How writer and provocateur Lee Kofman makes it matter
Her own memoir about non-monogamy, The Dangerous Bride, challenged conventions of form, as well as sexual expression. And, as you’ll read, now Kofman’s a mother, there’s no indication she’s going to stop using words to speak what’s not usually spoken about.
How do you give it mouth?
I’m generally not a political person by definition. However, whenever I write something it always has to be about the larger world, not just myself. Otherwise I definitely don’t have an interest and I don’t think others will either. So I guess my way of giving it mouth is through the use of irony and subtlety. And I often just try to tell stories and hope the reader will be intelligent enough to see the bigger picture.
I always to try to present different perspectives and then allow the readers to make up their own minds.
I like to come from a questioning position, rather than bringing across strong points. That’s my take on it. I’m not trying necessarily to be objective, rather I’m wondering about issues I explore.
When we’re talking about writing about – even you don’t think of it that way – some of your readers might see you as somewhat of a transgressive writer. I mean I think you’re not doing it from shock but curiosity…
I think that because I’ve spent most of my life as an outsider I sometimes am unsure of what the rule is. Wherever I am, whether in some country or a city or a university or whatever, I somehow find myself in some kind of minority…
So you’re just used to it?
Yeah. Even in the non-monogamous circles I’m in the minority because many of its varieties are not my thing. I’m into what I call a ‘porous’, subtle type of non-monogamy.
You’re not really scared of tackling big issues like sex and religion are you?
Not scared. But I try to come at it from a not from a strong, opinionated position but more of an investigative position.
So it’s explorative?
Yeah. Not out of fear, but that’s just my personality I think. I am an explorer, not a preacher.
I’m interested in your research for your fantastic book The Dangerous Bride. How difficult was it to find people to interview to talk about their private lives?
Very. At the time of my research, hardly anyone wanted to talk about their non-monogamous experiences. Even close, usually supportive friends, would say things like, “Why would you write on a topic like this?” It was really hard. But what I did is I decided I was going to speak about what I was writing about, no matter how conservative the context around me. So when someone asked me what I was working on, I would just be honest. And what I found was that often the most conservative people were the ones with stories to tell.
And I think it was so hard to get people talking because non-monogamy challenges not just our sexual mores, but our entire approach to committed relationships.
What part of your background or personality perhaps do you think makes you want to write about the things people are usually quite anxious about?
See that’s interesting what you say, Naomi. You’re probably quite right, but I don’t actually think of myself like that. Nothing really bugs me. I often come from the position of not knowing what people think about the topic. When I started writing my memoir on non-monogamy, only when I was stuck into it – say a quarter of the way through – I realised I was writing something that people would be uncomfortable with. I guess I’m the kind of writer who only can write what’s urgent for me. I use writing in a selfish way, to understand better what I think about things. I often don’t know what I think about things until I start to write, that’s my main drive. Religion and sexuality just happen to be topics that I really care about. And there’s other stuff as well. For instance, motherhood is also something I’m really passionate about. You know, how society views mothers and I feel uncomfortable about the mainstream views of motherhood that exist.
So, I know that you’re extremely well-read. That’s one of the things I admire about you as a writer. What other artists inspire you?
The book that most inspired me, and I read it when I was ten and many times since then, is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. He really plays with the form of the novel. And it’s about everything, love religion, communism, petty domestic stuff. It’s a novel that has the whole world folded into it. It’s a book that really made me think about writing, that a work can be rich thematically, that you don’t have to stick to one theme. You can experiment.
Joan Didion – her early works really influenced me. And I often steal from her quite shamelessly. And I defend myself by quoting Picasso who said, “all art is theft”. I love her style of writing. It’s not just aesthetic, it’s also ethical. She expresses her worldview in her work right down to how she constructs her sentences. The subtle irony, the melancholy, the slightly anxious way of being in the world which she has.
Robert Dessaix – I would read anything he writes.
And my moral compass is Karl Ove Knausgård the latest literary sensation. He says whatever he thinks and gives me the courage to try to do that as well
And Geoff Dyer. I particularly enjoy his creative non-fiction book – Out Of Sheer Rage. Although this work is meant to explore creativity, it is full of delightful digressions whether about television, or Italy, or travel, or anything else Geoff Dyer fancies.
Has any of your thinking about what’s okay to write changed since you’ve had kids?
Yes and no. The only thing with kids is…how do I say this. My second child, he’s four months old, he was recently diagnosed with visual impairment. And it’s been really hard. I’m okay now but I don’t know if I’d be able to write about what I really think about that. That’s the only thing. But for example my book on non-monogamy, I totally stand by it and I don’t have any trouble with my boys one day reading it. I have a step-son who’s 21 and I asked him not to read it.
You asked him not to?
He said to me “Can I read it?” and I said “I’d rather that you didn’t.” So he didn’t. He’s pretty good like that. But one day if he wants to read it he can.
And how did he react when you said I’d rather not?
He isn’t really a big reader, so I think he was relieved actually. But he comes to me every now and again and says, “I saw your book here” and he came to the book launch, so he’s been supportive in this way.
That’s lovely. I wonder how your thoughts will change as your boys get older and as the social rules about sexually become more prominent for them. I know that’s happened with my girls for instance.
I think if they were girls I’d perhaps feel like this too. I’m always more protective of girls, even in my classes. So I think if I was a mother of daughters I would have said something else.
In terms of motherhood and having children, I think my sexuality has suffered after having children because it makes you feel too wholesome. So I don’t want this to creep into my writing as well. Because the only reason for me to write is because I wanted this to be the space where I could take risks and even be controversial you know? And it just wouldn’t be worth for me writing if I have to think too much about what I’m allowed to write. I don’t think I’ll be changing the topics I write about because I’ve had children. I wouldn’t like myself much if I did that.
It sounds like motherhood will perhaps be a tension for you with your work? I mean just as you rail against becoming unsexual as a mother, maybe you’ll have to rail against having to write about “mother-friendly topics”.
You know when I’m thinking about this it’s interesting. I mean for a lot of my life my mother really opposed my writing and that was wonderful because her opposition actually inspired me, it spurred me on. And now she’s stopped opposing it. So now maybe my husband and children will take over and become my inadvertent muses.
It’s tough isn’t it, when you’ve got other people to think about, especially when you’re writing about parts of their lives?
True, but I hope this tension will only fire up my work. I feel that in some ways the writing scene in Australia is a little bit too bourgeois for me – too ‘nice’, too ‘considerate’. Of course, I am generalising here, not everyone is like that, but I see a lot of so-called sensible writing around. Although I myself have started living a more middle class life and I hope this doesn’t affect my writing. If it did I’d be really worried.
That would concern me too, I think…to settle down and to think your writing’s going to settle down too?
It’s sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand I do need to be settled to write properly, as when I’m experiencing a lot of highs and lows in my life it’s really hard to keep working. But on the other hand, it is easy to get all nice about writing and please people and these things. This is something I’m really trying to avoid doing.
I’ve had quite an adventurous life and I wrote about it. But now, although I have a calmer life I still feel as though I have lots to write about. I’m now more interested in taking daily experiences and making something meaningful from them. And when I think of this, I think of Helen Garner. She and Robert Dessaix are really good at taking the mundane and turning it into something magical. I try to do this too, but on a smaller scale. I’m just an apprentice.
Is there anything you absolutely won’t write about?
Let me think…I don’t think so at the moment. Look, there’s a lot of fear in me about sounding politically incorrect. And often I think in such a way. But I’m scared. I’m not saying I won’t write about. But I mean, it took me five years of writing to admit I am non-monogamous by nature. And I think this is going to be a long process too, to find the courage to write against some of our current political norms.
Although just as a side issue, non-monogamy has also become normative, and even celebrated now, hasn’t it?
Recently, yes, to some extent. But it was not when I was writing it. It’s a fairly new development. Even the literary establishment was a bit wary of my book at the start. I think non-monogamy is at the moment where the gay movement was in around the 70s. So it’s starting to emerge and gaining some acceptance.
And also context is important isn’t it? So it might be okay for people in their twenties and without kids, but perhaps not as accepted in a woman in her 40s who has kids?
Yes, yes you’re right. That’s exactly right.
I’m interested in what your day looks like now that you’re a mother of two small children.
So, my main writing happens when my children are in childcare. So I’m really good at taking advantage of every moment I get.
Before children I was very very skilled at procrastinating. Now I find myself breastfeeding the baby and typing with one hand. Crouching by his playmat and cooing at him and at the same time typing. Putting him to sleep and typing. And I’m doing my writing in all sorts of physical positions, not just on the couch or desk, but as I was saying, during breastfeeding or with a toddler on my lap. I have a nanny for half a day a week, and then the baby and I go to the library or cafe and I work with him strapped to me in the baby carrier.
I remember those days. You get there in the end but everything’s in slow motion, isn’t it? And I wonder if that’s how you feel as well?
That’s right. The main thing I find difficult is this: my work isn’t just writing, but it’s also appearing in public events and teaching. The worst thing is when have to leave the children at home and go out, and this can break my heart, particularly when the toddler gets really distressed about me going out.
A few years ago I was teaching and my breast started leaking and I had to spend the class with my arm over my chest. I think I thought about the baby or something and this caused the letdown. It was very embarrassing.
Finally, what’s the one thing you tell your students about writing?
Really it’s four things.
Here’s my mantra:
1. Writing is reading
2. All writing is rewriting
3. Write only what is urgent
4. Write what makes you uncomfortable
You know how you asked me before about why I tackle these uncomfortable issues. It’s because this is the best material, unfortunately. There’s a good reason why it makes you uncomfortable. I’ve spent a lot of time writing what I thought I should be writing rather than what I want to write. I hope I won’t make such a mistake again.