Sunday, 11 March 2012
A WRITER IN ATHENS
In October 2011, EUNIC (EU National Insititues of Culture) in Greece invited a female writer from each of several EU countries to write a short story exploring the issue of gender equality. I was delighted to be the UK writer for the project, and the others were Rea Galanaki (Greece), Marta Pessarodona (Spain), Dacia Maraini (Italy), Rina Katselli (Cyprus) and Annette Mapson (Norway).
The project was in collaboration with the General Secretariat for Gender Equality, Greek Ministry of Interior.
An anthology of our stories was published in Greece, and launched in Athens on March 8th, International Women’s Day. Entitled ‘Six Women, Six Voices’, the initial idea had been to publish all the stories in Greek alongside each piece in its original language - but the economic situation meant that the whole project was under threat at one point, and in the end, funding was found to ensure its survival in Greek.
The launch was a public event, had been well-publicised, and was held in a packed lecture theatre at the Institute Cervantes. Even the steps were full. The Chair of EUNIC Greece, Eusebi Ayensa Prat, Director of the Instituto Cervantes de Atenas, welcomed everyone, and Maria Stratigaki, General Secretary for Gender Equality, made opening remarks. The discussion was chaired and facilitated by journalist Mary Adamopoulou from the newspaper Ta Nea.
My overwhelming sense was one of privilege to be part of such an important project. Amazed at the fast-filling auditorium, the simultaneous Greek-English translation preparations - ear-pieces just as if it was a United Nations meeting...
After introductions, I addressed the multitude first. I had ten minutes to speak, and could have chosen to tell the audience about myself, my work, but decided not to do that. I described my story, which is a (hopefully) comic fable. Then I described my own journey as a woman writer - being advised early on to write under a pseudonym if I wanted to be taken seriously by the literary establishment. Deciding not to, as that was dishonest. I'd take my chances. Calling reviews the ‘oxygen without which a book cannot breathe’, and going on to show VIDA 2011 Count statistics revealing a real skew, an imbalance in vital review space and in the gender of reviewers.
I was amazed at the high profile of International Women’s Day here and in other European countries. I have not been aware of such celebration and awareness in the UK. Why is that? Interesting too, to see in Internet discussion, the existence of a snippy male response in several places - mainly poking fun. Fascinating, as that only serves to point up the continued belittlement of women and their achievements in some quarters, just because they are...women!
I was interested to hear another of my panel colleagues, the Greek writer Rea Galanaki, suggesting that one of the many reasons for the male bias in the literary establishment is that some female writers do women no favours by writing ‘Harlequin’ romance-type work and other badly written books, therefore getting us all tarred with the same brush. I’ve heard that before and it amazes me. There are many blokes who produce action thrillers, not written well. Or horror. Not written well. And the literary establishment does not assume that every male writer is therefore a bad writer of horror/action thrillers. So, if the ‘Harlequin’ issue is indeed a belief, it does appear somewhat illogical.
I may not be a feminist with a capital 'f', but I defend the right of any writer, male or female, to write what they want. And, my own right to write, and read, what I want. I also have a right as a reader, to be shown a balanced selection of reviews...
Athens is such a fascinating place - I don’t think we get the correct impression in the UK. I was lucky enough to have a day free to visit - first a guided tour round the lovely Acropolis Museum, led by Christina Sordina, Culture and Information officer at the Royal Norwegian Embassy, Athens. On the top floor, the floor dedicated to the Parthenon, and mirroring the size, where the light is stunning, I watched a group of small school children being given a talk on the beautiful frieze. Most of what they were seeing is only plaster casts, kindly allowed by the owners - the UK’s ‘British’ museum - which is of course a museum holding precious few British artefacts at all, just everyone else’s. In the photo, the original section is darker. The rest is replica. Maybe many of these children will never see their heritage without paying to come and see it in London... I felt very bad.
Surely, lordly souvenir-hunting belongs to another age? Today, to give them back seems morally the right thing to do - especially as one of the main arguments against sending the sculptures home was that there was nowhere to house them. Now, the right house is ready. It is better in both design and situation than the one in which we are holding them captive. In crepuscular gloom.
More photos of Athens below.