Collective biography and hidden lives

My Christmas has come again; I’ve just had news that I’ve been shortlisted for the Hazel Rowley Fellowship; this is for an Australian biography, and the invitation said:  ‘Preference will be given to those projects that are about “risk-taking” and expanding horizons as well as those that promote discussion of ideas and make a significant contribution to public intellectual life.’

For the past couple of years, I’ve been working, both actively and inactively, on a collective biography of Fairbridge single parents and their children, who migrated to Western Australia post-World War II under the Fairbridge One Parent scheme. The deal was that the children were to live at Fairbridge Farm School, Pinjarra, while their parents looked for work and somewhere to live. Once the parents could show that they were settled and could support their child or children, they were encouraged to reunite as a family. This was an evolution from the original Fairbridge program, whereby ‘orphaned’ children or ones with inadequate family support were sent out to farm schools in South Africa, Canada or Australia. Much has been written about this, and David Hill’s 2009 documentary about the Fairbridge farm school at Molong,  The Long Journey Home, and the film Oranges and Sunshine, about Margaret Humphreys’ work in uncovering the abuses of child migration schemes, have tainted Fairbridge and other institutional care systems with the charges of neglecting, exploiting and abusing children and overlooking or destroying fragile family bonds.

The One Parent scheme is outside of this framework, as it was an attempt by the Fairbridge society to find a more humane and family friendly way of supporting fractured and incomplete families, as well as to continue populating their farm schools with children who would, in return for their care and education, contribute to the maintenance  of the establishment, and be trained for a productive future life in the post-colonial countries.

My research involved a small group of these parents, who have remained friends, and some of their children, as well as some others who contacted me once my project was advertised. I have many stories transcribed and written, telling of the gains and losses of the migration experience. My next task is to bring them all together in a connected and readable narrative, where possible letting the subjects’ own voices tell their story (hence the term colllective). It is their story and I am the writer who will act as medium to bring it to a wider audience.

If I get the Fellowship, it will pay for a trip to Perth to do some follow-up interviews and archival research, and subsidise three or four months of intensive writing, so I can get the book published.

When I decided to apply for this Fellowship, I  realised I hadn’t read Hazel Rowley. An Australian woman resident in USA, she wrote some acclaimed biographies, including one of the 20th century novelist Christina Stead, and one of the relationship of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. I ordered the latter, and have begun reading it. I find myself loathing Sartre, most of the time, and feeling a mixture of admiration and pity for de Beauvoir; I guess this is an index of good writing, that we can read about complex, ambiguous and contradictory characters, whom we might not want to invite into our lives, yet can admire, pity and dislike in turn; this is especially interesting when the characters have been influential in shaping the culture of an age.

My story will be about people who are not great or famous, but have taken great  risks in leaving behind their support networks,  coming to live in Australia and separating, albeit temporarily, from their children. Ordinary people, ordinary lives, fascinate me, for always there are secrets, hidden desires, losses, heartbreaks, sacrifices, triumphs, courage and love, beneath that familiar surface pattern of life.

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10 Comments

Filed under collective biography

10 responses to “Collective biography and hidden lives

  1. This sounds like a fantastic project, Christina. Once again congratulations. Here’s hoping you get a fellowship and can get much deserved help to take it further.

  2. Thank you, Elisabeth! I hope so too.

  3. Congratulations. It sounds like a highly worthwhile project and I hope you receive the support you need to complete it.

  4. This is wonderful, and heartwarming. Congratulations, and I hope you get it.
    Strangely, only yesterday, I picked up a book at my sister’s place, by Hazel Rowley, which is about the marriage of Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt’s marriage. An interesting read, which I must chase up and finish one day. And without knowing much about Sartre, it always seemed to me that he was a total pig, and I think the world owes much more to Simone de Beauvoir

  5. Thank you, Persiflage! Re Sartre, he certainly was a sexist pig, whatever the qualities of his intellectual work (which never attracted me). Don’t get me started! I hope Franklin Delano was a better sort. It certainly sounds a very interesting study of an unconventional marriage. I am interested in partnerships that sought to widen the limits of the conventional bourgeois marriage, at which I have twice failed!

  6. Good project Christina. Ordinary people, ordinary lives. Are any lives ordinary? I think not. Some appear to be extraordinary but perhaps that is part hype, part tabloid, part truth. For me the most interesting are the unknowns. The really simple / quite complex ordinary stories.

    merry christmas. New Year almost by now.

  7. Christina Houen

    You’re so right. I am ploughing through a review copy of the latest Peter Carey novel, the Chemistry of Tears, and I can only find one word for his characters and their world: weird. He is a much awarded author but I find it very difficult to keep turning the pages; were I not reviewing it, I wouldn’t bother. Sir Thomas Gray, in the 18th century, wrote an elegy for the unknown people buried in a country churchyard: ‘far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife … they kept the noiseless tenor of their way’. I’d give a bookful of Peter Carey’s characters for one page of stories about simple people’s lives.
    A happy New Year to you!

  8. Congratulations and good luck Christina …when will you know. I read my first Rowley this year — the one published just as she died, Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage. (I have reviewed it of course!). My next one will probably be Stead but I have to read Stead first. She’s probably THE embarrassing gap in my Australian reading.

    BTW Biographies of non-famous people are just as important and can be just as interesting as those of famous people. Two books about “ordinary” people that I really like are Generations by Dianne Bell, and Spaces in her day, by Katie Holmes (NOT the celebrity actress married to Tom Cruise but the academic based in Melbourne!). Both are books that have stuck with me years (or a decade or two!) after reading them.

  9. Christina Houen

    Thank you! I won’t hear till late Feb/early March. It’s a big one, and I think I have a chance, but so much depends on the quality and subject of other short-listed projects, and on the judges’ preferences.

    I”ve read For Love Alone a couple of times, and liked it very much. I’ve attempted The Man who Loved Children twice without finishing it. Maybe I’ll have another go.

    I agree with you about biographies and memoirs of ordinary people. I had to read quite a lot when I was reviewing for the West Australian. One of the gems I discovered was TEn Hail Marys, by Kate Howarth. Here’s my mini-review of it:

    This is a shocking, moving and inspiring story of a woman who survived a turbulent childhood in Sydney’s western suburbs and far west New South Wales. Shunted between Aboriginal relatives, declared ‘uncontrollable’ by her volatile grandmother, she became a Ward of the State. Pregnant at 15, she was institutionalised in ‘a home for unwed mothers’ run by nuns. Here, Kate survives conditions she describes, in gruelling detail, as worse than prison, and resists the coercive and cruel pressures of family and the nuns to have her baby adopted out. In desperation, she agrees to a ‘shotgun wedding’ with the baby’s father. No happy endings for this story, nonetheless, courage and love triumph, and I hope there will be a sequel.

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