Literaries who lunch: Clementine Ford at Somerset’s signature event

Presumably, if you haven’t heard of Clementine Ford, then you’re not an Australian feminist. Or a troll either, for that matter. If you have heard of her, then you’d know she’s a frank and fearless social commentator who isn’t afraid to dissect difficult topics such as abortion, sexual harassment, male privilege and rape culture. And while she certainly cops the outrage and abuse one considers par for the course for public feminists these days, she is also fast becoming the unofficial spokesperson for a generation of fed up women who are getting sharper-eyed when it comes to spotting and calling out the patriarchal structures that have long held them at a disadvantage. She also happens to be a very good writer.

In a case of fortuitous timing, it turned out the columnist and author of ‘Fight Like a Girl’ was headed our way to participate in the Somerset Celebration of Literature in March, just in time for our International Women’s Day edition. So, we gave her a buzz.

“I didn’t expect I would make a career as a writer, I didn’t know how that would happen,” she tells us from her Melbourne home.

Plucked from obscurity by an editor at the South Australian Sunday Mail who read her blogs, Clementine landed her first paid columnist gig in a state-wide newspaper after graduating university in Adelaide.

“It was the greatest day of my life,” she recalls.

“I was living the blogger’s dream, and it was a really good learning experience. I went from really having no restrictions or limitations on me at all to realising that I did need to learn more about voice and technique kind of hone a craft in that sense.”

Unfortunately, the learning experience wasn’t just restricted to craft, as she then recollects.

“I went on a big ego journey where I suffered a huge setback and had to check my own ego and start again after I lost my column.

“By then I knew I could do it. I just had to figure out how to put in the hard yards to make it happen.”

And happen it did. Clementine is now a columnist for Fairfax’s Daily Life, and is also frequently published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. She is a ‘go-to’ guest on radio, podcasts and shows that cover feminist topics, has a large social media following, and in 2016 published her debut novel ‘Fight Like a Girl’ to much acclaim. She’s not done yet, though.

“I don’t think I’m in the spot I want to end up in,” she says. “We should always be striving to do something different and not get too comfortable.

“People talk about the glass ceiling in the business world, but in the creative world I think about it as we’re scaling mountains. If you have the right combo of ability and luck you can get your way up the mountain and sometimes you’ll reach a ledge and hopefully if you fall after that you’ll only fall to that ledge and not have to start from the bottom.”

And what does the top of her mountain look like?

“Oh!” she pauses for a sec. “I really don’t know!”

Clementine is heading up to the Gold Coast for the Somerset Celebration of Literature, a yearly event held at Somerset College in Mudgeeraba. This year she’ll be the guest of honour at the Literary Lunch, traditionally an opportunity for avid book readers to join a book-club style discussion with an author who writes about challenging, emotional and controversial topics. She certainly fits the brief. I ask her about her participation, and why she thinks writer’s festivals are important.

“Hmm,” she says. “I’ve never really thought about it! I’ve just always kind of assumed that they are.” She is silent for two seconds together before launching into her answer.

“I think it’s really important to celebrate art and literature. Writers can be an insular group of people so it’s really important for us to get out of our comfort zones and speak to people.

“Whether it’s a writer’s festival or whatever you’re passionate about, it’s fulfilling and meaningful to talk about works that mean something to you. It’s a beautiful way to celebrate art and to kind of gain a bigger understanding of work that has moved you or that you find interesting.

Art is all about connection so it’s about connecting with work beyond your initial interaction with it.

It’s the second time during our chat that Clementine has not had an immediate answer at hand, and I’m finding the conversation refreshing. When you absorb someone’s voice largely by reading them, it can be easy to forget that they’ve gone through multiple drafts and edits before you consume their words.  Over the phone Clem manages to sound both confident and humble, thoughtful yet quick; perhaps appropriate for such a polarising figure. It’s clear that words are her allies.

In ‘Fight Like a Girl’, Clem uses her words to rant, reveal, resist and relate. Packed with personal anecdotes and wry humour, the book deals with the way that society devalues, shames and keeps women down. The reaction to it has been as divided as one would expect from any tome that deals with such topics. However, Clementine remains positive about the feedback.

“It’s been an incredible experience,” she enthuses.

“I had no idea when I wrote it, I mean hoped it would have some kind of impact and I expected it would do reasonably well because I’ve also managed to build up a fairly good social media presence so I knew that some people would buy the book. I was just so worried they would think it wasn’t any good!

“It’s been amazing to see how deeply it’s resonated with so many women – and with men. With men it’s opened their minds up to women’s experiences. Often times it’s men who say ‘I thought I was a good guy but I realise that I was complicit in a lot of things,’ and I consider that a huge win.

“I have to try not to think about it too much though because it would be too easy to rest on your laurels and now I’ve had this level of success, everything I do will be gripped by fear that the second book will be a disappointment; that all the people who liked my first one will be let down.”

The second book, ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ is going to be centred around toxic masculinity and the idea that patriarchy is harmful not just to women, but to men as well.

“It’s about the excuses that are made for boys and men to behave in ways that are harmful to themselves and others,” Clem explains.

“I think that we should be really questioning of a society in which – certainly not all – but so many young men are able to get away with harmful behaviours.

“In particular when you think about rape culture, people love to deflect the problem of rape by imagining a boogie monster but the reality is very different. The common rapist is someone who doesn’t consider himself a rapist, someone who has family, friends, community members. How do those decisions get made, how does someone who we would otherwise think to be ‘good’, do that?

“Young men are colluding with each other to commit an assault against women, filming it and sharing it around. The egregious arrogance of that, as if the thought that’s it a crime and a dehumanisation of someone doesn’t even occur to them.

“I want to look at the criminal aspect of that and how we as a society have created a scenario in which young boys are able to do that, and how that scenario is actually a harm and assault against young boys. How are boys instructed to police each other’s masculinity? How is homophobia tied to misogyny? All of these things we should be willing to question deeply and yet so many people are resistant to the conversation, they’re afraid of the change to structures of male power.”

One of the ways this fear manifests is through trolling and other abuse directed at Clem and other prominent feminists, largely by men. She believes that any marginalised group that attacks the status quo is likely to be targeted by similar online backlashes, but that people have a very particular way of insulting women.

“Feminists are characterised as trying to fix something that isn’t broken. We’re ‘petulant’ and ‘hysterical’, ugly because we’re angry and angry because we’re ugly. All these things have long been used against women; the threat of men’s positive attention and praise being withdrawn is supposed to keep us docile and demure. But when it’s used against feminists, it’s surprising to a lot of people who behave that way that a lot of feminists just don’t care.”

It sounds like something that most people would go running from, but experience has taught Clementine to shrug it off.

“Honestly, once you go through your first trial by fire it becomes so much easier,” she states.

“The first time after I wrote about abortion and the two I’d had, the response was incredibly intense.

“But early on I knew I was doing something that was clearly also creating deep change in the women’s lives who were reading about it and that made it so much easier to deal with. For every person who hates you and wants to let you know, there’s a woman who feels seen by you and that’s all that’s ever been worthwhile to me.”

There are still a few tickets left for the Literary Lunch on 15 March on the Somerset website. ‘Fight Like A Girl’ is available through all the usual channels, and ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ should be out in mid October. You can keep up to date with Clementine’s writings through her social media.

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