The Australian Psychological Society writes that anger is triggered when a person believes “their wellbeing and social status are either not being respected or are under threat”. It seems timely then to be reading this book amongst the current climate of Australian politics. Women of a Certain Rage is a collection of short stories and essays by twenty Australian women from widely different backgrounds, races, beliefs and identities on the topic of rage. Introduced by Liz Byrski and featuring a stellar line-up of women writers from around the country, the collection fuses passion and compassion, frustration with understanding, disappointment and hope.
Anger in this collection takes many forms and the women within respond to it in many ways. While some simmer, others rage. While some embrace their anger, others have let it go. Despite the variety of experience and response however, there are many lingering ideas beyond the initial prompt. Notably, how anger is gendered, how young we are when these notions are imprinted on us and perhaps most importantly, how it can be harnessed to drive change.
Many of the stories involve women reflecting on parts of their childhood and how their parents, teachers, and society at large have influenced their response to anger. Meg McKinlay writes in “Seen and Not Heard” about her four-year-old self identifying with the character of Agapanthus in the children’s book Agapanthus is Lost. Growing up, McKinlay found herself endlessly silenced and began to realise that it was not her youth but her gender that influenced this. She began to see the contrasts in how girls and boys get to experience anger even in children’s literature. For example, while Agapanthus is punished for her anger, Max in Where the Wild Things Are is rewarded with a trip to a world without adults where he is King of the Wild Things.
This understanding, instilled in childhood, of who can express anger plays through to adulthood. Anne Aly points out in “The Girl Who Never Smiled” that ‘women have to watch against rage – we have to be vigilant lest our rage make us hysterical, or turns us into perpetual victims who play the gender and race cards’. There are specific ways in which women are allowed to express anger and the usual markers of raised voices and balled fists are not appropriate.
In “To Scream or Not to Scream”, Olivia Muscat recounts how she must instead ‘make a dismissive noise and hunker down within myself. Let the anger fester and stew inside of me. … Because nobody wants a scene’. This repressed anger and emotion is further amplified in many women whose religious, racial and medical backgrounds also come into play. As Rafeif Ismail writes in “The Body Remembers: The Architecture of Pain”, ‘I learned that Black girls do not get the luxury of expressing the full range of human emotions. … Refugee girls don’t get ill or sad; we’re either inspirational or dead. A triumph or a tragedy of the system.’
Just as there is a range of experiences and thoughts to consume, each author has approached the style of their piece differently. While some readers might enjoy the more narrative style of some reflections which read more like memoir, other readers can be satisfied by more essay-like pieces which examine and reflect the nature of anger and the role it plays in our society. Perhaps most noticeably different in this respect is Goldie Goldbloom’s story “To the Max” which is the only one in the collection written in the third person.
The most noticeable thread that links everything however is the simple idea of ‘change’. Victoria Midwinter Pitt’s piece opens the collection with a reflection on how anger is a state of opposition which separates her from whatever is wrong, thereby helping her to recognise it needs to change. Almost every piece thereafter ignites a sense of injustice, a sense of something that needs to be fixed. Among these issues are climate change, refugee rights, ableism, racism and of course sexism.
In “Write-ful Fury”, Claire G Coleman puts forth that there are two choices in the face of a problem—anger or despair—and ‘only one of them provides the energy to be productive’. Carrie Cox in “Stuck in the Middle” warns however that anger ‘needs community, compassion, strategy, leadership, reliable sources of information. Anger needs a plan’ in order to be utilised as a tool for change.
There are too many wonderful takeaways from this book to fit into this review and too many incredible women to mention individually and still give them the time they deserve. Each contributor brought fresh insight to the issue to create a collection that is nuanced, multifaceted and above all compassionate. It doesn’t judge women for their anger or how they choose to respond to it. Rather it feels as if the women within have reached out one by one to hold your hand and say, ‘I understand’. It can be heavy reading at times, stirring up barely repressed frustration and despair. Each piece is filled with emotion, but at the end of the book what is left is an overwhelming sense of hope and determination; and women in Australia could really use some of that right now.