Interview by Helen Stubbs.
ROWENA SPECHT-WHYTE worked as a commercial litigation lawyer for ten years (in Australia and the UK), while writing music and stories. She left the law to be an active agent for change, and is currently studying a Masters degree in Communication for Social Change to qualify as an independent practitioner in that field. Her interests focus on combatting social inequalities and improving the possibilities for disadvantaged groups in developed countries like Australia (particularly in relation to mental health, queer rights and women’s rights). In particular, she is exploring the ability of speculative fiction in all media to empower the voice of marginalised and disadvantaged people and communities. Rowena had her first short story, “Touched”, published in 2012 in the anthology Deck the Halls. She is currently working on short stories and a novel in the fantasy and horror genres, and has been a three-time judge for the Aurealis Awards. She was the singer and joint songwriter for the Brisbane progressive rock band “never” for five years and she continues to write original music and collaborates with musicians worldwide.
Tell us about your most recent publication and your experience judging the Aurealis Awards.
I first became a judge of the Aurealis Awards in 2009 and during the process we read over 120 short stories to decide the finalists and winner. I was a judge again in 2010 (53 novels) and 2014 (approx. 120 stories), and every time I was astounded by the incredible quality of the work in Australia. I was honoured to read all eligible published works for each judging year, rather than (as it would be if I weren’t on the panel) just those that were brought to my attention through marketing or recommendations from friends and other writers. The value of the Aurealis Awards is that all panelists do have to read the full breadth of entries, which means that the work awarded could be written by an established or brand new author. That is incredibly important. I recommend applying to become a judge of the Aurealis Awards to any writer or reader of speculative fiction.
My first (and only – so far) publication was in 2012: my horror story “Touched” in the anthology “Deck the Halls”, part of the Literary Mix Tapes’ series, the brainchild of Brisbane writer/editor/publisher extraordinaire, Jodi Cleghorn. “Touched” tells the story of a queer mannequin who falls in love with a young woman, to obsessive lengths. Since that publication, I have been working on several short stories and a novel. Finishing them is the trick!
Tell me about your past work and your Masters in Communication for Social Change?
In early 2014 while I was living in London, I suffered a mental health crisis (my most serious, though not my first) which meant I could no longer work. I had to return to Australia and try and find a new future. I have always been interested in how speculative fiction can create new and different perspectives for the reader, and in this way, can change that reader’s understanding of our reality, and I believe the political element of speculative fiction and other art is crucial to society’s progression. I wanted to find a way to build on my experience in the legal profession, my background in psychology, and my interest in the political and the arts and, purely by chance, I found the Masters in Communication for Social Change at the University of Queensland, which allows me to do just that. My Masters’ study is giving me greater skills to design and eventually enact social change programs in Australia, and I hope to include speculative fiction across all media as part of these programs, with a view to empowering and encouraging more diverse voices. As a queer woman, with mental illness and chronic illness, I have some understanding of disadvantages and I am also alive to my privileges, particularly being a white person in Australia, as well as someone of a high level of education. These lived experiences and understandings heavily inform my creative work and my academic work through my Masters and I believe that speculative fiction has a very strong place in wider social change on these issues.
For example, while there is an increase in representation by the numbers of disadvantaged groups in media, both writing and TV and film, there is a dearth of authentic representation, by which I mean representation that resonates with authentic voice. I am interested in exploring and developing participatory media social change processes with marginalised or under-represented/inaccurately-represented groups and working with creators to form connections and increase understanding of the authentic voice of these groups. As a priority, of course, marginalised and disadvantaged people with artistic skill and ability need to be encouraged to themselves create art and express their voices directly through that art, and the overwhelming structural problems such disadvantaged and marginalised people face in doing so need to be challenged. However, I think there is a place for creators to learn and write disadvantaged and marginalised groups into their art, but if doing so, these creators must be engaged in an ongoing communication with these groups. I would like to facilitate that sort of communication as I believe it will not only enrich our art, but also our society.
I have had the opportunity to talk about these issues on various panels over the last year, most recently at Contact 2016 – the 55th Australian National Speculative Fiction Convention, where I discussed representation of queer people in spec fic, and the culture wars surrounding the Hugo Awards, which of course are symptoms of our wider societal politics surrounding diversity. I am engaged in a public conversation regarding feminism, queer rights and mental health more widely as well, and appeared on the headline panel of “The Future of Feminism in Australia” at the One Woman Project’s Brisbane’s Finest Feminists in July 2016, among others.
I hope also that as I am more vocal about my mental health conditions, chronic health conditions, and experiences as a queer woman in Australia and overseas, this will allow people to recognise that they are not alone in their experiences or to empathise and understand these different perspectives.
What do you plan to work on next?
I am working on an urban fantasy novel set in London about Melody Carter, a queer woman who has recently started drug dealing with vampires to get some quick cash. It’s OK, you see, because she hates vampires, she’s only doing it for a short time to tide herself over, and it’s not at all because the head dealer, Holly, is great in bed. Suddenly, Holly is in the wind, her day-job is on the line, and she has to make a terrible decision.
I started planning and writing about Melody when I was living in London and just prior to my mental health crisis. The writing stalled, though the characters and scenes have been building themselves quietly in the corners of my mind over the years since. I’ve been nibbling away at scenes through my recovery and I’m nearly ready to dive back in.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I absolutely loved “Lament for the Afterlife” by Lisa L Hannett (http://chizinepub.com/books/lament-afterlife) and also the Australian vampire duology of “Blood and Dust” and “The Big Smoke” by Jason Nahrung (http://clandestinepress.com.au/author/jason-nahrung). I am very excited by the anthology “Defying Doomsday” by Twelfth Planet Press which contains stories with protagonists who have a disability, chronic illness or mental illness; an incredibly rare event and which everyone should read! (http://defyingdoomsday.twelfthplanetpress.com/) My To Be Read pile of brilliant Australian authors is ridiculously huge, but next I will sink my teeth into “Vigil” by Angela Slatter and I can’t wait! (http://www.angelaslatter.com/publications/vigil/)
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Kameron Hurley is my first pick, because I adore her feminism and I would love to just hear her talk for the entire trip. I mean, seriously, she could just read me her recent book “The Geek Feminist Revolution” and I would follow her around like a kitten. She’s amazing. http://www.kameronhurley.com/writing/the-geek-feminist-revolution/