural issues.

If domestic experiences are silenced in women’s literature, then the lived experience of women is also silenced, despite the fact that the domestic space is where the identities of many women are forged. But by considering the political doctrine that exists in the domestic space, important themes can intersect with the domestic, and provided those experiences are explored in original and interesting ways, then the representation of a woman’s domestic life need not be parochial or dull, and nor should it be maligned by critics as unimportant.

First published in WQ Online, November 2017