Lucy Stewart interviews feminist, novelist and journalist, Sian Norris, in the run up to the second biennial Bristol Women’s Literary Festival
It was at an event she organised with the Bristol Feminist Network and Bristol Fawcett society in 2011, Where Are The Women, that Sian Norris was first alerted to the term ‘cultural femicide.’ It’s a term coined by Bidisha, a journalist, writer and broadcaster, which she defines as ‘the erasure of women from public life’: in a world that gives priority to men, women are silenced from popular culture.
The event looked at representations of women in the media and the absence of women on our cultural landscape, from the lack of female authors to the lack of female film directors. Four years later, it is clear how the idea has influenced Norris in her life and work.
I ask her what gave her the idea to start the literary festival. She immediately mentions the Where Are The Women event. Most notable about Norris’ explanation is her description of the energy in the room during the panel, questioning what they could do to change this ‘cultural femicide.’
It’s an energy that is still there when I go to the packed literary festival the following Saturday; an acknowledgement of the absence of female voices in popular culture and a need to listen to these women and raise their voices.
“I think whenever you do events like this and you bring all these people together, people take something away with them. There’s loads of ripple effects,” Norris explains.
She mentioned one particular woman who left the festival in 2013 and set up a website to bring together creative women. Norris explains that it was being in the room full of women talking about their work that gave this woman her inspiration.
I ask what she’s hoping to achieve with the festival; it’s one thing to put it on, but is it working? Norris explains that the festival aims to counter the male dominance of literary and cultural festival line-ups, but it is also to celebrate the work of women writers and their creativity.
The festival looks back to feminism’s earlier days; during the second wave of feminism there was an attempt to find the forgotten women across art and literary history and bring them back into the cannon.
Norris’ festival continues this exploration of hot to bring them back; a viewing of the film Paris Was a Woman highlights Norris’ own interest n Gertrude Stein, on whom her up and coming novel is based.
Norris acknowledges the festival’s flaws. She recognises that an event like this attracts only an audience with the means and the time and mentions her aim to do more within communities such as working in local libraries. There are also those who accuse her of running a ‘sexist’ festival by only including women.
“I do think there’s an interesting question, which is not the sexist one, which is are you actually ghettoising women writers by giving them their own festival? But at the same time, we don’t live in a society yet where we’ve got to the point where women writers are treated equally and reviewed equally and given equal platforms.So it’s sort of a weird process you have to go through; you’re raising up women’s voices but not saying ‘you are the women writers’ because that perpetuates the idea that men are the normal and women aren’t.”
I question Norris about her work as a freelance journalist and blogger. There’s a criticism of ‘clicktivism’ that suggests feminist bloggers are not really doing anything to change the world we live in. But Norris is defensive, arguing that it’s not fair to dismiss other people’s work.
She explains that when she first started thinking about feminism it was hard to find others like her and now that has changed; the feminist blogosphere is a great way to make connections with activists around the world.
We discuss the big problems facing women today. Norris immediately cites violence against women as the biggest problem we have, arguing that is underpins everything else. She reels off statistics of violence against women. As she points out, we hear these statistics every day and it’s got to the point where it’s hard to actually relate to them. She brings violence against women back to the idea of cultural femicide.
“If you are being oppressed by violence you can’t do anything else. It links to the festival and having your voice silenced and not having a space.” Festivals like this may not be single-handedly solving the problem of violence against women, but in giving other women the voice they need to be heard, it is women like Norris who will slowly but surely encourage more people to join the force of feminism.
Alleviating ‘cultural femicide’ means that women’s voices can be heard, in a world when we are too regularly being silenced.
I ask Norris for some advice on what we should all be doing to help.
“Challenge attitudes that are sexist and sexually violent. It’s all about education,” she answers. “I can’t believe we live in a world where things like rape become jokes. We need to talk about this, we need to challenge it.”
Special thanks to Sian Norris and the Watershed
Images: Miriam Cocker