Once my Mother: Film Review

This short documentary biography of the fractured relationship of a mother and daughter, and the mother’s incredible survival through experiences most of us have never known, is a must-see. Once-My-Mother-Helen-Sophia-Turkiewicz-Adelaide-©Rod-Freedman-PC190755-366x268Once my Mother is by Australian film maker Sophia Turkiewicz, about her struggle to accept her mother’s life story, and reconciliation with her. It is a film that has won great admiration from reviewers and viewers, won several awards, and stirred up a lot of controversy. See the reviews in the site linked to.

Helen, Sophia’s mother, was orphaned at an early age, and lived on the streets until she became a domestic servant. Along with 2 million Poles, she was evacuated when Poland was split up by Stalin and Hitler, and spent a year in a gulag in Siberia, surviving on almost nothing in terrible conditions. Eating, she said, made her more hungry, so she would hide her two slices of bread a day, not just from others, but from her self. The saviour of those who survived that terrible year was General Anders, who bargained with Stalin for their release. There followed a forced march across Russia, two thousand kilometres, with little to eat and next to no protection from the terrible climate. And a further evacuation to Persia. Helen became very ill with typhoid, but somehow survived. They ended up in Rhodesia, where she had a few happy years in a refugee camp, and fell in love with an Italian refugee. Shortly before she gave birth to Sophia, her lover was returned to Italy. Helen wanted to go to England, but single mothers were not accepted there, so she came to Australia. From there, after some difficult times, she and Sophia went to live in Adelaide. But Helen was unable to get work because she had a child, so she put Sophia in an orphanage for two years, until she found a suitable man and married him, with the motive of having a home of her own, and reuniting with her daughter.

Sophia’s story is woven into the complex narrative of Helen’s early life, reconstructed from archival footage and an unfinished  film Sophia had begun to make some years before. Sophia was very angry when her mother abandoned her, as she saw it, and rejected her new family when Helen married. For many years she was distant from her mother. The main point of view of the film is recent, when Sophia began to see the story from her mother’s point of view, and reconciled with her. What makes the redemption all the more poignant is that, at this retrospective moment in time, Helen is now old and dementing, in a nursing home, and many of her memories are lost. She died a few months after the film was finished.

The relationship is tender and fragile, and often the love that is so palpable between the two is conveyed by them simply sitting together in Helen’s stark little bedroom, or walking slowly hand in hand through the garden. Sometimes we see Helen just sitting at a table, recollecting or trying to recollect, supporting her face on her hand. The fragility and the sadness are almost overwhelming. Yet there is great beauty in this brave and gentle person, who has survived experiences that destroyed millions of her compatriots.

The other wonderful feature of the film is the history of the Polish refugees during the war. As Helen herself comments, history lies. Much of this story has been erased from history records. No-one will ever know the true numbers that were exterminated by the ruthless collusions and conflicts of mighty powers. Shamefully, the Allies’ deal with Stalin meant that the heroic Poles who survived and those of them who where picked to fight in the final stages against the Nazis were forgotten, and were not allowed to take part in the victory marches in Britain. The British government was afraid of offending Stalin.

And although the Australian government was more liberal, in accepting unmarried mothers as refugees, I couldn’t help comparing this with the present ruthless treatment of asylum seekers.

I hope you will see this film, and would love to hear your responses to it.

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Finch memoir prize

In 2011 I was short-listed for the Finch memoir prize 2012, for my memoir of childhood. I have since revised that memoir, which is still unpublished. It is now called This Place You Know. I have included my mother’s voice in it. In the revision, I’ve been encouraged and supported by my dear friend  and writing buddy, Marian Edmunds. I decided not to re-enter this for the Finch this year, as they have what I consider a rather outdated requirement that the memoir be written as ‘told by its subject in his or her own voice’. Since I have woven my mother’s voice in with mine, this may rule me out.

So I have entered my revised memoir of my early adult life and first marriage and its sequel, the abduction of my children by their father. This was a traumatic time which split my life in two, and I nearly failed to emerge from the void created. How I came to marry a man who could do this, and how I mismanaged my escape from a loveless patriarchal bondage, and what I lost in the process, is the subject of this memoir.

Recent events have revived all this for me; forgiveness, some sort of reconciliation with the father of my children, and a reconnection with the man I fell in love with and who was the catalyst for the breakup of my marriage, have all made this a time relived.

Here is an excerpt from the middle of the memoir, after I received the terrible news that my children were lost to me for the rest of their childhood.

A Nightmare

Sophia and Caitlin want to ride on the merry-go-round. They climb onto brightly painted ponies with long manes and tails that swing out as they sweep round on movable poles. I want to sit with Penelope in a little carriage on the fixed platform but they are all full so I hold her in front of me with the pole between us on one of the bigger ponies. The music starts, we begin to move. We are going faster and faster, the ponies swing out higher and higher. The faces in the crowd become blurred. The centrifugal force of the racing ponies is so strong I can barely hold onto Penelope. I cling to her, my arms aching. I can feel her body being pulled away from me. I open my mouth to scream to call for help for the merry-go-round to stop but no sound comes out. I can hold on no longer—Penelope flies from my arms up into the air across the heads of the crowd.

The phone is ringing. I lie for a moment, wondering where I am. I hear the roar of traffic outside and smell the harbour breeze coming in the window. On the wall above my bed is Caitlin’s painting of flowers in reds and purples. I am in my Birchgrove flat. It will soon be school holidays. The girls will be coming to visit me. Robert has promised to let them come down. He hasn’t said any more about going to America, and I am hoping he’s changed his mind. I struggle up from my bed and run into the living room.

‘Hullo?’ My voice is choked by the scream I couldn’t utter in my dream. I listen to the voice at the other end of the phone. My mouth opens to speak, but my tongue is thick, paralysed. My throat closes. A hoarse rattle pushes up from my chest. At last, the phone clicks. I sink down onto a chair and stare out at the water glinting in the morning sunlight beyond the roof tops.

Someone is knocking at the door. I walk stiffly over to it and open it. My friend Sarah is standing there. I stand and stare at her. My lips are stuck together. My eyes feel as though they’ve been scorched by a bushfire, my legs tremble. Sarah steps through the door and puts her arms round me, holding me tight.

‘Anna! What is it? You look dreadful. What’s happened?’

I begin to sob, and Sarah leads me over to the table and sits me down on one of the chairs. She sits opposite me.

‘Is it the children? Aren’t they coming?’

‘I’ve had a phone call from Robert. He’s in Los Angeles. He says he’s taken the girls to America. He says I won’t ever see them again.’

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When is a play a ballet?

Recently, I went with my daughter and her family to the Queensland Ballet Company’s performance of Romeo and Juliet. Last year, we went ‘en famille’ to The Nutcracker Suite, and enjoyed it so much, I decided to make it a yearly event to go to the ballet together. We are so lucky to have a world class ballet company in Brisbane, led by the artistic director, Li Cunxin, whose life has become a legend through his autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer, and the splendid film made from his story. Li, born in bitter poverty in rural China, was selected to study ballet at Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. He was 11 when he left home, and entered a harsh 7 year training regime. He graduated ‘cum laude’ and was allowed to go to America to study ballet. Subsequently, he defected, which created a standoff between the American and Chinese governments, and he was allowed to stay in the US. He danced with the Houston ballet for 16 years, becoming a world star. He fell in love in London with an Australian born ballerina, and moved in 1995 to Melbourne with her and their two children. Here, he became a principal dancer with the Australian ballet.

As we all know, because of the extreme physical demands of ballet, most ballerinas retire in their 30s. Forget footballers and athletes, there is no more physically demanding occupation than ballet dancing (speaking as a total desk potato, but also as an admirer of the extreme and beautiful art of ballet).

Li became a a highly successful stockbroker, and recently returned to his first passion, and took up directorship of the Queensland Ballet.

From which time, the company has gone from strength to strength.

Romeo and Juliet may seem an unlikely choice to take a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old too. We would have liked to take them to Cinderella, but it was booked out. Surprisingly, they sat through a near 3 hour long performance (with two intervals) without complaints, just a bit of wriggling and chewing. The 9 year old was very focused on the story, and his little sister was in love with the ballerinas and the costumes, (she learns ballet) and followed the story with help from her parents.

QB_Romeo_Juliet_14_event

Romeo and Juliet is such a powerful, romantic and tragic story, it has caught the world’s imagination and been recreated in many versions, on stage and in film, too numerous to mention. My son-in-law spoke with great admiration of Franco Zeffirelli’s film of it (1968), which he saw in Japanese. I haven’t seen it, I confess, but will make sure I do. I’ve seen a couple of stage versions. But I came to this ballet fairly uncluttered by memories of the text or of performances of it. So it was fascinating to see how a complex plot, a romance complicated by a feud between two families, was translated into ballet.

A brief resume of the plot: The Capulets and the Montagues, two wealthy Veronese families, are sworn enemies. Romeo, a Montague, and his friends arrive at a Capulet ball, disguised in masks. Romeo is entranced by Juliet, a Capulet, who is (by her parents’ will) betrothed to Paris. After the ball, Juliet comes out on her balcony and Romeo appears in the garden. They confess their love to each other.

Juliet’s parents insist that she marry Paris. But Juliet and Romeo follow their hearts and are married secretly by Friar Laurence.

I won’t reveal the rest of the plot, in case you are not familiar with the story. Suffice it to say, it ends in tragedy, caused by the deadly rivalries of the two families, and the failed plan of the Friar and the young lovers to escape the net of forced marriage and family feud.

The ballet was very moving and beautiful, superbly danced, with delightful, colourful crowd scenes, and touching love scenes. The orchestra was superb in their rendition of Prokofiev’s stirring music. In the tragic ending,  the passion and the despair of the young lovers moved me to tears.

What didn’t fully work, for me, was the translation of a complicated romance/tragedy into ballet without text. The intricacies of the plot depend on the exchange of words, both orally and in writing, and it’s not possible to convey this in dance. If you did not know the story, or had not read the program’s summary of it beforehand, you would not fully understand the essence of the tragedy, which consists in misunderstanding and the consequent loss of two young lives and their love.

But I am awed by the artistry and commitment of this troupe of dancers comprising  both local and international guest artists, and of the artistic director and supporting crew, and the Queensland Symphony orchestra. This is world class ballet. I was also amazed by the crowd. The Lyric Theatre at the Performing Arts Centre is huge; we were sitting up in the gods, and the house was packed. There must have been about 700 people there, of all ages.

Ballet lives!

PS: if you can’t get to see the ballet, you might enjoy Australian Story, ABC 1 documentary on Li Cunxin and his daring venture:

 http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/australian-story/NC1456Q025S00 

 

 

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When is a memoir a novel?

 

9780857387127My dear friend Marian returned recently from her trip to London and France, and loaned me a little book she had bought in a bookshop in Chelsea: The Life of Rebecca Jones, by Angharad Price. Several things mark this as memoir/biography: first and foremost, Price is the great niece of Rebecca Jones, and as much as it is Rebecca’s life, told in her voice, it is the life of the Welsh family who live in  Maesglasau Valley in rural Wales, as their ancestors have done for 1,000 years. It is also the life of the valley itself, and of the stream which “begins her journey high on the crag above Maesglasau, rising from an underground seam up to the peaty uplands” and continues her silvery dance through the valley, transforming herself in many moods through the changing seasons.

It is also the life of the family, from the marriage of Rebecca’s parents and Rebecca’s birth in 1905  to her last days in her old age. It is classified as a novel, yet it is also a history of the Jones family, with photographs of family members and of the countryside. Several children are born to the farming couple, and not all survive. Of those who do, two boys are born blind, and one, Lewis, became blind by the age of six. He was to go away to a special school for the blind, like his brothers. He went missing, and was found by his family lying on a ledge above the house, face down among the bluebells. He had  been crying.

I lay by his side, asking what was wrong. He pressed the flowers against his eyes, inhaling their blue scent. He said that this was his last chance to see the bluebells. Next year he’d be at school, and his sight would go.

Rebecca and the oldest boy born to the family, Bob, continue to live on the farm. Bob wanted to be a doctor, but destiny and his father decreed he would carry on the family farm. Rebecca was  a seamstress, and had longings which were never fulfilled in reality; she wanted to travel, and made do by reading library books and imagining herself in the great cities of Europe and Scandinavia:

But it was in Rome that I lingered longest. I saw the cruel Coliseum and the beautiful square on the Capitoline Hill. I threw pennies into baroque fountains, and walked to the Vatican, submitting to the cold embrace of St Peter’s colonnades and placing my hand on St Peter’s foot. I would see the Popes’ tombs, before rushing back to daylight.

Rebecca’s imaginary travels are told so vividly, I found myself believing she had been there. Her other reality, the valley (cwm) is equally vividly evoked, and has a life of its own, interlaced with the life of the farm.

As winter loosened its grip we’d climb the mountain again, this time to drive the sheep down to the farm’s lowland meadows, so that they could be docked, washed, sheared and marked with pitch. We’d start our trek in the small hours, as the sky took on shades of blue, pink, yellow and white, and the night’s bruise was on the mend.

As much as this is a novel and a memoir, it is a love song to the valley and the way of life that it contained, and the family who inhabited it.

Yet, along with these lyrical passages, there are many prosaic ones, which jolted me at times out of the magical world created, and made me a little sceptical of all the rave responses to the novel, quoted in its fore and after pages, using words like ‘numinous’, ‘bardic’, ‘classic’, and more. Passages that tell the minutiae of daily life and the history of the family read more like memoir and less like a novel, and yet, I want to say, memoir does not have to be prosaic and mundane. For me, in my after-response when I closed the book, and quite often as I read it (short as it is) I felt detached and thought it could have been polished more. In the end I felt it is neither novel nor memoir, something in between. What marks it as novel is a twist which I will not reveal, and which, if you want to read and enjoy the book, you should veil your eyes from until you reach the brief epilogue.

What I enjoyed most in the book was the lyrical evocation of the Welsh countryside, seasons and way of life, and the rituals of farming, so close to my own childhood in a much harsher place in outback New South Wales.

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Art and Life

As the governor of North Carolina said to the governor of South Carolina, it’s a long time between drinks! I’ve not posted for over 6 weeks. I had a very busy period for editing, then a lull, as usually happens. I’ve used the lull time to do some more paintings, a series of beach scenes. Yesterday I had the wonderful news that the latest one I’ve had framed has been selected to be hung in the Tweed River Art Gallery, as a contender for the Border Art Prize. I don’t expect to get a prize, as this is a big competition which attracts many entries, including accomplished artists. But I’m delighted to be hung in this lovely gallery, which has now made its mark on the world map of galleries with the opening of the fabulous Margaret Olley wing.

The process of doing a painting is like yet unlike that of writing for me. When I write, it comes naturally; I’ve been doing it most of my life, and I had a very good start, with a literate, highly educated mother. And I’ve refined it through several stints of study/research/writing, and thousands of words worth of editing others’ work. So it’s second nature. Sometimes, of course, when I push myself and take risks, it feels hard, but mostly not. Perhaps that is why I’m no longer as interested in writing as I am in painting, where I risk myself every time I start a new painting; I begin with the feeling  “I can’t do this”; then half way through I think “maybe it will work”; this doesn’t last, as I attempt a new facet of it, and I think “oh no, this is a mess”; then if I persevere, I start to think “it’s going to be all right”; then, after the finishing touches, I feel surprise: “Oh, perhaps I did it; wow! How did this happen?”

I don’t know if all artists go through this, but for me I think it’s because I haven’t been trained in the visual arts, as I have in writing, and I don’t have a visual imagination, though I can appreciate and critique what I see. So it’s like driving in the dark without any lights. And now I’ve shucked off the external critic (my teacher) I don’t have that severe voice that says “this isn’t good enough; do it again!” So I just keep going, and surprise myself. Though I have discarded a few efforts, mostly ones where I step away from my chosen themes of wildlife and nature.

More risks to take, and more surprises in store. here is my Border entry: Sunset at Sawtell Beach, Coffs Harbour, NSW.

Sawtell Beach2

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Diaspora stories

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had the great pleasure of editing a book just published, by Audrey Fernandes-Satar. It is a moving and beautiful story of the journey away from the homeland, Goa, and the dispossession that three generations of women and their families have suffered.

The work is poetic and deeply polemical, and ultimately, it is a story of witnessing and healing from loss and displacement. Audrey’s stunning art works illustrate the chapters.  Once I receive my review copy, I will write an appreciation of it — not a review, since as its editor, I am too close to it to do that. Below I’ve pasted the blurb from the cover, and below that, the cover image. It is published by Peter Lang.

“After the Last Ship defies categorization: it is autobiography, history, poetry, art … Yet it is so much more than the sum of its parts: it is a journey that takes us into the heart of diaspora; it takes us into the lived experience of women who felt the pain of dispossession deep within their bones, whose bodies bled and whose families were torn asunder. It is also a story of hope, of survival and of healing. Above all it is a story of resistance, of the Other talking back, not only on her own behalf but also on behalf of countless women whose stories have not yet been told.” Senior Lecturer Nado Aveling (PhD), School of Education Murdoch University, Australia

“After the Last Ship, in evoking a particular diasporic experience, speaks to the displaced, the exiled, the oppressed, everywhere. Its achievement lies in its intelligent artistic vision which pro- foundly reconfigures abjection, transforming despair into hope. Beautifully constructed, illustrated and written, this is a moving and challenging work. Its gift to the reader is the spiritual enrichment that only the “examined life” can offer.” Associate Professor Jenny De Reuck (PhD), English and Creative Arts, Murdoch University, Australia.

Audrey Fernandes-Satar is a Western Australian academic, researcher and visual artist. Her body of work involves the investigation of the politics of identity, transnationality and the border. Audrey has exhibited nationally and internationally. She traces her heritage to the people of Gaunco Vaddo, who left Goa during the nineteenth century.

 

 

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 4.01.48 pm

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West Australian Writers

Several years ago, I was co-compiler and editor of an anthology of contemporary Australian women’s writing: Hidden Desires: Australian Women Writing, published by Ginninderra Press (2006). The process of getting the collection published took three years, and uncounted hours of work by me and my co-editor, Jenna Woodhouse. It was a labour of love. The book had a modest print run, and received very favourable reviews (see link on the title above) and sold out. But it was bloody hard work, and what I learnt was that the publishing industry is not interested in emerging writers (which most of our authors were, though we had a few established ones as well). Nor, it seems, is “the public” interested in collections of short stories. Our collection was mostly fiction, with some memoirs and a few poems. One thing that impressed me was that a high proportion of our authors were West Australian, and I can honestly say they were selected for relevance to the theme and for quality of writing alone. We had a huge number of entries (250, as I recall) and out of those we selected 43, and 14 of those were from WA.

So hold onto these three facts: emerging writers are not very marketable, nor are short stories, and nevertheless, emerging Australian writers, and particularly West Australian writers  are producing high quality work.

It’s a dilemma for a writer or a compiling editor, to be up against these contradictory hard facts. Not only in Western Australia, but throughout our country, and no doubt in others, there are budding writers on every branch, longing for their creative works to be read and appreciated, and constantly facing the disappointments of the hard commercial market, if they choose to venture into it.

One way of solving this dilemma is being bravely addressed by many writers’ centres, who not only run sponsored competitions, but offer master classes and workshops in writing, and publish the edited works of the participants. Many writers have started off their publishing career this way. I know, from having been writer in residence for a month at Peter Cowan Writers Centre in Perth in 2012, how much hard  and dedicated work is put in by volunteers to make this happen.

So I’m very happy to have  been invited to review Other Voices: a Collection of Short Stories, published in 2013 by the Advanced Writers’ Group at Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre, Perth, WA.

There are 10 short stories in this collection. Many of them are closer to memoir than to fiction, but as I often say, it’s a thin line between the two. I actually think it’s an important line, as the criteria for a good memoir are a little different from those for a good short fiction, event though they share many of the same characteristics. Some say that all writing is autobiographical. But it’s about the degree of fictionalisation in  a story. Some memoirs are written very straight, and this can work if you have a story that ties in with many people’s fears and desires, or (I hate to say) if you are a celebrity of some sort. Others are written in a more literary style, using fictional techniques, but still respecting the inner truth of the story, though facts, names, locations, events, may be played with and invented to some extent. This is my favourite sub-genre, though I’ve read many memoirs of the first kind that I respect and am glad were published.

There are 10 stories in this collection. I can’t talk about each one in a short blog, so I”ll just give snippets. They range from a moral fable, in Amanda Gardiner’s Lessons, and magic realism in Hannah van Didden’s The Gift, to real life stories of abuse, accidental encounters with difficult consequences, loss — of connection, of love, of understanding — to two biographically based stories of triumph over abuse, abandonment, and disempowerment.

I’ll give a brief snippet of two stories that stay in my mind from this collection. That Hand, by Josephine Taylor, is about a woman who had what is now known as Vulvodynia, a chronic condition where the outer female genital organs — the vulva, the labia, clitoris and vaginal opening — are painful  and hypersensitive to touch or pressure. Imagine the impact of that on a woman’s reproductive and sexual life! This story cleverly counterpoints two women, one in the 19th century, one present day, who have this condition and are being treated for it. The 19th century treatment was in effect a clitoridectomy, or female circumcision, which is now regarded as a crime in the Western world. In the story, the current treatment is for the doctor to put his fingers —his hand? into her vagina, pushing and stretching:

Contracting with the inhalation and releasing with the exhalation — you know. So  I’m breathing out, and he’s pushing and stretching at the same time and — that barrier? I can feel it relaxing!

She’s talking to her husband, who reacts defensively and wants her to try harder, or their relationship without sex won’t last.

How many women have been there?

The other story that stays in my mind is Sue Braghieri’s The Long Goodbye. The scene is a train station — where? with a train about to depart for Milan. Gerard, an elderly man, watches the crowd, and reflects that there is no-one there for him. As he turns to board the train, he sees her. She is lovely, still unbelievably young, and as they board the train together and sit down, it emerges that she is not who he believes her to be.

Loss of the past through ageing and memory loss are the theme of this story. When goodbye no longer has any meaning to the person you say it to.

I won’t attempt a critique of these stories, as I feel that’s not my role. I just want to introduce to you some fresh new voices, and to celebrate the fact that writing is alive and well, outside of mainstream publishing, thanks to writers centres and the many dedicated people who give their time and commitment to nurturing, supporting and mentoring emerging writers.

PS: Sue Braghieri has just sent me this note:

I have the Amazon link now for people to source our e-book.  It will also be appearing on other ebook sites in coming weeks (Kobo, iBook etc, and as an epub) – it can take two to six weeks for the distributor to upload into other formats and with other e-tailers.

 The Amazon link is:

 http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JOHVT82

 Pricing is $3.76 on Amazon.com but will be $3.99 on Amazon.com.au once it goes onto the Australian site.

 

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