Canberra Centre Masthead

Five minutes with author Bri Lee

HerCanberra Team

Bri Lee began her first day of work at the Queensland District Court as a bright-eyed judge’s associate.

Two years later she was back as the complainant in her own case.

Her memoir, Eggshell Skull, is the story of Bri’s journey through the Australian legal system: first as the daughter of a policeman, then as a law student, and finally as a judge’s associate in both metropolitan and regional Queensland, where justice can look very different, especially for women.

Eggshell Skull is a fierce and eloquent memoir that addresses both Bri’s own reckoning with the past as well as with the stories around her. It’s a haunting appraisal of modern Australia.

We chatted to Bri ahead of her appearance at Muse on Sunday 27 May.

Was there one moment of realisation that you had to write your own story, or do you see it as a culmination of bearing witness to so many other survivor stories?

Both. There’s definitely one particular moment in the book where I realise I must come forward – it was the first time I heard someone read their own victim impact statement out loud to the courtroom. The relief and closure they described was so extremely affecting. I think it only affected me that much though, because I’d spent so long bearing witness to every single other trial and sentence that came before it. Maybe it was like Jenga – so many turns had weakened the tower, one big blow meant it all came down.

Having seen what you had seen in your work re the legal process for sexual violence survivors, what did you think your own chances for justice were?

I definitely didn’t start proceedings because I thought I would ‘win’, I did it because I had this overwhelming sense that I had to try. I knew that even if things didn’t go my way, that it was important for me to make the complaint and take a stand. I did it because he was still enjoying the trust and love of our friends and family and I couldn’t abide that anymore. What I definitely did not anticipate was just how long and gruelling the process would be, regardless of the outcome. I underestimated just how tough all those women I’d seen in court had already had to have been for years before the trials even began. 

How did you set on the style of memoir mixed with social commentary for your writing?

I knew during my year as a judge’s associate that I was seeing things a fraction of the population got to see. Most people who get to that stage of the legal profession definitely don’t speak out about it because it would ruin their careers and they’ve worked so hard for them. I knew I’d need to write a page-turner for people to pay attention and read all the way through, and the plan was that at the end of Eggshell Skull readers would have a bit of knowledge of feminist jurisprudence. The best art of any form is always that which is both entertaining and educational; it’s gotta make you feel and think. I did my best. Fingers crossed!

You are now working on an academic legal project – can you tell us a bit about that and what you hope to achieve? 

Yes! One of my old law professors and I are going to try to get some legislative updates happening to the Mistake of Fact defence to sexual assault in Queensland. Currently, a defendant will be acquitted for rape or sexual assault if they can prove they had an honest and reasonable belief the complainant was consenting.

The result is a lot of juries acquitting because they feel they don’t need to call either party a ‘liar’. It’s basically saying to the survivor, ‘We believe you didn’t want it, but we won’t put this person in jail for a big misunderstanding.’ In reality, some of the cases of ‘mistake of fact’ are infuriating and loathsome. Other states in Australia are doing better than Queensland, and overall we’re moving towards a positive model of consent. I’m hoping to do my bit to get us there faster.

What books (or other media) helped you with the writing of this book?

During the first 18 months of writing this book, I tried to read every single work of first-person non-fiction written by an Australian woman I could find. I also read all the narrative non-fiction about crime and justice I could find, and basically all the Helen Garner in the world. Some writers swear by only – or definitely not – reading works similar to the one you’re working on. For me, immersing myself in the genre and myriad voices writing on similar themes was the only way to see what I did and didn’t like. What really “helped” though, was all the great TV we have had in the last 2-3 years with kickass women protagonists. 

What’s on your TBR pile?

Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett, the latest by Leslie Jamieson, Small Wrongs by Kate Rossmanith, The Court Reporter by Jamelle Wells, Happy Never After by Jill Stark, and more of Montaigne’s essays. That’s just what I can see on my desk right now – don’t get me started on what’s beside the bed.   

And finally, tell us a bit about your work with HCBB (Hot Chicks with Big Brains)?

I’m the Founding Editor of this radical intersectional quarterly publication. Issue #6 will be out on June 1 and it’s so fabulous. Interviews, conversations, memoirs, essays, and a bunch of illustrations and photography – all on our eternal theme of ‘women and work’. The next issue has some conservationists, an architect, a playwright and an author, a gerontologist, and tons more. Commissioning and editing work has taught me a lot about writing, and I’m proud of the community that now enjoys the publication. 

the essentials

What: Bri Lee in conversation with feminartsy Editor in Chief/Founder Zoya Patel
When: Sunday 27 May from 3 – 4 pm
Where: Muse Bookstore, bottom floor of East Hotel, 69 Canberra Avenue, Kingston
Cost: $12 (includes a complimentary glass of house wine or soft drink). Book via the website

user

Her Canberra

Sometimes a story is bigger than one person...that's when the HerCanberra Team puts its collective head together to come up with the goods. Enjoy! More about the Author