Provocare: Murderous Feminism in Liminal Fiction
“Queensland Digital Writing on the international stage: QUT and The Writing Platform” is an Arts Queensland-funded programme which supports collaborations between writers and interactive designers to develop works for exhibition on The Writing Platform.
The first project supported by the programme is ‘Provocare‘, a digital fiction, created by Meg Vann, Mez Breeze and Donna Hancox.
‘Provocare’ is based on ‘Provocation‘, a short story by Meg Vann, that has been adapted using Flipbook software into an interactive, digital fiction. The work explores themes of female agency and violence against women at a time in Australia when fifty-two women have been murdered by their intimate partners or ex-partners in 2015 alone.
In this article writer, Meg Vann, explores the concepts and practices sitting behind ‘Provocare’, and reflects on the process of collaborating with other artists. You can view the finished work here.
Violence against women is endemic, while the creative expression of violence against women in crime fiction is popularly skewed towards ‘murder porn’, where threat becomes titillation. Can digital and transmedia literature enable crime writing to challenge predatory viewpoints and express lesser-heard voices?
As a feminist crime thriller writer who loves producing (and consuming) dark and twisty stories, I purposefully create dramatic tension and narrative interest through subverting victim viewpoints into characters embodying strength, especially those of young women or women from culturally diverse backgrounds.
‘Provocare’ (pron. Prov-oh-car-ay), enabled me to adapt a domestic noir novelette into a multimedia verse thriller. Working with collaborators Mez Breeze (design and web development) and Donna Hancox (project manager), ‘Provocare’ was an opportunity to develop practical skills in digital literature, as well as to investigate emerging issues in feminist literary theory.
Provocation: man-made and natural disasters
‘Provocare’ is adapted from an original work, Provocation, a novelette commissioned by experimental digital literary journal Review of Australian Fiction. The piece grew from a couple of ideas that kept haunting me.
Firstly, the story is dedicated in loving memory of a real-life young woman who was killed by covert violence. Her stalker had been court-ordered to keep his distance from her, her house, and her workplace. But she was dependent on medication for a chronic illness, and he put two and two together, loitering around her neighbourhood chemist. She spied him, ran home, and died there alone, literally gasping for relief. Her death was not recorded as murder. As far as I can find out, no charges were laid, and no action taken.
The other major idea arose after the 2011 Brisbane floods, a devastating natural crisis causing heartbreaking deaths and damage, which also brought out strengths and bonds in my home town that older residents compare with community responses to WWII.
My place of work in the State Library of Queensland was inundated and displaced during those floods, as were many friends’ homes and workplaces. During the clean-up, I learned the library is connected to neighbouring galleries by subterranean loading docks. Together, these docks formed a massive underground whirlpool when the Brisbane River broke its banks. Security cameras kept rolling as industrial bins were swept away like tin cans, ramming into the huge portable walls used in galleries. Fish, furniture, trash and rubble were carried from the basement of one building and deposited in far reaches of the next. Fascinated, I conducted informal staff interviews and made unauthorised tours of those docks. The destruction, the surveillance, the recovery: this became the focus for how I dealt with the trauma of the flood event.
Combining the ideas of stalking and surveillance, I created the premise for ‘Provocation’: A young woman recovering from anorexia nervosa is covertly stalked by a security guard at the premises of her dream job. This middle-aged man has access to her every move, and an array of rationalisations to justify his increasing surveillance. Her uniquely disordered thinking becomes her best defence. But the stress triggers deepening psychosis, leading to an endgame where meaning and motive are as murky as the depths of a river in flood.
‘Provocare‘ draws on two main schools of writing: crime thrillers, and digital narratives.
The crime and thriller genre includes stories that explore morality, justice and society through the kaleidoscopic vision created by breaking legal or ethical norms. ‘Provocare’ draws strongly on the Second Golden Age of crime fiction, as well contemporary crime fiction, especially domestic noir.
The Second Golden Age stems from the early 1980s when Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton published ‘something in a new key’ : books that belong both to the classical noir tradition of the crime novel and to the then emerging trend of women’s feminist fiction. Like their male counterparts, central characters are tough, poor, and flawed. But as women, they value friends and (non-traditional) family, relying on an interconnected network of relationships to survive and solve the crime at hand . In resolving crimes, they problematise ‘good’ and ‘bad’ through challenging assumptions based on socio-economic inequalities and cultural stereotypes: these feisty female protagonists deliver social as well as legal justice.
Contemporary crime fiction encompasses many different sub-genres, whose writers use and subvert generic traditions to critique and challenge contemporary society . The long-standing popularity of crime fiction foreshadowed contemporary cultural preoccupations with violence and criminal insanity . In a world filled with terror, the psychology and deduction of the contemporary crime fiction novel challenge and comfort the reader against a background of social realism .
Domestic noir is one of the newest subgenres to emerge from this tradition. Gillian Flynn’s bestseller ‘Gone Girl’ is probably the best known, but I refer you to Flynn’s earlier works for a better demonstration of well-crafted thrillers based on the notion that we do our worst to those we love best. Featuring women-centred narratives set in homes and workplaces , domestic noir is a potentially powerful sub-genre to express and explore violence against women and children in thrilling narratives that can also serve to agitate for community safety and social justice.
Collaboration and transformation
Digital fiction is well-established but in constantly shifting nascency across artform and platform, providing stimulating constraints for the development of new work. The cultural production process for this piece was based in collaboration and transformation.
In weekly meetings, Donna, Mez and I identified a suitable piece, brainstormed possible narrative structures and publication/gaming platforms, and agreed on a design brief. The collaboration process was inclusive, flexible and decisive. Donna, Mez and I knew and respected each other’s work and talents, which made for a great project team. We aligned with the goal of producing a beautiful feminist narrative playing with the notion of ‘book’ to challenge thriller narratives through exploring lesser-heard voices.
Even with prior experience in managing and producing digital literature experiments through if:book Australia, as a writer, adapting a medium-form literary piece to a short-form multimedia environment was a creative challenge. My approach to the writing process was to:
Condense the narrative
- Reduce the word count from 10,000 to 600 words
- Strip out subplots and secondary characters
- Clarify the main storyline while preserving complexity (create a scene map to play around with)
- Compress the backstory for each character
- Move backstory to the front, providing a brief and compelling motive for protagonist and antagonist actions to follow
- Simplify viewpoint: minimise and consolidate point-of-view changes into verse structure (one POV per verse, instead of one per scene)
Respect the context
- Strip anchoring and orientation details out of the text because they are carried by design elements (I encourage you to check out Mez’s artwork in ‘Provocare‘)
- Build paratextual signposts to narrative shape (a ‘traffic light’ system signalling both surveillance areas and escalating stakes)
- Consult with relevant peers for critique: realising the new piece was developing into verse thriller form, I sought critical feedback from a respected poet who deals with domestic noir themes, Julie Beveridge
- Allow for post-production edits, but keep them to a minimum: post-design edits can be time-consuming for designers, so limit post-design edits to only non-substantive changes, e.g. removing dead conjunctions or inelegant repetitions (that often only become apparent in design proofs)
You can’t make this shit up
In choosing the format for ‘Provocare‘, I was guided by Mez’s research and Donna’s experience. We initially explored gaming platforms and reader-driven branching narratives, but assessed these as embedding a reader too deeply in the point-of-view of a stalked character. Surveillance and stalking crimes are so common, and the incidence of PTSD around these experiences are so prevalent and often poorly managed; we needed a narrative structure that provides a safe fictional framework. We decided to adapt Flipbook software to create a linear, text-based multimedia narrative, where agency vests in the protagonist, not the reader, who can then experience the cathartic thrill of identification without the threat of direct conflict.
Two years after publishing Provocation, and only two months prior to the ‘Provocare‘ commission, this article was published in Brisbane Times:
Whistleblowers say the State Government is stalling million-dollar sexual harassment claims from female State Library of Queensland staff after many women have been identified in 2784 secret close-up photographs of breasts and cleavage discovered on a government-issued iPhone and iPad in 2012.
The photographs, showing close-ups of the cleavage of women SLQ staff, women from the public and young female high-school students, were taken by a senior State Library of Queensland staff member on that staff member’s government-issued iPhone and iPad…
The Queensland Industrial Relations Commissioner has questioned why a state library worker secretly taking photographs of six co-workers’ breasts in 2012 was not considered sexual harassment. 
So, while I was writing ‘Provocation’, unbeknownst to me, a senior staff member was using work-issued devices to surveil and objectify women, including school-aged girls. Once discovered, the perpetrator was moved on with his anonymity mostly intact. This perpetrator is known to me; I’ve attended meetings and work functions with him. He has a miniscule online footprint, but a deep web search turns up one reference where he lists his current employment as ‘free soul’.
The protagonist of ‘Provocare‘ is a young woman who survives a life-threatening dismorphic disease, then confronts a stalker in the workplace. Both threats to her life and well-being arise from surveillance: physical, cultural, psychological, technological. In subverting these forms of surveillance, women have the potential to take control (for example, of the means of data production), empowering ourselves against the normative, pernicious, and unrecognized violence perpetrated against us.
The kaleidoscopic end-game of ‘Provocare‘ is borne of the protagonist’s psychosis, but demonstrates the sanity of her response, given the endless, invisible work women conduct to keep ourselves safe.
As an emerging writer exploring lesser-heard voices through non-traditional narratives, my pathway to readers relies on digital spaces. Both ‘Provocation’ and ‘Provocare‘ came to life through projects that are experimental across many aspects: technology, business model, creative process, narrative structure, and subject matter. Investment in experimental digital writing, such as that from QUT and Arts Queensland, is crucial in developing experimental literature to challenge predatory viewpoints and to voice women’s narratives.
All three creators of Provocare will be taking part in ‘Collaboration Nation’, a panel session at Story +/ Brisbane Writers Festival, on 4th September 2015 at 1.30pm. Tickets can be booked via the Brisbane Writers Festival website.
 Edgar Allen Poe, referring to his first work of detective fiction, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, published in 1941
 Nicole Décuré, “V.I. Warshawsky, a “lady with guts”: Feminist crime fiction by Sara Paretsky”. Womens Studies International Forum, 12: 2, 1989
 Susannah Thompson, Complex and Complicated Journeys: A Feminist Reading of Australian Crime Fiction. Masters Thesis. Melbourne: Monash University, 1994
 Sally R. Munt, Murder by the Book? Feminism and the Crime. Routledge, 1994
 Susannah Thompson, Op Cit
 Julia Crouch, Genre Bender http://juliacrouch.co.uk/blog/genre-bender
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