Last week I spent an inspiring three days listening to writers talk about their craft at the Mildura Writers Festival. One of the most illuminating was American poet Jane Hirshfield, the founder of Poets for Science. She gave a lecture in which she quoted Jack Gilbert’s poem ‘Poetry is kind of Lying’.
I have taken the liberty of re-working this piece for memoirists.
Memoir is a kind of lying
(with apologies to Jack Gilbert, via Jane Hirshfield)
Memoir is a kind of lying,
necessarily. To purge the heart
of grief. But also in
that stories hold only the present’s truth.
Those of us who, repeatedly, comb
the refuse (bones, scabs,
corks, spittle) are driven
to say too much.
Jane said (as Gilbert said that Degas said –
but did he?) – we need only pay attention
to enable us to see
the things we have to say.
(This piece was first published on the Mildura Writers Festival blog, July 2018)
For decades I have watched the political battles over the Murray-Darling Basin from the sidelines and felt sickened by the Don Watson-style ‘weasel words’ produced in report after report, inquiry after inquiry. Walking the banks of the Murray River this week I have consciously tried to cleanse my mind of this obfuscatory bureaucratic language. Meanwhile, the pelicans keep landing gracefully on the river.
In order to allow for better social, economic and environmental outcomes than would otherwise have been achieved by the Basin Plan stakeholders will consider the pelicans, which are a symbol of empathy, nobility and goodness. Policy measures that further identify ways to deliver on agreed outcomes include an acknowledgement that, according to legend, the mother pelican, to save her babies from starving, wounds herself with her beak to feed them her blood. The sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism should refer to the lines of Shakespeare in Hamlet (1616), ‘To his good friend thus wide, I’ll open my arms and like the kind life-rendering pelican, repast them with my blood.’
In line with the need for progress towards meeting environmental needs, stakeholders note that fossil evidence of the pelican dates back at least 30 million years. The Salinity and Drainage Strategy (1989), the Natural Resources Management Strategy (1990), the rural water reform package (1994), and the Integrated Catchment Management Policy Statement (2000) were dwarfed by flocks of pelicans, which are gregarious birds, travelling in flocks, hunting cooperatively and breeding colonially.
In spite of chronic under-resourcing of regional water planning and water security for the irrigation industry, pelicans also have a long history of cultural significance in mythology and in Christian and heraldic iconography. Local irrigators would be forced to reduce the salinity impacts of irrigation, to assist in preserving the pelicans’ rickety grace and old world feathers like seasoned boardwalk planks.
Milestone assessment reports remind us that every woman who sees a pelican will think of Storm Boy, the motherless child in the blowing sands of the Coorong, as well as the rapid erosion of support for catchment-wide management. Environmental water will be permanently outside the consumptive pool and will provide habitat for the wonderful bird the pelican whose beak can hold more than his belly can.
There have been accusations of deliberate misuse and neglect of scientific evidence in decision-making to justify a predetermined political outcomeas twilight glides on pelican wings. It has been concluded that the promised environmental outcomes can be achieved with high degree of uncertainty, outcomes which, like the novelists, miss the mark, but not the pelican, because pelicans dip and dive, rise, shaking shocked half-dead fish from their beaks.
In most cases there is insufficient information or scientific modelling to assess the sustainable diversion limit adjustment projects submitted by the states, unlike the king and queen of the pelicans, we, no other birds so grand we see, none but we have feet like fins, with lovely leathery throats and chins.
Henceforth all reports regarding the future of the Murray Darling Basin shall include the terms biophilia, solastalgia, evanescence, limpidity, habitability, heartbreak and hope.
(Please note: most of the text above has been ‘borrowed’ from other sources)
(This story was first published on the Mildura Writers Festival blog, July 2018)
I have begun my month-long writing residency in Mildura, courtesy of the Mildura Writers Festival, and have been walking the banks of the Murray River, remembering childhood holidays here. So Much Beauty.
I heard a scientist on the radio saying that sharks like jazz music. Apparently if you play them jazz the sharks will come for the food. Play them classical music, though, and they don’t know what to do with themselves. Note to self, I thought: don’t go near the sea when you’re listening to jazz.
A decade and a half ago I played a jazz album to a three-year-old boy who I loved. When Louis Jordan And His Timpany Fivesang ‘Jack, You’re Dead’, the boy lay down on the floor. He put his head right up against the speakers and listened with his whole body. When the song finished he asked me to play it again. And again, and again.
A few years later that boy started learning guitar. He quickly mastered the instrument, probably because he spent every spare minute of his life playing music. Then he learnt how to play the drums. He also sings and he’s pretty handy on the piano. If only he could do all those things simultaneously, he’d give Louis Jordan And His Timpany Fivea run for their money.
That boy is eighteen now and he’s in a bunch of different bands. Last week he played a guitar gig in a Footscray bar. He was due to fly out of the country two days later for his first big solo travel adventure. The set began with a jazz tune.
As I listened to the melody noodling out from under his fingers I thought about that little boy with his ear pressed to the speaker. I thought about all the new music he would hear on his travels. The trains he would catch, or miss. The strangers he would befriend, or avoid. The foreign languages he would be immersed in, or befuddled by. The freedom he would embrace, and the homesickness that would embrace him. As the first tune came to an end I clapped and whistled louder than was necessary.
The second song was one he’d written himself. In the chorus he sang: ‘And then, piece by piece, everything pushes you into unease’.
Suddenly I wanted to tell him what I’d learnt about the sharks. I wanted to warn him not to go near the sea if he was playing jazz. But he’s gone now and it’s too late.
Safe travels, boyo.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in June 2018)
In the second half of the year i will be running a number of writing courses in Melbourne and Mildura – all welcome:
Life Writing workshops, Mildura
Saturday July 7 and Sunday July 8
RMIT Short Courses
Feature Writing (six weeks) – Oct 24 to Nov 28
Creative Non Fiction (six weeks) – Sep 12 to Oct 17
Getting to the Heart of your Story (non fiction) one day course – Sep 8
The School of Life
Writing as Therapy (introduction) – Aug 23
Writing as Therapy (four weeks) – Sep 4 to Sept 25
Refine Your Memoir – Sep 16 to Dec 16
Manningham Regional Library Writers Group
Second Thursday of each month
The man sitting beside me on the saggy couch is trying not to cry. I’m trying not to put my arms around his shoulders and give him a comforting hug. It’s not because I’m shy. It’s because he’s an actor playing a man who is about to cry and I’m an audience member. It would ruin the scene.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in April and we’re in a farmhouse just out of Melbourne. My friend Bagryana Popov, a theatre director, has decided to tear down the fourth wall and invite us into Uncle Vanya’s living-room. Chekhov’s play was written 120 years ago and set in pre-revolutionary rural Russia. This production is set right now, in the goldfields region of Victoria. Listening to the characters talking about the importance of protecting the environment, the pain of unrequited love and the dignity of hard work, the play still feels as fresh as the autumn wind.
It’s forty years since I started going to the theatre. I’ve reviewed it, chewed it over with friends, and even performed in it. Until this weekend, though, I’m not sure I could have explained why.
We all know that the characters in plays are not ‘real’. We know the stories are usually fictional, the sets constructed, the props pre-prepared. This knowledge helps us keep some emotional distance, even when we’re caught up in the drama. But sitting beside Uncle Vanya on that couch, feeling his shoulders shake, no distance is possible. I am deep inside this imaginary world, swamped by empathy.
Outside the living room window the rain is pouring down. We can see the creek at the bottom of the slope, the bare paddocks behind it. We know where all the trees have gone because a ‘real’ visiting botanist talked to us about de-forestation in between acts. When the characters in the play debate the importance of tree planting, we understand the stakes. Instead of being outside looking in on the staged drama, we the audience members are inside, looking out at the place that has shaped these characters’ lives.
Like a tree, a good play can span multiple generations. Like a tree, a good theatre production is multi-layered. Under the surface of this intimate tale of a rural family in crisis there are generations of history, layers of grief, cycles of regret and hope. Like a tree, it is a living thing.
(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in May 2018)
All The Ladies: Baroque Women in Song
From the Queen of Heaven to the simple shepherdess, the Westgarth Ensemble celebrates ‘All The Ladies’ in a Baroque vocal recital.
The feisty, fearless and fun females take centre stage through the medium of songs by Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel and Vivaldi. There are also some rare gems including a piece by the pioneering Italian composer Barbara Strozzi and Englishmen John Eccles and Walter Porter.
Come and meet the ladies of the Baroque, as sung by Melbourne’s Westgarth Ensemble.
When: Sunday June 3rd, 3 pm
Where: Church of All Nations, 180 Palmerston St. Carlton
Who: The Westgarth Ensemble
Claire McDonald (Soprano)
Katrena Mitchell (Soprano)
Sian Prior (Soprano)
with special guest Fiona Piggott (cellist)
Admission: $25 ($20 concession) at the door
Background: The members of the Westgarth Ensemble have been singing together since 1997. Graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio, they have all worked for a range of Australian opera companies and ensembles. In recent years they have been presenting themed vocal concerts in venues around Victoria. In 2016 they performed ‘Supernatural’ at the Armadale Uniting Church and St Paul’s Cathedral, and ‘Exotica’ at the Bardin Centre, Brunswick in 2017.
Why do we read memoirs? One theory is that we are mentally rehearsing for other possible lives, imagining how wewould behave in these situations. Some memoirs also function as a reminder to count our blessings.
One of my many blessings was a free university education. I studied politics and learnt about the theory of ‘interpellation’, the process whereby ‘repressive state apparatuses’ make passive subjects of their citizens, robbing them of the power to think critically about dominant ideologies. These ideologies are embedded in everyday language and absorbed unconsciously into our sense of identity.
Reading Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up in rural Idaho, it struck me that her fundamentalist father would have loved this stuff. It would have reinforced Gene Westover’s paranoia about ‘the Feds’. It would have made him even more determined to isolate his family from the education system, the health system, from every form of social support offered by government.
It would have justified his decision to refuse medical help when the family car overturns, seriously injuring his wife. And when his son suffers deep burns whilst working for his father. And when Gene Westover nearly loses half his face from an even worse burns accident.
There is a tragic irony at the heart of this memoir. While Tara Westover’s father rails against the persecutory power of ‘the Feds’, he cannot see that his own wacky brand of religious fundamentalismisa repressive ideology. Every member of his family is scarred by it, literally and/or emotionally.
‘Educated’ is the story of how Tara Westover survived her brutal childhood and, despite having no formal schooling, made it to university. But this is no revenge memoir. It is also a story about how love can survive in the face of unfathomable cruelty.
To remain within the embrace of the family Tara must embrace her father’s worldview. When he forbids her from going to school and instead puts her to work in his junkyard, young Tara falls from a front-end loader. Though the fall was caused by her father’s recklessness, still she loves him. When her brother Shawn nearly breaks her wrist trying to stop her meeting up with a boy, she forgives him. And when her family labels her a ‘whore’ for wearing lipstick, she internalises the label and the shame that comes with it.
It’s not until she finds her way to university that Tara begins to question that worldview. When her brother calls her a ‘nigger’ for the ‘thousandth time’, she finds she can no longer laugh it off.
‘Something had shifted… I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, myself… that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalise others.’
The narrator’s voice remains distanced, even dissociated, as she recounts episode after episode of physical and psychological violence. A more lyrical voice takes over when she is describing the consolations of nature and art.
The family farm sits at the foot of a mountain her father calls the Indian Princess, and in young Tara’s imagination the Princess is a benign presence watching over her. When she leaves home to go to university, she misses the mountain as keenly as she misses her family.
Music is the one thing that can soften her father. Entranced by a recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Tara takes some singing lessons. Somehow Gene Westover’s anti-education views are trumped by the heavenly sound of his daughter’s voice floating above the church choir.
As Tara Westover declares in an Author’s Note, ‘this story is not about Mormonism’. Her father, she belatedly realises, suffers from a mental illness. Any rigid dogma, when combined with madness, can be dangerous.
In this era of ‘fake news’ and popular despotism, Tara Westover’s memoir reminds us that the best defense against repressive ideology is critical thinking – the kind that comes with an education.
(This review was first published in The Age and the SMH in April 2018).
It’s 9:30 on a Saturday night and I’m doing laps at the Melbourne City Baths with a polystyrene model of an island strapped to my head. There are a dozen island-wearers in the other lanes, being cheered on by an audience up in the bleachers.
We’re taking part in a Festival of Live Art project called ‘Landing’. The volunteer lappers are aiming to swim the equivalent distance from Manus Island to the Australian mainland. ‘Landing’ is just the latest in a wave of cultural events focusing on the fate of asylum-seekers.
On SBS, for example, there’s a new drama series called ‘Safe Harbour’. A group of Australians on a yacht cruise discover a broken-down boat full of refugees. They have to decide whether to help these people or leave them adrift in the sea.
Over on Netflix there’s a British crime series called ‘Collateral’. A pregnant cop finds some Syrian refugees hiding in a lock-up. She must decide whether to help them stay in England or send them back to a country riven by civil war.
In the cinemas there’s a film made by exiled Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. ‘Human Flow’ follows some of the 65 million refugees who’ve been forced to flee their homes in recent years. In an interview about the film Ai Wei Wei says ‘their home should be humanity’.
But wait, there’s more. At La Mama theatre there’s a show coming up in which actor David Joseph explores his family’s connection to Australia’s asylum-seeker debate. In the bookshop there’s a novel by Jock Serong about some Australian surf tourists who encounter a refugee boat wrecked on an Indonesian reef. There’s also a book called ‘45 Days’, co-written by an asylum-seeker on Manus Island and an Australian grandmother.
This cultural wave feels somehow familiar. About eight years ago our anxieties about child abuse were bubbling up everywhere in the arts, and I wrote about this trend in an Age column. A couple of years later the Prime Minister established a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse.
Art can sometimes be the ‘canary in the coalmine’, warning us that something is amiss and something needs to be done about it.* Perhaps all these refugee stories in our theatres, bookshops, cinemas and swimming pools are prophetic. Perhaps, some time soon, our humanity will make a home for those in need.
* (Jock Serong’s last novel was about cheating in cricket.)
This column as first published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in April 2018.
Since you last heard from me I’ve fallen in love with a celebrity. Here’s what I’ve learnt: front-page fame won’t necessarily save you from extinction.
My love-object first hit the headlines a couple of decades ago when former Premier Jeff Kennett dismissed it as a ‘trumped up corella’. The orange-bellied parrot (its real name) was getting in the way of Kennett’s plan to move a chemical storage facility to Point Lillias, near Geelong. The ‘OBP’ was endangered and Point Lillias was one of the places the remaining parrots came to feed.
In spite of the best efforts of scientists and bird-lovers, things have gone from bad to worse for this winsome bird. Orange-bellied parrots are now critically endangered. There are a few hundred in captivity but only about twenty adult OBP’s in the wild.
Why should you care if this gentle bird is consigned to oblivion? Unless you join the posse of biologists and volunteers trying to keep these parrots alive, you may never see one in the wild.
In spite of my click-baity opening line, this is not a story about celebrity. It’s about loss.
Ageing, I have realized, involves a long, hard coming-to-terms with losing things. We will all lose our grandparents, then our parents. Many of us will lose our children, or the possibility of having any. We may lose jobs we’ve valued, friendships we’ve treasured, hopes we’ve harboured.
Our bodies will lose their strength. Our minds will lose memories we thought would last forever. These losses are inevitable and they can be crushing.
The people working to save the OBPs have given individual names to all the remaining wild birds. When a species is as close to extinction as this one is, each death is deeply felt.
But losing the last little parrot with a blue-striped brow and an amber belly is not inevitable. It is preventable. With enough money and political will, the OBPs could be dragged back from the brink. Their beauty, their ingenuity, their mysterious navigational powers – these things are worth preserving.
Try this: search online for that famous footage of the last Tasmanian tiger. Watch it pacing in its cage, and remember that this astonishing creature is gone for good.
Now search for images of orange-bellied parrots. Watch them feeding, flirting, flying. Fall for that rainbow undercarriage, that graceful blur of luminescence.
It’s not too late.
(This column was first published in the Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in March 2018)
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