‘When Female Rebelliousness Becomes a Selling Point: a Review of “Rebellious Daughters”’, by Angela Serrano

My first issue with Rebellious Daughters is with the cover. A honeybee-yellow with a lipstick mark on top, the names of the authors are printed in red, in a font that looks only slightly less unappealing than Comic Sans. The subtitle, True Stories From Australia’s Finest Female Writers, is not only true to the memoirist’s unfortunate tendency to employ informational subtitles, it also begs snarky deconstruction. “True stories” makes me think of “true crime” books in pharmacies and airport bookshops. “Australia’s finest female writers” also makes me wonder how the editors had the temerity to dub their chosen authors as Australia’s finest. I think Maxine Beneba Clarke and Ellen van Neerven are among Australia’s finest female voices, both in poetry and prose, and their work is absent from this anthology. Then again, “True stories from some of Australia’s finest female writers” would take up too much space on the cover. Best to do away with informational subtitles altogether, not just because of space constraints, but also for the expectations they elicit from readers. As John D’Agata writes,

Only nonfiction’s reception as literature seems to be limited exclusively to such fact-based judgments of its value … When, after all, was the last time there appeared a subtitle on a Philip Roth novel … or on novels considered more ‘commercial’ than ‘literary’?

This is but a quibble, however, compared to my main problem with this book.

A title like Rebellious Daughters suggests that the stories will revolve around conflicts in family life, and conflicts pertaining to feminine identity in particular. A passage in the introduction reads:

Stereotypes of daughters as rather dutiful and obedient seem to endure, in contrast to sons who presumably sow their wild oats as a rite of passage. We want to hear the less-talked-about stories of daughters – stories of independence, stories of breaking away from familial continents to assert the Self.

Fair enough, although at this point I became wary of the editors’ deployment of stereotypical binary rivalries; I’d like to think that in literature at the very least, it is possible to appreciate the complex subjectivities of sons and brothers—especially Indigenous, coloured, queer, disabled, adopted, un-athletic ones—with no cost to courageous, articulate, nuanced explorations of contemporary daughterhood. The introduction continues:

Many of the stories here are also stories of love. Or sex. Or both. Perhaps this is because female sexuality has always been considered a dangerous, wild territory which it is parental duty to tame. Rebellious daughters, though, insist on fulfilling their sexual longings.

Do they? I might be the wrong generation for this book, feeling the internal urge to resist the wall-to-wall social pressure for young women from all cultures to fuck white men of all ages at leisure – and we are made to feel “asexual” or “frigid” when we don’t. I love sex but I’d rather be pleasured by the actual experience of fucking than imagining the stress it would cause my family – who by the way did get stressed when I started having sex with an underweight scholarship boy from a low-income family in my late teens.

If it sounds like the title of the book is my biggest problem with it, it is. Many of the pieces here felt like responses to a thesis statement for a university essay, attempts to demonstrate rebellious daughterhoods rather than enquiring into what is so interesting about female sexual rebelliousness in particular, and why or whether Sex The Parents Don’t Approve Of is the best or only way to become an independent Australian woman. Has sex become the most important expression of freedom for women today? Is our interest in sex the most interesting thing about us? Many of the stories in the book are about women’s adolescent lusts and fucks. Yet some of the most beautifully written stories in the book feature no sex. Michelle Law’s story ‘Joyride’ is about misread signals between her adolescent self and a white Australian MSN penpal. She pursues a potentially romantic chance encounter with him because she “needed to keep my own secrets … to know I was more than just Mum’s daughter.” The experience is not quite what either of them expected. Towards the end of the story, Michelle the narrator considers that

while Liam liked me, much of that was probably tied up to my foreignness, and what I represented more than who I actually was. And I couldn’t be angry because those were the exact same things I liked about him too.

It is a self-deprecating, self-reflexive act for a teenager torn between safety and self-reliance to recognise how she herself had fetishized the possibilities of romance between them by doing the exact same thing he was. She realises what it is she actually wants: “I didn’t want Liam. What I’d actually wanted was freedom.” Unstated but very clear here is an understanding that sleeping with the sexy white teenager with perfect abs would not give her the independence she sought as a second-generation Chinese-Australian girl growing up in a place and time where racism can ruin opportunities for meaningful connections.

Eliza-Jane Henry-Jones’s ‘Just Be Kind’ is about how she spent her teenage years living with a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, and a father with dementia. She writes:

We cannot shape our sense of who we are without remembering… My grandmother was imprisoned inside a forgetful mind. My mother and I now knew my grandmother more than she knew herself. Living with people who forget, you carry their stories as well as their own… Having a memory means, at least hypothetically, having a power over those who don’t.

In this memoir, the narrator Eliza-Jane feels persecuted by the weight of memory: her own memories of the long lives her relatives have forgotten, but also the stinging traces of verbal and physical abuse, that they almost immediately forget because of their illness, that she has to endure over and above everything else. The rebelliousness-through-sex theme is completely absent; dominant, instead, is the futility of resisting insidious forgetfulness, innocent in that it was brought about by an illness beyond anyone’s control. Eliza-Jane learns that she has to give in to the injunction to be patient and kind – the scenes, beautiful in their restraint, demonstrate her uncertainty about her ability and willingness to do so.

Praiseworthy, too, are the stories about owning up to daughterhood, using word and deed to declare the self as someone’s daughter. In Amra Pajalic’s ‘Nervous Breakdowns,’ she spends most of the story rebelling against her obligations to her mentally ill Bosnian mother, preferring to spend time with an older girlfriend at nightclubs. Only after learning the scientific words for her mother’s condition, and recognising that she doesn’t have to be a victim of ignorance and defeatism, does she choose her mum over an active nightlife. Leah Kaminsky’s ‘Pressing the Seams’ juxtaposes her father’s tailoring career with her decision to become a doctor – jobs that require intimate knowledge of anatomy and precision with a needle and thread. Despite her Israeli heritage, she resists her father’s craft, her obligations to look after him in his time of ill health, and even her identification as being of migrant descent; she calls her Israeli husband “a foreign man.” Nevertheless, her father’s love and her father’s story are imprinted on the patterns of her life, and the short memoir concludes with a sense of peace with how much of her father’s daughter she is, without sentimentality or bitterness.

These stories are a counterpoint to the idea that the yielding of the self through sex is the only way a woman can rebel against parental and cultural constraints, and establish her individuality. Rebellion in these works is not simply about taking pleasure in an authority figure’s displeasure, moulding one’s psychic life into a shape that only makes sense in relation to the authority’s omnipresence. Rather, rebellion here is about the ownership of one’s physical, cultural, and emotional debts. These rebellions are liberating because they expand the protagonists’ imaginative pathways, enabling them to take up space differently in their own stories and in their own memories. The truly rebellious act is not so much fucking as it is thinking.

Angela Serrano is a Filipino-Australian freelance writer whose work has appeared in Killings, Archer, Overland, and elsewhere. She is a fine art model, circus beginner, and arguably the most dance-crazy member of the Footscray Community Arts Centre’s West Writers Group. She is currently writing a memoir that narrowly escaped the informational subtitle. Called Trying Not to Jog in Place, it is about being raised by global pop culture while her mum and dad were parenting each other; it begins in a Melbourne art gallery and ends at a Manila funeral.