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 I have since revised that memoir, which is still unpublished.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 I decided not to re-enter this for the Finch this year, as they have what I consider a rather outdated requirement that the memoir be written as ‘told by its subject in his or her own voice’.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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14 responses to “Finch memoir prize

  1. I’m glad you’ve written the story of your first marriage and the abduction of your children, Christina,. That is a story many people, including me, would want (and perhaps need) to read. It is especially pertinent at the moment because of what seems like an unjust ruling by the Family Court against one of my granddaughters and her son. The except you have included in the post is very powerful, very sad. I want more!

    • Thank you, dear friend. Yes, it is true, there are many whose stories resonate with mine, which is why I’ve persisted in revising it and trying to get it published. And although the Family Court has changed greatly since I was faced with an unthinkable choice that was no choice, I am sure that ‘justice’ often miscarries. I am sad to hear that your granddaughter and her child, and so many others, are still torn apart by impossible choices.

  2. Christina, this is incredibly moving and powerful writing. I can’t even imagine what you went through at this time, but through your words I can get a sense of the shock and pain. I also can relate to having a dream or nightmare that is far too close to reality for comfort. This is important and timely writing – our society is beset with family dislocations and strife – and I hope you do very well in the Finch prize.

    • Thank you my dear friend. Thank you for reading this, and for your sharing. And your words are so true. These struggles continue. Those of us who can write and tell our stories need to do so, I feel, to raise awareness and to share understanding.

  3. Oh I hope this gets published! I’d love to read your story. I can’t imagine the horror of being separated from my children …

  4. Reblogged this on The Paradigm Shuffle and commented:
    This is a post by a dear friend and writing friend Christina Houen. I have come to know Christina’s story through our ‘writing’ meetings where we provide support and feedback on current projects. I hope in time many of you will read her story.

  5. Thank you, Marian. I’m proud to be on your blog.

  6. What a heart wrenching story, Christina! I hope you publish it – and your childhood memoir with your mother’s voice. I am interested in the space between family mythology and memoir. The stories I want to tell will not necessarily be memoir, but more fictional, drawn from those family stories we were told and tell each other and what I experienced as a child and young person in my family. Happy writing! Lone.

    • Thank you so much, Lone, for your response. I hope to publish both, whatever it takes.
      Yes, I think there is a very interesting space between family stories fictionalised and memoir. All memoir is fictionalised to some extent. For instance, in this excerpt, the dream reported did not happen as a dream. It actually happened, when I was still with my children in England, though of course not with the ending. I managed to hold onto my youngest daughter. but it seemed a fitting metaphor for the experience of having my children torn from me, with Penelope (a pseudonym) as the youngest and most vulnerable, standing for the three of them. I have fictionalised other scenes too, including the appearance of a crone whose mission is healing the ravaged earth of the plains where I grew up, and who also symbolises the possibility of healing for myself and my children.
      But there’s a space between fictionalised memoir and fiction based on the author’s life. I hope you have joy in working in that space.

  7. This is a heart-wrenching piece and I can see why the novel would have been shortlisted. I’d love to read this story xxx

    • Thank you, Dianne. The piece quoted here is not from my childhood memoir, which was shortlisted; it’s from my early adult memoir, which I’ve recently submitted for this year. I”m glad it makes you want to read more of my story. Rest assured, it will be published; if not in print, I’ll do an e-book, and go from there. But yes, I still cry when I read this part of the story.

  8. Very powerful and traumatic piece or writing Christina. The more power because its fact not fiction. Of course as you say fact fiction memoir all interweave in such stories. I am still working on my Italian story which is based on fact but is my imagined account. I’ll have a first draft completed by Christmas I hope. Mine is different as i was not there to experience it. I am one step removed from mine so I am the observer storyteller. Yours must be much more harrowing to tell and write.

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