Small and large acts of Defiance: ‘Rebellious Daughters’, edited by Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman

rebellious-daughters-9781925183528_hrI was in a playground when I fell in love with this book.

It was the second week of school holidays, a sunny day (one of few) and, for once, a playground that demanded very little parental supervision.

I took full advantage.

Surrounded by chatting mums and careering kids on scooters, I pulled out my copy of the brilliant yellow Rebellious Daughters, a book that’s brought together 17 of Australia’s most talented female writers to share stories on the nature of parental defiance.

Edited by Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman, the collection explores the nature of rebellious acts – large and small – undertaken by women. ‘To this day, the stereotypes of daughters as rather dutiful and obedient seem to endure, in contrast to sons who presumably sow their wild oats as a rite of passage. We wanted to hear the less-talked-about stories of daughters – stories of independence, stories of breaking away from familial continents to assert the Self,’ write Katsonis and Kofman in the forward.

But Rebellious Daughters is no chest-beating feminist manifesto.  Instead, it is a highly thoughtful and often moving exploration of the nature of rebellion and how it affects ourselves and those around us.

Within a few minutes of picking up the book, I was shedding tears in the playground.

How have I lived for 40 years on this earth and not managed to read anything by the wondrous Marion Halligan? It is her story that opens the collection and, for me, it is a complete standout.

Growing up, Halligan says she was a ‘good girl, a virtuous daughter, dutiful’, the eldest of three daughters who acted a kind of ‘John the Baptist figure… the one who came before, who paved the way’ by insisting on her right to attend university, against the wishes of a father who ‘did not really believe in what he called ‘high education for girls. We’d get married and it would all be wasted.’ Of course, it was not but as Halligan goes on to say, it is perhaps in the nature of a parent to be conservative in the face of a daughter who generally assumes to know best.

What is so beautiful about this piece is the writing – unsentimental and dryly humorous. It has a beguiling simplicity – a style that feels increasingly rare in this age of internet-induced overstatement.

Now in her 70s, Halligan has lived well but she has also lost heavily – both sisters have died, along with her husband and her only daughter.

‘You might look back over my life as a landscape of loss, but that’s actually not true. Much is lost now, but when I had it, it was marvellous, and that stays with me. The past is another country, but when I lived there I was very happy. As now I am.’

See what I mean? That’s just a really gorgeous sentiment.

Other highlights in the collection, for me, include Lee Kofman’s tale of taking her Orthodox Jewish mother to sexpo, Eliza-Jane Henry-Jones’ damming self-assessment of her teenage reaction to familial illness and a piece from Rebecca Starford that acts as a kind of fascinating postscript to the publication of her memoir, Bad Behaviour. 

I had not expected to feel such kinship with the writers of this collection. Of the many words I could use to describe myself, ‘rebellious’ is not one of them. I had expected tales of teen angst and outrage against figures of authority but I had not anticipated the revelation that rebellion exists in all of us.

On that day in the playground, I took occasional breaks from the book to look around, check on the kids, see what the other adults were doing. Most were on phones, or chatting to one another, or monitoring their children.

No one else was reading. It’s not really the done thing, you see, to read a book in a playground. I’m not really sure why, but I am claiming it for my own. I claim it as an act that feeds my soul and helps me to survive the tedium of parenting.

Perhaps I failed as a rebellious daughter, but maybe I have a future in rebellious parenting.

For more information about Rebellious Daughters, visit Ventura Press.

Available from 1 August.