Last night’s Jennifer Byrne Presents special, in place of ABC’s regular First Tuesday Book Club, was an interview with author and controversial political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. If you haven’t heard of Hirsi Ali, she has written two memoirs, Infidel and Nomad, and has been called the feminist counterpart to Salman Rushdie.
Hirsi Ali talks about the evolution of her ideas and the experiences that influenced her. Here’s the excerpt from the transcript, in which Hirsi Ali talks about the empowering ideas she found in romance books (any emphasis is mine):
JENNIFER BYRNE: But you did have exposure to European things, your father had been educated there.
But also, you started reading English books. Things like Enid Blyton and Barbara Cartland, which I just found hysterical to think were considered completely challenging to authority. How could Barbara Cartland be challenging to authority?
AYAAN HIRSI ALI: Well, it depends whose authority. That’s why she was challenging to authority. And this is much later in Kenya, after we had lived in Saudi Arabia and in Ethiopia. And Barbara Cartland’s books, Danielle Steel’s books, The Mills & Boon and the Harlequin.
JENNIFER BYRNE: The bodice rippers.
AYAAN HIRSI ALI: Yeah.
They challenged the authority that women should not be thinking about or indulging in any form of erotic or, um, you know, trying to imagine what it would be like to have a relationship with a male.
Descriptions, page after page, about getting aroused and meeting a man and defying his authority, of which I think Barbara Cartland also allows women to defy the authority of the bad guy.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Well, as long as she marries him in the end. What about Enid Blyton? How can that be rebelling?
AYAAN HIRSI ALI: Also because Enid Blyton – Secret Seven, Famous Five and some of the other Enid Blytons – what they do is, they encourage you as an individual to imagine that you’re a part of the Secret Seven. You’re solving mysteries, you’re a part of the Famous Five.
So that’s very different from the world I grew up in, where you are told, “Stay inside the house. Do not mingle with boys.” And there’s no such thing as solving mysteries or imagining yourself in…
You know, one day, you might want to become a policeman or a prosecutor. That’s just not done.
I haven’t seen this aspect of reading romance books (and, on a broader level, genre fiction and books aimed at younger readers) explored that much.
Hirsi Ali’s comments are particularly interesting to me because until my family moved to Australia I lived in a society in which there were still some very strong social expectations around female roles and behaviour. Obviously, my childhood was nowhere near as restrictive as hers had been, but I can’t help but feel some affinity with Hirsi Ali’s early literary journey—I bought every Nancy Drew book I could, borrowed every Famous Five book in the library and, in high school, wrote my first cheque to start a Mills & Boon subscription.
If you missed the show, the entire interview is well worth watching. Jennifer Byrne Presents: Ayaan Hirsi Ali should be repeated on ABC2 on Sunday, or you can watch the vodcast here. (If the video is geo-restricted, you may still be able to see the transcript at the bottom of the page.)
Do you find aspects of romance books empowering as well as entertaining? What did you think about Jennifer Byrne’s rather dismissive attitude towards romance? Finally—and this is the one I’m most curious about—were bodices actually ripped in Barbara Cartland’s books?