Dymphna Cusack

Such a joy to discover a new/old writer! I am now reading everything by Dymphna Cusack (1902–1981) whose writing life was brilliantly recreated by Marilla North (Yarn Spinners, UQP 2001) at a recent Jessie Street National Women’s Library Lunch Hour Talk.

Cusack infused her literature with her passion for social justice. Women’s rights to control their bodies and their destinies was a recurring theme. Writing about poverty and power, she illuminated women’s lives in Australian society, their places taken, their freedoms ceded. Though now fifty years old, her satire and commentary on class, power and privilege remains fiercely observant and intelligent.

In The Bloody Traffic, Cusack took on the arms industry and her play, Pacific Paradise protested nuclear weapons. Though she was a well-known and popular writer internationally, Cusack had been hurt by her own country’s lack of recognition. Perhaps it is not hard to see why. She was a thorn in the side of many bastions of power.

 

If you haven’t yet read Cusack, start with Come in Spinner, co-authored with Florence James. The sheer pace of its plot, driven by a host of compelling characters, was a revelation. I recommend it highly.

For anyone who knows Newcastle, like I do, there is another reason I was intrigued. Dymphna Cusack lived in that port city for several years, literally around the corner from where my parents live today. Her books describe the parks and beaches I remember from holidays with my grandparents and she recreates them vividly.

Seeing the whole city spread out below him, he was filled with a sense of exaltation: the harbour sparkling between the winding shores of the estuary, its waters streaked with the purplish line of the river, the twin arms of Nobbys and Stockton enclosing it like the pincers of a giant crab; the huddle of buildings along the water-front; the scatter of suburbs, thinning out between coast and timbered heights; the innumerable factory chimneys, and, towering above them all, sign and seal of Newcastle’s existence, the smoke-stacks of Southern Steel and Broken Hill Proprietary under their perpetual silver-black clouds.” (Southern Steel (1953)

 

Accidental Aid Worker by Sue Liu

2004 was a terrible year for humanity. I remember the Beslen school massacre—children shot in the back by Chechen guerillas as they escaped. And just as it was about to end, the Boxing Day Tsunami hit southern Asia. This was to become a pivotal moment in author Sue Liu’s life. Accidental Aid Worker is her story of how wanting to help a community became life-changing. It is also an exploration of the complexities of aid, both moral and logistical.

On a trip to Sri Lanka in 2004, Liu is taken with the enthusiasm and spirit of her tour guide, Bruno, a Tamil. His local tour company aims to empower people, especially women, who live and work in the tea plantations. ‘His vision is to create a society where young people have access and opportunity for education, regardless of caste, class, religion and ethnicity – with a particular mission to assist the children of poor plantation workers.’ She promises to stay in touch.

Then the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami hits. In its reach, its horror, the devastation is beyond belief. We see images of bodies lined up on beaches, faces bloated past identification; a woman holding her dead baby, shaking with grief. Liu gives us the numbers. ‘Indonesia’s death toll is in excess of 130,000, the missing in the vicinity of 37,000 and displaced at half a million people, Sri Lanka reports over 35,000 dead, 21,400 injured and 516,000 now homeless.’

Her affection for Bruno and the people of Sri Lanka galvanises her into organising an aid shipment: the Sri Lanka Appeal for Bruno. When she sends an email to her friends and family, she finds she has tapped into a vast outpouring of support from people desperate to help. Liu’s organising prowess is extraordinary. Single-handedly, she manages information on her website and through emails, she posts lists and guidelines for what is most needed, organises collections, sorts rigorously, accepts cash donations (gratefully, in the knowledge that shipping costs have to be covered) and is beset with fears the whole time that she will be getting something wrong.

She packs 75 boxes: tents, tarpaulins, wash basins, shoes, thongs, new and used clothing, toys, school stationery, toiletries, babies’ needs, and other essential items such as batteries, candles, rope, tools and laundry supplies. They go into a shipping container and she entrusts Sri Lankan logistics to sort it out at the other end.

While her intention was to bypass the big NGOs and deal directly with individuals, politics interferes. People want to know why her aid is for the Tamil regions. Is she supporting terrorism? Finding out who to trust, and who trusts her becomes fraught. The whispering in her head is relentless: ‘Are you just another well-intentioned ‘do-gooder’ taking risks, working outside the structure and making problems for the sanctioned and approved organisations?’ When she is moved to buy fans for children in desperately hot orphanages, she is asked by a local priest, ‘Why are you here and what do you want from Sri Lankan people?’ It is a question that stumps her.

Liu asks us to think about the conundrum of aid and its impact on the local economy: in one sense, it is a flood of ‘free stuff.’ ‘Would it be better to give money so that local traders can provide the goods?’ She doesn’t have an answer. The graft and corruption of developing economies makes administering cash difficult but she has her own heart-breaking discovery when her boxes eventually arrive. Is one person, operating independently, more agile than a large bureaucracy? Or is the security provided by the big NGOs necessary, in the end?

Liu doesn’t shy away from other hard questions—there is never enough aid. From her position on the ground, from following up and going into the crisis zones, she can see desperately poor and vulnerable people everywhere but her aid was intended for displaced coastal communities. How do we justify giving to one community over another?

And she asks us to think about travel and tourism. How do we travel about the world, respectfully? The curious phenomenon of visiting another country, another culture, to see and do things differently could be seen as an open and innocent experience, or one that is voyeuristic, even parasitic. ‘It is certainly hard to gauge the times you should listen to your gut and heed the warnings of your paranoia, or surrender to chance and opportunity. That’s what travel is supposed to teach you, how to hone your instincts to make better judgement calls but it doesn’t always work that way.’

For her provocative questioning alone, Accidental Aid Worker is worth reading but Liu also lays bare her thoughts on the big issues of love, family, friendship, grief and her own mental health. Its forays into the joys, or otherwise, of living in share housing, travel, self-employment and dealing with mid-life lighten the read.

Liu donates to community projects a percentage of each book sold and, as we approach another anniversary of the boxing day tsunami, think about copies for Christmas presents this year.

Sue Liu (2015), Accidental Aid Worker, Zulu Communications Pty Ltd, Rozelle

 

 

No Crazy Lady here—Rosie Waterland’s clear-eyed reckoning of her life

In Every Lie I’ve Ever Told (2017), Rosie Waterland tells stories from her ruptured childhood, first laid bare in her 2016 memoir The Anti-Cool Girl, interlacing them with intelligent, wickedly funny observations about being a woman today.

As the daughter of addicts, Waterland was neglected and abused; she went to 17 schools, lived with violence, and was hospitalised in a psychiatric ward. Where The Anti-Cool Girlis the story of her survival, this book marks a maturity that comes with self-knowledge. Waterland learns from her experiences and, in recounting her shortcomings and flaws, she asks us to think about ours. Her examination of grief, trauma, sex and relationships is evidence of a woman who does not flinch from introspection. Every lieis also the story of her love for her best friend, Tony, whose sudden death brought home to her sanity’s wafer-thin fragility.

 She opens each chapter with a lie she has told herself and others over the years and weaves serious discussion amongst her self-deprecating stories. I haven’t had bad sex since I promised I wouldn’t put up with it asks, ‘Has porn broken the brains of men?’ Her story about going to bed with a 21 year old who is shocked by her pubic hair should be required reading for millennials. In a follow up, she invites the reader into the bizarre and humiliating experience of laser hair removal.

It’s uncomfortable enough to have to get naked from the waist down, lie down on a table and spread your legs as far as they will go. But it’s even worse when you do that and the heavily made-up technician looks directly into your snatch and lets out a big, unimpressed sigh. “This is going to be difficult, she says, wincing now….”

Yet, she muses, the counter-argument is that ‘waxing your pubes is a powerful example of the autonomy you have over your body.’ How can women today work out who they are with so many contradictory messages?

Waterland struggled with eating disorders in her twenties. In her chapter on body image and thatFacebook photo, she asks again, Why is what we look like more important that what we do? But there isn’t time to think about answers in today’s 24 hour media-blitzed world. While her nude selfie caused a media frenzy, her accompanying considered examination of society’s skewed obsession with women’s bodies was all but ignored. It’s not new, but I’m so glad she’s asking these questions again, and to a new readership.

Just don’t be too fat, too skinny, too sexy, too prudish, too aggressive, too passive. Be a role model for all other women but be modest enough to never think you’re a role model. Have it all, but also admit that it’s impossible to have it all.

As a former writer for Mamamia, she used to be part of that world, ‘the Fast-Food Opinion machine’ but having taking a step back, she is now struck by the sheer volume of meaningless drivel, aka ‘content’, that it generates. She asks us to think about its harm— the cruelty of labelling people, of defining a complex life with a tag.

Waterland is acutely aware that her own change in attitude has come only after she has been personally hurt.

(I know – how narcissistic to only realise the error of my ways after I was the subject of media scrutiny. Scrutiny that I had participated in countless times. But I got there in the end, at least? I’m ashamed to say that’s the best I’ve got: I did get there in the end…)

After Tony’s death, she told people that she was ‘okay’, but she was drowning, not waving. Her subsequent breakdown and suicide attempt brought home the biggest lie of all—that her ‘mental-illness story was one of past recovery, not current struggle.’

 ‘Recovered’ means it’s over, I’m good now, I can talk about this because it’s only in my past. That girl was a crazy lady. This girl is fine. I’m okay.

Her acknowledgement of her vulnerability is a powerful contribution, both for those living with depression and anxiety and those caring for them. I read her book at the same time as Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love (Hamish Hamilton, 2016) where he discusses the human predilection towards delusion: we in the Western Anglophone world would do well to learn more about our character traits, our insanities which are deeply embedded in our psyches. Rosie Waterland’s clear-eyed reckoning of her life meets his challenge head-on. ‘Let’s all embrace failure. Let’s all accept that we can only be perfect at being imperfect. That’s about as close to ourselves as we’re ever going to get.’

Rosie Waterland (2017), Every Lie I’ve Ever Told, HarperCollins Publishers, Sydney.

First published in the Newtown Review of Books. And Rosie, a Newtown resident of old, liked it too.  Read more on her Facebook page.

 

 

 

Anything is possible, Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, is an author of piercing insight. Many a religious and philosophical tome has been written on moral righteousness but in her slim books, Strout’s characters show us how to live a good life. They embody love and forgiveness.

Anything is Possible is a companion set of stories to her novel My Name is Lucy Barton (2016). The nine stories in this collection centre around an ensemble of residents in the small rural towns of Illinois, outside Chicago. Lucy had grown up there, in desperate poverty. She manages to get to college and then to New York where she becomes a writer. She has just released her memoir and her home town is confronted by an awakened sensibility. Some have read the memoir, others shun it, as they shunned Lucy, but its existence affects everyone.

Each story is defined by a complex life, a private pain, as Strout’s characters search for some way to cope with past hurts – some bury their history, some live in isolation and can no longer recognise an offer of help, others run away, or return home. As their lives intersect through the collection, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes as a backstory, the reader learns more about them.

Strout is interested in why people do the things they do, showing the complexity of human relationship – the pleasure and the harm:
Patty had tremendous sympathy for Angelina … But she wanted to say right now: Listen to this! Lucy Barton’s mother was awful to her, and her father – oh dear God, her father … But Lucy loved them … We’re all just a mess, Angelina, trying as hard as we can, we love imperfectly, Angelina, but it’s okay.

A woman’s private mocking of her host shows the pain of an unfulfilled life; a bed-and-breakfast proprietor who refuses to be bullied spits in the jam of an abusive customer; a janitor shows kindness in allowing a girl to stay behind in the warm classroom. The disparity between the fishbowl of the small town and the anonymity of the city is illustrated when a visiting festival director is billeted with a local couple – her claustrophobia and feeling of exposure in their home is palpable as the reader sees the smallness of their lives.

While those who have got away to the cities are understood to have ‘escaped’, Strout’s quiet recounting of routine tasks by those who have stayed shows the meaning in an ordinary life. Despite the snide remarks, bullying, and social exclusion, her ensemble of characters demonstrates how tiny acts of human kindness can change lives. A teacher who is openly scorned by a student overcomes her own pain to see the child’s greater hurt and helps her, laying a foundation for greater good. And when a woman who participates in her husband’s sexual perversion is confronted by a victim, Strout allows for her self-awareness showing that liberation can come through the courage of forgiveness: Almost always it’s a surprise, the passing of permission to enter a place once seen as eternally closed. And this is how it was for a stunned Linda, who stood that day in that convenience store with the sun falling over packages of corn chips and heard those words of compassion – undeserved …

Courage is also present in characters resolutely doing something they know to be right, but which is hard — embracing a man, recognising his humanity, when he has been shunned by all others.

The beauty of Strout’s writing is one reason to read and reread these stories ‘… and he did not know what he would do … the minnow darting through the stream of his anxiety …’

If you need another reason, Strout’s ability to confront us with the harm and sadness of poverty and mental illness, but without despair, is a marvel. She asks, Why do we do good? And her answer is a message of hope – because it leads to love. In the final story, Abel understands: ‘… perfect knowledge: Anything was possible for anyone.’
Elizabeth Strout Anything is Possible Viking 2017 HB 280pp $29.99

First published in the Newtown Review of Books, 17 August 2017.

Jeffrey Eugenides and Marilynne Robinson

I am drawn to writing about these books. Both Home, (Robinson, 2008) and The Marriage Plot (Eugenides, 2011) portray the truncated half-life of a person suffering depression and the stress it brings to their carers. Allowing entry to those darker places is part of being seen, being understood. It’s why I read fiction.

I know this subject. I think many of us do but stigma and taboo crowd out a basic human need to share an experience. Without knowing who amongst us will understand, and feeling that it is not our story to tell, we keep it inside. It is a long and lonely heartache living with someone who doesn’t want to be here anymore; trying to keep them alive and sometimes failing.

In The Marriage Plot, Eugenides’ character Leonard is bi-polar, swinging between mania and deep depression. His girlfriend, Madeleine, is told early on by an earnest psych major ‘how attractive it can be to think you can save somebody else by loving them.’ How this resonates. I thought love—and organisation—could save my brother.

Leonard lies, cajoles, distorts and is ruled by his medication: dosage, properties, schedules, results, or lack thereof. It makes him feel fat, slow and stupid. He can’t remember what it was like to feel normal. He goes on spending binges, rampant with his own generosity. Only exorbitant gestures kindle a sense of life. And Madeleine ‘threw herself into the task of loving and caring for Leonard’ (Eugenides 2011 p184), as she mops and tidies, cooks and plans, she is keeping him alive. Or so she thinks. But you can only save yourself, the prescient psych major says.

Madeleine’s energetic impotence so closely mirrored my own. In one scene, he cannot be around people, his apathy and listlessness driving Madeleine to burst out ‘Why can’t you go to one party?’ ‘I just can’t.’ My brother would do the same. I wanted to shake him, slap him, show him all the things he could be, could do. The total incomprehension of that life, the impossibility of seeing the world through their eyes, is a constant when you love someone with depression.

At a writers’ festival event, I asked Eugenides about his awareness, his precision here. He had not experienced depression himself, but spoke to many who had. A woman stopped me afterwards, ‘You were the one who asked the question!’ I nodded. ‘Me too!’ she said. Her rage at her sister for not getting a grip, just snapping out of it, was consuming.

Marilynne Robinson’s Home tells of Jack, a child in a loving family who grows into a man they do not understand. He disappears for twenty years, staying away even for his mother’s funeral, never knowing how often they try to find him. Robinson tells of his return to his father’s house. He looks at the family who love him with cool eyes, a lived detachment—if I stay away, I can’t be hurt. They see his alcoholism, contained but just below the surface, and fear is the air they breathe. Removing bottles from his room, counting housekeeping money, hiding it in the piano stool, keeping him from self-harm.

“Was this what they had always been afraid of, that he would really leave, that he would truly and finally put himself beyond the reach of help and harm, beyond self-consciousness and its humiliations, beyond all that loneliness and unspent anger and all that unsalved shame, and their endless, relentless loyalty to him. Dear Lord. She had tried to take care of him, to help him, and from time to time, he had let her believe that she did.” (Robinson 2008 p 248­–249).

It pierces, language like this. The shame my brother felt at failure, failing us, failing himself, was constant. Not understanding, we could not heal it. Robinson writes that Jack refuses help. I saw the prison my brother created for himself, seeing himself as someone unworthy of receiving help, owing it to us to either fix himself or get out of the way. Out of our lives. And, like Jack’s family, we imagined every dreadful outcome, ‘lying awake nights’.

When we change, or our lives are changed, books like these can help us understand. The intricacies of the human condition can be smothered with misunderstanding and euphemism, or explored; while the hole in my life cannot be filled, I can accept it and accept me.

Home, Marilynne Robinson, Virago Press, UK, 2008

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides, Fourth Estate, UK, 2011

Kent Haruf and Marilyn French

Sometime earlier this year, I added Kent Haruf to my list of ‘books/authors to read’. I’d not heard of him before but caught some reviews of his final work, Our Souls at Night. In a second-hand bookstore in New York City (favourite destinations, both), I found a hardback copy which then sat on my shelf of ‘unread’ for a while (and yes, I am quite systematic in my reading consumption).

When I picked it up recently, I was astonished by its grace, by its clarity. Haruf’s prose is simple and compelling; his pared back recitations of domesticity happen in real time. I followed the characters through the minutiae of their tasks, one step after another and I was there too, in his novel, seeing what they were seeing, absorbing their reality.

Its spare beauty reminded me of a yoga teacher I knew once who told us that a perfect stance can be held with every muscle engaged but no visible movement at all.

Our Souls at Night dwells on the loneliness that can be so real in our splendid, suburban isolation, divided by our houses and gardens and fences and oppressed by its gatekeepers’ rigid codes. In this world, an arrangement to share lives is embarked upon, its comforts and delights gradually taking the place of trepidation.

I was reminded of Marilyn French’s The Bleeding Heart which I read many years ago. Her protagonists in this 1980s feminist love story are brought together by chance and share a short, beautiful period, inhabiting a place which is not their ‘real lives’.

It asks how can we live? How can we find a place with our friends, with our families, with their demands and our own? Rigid expectations again.

The couples in both books, one mid-life, the other nearer the end, look inwardly; in the long stories they tell each other, we see how they came to be the people they are now, with all their quirks and foibles and shortcomings and offerings.

In the distillation of their characters, the authors might help us find something in our own that we’d not seen before.

the-bleeding-heart our-souls-at-night

Patrick O’Brian

Introduced to Patrick O’Brian by a friend, I was suspicious. Volume after volume of a boy’s own adventure—ships and sailors, battles on the high seas. Yes, there is that and it is extraordinary in his deft hands but O’Brian’s genius is in taking the Napoleonic Wars as an exoskeleton, holding within it the soft flesh of human frailty. The Guardian describes him as Jane Austen at sea.

I love his creation of Diana Villiers who embodies the period’s freedoms and strictures. She has money and a degree of independence but accepts the protection of powerful men when she needs them. She is frankly sexual and open in her preferences.

The friendship between Dr Maturin, the ship’s surgeon and also a spy, and Jack Aubrey, the captain, is complex and real in its different incarnations; they struggle with weakness and are sometimes estranged. Their needs are plain to each other, and to us; you can love, but often you cannot help.

Sharp and humorous dialogue fills the books. Nonchalantly explaining to Aubrey’s wife an event on a recent trip, Maturin says —

‘To be sure, he lost the rest of his ear in the Indiaman – but that was nothing.’

‘His ear!’, cried Sophie, turning white and coming to a dead halt….

‘Yes, his ear, right ear, or what there was left of it. But it was nothing.  I sewed it on again, and as I say, if you had seen him last night, you would have been easy in your mind.’

‘What a good friend you are to him, Dr Maturin.’

‘I sew his ears on from time to time, sure.’

You can happily wallow in its technical detail of rigging, winds and navigation, or speed through to rejoin the narrative. You would be in good company. Maturin, on being furnished with a lengthy description of the ship’s features cries: ‘For God’s love, Jack, just point the ship in as near the right direction as ever you can and tell me about leeway afterwards.’

O’Brian’s lack of sentimentality is a cool shower on a humid day. Read them in sequence, beginning with Master & Commander and see if you’re not hooked.

 

patrick-obrian

 

Peter Matthiesen

Travel, exploration, philosophy, religion and science in one luminous work—Peter Matthiesen’s 1978 classic The Snow Leopard is unlike anything I’ve read before. Matthiesen’s narrative follows his expedition to the Himalayas with a zoologist friend to study the bharal, a sheep/goat which has proven elusive to classification—somewhat like this book.

The language both soothes and stimulates. I would wander off into introspection only to be drawn up by some abruptly realised danger. As a story of exploration into the wilderness, tension is high: the reader does not know whether both men will return home until the closing pages, or whether the scientific research has been rewarded. The expedition’s course is never certain and the author never lets us forget their near-absolute isolation. When it is time to leave the monastery where they are based, the porters who arrive to escort him back bring letters from home. These he puts away to read once safely down. He knows he cannot move any faster in the event of bad news. ‘Good news too would be intrusive, spoiling this chance to live moment by moment in the present…’ (Matthiessen, 2010, p214).

Matthiesen’s acute sensitivity towards cultural difference and his musings on commonalities would be one reason to read this book. Or for the science, calibrated to a lay audience, and dryly humorous. A description of how the male bharal has evolved to protect its head while ramming other males ends with this observation: ‘Why nature should devote so many centuries – thousands, probably – to the natural selection of these characteristics that favour head on collisions over brains is a good question….'(Matthiesen, 2010, p.229)

Meditation on old and new cultures and spirituality are interspersed with field reports on the bharal and observations of his companions. The book’s title comes from the elusive creature that he craves to see during his sojourn in the mountains—a symbol of our constant searching. Humour, often at his own expense, is frequent. Matthiesen is an intriguing figure of vulnerability and toughness and left me hungry for more. Writing this piece now, I find myself wanting to read it again.

Matthiessen, Peter 2010, The Snow Leopard, Vintage, London

.snow-leopard

Alice Sebold

This is the first of a series I’m writing to recommend some literary gems and authors I’ve loved. If I can help other readers find some new ‘old’ books, I’ll be repaying some of my debt to writers. Find them!

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‘When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.’ So begins Alice Sebold’s novel  The Almost Moon.

Known for her more famous book, The Lovely Bones, Sebold writes from the dark side. We know it because we’ve been there too, even if we push it away, under the rug. It lurks and she gives it a voice that we understand. Suburbia, neighbourhood watch, dogs. Dementia, suicide, fear.

And life goes on amid the desperation. It’s all so normal. Consequences are weighed and considered by the characters as they enter, stage right through the domestic sets of bathrooms, carpeted stairs, basements. Burger King carparks, Life Drawing Classes at the Senior Center. We’ve been there.

I read recently that most women go through life trying to live up to their mother’s expectations. Who can say whether they’re real, or deluded? The expectations and the attempts, or lack of. ‘You’re throwing your life away, you know that? Pissing it down your leg.’

Harsh.

It’s one of those books which crowds your head as you read, each sentence and page turned clamping down a little tighter on the options. How is this going to end? It’s not a thriller, not a whodunit. It’s being painted into a corner.

Her book Lucky is the real account of her rape in her first year at college and living through the days and weeks and months that followed. She’s lucky that she’s not dead, like another girl, killed in that same tunnel. Her life did not end among the dead leaves and broken beer bottles.

Her recounting the events over and over stays with me. When her father, many months afterwards realises that the rapist had dropped his knife, Alice can see him thinking ‘Why couldn’t she get away…?’ So simply, she evokes the burden felt again and again of lifting away that weight, the dead weight of her not struggling hard enough, of granting a permission of sorts.

Other people’s fear or sympathy, or pity, worse by far, were harder that the clinical policing, the courtroom proceedings with their rules and patterns. People knew their roles and played their parts, there.

Don’t be put off by Sebold’s grim landscapes. Her voice is clear and her prose fluent. Like an origami artist, she folds her story deftly, one crease after another, edges sharp, until it becomes the crane, standing upright.

Why go there? Ask yourself that the next time you read a crime story, or watch a murder, or a rape on some screen. Saturated with violence already, this lucid recounting of its impact is a gift.