Rape, beating and murder of women in fiction must stop
Too many guilty of falling blindly into those old clichés
Fed up with the steady increase of films, TV shows and novels where the rape, assault and murder of women was the story, the writer Bridget Lawless has launched the Staunch book prize: an international award for a thriller in which no women gets beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.
News of the award spread quickly. And so did approval.
Writing on the competition’s website, Lawless noted: “I’m certainly not alone in getting increasingly fed up and disgusted with fictional depictions of violence happening to women in books, films and television. It echoes, exaggerates, fetishises and normalises what happens to women in the real world. But I know there are writers creating thrilling and complex work without going there.”
Lawless adds that she’s now re-examining her own writing. “I’ve been just as guilty of falling blindly into those old clichés. That’s proving a fascinating journey in itself and I’m planning to develop teaching and discussion materials to help writers, editors, teachers and book groups think about these issues.”Not everyone agrees. The thriller writer Sophie Hannah, for example, won’t be entering the competition. The Staunch prize, she has written, indirectly implied that there was no problem with violence against men and boys.
“It might reward a novel in which a male toddler is murdered, but not one in which a woman is killed. This sends a worrying message. Until now, we have assumed that crime fiction prizes condemn all real crime, approving only of great novels about crime. The Staunch prize changes this, apparently only finding crimes against females offensive enough to exclude.”Hannah’s latest, Did You See Melody? (Hodder & Stoughton) has been described as a “clever, captivating and consistently funny whodunit” by the London Sunday Times.
The Staunch prize is open for thriller entries until July 15 2018. Judges joining Lawless include the literary agent Piers Blofeld and actor/writer Doon MacKichan. For more details see www.staunchbookprize.com
CRASH COURSEI blame the hipsters, but coffee has become so painful lately. Time was, you’d order your morning jolt straight up and black, and that was that. No folderol or foam art with the lattes. Come to think of it, no lattes either. And no man buns and beards anywhere near the espresso machine. Thank heavens, then, for the award-winning US travel and food writer Jeff Koehler’s Where the Wild Coffee Grows: The Untold Story of Coffee, from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup (Bloomsbury), which puts a bit of context back into the joe.Koehler is a great entertainer. His last book, Darjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea, was as much about India’s colonial and post-colonial experiences as it was about the daily taste tests on the tea estates and was praised by foodies, history buffs and armchair travellers alike. The New York Times declared his Spain: Recipes and Traditions one of 2013’s top cookbooks.
Now comes the weird and wonderful history of coffee. Ethiopia is where coffee began; the Arabica species of coffee tree first appeared in the rain forests of the country’s mountainous south-west, a region that was once part of the Kafa kingdom, where coffee drinking was part of the local culture.Koehler’s descriptions of the Kafa and their customs are like something out of Tolkien or Rider Haggard. Their rulers routinely practised ritual sacrifice and were revered as gods. The kingdom all but disappeared after being brutally annexed by Ethiopia in 1897, but by then the coffee habit and its cultivation had long since spread to other parts of the globe.Ethiopian coffee may have its rivals but, according to Koehler, it remains unique in one crucial aspect: no other plantations have the genetic diversity found in the rain forests, and this is the secret behind the coffee’s wide spectrum of tastes as well as the ability of the trees to create new coffee strains. Importantly, they are able to naturally develop protection against disease, such as coffee rust — a fungus that threatens coffee plantations in other parts of the world.
Predictably, the rain forests are now threatened by climate change and deforestation.
Still with Ethiopia, journalist Aida Edemariam’s The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History (4th Estate) promises to be one of the year’s most talked-about memoirs. It’s the story of her grandmother, Yetemegnu, and the turbulent era she lived through.Born a century ago, Yetemengu was eight when her parents married her off to an ambitious poet-priest in his 30s. Before she could become a spouse, however, her husband first had to raise her, beating her if she so much as left the house. The first of many pregnancies came when she was 14. She was a grandmother by the time she was in her 30s.
Writing in the Spectator, author Michela Wrong (In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, Borderlines) points out that, in Ethiopia, Yetemengu’s story ranks as “utterly banal”: millions of women have lived this life and millions will continue to do so. “But,” she adds, “this book is a wonderful example of how … a seemingly ordinary life opens up to reveal the extraordinary richness at its heart.”
By the time she died, aged 98, Yetemegu had lived through the Italian invasion and Emperor Haile Selassie’s flight, World War 2 and Selassie’s reinstatement, a failed military coup, the takeover of the Derg and the horrors that followed, famine, and the eventual seizure of power by rebels who installed the current government in Addis Ababa.
Her world, Wrong suggests, was such “a medieval universe of church incantations, gruelling mule trips, spirit visitations, barefoot bandits and public hangings, that the mention of cars, planes, telephones and even, at one point, a radio comes as a shock”.
A book, it seems, to rival Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (Penguin Modern Classics)
THE BOTTOM LINE“The pretence of Olympic harmony collapses, as tens of thousands of people leave their seats to bellow ‘Heil Hitler’ and sing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles.’” — Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes, translated from the German by Jefferson Chase (Bodley Head)