Tuesday, June 16, 2020

on monuments and trauma

Viola: A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,
 Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
We men may say more, swear more, but indeed
Our shows are more than will, for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love. (Shakespeare 6)

AT the age of 22, an impossibly human girl named Jean found herself attracted to a man made entirely of stone. They were opposites. She was a mess of wounded flesh and exposed nerve endings. He had been dead for more than a century. He stood in a park named after him, overlooking the city’s accumulated misery. She was at a nearby pub, being farewelled by a bunch of drunken journos. When she flew for England on a one-way ticket, she would miss them only slightly less than the broken feeling this city had left in her bones. 

It was a Friday night at the end of 1995. Jean was drunk. She had smoked the first and last cigarette of her life but would never forget the feeling of burning tar in her throat as she crossed the road from the pub to the park without looking for cars and climbed the near-vertical concrete steps to the edge of the continent. The towering statue of James Fletcher was waiting for her. 

She could feel the translucent forms of souls only slightly more conflicted than hers. They had walked a few steps further and stepped over the white safety fence as though they were sneaking off to a picnic, only to leap and break their bodies, like their spirits, at the base of the cliff. Jean felt them pulling at her in the warm salted darkness but she locked eyes with James Fletcher and the weight of his plinth-bound presence and something in her refused to let him go. 

She communed with his concrete body because it was neither flesh nor blood. She could pour out her despair, her self-hatred and the feeling of emptiness that threatened to annihilate her and he would not recoil. His hands would never seek to warm themselves on her body and he would never reach out to claim her as his own. He would give her nothing, which was all she had ever asked for. She knew she could not move him, but she also knew she wanted him to stay exactly where he was.

Adjacent to the local constabulary and within the judicial precinct, Jean beseeched James Fletcher to answer her. He stood calmly over her and she begged him to relieve her suffering. He surveyed the city, silent and unwavering, and appeared to revel in his own immortality and her hopeless inability to grasp the functional requirements of life. In her drunken stupor, she could see only one thing clearly: his face. She had no God and no faith but perhaps this was the closest she would ever come to religion, this pleading for guidance, a crazed and beer-blurred serenade by a spurned lover, a sinner separated from the flock. This stone man represented every man who had ever touched her or even looked at her, and she remembered them all in the same way the body holds trauma, like a bank vault that’s already been broken into but all evidence of the desecration lost.


My major creative work investigates the role of monuments and memory in recollections of trauma. It depicts actual events and began life as creative non-fiction but I feel more comfortable and even empowered by telling this story from a third-person point of view. I believe my work sits in the often contested space between narrative fiction and autobiography, an area in which there is room for me to play without encountering the “conflict between life and writing” (Sutherland) and the inevitable question: my truth or yours? I have drawn on the memoir novel The Last Thread, by Michael Sala, in which he documents the early trauma of his life through the character of Michaelis. I have drawn also on the memoir Reckoning, by Magda Szubanski, in which she weaves the wartime history of Poland through personal recollections of growing up uncertain of her sexuality in the Melbourne suburbs during the 1960s. My experiences with sexual abuse and the resulting trauma have been revisited in recent years through the lens of Clementine Ford’s self-described manifesto Fight Like A Girl, in which she addresses her own trauma by taking a refreshingly reactionary stance against male toxicity and its impact on girls and women. I have also drawn on several essays in Anne Teresa Demo and Bradford Vivian’s collection Rhetoric, Remembrance and Visual Form: Sighting Memory in investigating the roles of history, place, monuments and memory in the perpetuation of trauma. 

Do we build monuments to our trauma? Do we set them in concrete and let them cast shadows over us for the rest of our lives? In August 2017 a video circumnavigated the globe in a matter of hours. It showed a group of people chanting and wailing as they brought down a statue of a Confederate soldier outside a courthouse in Durham, North Carolina. (Jackson and Ellis) The backdrop of the video was the death a few days earlier of a young woman named Heather Heyer, who had been protesting against a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Days later, a group of protesters tired of being looked down upon by old-school white supremacists on monuments took matters into their own hands. In the viral video, there are loud cheers as the tin soldier is duly unmounted from his lofty pedestal. The metal flattens into the ground like putty, constitutionally bereft of any resistance to the revolution. Indigenous journalist Stan Grant was prompted by these scenes to question the “damaging myth”, perpetuated by monuments around Australia, that the continent was discovered and not invaded by Captain James Cook (Grant). Through non-fictional narrative and historical research, my work asks where is our resistance to a history that doesn’t recognise our grief? How can we shift our trauma if it is fixed in its place, rooted in the ground and reinforced in stone?

In Michael Sala’s The Last Thread, the setting of Newcastle is a palpable presence. The streets and landscapes described in the book are very familiar to me and in some cases represent the sites of my own trauma. The following passage describes the closest thing to ancient monuments in the city in which Michaelis seeks to recreate the comforting traditions and memories of his childhood in Holland:

This part of the town has an older feel, a bit like Europe – the sprawling cathedral above the mall, like something medieval, the ruins of Fort Scratchley on the headland, with cannons that once fired on Japanese submarines. Near the remains of the fort is the break wall and above it the lighthouse. Back from this extend the narrow streets and century-old terraces ravaged by salt. Past that, hidden on the top of a hill, is the school where he first went as a boy six years ago . . . walking with Mum towards the sky through the corridor of figs. (Sala 140-141)

My story incorporates the landmark sites and monuments of Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle police station, the old legal precinct, The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate building and the adjacent parkland and cliffs above the ever-present ocean. As Bradford and Demo explain, “physical locations and environments constitute deeply evocative loci of memory. . . . to view landscapes and cityscapes is to remember the past imprinted and continuously reprinted on their natural or physical contours” (7). Beyond bricks and mortar monuments, our trauma is often embedded through our body’s memory in the fabric of the landscape itself.

Sala’s central character Michaelis/Michael lives vicariously through his older brother Con, who is more independent, adventurous and daring than him. Through the course of the book we hear suggestions of Con’s deeply traumatic past, hints but never outright elaborations of sexual abuse at the hands of his father. The narrative reflects a culture in which such abuse is a known but concealed truth, rendered intangible because it never fully exists as fact or fiction. It exists in the contested space of memory, between the past and the present. It is this space in which Michaelis’s mother perpetually resides, between her own past and present and between Newcastle and Holland. She carries the artefacts of her memory in the form of her records – “Neil Young, Neil Sedaka, The Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas . . .  from Holland to Australia and back again” (Sala 93). Ernesto Pujol relates the story of his parents’ emigration from Cuba in 1961 and the state-imposed “home inventory” which transferred ownership of all their personal belongings or “visible memories” to the government (181). As Pujol explains, the inventory was “the task of detaching memory from object, so that you could take yourself with you, so that your heart did not remain behind” (181). In my own story, the role of visible memory in perpetuating trauma is reinforced when Jean visits the site of the recently demolished Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate building and finds enormous freedom in the space where it used to be.

In The Last Thread, during the family’s short-lived relocation to Holland and a visit to the war museum, Michaelis struggles to understand the enormity of the Holocaust and asks an innocent question of his mother which reveals two very human but perhaps flawed perspectives of trauma and its place in memory.

 ‘Why did we go there today?’

‘It’s important to know what happened.’


‘I don’t know, if enough people know, if they really know about that sort of thing, maybe it won’t happen again.’

. . . He doesn’t understand how knowing about something can stop it from happening again. It’s never been that way for him. Like when he crosses his legs under the table. He’s eight and he’s been doing it forever. When he crosses his legs, Dirk kicks him in the shin. Once the pain has died down, Michaelis just does the same thing again. It is called forgetting. (Sala 99)

This concept is particularly relevant to my own character of Jean, who experiences this childhood phenomenon of “forgetting”, or of removing herself from the trauma, during a sexual assault by a trusted male psychology student in the walled grounds of a mental hospital:

She is lost and struggling to breathe when her childhood survival instinct kicks in, honed in the year before kindergarten when she was unable to resist the lure of the clothes racks in Kmart and would hide herself underneath them and sing quietly to herself. She would be found by her panicked mother after long minutes of searching. Just stay here and someone will come.

When the trauma is repeated some years later by a different perpetrator, Jean leaps immediately to the conclusion that it must have been due to “something she had done”. This confirms the concept that, perhaps especially for women with regard to sexual assault and abuse, being aware of the potential for trauma cannot necessarily stop it from happening. 

In Reckoning, Szubanski’s references to the fallen monuments of Warsaw, where her father was born, represent the trauma her father experienced but never reveals. It runs deeply but silently in the family’s fabric, an inter-generational trauma that Szubanski feels the impact of but struggles to understand. Her visit to Auschwitz with her parents in 1992 (Szubanski 256), like Michaelis’s visit to the war museum, illustrates the role of monuments in trauma. A haunting legacy to one of the world’s greatest traumas, the former Nazi concentration camp attracts hundreds of tourists each year, perhaps seeking some tangible hold on the incomprehensible horror of the Holocaust. Szubanski describes the buildings themselves as “Blunt broken ruins, bits of concrete upended like outcroppings shifted by vast geological trauma” (Szubanski 256), as if the now invisible human trauma had somehow caused a deep seismic impact. She describes it as “hell on earth”, and “the world’s shrine and cemetery”, left to the custodianship of the deeply damaged Polish race (Szubanski 257). The notion of geological remnants of trauma is revisited soon after, as Szubanski recounts the dual mythical and scientific origins of Polish amber. In each version the golden substance is created through trauma, whether it be as the tears shed by Phaeton’s grieving sisters the Heliades in Ovid’s “sunshine and sorrow” myth (Szubanski 257) or the trauma of trees which secrete the resin to heal their wounds. The substance is transformed “over vast geological time” (Szubanski 258) into fossilised amber but remains buried beneath the floor of the Baltic Sea until it is freed by “tides and cataclysms ” (Szubanski 258) and floats on the salt water to begin another life as a treasure, sometimes with a visible relic of the trauma - like an insect - trapped inside. In her introductory chapter, Szubanski describes the 15thcentury surgical practice in which holes were cut into patients’ skulls to extract “the stone of madness” and relieve them from their symptoms.

I swear sometimes I can feel that stone in my head. A palpable presence, an unwelcome thing that I want to squeeze out of my skull like a plum pip, using nothing but the sheer pressure of thought and concentration. If I just think hard enough . . . 

That stone was my father’s legacy to me, his keepsake. Beneath his genial surface, somewhere in the depths, I would sometimes catch a glimpse – of a smooth, bone-coloured stone. A stone made of calcified guilt and shame. I could feel it.

I can feel it still. (Szubanski 2)

Like the James Fletcher statue central to my own work, Szubanski’s embodied trauma is made of stone. It carries with it a heaviness and permanence like monuments to war heroes or founding fathers, those through which “societies outsource the burden of remembering” (Ruohonen 210). Yet when we carry it as our own personal monument of trauma, experiencing it with our body’s memory, it can be an agonising and debilitating burden. I have tried to emphasise this sense of heaviness in my descriptions of the landscape and sites of trauma in my own story. References to the “stone man”, “the weight of his plinth-bound presence” and “his concrete body” in the passages where Jean communes with the James Fletcher statue above the “concrete steps leading to the edge of the continent” are reflective of the Newcastle landscape and its own visible links to the past. The James Fletcher Hospital site is described as holding historical trauma which has “seeped into every stone”, while the newspaper building is linked to elements of the “subterranean” and “the underworld” before it is razed and reveals the depths of its contamination, or at least Jean’s perception of it, in the earth below. 

Clementine Ford says repeatedly “it’s okay to be angry” – in fact she dedicates a whole chapter of Fight Like A Girlto the subject (264-281) and her rage is never far from the surface throughout the book. It’s good advice which she clearly lives by, but how much rage can we individually shoulder, when it is so draining to be perpetually angry? If it is indeed only the second stage of grief – after denial, and before bargaining, depression and acceptance – then of course anger is valid and necessary but I question how long it can be maintained. In the past 25 years I have covered all five stages of the grieving process and it still enrages me to revisit the sites, both physical and spatial, of my trauma. But that anger and the accompanying grief continue to take something away from us, in the form of energy, and at some point we must dismantle the monuments that perpetuate our rage. 

In the recent, often angry debate over our own monuments to Captain Cook, some said we should leave them unchanged as a reminder of the past - even one that has been altered by the wisdom of ensuing centuries. Others thought an extra plaque, an edit of history, would suffice. I suppose it depends how visible you want your version of the story to be. I chose to document autobiographical events through the character of Jean because I felt more comfortable as the external creator of this story rather than the internalized, powerless victim trapped within it.I have made a conscious decision to play with a character outside of myself in order to narrate the autobiographical events of my life. While I can cross the bridge of memory into the past, emotionally and spatially my 19-year-old self no longer exists. So Jean is a creation, or re-creation, of me. As fantasy author Ursula le Guin writes:  “By ‘imagination,’ then I personally mean the free play of the mind . . . I mean recreation, re-creation, the combination of what is known into what is new” (Sutherland). Jean gave me the ability to craft a story rather than simply document the past. 

Monuments can be comforting, confronting and cautionary. They are weighted with our history and our rage and can be debilitating when carried long distances. In the process of writing my own trauma and traversing the spaces between past and present, truth and fiction, I have come to realise that while we may need to construct monuments to our trauma, it is equally important to deconstruct them. We do not need stony-faced men to look down on us from their high (or low) points in history, where they can overlook everything including human suffering. We need to dismantle them with our own hands and take their place on the pedestal as a mark of who we are and what we have endured. It is important to recognise our painful past and the roles of history, place and memory in the perpetuation of trauma. By removing the stone emblems, brick walls and concrete basements of that trauma we can become our own monuments, no longer weighted markers of a dark past and no longer buried, but sites of freedom and beacons for the future. 



Demo, Anna Teresa and Vivian, Bradford. “Introduction.” Rhetoric, Remembrance and Visual Form: Sighting Memory, edited by Anna Teresa Demo and Bradford Vivian, Routledge, 2012, pp1-12.

Ford, Clementine. Fight Like A Girl. Allen and Unwin, 2016.

Grant, Stan. “Stan Grant: It is a ‘damaging myth’ that Captain Cook discovered Australia.” ABCNews. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-23/stan-grant:-damaging-myth-captain-cook-discovered-australia/8833536. Accessed 29 September 2017.

Jackson, Amanda and Ellis, Ralph. “Seven arrested in toppling of Confederate statue in North Carolina.” CNN,http://edition.cnn.com/2017/08/14/us/confederate-statue-pulled-down-north-carolina-trnd/index.html. Accessed 29 September 2017.

Pujol, Ernesto. “Inherited and New Memories.” Rhetoric, Remembrance and Visual Form: Sighting Memory, edited by Anna Teresa Demo and Bradford Vivian, Routledge, 2012, pp180-188.

Ruohonen, Johanna. “Silenced Memories: Forgetting war in Finnish public paintings.” Rhetoric, Remembrance and Visual Form: Sighting Memory, edited by Anna Teresa Demo and Bradford Vivian, Routledge, 2012, pp209-227.

Sala, Michael. The Last Thread. Affirm Press, 2012.

Shakespeare, William. “Twelfth Night.” The Complete Oxford Shakespeare, Volume II, Comedies. Oxford University Press, 1987.

Sutherland, Natalie. “The Fiction in Autobiography: Fantasy, Narrative and the Discovery of Truth.” Perilous Adventures10.02. http://perilousadventures.net/1002/sutherland.html. Accessed October 28, 2017.

Szubanski, Magda. Reckoning. Text Publishing, 2015.

Friday, September 21, 2018

volume one


I remember those beach towels, the ones you are lying on. Dad’s is horizontal stripes, bright colours alternating with black. Yours is twice the size of his, a beach ‘blanket’, I think you used to call it. I remember you wrapping it around me when I came out from swimming at the beach, and it would be dragging on the ground. You would tuck it in, or maybe it was Dad, and then I couldn’t move my arms or my legs. I was stuck like a sandy towelling skittle, but of course I didn’t mind. It’s still one of my favourite feelings, to be wrapped up in a warm towel like that.

I think this photo was taken on a trip to Greenmount, in Surfers Paradise. I can’t even imagine how beautiful it would have been then, in the late 1960s before the developers rolled in and cast shadows over the sand. In this photo, it’s so white it almost looks like snow. There are three of you in the picture. Your towels are spaced evenly apart so you have colonised a section of beach that would be unheard of these days, at least in the summer when there’s barely more than a foot’s width between the beach umbrellas on any decent stretch of sand. There’s nobody else in the photograph, not even a shadow, and the white glare of the sand surrounds the three of you like a halo. Like you’re the only people on the face of the earth. The man sitting on the left was always known to me as ‘Uncle Gadge’ and I never asked why. When the knowledge was considered somehow necessary, I found out his real name was Gary. I didn’t think it suited him.

There are lots of photos of this trip you and Dad made with Gadge and his wife Doreen. She was obviously the photographer, though you all had a turn because this page of the photo album has four frames with exactly the same set-up, only different people. I can imagine you all taking turns with the camera, maybe a Box Brownie or something a bit more modern. There’s no group shot of the four of you but there you all are on one page. I just have to imagine the four of you sitting there together. The little square photographs are exactly what the Instagram generation tries to recreate - white borders and super-saturated colour with a yellowed veneer of age. There is #nofilter here, just five decades under self-adhesive film. On the facing page of the album, there are more shots of you all at a wooden table that’s covered in empty beer bottles. You are all laughing.

I remember Gadge was always making people laugh, but now I’m not sure if that’s from experience or from my memories of looking at these photos. My favourite when I was a kid is the one of him with a flash bulb from a camera stuck in his belly button. I don’t remember seeing him that much when I was growing up, even though they didn’t live that far away. He and Doreen were my godparents, which explains how close you were to them in 1972 when I was born. Because I have children of my own now, I can see how that would have changed when my sister and I came along. I can see how life and a mortgage and babies and a job can take over from drinking beer around a kitchen table in Greenmount. But I am glad you had those times.

Your hair is peroxide blonde, almost as white as the sand, and I remember you telling me a story about jumping into a super-chlorinated pool and losing your bleached hair in handfuls. You had to have it cut short, which I think makes you look like a model. Maybe it’s also the oversized sunglasses, or the way you’re lying on your beach blanket, in your glamorous bikini, not a care in the world. Dad is in his natural element, leaning back on one elbow and smiling at the camera. His legs are stretched out past the edge of the towel, feet crossed and covered in sand, and he looks as though he’s been lying there for the better part of a lifetime. Maybe just the best part.

You live near a beach like this now, you and Dad. You both seem to be happiest when you are near the water, and you have passed that on to my sister and I. Your grandchildren have all known the joy of sitting on the sand at the water’s edge with you, building sandcastles, or holding your hand and jumping over and into the waves. So much has changed since this photograph was taken, yet so much is still exactly the same.

This golden life you had, newly married and before children, glows back at me from the pages of a discoloured photo album. It is one fleeting moment, captured like a bug in a drop of amber. I turn it over in my hand and hold it up to the light, looking for things that aren’t there. But it is only one scene in one chapter, the first in this album of stories. There will be daughters born, first days of school, a sea change, a cancer diagnosis and a heartwarming recovery before the pages run out. But it’s only volume one, and life is lived in many volumes.

Friday, August 24, 2018

It seems I have forgotten my biro

I’m no Malcolm Turnbull but it’s been a fucking WEEK. 

On Wednesday I was gallery sitting for an exhibition that, coincidentally, my work also won. I entered a short story cycle I had written, as the call for entries sought work from all disciplines at the University of Newcastle. And I fucking WON. First prize. I am no longer prepared to apologise for that, even though it seems few in the art world agreed with the decision and even fewer in the writing world see it as a proper literary achievement. 

So there I was, gallery sitting, when a middle-aged white man approached the counter and asked me what I had entered. Clearly he knew that anyone with work in the exhibition also had to volunteer their time to gallery sit for at least a few hours. I could have said “Oh, I won. My work is in the corner of the gallery.” Instead, ever apologetic, I just told him where he could find it. But it seemed he had already seen all the works, because he immediately retorted: “Didn’t grab me.” Because I was so clearly waiting for his opinion on this. “It grabbed the judges,” said I, to which he looked surprised and asked how much the prize was worth. Like it was any of his filthy fucking business. But I told him. He seemed impressed with the amount, but not with the fact that I had won it. He went into the gallery and I went back to the counter, where he approached me about five minutes later and proceeded to ask what the point of my work was, with its tiny text that you had to get up close to read (he obviously hadn’t done this, because he hadn’t been gone long enough. He also confessed as much, insinuating he couldn’t really be bothered as it wasn’t a “visual” work). 

So there I was, volunteering my time to work in a gallery, proud of my achievement not only in writing the work but also in being awarded first prize by two separate judges of sound mind, justifying myself to a middle-aged white man. Again. And again. I told him the challenge was to invest the time to read the work and then perhaps you would be rewarded with an emotional response, just as you might be with a visual work of art. I might as well have been reading the phone book. He didn’t see the point, though I think I won the argument because he gave up and congratulated me before thankfully leaving the building. But he didn’t read my work and he probably still thinks it doesn’t deserve to even be hanging in a student art prize, let alone win it. He’s entitled to that opinion, of course. But why of all days did he have to choose this Wednesday between 1pm and 5pm to come in to the gallery and throw it at me? These fucking tests are doing my head in.

Today, I went to a university lecture titled Perspectives on Film, Media and Culture. I had spent the past 36 hours closely (some might say a bit obsessively) following the political clusterfuck unfolding in Canberra via the Twitter feeds of the country’s best journalists as well as some on-point social commentators. I was also following more traditional coverage on ABC News 24 both on radio and television. I spent 20 years being a journalist and I boycott all news except political drama because I can’t get enough of that. In between marvelling at the professionalism of ABC journos who had been dissecting the drama for three straight days, I also read no less than five scholarly articles about the creative industries. Because they were assigned to be read for today’s lecture. 

There were lots of things discussed in the lecture, probably lots of valid things and even interesting things, but I don’t remember many of them. What I do remember is the twenty-something (female) lecturer telling the class that women over the age of 40 don’t understand social media. They don’t understand how to use it or how it works. They think it works like life and it doesn’t, apparently. I am 45 years old and I wanted to tell her IT’S NOT FUCKING ROCKET SCIENCE. Instead I politely suggested that we don’t CONFUSE it with life, which is a different thing entirely. She tried to apologise, said she didn’t mean me obviously, not all women over 40 etcetera etcetera. Don’t fucking test me, I wanted to say. But I felt like I had already sat the test, and already failed it. 


Thursday, November 24, 2016

writing myself out of this mess

I'm not much of a people person, I suppose most people who know me would say. It isn't that I don't enjoy company, even crave it sometimes, it's just that good company seems to be getting harder to find. Everyone is so busy doing whatever it is that keeps them going. I am not burdened by busy-ness, as it happens, but I am doubly burdened by the guilt associated with that and some days I can't keep going no matter how hard I try.
I spend way too much time looking at my newsfeed and seeing a relentless churning mass of things that make me sad, interspersed with the occasional cat video or Dalai Lama quote that makes me smile. I know, and please don't interrupt me with advice because fuck knows that's the other thing my newsfeed is brimful of, that I should put my phone away and go outside. On most days I do. On most days I try to maintain some perspective. I try to focus on all the amazing good in my little part of the world. But some days that little part is bounded on four sides by a fence and surrounded by people who couldn't care less.
I have never felt more in need of a tribe, and never felt that tribe so far away. I know where they are and it is not here. If I go in search of them I will have to take everyone I love, but my greatest fear is that I will have to take myself too.
I was hoping a couple of weeks ago to see Mother Moon and get some answers from her. Turns out she's not a superwoman either, and the clouds were more than a match for her that day. I thought how good it would be, given the election of a moron and the passing of a genius, to have a gathering of people singing, playing music, embracing nature and each other's company and the immense power of the moon. She's seen this shit a million times and she's all over it.
All I really feel capable of doing at the moment is writing. If I could write myself and everyone else a new world that's totally what I would do. It turns out I can't. I just write little bits and pieces of happiness here and there and maybe one day I will have a nice word quilt to throw over our shoulders to keep us warm.
I wrote this today. I really hope you like it.

AT the age of five years, Esmeralda began to collect things. Having no grasp of time’s relentless nature or the span of decades that awaited her, she started keeping little traces of her life in a lidded porcelain box her grandmother had given her. The ballerina painted on the lid was on her tiptoes, arms outstretched in front of her as though to carry all the treasures Esmeralda bestowed into the little box. Soon the treasures – a broken but still spectacular hair clip, two miraculous four-leafed clovers her sister had found, a piece of broken pottery with a blue flower in one corner, several glass beads saved from a broken necklace and a magnificently whole macadamia nut – began to outgrow the ballerina’s box. Despite having just celebrated her sixth birthday, Esmeralda needed a new vessel for her life’s most important articles. Having explored the overflowing plasticware drawer in the kitchen – plenty of boxes but no lids – and searched her sister’s bedroom and her own, Esmeralda could find no vessel as pretty as the ballerina’s box. She resolved to store future treasures in a properly unassuming shoebox, so as to render snooping sisters unaware of the bounty inside. An added bonus was that the ballerina’s box fitted inside the shoebox too, as Esmeralda would have hated to part her treasures from their steadfast, pointy-toed guardian.

In keeping with the nature of things, this first shoebox spawned a multitude. Soon a whole shelf of Esmeralda’s wardrobe had to be cleared to contain all the shoeboxes and all the treasure. Her mother’s protests to dispose of some of this priceless collection were greeted with momentary disbelief followed by outright indignation. Still, as Esmeralda passed her seventh, eighth and ninth birthdays, her collecting of treasures began to slow down. When she reached the milestone of one decade on earth, there were fewer and fewer things to treasure – at least things that could fit inside a shoebox. If she counted her cat Zydeco, her threadbare teddy, her Mum and Dad, her rainbow high-tops, raspberry ice blocks and the jacaranda tree in her backyard, there was more treasure than could ever be contained in a vessel smaller than Esmeralda’s enormous heart. She did not stop treasuring the little things, she only stopped trying to make them her own.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The first Freya

When I was about 15 there was an Australian film I saw, I can’t even remember where or with whom. It was called The Year My Voice Broke.
There was a girl in this film and her name was Freya. I had never heard the name before but it stayed with me for many years, and I remembered this Freya as being a bit wild and almost otherworldly. I remembered her cotton dresses and her wanderings around the barren but beautiful landscape in which the film was set. My second child was born 18 years after the film was released, and she was never going to have any other name but Freya.
In the time between seeing my first Freya and holding my very own, I had learned more about the name – the Norse goddess of love and beauty, who rode in a chariot drawn by two cats, whose day was Friday (the day my Freya was born) and whose animals were cats and stallions. I did not watch The Year My Voice Broke again, although I found it on DVD at a discount store a couple of years ago and bought it.
Last night I decided on a whim to finally watch it again, this time with my husband who had never seen it before. I watched my first Freya with eyes almost 20 years older and saw what it must have been that drew me to her, although I couldn’t honestly recall most of the storyline. I saw her wildness, her connection to spirit, her barely contained beauty and her wild yellow hair that matched the hills around her home town.

I had not expected the story to be one of birth and loss, of ghosts and the heavy, unavoidable burden of history. As a 15-year-old I had not seen any of these things, or at least had not found them memorable. How lovely it was to know that even though my life now carries so much more and sometimes weighs so heavily, that my first Freya has not changed at all. She is still wandering the windswept hills, wearing her cotton dresses and windswept hair, being beautiful and wild.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

In the sun born over and over ...

There was a moment last Sunday that was notable for lots of reasons. It was on a long stretch of beach, which makes it memorable for setting alone, and it involved a family outing and a challenging but visually and physiologically rewarding walk up a very steep hill. As we walked back along the beach under an enormous blue sky, I glanced behind me for the fifteenth time to make sure Rosa was following, prone as she is to pausing and picking up shells or seaweed or spinning in circles or just stopping to plunge her hands deep into the sand because it's there. She wasn't behind me. She wasn't in front of me. She wasn't beside me either, at least not on the ocean side, and I suppose I had that split second of panic where I thought my child had vanished into thin air, before I looked to my other side and about five metres into the distance to see she had climbed the metre-high ledge of sand and was running along the ridge with pure abandon. I walked along beside her but kept my distance, and although we were both moving I felt completely fixed on her and her lightning-bolt, pure-hearted spirit. I'm almost ashamed to admit my brief moment of regret at not having brought my phone to capture this image of her, but it occurred to me then that it would be with me forever anyway, and I resolved to try something I haven't done before. I wanted to see if I could write this image, to conjure it using only words, and create an image just as real as any Instagram post. In this age where everything has to be an image or a soundbite to command attention, I wanted to see if I could make something with words.

She is running along the very top of the ridge, as though the thin line where the sand meets the vaulted blue sky is an extension of her bare feet. She seems to run without thought or effort, although her sleeves are bunched up above her elbows, her skirt long since discarded and her tights rolled just under her knees, as if to prove her protests at having to wear too many clothes on this sunny winter’s day. Her hair was pulled into a bun this morning but many hours of adventure have almost brought it undone. Rebellious strands, like the thickets of wheat-like, waving seagrass along the ridge line beneath her feet, catch the early afternoon sun and are rendered golden. Her focused, smiling face is radiant too, a reflection of pure joy and a primal urge to move, to run, to be free. I am reminded of words I once quoted when she was a toddler, and somehow they are even more perfect now than they were then:

“Under the new-made clouds and happy as the day was long,
 In the sun born over and over, I ran my heedless ways.” 
(Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill) 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dweller on the threshold

Last weekend a Writers Festival came to town and filled the streets of Newcastle, along with my calendar. I was one of many volunteers on two of the three days, as well as a finalist in the festival’s inaugural Microlit competition for short fiction (200 words or less).

The first session I saw while volunteering was a meeting of two Newcastles – old and new, steel and sky, blue collar and white. John Lewer spoke about his new book, Not Charted On Ordinary Maps, which documents the period between the announcement of BHP’s steelworks closure and the actual day the gates closed for the final time. It was two-and-a-half years, and for the 5000 mostly male workers must have been a time of great pain and uncertainty, despite the overall hope that many in Newcastle, including myself, held for a future unfettered by the dirty great industry that had been its making.

The room was full of men who had clearly seen all those things – the making of an industry, the pain of its loss. Lewer recounted the incredible figures around that two-and-a-half year period – the productivity gains, the almost negligible absenteeism. Back then these men had something to prove, and though it ultimately fell on deaf ears, I don’t think it was lost on a single person gathered at City Hall last Friday. I doubt whether most of those gathered had ever been to a Writers Festival, though of course I could be wrong. It seemed they were there seeking answers of some kind, these middle-aged and elderly men who carried with them a life of hard work and resignation. I think I winced when Lewer quoted from his book the cruel observation that, when the death knell finally sounded for BHP’s Newcastle steelworks, the unions and workers alike were instrumental “in their own demise”. The words could not have been easy for these once-strong men to hear, even 17 years later. They, like the city, are connected far beyond knock-off time to a place beyond the physical, to a comradeship that helped them rise above the politics and brutal conditions they endured for most of their working lives.

The title of Lewer’s book comes from a passage in W.A. Metcalfe’s academic article ‘Mud and Steel: The Imagination of Newcastle’ and when Lewer read out the passage I was hanging on every word:

‘Not just space, then, nor just bricks and mortar, Newcastle is rallying calls, pledges of loyalty, moral terrors … the analyst of Newcastle must explore memories, dreams and imaginings not charted on ordinary maps.’

It reminded me of a poem I wrote last year.

I recognise this place.
I’d know that stifled optimism anywhere.
A place full of heart,
If you believe the paper.
But all your major arteries are empty.
Beards have replaced the boilermakers
And there are different tracks,
All going nowhere.
Cafes have cropped up
Where corned beef used to be the rage
And you don’t do smoko now,
Just coffee to go or kerbside espresso.
You’re going places.
Always have been.
Your ship’ll come in,
But then it’s gone by dawn
Down the old Coal River
And out to new horizons where I can’t see
And you’ll never be.

-                                                                Jodi Vial

By Saturday I was in a much more optimistic mood. The sun was shining, the streets were buzzing, and I was standing outside the Civic Playhouse with my volunteers' clipboard smiling and saying hello to Drusilla Modjeska, one of many wonderful authors who visited the city for the festival. I snuck in later to see part of her session, in which she discussed her writing life, and caught an anecdote that will stay with me for a long time.

Modjeska related the story of taking some visiting Papua New Guinean women to a large Australian shopping centre so that they might buy some clothing and souvenirs to take back home. She recalled seeing the matriarch of the group, “one of the most powerful women I have ever known, and I have known some very powerful women”, suddenly lose all her strength and begin to look panicked. When Modjeska asked the woman what was wrong, her reply came from generations of connection we can only imagine, having begun to lose our grip on it some time ago. “Where is your ground?” the woman pleaded. “Where is your ground?”

That night I was back in City Hall for a discussion on microfiction and the screening of all four finalists in the festival’s Microlit competition. I was disappointed not to win, just a little, but loved hearing the other works and my own, voiced by professional actors and with audiovisual enhancement by Melbourne writer and artist Richard Holt. I can’t provide you with the full package here, but following is the piece for which I was shortlisted. 

I know how it feels to be seeking ground, but with this work and the continual work of writing and learning, I believe I have found mine and hope it will never be lost to me again.


There are two bare feet below her on the weathered boards. She is unsure if they belong to her or someone else. Either way they anchor her as her body tilts and rolls through another wave of pain and she comes out gasping with exhaustion and relief. The boards breathe along with her, with the spirit of the women who came before her, who birthed and were born in this house, held above the earth by this floor and beneath the sky by this roof but no less a part of them both. She lifts her head to take a great belly full of air before the next wave and she sees a small bird, a swallow, rendered in plaster but moving, flying, as surely as if it were feathers and bone. The swallow’s wings lift her spirit but her body is still anchored to the dusty floor and filled with pain and purpose. She braces against the nearest door, claws at the timber as though she might bring the whole place down. Her baby is at the threshold of the earth and she is reborn with him, into a motherhood and sisterhood from which she will never return.                                                                             Jodi Vial 2015