From heroin-addicted sex worker to best-selling author, Kate Holden tells Southeast Asia Globe about fighting social misconceptions and the literary world’s double standards
By David Hutt
On the sheet in front of me are two dozen interview questions with subheadings such as “sex”, “heroin addiction” and “prostitution”. Sensitive subjects for a regular interview, perhaps, but today’s subject is Kate Holden, the bestselling author of two memoirs, the first of which describes with brutal honesty her years as a heroin addict and sex worker in Australia.
Holden’s first memoir, In My Skin, published in 2005, became an immediate bestseller. Shortlisted for literary awards and translated into several languages, it also went through five reprints in the first year of publication. Exploring her downward spiral from a shy, intelligent teenager living in a middle-class suburb to a sex worker on the streets of Melbourne with an expensive heroin addiction, it was praised for realistic depictions that refused to indulge in embellishment or sensationalism.
In her second book, The Romantic, released five years later, Holden is on a pilgrimage of self-discovery across Italy. Drugs are gone and she is off the game, but sex is still prevalent. There are threesomes, car bonnets with buttock-shaped dents and experiments with dildos.
“Some people saw them as sexual memoirs, but I didn’t see them like that,” explains Holden. “I don’t think my writing is very sexy, it’s just about sex.
“Sex in literature is very marketable. But there are a lot of double standards. A man can write about sex and he’s not a sex writer. But for female writers, they can be pigeonholed into becoming just sex writers.”
Double standards in the literary world clearly do not sit easily with this writer. “It’s the same with drugs,” she continues. “There is the model of the heroin user as a heroic male figure, who is a kind of outlaw. An agonised, yet manly young man.”
Indeed, of the vast array of books about drug addiction, the majority are written by men about men. Think William Burroughs, Irvine Welsh, Will Self.
“Some of these drug memoirs, like William Burroughs, I read whilst using drugs. But afterwards I stayed away from them because I didn’t find them comfortable reading,” says Holden.
According to her, the masculine images perpetuated by the media and in literature of the self-destructive user, whose dark impulses spill out into crime, or the hedonist for whom heroin is an escape from a dull normality, are not particularly true to life or helpful when understanding the realities of drug addiction.
The heroin users she knew weren’t outlaws or wild savages, they were “nice people”, some coping better than others. And many were female users, like Holden, “who were working their guts out to support their hapless boyfriends”. For her, there are few gender divisions between drug users. Life as a heroin addict, male or female, is at times intense – scratching around for the necessary funds to get the next hit – but for the most part it is distinctly ordinary.
Holden’s descent into the world of prostitution and drugs started slowly. She speaks of her childhood with great warmth. Born into a loving family, she was emotionally and intellectually stimulated from an early age. At school she was a model student who loved to write. After high school she went straight into university where she studied archaeology, classics and literature.
But adolescent Kate was also shy and introverted. This changed after graduation when she met the man who would lead her into a bohemian world of art, parties and heroin. “With junk in our veins, we were the most beautiful people in the world,” reads a passage from In My Skin about these days.
At first heroin imbued Holden with artistic flair. She wrote poems about the needle and the high. For two years she managed to live a stable life, holding down a full-time job in a bookshop along with her full-time addiction. But things turned bad when her boyfriend went into rehab and financial trouble forced her to steal from her parents. The descent had begun. In My Skin explores this fall, with Holden recounting her life as a sex worker, from backseats to brothels of varying class.
Yet her memoir goes deeper than the simple there-and-back tale of a good girl gone bad. It attempts to show the reality of life as a sex worker and heroin addict, without exaggeration or the desire to shock.
“It’s my story, but I think it’s also a universal story,” says Holden. “I’m very proud of the fact that, by and large, sex workers who read my book seemed to approve of it.”
Following the publication of her first memoir, Holden received invitations to work with Scarlet Alliance (the Australian Sex Workers Association) and Vixen (the Victorian Sex Industry Network).
“I try in my work to bring the truth to readers that sex work is part of modern life and sex workers are not an ‘other’,” she says. In an article for the literary journal Meanjin, Holden explained this truth: “[A sex worker] is statistically no more likely to be a drug addict than a worker in any other industry; it’s unlikely she has been coerced into working by a pimp or a male partner; indeed, it is probable that very few people, even a partner, know her occupation. She is, on average, in her twenties or thirties, possibly tertiary educated and with other work experience; she may intend to leave the industry in a few years once she has made enough money. She will earn about $120 for an hour’s work.”
In her memoirs and public speaking engagements, Kate argues that sex work is a complex industry of ranging experiences. Some sex workers enjoy the job “as a means to financial independence, personal autonomy and, incidentally, the building of personal skills and friendships, or even confidence in their sexuality”. For others, it is a sorrowful trade they are forced into by desperation.
“But there is an unfortunate schism around sex workers. We get shoved into camps of ‘for’ or ‘against’. It’s black and white. I have to play the part of a sexy, former hooker, and say: ‘It’s wonderful’,” says Holden.
She has also had the chance to address this fissure in her work as a non-fiction writer. For six years Holden wrote a column for The Age, a daily newspaper published in Melbourne, and she has recently started writing for The Saturday Paper, a popular Australian weekly.
It is a combination of literary talent and a willingness to discuss these sensitive issues that has made Holden a regular on the bills of international literary festivals. Next month she will be speaking at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali.
“I came two years ago and it lived up to all my expectations,” she says. “People in Australia love talking about how fantastic the Ubud festival is, so it’s a real pleasure to be a guest there for the second time.
“I really love literary festivals. They’re so much fun. Maybe they are a little disruptive to my work, but I think they’re a little like being Cinderella, being taken off to the party.”
So what’s next for Kate Holden, former drug addict turned literary darling? “I’m a seething industry of half-baked ideas,” she jokes. “I am doing my PhD at the University of Melbourne and I hope to write another non-fiction book in the next two years. But not something personal.”
At 42 years old, it has been more than a decade since Holden got herself clean of heroin and quit sex work. “In the past few years I’ve just been feeling very happy and getting old, without much drama,” she says.
Part of this newfound contentedness comes from her recent adventure into motherhood. “Last year I had my son. He’s a very healthy and happy little boy,” she says, pausing to think. “It’s wonderful to watch another person discover the world. It takes away all your cynicism.”
After two highly successful and highly personal memoirs, as well as countless pieces of non-fiction, there is also the sense that Holden feels ready to move on. “I think I’ve said everything about the past. The self-absorption of a memoir is tiring. People don’t want any more from me.”
“All good in Ubud” – The Ubud Writer’s Festival 2014 kicks off in October and the organisers have just released this year’s exciting line up