Rebellious Daughters – book review by Lisa Romeo

Edited by Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman.

Published by Ventura Press.

Rebellious Daughters is a delightful read, composed of 17 true stories written by premium Australian female writers.  The stories capture a period of time in the authors lives that reflects on the development of their characters, shaping and greatly influencing who they have become as adults today.

Each story is unique all having their own special flavor and aura, some humorous, others a little disturbing and sad.

Many speak of their families migrating to Australia and trying to integrate into a culture and lifestyle that is unknown to them, leaving friends and other family behind. Interestingly sometimes the move was in the opposite direction, like in Lee Kofman’s story Me, My Mother and Sexpo, whose family moved to Israel when she was commencing her teenage years.

The stories talk of travel, of religion, of family rituals and habits. Mostly it is a book about daughters finding their place in this world as unique individuals, and the difficulties and adventures they experience in doing so. Finding your own path when you are surrounded by varying influences, where you came from, the values and beliefs driven by your family, your education, friends, to ultimately casting your own choices, discovering who you are and who you want to be in your own right.

This may be easier for some if it suits to take on board all of those influences that have been bestowed upon you, it could be smooth sailing into adulthood. In reality there is often resistance to do so, we as human beings question the values and beliefs our family and community try to inculcate upon us, we naturally question if these are right or wrong for us, and it’s particularly difficult when you are trying to make a life in a country that is so different to your homeland, the choices you have and decisions you need to make about who you are and who you want to become are far greater.

The stories in Rebellious Daughters are very intimate and personal ones. There is great emphasis on the relationship between mother and daughter, but also father and daughter, in many of the stories the children live with an extended family, having to be disciplined at home by many generations, grandmother, aunty, uncle and siblings. They are confronted by numerous obstacle courses on their journey to growing up and becoming you.

Many stories are of single parenting households, some brave and strong tales of escaping war torn countries, such as the compelling Wundermarchen: A Retelling of My Grandmother by Krissy Kneen, which is about the grandmother that fled from Yugoslavia to live in Egypt, then fled Egypt to live in England with 2 daughters. Finally migrated to Australia, with 2 daughters and 2 granddaughters. There was a grandfather present, but almost invisible ‘the silent grandfather’. These are unique adventures of courage, strength and of survival, physically and emotionally.

Rebellious Daughters is also about finding ones sexuality, facing the difficult years of puberty. Many daughters had to explore this alien world on their own, listening to others in the school yard, often being misinformed in the process but not having the ability to talk openly with their families about it. In many households sex was considered taboo for daughters, in contrast to sons where it’s a belief that boys sow their wild oats as a rite to passage.

There is a lot of humour in the book often dark humour, raw and exposing, like in Marion Halligan’s Daughters of Debate where she had to argue her way into university against her fathers wishes, he did not believe in further education for girls as it would all be wasted when they got married. Halligan writes, “And what if I never got married? Since he wouldn’t have a telephone in the house, it was extremely likely that I never would. Three daughters, no telephone, he’d be lumbered with us forever.”

Big issues are delved into, really powerful scenarios, sad stories of parents who have never recovered from the horrors of concentration camps, or living with the profound difficulties of a child growing up with a wonderful, nurturing grandmother who developed Alzheimer’s disease, Eliza-Jane Henry-Jones Just Be Kind, “I grieved all the ways she had shifted into someone we didn’t know.”

And then Maria Katsonis’ Spoonful of Sugar (or not) who had to brace herself and confront her parents with the fact that she is gay. The daughter with a traditional Greek upbringing growing up in Caulfield whose parents dreamed that she would have a tertiary education, a white-collar job and a typical Greek marriage. The reality was she chose theatre over Commerce, shaved her hair and partied, only to face her father waiting up for her at any hour of the night, wanting to argue about how she has disgraced her family.

I found the ‘Rebellion’ to be subtle as I believe it is more about an internal rebellion, the battle every daughter faces when growing up, the internal conflict of always being told what to do, what is right and wrong by family and resisting and fighting natural desires against their conditioning. How hard it is as a child to have to listen to the history of her mother’s survival of Bergen Belsen concentration camp when all you want to do is listen to The Beatles. Leah Kaminsky writes in Pressing The Seams “I don’t want my father’s life and the frayed remnants of an old world threaded into mine”.

These are stories of growing up and being able to reflect and understand the difficulty of parenting. For many of the parents in these stories they had less choice than their daughters, being liberal about sex in old Soviet Russia for instance would not have been easy. “The authorities worried sex would interfere with the main function of citizens: to serve their state.”

A gorgeous book that helps you to understand yourself, but it’s not just for the enjoyment of women it is a universal book, it is rich in describing different cultures, the diversity of beliefs, lifestyles even food and coffee and references to places you may have visited and maybe have grown up in yourself.  A book that all readers of fine non fiction will thoroughly enjoy.

Authors: Marion Halligan, Krissy Kneen, Leah Kaminsky, Jamila Rizvi, Lee Kofman, Eliza-Jane Henry-Jones, Maria Katsonis, Susan Wyndham, Rebecca Starford, Silvia Kwon, Jo Case, Nicola Redhouse, Amra Pajalic, Caroline Baum, Michelle Law, Rochelle Siemienowicz, Jane Caro.