The first ride-on mower my parents bought was always breaking down. This seems an incidental fact, but really it isn’t. We lived on sixteen acres in subtropical northern New South Wales and the grass grew like wildfire. There was a man who would come out to repair it. He was a regular feature of my childhood. Reliable, efficient, relatively cheap. There is something alluring about people who come into your home and solve otherwise insurmountable problems, and it’s interesting the way fix-it men can come to seem wise. Into my teens, I’d watch my parents’ thankful faces as they waved this man off, peaceful in the knowledge that the mower would work again tomorrow.
One day, after he had fixed our mower for the umpteenth time, my mother and I stood chatting to him in the driveway, a moment of small talk. I don’t know why, but I mentioned that my boyfriend was of Italian descent.
‘The I-talians, well, they’re all right,’ he said. ‘But those Asians, you’ve got to watch them.’
I was utterly shocked. This statement, so out of the blue. I glanced across at my mother, but she was staring avidly at her feet.
‘What do you mean?’ I stuttered out.
‘They’re shifty. You can’t trust ’em.’
Now it might sound improbable in small-town rural Australia that I could get to the age of seventeen and never have experienced such a blatantly racist statement, but that’s the first I remember. I stared at this familiar man, trying to fit his words into the picture I’d built of him.
‘We don’t feel that way,’ my mother said quietly, finally looking up.
The man seemed unperturbed. ‘In the cities and that, they’re taking over.’ There was a faint gleam in his eyes. ‘Can’t go anywhere without seeing them.’ He climbed into his truck and lifted his arm in a casual wave. The same as he’d always done but irrevocably different. The week after that my parents bought a new mower and the fix-it man vanished from view.
The valley where I grew up, and where I still live, is a predominately white place, but something unusual happened around the time of my birth. Three separate Japanese families moved into town and then each proceeded to have a bunch of kids. In my small primary school of sixty children there were about ten kids of Japanese parentage, all around my age. It was an anomaly – a Japanese community in 1970s rural Australia – but in the jumble of that time and place they fitted right in.
The 1970s was a chaotic decade in the history of my town. Previously it had been quite homogenous, old farming families going about their business, but with the rise of the hippie counterculture there was an influx of new settlers, young folk from the cities trying out whole new ways of being. They were on the hunt for a place far removed from the rat race, or – as my father once explained – away from the perceived evils of materialism and conformity. I used to imagine that there must have been quite a struggle when all these outlandish characters, with their long scruffy hair and bell-bottoms, turned up in town to build their hippie shacks, but nowadays – when I ask around – I find a relatively benign response to their arrival. It’s easy to forget that nearby town Nimbin, the hippie heartland of Australia, was once voted the deadest town in Oz by an early 1970s television show. Clearly there was some ideological reshuffling required when all these young folk came flooding in, but I get the feeling that mostly the locals saw this rush of outsiders as revitalising – fresh blood, so to speak.
And into this topsy-turvy world came the three Japanese families. Drawn to northern New South Wales for the same basic reasons as my parents, they wished to escape the society they’d been born into, to live a different life from their forbearers. Adventurous, they were ready for a new start. Of the three families, there were two who were particularly close with my parents. Shigeru and Yumiko, with their four children, and Yoshi and Tokie, with their three boys. Shige is a builder and Yoshi an artisan carpenter, and in the late 1970s both were involved, in different ways, in the building of my parents’ home.
Shige and Yumiko were first to arrive. They had travelled through India and South-East Asia, the classic hippie trail. Flying into Western Australia, they’d lived in Coolgardie for five months before they’d hitchhiked across the Nullarbor Plain, Yumiko pregnant with their first child. I once asked Shige why they’d settled in my valley, and he laughed and said, ‘We run out of money. Stuck!’ But later he elaborated: ‘When we move here, lot of other people move here too. Everybody new around the same time. Also, we lucky, lots of people traveller, so they understand.’
Yoshi and Tokie had planned just to visit the area, but by the time they arrived Tokie was pregnant with their second child, so they stayed for a while, and in time it’s where they settled. Yoshi told me, ‘In Japan everybody same mind…here people so friendly and very open-minded.’ Shige added, ‘Australian people complain about having no culture, customs … traditions … because it’s young country. For me, in Japan, too many traditions. So when I came to Australia I feel so free.’
Things like cultural capital can be hard to quantify, but the presence of these Japanese families brought something special to my town. Shige and Yoshi were both, in different ways, extremely skilled craftsmen, and many of the older houses in town have a uniquely Japanese flavour. Slanted, shingled roofs, hand-carved wooden features, handmade bamboo fences, the occasional wood-heated bathhouse. Way before the ubiquitous sushi train, we hippie kids were sampling the delights of homemade Japanese cuisine. Sushi rolls and handmade tofu. And on top of all that was the philosophical exchange. Elements of traditional Japanese culture involve a focus on being in harmony with the seasons and a reverence for nature. Keystone hippie ideals. The Japanese families in my hometown led the way when it came to going back to basics, living for years off the grid without electricity.
As kids in my hometown, we’d run together in packs – climbing trees, swinging wildly from the Tarzan vines, splashing our way through the creeks. Going out bush with baskets of fruit from the trees, we’d hang about playing elaborate games – laughing, bickering and making up again. Mostly we stayed outside, but at the end of the day we’d venture into one another’s houses.
When you’re a kid, everyone else’s family is like a foreign country, peculiar and unique. You have to learn the house rules, figure out the language. I distinctly recall being entranced by the exoticism of the plush pink wall-to-wall carpet in a friend’s suburban bedroom at about the age of eight. Suburban aesthetics that horrified my parents – from which they had so determinedly escaped – were alluring to me in their unfamiliarity. It is often confounding, how different we all can be, but I don’t remember feeling the Japanese families were more foreign than anyone else’s. I do remember enjoying the company of the Japanese mothers, who were gentle and softly spoken. Sometimes those mums would come into our primary school to teach us origami. They made us onigiri, which we thought were a massive treat.
I’ve been wondering lately about my own obliviousness to race as a child. I used to believe it was an outcome of having been brought up in a particularly open-minded community; that difference was somehow made invisible by the lack of attention afforded it. It has struck me recently that maybe my blindness was a luxury of my ‘normality’, my whiteness. Isn’t the very definition of privilege that the one who has it doesn’t see it? But then again, our town was full of wild characters. In this spectrum of eccentricity it was hard to get much of a sense of what was normal. Mine was a mixed-up world, multi-layered and complex. The rules, at times, seemed difficult to discern. As a child, the basic tenets I intuited were: be open (explore!), be kind (where possible) and – last but not least – don’t judge. (Each to their own. Whatever gets you through the night.) Certainly, when it came to the Japanese families, I detected not a hint of ‘us’ and ‘them.’
I am endlessly fascinated by this hippie experiment, that a proportion of the population committed to trying out relatively untested ways of living even existed in the 1970s. That they could flow towards my valley like a meandering creek, arrive in an unruly mess and go about erecting this strange boundary-less place seems somewhat fantastical in hindsight. Of course, they have always been easy targets for parody and derision. Long-haired stoners, talking their ideological bullshit. But there is something about this idealism, this verve – when it was still fresh and new – that fills me with a kind of yearning. Though I’ve experienced firsthand the ill effects of the hedonism of this era, there’s a part of me that longs to experience some version of the idealistic fervour. To be able to truly believe. By the time I’d come into any kind of political consciousness, idealism was dead. Cynicism was ever-present, anything less was just plain foolish.
In my final year of high school one of my teachers announced to the class, ‘You know, the rest of Australia isn’t anything like here. You think this is the mainstream, but it isn’t.’ We treated that statement with the derision we always reserved for old men in bad ties who tried to tell us how the world worked. A year later I was living in Brisbane, Pauline Hanson had been elected to the federal seat of Oxley and the political landscape had erupted into a space where fear of the ‘Asian invasion’ loomed large.
‘I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians,’ Hanson said in her maiden speech to parliament. ‘They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.’
It was hard to make sense of this in the context of where I’d come from. I couldn’t stop thinking of the Japanese families in my hometown, of what they’d brought to my community, of what we’d all shared. I couldn’t shake the bewildering sense that I had entered adulthood and stepped into an unfathomable world, an alien landscape where bigotry was righteously defended as a valuable addition to society instead of a scourge. My nation felt like a foreign land.
Nowadays, fear of the Asian invasion has lessened and the denigration of Muslims has taken centre stage. It’s a sad pattern, that each new wave of migration brings a counter surge of racism. I think of how ostracised the Italians and Greeks once were in our national culture – wogs, dagos – and how Australian they now feel. I watch the Socceroos win the Asian Cup with my sport-mad fifteen year old and the names on the shirts make me smile: Luongo, Langerak, McKay, Behich, Spiranovic, Brillante, Troisi, Bresciano and Jason Davidson, whose grandmother is Japanese. I want to say to my son – this is the best of us, this mishmash of names, this team.
We are a nation of immigrants. Colourful, diverse, textured. Apart from the First Peoples, none of us has ancestry on this soil that goes back more than a paltry two hundred and twenty-seven years. Looking back through our nation’s history of shifting prejudice – from the early stigmatisation of Irish settlers to present day anti-Muslim sentiment – I suspect that in a few decades the tide will have turned. Muslims will be seen as fully integrated citizens, a part of the fabric of this patchwork-quilt nation. Someone small-minded somewhere will be saying, ‘Well, those Muslims, they’re all right,’ with a world-weary sigh, ‘but those [insert new immigrants of choice], you can’t trust ’em.’
How I wish we could just skip that part, take a look around us and see how much we’ve gained.
When: Saturday 12 September, 4.00pm – 5.00pm
Where: Library Museum, Corner of Kiewa and Swift Streets, Albury
Price: Gold coin donation
On one level Deeper Water is a ‘coming-of-age tour de force’: a tale of innocence and awakening, a raging river and a stranded stranger. At a deeper level it is an examination of modern life and the ways we disconnect from nature, including the gains and costs of this perceived separation.
The Big Book Club highlights two books of the festival for you to read in advance before listening to the authors discuss their work in depth with regular festival guest, Jason Steger. As literary editor for The Age and regular panellist on ABC’s The Book Club, Jason’s blend of experience, insight and intimacy makes for compelling conversations with guest authors, with time for audience questions at the end.
Check out the rest of the festival at WAM – Write Around the Murray Festival.
The importance of female friendship is sometimes lost in our culture’s rush to celebrate love and romance. The endgame of fulfilment is seen to rest squarely on the shoulders of marriage, or at least a committed love-partnership, often referred to as ‘pair-bonding’. But when I look back on my life, the relationships that have been most sustaining have been those that fall quite outside the realms of traditional notions of love.
When I first met Lou, we were both fourteen but she hadn’t gotten all her adult teeth. The remnants of childhood still hung about her, and I was drawn to the unselfconscious innocence of her gap-toothed smile. She was dreamy and whimsical, with large owlish glasses, and she wore little sprigs of jasmine in her hair.
At fourteen I was already wounded, family tragedy having taken its toll, but there was a freshness to Lou, a lightness. I remember thinking—she’s just like me, only better. Funnier, kinder, more honest, undamaged. Lou said aloud all the secret things I kept to myself, strange thoughts or feelings I thought might set me apart. She didn’t seem to have a private self, she didn’t seem to need one. I loved her transparency, the freedom it afforded her, the freedom it afforded me in her company. Finding her then—in the midst of my strife-filled adolescence—was like surfacing from the depths of a dark pond into the soft daylight. A coiled up part of me unfurled in the sun.
These days Lou’s face has settled into adulthood. She has a crease between her brows that I sometimes catch her smoothing, but I love the pensive thoughtfulness of her frown. It’s been over twenty years since we met, and in some ways she’s quite a different creature. The jasmine is gone, as are the owlish glasses, and when she speaks it’s with the hard-won wisdom of someone who’s been into the darkness and come out the other side. Life got to her, as it does to everyone. She hasn’t made it through unscathed. But when you love someone, the traces of their scars become beautiful, like a map of all the things they’ve been brave enough to feel. And though I’m afraid of middle age, I look at Lou and see how every day she becomes more luminous instead of less, and I hope it’s the same for me, that I’m mirroring her life-journey in some essential way.
It’s hard to ascertain why some friendships thrive, while others fall away—the particular facets of compatibility or chemistry that must surely be at play. How it is that with some people you can feel such a potent sense of home. Lou once gave me a nest that she’d created from scratch, with a porcelain bird sitting in it. She presented it shyly—“It’s a little bit weird, I don’t know what I was thinking.” But for me, it was perfect. We weren’t pair-bonding, but we had built a nest—a safe place where we could hear each other’s most peculiar thoughts, try to keep warm one another’s dreams, and—maybe most importantly—where we could speak hard truths if they be needed.
“He’s not good for you,” she said to me in a time of great confusion, not so long ago. “He’s making you sick.” I could feel her distress, how hard it was for her to get her tongue around those words. “I know you can’t stop, that he’s like an addiction, but I have to say it anyway.” And I was startled. It was the last thing I wanted to hear, but also unequivocally true. I stared, wide-eyed like an animal in the headlights. “You’re right,” I murmured finally. And she was. Her steady gaze an anchor in the wildest sea.
We’ve lived through so many versions of ourselves—such a wide arc of changes—sometimes it’s hard to keep track of all the people we’ve been. And always her voice on the end of the line has that echo of the past, that thrill of trust and intimacy, that promise of endurance.
Lou says—“Do you have time?” And I say—“Yeah.”
First published in The Lifted Brow, Issue 25, 2015.
Jessie will be participating in the Bellingen Readers’ and Writers’ Festival this June Long Weekend. If you’re in town, come and say hi!
Writing the environment.
Saturday 6th of June at the Memorial Hall
1.30 – 2.30pm
From Parramatta to Mullumbimby place exerts a powerful influence on our authors’ writing. How closely do the real environments resemble created worlds of their novels?
Jessie Cole, Felicity Castagna and Peter Macinnis
Chair: Brian Purcell
Single session $20.00
Social issues in fiction
Sunday 7th June at the Memorial Hall
11.15am – 12. 00pm
Jessie Cole’s and Diana Sweeney’s novels include parental abuse, single mothers with children from a succession of departed men; and sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy respectively. Robert Drewe has addressed both social and political issues in his work.
Robert Drewe, Jessie Cole and Diana Sweeney
Chair: Irina Dunn
Single session $20.00
To check out the program: BRWF PROGRAM
Jessie will be taking part in Women of Letters in Brisbane, May the 31st.
With acclaimed comedian and producer ALEX WARD, award-winning writer and author of ‘The Railwayman’s Wife’ ASHLEY HAY, Owner/manager of The Zoo and music industry icon JOC CURRAN, Cult fashion designer GAIL SORRONDA and ARIA award-winning singer-songwriter MEGAN WASHINGTON.
They’ll all be writing ‘A letter to My Fork in the Road.’
Opening at 3pm, $20 a ticket.
There’ll be wine, cheese plates and the studious penning of aerogrammes, all in homage to the beautiful lost art of letter writing. Ticket’s available here!
I grew up in a time and place where sex wasn’t pushed under the rug. We were lucky if it stayed behind closed doors. I was born in the late 1970s, amid a social upheaval around sexual mores, and my parents and their friends had decided to do things differently to their forebears. Shame around sex was out, spontaneous public nudity was in. In the midst of all this freewheeling behaviour, nothing was ever explained. I was a watchful child and the basic tenets I gleaned about sex in my early years could be most simply summed up as: it’s not a big deal, there’s no need for discussion, and—the golden rule—don’t be uptight. Meanwhile, all around me families broke apart and reformed at whirlwind speed. Like many kids who grew up in this climate of sexual experimentation, I developed a cautiousness about sex, because one thing soon became clear—it was a very messy business.
I have no memory of not understanding the mechanics of sex—who put what where—but the confusion around sexual feeling started early. I distinctly remember my parents taking me to see some kind of foreign film. They had no baby-sitters, so my brother and I always tagged along with whatever was happening. The film was dark and broody, subtitled, and I couldn’t yet read. There was a sex scene that began with some degree of antagonism. I remember asking my father, ‘Daddy, why is he hurting her?’ And him shushing me and saying, ‘He’s not. She likes it.’
‘But why is she making those sounds?’
‘That’s the sounds she makes when she likes it.’
This was an unnerving revelation. I remember being worried for her all the way through the film. ‘But she doesn’t sound like she likes it,’ I kept muttering. I must have been under five.
‘Don’t watch it if it’s scary,’ my dad whispered, so I slithered down and sat beside his feet where I couldn’t see. And, of course, no further explanation was forthcoming.
The first explicitly sexual book I remember reading was Judy Blume’s Forever. It was greatly hyped in my pre-teen circle of friends, passed around like a secret. All I remember is it was faintly discomforting. I re-read it recently, just to see, and I think perhaps—even back then—I didn’t quite buy the sexual chemistry. There was something prosaic about Kath’s and Michael’s desire, something a little forced and sad. And really, the sex scenes didn’t give us much: ‘He rolled over on top of me and we moved together again and again and it felt so good I didn’t ever want to stop—until I came.’
It was upfront, yes. It told us (vaguely) what went where. But it lacked an interiority that would have made the whole thing more enlightening. Why did it feel good? What was the feeling like? What was happening inside Kath’s head? Why did she love Michael? These were all things I desperately wanted to know.
Around the same time I found a copy of The Joy of Sex. We were staying at my parents’ friends’ house in the city and I spied it on one of their bookshelves. I really wanted to look at it, but I didn’t want anyone to know that. Despite my parents’ openness, I was quite a private being. So I snuck out in the middle of the night and snaffled it, hiding it under the mattress to peek at in any moments of solitude I could snatch. The Joy of Sex was informative. With lots of pictures. But I don’t remember feeling any closer to the things I wanted to know. Why did pleasure sound so much like pain? Why did love so often seem to hurt? If you basically just ‘moved together’ with someone until you came, why was everything so (fucking) complicated? What was going on?
By the time I finally kissed a boy, I was shocked by the ordinariness of it. How could something that gathered so much heat in the culture around me feel so pedestrian? I had expected a magical sensation, akin to fireworks, something that would explain this incessant focus on sex. It felt exactly like someone pressing their tongue into my mouth. Which, when you think about it, is just plain weird.
As a young teen I was surrounded by many fictional portrayals of sex. D.H. Lawrence, Anais Nin, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski sat gathering dust on my parents’ bookshelves. I opened them all over time, with some curiosity, but I don’t recall a revelatory quality to these readings. Perhaps it was a bit like the foreign film—I was simply too young to understand them properly.
In an unfortunate coincidence I happened upon historical romance novels at about the same time I started having sex, some time in my mid teens. A friend, the youngest in a family of seven girls, brought Johanna Lindsey’s So Speaks the Heart to my house, and after dissing its outlandish Fabio-inspired cover, I picked it up and had a peek inside. What I uncovered was a raunchier world than I had ever encountered before.
But when he finally did join his body to hers, he still moved carefully, slowly, and she could not stand it. She raised her hips to force all of him into her. What followed was no less than wondrous. A tight knot formed in her, becoming tighter and tighter until it broke, and the throbbing that followed was exquisite, spreading through her whole body and going on forever.
There was a more precise attempt at describing orgasm than in Forever, and detail around physical sensation, but what about all the other bits I was discovering about real sex? The fluids, the strange body-sounds, the awkwardness, the missed communication, and the confusing times it just didn’t work? And most importantly, what about the clitoris? This little nub seemed entirely absent. How could that be?
When I started bringing historical romances home, it was immediately clear that my parents viewed them with disdain. In shame I ripped off their covers and stashed them in a bottom drawer. My parents weren’t concerned about the sex, but about their terrible ‘quality’. Why would I like reading books that were so clearly very bad? It’s a mistake to judge a book by its cover, and if they’d read one they might have been surprised, since not all trashy romances are badly written. I wish they had taken the time to read a few so they could have set me straight about some of the myths these books peddled. That orgasms are always simultaneous. That around your lover arousal is ever-present. That desire and beauty are intrinsically linked. That love usually starts with a superficial contempt, and—perhaps the most problematic of all—that ‘bad’ men always come good in the end. I read those books obsessively as a teen and slowly they created an alarming gap between what I felt sex should be like and what it was.
Despite this discrepancy, my boyfriend and I made our way through the pitfalls and pleasures of inexperienced sex, learning from each other, and in time I began to realise these romance novels weren’t doing me any good, that the subtexts of the stories was undermining my happiness. If I’d started reading them as a sexually experienced adult it might have been different. I might have been able to view them as what they were—pure fantasy. But as a teen they were just confusing.
Then I discovered Puberty Blues. I have no memory of how I found this book, but I was astounded by its gritty realism. Reading Puberty Blues was revelatory in how it mirrored the dismal reality of the teenage sex lives unfolding around me. Drunken or drug-fucked groping in the backs of cars, awful unpleasurable hook-ups that left my girlfriends dazed with disappointment. Although it was startling to finally find recognisable sexual experiences on the page, I didn’t learn anything about sex that I didn’t—in a sad kind of way—already know. I wanted to experience writing about sex that was real, but not that real.
The book I learned the most from turned out to be something quite unexpected, Shere Hite’s The Hite Report on Female Sexuality. I discovered it in my mid twenties in the bookshelf of my best friend’s mother—a battered relic of the 1970s. I must have skipped over it a thousand times, but one day I picked it out, and what I found in those pages opened my mind. A collection of anonymous questionnaire answers about sex—intimate revelations by a range of women about their own experiences and desires, in their own words. I read this book in a single day as though it was a thriller. I was heady with new knowledge. The sheer diversity of female desire and arousal; the strange individual idiosyncratic nature of the whole process. Reading this book freed me from expectations about my own sexuality in a way nothing previously had.
I recently read Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip for the first time. It was published in 1977, the year of my birth, and though I didn’t grow up in inner-city Melbourne, I instantly recognised the attempts at sexual liberation that had characterised my parent s’ community. There is so much ‘fucking’ in Monkey Grip it is hard to keep track. The protagonist, Nora, relays her sexual experiences perfunctorily, with an unabashed casualness. Reading the novel, I was completely engulfed by the same confusion I felt as a child. Why if sex means so little, does everything seem to revolve around it? For me, Monkey Grip embodies that cultural paradox like nothing else I’ve read. But it also got me thinking about the lack of sex in mainstream literature today. Considering we live in a world saturated with visual portrayals of sex, it seems a strange gap.
As the Bad Sex in Fiction Award attests, it is easy to write poorly about sex, but does that risk really explain the reticence? William Nicholson, a disgruntled past nominee, observed: ‘There’s an underlying assumption that it’s not good form to write about sex as if it really matters. Irony, dirty jokes, porn, all fine. But serious sex—that’s a private matter.’ Yet sexual longing—fulfilled or unfulfilled—makes up a huge part of how we relate to each other. It runs, like an undercurrent, through most of our lives. If the strength of the novel is that it allows us to inhabit the experience of being inside the mind of someone else, is it rational that sex in mainstream fiction should so often be peripheral to the story? We live in a ‘liberated age’, where the full spectrum of sexual experiences is available to us with just a few clicks and taps on the keyboard. But what is so frequently lacking in visual portrayals of sex—subtlety, nuance, feeling, emotion, depth—could be fertile ground for the novelist. Surely sex, with all its complexity, is worthy of a deeper interrogation.
A little while back I heard British writer Glen Duncan talk about what good sex-writing does:
The most convincing sex-writing is writing that focuses on the discrepancy between the pop-culturally dictated ‘script’ of interiority—that is, what the songs and movies (and bad writing) tell us we’re supposed to be thinking/feeling—and the frequently absurd, dislocated or downright disturbing things we’re actually going through whilst having sex.
Something about this spoke to me. I realised that the sex writing in novels I’ve loved as an adult have all done this, in one way or another. Writers such as Susanna Moore and Jeanette Winterson, Carrie Tiffany, Krissy Kneen and Duncan himself. Writing into this gap between popular narratives around sex and the hard-won reality. Writing about sex as if it really matters.
First published in Meanjin, Volume 74 #1, Autumn 2015.
The land I inhabit, my family home, is a forest of sorts. This part of northern New South Wales was once cleared pasture, but my parents started planting before they even built the house, and nearly forty years on it’s a green jungle. Their gardening strategy was haphazard, guided by a wide-ranging love of trees. When I was young my parents battled constantly over light – my dad craved sunshine, my mum embraced shade. Occasionally Dad would start up the chainsaw and Mum would pace the house, stricken. Mostly she could see his point, but the loss of a tree was hard on her heart. She had planted it, no doubt, and nurtured it through those precarious early years. My dad died when I was eighteen, and with him the battle to control the gardens. These days, the place is self-propagating, and apart from keeping some flat spaces mown, my mother enjoys watching nature run its course.
When I was a child my family had a summertime ritual of walking up the creek that bordered our land. We always went after it had flooded and the creeks were full, the rocks rubbed clean of moss and slime. Everything sparkled. We walked upstream until we hit the bridge, the first sign of civilisation, then we turned around and walked back. It seemed to take a whole day. Mum would pack sandwiches and snacks. We waded through the shallow water, clambered over boulders, and if it got too deep we’d tramp along the bank, watching out for thorny vines that hung from the treetops with their giant, lethal-looking spikes. We had to pick our way through, pathless, choosing step by step how best to move forward. The section of creek upstream from ours was uninhabited, lined by disused pasture and forest on one side, and a steep bank up to the road on the other. As far as we knew, no-one else ever walked here.
I don’t know when we stopped walking the creek as a family, but at some stage in my early teens it became a kids-only activity. After the first summer flood, I’d pack a knapsack with fruit and Vita-Weats and head off upstream with a bunch of friends. There was something about crossing this threshold from our land into the unfamiliar, something risky and enlivening. In line with my teenage obsessions, what I remember most from those kids-only creek walks was not the landscape but my shoes. I had inherited a pair of sandshoes my dad had painted for my oldest sister years earlier. They’d been white, but at her request he painted them in bright primary colours – an abstract artwork. Someone had even sewn garish buttons over the toes. They were ludicrous clown shoes, but in my mind they were perfectly suited to the wilds of the creek walk, and they set the tone for everything else about the day. For the trek upstream my friends and I always dressed in things we would never wear in the world. Skirts that were far too short, bikinis we knew were unflattering. We painted our faces with ochre and did zany things to our hair. It was as though we were preparing to step into a space ungoverned by rules. A gazeless place, unsurveyed and unjudged. Walking upstream into this uncultivated world, we became loose and freewheeling. The narrow edges of our teenage lives transforming in that liminal space.
Somewhere along the line, we stopped doing the walk upstream. I had babies very young, and, burdened by their weight, it became an arduous task. Balancing on unsteady rocks is precarious with a toddler on each hip. What had been a kind of freedom – walking into an unknown land – became work. Physically exhausting, with twisted ankles and banged up knees, mosquito bites and thorn-scratches. I vowed we’d do it when they were bigger, when they wouldn’t need so much propping up, and then, like so many things, it drifted from my mind. Even though I stayed living in my childhood home, the summer ritual that had marked my early life disappeared.
My kids are teenagers now, and watching them negotiate the wider world has me thinking about the power of that walk through an unsurveyed land. This first week of summer, I decide to revisit my family’s old ritual, alone.
To continue reading go to CHART Collective, An Unsurveyed Land.
Photographs by Lilli Waters.
Nowadays, it’s a truism that we live in a culture saturated with self-exposure. The spectrum of possibilities runs from simple Facebook selfies, through blogs and feelpinions, and probably ends somewhere in the murky waters of uploading amateur porn. Never before have we had such access to ways of both communicating and controlling the parts of ourselves that others see. But what strikes me, as a fiction writer, is how much that control unravels once you begin to engage in the process of storytelling, otherwise known as ‘making things up’.
The mysterious workings of the creative mind mean that often (and I don’t think I’m alone in this) what comes to the surface when writing fiction might not be what was initially intended. Ideas or pressing issues can dissolve into nothing while the narrative picks up speed in an entirely new direction. There is something about the process that resists the interference of the rational self, and in this way what is revealed is often quite unexpected. Added to this strange phenomenon—and even more alarming—your fiction seems to say things about you that you didn’t even know, and perhaps can only faintly grasp after writing. It’s discomforting, a little like posting a selfie that unwittingly reveals all your subconscious thoughts.
Memoir—where we actively share what we know about ourselves—seems straightforward in comparison. And in a sense it is. We are picking and choosing the parts of our personal story worth relating, and we know where the story goes. There is still a sense of underbelly—a possible thread of meaning or narrative that might go undetected by the writer—but I suspect that the more aligned the writer is with the subtext, the higher the quality of the work.
I’m not so sure this is true for fiction, which seems to involve—at least in the act of writing—a surrender to the unknown. I like to begin a story with several characters of interest in a difficult or precarious situation and then just watch how things go. These characters seem fully formed, separate from me, and they do their own thing. When I write in the voice of a character I feel they are speaking through me. I am listening to their story and waiting to see where they lead. Often I have an inkling or premonition of what’s to come, but it is similar to the feeling I get when a friend tells me a story and I guess at the ending. Even my best guess could be wrong.
Stories seem to lead to particular places, and then sometimes they take a left turn. What I find most confounding about the process is how to come to terms with all of this being a representation of my inner world. Who are these characters who people my novels? Some of them might have initially been based—at least partially—on people I know, but once inside the narrative they tend to take an authority over themselves. And in any case, characters are not real people, but a collection of words on a page. Since I imagined them and then wrote down their stories, are they—in some disturbing way—all just aspects of me? And if so, what private things am I unknowingly exposing about myself?
It might seem strange that in this age of unprecedented self-exposure writing fiction could feel so risky, but it does. When I got word that my first novel Darkness on the Edge of Town was to be published I was in a car with my family driving home from Brisbane. For the first few minutes I was ecstatic, speechless and beaming, and then a sudden migraine struck and within fifteen minutes we had to pull over in the car park of a highway McDonalds for me to hunch, dry retching, over the gutter. It seemed the reality of publication was something my body wasn’t quite ready for. And, even now, those two opposing feelings seem to rock and swell in my belly. Excitement at the release of a new novel, Deeper Water, and a sickening fear of all the things I could be saying about who I am, of which I’m only half aware.
In this context it doesn’t surprise me that my girl Mema, the protagonist of Deeper Water, should be grappling so bemusedly with all the knowns and unknowns of her world—that her journey should involve an awakening to the secret things she has kept hidden, even from herself. Writing fiction involves a type of awakening, and I think sharing it is an exposure far more strange and discomforting than any other kind.
First published on the Wheeler Centre Dailies, 27th October, 2014.
Getting to know someone new can be a complicated affair. Sometimes it’s hard to judge what to reveal about yourself and what might best be left to a later date. The last boyfriend I had told me that when I first talked to him about my childhood he had to drop in on a friend afterwards to offload.
‘She’s got this crazy backstory. I just don’t know if it’s all too much.’
He only revealed this post-conversation-debrief to me after we’d been together a few months, and though my first response was defensive, on reflection, he had a point. Which brings me to one of the biggest quandaries those with a difficult past face—when to tell the people we meet the basic facts of our lives?
Of course it’s a personal choice, and each of us is different, but I favour getting it out of the way quickly. Omission of truth has always felt like lying, and if people don’t know what I’ve been through I fear the relationship is built on a kind of false floor. That it could, at any moment, cave in. Mine is a traumatic story, with no easy explanations, but usually it comes up naturally enough.
‘So, how many siblings do you have?’
I always pause, not sure how to respond. Right now I have two, but I used to have three. How this came about is the crux of the story. For me, this innocuous question holds a different kind of weight.
When I was twelve my eighteen year old half-sister, Zoe, committed suicide. I could mention this, or I could hold off. If I disclose, the conversation will either slam to a halt, or continue. I’m most afraid of the first possibility—my revelation causing a rupture, a shutting down of something burgeoning, an end. But sometimes I’ll risk it. I’ll say—‘Three. I had three.’
My sister has been dead now longer than she was alive, but that doesn’t mean she never existed. Growing up with Zoe coloured my whole childhood. The loss of her devastated my family, her suicide like a detonating hand grenade thrown right into the heart of us. No-one was unscathed. But it saddens me that because of the way she died—and whatever mental health struggles led her there—there’s never been any space to talk about the person she was. Vibrant and fierce, delicate of soul and wild of heart—a teenage girl who never made it through. I often try to imagine the adult my sister would have become if she’d chosen life over death all those years ago. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of a stranger and see a fleeting resemblance. She’d have been like that, I think. Just like that. And what I most long to say to the sibling question is—‘Three. I have three.’
But if by chance that question doesn’t arise, there’s always the seemingly safe territory of—‘So, where’s your dad these days?’
Grief stricken after my sister’s suicide, my father became ill. Crippling depressions interspersed with effervescent but terrifying highs. A late onset, grief-induced bipolar disorder. In and out of psychiatric hospitals from that point on, he finally took his own life six years later. One suicide lighting the fuse of another, a sort of explosive domino effect. In my head, I call them ‘the dark years’. The time everything I knew and took for granted crumbled. You can see why I might be nervous about false floors when my whole family very suddenly plunged into an unimaginable black hole. My father was fifty-four when he died. The older I get the younger that seems.
‘Floodlighting’ is what American social researcher and TED Talks sensation Brené Brown calls the act of sharing too much sensitive information with someone who you haven’t yet built enough trust. (See above for a spectacular example.) Traumatised people do it for two main reasons. Firstly, as some kind of self-defeating subconscious test. If this person can hear my pain then perhaps they’ll stick around. Secondly, because the need to talk about the events can be so overwhelming it is impossible to contain. The problem being that often the person on the receiving end is caught like an animal in the headlights, startled and unable to respond.
For me, learning how to judge when I’m floodlighting or more healthily sharing has been a long road. When my sister died I was just a kid, and for many years I believed when I spoke about her I wasn’t using the right words. That words must have existed that would make sharing our story possible but I just hadn’t found them. After the death of my father I began to see it wasn’t the words I spoke that created such a discomforting space between me and the listener, it was the enormity of the events themselves.
And nearly twenty years later it’s still tricky. Usually I can tell when there is enough intimacy in a relationship to share about one of the deaths in my family, but often the second death is a kind of tipping point into too far. I am left in a limbo land between half and full disclosure, not knowing how to proceed. And all this is not because I don’t like to talk about my dead ones, it’s because I’m trying to find a time and place where the other person will feel safe enough to hear.
Lifeline (Australia): 13 11 14. Samaritans (UK): 08457 90 90 90. Lifeline (US): 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
First published in The Guardian, 13th October, 2014.