June 21, 2017

Susan Faludi on "In the darkroom" at AWF 2017


I was silencing my phone when a burst of applause told me that Susan Faludi had emerged from the wings of the ASB Theatre. To my surprise, when I looked up, the woman I'd seen in author photos and youtube clips wearing an intelligent gaze and understated knitted things in black or crocodile green, was teetering across the stage on very high heels wearing a neon-blue ruffled lampshade. Oh wait, that was Noelle McCarthy, our chair for the session.

Noelle did a zesty job of taking us through the origins of Faludi's latest book and the book itself. In fact, so focused was she on that topic, that I found myself wondering if someone more noteworthy than I had also complained about how, at her Irvine Welsh session at a recent AWF, she had not seemed to have even read his latest book, having instead much to say about Trainspotting, published twenty years before but clearly still in pole position for her -- and probably for most of the audience, come to think of it.

Susan Faludi's latest book, In the darkroomon the other handtakes second place to none of her previous work, and surpasses it in personal content and, probably, wide audience interest (although I am now reading one of her books of socio-cultural criticism, Stiffed: the betrayal of the American man, and highly recommend it as very readable and fascinating socio-cultural criticism).

There on the stage, with indeed the intelligent gaze I had remembered, and such understated attire that I can't actually remember what it was, she began, "I had grown up with a father who was an autocrat, the ur-patriarch, physically violent to my mother and their children, in particular, me".

"I had a set idea of who my father was."

If you have read the book or heard about it, you will know what she was leading up to. Many people are surprised by things they learn as adults about their parents, but few are handed as big a surprise as Faludi was, receiving a letter from her father after years of bitter estrangement, announcing that "I have had enough of living as a man" and that he was now going to live as a woman, a complete woman, and call me Steffi.

Ironically, or perhaps not at all ironically, in her career as a journalist and author, Faludi had written about gender issues, and "When I knew what was happening with my father I couldn't imagine another way of grappling with it".

What she had to grapple with now, on top of figuring out her relationship with her father, was figuring out who her father really was, on various levels-- personality, gender, and personal history as well, in particular the all-American Steve Faludi's childhood and youth in Hungary as István Friedman, which included escaping being rounded up and deported as a Jew during World War II. "I thought I had my father pegged but in fact I knew nothing about her."

There was even, on travelling to Hungary to see her father, who had returned there to live after sex reassignment surgery in Thailand, an aspect relating to the history of Hungary, which was going through a shift in those years from communist to free market, and having to reckon with a very bad past.

They argued a lot the first year "about what it means to be a woman", but being a journalist helped her to set aside her own judgments, and learn to back off, "which is not my strength". Journalism, she said, was her "superhero outfit."

Reading the book, I had a sense of two people circling around each other, guarded, but looking for openings. "My father took pride in being a trickster, in slipping out of your grasp", something mirrored in his profession: altering images in the dark room. On her part, Faludi says, "I am a big believer that you can't shed your history, your past experiences".

She encapsulates the thread that runs through her book as "Is identity something we choose, or is it something we can't escape?"

Does she have an answer? "Like all chicken and egg questions, it's both. We can't help but construct our identities on what we've inherited, but at the same time we reconstruct."

The most memorable moment, for me, was the sequence which began with Faludi confessing "I felt such grief that my father had had to lock herself away so deeply." Who hasn't had that feeling, on being finally let in on the secret a close family member or friend has been living with, of seeing the initial indignation at having been left out suddenly swallowed up by sorrow, when the empathy hits home.

It was her father who, on his own, volunteered that she should tell his story in a book. "You could do it like Hans Christian Andersen, with fairy tales," he said. "In fact", Faludi pointed out, "Hans Christian Andersen revealed himself more honestly in his fairy tales than in his autobiographies".

"Hans Christian Andersen's theme is one of transformation; the Ugly Duckling was one of my father's favourites."

"What my father was really inviting me to do was to write the most utmost book I could."

And if your daughter is a journalist known for her straight-shooting, well, what is that going to do to "My father had been insisting that the past had no relevance, that it could be locked away in a dark room"?






Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 16:18
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