My Ma and 50 Shades of Grey

I never watch the Oscars. It’s far too long, even if I am just sitting in my pyjamas with a cup of tea and the ability to fall asleep at any moment, usually right before a major award is announced. But I have a deeply frivolous side so, on Tuesday morning, I read all the gossipy bits and looked at some very pretty dresses, particularly Keira Knightley’s Valentino.

But in all this silliness, I felt deeply sorry for Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia in 50 Shades of Grey.

This may not be terribly shocking but I am not a fan of 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve written about the Twilight series and the dangerous stories it tells about love and goodness and suicidality. For those of you living in blessed ignorance, 50 Shades was written as a Twilight fanfic – Edward and Bella in bondage – the same stalking-equals-love, the same colourless lesser and needy female character to the male character where every possible positive adjective was used in his description. I’m coding 50 Shades for an upcoming chapter and it’s leeching the colour from my soul just a smidge.

I’m struggling to understand how a book that is said to empower women and embrace their sexuality describes a penis in more detail than the lead female character. That feels a somewhat odd sentence to write; odder that it’s true.

It feels ridiculous to have to say that bruises should never be badges of love.

To me, 50 Shades of Grey is deeply disheartening…

But this is not the point. Apparently the movie is better, or at least not as terrible as the book, although reviews have tended not to be overwhelming in their positivity. But – Anastasia apparently becomes an actual character, rather than simply a blank slate for Christian’s desires. Sam Taylor-Wood is an amazing artist so maybe her eye for detail won through. I’m hoping that, when I see the movie, I’ll see something character-driven rather than oh-my-god-Christian-Grey-is-just-a-perfect-man-driven. Mostly I’m hoping that Christian’s penis becomes a less important character than Anastasia.

(Writing this is making me realise just which bits of the book have upset me, not just as a feminist but as a lover of writing too. A few of us were discussing the books the other week and wept with laughter (laughed as we wept?) at some of the more well-used phrases – ‘oh my’ and ‘shattered into a million pieces’ came to mind. A book about sex that seems afraid of the word ‘vagina’. The coding really is as fun as it sounds.)

Yet the 50 Shades movie is making money and Dakota Johnson went to the Oscars, a rising star in a beautiful dress. Yay her – and I really mean that sincerely. Yet, if you watched the clip above, I wonder if you felt sorry for her as well? Her mother, the actress Melanie Griffith, who couldn’t hide her disdain for a movie that brought her to the Oscars too. Would she have been invited if not for her daughter? For the length of a televised interview, she couldn’t say she was proud of her daughter without deep reservations. And it seemed to upset her daughter, which is not surprising. What could have been a nice moment – if moments televised to the entire world during what is essentially a work event can be nice – was dented in front of millions of people.

Right then, I felt deeply relieved to have my mother. Admittedly, I’m always deeply relieved to have my Ma – she is one of the most calming people I know. Ma is one of the very few people in the entire world who has actually read my thesis and that is a true act of love. And she has always stood up for me, even when my decisions have made her shake her head in bemusement. ‘Are you sure you want to move to China in six days?’ ‘Are you sure you want to start a PhD?’ ‘You adopted a cat this afternoon?’ ‘Why are you coding that terrible book, darling? Why don’t you code a better one?’ No matter my decisions, and no matter how unhappy they may have made me while I’ve worked out other ones, I have always been sure that Ma was (and is) proud of me.

And on Tuesday morning, as deeply saccharine as this sounds, I felt far luckier than Dakota Johnson.

So, Ma, this is my thank you. x

I always find the long way home*

I was never been a natural at planning and structure – it’s something I’ve had to work hard at – the what ifs have always been the more interesting. Plans seemed like they might shut out serendipity and structure enclose people in a world of grey routine. And what happens when a plan goes awry, as plans often do – the more flexibility allowed the better it seems at times. This may be a smidge melodramatic but there’s always a small voice in the back of my mind saying ‘If you do this, can you still run away to the windswept cottage?’, even if the windswept cottage has still yet to appear in reality.

I like lists of things to do and to aspire to and love writing to be published, so that’s always helped, something very tangible to work towards. I’ve always trusted in the universe that things work out as they’re meant to, that as long as you work hard, put goodness out, and keep your eyes open then all will be well. The burning need for my work to be challenging, innovative, and positive for the people involved helps drive me in a good direction.

Apparently though, other people (most people?) have more structured strategies about life – and have made decisions in life based on clearer and less serendipitous ideas about where they want to be in the future. As I work on different grants at the moment, particularly Deczilla, I’m learning that not everyone else has fallen into their fields. Or maybe they just narrate their story more coherently than I do.

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I finished school. All the choice froze me. I knew I couldn’t do anything maths- or science-based but other than that – nothing…. I just wanted to go to uni and study something interesting. I had a Japanese class just before the absolute final due date for the forms to apply for university. My Japanese teacher was awesome so, in desperation, I asked her what she had studied. She had done Modern Asian Studies at Griffith University and had loved it – so that’s what I put on my form.

I too loved Modern Asian Studies but at the end of my first year, I was drinking coffee with two friends – Richie who’d started uni with me that same year and Carlos who was about to graduate. Carlos worried that his degree wasn’t enough to get a job, that he should have done law. Richie then worried about this and decided she should do a law degree – and that, it would be fun, we could do a law degree together. The next day, my paper work went in.

And I loved doing the law degree along with Asian Studies – it felt like I was reading people from so many disciplines. It felt like a proper education. But at the end of my third year, my brother died by suicide, my world turned completely askew, and I realised I didn’t want to be a lawyer. The theory inspired me more than the occupation and – in a moment of deep irony given I now work as an academic – I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in an office. Also, heels and suits and ironing aren’t my favourites.

So I had to decide what to do after the undergrad degrees. At the end of my final year, I was having coffee with a classmate who said I should do Honours – apparently coffee inspires life-altering decisions. With no idea of how my brother had died, he said that female suicide rates in China were really high and that why not investigate that – I’d done a lot of subjects on women and China. This felt far away enough from my brother to be doable. The forms were due that week and I started Honours the next year on female suicide in China and the power of ghost stories, gendered oppression, and tradition.

I never planned on doing a PhD but it seemed the natural progression after a year in China wondering what to do with the rest of my life – why not do all the uni I could possibly do? And as much as this story sounds like the old lady who swallowed a fly, this is the field in which I’ve stayed. For all the serendipity and twisty roads, I’ve found the long way home to a place which constantly inspires and challenges – in making me want to be a better researcher, a better person. It makes me want to write new lists and eke out more minutes within the maelstrom to write more words.

*With obvious thanks to the very wonderful Tom Waites

Feeling all the DECRA feelings

This could just be my lack of sleep and the resulting general hysteria talking but I give the grants I’m writing nicknames in my head. Right now, the DECRA is Deczilla because it stomps through my life on its way to submission, towering over every other deadline and allocated task, causing general disruption. And yet, I’m strangely fond of it and love creating this project that might actually help those people who end up participating in it, yet is still true to who I am as a researcher.

It’s the green monster in ‘Oh, the places you’ll go!’ but that’s a deeply unwieldy acronym.

So in having this tumultuous love-hate drunk-dialling affair with Deczilla, I’ve been distracted. Upset at being a smidge ignored for the first time since her arrival, my little cat Laks has now taken to destroying all the toilet paper she can find, shredding it throughout the cottage in protest. And hiding all my pens under the couch. She is full of feelings, is Laks.

But, toilet-paper-strewn cottage or not, my head is entirely full of draft at the moment – my brain sectioned into different parts of the project description, where every word matters. Not that every word doesn’t matter usually but here, in eight pages, and structured sections all requiring completion, there is no space or allowance to quote poetry – even though Sylvia Plath describes it so much better than I ever will, this ‘mad miracle’ I’m trying to study. There is no space for tangents, no matter how interesting – all the interesting things have to remain interesting and full of so-what and gently punch the reader with its impact within the structured eight pages. Must admit that the idea of anything I do punching someone feels slightly against the whole ethos of my work. Could my work maybe just outline a door they’ve never seen before, and open it up for them? Like the wardrobe in Narnia but full of research validity.

Every word has to be perfectly polished because ‘good’ is no longer not even close to being good enough and, while this is exciting in a deeply nerdy way, the work it takes to make something truly outstanding and exceptional is immense. Kittens in tutus and dogs in tuxedo jackets, and all.

Deczilla has to be seriously decked out.

There is no space for the feelings of imposter syndrome and the uncertainty that can plague us all as researchers, at any stage of our career. I know I am the best researcher to do this project – and that this project has the potential to be truly and positively impactful for people who have never shared their stories before. And while writing that still makes me scratchy – creating a self bound to special snowflake-ness doesn’t come terribly naturally – in my heart I know that no one would make this project run or work in the ways that I will. With someone else, it would no doubt have less poetry, and where would its music be then? How would the stories be honoured?

And in all of this, my head is full, and I am distracted.

It bubbles away in the back of my mind so I wake up thinking about it – take notes randomly when things pop into my brain. Things that may not seem sensible at all to anyone with any sense – Plath’s ‘mad miracle’, the quote I badly paraphrase where losing demons could mean angels fleeing which I always thought was Rainer Maria Rilke but is apparently Tennyson…. But these matter because, as they bubble, they suddenly turn into part of the background or a justification for methodological approach. They create the foundation for constant questioning, for continual revolution. They ensure that I don’t get stuck in lazy presumption and easy tradition.

How can there not be a push-pull effect to things when life is so unexpected?

With so much serendipity in the world, research will always have its serendipitous ways too.

There is a paper written by Maggie O’Neill that circulated around the office a little while ago – ‘The Slow University: Work, Time, and Well-Being’ ( When everything is so rushed, and everyone is busy, and Deczilla has to be so monstrous because otherwise she’d be lost under other time commitments, the idea of taking time, and purposefully making space, to think and to reflect becomes so vital. Precious in this strange and secret way. Whispered so as to not disturb it. Not just for wellbeing, but for making projects beautiful, for writing thoughtfully and carefully. It’s an article I need to read again and think some more on.

Maybe the beauty of Deczilla lies in her very monstrosity. Like Eco talked about in his book on the history of beauty, sometimes you choose the face upon which you gaze. Sometimes there is a singular beauty in the grotesque, in the terrifying. Writing this grant not only gives me an opportunity to create a wabi-sabi project of my very own but, in the community we have here, allows me to see the amazing work of some truly incredible colleagues. Things I would have missed otherwise. These singular beauties, the face I choose to gaze upon.

So, I’m off again to another workshop to harness the monstrous stomping, to make the poetry more realised into grant-speak, and to create a project that could even set my field a little alight.

How do you feel about grant writing?