Each year, The Economist magazine’s “Economist Intelligence Unit” ranks cities based on “healthcare, education, stability, culture, environment and infrastructure”, giving the highest-ranking locale the title of most ‘liveable’ (Wright). For the past six years, The Economist has named Melbourne “the world’s most liveable city” (Carmody et al.). A curious portmanteau, the concept of liveability is problematic: what may feel stable and safe to some members of the community may marginalise others due to several factors such as gender, disability, ethnicity or class.
The subjective nature of this term is referred to in the Australian Government’s 2013 State of Cities report, in the chapter titled ‘Liveability’:
In the same way that the Cronulla riots are the poster story for cultural conflict, the attack on Jillian Meagher in Melbourne’s Brunswick has resonated strongly with Australians in many capital cities. It seemed to be emblematic of their concern about violent crime. Some women in our research reported responding to this fear by arming themselves. (274)
Twenty-nine-year-old Jill Meagher’s abduction, rape, and murder in the inner northern suburb of Brunswick in 2012 disturbs the perception of Melbourne’s liveability. As news of the crime disseminated, it revived dormant cultural narratives that reinforce a gendered public/private binary, suggesting women are more vulnerable to attack than men in public spaces and consequently hindering their mobility.
I investigate here how texts written by women writers based in Melbourne’s inner north can latently serve as counter narratives to this discourse, demonstrating how urban public space can be benign, even joyful, rather than foreboding for women. Cultural narratives that promote the vulnerability of women oppress urban freedoms; this paper will use these narratives solely as a catalyst to explore literary texts by women that enact contrary narratives that map a city not by vicarious trauma, but instead by the rich complexity of women’s lives in their twenties and thirties.
I examine two memoirs set primarily in Melbourne’s inner north: Michele Lee’s Banana Girl (2013) and Lorelai Vashti’s Dress, Memory: A memoir of my twenties in dresses (2014). In these texts, the inner north serves as ‘true north’, a magnetic destination for this stage of life, an opening into an experiential, exciting adult world, rather than a place haunted. Indeed, while Lee and Vashti occupy the same geographical space that Meagher did, these texts do not speak to the crime.
The connection is made by me, as I am interested in the affective shift that follows a signal crime such as the Meagher case, and how we can employ literary texts to gauge a psychic landscape, refuting the discourse of fear that is circulated by the media following the event. I wish to look at Melbourne’s inner north as a female literary milieu, a site of boldness despite the public breaking that was Meagher’s murder: a site of female self-determination rather than community trauma.
I borrow the terms “boldness”, “bold walk” and “breaking” from Finnish geographer Hille Koskela (and note the thematic resonances in scholarship from a city as far north as Helsinki). Her paper “Bold Walks and Breakings: Women’s spatial confidence versus fear of violence” challenges the idea that “fearfulness is an essentially female quality”, rather advocating for “boldness”, seeking to “emphasise the emancipatory content of … [women’s] stories” (302). Koskela uses the term “breaking” in her research (primarily focussed on experiences of Helsinki women) to describe “situations … that had transformed … attitudes towards their environment”, referring to the “spatial consequences” that were the result of violent crimes, or threats thereof. While Melbourne women obviously did not experience the Meagher case personally, it nevertheless resulted in what Koskela has dubbed elsewhere as “increased feelings of vulnerability” (“Gendered Exclusions” 111).
After the Meagher case, media reportage suggested that Melbourne had been irreversibly changed, made vulnerable, and a site of trauma. As a signal crime, the attack and murder was vicariously experienced and mediated. Like many crimes committed against women in public space, Meagher’s death was transformed into a cautionary tale, and this storying was more pronounced due to the way the case played out episodically in the media, particularly online, allowing the public to follow the case as it unfolded. The coverage was visually hyperintensive, and particular attention was paid to Sydney Road, where Meagher had last been seen and where she had met her assailant, Adrian Bayley, who was subsequently convicted of her murder.
Articles from media outlets were frequently accompanied by cartographic images that superimposed details of the case onto images of the local area—the mind map and the physical locality both marred by the crime. Yet Koskela writes, “the map of everyday experiences is in sharp contrast to the maps of the media. If a picture of a place is made by one’s own experiences it is more likely to be perceived as a safe ordinary place” (“Bold Walks” 309). How might this picture—this map—be made through genre? I am interested in how memoir might facilitate space for narratives that contest those from the media.
Here I prefer the word memoir rather than use the term life-writing due to the former’s etymological adherence to memory. In Vashti and Lee’s texts, memory is closely linked to place and space, and for each of them, Melbourne is a destination, a city that they have come to alone from elsewhere. Lee came to the city after growing up in Canberra, and Vashti from Brisbane. In Dress, Memory, Vashti writes that the move to Melbourne “… makes you feel like a pioneer, one of those dusty and determined characters out of an American history novel trudging west to seek a land of gold and dreams” (83).
Deeply engaging with Melbourne, the text eschews the ‘taken for granted’ backdrop idea of the city that scholar Jane Darke observes in fiction. She writes that
modern women novelists virtually take the city as backdrop for granted as a place where a central female figure can be or becomes self-determining, with like-minded female friends as indispensable support and undependable men in walk-on roles. (97)
Instead, Vashti uses memoir to self-consciously examine her relationship with her city, elaborating on the notion of moving from elsewhere as an act of self-determination, building the self through geographical relocation:
You’re told you can find treasure – the secret bars hidden down the alleyways, the tiny shops filled with precious curios, the art openings overflowing onto the street. But the true gold that paves Melbourne’s footpaths is the promise that you can be a writer, an artist, a musician, a performer there. People who move there want to be discovered, they want to make a mark. (84)
The paths are important here, as Vashti embeds herself on the street, walking through the text, generating an affective cartography as her life is played out in what is depicted as a benign, yet vibrant, urban space. She writes of “walking, following the grid of the city, taking in its grey blocks” (100), engendering a sense of what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan calls ‘topophilia’: “the affective bond between people and place or setting” (4). There is a deep bond between Vashti and Melbourne that is evident in her work that is demonstrated in her discussion of public space. Like her, friends from Brisbane trickle down South, and she lives with them in a series of share houses in the inner North—first Fitzroy, then Carlton, then North Melbourne, where she lives with two female friends and together they “roamed the streets during the day in a pack” (129).
Vashti’s boldness not only lies in her willingness to take bodily to the streets, without fear, but also in her fastidious attention to her physical appearance. Her memoir is framed sartorially: chronologically arranged, from age twenty to thirty, each chapter featuring equally detailed reports of the events of that year as well as the corresponding outfits worn. A dress, transformative, is spotlighted in each of these chapters, and the author is photographed in each of these ‘feature’ dresses in a glossy section in the middle of the book. Koskela writes that, “if women dress up to be part of the urban spectacle, like 19th-century flâneurs, and also to mediate their confidence, they oppose their erasure and reclaim urban space”. For Koskela, the appearance of the body in public is an act of boldness:
dressing can be seen as a means of reproducing power relations; in Foucaultian terms, it is a way of being one’s own overseer, and regulating even the most intimate spheres … on the other hand, interpreted in another way, dressing up can be seen as a form of resistance against the male gaze, as an opposition to the visual mastery over women, achieved by not being invisible or absent, but by dressing up proudly. (“Bold Walks” 309)
Koskela’s affirmation that clothing can enact urban boldness contradicts reportage on the Meagher case that suggested otherwise. Some news outlets focussed on the high heels Meagher was wearing the night she was raped and murdered, as if to imply that she may have been able to elude her fate had she donned flats. The Age quotes witnesses who saw her on Sydney Road the night she was killed; one says she was “a little unsteady on her feet but not too bad”, another that she “seemed to be struggling to walk up the hill in her high heels” (Russell). But Vashti is well aware of the spatial confidence that the right clothing provides. In the chapter “Twenty-three”, she writes of being housebound by heartbreak, that “just leaving the house seemed like an epic undertaking”, so she “picked a dress a dress that would make me feel good … the woman in me emerged when I slid it on. In it, I instantly had shape, form. A purpose” (99). She and her friends don vocational costumes to outplay the competitive inner Melbourne rental market, eventually netting their North Melbourne terrace house by dressing like “young professionals”: “dressed up in smart op-shop blouses and pencil skirts to walk to the real estate office” (129).
Michele Lee’s text Banana Girl also delves into the relationship between personal aesthetics and urban space, describing Melbourne as “a town of costumes, after all” (117), but her own style as “indifferently hip to the outside world without being slavish about it” (6). Lee’s world is East Brunswick for much of the book, and she establishes this connection early, introducing herself in the first chapter, as one of the “subversive and ironic people living in the hipster boroughs of the inner North of Melbourne” (6). She describes the women in her local area – “Brunswick Girls”, she dubs them: “no one wears visible make up, or if they do it’s not lathered on in visible layers; the haircuts are feminine without being too stylish, the clothing too; there’s an overall practical appearance” (89).
Lee displays more of a knowingness than Vashti regarding the inner North’s reputation as the more progressive and creative side of the Yarra, confirmed by the Sydney Morning Herald:
The ‘northside’ comprises North Melbourne, Carlton, Fitzroy, Collingwood, Abbotsford, Thornbury, Brunswick and Coburg. Bell Street is the boundary for northsiders. It stands for artists, warehouse parties, bicycles, underground music, lightless terrace houses, postmodernity and ‘awareness’. (Craig)
As evidenced in late scholar John Maclaren’s book Melbourne: City of Words, the area has long enjoyed this reputation: “After the war, these neighbourhoods were colonized by migrants from Europe, and in the 1960s by the artists, musicians, writers, actors, junkies and layabouts whose stories Helen Garner was to tell” (146). As a young playwright, Lee sees herself reflected in this milieu, writing that she’s “an imaginative person, I’m university educated, I vote the way you’d expect me to vote and I’m a member of the CPSU. On principle I remain a union member” (7), toeing that line of “awareness” pithily mentioned by the SMH.
Like Vashti, there are constant references to Lee’s exact geographical location in Melbourne. She ‘drops pins’ throughout, cultivating a connection to place that blurs home and the street, fostering a sense of belonging beyond one’s birthplace, belonging to a place chosen rather than raised in. She plants herself in this local geography. Returning to the first chapter, she includes “jogger by the Merri Creek” in her introduction (7), and later jokingly likens a friendship with an ex as “no longer on stage at the Telstra Dome but still on tour” (15), employing Melbourne landmarks as explanatory shorthand. She refers to places by name: one could physically tour inner North and CBD hotspots based on Lee’s text, as it is littered with mentions of bars, restaurants, galleries and theatre venues. She frequents the Alderman in East Brunswick and Troika in the city, as well as a bar that Jill Meagher spent time in on the night she went missing – the Brunswick Green.
While offering the text a topographical authenticity, this can sometimes prove distracting: rather than simply stating that she goes to the library, she writes that she visits “the City of Melbourne library” (128), and rather than just going to a pizza parlour, they visit “Bimbo’s” (129) or “Pizza Meine Liebe” (101). Yet when Lee visits family in Canberra, or Laos on an arts grant, business names are forsaken. One could argue that the cultural capital offered by namedropping trendy Melburnian bars, restaurants and nightclubs translates awkwardly on the page, and risks dating the text considerably, but elevates the spatiality of Lee’s work. And these landmarks are important within the text, as Lee’s world is divided spatially. She refers to “Theatre Land” when discussing her work in the arts, and her share house not as ‘home’ but consistently as “Albert Street”. She partitions her life into these zones: zones of emotion, zones of intellect/career, zones of family/heritage – the text offers close insight into Lee’s personal cartography, with her traversing the map “stubbornly on foot, still resisting becoming part of Melbourne’s bike culture” (88).
While not always walking alone – often accompanied by an ex-boyfriend she nicknames “Husband” – Lee is independently-minded, stating, “I operate solo, I pay my own way” (34), meeting up with various romantic and sexual interests through the text for daytime trysts in empty office buildings or late nights out in the CBD. She is adventurous, yet reminds that she was not always so. She recalls a time when she was still residing in Canberra and visited a boyfriend who was living in Melbourne and felt intimidated by the “alien city”, standing in stark contrast to the familiarity she demonstrates otherwise.
Lee and Vashti’s texts both chronicle women who freely occupy public space, comfortable in their surroundings, not engaging on the page with cultural narratives and media reportage that suggest they would be safer off the streets. Both demonstrate what Koskela calls the “pleasure to be able to take possession of space” (“Bold Walks” 308) – yet it could be argued that the writer’s possession of space is so routine, so unremarkable that it transcends pleasure: it is comfortable. They walk the streets alone and catch public transport alone without incident. They contravene advice such as that given by Victorian Police Homicide Squad chief Mick Hughes’s comments that women shouldn’t be “alone in parks” following the fatal stabbing of teenager Masa Vukotic in a Doncaster park in 2015.
Like Meagher’s death, Vukotic’s murder was also mobilised by the media – and one could argue, by authorities – to contain women, to further a narrative that reinforces the public/private gender binary. However, as Koskela reminds,
the fact that some women are bold and confident shows that women are not only passively experiencing space but actively take part in producing it. They reclaim space for themselves, not only through single occasions such as ‘take back the night’ marches, but through everyday practices and routinized uses of space. (“Bold Walks” 316)
These memoirs act as resistance, actively producing space through representation: to assert the right to the city, one must be bold, and reclaim space that is so often overlaid with stories of violence against women. As Koskela emphasises, this is only done through use of the space, “a way of de-mystifying it. If one does not use the space, … ‘the mental map’ of the place is filled with indirect descriptions, the image of it is constructed through media and the stories heard” (“Bold Walks” 308). Memoir can take back this image through stories told, demonstrating the personal connection to public space. Koskela writes that, “walking on the street can be seen as a political act: women ‘write themselves onto the street’” (“Urban Space in Plural” 263).
Australian Government. Department of Infrastructure and Transport. State of Australian Cities 2013. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2013. 17 Jan. 2017 <http://infrastructure.gov.au/infrastructure/pab/soac/files/2013_00_infra1782_mcu_soac_full_web_fa.pdf>.
Carmody, Broede, and Aisha Dow. “Top of the World: Melbourne Crowned World's Most Liveable City, Again.” The Age, 18 Aug. 2016. 17 Jan. 2017 <http://theage.com.au/victoria/top-of-the-world-melbourne-crowned-worlds-most-liveable-city-again-20160817-gqv893.html>.
Craig, Natalie. “A City Divided.” Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Feb. 2012. 17 Jan. 2017 <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/about-town/a-city-divided-20120202-1quub.html>.
Darke, Jane. “The Man-Shaped City.” Changing Places: Women's Lives in the City. Eds. Chris Booth, Jane Darke, and Susan Yeadle. London: Paul Chapman Publishing, 1996. 88-99.
Koskela, Hille. “'Bold Walk and Breakings’: Women's Spatial Confidence versus Fear of Violence.” Gender, Place and Culture 4.3 (1997): 301-20.
———. “‘Gendered Exclusions’: Women's Fear of Violence and Changing Relations to Space.” Geografiska Annaler, Series B, Human Geography, 81.2 (1999). 111–124.
———. “Urban Space in Plural: Elastic, Tamed, Suppressed.” A Companion to Feminist Geography. Eds. Lise Nelson and Joni Seager. Blackwell, 2005. 257-270.
Lee, Michele. Banana Girl. Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2013.
MacLaren, John. Melbourne: City of Words. Arcadia, 2013.
Russell, Mark. ‘Happy, Witty Jill Was the Glue That Held It All Together.’ The Age, 19 June 2013. 30 Jan. 2017 <http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/happy-witty-jill-was-the-glue-that-held-it-all-together-20130618-2ohox.html>
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Inc, 1974.
Wright, Patrick, “Melbourne Ranked World’s Most Liveable City for Sixth Consecutive Year by EIU.” ABC News, 18 Aug. 2016. 17 Jan. 2017 <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-08-18/melbourne-ranked-worlds-most-liveable-city-for-sixth-year/7761642>.