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'Our adventures were magic, and addictive'

  • Published at 06:57 pm November 14th, 2016
'Our adventures were magic, and addictive'

In the 18th century, pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft went to Scandinavia on a treasure hunt, accompanied only by her maid and baby daughter – a shocking thing for a lady of her times. The book she published, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, went on to become a bestseller, loved by readers and critics alike. 200 years down the line – writer, journalist and mum of four Bee Rowlatt decided to retrace the steps of her childhood idol and follow with her own baby in tow. In Search of Mary is the product of her travels, full of humorous and insightful anecdotes on feminism, motherhood and emancipation. Rowlatt also co-wrote Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad and is one of the writers in Virago’s Fifty Shades of Feminism. Dhaka Tribune speaks to Rowlatt about her idols, anecdotes and expectations from the Dhaka Literary Festival 2016, where she will be a panellist this weekend.

Tell us a little about your amazing journey.

Our treasure hunt led us from the high seas of the Skaggerak, via the blood-soaked streets of the French Revolution all the way to sharing Chinese takeaway with witches in San Francisco. Perhaps the most surprising element was the regular kindness of strangers. Much has changed since Wollstonecraft’s day, but just as she noted, travelling with a baby draws out a peculiar tenderness in the people you meet. We were treated with a generosity that ‘normal’ tourists can only dream of. Our adventures in Wollstonecraft’s footsteps were magic, and addictive.

We know you idolise Mary Wollstonecraft. Who else has inspired you?

The writers I always return to are Emily Bronte, Tahmima Anam and Toni Morrison. I admire people who wear their hearts on the outside, putting their own lives and passions into their work. My early reading years were illuminated by Thomas Hardy, Erich Maria Remarque and William Blake. And I was lucky to have a mum who read poems to me when I was little.

I have endless respect for those journalists around the world, especially at a local level, who bring unheard voices to an audience. People tend to discuss journalism and the media as if it were one solid entity. But there are many smaller working parts. Media is a plural noun. You only have to watch the recent movie Spotlight to see how the courage of a few relatively unknown journalists can take on the very highest powers, with devastating results.

In terms of feminism, it was becoming a mother that opened my eyes. Both my access to and view of the world changed forever. Paradoxically had I not had kids, I suspect that eventually my not becoming a mother would’ve had the same impact. Either way, society will have certain expectations of you.

What is the most annoying question you have been asked about your feminist philosophy?

I love questions! If you’re asking questions then your brain is alive. Asking questions of any philosophy should most definitely be encouraged. Mary Wollstonecraft saw it as our human duty to use our rational faculties – Reason was a key part of the Enlightenment. My worry is that the application of reason has become endangered in the rush for everyone to express their feelings: feelings of anger, feelings of being offended. This is both divisive and not particularly useful. Bring back Reason!

But if I’m honest there is a response that annoys me: “whataboutery.” That is, if you care about this, then what about all these other things too? If you worry about women’s health then what about the pay gap, if you talk about representation of women in public art then what about female genital mutilation, if you care about female infanticide then what about racism? There are so many excuses not to get stuff done. It’s just lazy. And boring. Don’t do it.

What are you reading right now?

The pile by my bedside includes Ali Smith’s Autumn and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing.

How do you feel about visiting the Dhaka Lit Fest?

I’m grateful and very excited to come to the Dhaka Lit Fest. I’ve heard so much about Bangladesh and its tradition of fearless women. I can’t wait to find out more about the people and culture, and DLF is the perfect opportunity. Thank you for having me!