Monday, January 18, 2016

Gabriel Don: on women, voice, and finding a room of one's own

As an Australian writer and theater-maker, I am fascinated by the work other Australian female artists particularly are making: their process and praxis. To that end I wanted to interview someone who makes trans-disciplinary art, and someone who is making work from the context of straddling some sort of cultural bridge. In short, I sought out an artist whose work and interests might be part of the conversation into which my own research and practice is steering me. This lead me to Gabriel Don, a writer/performance artist working out of New York City. 

Gabriel Don and I share several similarities, which was fascinating to me: she is also an expat Australian, also completed her M.F.A. in creative writing at The New School, and creates work across fiction, poetry, non-fiction, photography and performance—most often working in several media simultaneously. She is also a committed facilitator of others’ art, by starting several reading-soiree series, and also working as the Reading Series and Chapbook Competition Coordinator during her time at The New School. She now teaches Writing at CUNY, where she continues to all her students to discover and celebrate their own agency.

Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Brooklyn RailThe Sydney Morning HeraldThe Understanding Between Foxes and LightA MinorWesterlyMascara Literary ReviewThe Legendary, Transtierros (translated into Spanish), Gargoyle 62LiveMag! 12 and Three Rooms Press MAINTENANT 9. Don also interviews people at Gainsayer. She has appeared in visual poems such as Woman Without Umbrella and Unbound, worked as an editor on publications such as LIT and has received press for her writing work including Quiet Lunch, Let Them Talk, Art Loves Her, Yes Poetry! and Great Weather for Media.   

When I reached out to Don, she was enthusiastic about sharing her work and thoughts on being a performing woman with a unique and innovative, lyrical voice.  I began the interview by asking Don how she might you describe her work in terms of being female, negotiating or manifesting female space or identity.

GD:  I feel fiercely about negotiating space for myself and as a woman I notice it can make people very uncomfortable, even if a woman is not being outrageous in her demands to be heard, seen, understood and left alone in solitude. I am currently working on a book about women, writing and space for which I interviewed female authors from various genres and backgrounds including Gayatri Spivak, Tara Moss, Maxine Swann, Hettie Jones, Honor Moore, Kate Fagan, Eileen Chong, Lynne Tillman, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Tiphanie Yanique, Sharon Dolin, Judith Beveridge, Deanne Stillman, Coral Carter, Maya Pindyck, Terese Svoboda, Ana Marie Hong, Joi Sanchez, Julie Powell, Christine Chia, Maitha Al Khayat, Sahar Naja, Zeina Hashem Beck, Fadwa Al Qasem, Monica De La Torre, Penny Arcade, Reem AlGurg, Noura Khoori and Diala Arslan Talhouk. 

The impulse to gather wisdom from these women began when I saw Lynne Tillman on a panel for women writers and she highlighted the Catch 22 nature of such a panel: that it was inherently sexist and making women the ‘other.’ Why be classified as a ‘female writer’ not just simply a writer? However because of the gender imbalance in the writing industry i.e. men to women ratio on panels, men’s books getting reviewed more and so forth (lots of statistics available on VIDA) there is a need for such panels. There is a need to create spaces that reset the equilibrium. 

For my book I asked all the women if they had a room of their own, inspired of course by Ms Woolf, and I photographed them in the space in which they write. These are issues that concern me, yet on the other hand I do not believe in gender binaries. I don’t believe men or women innately think differently, though often we are socialised to believe so. In my fiction I have written in the male voice first person, for instance in Cesspools and Treasure Chests published in Gargoyle 62. A fiction writer should be able to give voice to a whole range of experiences. While I value being a female, I also value men. I also love mermaids, witches, unicorns, Kali, Saraswati and fairies.

NT: Does being Australian inform or affect your work, or process?

GD: Being Australian informs and affects my work. Although I live in New York City, I still use Australian spelling. I could never spell mum with an o! I need my u’s in neighbours. I believe ‘whilst’ is not archaic. I have written stories completely in the Australian vernacular for example The Chicken Coop in Australian literary journal Mascara Literary Review. Somewhere Else in Perth based Literary magazine Westerly tells the story of an expatriate Australian family living in Singapore. My identity and my writing is very tied to my connection to the land and to food and to my family so being Australian is a formative part of my work. 

In terms of process, my final years at high school in Sydney (Gleneaon Rudolf Steiner School) only involved subjects that were humanities and creative and all required the completion of an individual project. The Higher School Certificate in New South Wales when I undertook it was very geared towards postmodern considerations and individual thinking and I am sure that influences my process in all my artistic endeavours. 

NT: How do you discover that “I” existing between two countries and cultures?

GD: I was born in Australia, then moved to Singapore and then Dubai before moving back to Singapore and then Australia, though my parents remained in Dubai since our initial move there in 1991 so I am straddling more than two countries and cultures. I am a multiplicity of countries and cultures. I have lived in New York City for six years now and before that I spent a little while in Amsterdam cleaning toilets and making beds at a hostel called The Flying Pig. My father is a pilot so I am blessed with free and cheap travel and have been to over 40 countries, though I have let my roots grow into the Lower East Side of Manhattan for the time being. Maybe this longing for my family in Australia can drive my work as I let myself dwell in images of the past.  Food and land tend to ground my stories in place and experience but I have never had one home. Wherever I am, I am always missing something or someone whether that is a culture or a family member and friend. This multiplicity, though at sometimes feels fractured, also means I have a have a deep well of memories that my mind flickers between, which is useful in an artist’s tool box.

NT: How does the idea of voice play out in your work and process? What are important issues that arise for you in the making?

GD: I often wonder where some of my characters come from, especially when writing in the voice of someone so far removed from myself. I am Your Mother is in the voice of an elderly Southern woman and that voice arose from trying to tell a story with only one person talking, similar to a monologue the plot moves along with no second voice. It makes me think, writers encourage hearing voices. I had to edit ‘pokies’ to ‘slot machines’ to remove the Australian anachronism. So consistency is important when creating voices. I studied acting so it is interesting to me how writing acts for itself on the page in terms of punctuation for example. Also the voice could influence the sentence length, movement of time and so forth. Even when using third person, voice is very significant. I enjoy playing with language. I am very drawn to whimsy and a lyrical voice. When writing, voice and tone are the equivalent of colour for a painter. The same image can be drastically different in the meaning it conveys when painted in grey versus yellow.

 NT: Do you think there is such a thing as women's voice? Can you explain? 

GD: I think this is a very interesting question and one of the questions I am asking of all the women writers I interview but I have no answer, only grey areas and a multitude of different arguments. Recently I read Ethel Florence Lindsey Richardson who wrote under the male pseudonym Henry Handel Richardson motivated by “the ease with which women’s work could be distinguished from a man’s and I wanted to try out the truth of the assertion.”

NT: What is a piece of work you have made that you feel came the most directly from you, was perhaps the most vulnerable or frightening to do? What was the work? How did you navigate that territory in terms of artistic choices that you made? 

GD: I find it easier to find truth and things that are more directly from me, vulnerable and frightening, in my poetry and fiction, things that in my nonfiction can sometimes elude me unconsciously. I have been trying to do a poem a day since March 2015 and an example of navigating that territory was writing about the day I went to my friend’s service. The artistic choice I made was inspired by a lecture I went to at Tin House this summer in Portland called When The Action is Hot: Write Cool by Debra Gwartney which discussed ways to allow the reader to feel for themselves, when the subject is so traumatic write as coldly and distantly as you can and allow the emotion to rise out of your reader, not directed by you and your emotional investment. 

Gabriel Don uses multiple voices in her work — from broad Australian vernacular to a lyrical, poetic syntax. She uses her own body as her voice in her work too, whether that is in film such as her work in Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ Unbound or her own performance art. Hearing her talk as both woman and performer/poet reminds me of how grateful I am to be in a place and time where women can share words and images in ways that speak to and from our experiences and, possibly, widen the aperture we imagine when considering women’s voice.