Bitin’ Back is the story written by Vivienne Cleven in 2000; it brought the David Unaipon Award to the author and made her one of the most famous writers in Australia and in other parts of the world. This story is a kind of hallucinatory romp that deals with gender confusions, family problems and support, drug taking, cross-dressing, and mental problems.
The themes of sexuality and race inequality turn out to be one of the major ones in Cleven’s story; the author makes a wonderful attempt to use irony in order to represent the ideas, send a kind of a message to the reader, and help some people to choose the way of life according to personal interests and preferences.
With the help of quite ironical situations, the narrator explains how it is difficult to be a part of with world and respect own desires even if they contradicts the rules, established by the society. To comprehend why Vivienne Cleven prefers this very style of writing and chooses irony as the major means to introduce and solve the problems, it is possible to compare this work with the one by Michel Wilding, Sex in Australia from the Man’s Point of View.
Bitin’ Back is a comic novel that tells a story about one woman, who tries to protect her son against society and its ridicules as for son’s preferences to dress as a woman. Mavis Dooley, the mother, chooses rather craze experiences to help her son, and the only relief she can use is watching Ricki Lake on TV.
She adores her son, Nevil, but, at the same time, she is confused because of such injustice and people’s prejudice. The story starts when the mother enters her son’s room and faces the first problem: her son asks her to call him like Jean Rhys, the name of one already dead white writer, and decides to choose his dress-style from the man’s one to woman’s. To my mind, her answer may serve as a good example of irony: “’Are you on drugs, son?’ I peer at his face, waitin for a confession. The boy flyin high or what?” (Cleven, 2001, p. 3)
The mother’s reaction is quite understandable; she does not expect to hear such words in morning and hear them from her own son. Mavis has nothing to do but think about the ways to hide her son from society until he does want to come to his senses: she tells that he is suffering from some mysterious illness or continues his education at TAFE. She does not like the chosen ways and tries to judge herself: “I almost bite my tongue, knowin whit shame yet another lie is passin me lips.” (Cleven, 2001, p. 25)
However, with time, Mavis ironically turns into a kind of mad woman. The author chooses rather an interesting way to involve the reader; she explains how the woman comes to such conditions and discloses more interesting details – how she is going to solve these problems and escape from them. The humour, used by the narrator, really captivates and burns more desire to read and follow the events, which happen to the characters.
Irony may be tracked in lots of her steps: she tries to convince herself that her son is not a gay, she uses much swearing to express her discontent and desire to change something. Of course, the change of sexuality is a really big deal, however, if this process is already happening, a few things can be done to prevent it.
“The figure of the transsexual (and indeed the homosexual) is familiar as an object of violence to a white reader. We know something of the dangers of that kind of transgression.” (Ravenscroft, 2003, p. 189) This is why another problem, described in the story, is race and the inequality that exists in the world nowadays.
People try to think that the issues of race do not disturb them at all. But still, when they face them closer, prejudice and even pride become more and more noticeable. Mavis Dooley is a black sovereign warrior woman, who is ready to use all her powers just to protect her son and help him with his transformation to Jean Rhys.
She wants to find more information about that dead white writer. She gets to know that “Jean Rhys was an extraordinary author. She had, of course, a life of considerable anguish and torment.” (Cleven, 2001, p. 35) Still, this author was not a man, who preferred woman’s cloth to man’s cloth, and her son, a male, wants to use this person as the one to follow and admire. It was not right, and not because of race, as lots of the readers may think, but because of gender.
Without any doubts, people want to change something in their live, but to change gender, race, and sexuality simultaneously… Is it possible for a young boy, a team leader, a son…? Will he be understood by the others? What kind of support can he find? The mother will find the answers to these questions and help him without taking consideration into his race or sexuality.
“When ya black, well things get a bit tricky like…But when ya got a black fella sayin he’s a woman – a white woman at that! Well, the ol’ dice just rolls in another direction.” (Cleven, 2001, p. 5)
Of course, the mother are unhappy and confused with her son’s choice, she underlines the nonsense of all this and wants to find more facts to help her child change his mind and come back to the real world with its all rules and prejudice, because people cannot forget and pay attention to them.
Of course, Vivienne Cleven is not the only author, who likes to use irony in her stories. There are lots of amazing writers, who make attempts to identify and solve the problems connected with race inequality, sex preferences, and gender confusions. One of such writers is Michael Wilding; his Sex in Australia from the Man’s Point of View is a good example of how the author uses irony in order to represent the main ideas of the story.
First, the dialogue at the beginning of the story is worth attention. A man raises the questions about sex and man’s points of view to all this, and a girl, Lily, looks like not hearing his sentence, starts talking about a jet biplane. With all my imagination, it is quite possible to compare Australian man’s attitude to sex with the sounds of a jet: quick, unexpected, and not long lasting.
Of course, it is just an imagination, but still, it exists. Almost each discussion at the beginning of this story is characterized by some comparison to a jet or wheels. “I guess one of us could have stayed on the sand and Lily could have floated on sea and marked a single X for each possibility, but we preferred to be together. ‘It’s not a jet, it’s a pusher prop.” (Wilding, 2002, p. 296) If we compare irony used by Wilding with the one used by Cleven, we will find lots of differences. Cleven’s irony is a bit rude and abuse.
The characters are not afraid to express their feelings with the help of obscene language and their choice. Wilding prefers certain themes and compares everything within one concrete circles. However, it turns out to be a bit strange to compare man’s points of view about sex with wheels and props.
The narrator in Cleven’s story and the narrator in Wilding’s story are a bit similar: both of them are strong, have their own opinions, and are not afraid to represent their ideas. However, Mavis demonstrates more care about her relatives and desire to help, while Wilding’s character is more concentrated on personal satisfaction.
In fact, all ironical approaches, which Vivienne Cleven chooses for her story, impressed me a lot. It is quite unusual to solve the problems turning them into something funny and ridiculous. Mavis Dooley is a powerful, bold, and centred character, who proves that desire and abilities – this is what may help to escape lots of problems and help the others to do the same.
Wilding choice may be also approved: his ideas to compare sex with a jet and its sounds are rather provoking. Lots of people want to know more about sex, but still, are afraid to talk about it and present personal points of view.
Is it correct to use irony to discuss real-life problems? Or, is it just the easiest way? Every person has his/her own point of view, and the reader has nothing to do but find out how the authors see the problems of race, sexuality, and gender and introduce them to public. Vivienne Cleven did a great job and provided lots of people with one more way to solve family problems and support the relatives.
Cleven, Vivienne. Bitin’ Back. University of Queensland Press, 2001.
Ravenscroft, Alison. “Curled Up Like a Skinny Black Question Mark’: The Irreducibility of Gender and Race in Vivienne Cleven’s Bitin’ Back.” Australian Feminist Studies, 18.41 (2003): 187-197
Wilding, Michael. “Sex in Australia from the Man’s Point of View.” The Australia Short Story by Hergenhan, Laurie. University of Queensland Press, 2002.