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.