Alumni Feature March 2015

Alumni Interview: Lee Kofman

Interviewed by Features Editor Diana Jenkins

Lee Kofman While the concept of non-monogamy remains a sexual taboo among the majority of the population, it’s a practice that casts a wide net, attracting people of all backgrounds and professions who might otherwise appear to have nothing in common. Alumna Lee Kofman has taken her own experience as a non-monogamist as the basis for her new memoir, The Dangerous Bride: A Memoir of Love, Gods and Geography, which challenges many of the dominant sexual culture’s attachments to conventions like monogamous marriage. I suspect Lee’s right, that as a society we’re largely less shocked by tales of adultery than by couples who embrace open non-monogamy, yet why is something shared between consenting adults more confronting than a scenario in which at least one person is being horribly deceived? It’s strange – but then, we all are, aren’t we?

Talking to Lee for this month’s Alumni Interview was so fascinating. Confronting at times, but deeply rewarding as well. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

 


 

affair DJ: There’s a double standard you’ve discussed in interviews that interests me: a complicit cultural silence around adultery, set against the shocked disapproval of openly non-monogamous relationships. Why do you think contemporary Australian society is largely so uptight about any deviation from the monogamous norm? And why do you think the traditional extra-marital affair generates far less overt discomfort?

Do not disturb LK: Firstly, I think this double standard is not unique to Australia, but rather a typical Western attitude. As to the question of the double standard itself, adultery appears to me to be the other side of the monogamy coin, reinforcing fidelity instead of undermining it. This is because the act of adultery is bound with deception, with sneaking around the borders, which means for adulterers the existence of monogamous borders is crucial and holds sexual allure. Plus, adultery narratives provide us with voyeuristic pleasures, but at the same time don’t confuse us. We possess the moral standards to contain them. Their language is familiar to us – that of sin, weakness, pleasure, guilt. All this we condemn, but also understand. After all we can always tell the good and bad guys apart. Non-monogamy is another animal all-together. It is messy, ambiguous, subject to change. Non-monogamists attempt to make the difficult distinction between emotional and sexual fidelity. It is a love style that renders what we consider to be immoral as possibly ethical. No wonder it is seen as the real threat to the conventional ideas about love.

The Dangerous Bride cover DJ: The Dangerous Bride took five years to write – what else was happening in your life during the book’s gestation? And from a creative process standpoint, what did that period look like in terms of getting the first draft done, redrafting, reader feedback, editing, looking for a publisher and so on?

LK: At the same time as I was writing the book, I was also completing a PhD, teaching, getting divorced and remarried, and had my first child. But actually none of these activities explains why it took me so long to write The Dangerous Bride.

The truth is, I wrote slowly, because I was absolutely terrified throughout the entire process. I worried that my research wasn’t thorough enough; that I’d hurt my former partners, my now-husband and my parents; that I wasn’t representing adequately people I interviewed for the book. I also feared that my writing wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t smart enough etc. etc. No wonder writing this book was so arduous, with several false starts and a lot of mess: notes, research quotes, snippets of ideas and random passages (most of which eventually found their place in the book).

The full first draft emerged only in the fifth year. Yet because I lived for so long with this book, it was much more polished than my usual first drafts and it took me just a few more months of rewriting to reach the stage where I was ready to show the book to publishers. I did have quite a lot of feedback throughout the process from generous friends, but only a few trusted people read entire drafts. Then once MUP took the book on, I had to cut out 15,000 words (of my choice) to fit with their publishing plans. But afterwards almost all edits were on the level of copyediting, probably because I’d already worked so much on the big picture.

married DJ: Your research for the book suggests that the typical practitioner of non-monogamy has a more adventurous profile in general – but what of the monogamous marrieds, are they (am I?!) really naturally more conservative? To what extent would you agree with a counter assertion, being that everyone has a wild side, it’s simply a question of where, when and how it expresses itself?

adventurous LK: Of course many people (not all, though, I believe) are adventurous and have a wild side to them, but are not necessarily into non-monogamy. What my findings do suggest is that people who practice non-monogamy are more likely to seek diversity in other areas of their lives too. For example, rather than having one long career in the same profession/workplace they’d have a series of careers. Or would be experimenting with their clothing styles and/or religious beliefs, and/or moving around a lot. In my case, I did all of those… Once again, this doesn’t mean people who prefer monogamy do not experiment, but my guess is that if we compare non-monogamists with the general population, the percentage of the so-called ‘experimenters’ will be higher in the former group.

DJ: You completed your PhD at RMIT last year – tell us about your thesis and why you undertook a doctoral project. Did you complete a research PhD or a Creative Writing one? If the latter, how did you find working on the creative component within the framework of academia?

LK: I did a PhD in social sciences, investigating the impact that non-facial scars can have on women’s lives. So this is another example of how I can’t just focus on one thing…

I must say I found writing a PhD so much easier than writing creatively! In fact, anything else I ever did in my life – whether organising parties in nightclubs or stitching shoes in a factory – I always found much easier than writing.

DJ: Let’s talk about the diversity of the subjects you interviewed for The Dangerous Bride: ethnicity, appetite and the nature of their liaisons as well.

swingers LK: It was quite difficult to find people willing to talk about their non-monogamous experiences, because of the stigma attached. Despite this, I had quite a good variation amongst those I interviewed. I spoke to Anglo-Saxon and Indigenous people, and to first and second-generation migrants. My interviewees were from all walks of life, from manual labourers to writers and accountants. They also varied in ages (from mid-twenties to mid-sixties) and sexual orientations.

The more I interviewed and reflected on my own experiences, the more I understood that non-monogamy is just an umbrella word that covers a great variation of practices; I spoke to polyamorists, swingers, caundalists and more. Of course, because my book is creative rather than academic, I could only tell several narratives, with my own being the central one, but the many stories I did hear all inform my thinking behind the book. And once again, despite the great diversity amongst my interviewees, all of them had in common this lifelong preoccupation with experimenting [that] I mentioned earlier.

DJ: Two non-monogamous marriages and a third monogamous one – what are your thoughts, then, on the institution itself? What role – if any – do you think non-monogamous practices contributed to the breakdown of your first two unions? The book blurb suggests you embarked upon an open arrangement as an attempt to save the (second?) marriage, which some might consider a doomed and fairly radical response, but how constructive was it in practice?

LK: I don’t want to say too much about this, because if somebody would like to read the book, I may spoil the ending for them. All I’ll say is that, in my view, non-monogamy per se is not dangerous to marriage. As much as this may sound contrary to the common wisdom, not just my research but also proper academic studies suggest that non-monogamous unions are no more, or less, fragile than monogamous ones.

The problem with non-monogamy, just as it is with monogamy, is how to do this well. It is this last point that I wasn’t that good at… Love and marriage are generally difficult, aren’t they? One of my main interests in writing The Dangerous Bride was to explore these difficulties, and not just in the non-monogamous context. One reviewer defined my book as a ‘study of relationships’ and this is close to how I think about it too. Non-monogamy is just one lens [through which] to look at it.

DJ: The Internet has rapidly dismantled just about every stumbling block and barrier that used to exist between people. Whatever your thang, the Internet will reliably turn up countless like-minded souls keen to do that thing too – what are some of the strengths as well as potential drawbacks of this hyper-connectivity?

LK: This is a huge question, of course, but in relation to non-monogamy the answer seems to me pretty straightforward. Non-monogamy is arguably one of the last sexual taboos in the contemporary West, and is usually practised in secrecy. Internet helped non-monogamists find support within likeminded communities, get advice in safe environments, find lovers and partners with more ease and – like in the cases of polyamorists and swingers – develop physical organisations too.

Lee at Varuna DJ: Varuna is described as your second home on your website. You’ve won a number of Varuna residencies, Lee – tell us about the impact of Varuna on your development.

Peter Bishop LK: I don’t want to sound like an advertisement for Varuna, but the truth is that Varuna generally, and its former creative director Peter Bishop in particular, have been absolutely invaluable to my development as a writer in Australia. I received my first fellowship there in 2006, when I was new to this country, unknown as a writer and pessimistic about my ability to write in English and interest an Australian audience in what I had to say. I took Varuna’s fellowship to mean that my work did have some value here.

On my arrival at Varuna, the first person to greet me was Peter – and this was magical! In the first twenty minutes he [had already given] me [an] encouraging appraisal of my work and told me a great story about [Anna] Akhamatova, who wrote in my mother tongue. No wonder I was smitten… Since then Peter [has become] a dear friend and an invaluable support person. His input into The Dangerous Bride was enormous. He helped me to be braver with this book, take more risks.

Since 2006 I was fortunate enough to be staying at Varuna at least once a year (apart from 2014, when I had a young child), enjoy its magical environment and the time to write. And it was at Varuna, during a masterclass with Robin Hemley organised by Peter, that I found the structure for my book after grappling in the dark for 2.5 years.

This year I started a new novel [at] beautiful Varuna and loved meeting Jansis O’Hanlon and Prue Adams who are wonderful, intelligent and welcoming people. I’m very excited to be back again soon for the Varuna Sydney Writers’ Festival.

DJ: You’ve got an established profile as a blogger as well as being a traditionally published author – to what extent do you actively apply yourself to the task of building and/or engaging with various platforms for your writing?

LK: I have two blogs: I’ve been a blogger-in-residence for Writers Victoria for more than two years now and I also have a private blog The Writing Life on my website. Both are about literature, the writing process and what it means to be a writer.

Blogging takes a considerable amount of time, perhaps because I don’t blog in a more traditional sense, but rather treat each post as a mini-essay. This means I put many hours into research, voice and ideas for each entry. I feel, though, that the effort is worth it, particularly [because] many of my blog posts have been either republished elsewhere, sometimes in print too, and some [I’ve] expanded into longer essays which were published in literary magazines. So for me blogging blends with the rest of my creative writing.

DJ: Your blog features a number of guest bloggers (soon to be including yours truly, if you’ll still have me!), the most recent being Varuna’s much-loved former Creative Director Peter Bishop, of whom we’ve already spoken; how important is it to you that the blog reaches other writers and helps build that community?

LK: Yes, Diana, I’m very excited to be featuring you soon! I do have monthly guest posts on my private blog, usually from writers whose work I love. I think the majority of my blog readers are either practising or aspiring writers. I never thought about my blog from the communal perspective, but if some posts speak to some readers and help them in their writing process, then I am very pleased. I usually ask my blog guests to write on topics that will be relevant to my readership: to discuss some writing problem they grapple with or writing choices they’ve made.

Wildlife cover DJ: You received a Glenfern Fellowship last year…I’ve had a bit of an obsession with Glenfern since first hearing about it from fellow Alumna, YA author Fiona Wood – tell us about working there and the advantages and disadvantages of having other writers working so close by (might the sound of furious typing from the room next door be potentially crippling if one were having one of those days…?).

Glenfern LK: I may not be the best person to talk about practising alongside other writers, just because having had a baby meant I was using Glenfern at all sorts of ungodly hours, when no other writers showed up (6am or 9pm most commonly…). But I absolutely loved working at Glenfern. It is such a beautiful, serene property and the presence of a piano there somehow inspired me, even though I never heard anyone play it. Still, it made me feel as if I was in some artistic salon from the eighteen century…

DJ: You describe yourself in one post as ‘such a slow writer,’ yet your abundant writing credits suggest a very respectable output – by what standard are you measuring yourself? Are you a word counter?

LK: My only luck is that I started writing early. My first book was published when I was 20 years old and now, 21 years later, I [have] managed to accumulate an okay-looking list of publications. However, it takes me anywhere between three to five years to finish a book. I do write a lot of short pieces too, but at least half of them end up in a rubbish bin – this is what I mean by being slow. I need to write a lot of bad stuff in order to end up with several publishable pages. The Dangerous Bride, for example, is 92,000 words long, however while writing it I discarded around 30,000 words. This [turnover] is why I usually don’t set myself word counts as daily writing goals, but rather try to commit to a certain amount of hours to write. In my case word count is quite meaningless, because if I write 2000 words in one day, there is no guarantee that even half of them will make it to the final draft. I am normally thinking through writing and many of my thoughts are quite silly.

Christopher Hitchens DJ: In the blog post recollecting the Melbourne launch of The Dangerous Bride, you mention discussing choosing (or being chosen by) a literary genre with Maria Tumarkin. I’m personally invested in this topic because it’s been such a problem for me. So many people – trying to be helpful – have suggested that I abandon the fiction effort and focus solely on non-fiction, but to date I’ve stubbornly refused to give up. There are plenty of authors who, like you, write across multiple genres with great skill and success – why not me?! To what extent do you think writers generally have a strength they should play to? (The late, great Christopher Hitchens was told by friends early in his career that he didn’t have the right stuff for fiction – I can’t help wonder what he might have produced had someone suggested the opposite.)

LK: I suspect, Diana, that the reason you persist with writing fiction is because you’ve got something urgent to say that would be best expressed in a fictional form. Personally, right now I prefer reading and writing and teaching creative nonfiction over any other literary genre (whereas in the past I was big on fiction), but I’m working on a novel. This is because I believe writers shouldn’t be committed to a genre as such, but to expressing what is pressing on them in the form best suited to that particular obsession. For many years I tried to write The Dangerous Bride as fiction, because of all those ethical concerns I mentioned earlier. However, it never worked because fiction was a too narrow jacket for the story I had to tell. Similarly, what I’m working on now cannot be written as creative nonfiction or a poem. So after my bad experience of wasting years I think now the trick is to listen to your work, to what it wants to be.

DJ: Mmm, perhaps I have to listen closer. Time shall tell. Now, tell us about your manuscript’s path to publication – do you have an agent or did you submit the manuscript to the publisher or were you able to break through the dreaded slush pile in another way?

LK: You mentioned Maria Tumarkin before. Maria, a writer I admire [as well as] a friend, generously put me in touch with her former publisher, Sally Heath from Melbourne University Press. Sally took my book on.

Hebrew cover DJ: I know at least one Varuna Alumni member – an excellent and award-winning author – whose novels haven’t been picked up internationally to date. Apparently they’re somehow too specific to Australia, which in my opinion is a very peculiar disqualification… wouldn’t that be precisely part of the appeal for a foreign reader? Understandably, I think it’s been a source of real frustration and disappointment for that writer – if nothing else it severely limits potential sales in an already grim earning environment. Since you’re a Russian-born Israeli Australian whose previous published books have been in Hebrew, I’m interested in your thoughts on selling international publishing rights and a possible future in which we all become ‘writers without borders.’

Small Things cover LK: I am afraid that I have nothing particularly intelligent to say about this topic, besides agreeing with you that good books specific to countries should be of interest to any curious reader. Personally, I love learning about foreign places through reading and the international success of books such as [Arundhati Roy’s] The God of Small Things or [Karl Ove] Knausgaard’s My Struggle is testimony to the fact I am not alone in that. I also noticed that The Dangerous Bride, although explicitly set in Melbourne and Perth, was read by quite a few European, North American and UK readers thanks to e-reader technology. So maybe, hopefully, the parochial assumptions made by publishers will become obsolete soon.

DJ: The subtitle of The Dangerous Bride is A Memoir of Love, Gods and Geography – could you please unpack these different categories of enquiry? How did they intersect and how did they emerge as the chief themes?

LK: As I was saying earlier, non-monogamy is the organising principle to my book, but certainly not its sole focus. I don’t like reading or writing books that walk one pathway only. I love road forks, digressions, literary webs.

Gordon Lish In the case of The Dangerous Bride, this book didn’t even start from the [desire] to explore non-monogamy. For some years I’d been trying to explore in my work my simultaneous yearnings for security and for risk-taking, a conflict that tormented me for many years and in many areas of my life, love included. I initially decided to explore this conflict by writing about moving to Australia on my own at 26, with little money and even less English. However, unlike the move itself, writing about it felt too safe. I was bored. After four years of trial and error, I realised the only way to write about risk was, as Gordon Lish suggested, to ‘write to convict’ myself, which is what admitting my romantic failures and my desire for non-monogamy was. So in 2008 I began a completely new book – about my misadventures in love. And of course this book ended up being about migration too, particularly that one of the main drives behind my migration was my search for love. And, as I kept writing, God came into this too, because one of my earliest risk-taking adventures was rebelling against my Jewish upbringing at 14. Yet you can’t really get up one day, leave God and not hear from him at all. Gods, like ex-husbands, have tendency to reappear in your life (when you least want them to). Various gods have been still a part of my life, sometimes in the shape of my pious parents, or as my antagonists, or as features in the lives of two of my lovers appearing in the book, who defined themselves as ‘spiritual’. Then, of course, my non-monogamous quest was in some way a reaction to my religious upbringing.

hand holding DJ: That’s fascinating, Lee. Love and sex, women and men: based on your own experience as well as your research, what do you think are the key differences between the sexes, when it comes to the act itself? In your experience (and acknowledging the sweeping generalisation), how true do you think it is that men need sex to build closeness, but women crave closeness before they want sex?

LK: In my view, female sex drive is underestimated and the idea of closeness is overestimated. There is a lot of new research showing that women’s so-called low sexual appetite is most often caused by being in long-term relationships. Contrary to what many feminists and therapists claim, a real aphrodisiac for married women seems to be not their husbands listening to them, but simply having a new lover. In this respect then they aren’t that different from men. Both sexes seem to crave variety, but somehow at the moment mostly [only] men are prepared to admit this.

Similarly, when I was telling people I was writing about non-monogamy, many (women, actually!) sneered at me, saying non-monogamy is for men’s benefit only. Yet, as my book shows, today’s non-monogamy is often driven by women.

libido It is also true that many women seek closeness, but this may be the result of them wanting love rather than sex. When it comes to sex for pleasure, I think what many women really want is to feel desired. I can’t speak on behalf of everyone, in fact I don’t even think there is such a thing as a unified ‘female sexual style’, but personally I find nothing less sexy than going to bed with a man who doesn’t give a damn about me. But does it mean I seek closeness? No. It means I like being wooed and cared for. When I know my lover wants me, this turns me on but also actually makes it easy for me to move on (unless I am also infatuated, of course). And I am sure there are many women who feel similarly and many who don’t.

DJ: How have you tackled the problem of fundamentally incompatible libidos, both in the book and in life? To what extent do you think this incompatibility constitutes an irreconcilable difference when a marriage is in danger of dissolving?

LK: Once again, it is impossible to generalise and I can only discuss variations. For some, the problem of incompatible libidos can be solved through non-monogamy. I know several couples [in which] one partner needs a lot of sex while the other needs close to nothing, but they are in love and satisfy each other in other regards, while the more sexual partner gets their needs met outside. I describe in my book a similar marital situation in the life of the writer H.G. Wells, whose marriage – despite his wife Jane’s sexual coldness – remained loving and romantic and lasted ‘til Jane’s death.

opposite sides But for me such an arrangement wouldn’t have worked. To stay happily married I needed to know that I had sexual freedom – not to substitute what I lacked at home, but to complement sex with my husband. Still, difference in libidos wasn’t why my marriage ended. In our case, what initially appeared as my husband’s low libido eventually proved to be a symptom that something deeper wasn’t working for us and as the book’s narrative unfolds, I gradually discover what underlined our lack of sex.

DJ: How repressed and/or sexually conservative do you find Australia? I’m always slightly bemused by the globally propagated image of Australians as laid-back – personally I think the dominant culture here is surprisingly prudish and uptight.

LK: My sense is that Australia is no more or less conservative than most other Western countries. But I think, as the rest of contemporary West, it sports these social mores where often-sexually-adventurous singledom and hermetically faithful coupledom are viewed as the only intimate options.

Moreover, it seems that in our hypersexual times we have become at once more promiscuous but also more conservative. Yes, oral sex became commonplace, but then most Americans and Australians (over 90% now as opposed to about 70% in the 1970s) expect their partners to be faithful, while infidelity statistics keep creeping up higher and higher. So it looks like people cheat now more than ever while trying or pretending to be monogamous. But then, why not accept non-monogamy as another legitimate choice for loving?

DJ: Why does the concept of sexual freedom hold such an allure for you? Why do you think sex – such a basic part of any animal’s nature – causes such chaos in our lives and hearts?

LK: Great sex – particularly the early days of passion - makes us, makes me, feel deeply, deeply alive. I’d rather wear a scarlet A than not experience those incredible moments of desire, when you are all skin, or are entirely skinless. There have been many great thinkers who documented the hurricane-like power of desire – Freud, Tolstoy, Nabokov for starters. Hurricane since truly great sex is often great because it is bound with destruction and power struggle, as many exciting things are.

As to the concept of sexual freedom, which is different from sex itself, here my answer is more prosaic. To my mind, non-monogamous urges aren’t about sex only, just as sex is almost never about sex only. Rather, our desires are symptomatic of human diversity in terms of personality and life trajectories. I am a natural-born risk-taker and rebel, and so for me knowing that I can do what I like is often more important than actually exercising this freedom. I hate being restricted. However, it’s not all theory of course. I am generally a greedy person, greedy for any new experiences, including lovers.

Sinai DJ: And finally, Lee, what’s next for you? Can you tell us anything about the next project on the boil?

LK: I’ve got too many books I want to write! Right now, I’m working on a novel set in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in 1996, when Israelis could still holiday there freely. This novel tells the story of young Israelis who are trying to have a good time in a Bedouin camp, yet their difficult military past haunts them. At the same time I’m also writing an essay about café society, the good it did for our civilisation.

DJ: Sounds like traversing difficult terrain is destined to be a feature of your writing, Lee - best of luck with the novel and thank you so much for playing.

 

 


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New Works by Alumni

 

The Compassionate Englishwoman cover

The Compassionate Englishwoman
by Robert Eales
(Middle Harbour Press, 2015)

Emily Hobhouse went to southern Africa during the Boer War to investigate reports that women and children were having a difficult time in the conflict. With considerable difficulty she threaded her way through the war, all on her own and undaunted by the danger. What she found was very disturbing.
She discreetly urged the authorities to act, first in southern Africa, then in Britain - to no avail. As fatalities rose, her campaign escalated. But the government did not want anyone to hear her story and they made life very difficult for her. In the meantime, what she had discovered on the veld turned into a major tragedy. Eventually, her work saved many lives.

Read all about new release Alumni titles and more at Alumni Books.


New Alumni Profiles

 

New profiles last month:
Bronwyn Lovell, Mark Brandi and Bronwen Logan

Tim Thorne and Wendy Dunn provided an update to their profiles.

Read these and other profiles online at Alumni Profiles.


 

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