Category Archives: stories of loss

A memoir of childhood, motherhood and place

After over twenty years of writing my childhood memoir, it has been accepted for publication by Ginninderra Press; should be out about May or June next year. GP is a small independent publisher; here is their profile:

Ginninderra Press, described in The Canberra Times as ‘versatile and visionary’, is an independent book publisher set up in 1996 to provide opportunities for new and emerging authors as well as for authors writing in unfashionable genres or on non-mainstream subjects. In the words of one of our authors, we are ‘a small but significant publisher of small but significant books’.

Unlike most larger commercial publishers, once they accept an ms, they do not work with the author to shape/reshape or change it. This suits me well. I’ve worked and reworked my story so many times, with input from literary agents and publishers as well as a literary editor, I think it’s ready to be born as it is. Whatever its limitations or lacks, I know it has enough worth to be accepted for itself.

Last year I reworked it twice with the literary editor, and wove in my mother’s story of the place we knew, in her own voice. I used her handwritten memoirs, started when she was in her 70s at my urging, and unfinished, as well as my own imagining and archival research. My voice takes over when I am about five years old. The story of childhood goes up to my senior years in boarding school and start of university life. The last part of the memoir has reflections from later stages of my life, and a letter to my mother, who died in 1982. The theme that ties these threads together is the power of a place — a small marginal farm on the Hay plains — to hold people there through years of drought, the Depression, more drought, stock losses, and, when I was seven years old, the abdication of my father from the place and our lives. My mother and I stayed on, and with the help of my brothers in school and university holidays, we worked the farm until my father returned (while I was away at boarding school) and forced my mother to leave. After she left with a couple of suitcases, he sold the farm, and she had to take him to court to get a share of the sale price.

We never returned; yet that place is in my heart, and has shaped my sensibility and my imagination. I know my mother mourned it for the rest of her life. A question that the memoir seeks to answer is: what drew her there in the first place, and what kept her there through those difficult, often heartbreaking years?

The image below is my pastel painting of the Hay plains, in a paddock where Patterson’s Curse, aka Salvation Jane, has taken over. It is from a photo taken by my friend Rob Olver on a trip through Hay about four years ago.

Here is the prologue to This Place You Know.

If you visit the Hay plains at night when people and the animals they tend are asleep, you will, if you walk far enough, come across a curious sight. An old woman, wrinkled and skinny, sits on a patch of red earth, her head bent, intent on a patient and silent task. Her fingers, knotted and twisted, move nimbly back and forth. It is not wool she is shaping into a simple chained fabric that gleams silvery-grey in the moonlight, but vegetable matter that she unwinds from a large irregular ball lying on the bare earth beside her. Her fingers twist in and out, and the soft, earthy smelling fabric falls on the red soil, spreading over it, cloaking it with a damp, springy, resilient cover. Soon the bare patch is clothed, and she winds up the ball and pokes it into a string bag she slings over her shoulder. She scrambles up and walks with the help of a knotted stick to another bare patch, and squats, muttering a few sounds in a guttural tongue, laying her stick and bag beside her. She begins again her endless task of restoring a moist, living cover to the plains ravaged by harsh sun and wind and many cloven hooves.

 

Salvation Jane2.jpg

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Filed under memoir of place, novels and memoirs of childhood, stories of loss

The Good People by Hannah Kent

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A friend lent me Hannah Kent’s second novel a month or so ago, and I finished it quickly. I wanted to, because it was a kind of torture to read it. Kent creates another dark, cold world, where people are cruel and ignorant and without hope, but the bleakness is relieved by little acts of kindness, and by the lyrical beauty of the prose that describes the natural world. Unlike Burial Rites, her acclaimed debut novel, there is no redemption, only loss, and a final dawn escape for one of the characters, which can only be a lonely road towards her end… though one gets the feeling that this is welcomed, for she is accompanied by ‘the birds above her and, in the slow unpeeling of darkness, a divinity of sky.’

Somehow, this book does not resonate in my mind as much as Burial Rites did. I am not sure why. Perhaps because of the predictability of the climax. The clash between the superstition of the villagers and their belief in ancient magic, and the fear and jealousy and brutality of some, exacerbated by the self-righteous stance of the village priest, can only have one sort of outcome, and that is the persecution of the old woman, Nance Roche, who is a natural healer and believes in the magic of The Good People. The object of healing is the four-year-old child Micheal, who was born healthy but has become afflicted physically and mentally. His grandmother Nora struggles to care for him, and hides him from the other villagers; when her husband dies suddenly, she is devastated, and comes to believe that the child is a changeling left by the fairies, who have stolen her grandson.

Nora hires a poor fourteen-year-old girl, Mary, from a distant village, to be her servant and to care for the child. Mary becomes the moral touchstone for the story. She feels tenderness and pity for the little being, and becomes an unwilling accomplice in the healing rituals that Nance performs, with Nora’s consent. When these rituals fail, healing is no longer the object; the object is to force the changeling to return to the fairy world so that the real human child can be restored to his grandmother. To the bitter end, Nora believes that the child is not Micheal. Mary protests and tries to save the child from his death. She becomes a witness in the subsequent trial of the two women, Nance and Nora, and here, too, she is a touchstone of truth, for though she believed at the time that they had murdered the child, she attests that Nance has ‘the knowledge’ of The Good People and their herbs, and her final statement in court is that the ritual that killed Micheal was ‘done with the intent to cure it, sir. To put the fairy out of it,’ and not with the intent of killing him. Hence the two women are acquitted.

Loss is the dominant theme of the story, with darker notes of cruelty and fear, in a world where religion and paganism lock the people in an uneasy tension between a capricious, often cruel world of magic and a self-righteous, patriarchal and at times venal moral code. The real world the people inhabit is evoked with an assured voice, modulating from realistic detail — ‘The smooth whiteness of the fields melted to mud and dying grass, and the valley felt darker for it’ — to poetry of lyrical intensity —  ‘Lough Leane golden, and the surrounding mountains bearing down in holy indigo. The shifting, unfurling clouds passing the sun like pilgrims past a saint.’ Nature itself is divine, as the closing phrase of the symphony reminds us — ‘a divinity of sky.’

This, for me, is the strongest appeal of the book — the natural world, where things just are in their bleakness and beauty. If there is any redemption in the bleak  and tragic human story, it is in the simple truth and compassion of the poor servant girl, the small acts of tenderness and kindness of some of the characters, and the empathy with which Kent performs her characters; they are dark and light, they suffer, and there is no black and white. For much of the story I found myself part believer in the magic and the knowledge that  Nance is a practitioner of, and almost hoping that indeed the little boy would be restored to his undamaged self. Of course, we know the outcome before we begin to read the story, but such is the power of a great writer, to make us suspend disbelief.

Although I found Burial Rites more fascinating because of its setting, I think The Good People is a more confident, mature novel.

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The Personal is Political

“Iraqi Nights, like the Arabian Nights, is one of these tales travelled in memory, history, time and space to share and trade with you as a basket of thoughts, unfinished thoughts in contemporary performance.” Niz Jabour.

“The personal is political” is a feminist catch-cry, which came home to me with full force on Thursday night, when I sat in  the Old Court Theatre in Townsville, and watched the Full Throttle Theatre company perform Iraqi Nights, created and directed by Niz Jabour. Niz is an Iraqi man who has been in exile from his homeland for 30 years. He is an artist, actor and director, and is in the final year of a Doctor of Creative Arts degree at Curtin University. This performance, sub-titled Cross-Cultural Narratives in Performance, is created from his research into the memories of Iraqi artists in exile: their experience of war, of occupation, of the destruction of their country, their culture, their families. He has returned twice to Iraq to interview some of these artists, and has compiled film footage and transcripts. From this raw material he has fashioned a performance, which, if I have to describe it in one word, is shattering.

Shattering because it cuts across the political debates about just and unjust wars, occupation, economic sanctions, invasion, genocide, democracy, terrorism, Al-Q’aida, weapons of mass destruction, the axis of evil, and all those other catch-cries we have heard so much of in these last few years. It also cuts across the complacency and comfort and conservatism of our Australian (aka American, British, European, Western, Asian, you name any country which is not torn by war, occupied, terrorised) way of life.

The word political is never uttered in this performance, nor any of its synonyms. Once, the narrator mentioned the racial groups — Shia, Sunni, Kurds — and that was all. Only the personal matters here. Iraqi Nights is personal, powerful, painful, poetic, but not political. And yet, paradoxically, it is political, because, by passing by the politics of how Iraq came to be this shattered nation, with little hope for rebuilding a peaceful, stable and prosperous state, it cuts through all the divisive politics. It speaks directly to your heart, and changes you.

Argument does not matter. What we are confronted with in Iraqi Nights is the pain, the loss and the grief of the people who have suffered and continue to suffer. As Niz says in his program notes,

“Sometimes, we travel in our memory searching for meaningful stories to tell or to remind ouselves and others about something. Sometimes we replace ourselves by others to make sure that what we tell is not going to hurt anyone or us, and sometimes, truth can’t stand still.”

The truth is in the voices of the artists and their memories. Their words are spoken by the small cast, 9 adults, accompanied by 3 children. The performance opens to a bare stage, with a number of tall rectangular frames on wheels, pushed together, and behind them, sits a man, hunched forward, chin on hand, gazing at the floor. There is a pedestal mirror in front of him. As the lights come up, he steps out and begins to narrate. The female chorus emerges, and one by one, they speak, breaking into a chanted lament sometimes. The women wear dark colours and head scarves.

The leading narrator, performed by Niz, wears loose white jacket and trousers.

There is one other man, an old man, who does not speak. The children move with the adults, but do not speak. The leader of the female chorus, (Maddona Davies, dramaturge and theatre manager) occasionally bursts into a solo lament, with a voice that can split rocks and make the earth tremble.

There is a screen behind, with artistic representations of the shattered landscape and people, created by Iraqi artists. There is also a projection onto  the floor, of the artists who were interviewed. This is not very obvious to the audience, but it is done this way to protect the identities of the artists and to ground the cast, to connect them to the people whose words they are narrating, whose hearts are breaking.

The frames on wheels and the mirror are the only props. The frames are doorways into rooms — the many rooms of memory. The last frame, the last room, is the mirror, which confronts us with ourselves, our brothers and sisters who are framed by these memories. We look into the mirror and see others who are also ourselves, how our lives would be if we had to suffer what they are suffering.

I was privileged and honoured to be at this performance as a guest of Niz and the theatre company. I am editing Niz’s thesis, the written part of his doctorate. I hope that Iraqi Nights will have a long life; that it will tour regional Australia and other cities, other countries, and that the film Niz and his assistants are creating of the performance will be shown to an even wider audience. This is a performance everyone should see. It will move your hearts and change the way you think about citizenship, exile, nationhood, refugees, war.

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Filed under diaspora and identity, life writing, stories of loss