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Writers' Fortnight 2019: Cutting Outside the Box

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Writers' Fortnight 2019: Cutting Outside the Box

Ever wondered what it would feel like to meet a Disney character look-alike? The first time I met Graham Rawle was in the elevator on our way to the auditorium.  I was greeted by a younger version of Carl Fredricksen from the movie, 'Up'.  They share the same black-rimmed glasses and pushed-back hair, with pursed lips and twinkling eyes. I looked at him and saw balloons and flying houses, 60s magazines and modern collaged novels; peculiar yet fascinating.

Graham Rawle is a UK writer and collage artist whose visual works incorporate illustration, design, photography, and installation.  Among his most famous works is the novel Woman’s World created with over 40,000 fragmented texts from old magazines, with a centuries-old theme embedded within.

Woman’s World revolves around the glamorous life of Norma, a transvestite who authenticates her femininity by, as Rawle described it, “immersing herself in magazines through the obsessive wallowing in fulsome descriptions of the lovely clothes she yearns for.”

The novel emerges after five years of captivating yet tedious work, seventeen hours a day, seven days a week: extracting '60s women’s magazines, labeling them, then replacing his manuscript with the cutouts.  Rawle’s eccentric style maneuvering between ingenious and superfluous.

Rawle asked himself if collaging a novel “is too ‘gimmicky,’ or will it really enhance the story?” However, his initial hesitation was put to ease after seeing the results of replacing part of his manuscript with the magazine snippets.

At first, I could not fathom why anyone would willingly confine themselves to words from some '60s women’s magazines.  However, I soon realised that Woman’s World is nothing like the strings of old fashioned words I envisioned.  Through the somewhat laughable phrases like “lovely wipe-clean DEEP GLOSS colours,” and “raucous red Boulevard court shoes,” the whimsical personality of Norma strikes through.

The vintage vocabularies and designs capture our attention; further deepening our understanding of a world half a century ago, while simultaneously letting us into the minds of the ‘60s society.  As a student, Alan Lucas, says, “When I read the book, I really feel like I’m in the ‘60s.”

Rawle wants “to fight against sexism and female stereotypes, against unrealistic standards and the gaping gap between real-life women and magazine models with seemingly glamorous lives” through the unraveling of Norma’s story.

He twists women’s magazines, the very texts he stands against, and turns them around; creating a powerful voice.  He chopped up traditions and rearranged them for us to recognize the ridiculous manuals that 60s’ women based their lives on.

So how has our society changed these past 50 years?  Grade nine student, Anthony Shen, explains how “Issues regarding sexism have transcended culture and completely infiltrated our society!”

Many of today’s magazines aimed at women are not very different from women’s magazines in the 1960s.  Although they may be structured on a slightly different moral code, “They still possess a strong dogmatic, prescriptive tone with a code of standards on how women should look and behave,” said Rawle. “Anything short of the prescribed ideals in eyelash length, tooth whiteness, or fingernail shape is just not acceptable.”  These mindsets, deeply rooted in us through years of brainwashing does not leave much room for the broader differences in women that should be celebrated rather than decried.

However, as a girl living in the 21st century, I can see that our society has definitely taken a leap towards embracing the “flaws” of women.  Leading magazines like Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Beyond Fashion are now featuring models who do not necessarily fit into the “standard beauty,” from large foreheads to albinism to women with Down's Syndrome.

As Amanda Richards, a senior editor of InStyle, wrote in 2019, “Just a handful of years ago, the presence of plus-size women at fashion week was woefully rare.  But every season, I see more of you.”

The definition of what it means to be a female is no longer a box that people try to squeeze themselves into, rather, it is a blank page with the promise of individuality.

Listening to Graham Rawle was a refreshing break from the usual confines of classroom walls, a peek into the real world beyond grades, rubrics, and college applications.

It was surreal to meet someone usually seen on Wikipedia pages and book covers.  It reminded us that the author is an actual human being just like us.  Shock rippled through the auditorium when Rawle revealed that Norma is a cross-dresser.  One of the students, Ava De Hert, said, “It takes a lot of guts for a guy to be writing about a cross-dressing man.”

Everyone was engrossed as Rawle shared with us his upcoming project:  To make a film for Woman’s World which “uses collage, explores new areas in storytelling, montage, and narrative continuity.”  He is collaging a film score from existing soundtracks.  “I get to look at thousands of delicious black and white films from the 1950s and ‘60s,” Rawle gushed, “For me, it doesn’t get any better.  Who cares how long it takes me?”

“It is a lot of hard work finding someone who can inspire students and give them genuinely fresh ideas, for those are the things we teachers can’t provide,” the head of English, Ms. Levy, explained.  “We are not necessarily experts in journalism or authors of novels.”

Visiting authors offer new perspectives and variety often omitted in regular classes.  They also spark students’ interest in reading.  According to an experiment conducted by the Education Standards Research Team in 2012, reading for pleasure has multiple educational benefits such as enhancing reading attainment, writing ability, text comprehension, and use of grammar.  In addition, reading not only benefits students school-wise, but it increases our general knowledge, understanding of other cultures, community participation, and insight into human nature and decision-making as well.

In a time when creativity is at its peak, when everyone tries to be different, it is hard to stand out. Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World has accomplished just that.

Rawle believes that the biggest obstacle to creativity is the fear of failure, “The feeling that what we might produce won’t be good enough.” 

However, success is the accumulation of failure.  If we are not prepared to fail, we will never create anything worthwhile.  “The first draft of anything I do is always rubbish and it may turn out to be the wrong approach, but sometimes there’s a germ of a good idea that has the potential to be developed.”  Rawle’s last book Overland went through eleven complete drafts because, without all of the ‘failure’ drafts, the final book would never have existed.

Graham Rawle reminded us to embrace our seemingly stupid and unconventional ideas.  He gave us the key to free ourselves from familiar styles, patterns, and cliches; to find our own voices and tell our own stories.

He is the symbol of what so many of us are lacking:  the courage to be different.

This student article was selected for publication among the Writers' Fortnight-inspired student writings.  These stories describe people who embody critical social issues they are passionate about, engage with shared human experiences, and explore diverse, colourful lives of individuals, and the many challenges and triumphs that come with them.

Flipboard - UWCSEA East Writers Fortnight student writingTo explore more of the Writers' Fortnight-inspired student writing, please view our Flipboard.


21 Mar 2019
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