Sandra Renew, Acting Like a Girl. Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2019. ISBN: 9780648404224
The performativity of gender entered popular discourse with Judith Butler and third-wave feminism and continues to evolve as a practise and discussion with increased visibility for LGBTQIA+ and queer bodies. Sandra Renew’s poetry collection Acting Like a Girl, built out of her doctoral thesis of the same name, resists the gender binary and finds freedom in the space between expectations of gender, sexuality, and desire.
As mentioned in the Afterword, Renew’s work is concerned with ‘how the performance of gender and sexuality by young women can recognise cultural marginalisation, and can be at odds with the “normal” the legitimate, the dominant’. (51) The collection situates the performance within the body but also as a duality, regularly returning to the circumstances of watching oneself be watched. In ‘summer queer’ the protagonist wanders through a classic Australian summer beach scene while intrusive, alienating judgements are hurled her way from strangers, ‘(what are ya?)’ and ‘(fucking dyke)’. As she wanders into the surf, the protagonist internalises her position in reflective rhetorical questions hinged on being seen:
what game are we playing?
splashing, waist-deep, in waves barely surf, how light is the glimmer
between seaweed clumps
and stranded jellyfish
she imagines her body
re-shaped in convex lenses
Many of Renew’s protagonists house the predictions of others’ looks and remarks in their bodies and self-image, pre-emptively wincing away from wounding words. At other times the protagonist acts in defiance of social pressures, even rejecting family expectations in poems like ‘Transformer’ where a girl sheds ‘party dress[es]’ for ‘Blundstones, waistcoats, Sobranie Russians‘. In the closing stanza, again the poem takes on the perspective of the watcher to emphasise the position of being watched:
an unlikely transformation unless
you had thought she was going through a phase, a phrase,
unless you had been watching her, unless
unless you were her watching herself metamorphing
a phrase, shapeshifting
In this way Renew takes stereotypical markers of gender and identity, colours, clothing, hobbies, and interests, and inverts them with a psychological spin by heightening the performativity of these markers. Watching the people watching you undermines their power, destabilises the unsubstantiated assumptions of gender roles, and allows the reclamation of playful experimentation with your own subjectivity.
It’s easy to see how Acting Like a Girl came from a thesis in the way it balances considerations of theory along with more anecdotal evidence, though Renew rightly cautions against exclusively autobiographical interpretation of the work. The two poems already mentioned and others including ‘girls who are taken by flannies’ and ‘there’s a small farm’ place an eyeglass over country Queensland, watching how things play out after the donning of the clothes and perfecting of the walk. While, at other times, Renew invokes the names from literature and literary theory for more theoretical explorations.
In particular, this exploration is couched in consideration of language as the poem ‘to lesbian (i)’ gestures. In defining the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘dyke’, Renew fuses the language of identity, specifically hers and her community’s, with the action of being a lesbian and, further, with the external action of identifying or labelling. All at once it is a reclamation of language, a pragmatic definition, and a justification for the term and the identity: ‘I write as a lesbian. Read me as a lesbian.’
Immediately following in ‘Situation’, Renew brings all the elements of the collection together in an imagined encounter with French feminist theorist and writer Hélène Cixous.
Cixous has written me a letter.
She writes to me, and, as a lesbian reader, I answer.
When I write, it’s because I have received a letter.
As reader, I author the writer.
The writer writes from possibilities,
a conscious writer, a visible writer, I make clear to the world
to whom you are writing, and as whom I respond.
Tied in an impossible knot are the speaker’s identity and perspective as a lesbian, both perceiving and being perceived by the world as such, as well her position as simultaneous reader and writer in a cyclic relationship of reading and responding with Cixous specifically and her readership more broadly. It is a complicated philosophical question at the heart of subjectivity: the symbiotic relationship between the perceiving / perceived subject and the perceived / perceiving world.
In her often dry and straight-talking, forward-facing style, Renew’s poetry encapsulates the far stretches of experience as a marginalised identity from the small and specific to much grander philosophies. With a mix of erasure, prose poetry, and short staccato pieces, the work is not limited to the personal but is still enlivened by a practise articulated in ‘Situation’:
Being out and visible, out and present and speaking for myself,
speaking up for myself, speaking from my body, from my lesbian body,
writing from the freedom of Tancredi and the multiple, plural possibilities.
All at once, the language of identity speaks from the body and shapes the experience of being.
Julia Clark is a PhD student, poet, and reviewer based in Sydney, living on Ku-ring- gai and Darug land and working on Gadigal land. Her criticism and non-fiction have appeared in Archer, Rabbit, and Audrey Journal while her poetry has appeared in Scum Mag and ARNA. If she’s not reading or writing, she’s at the theatre.