Joanne Fedler, a well-traveled mother and author with a passionate past on women’s rights and justice, used to be at the frontier advocating for abused women, working hard against those who did not believe her efforts are justified.
She worked so diligently that in 2004, Hustler magazine labeled her ‘Asshole of the month’ for her work on violent pornography and its impact on women’s equality, a title she is proud of.
Now as a writer, Joanne is portraying women’s issues through her stories. Her book Secret Mother’s Business was a worldwide hit, touching hearts of women from Australia to Europe to South Africa, and many books followed its success. Her writing retreat in June to the hills of Tuscany is already booked out months in advance and a sequel to Secret Mother’s Business is about to be launched in May. We asked Joanne about her passion, her views on women’s issues and where she is off to next.
You have an impressive resume: a law degree from Yale, a former women’s rights advocate, counselor of abused women, and CEO of a not-for-profit advocacy center. It is evident that you have always been passionate about women’s rights and issues from the start. Through your experiences over the years, what have you observed about the progress of these issues?
I’m not sure how far we’ve come; these things are tricky to measure. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to think about the issues differently and if I had to go back to working with abused women, my approach would be so different – I’d be much more focused on women’s empowerment and get rid of the language of violence and victim-hood. CARE’s ‘I Am Powerful’ campaign of 2006 is more on the mark.
Do you think women today are as much empowered to be independent and successful as the experts claim?
I do think women in western societies are much better positioned to be more independent and successful, to question marriage and motherhood and to make real choices about the lives they want to live. It’s still not easy to work and be a mother, or to get the same respect or pay check as a man – but it’s possible and a lot hinges on the attitudes women bring with them.
Quantum physics is teaching us that our thoughts largely create our reality – we have to be much more careful about what we think. Of course, there are still many places in the world where the horrors of gender inequality are as vicious and rampant as ever, and so with our liberty comes responsibility – as Toni Morrison says, ‘the purpose of freedom is to free someone else.’
When did you decide to leave the world of justice and women’s issues to become a writer? What made you change your career path?
After I had kids and moved from South Africa to Australia, I simply had no more juice in me to keep working on the frontlines. It completely burned me out. It’s partly my own fault, because I had fantasies of being able to help women escape violent relationships and change the way men treat women, but what I know now is that you cannot help people who are unwilling or unable to change themselves. We spend a lot of time blaming in our culture, when we should be focusing on how to take responsibility.
Your most recent book touches on some of women’s most intimate subjects: self-esteem and body image, and the acceptance of how we are. On your website, you describe When Hungry, Eat is “a celebration of unexpected spiritual insight, small portions and the gifts of hunger”. What are some of the most important lessons you have learned throughout your experience that you wish to teach women about ‘hunger’ and weight loss?
Hunger is a deep issue – the food just becomes a substitute for our unwillingness to face what our hunger is about. Of course it’s great to feel comfortable in our own skin and not to be unhealthily overweight, but essentially, weight loss is metaphorical – we have to travel lightly on this earth, to leave our pain and baggage behind.
The body is a wonderful teacher, but we’ve forgotten how to listen to it or to respect its wisdom. Most of us live, as James Joyce wrote of one of his characters in Ulysses, ‘a short distance from (our) bod(ies).’ If we only ate when we were hungry, and only ate enough to stop being hungry, there’d be no problem with excess weight. But we’re all over-filling ourselves as a distraction or to compensate from some deeper (spiritual?) emptiness.
Your other books touch on some of the issues modern women face in our daily lives. Have any of your previous experiences in the not-for-profit sector influenced your writing, and how?
Yes, I always write from my own experience – or at least I start there. Things Without A Name is about a woman in her early thirties, working in a woman’s center, who deals with raped and battered women all day long and has naturally lost her faith in love. But it is a love-story. Then my other books are about motherhood and women’s friendships and the issues that women face trying to ‘have it all’ and ‘be it all.’
I believe you have a trip coming up in June to Tuscany. What brought you to conducting writing retreats and journeys?
Writing gets lonely. It’s mostly a solitary activity, which suits me, because I would be impossible in a job. But at times, I get cabin fever and want to share what I’m learning with others. So now and then I venture out of my solitude to teach. I’ve taught retreats and courses before, but June’s trip with Women’s Own Adventure will be the first time I’ve travelled with a group and done writing facilitation at the same time. We’re hoping to make Tuscany an annual trip and to do other writing trips to Bali, India and in other places.
Where are some of your favorite places you have travelled to? Besides Tuscany, where would you like to go next?
I’ve travelled to Malawi, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Germany, the UK, the US, Israel, and Italy. I’d love to see much more of Europe, India, Nepal and South America. Within Australia, my favorite destination – despite how touristy it is – was Uluru, though it sickened me to see tourists climbing all over it when the sign just below it asks people to respect Aboriginal sacred sites by not climbing.
Lastly what are some of your must pack items when you travel?
I always take a journal and a range of pens when I travel. I also keep pawpaw ointment close at hand and travel sickness tablets. I usually pack a kikoi (an East African cloth/shawl) that can be used as a blanket, a skirt, a sarong, a mosquito protector, a picnic rug – in fact it has hundreds of uses.
Joanne’s new book The Reunion is due to launch in May. For further information on Joanne and her books, visit her website.