Monday, 30 September 2013

When Women Come Together (2)*

Some say that when women come together there are too many hormones in the air. A gaggle. Shrill voices. Too many handbags and side-glances.

Some people won't even teach the books women write. Have you heard about that one? I feel like thrashing a very cheap handbag over his head. Say, a group of fifteen of us.

And yet I suppose there are ladies who read only women's thoughts, women's words. Do you have a leaning? Do you read more guys? Or more dolls?

I'm somewhere between the two. And I must admit that when I see an author who uses initials only - so as to step away from immediate gender indicators - my ears prick up. Think of A.L. Kennedy. Think of M.J. Hyland. I thought of doing that too years back when I started publishing stories. I wanted to be neutered in a literary sense. Or viewed neutrally. I wanted to appeal to men as much as women.

Still, I confess, I love it when a bloke says he likes a story of mine. Though I won't be putting anything under David Gilmour's nose.

A morning view
That said, the Women's Fiction Festival in Matera is a highlight in my year. Matera is steeped in history and though there are the exquisite piazzas and architectural jewels we lazily come to expect in Italy, there is something more. Dig deep and you will see.

The town was originally dug out of the rock in the folds of the land in Basilicata, near Italy's heel. Caves dot the nearby hills and the new town of apartment blocks, shops and busy southern streets hems in the side of the old world. It is a precious enclave. On the poor side of town cave dwellings are still visible, dug from the porous tufo rock, while along the wealthier valley a conglomeration of houses, each a vaulted pocket of rich warm stone with a stunning outlook, have been built over layers of civilisation.

Building blocks for writers
But at the beginning of last century Matera was a degraded, immensely poor backwater, diseased and forgotten. Then in the 1950s in a rash of cleansing, communities were forcibly removed from cave dwellings and resettled in the crisp new town. The area lay fallow for decades before Unesco declared a Matera a heritage site in the 1980s. Gradually, people crept back. The area came alive again, especially after Mel Gibson's biblical blockbuster, 'The Passion of Christ'. Now, Matera is equipped for mild tourism which each time I go south seems to expand gracefully. More bed-and-breakfasts, more groups with backpacks and sensible shoes over the uneven (heel-unfriendly!) cobbles.

But enough tourism info. The Festival was brilliant. We heard about the clash between English and American publishing models. We heard about dying bookshops and blooming ebook companies. We heard about how to optimise self-publishing opportunities. We warmed when independent bookshops were mentioned. We shyly pitched our new manuscripts to agents on both sides of the Atlantic. We bravely spoke to European publishers who might translate our works. We scribbled in notebooks, heard about trends, dreamed about film deals while big-talking Hollywood guys filled the air with largely impossible tales.

Then when school was out we went drinking. And carousing (the word was used up on stage and I thought Yeah! we went carousing!). Some of us were dutiful and kept up with our social media. Some of us fell asleep in our cool rooms. Some of us talked into the deep of the night about exile, about words, about stories and hopes.

Night strolling
We read our work. On Saturday night the town turned off all electricity in the cavernous buildings below and a laughing knotted crowd pushed through the streets under ancient stars. We stumbled. We laughed. We drank glorious red wine at the after-party.

Thank you Matera! Thank you to a hard-working team of organisers and translators and contributors. Thank you to the fab mates I've met - a bunch of astute readers and hard drinkers and marvellous thinkers.

Ladies - and guys - I'm booked for next year*


  1. Did you know that in order to move the people out of the Sassi in the 50's they had a lot of consultation with the dwellers to ensure they had the same sense of community in the apartments? I was very fortunate to meet with a builder who restores the Sassi and also his partner and her cousin whose parents were born in the Sassi and who also act as guides there. It is truly unique! Its also where I first heard of the WFF 5 years ago and I'm most upset I missed it this year as it was the closest I've come without actually getting there - next year - NO EXCUSES!!!

    1. Ingirid I hope you make it next year! This year was a blast. Great company, great ideas, great opportunities. The trouble is I get so involved I don't find the time to explore properly and there's still so much to discover. Will definitely be back next year

  2. Wow, is that ever beautiful. I love the history behind it.

    - Averil

    1. The setting is unique! Now don't get me talking about the wine and food..

  3. Oh, goodness. Thanks for the tip about 'progressive' Canadian prof/teacher. Hadn't seen this. After all our talk of strategy and marketing in Matera, doesn't seem a smart move on his part when the majority of college students and the (overwhelming) majority of readers are women.

    What can I say? I agree with you wholeheartedly about the Matera conference. Like you, I look forward to it each year and come home with renewed energy, both from the great seminars and pitching sessions and from all the stimulating after-hours chats, laughs, and hikes up the sassi stairs in inappropriate shoes with an amazing group of smart and fun women writers (Take note, Professor Gilmour!). WE'LL be seeing you in Rome before then (or else) : ) - but I'm signed up for next year, too.

    1. Yes it was so special Kimberly. Loved all that hiking and drinking and eating and discussion. I think you really come back home a little different: enthused and focussed. It's sad to have to come away, but so good to know we will catch up again soon (a Roma!)

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