The problem with sex, with animals

A complaint has been made to the Department of Internal Affairs against the author of a book of short stories.

How do you know you’ve “made it” as a writer? Is it, as one friend recently commented on a photo of me holding my new book, when Facebook refuses to allow you to promote your work? Is it when your publisher has plastered Karangahape Road with posters of that new book, the title Sex, with animals in graphic black and white? Or, was it when you suddenly became best friends with Theresa from the Department of Internal Affairs?

That’s a joke, we weren’t best friends. Theresa and I came into contact after someone made a complaint to the Department on Internal Affairs, feeling that I had breached public decency. Poor Theresa had to cope with my total millennial aversion to answering her phone calls, not because of Theresa, who was a particularly nice person to deal with, but because what we had to discuss was a complaint made by a woman with very little understanding of metaphors. 

The issue was really that, as well as being a writer, I’m also a teacher. A good one. The kind of one who is asked to present keynote speeches at totally rad conferences and to serve on the national council of English teachers. And for the complainant, the fact that I existed without shame in the public eye as a teacher and felt entitled to write about sex and sexuality as an author was intolerable. She felt I should not be allowed to do both, even though the audiences for these two streams of work are clearly different. Her complaint was that at the New Zealand Association of Teachers of English annual  conference, I promoted sex with animals (no comma). What I’d actually done was deliver a keynote speech on LBGTQIA* issues and trans rights in the classroom. 

The problem (well, for the complainant) is that I’m not only a teacher, I’m also something of a tease. Not the smutty fun kind, but rather the kind who can be tempted to name her book as a joking reference to that complaint: Sex, with animals, a joke I’ve now made up and down K Road thanks to a poster run by Phantom Billstickers. I’m just hoping that her knowledge of punctuation is better than her concept of figurative imagery. But I’m sure my friend Theresa will ring me up to let me know if it isn’t.

We cross live to Laura Borrowdale in K Road.

Yes, the book has sex in it, and yes, animal metaphors come easily to me, but the stories themselves are far more concerned with what it is like to inhabit a female body, and the animals in the title are a reference to humans’ literal belonging to the animal kingdom, the metaphorical animal nature and instinct that often accompanies our sense of sexuality, and—given that a number of the stories deal with mythological and historical rapes—men.

How do you know you’ve “made” it as a writer? I think it might be when people who haven’t read your work are discussing it. I’m not sure that “making it” is a positive thing in this context—just ask Theresa—but it is certainly a way to get issues into the public eye.

In a world in which women are not allowed to have complex or nuanced identities, where being a mother or a teacher means that you are not supposed to enter a conversation about sexuality, the discussion enabled by books such as mine can feel confrontational. The fact this is triggering for some people merely highlights how necessary these conversations are. 

I’m lucky to be represented by a publisher that believes women and women’s experiences are worthy of publishing. And not only publishing, but plastering central city streets with. Dead Bird Books, the book baby of Dominic Hoey and Samuel Walsh, also represents Hadassah Grace, whose  collection of poetry, How to Take Off Your Clothes was also launched with a huge visual presence. The only difference was that that book was able to be promoted on social media whereas mine is not, because (joke’s on me) of the title. Turns out Facebook is not a master of the comma in the same way English teachers are.

But regardless, let’s not forget that we all need, like my title, our own comma, our own sub-clauses of identity. I not only believe that I have every right to exist in a multitude of different forms, but that I also have the obligation to. If I allow myself to be defined by just one of my functions, I am reduced to that, as are all women.

Have I made it? I’ve made a geeky punctuation joke in public. I’ve made a book. I’ve made it as far as Karangahape Road. I’m hoping there’s a bit more to go.

Sex, with animals by Laura Borrowdale (Dead Bird Books, $30), a collection of 12 short stories featuring illustrations by award-winning American egg tempera artist Michael Bergt, is available in selected bookstores nationwide, such as Scorpio Books in Christchurch and Strange Haven at 281 Karangahape Road, or can be ordered directly from the publisher. One of the stories in the book, "Last Drinks”, has appeared at ReadingRoom.

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