Writing My Second Memoir

The memoir of my first marriage and the loss of my children has been a long time gestating, with many revisions. Now, it is sitting in the wings, one step away from publication. I applied for a fellowship at Katharine Susannah Prichard Writer’s Centre, in the hills in Perth, and have just learned that I am successful. So in the first two weeks of September next year, I’ll be sitting in Katharine’s little house, looking out at the bush, the birds, the sky, and doing one last revision of Lost. I am pretty happy with it, but not sure I have the right structure; at present it’s chronological. So I’m inviting a mentor who has a published memoir to help me.

Here is the excerpt I submitted for my KSP application. The context is that, after I returned to Sydney without my children, who were abducted by their father and taken to America, I was lost, drifting. I tried to return to tertiary studies, but it wasn’t the lifeline I needed. So one day, I opened the paper. On one page was an ad for bus drivers. On the other, an ad for graduates to apply to do their mental health training at North Ryde Psychiatric Centre. I thought briefly about driving a bus around the streets of Sydney, and opted for the mental health job. It was my lifeline for the next twelve years. I learned that there was a very fine line between my life and those of the broken people I was nursing. There but for the grace of god, I thought every day, go I.

A fine line

Well, it’s not the brilliant career I once dreamed of, but it is a world, a different world, one that makes most of the conventions I have been brought up by seem hollow. Here, in the acute admissions ward that is my first placement, I find women and men who have been brought up to be normal, but who, through some misfortune of genetics or of life events, have fallen foul of the Australian dream. Young, old, middle-aged, fat, thin, ugly, attractive, well-educated, average, Australian-born, immigrant—any one of them could be my neighbour, my friend, a member of my family. There is nothing exceptional about any of them except that they are here, cast up on the shores of madness and neurosis.

Lost. As am I. Yet there is a fine line between us, one that puts me here as a nurse, a therapist, a custodian of their lives, and them as my patients, for as long as they stay.

After my first week of orientation, I am told to keep close observations on a woman who is acutely psychotic. Close obs, as we call it, is the only way we have, apart from the tranquillisers prescribed by the registrar, of containing someone who is disturbed, in a newish hospital where there are no locked doors. Straight jackets and locked wards began to be discarded in the late ’60s when most psychiatric patients — except for the hopelessly institutionalised, severely disabled, criminally insane or dangerous ones who haunt the corridors of the older institutions — were liberated to another kind of nightmare, the revolving door of short-term admissions, drugs and/or electroconvulsive therapy, and a half-life in hostels or digs or with a family whose tolerance is worn threadbare.

My patient has been given an injection to calm her, and is lying on the narrow bed, her eyes staring at the bare white ceiling and occasionally flickering from side to side in frightened fascination. The drug has stopped her restless pacing and explosive utterances, but has not stilled her troubled mind. Every now and then, she turns her head, frowning in concentration, as if she is listening to someone, then closes her eyes tight and turns her head away, or shakes her head in silent argument.

I ask her what she is watching, who she is listening to. She tells me that God and the devil are both in the room, and are fighting for her soul.

‘But Eva,’ I say, reaching for her hand, trying to reassure her, ‘ you know they’re not real. I can’t see or hear them. You’re not well, that’s why you’re imagining them.’

She turns her head and looks at me, her eyes locking with mine. ‘What the fuck do you know? Because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there.’

I can think of nothing to say. A big emptiness comes over me, a loss of words.

After a long silence, I say ‘Sorry, Eva. You’re right. I don’t know what you’re seeing or hearing. Do you want to tell me about it?’

For the next couple of hours, she talks to me about her struggle with God and the devil, her desire to die, her rage at the torment they are putting her through.

‘I wish they’d both fuck off, leave me alone, let me live again! I want to be normal again, be a mum to my kids, have some fun! It’s not fair—why did they choose me?’

Immobilised

I get up in the morning to go to an early shift at the pysch hospital, and notice two red lumps on my right leg. I cut myself shaving a couple of days ago. Yesterday I noticed a red streak near my ankle. After a busy shift, I go to the staff doctor.

His examination is perfunctory. ‘Hmm. Is infection. I give you antibiotic.’ He scribbles a script for a sulfur drug.

I take a dose in the evening. When I wake in the morning, my legs and torso are covered in a red, itchy rash, and the lumps are looking angrier, with smaller ones erupting. I go back to the doctor.

‘Hmmm. Is reaction to antibiotic. I give you antihistamine and new script for penicillin. I give you injection now, you get tablets from chemist, take three times a day.’

When I get home, I take off my panty-hose and examine my legs. The lumps have spread. Under the rash, many swellings, some no bigger than a small coin, some as large as a hen egg, are pushing their way to the surface, strange subterranean growths, foci of heat and pain. Alarmed for the first time, I go to my GP in Balmain. After she’s examined me thoroughly, she sits facing me, looking concerned.

‘I’d like you to have some tests, Anna. I think you have an auto-immune disorder, but I don’t know why you have it. There may be some underlying illness, like diabetes, that’s causing it. I’ll write some forms for you, and I want you to take them to your nearest pathology clinic first thing in the morning. You must fast from midnight.’

I go home and crawl into bed, after a couple of glasses of wine.

 

Dreams of the Centre: Sunrise on Uluru

Yesterday, I was delighted to receive a copy of the  literary journal, Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian/NZ literature. My painting of Uluru is on the cover. I painted this a couple of years ago from a friend’s photo. Later that year, the editor of Antipodes contacted me, and said he’d seen my Facebook artist’s page, and would love to reproduce one of my paintings on the cover of the journal. He chose Uluru. 

The journal issue was delayed for a year-and-a-half, due to changes on the editorial board. But at last, it’s out, and my Uluru is on it!

This means so much more to me now, as I have recently been to Uluru, and although I didn’t see it at sunrise, I did see it at sunset, and took a couple of photos in the changing light.

Perhaps, when I get my art space organised in the flat I live in now, I’ll do a sunset painting of the rock.

This morning, before I woke, I dreamed that I was walking along a long, straight, dirt road, and as I looked to the east, I saw that the rising sun had painted the whole landscape a rich, dark red, just as it appears in my  painting. Except the rock wasn’t there. Perhaps that symbolises my need to go back there and see the rock again, in the early morning.

Dreams of the Centre: The Art of Albert Namatjira

I’ve been back nearly a week from a visit to the centre of Australia, and I’m still dreaming of the desert and the people. I travelled on the Ghan from Adelaide to Alice Springs. The train journey was forgettable, apart from the scenery and a very interesting woman I met. But when the train approached Alice Springs, through a gap in the MacDonnell Ranges, I knew I had come to a place I would never forget. The image below gives you an aerial view of the magnificent ranges, and how the town lies at the throat, the gap between the two arms of the ranges. It doesn’t show, of course, the close-up view I had of the scarred, striated, folded rock.

I spent four days in Alice Springs, and saw many wonderful places, and heard fascinating stories from the tour guides of the country, its geology, its flora and fauna, of the early settlers and explorers, and of the Arrernte people’s culture and care of the land.

I went at a time of year when you would expect heat, and it was hot for a couple of days. But the second day I was there it rained, and a cold wind blew, and I had brought no warm things with me. So I caught a taxi to the Araluen Cultural precinct. My mission was to see some of Albert Namatjira’s paintings. I did see some in the gallery, and was a little disappointed not to see more. I looked for a book with reproductions of his paintings in, and the only one they had didn’t have good quality prints. The attendant told me that such books are very hard to get, as, although copyright has at last been restored to the Namatjira family (in 2017), they are still sorting out issues.

I did buy a lovely book by Martin Edmond, Battarbee and Namatjira, Giramondo Press 2014. Edmond says in his note on sources that he was unable to include colour plates of paintings in the book because of the intransigence of Legend Press, who held copyright for six decades until 2017.

But the book was a great consolation for me, as it is a loving and sensitive account of the relationship of Rex Battarbee and Albert Namatjira. Rex was a South Australian farmer who suffered terrible injuries in the First World War. He resurrected himself to become an artist and eventually, the man who met and recognised Albert’s gift as an artist. He mentored him until Albert had become a greater artist than he could ever be. The book is about the lives and pathways of the two men, which converged for a while. It is also about the trajectory of Albert through fame into a somewhat embattled existence.  His status as an artist was not enough to shield him from the tensions between white law, his family obligations,  the commercialisation of his art, and the ill health that beset him in his last years.

But his triumph is his art. Edmond suggests that his far-seeing eyes enabled him to transform the immense vistas

from space into time: so that, when we look into the far reaches of a Namatjira landscape we are looking back in time towards the beginning…

The book is also a tribute to the modest, ethical, intelligent man who recognised Namatjira’s gift and fostered it without taking ownership of it or trying to turn him into a clone of himself.

I recommend the book to anyone who loves the central desert landscape and its artists, and especially, the art of Namatjira.

Below is an image of a painting by Namatjira of Standley Chasm, one of the stunning land forms I visited in the MacDonell Ranges.

Dreams of Belonging

Belonging is the other side of becoming. When we are becoming, we are always in flux, not fixed, not stationary. When we are belonging, we don’t need to be fixed or get stuck in a particular frame. It was true, in the past, for the majority of people who were not nomadic or displaced, that they lived their lives in one place, in a known community, an enclosed space with rules, mores, codes, rites and punishments. There was connectedness and security, but if you were scapegoated or exiled, if you didn’t conform, in some societies, if you were a woman, a slave or a child, or had a disability, you would suffer judgement, deprivation, even torture or death. Many books have been written about exile, about scapegoating.

Today, we live in flux. Even if we live in one place, the physical world and the technology we use to communicate and do business is changing rapidly.  I grew up in the outback, in a small weatherboard house with no power, no phone, no vehicle some of the times, miles from the nearest neighbours. I have seen enormous changes in my lifetime.

I was exiled from my childhood home twice. First, when I was sent away to boarding school at the age of thirteen. Again, when I was fourteen, and my absentee father returned and forced my mother to leave the farm so he could sell it. She mourned that place for the rest of her life. For most of my life, I have not felt at home anywhere; I did for a while when I lived with my husband and children in England. But that dream fell apart, we returned to Australia, and I lost my children. For the rest of my adult life, I was a rolling stone, married again for a while, broke up, got together again (about four times), moved from rented house to rented house, gathering no moss. Finally, in the last eight years, I have settled in a place where I feel at home, I feel more of a sense of belonging than I ever have.

Toko-pa Turner’s 2017 book, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home, is about belonging, not to a place, but as a skill that has been lost or forgotten. Turner is a Canadian writer, teacher, and dreamworker who blends the mystical tradition of Sufism with a Jungian approach to dreams. 

Home is in the heart and soul. The book is dedicated to ‘the rebels and the misfits, the black sheep and the outsider. For the refugees, the orphans, the scapegoats, and the weirdos. For the uprooted, the abandoned, the shunned and invisible ones.

I put my hand up! She invites us to give up ‘allegiances to self-doubt, meekness, and hesitation,’ to be ‘willing to be unlikeable, and in the process be utterly loved.’  Who could resist this call! In my own life, I have let go of that meek, submissive girl and woman who tried to fit in, to please, to be loved and accepted. I have become strong, my own person, and I have more friends than I ever had when I tried so hard.

This book transcends reviews, since it is so beautifully written, so eloquent and yet so down to earth, that it leaves nothing to say. I have the sense, when I turn the pages, that I am in this world of words, not outside it, and that there is nothing I can add to it. I could extract certain strands; for instance, the author’s life story, which we get glimpses of. It is not the heart of the book, but it is its seed. Toko-pa’s quest for belonging was ‘seeded in alienation. As a nine-year-old, she felt so alienated in her family that she tried to make an abandoned house her own. Her own home was a Sufi ashram, but it was not a safe place for her. Her stepfather was emotionally unavailable and physically violent. Her mother, a yoga teacher and herbalist, was volatile, prone to bouts of depression and rage.

Toko-pa ran away when she was fourteen, and spent the next few years in detention, in and out of orphanages, shelters and group homes, in exile, until she found her true calling. Her initiation was long and painful, as she worked through the wounds of her childhood and suffered guilt for leaving her family, believing it was her own fault she hadn’t been able to fit in. Physically, her woundedness and self-punishment were expressed in a crippling physical illness, finally diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. Healing came slowly, through letting herself be loved and looked after by friends and by the man who became her life partner. She emerged from ‘chronic contrition’ and began to work the belief that she could ‘still be lovable even when at odds with others.’

Exile, she teaches, can be a beginning, a turning towards the soul. This lesson is learned through a rite of passage (illness, in her case) and entry into the world of Eros, dreams, and mystery. There are rigorous tests, through which we slowly retrieve our ‘lost or captive parts of the wounded healer’s soul.’

This is such a beautiful lesson, which I have spent my life learning. In entering our woundedness we heal ourselves. We may lose everything, be broken apart, dissolved, dispossessed. We touch the void. Yet, like Jo Simpson in his fall into the crevasse in the Peruvian Andes, by surrendering (literally, in his case, by cutting the rope), we find a way out, we return to life. Of course, we may die in the process. That is a risk we take.

Dreams, in Turner’s dreaming teaching, are ‘the gatekeepers of the underworld.’They can be terrifying, disorienting, confusing. ‘The real bravery of dreamwork is … stepping into our adversaries’ shoes to see how we are also the cruelty that victimises us.

There is so much wisdom and beauty in this book, I could go on and on but I would just be repeating the book. Like a koan, analysis has no place here. The book speaks to our intuitive knowing, our dreaming self, and calls us to a path of belonging from the inside out. I recommend it to fellow travellers.

Prison narrative: Systematic torture 2

Behrouz Boochani’s memoir of his arrival at Christmas Island as an asylum seeker, and subsequent indefinite incarceration on Manus Island, is in itself a miracle of survival and of testimony. To tell the unthinkable in impossible circumstances is an extraordinary act of courage and truth-telling. This is a book that deserves to be read, not just by sympathisers and supporters, but by those who avoid facing the horrible truths of the underside of our nation, and those in power who exercise and justify this regime of cruelty, abuse and torture. An article on The Conversation written November 17 2017 gives the facts:

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Re those who returned to their country of origin (a practice called refoulement), Boochani tells us of the visit of the Minister for Immigration to Manus; I think this refers to Scott Morrison’s visit in 2013.

He sits on a chair inside the container alongside Fox Prison. The officers gather five or six prisoners together, prisoners who don’t even know where they are going, to listen to what the Minister has to say. The Minister points his finger like a dictator at these few individuals. He speaks in haste. He delivers his words with intentional force. He say, ‘You have no chance at all, either you go back to your countries or you will remain on Manus Island forever.’ He leaves in a hurry. This is the sum of the events of the day.

These are the words and actions of the man who has just become our Prime Minister. No wonder that self-harm has become a cultural practice in the prison.

When someone cuts themselves, it elicits a form of respect among the prisoners. However, the criterion for status pertains to the depth of the slit, the severity of the wound. The more terror inflicted, the greater the credibility. It is unwritten and cryptic — but it is real.

One cannot review this extraordinary book without mentioning the work of the translator, Omid Tofighian,  a philosopher, academic and activist. His reflections bookend the memoir, with a preface and an essay. The translation process has been complex. Initial conversations were carried on via Facebook, then WhatsApp. With the poor connection to Manus Island, there has been no direct real-time conversation, just text and voice messages. Some of the writing was sent direct via WhatsApp, but usually long passages of text were sent to a refugee advocate who arranged the text messages in PDFs. Events such as the three-week siege after the forced closure of the prison camp in October 2017 interrupted the literary process. This complex process was shaped both by the external events and by the challenge to translate Farsi, which “usually consists of long elaborate sentences with many different kinds of clauses in consecutive order.” Tofighian has used various literary devices to covey meaning without losing the density and lyrical intensity of the original, which has “elements of Kurdish folklore and resistance, Persian literature, sacred narrative traditions, local histories and nature symbols, ritual and ceremony,” as well as Western influences (Kafka, Camus, Beckett). The narrative shifts between prose and poetry. The book is a decolonial intervention into the prison “as a neo-colonial experiment.” Naming is an important feature; humorous monikers and descriptive phrases, like The Gentle Giant, The Cow, The Cunning Young Man, The Prophet, are given to characters who are composite, not based on specific individuals (to protect their identity) except for two men who died on Manus, Reza Barati (The Gentle Giant) and Hamid Khazei, who are named as a mark of respect and because they are in the public domain.

A key concept in the prison narrative is The Kyriarchal Sytem. Boochani describes in detail the strategies of this oppressive system of torture and control, which dehumanises and subjugates the inmates.

The Kyriarchal System governing the prison is to turn the prisoners against each other and to ingrain even deeper hatred between people. Prison maintains its power over time; the power to keep people in line. Fenced enclosures dominate and can pacify the most violent person — those imprisoned on Manus are themselves sacrificial subjects of violence. We are a bunch of ordinary humans locked up for simply seeking refuge.

In this community of four hundred people (in Fox Prison), in boiling heat and filthy conditions, traumatised still by their near-drowning at sea, all personal belongings confiscated, no notebook or pen, the men find different ways of surviving and passing the time. For Bookhani, his greatest desire is for silence, solitude, to stand naked in the middle of a lush jungle, for a cool breeze. Creativity is his escape, his key to survival. Visions, memories of his homeland, the freedom of sitting inside the prison fence at night, feet up on the barriers, dreaming of freedom while “engulfed in my cigarette smoke.”

These nights uncover many years of tears deep in our hearts and open old wounds; they plough into every dimension of our existence; they draw out the bitter truth; they force the prisoners to self-prosecute. Prisoners are driven to crying tears of bitter sorrow.

How to end this review? I could write a book about it. But there is no point in that. My hope is that others will read No Friend But the Mountains, and my prayer is that these men will be released from the nightmare they have been trapped in and helped to find places where they can live with safety, dignity, and comfort, and if possible, be reunited with their families. So sad, so sad. There are no words adequate.

Prison narrative: Systematic torture: Part 1

 

images-1This book is the hardest that I have committed to read and review. Behrouz Boochani’s memoir of his six-year incarceration on Manus Island, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, begins just before the Australian (Labor) government decided to resume offshore processing of asylum seekers in 2012. It is a searing, confronting, powerful testimony of indefinite detention and systematic torture. More than that, it is a work of resistance, a significant piece of prison literature, and a critique of refugee policies here in Australia, and by extension, globally.

Australia, as Richard Flanagan points out in his foreword, is a nation that prides itself on decency, kindness, generosity, and a fair go. Here in this book we have a complete, red-hot and horrifying picture of the underside of this society. I am reminded of Utopia, by the sixteenth-century philosopher, Sir Thomas More. He fictionalised an ‘ideal’ society; but one dependent on slavery, with low-grade occupations like butchery performed by bondsmen, less the cruelty of this practice corrupt the free.

So here, on this island about 3000 kilometres north of Australia, and part of Papua New Guinea, currently, about 600 men are lost, alienated, imprisoned. Until 2017, they were kept in bondage by Australian officers and guards and local ‘Papus’, who were expected to follow orders from the Australians without thought or question.

The prison that Boochani describes is literally no longer there, because the PNG government declared it illegal in 2017, and the men were forcibly moved to ‘camps’ where they are technically free, in that they can go into the settlement for food and medications, but they cannot leave the island. So they are still prisoners, and though they may have a little more freedom of movement, they are subject to new dangers in attacks by the locals.

This book is not about the latter phase of their incarceration. Boochani’s story begins with his terrifying experience of trying to reach Australia by boat from Indonesia. The first four chapters give a graphic, vivid account of leaving Indonesia, the days at sea, the leaking boat, its wrecking by the waves, and the rescue by a British cargo ship. There is  heroism here, but it is lost in the struggle to hold death at bay, the competition for rescue, the starvation, the thirst, the scorching sun.

A single pistachio, a single date, might determine whether one lives or dies. This was something I have realised during days at sea, starving. Many times I have seen the others secretly slip a date from their underwear and swallow it in the blink of an eye lest anyone realise, lest anyone notice that their breath smelled of food. Everyone scrutinises everyone else; their eyes searching out for a chewing jaw or a shifting throat.

After a month on Christmas Island, the asylum seekers are subjected to a further exile: the men are sent to Manus Island.

I just want them to take me to that island, the island I have only ever heard the name of. At least I will know where my place is… Sometimes experienceing suffering and hardship up close is easier than being terrorised with impending torment. It isn’t as though I haven’t had to endure adversity in my life.

Arrival at Manus Island brings no relief. The heat is ferocious, the fans circulate only hot air, the generator breaks down periodically, the mosquitoes swarm around their prey at dusk and nighttime, the bottled water is hot, the clothes the prisoners are forced to wear are baggy and demeaning, the food is basic and minimal, the queues at mealtimes are long, the latrines are filthy, the stench unbearable, the rooms tiny and suffocating.

The men throng the rooms and corridors, alienated, famished, deafeningly boisterous, frenzied. For Boochani, there is no solace in companionship with other prisoners. He is a loner, an observer, and although he acknowledges that “the simplest way to gain status is to identify with a group,” he sees this fellowship as unstable, volatile, subject to delusions, anger, aggression, competition. Within each prisoner is “a small emotional jail,” at the apex of hopelessness and disenfranchisement. So there is the jail without and the jail within.

There are moments of relief, in nature… the coconut trees, flowers that resemble chamomile that grow beneath them, a mango tree that drops its fruit on the roof of one of the huts. But in Fox prison, where Boochani is, nearly four hundred people are kept in an area smaller than a football field.

In another post, I will write of Boochani’s theorisation of the Kyriarchal system, one of structural violence and systematic torture, and of the amazing achievement of this work, written in texts on a mobile phone and translated from the Farsi by Omid Tofighian. And a little more about prison life, and the riot that led to the death of Reza Barati, ‘the gentle giant’.

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.

 

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A Future Dystopia

Margaret Morgan’s debut novel, The Second Cure, is published by Penguin. I went to the launch put on by Newtown bookshop, Better Read than Dead, at Leadbelly Bar in Newtown. The launch speech was given by Kerryn Goldsworthy, who said she had read the book twice and could read it twice again. I know what she meant, as I came to write this review; for it is such a complex plot that I did not feel I could do it justice on one read alone, and after skimming through it for the second time, I still don’t.  I am not a lover of plot-driven novels, or novels structured by an idea or a thesis. On the other hand, I don’t want to slot this novel into a box of ‘political thriller’ or ‘dystopian fiction’ for it is both and more than that.

I would not normally choose to read a novel of this kind. But I did enjoy it; it kept me turning the pages, and I have great respect and admiration for the complex structure and the convincing unravelling of a scientific quest for a cure for a pandemic of  toxoplasmosis, which has mutated from the strain that is hosted by cats to one of plague proportions, hosted by humans. The virus is spreading through the world, and its effects are both devastating and in some ways, liberating. Charlie Zinn, a biologist, and her colleague, Juliette, have isolated the genome and are close to finding a cure.

Meantime, the world’s domestic, wild and feral feline population is disappearing. The emphasis of the novel is on the human, not the animal; not on the loss of an entire biological population, but on the divisions in Australia between the general population, the far left,  and the far right; the latter are represented by Song of Light New Apostolic Church. In Queensland, where church and state are not separate, their Pastor and leader, one Jack Effenburg, effects a leadership spill and becomes premier, then leads a secession from the Australian Republic to set up the independent nation, Capricornia. Jack and his wife Marion profess to be on the side of the light, and convince the population of this, but are in fact from the dark side.

The key characters in this tale are two scientists, Charlie, and her former partner in love and science, Shadrack; and Brigid, a fearless investigative reporter and sister of Charlie’s present partner (when the story opens) Richard, who is a musician and a painter. There is a love triangle at the centre of the plot, between Charlie, Richard and Shadrack.

The plot is so complex I won’t attempt a summary. There are riots, there is torture, there is cruelty, blood is shed. There is an underground movement against the cruel, secretive, hypocritical, repressive rule of Capricornia. Charlie, with Shadrack’s support, develops  a second cure for the mutated virus, which offers release from the toxic effects and the prospect of a shift from capitalism to a more humane, caring and concerned society. Empathy and connectedness versus power, cruelty and corruption.

I think this book will do very well. When I visited Better Read than Dead bookshop in Newtown, they were featuring it as their no. 1 bestseller, even before it was launched. The author has woven together strands of science, speculative fiction, romance, political thriller, and more, to create a convincing, disturbing and entertaining vision of how our society might develop when humans exploit biological mutations for power, and thinkers, scientists and artists refuse control and seek ways of living in a more connected, empathic world.

A Traveller’s Tale: an Inner and Outer Journey

Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski was published in 2003. I recently discovered it when a writer friend suggested I look at it as a model of unravelling a personal story by spiralling in and out of a themed narrative. I didn’t know what to expect; I had heard of Diski, but not read anything of hers before. I knew she had died of inoperable cancer in 2016.

I found the book strange, confronting, and yet compelling. Strange because the theme is her journey to Antarctica; the title reflects her childhood experiences of skating on an ice rink, which aggravated her with its limits. She wanted to skate on and on, endlessly. She learned to skate before she could walk. Her mother, who used to take her, and sit for hours and hours watching, dreamed of being the mother of the youngest skating champion ever, an ice princess. Something went wrong. After a while Jenny refused to practise, and life got in the way.

Now, after lengthy travel legs on the way to Antarctica, she arrives in Cabin 352, in a Russian cruise ship. The room is:

…quite as right as it could be, and in recognition of this I let out a gasp and then laughed at the improbability of my being here, far from anywhere and entirely, at that moment, satisfied with my environment. Plain white walls…The bedding, to my delight, was all white. Sheet, pillow cases and thin padded duvet, neatly folded and ship-shape. White, all white.

Jenny is an astute, ironical observer of herself and others, and entertains us with many anecdotes and encounters with fellow travellers. This braid of the narrative alone would make a splendidly entertaining and enriching travel story.

But there is a darker, hidden theme, which is slowly revealed. It is many years since she last saw her mother. Her daughter Chloe finds a death certificate which may be her mother’s, and with Jenni’s permission, sets out to find out whether she is dead or alive. Jennifer (herself as a child) has lived inside Jenni’s head, “no more certain than any other figment of my imagination. I might have made her up. I did make her up from time to time.” Her memories are of ghosts that haunted her and shouting parents.

Jenni looks up some of the women who had lived in the same block of flats as she and her parents had lived in, and visits them to talk about her parents. Her father left when she was six, her mother had a breakdown and was taken to a mental hospital, and Jennifer stayed with a foster family for two or three months. Father returned, the family was together again until the father left, for good this time, when she was eleven. The three women she visits give her scraps of information, which help her to remember. The memories are disturbing. The mother’s behaviour was erratic, swinging between violent outbursts and depression.

Living with her, day by day, was like skating on newly formed ice…. I cannot recall a moment in my life when I have wished that she was there….Bad, sad luck; human child-rearing arrangements are a crap shoot. You might as well be enraged at the ice for being too fragile to hold your weight.

As the actual journey to the heart of ice continues, more is revealed of her awful childhood, including her own hospitalisations for depression during her adolescence. In her times of depression, she saw “what was actually there to be seen. Intolerable blankness.” An absence of everything, like the whiteness of Moby Dick. The white walls of psychiatric hospitals, white sheets, peopleless landscapes, snow and ice, are her refuge from… from what? The mystery at the heart of her being is not fully revealed. Perhaps it is death, perhaps it is the psychic void of aloneness, of no one being able to help. When depression strikes, the thought arises: “Why isn’t someone helping me? Why have I got to do this on my own? I can’t.”

The child’s outrage is still with her.

I could go on, but I would be going round in circles. The heart of darkness in this book is white, all white. There is satisfaction in having her memories of her mother corroborated by witnesses. There is relief, that “she had been as I remembered her.” This is Jennifer/Jenni’s consolation.

Do Cows think of their masters?

 

imagesThe Cow Book: A Story of Life on an Irish Family Farm  by John Connell is exactly what the title says, and more. It is a memoir, a history of cows, a story about a particular community of cows, and a reflection on the relationship between cows and humans. It is philosophy, poetry, a love story, and a meditation on birth, life and death. Connell went back to the family farm at the age of twenty-nine, after the breakup of a relationship in Canada, a couple of failed businesses, and a bout of depression. His purpose in returning was both to retreat back to what he knew best, and to write a novel. Instead of a novel, he has published this wonderful hybrid story. The closest cousin to it in literature is Walden by Henry David Thoreau, who is the author’s literary and philosophical mentor.

The season is winter, and the daily events that hold the threads of the narrative together are rhythmic, affirmative, but also hard, messy, heartbreaking, and discouraging. Cleaning the outhouses, putting down hay for feed, assisting the births of calves, often in the wee small hours, when it’s dark and bitter cold,  treating a sick animal, milking the freshly calved cows to get them started, walking the land… These hold his life together and give it meaning. The rhythms are interrupted when things go wrong; a calf is stuck in the birth canal, a ewe dies in misery from listeriosis (from a moldy bale of hay), another row breaks out with his father, who yells that he doesn’t need him and that he’s a failure.

He withdraws from the farm, takes other work. His mother tries to console him:

” These are just cattle rows, John, every father and son has them.”

I nod for she is right: it is the way of farming and has been for centuries. But I am still sore and hurting.

…Do the cows notice my absence? I do not know.  Do cows think of their masters? I cannot say. Perhaps they shall hold a meeting for me, like Orwell’s Animal Farm, calling out in the animal tongues for my return.

When he has given up hope, he hears that his work is to be included in a literary magazine and a publisher (Granta) has made enquiries about publishing his book. The frost with his father has not thawed, he is still not sure if he is a farmer,  he is starting to be a writer and that is what he has always wanted. He is not sure if he belongs on the farm, and the sight of the animals hurts him. During a break at the seaside for the launch of his story, he remembers that this (this country, the farm) is his place, it is what he has always known.

When spring comes, he goes to Spain and starts to write again. A book about cows, about Ma and Da. The cows have become so much more to him than mere animals; “they were part of the cast in this battle of wills, in the age-old story of fathers and sons.” His culture and his birthright are here, at the farm. He can be, is, both farmer and writer.

So while this book is many things, it is a mature coming of age, an initiation into the hero’s origins and culture. Father and son talk again, celebrate the return of summer, and give thanks.

This is a beautiful, poignant, heart-warming story which is a celebration of cows and country life, and a hero’s journey.