Category Archives: creative nonfiction

Dark Night by Martin Edmond: a review

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Dark Night: Walking with McCahon Martin Edmond (Auckland University Press, 2011)

Dark Night is a profound work of creative non-fiction. Edmond retraces – quite literally – the steps of the New Zealand painter, Colin McCahon, following the route he took as he had a breakdown and went missing in Sydney for a day and a night. It has elements of a biography of the late artist and criticism of his work; an autobiography of Edmonds; a narrative of Edmond’s observations of the streets and haunts of Sydney; and reflections on religion, art, history, and the authentic life. It is not a biographical quest in the archival sense I’m used to using the term; but it is a biographical quest of a different kind. The life of McCahon becomes a lens for Edmond to examine the world. He writes well, observing acutely while never over-writing, and with genuine insight into the questions of existence.

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Review – How to Survive the Titanic: or The Sinking of Bruce Ismay by Frances Watson

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Thanks partly to James Cameron’s film, our cultural memory of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 is one of a linear narrative. There’s a clear chronology; we “remember” it as if looking through a camera, able to pan out from the experience of the individuals to the ship as a whole. There is a clarity to the disaster.

Frances Wilson’s How To Survive the Titanic (2011) has undone these things for me. Instead, she captures so well the uncertainty, the fact that for anyone in 1912 trying to understand what happened – even for survivors – there was a mess of contradictory reports, eyewitness statements which diverged as much as they converged. (The first report received over the radio was that the Titanic was being towed back to port, with no loss of life.) J. Bruce Ismay, former owner of White Star Lines and the managing director of the shipping company, was on board the Titanic and jumped into a lifeboat as it was lowered. After contributing greatly to the confusion about what happened, he spent the rest of his life as a pariah.

This is a biography focused on a single incident in a man’s life. Watson’s book begins with that critical moment when Ismay decides to save his life;  the rest of the book moves backward to explain how Ismay became the man who made that decision, and forward to tell the story of the long consequences. I greatly admire Watson’s handling of her material; she shows a mastery of creative non-fiction in her control of time, scene, and detail. An example: in chapter one she weaves survivors’ accounts of watching the Titanic sink to contrast them with Ismay turning away; she finds three quotes from three different survivors which use the word “Fascinated,” and she begins each quote with that word, creating a kind of poetry and heightening the effect of the contrast.  How to Survive the Titanic is a witty and profound biography of a man’s ordinariness in extraordinary circumstances. The reversal of the survivor genre is refreshing: the story of a man who failed to be a hero.

The uncanny parallel of the Titanic disaster to the 1898 novella Futility (retitled Wreck of the Titan) is a well-known factoid. (As a child, pre-internet, I think I first read of it in the ubiquitous Reader’s Digest Strange Stories, Amazing Facts.) But the more subtle literary parallel Watson pursues in her book is that between Ismay and the titular character of Conrad’s Lord Jim, who similarly fails to be heroic when he jumps ship. She makes a convincing case for it to be the text with which to illuminate and compare Ismay. It’s a bold and interesting biographical technique, even if I found myself impatient with the lengthy exploration of it. In every other way, I found this book unputdownable.

 


Happy 132nd birthday, Katharine Susannah

KSP-window-from-100-years-of-Bridges

Dear Katharine,

I think of you every day, of course, but I’m especially thinking of you today, on your 132nd birthday. It’s not as if I can imagine you at 132, it’s a decade beyond the reach of the greatest super-centenarian, so instead, I’m remembering your 32nd birthday one hundred years ago on 4 December 1915.

You were in Ceylon, on your way home from London after four years. You spent a some time with your pregnant sister, Beatrice Bridge, and her conservative husband, Patten. You’d missed their wedding the year before – I’m not sure how much that mattered to you. How did you celebrate your birthday that year? Sri Lankan food perhaps, though you wouldn’t have called it that. It was during this stay you visited the Buddhist temple you describe in Child of the Hurricane, and came as close to a spiritual experience as you ever would.

This photo is from much later, but has a connection to your birthday in 1915. It accompanied an article I found this week about your family’s long friendship with the Bridges, culminating in Bea marrying Pack. I had such high hopes for some new information, but it only repeated everything you said, somewhat unreliably, in Child of the Hurricane. It did have this photograph though, one I’ve never seen before and particularly like. You’re looking out of your writing cabin some time in the 1930s; I spent some glorious days in that cabin at the KSP Writers’ Centre earlier this year.

You had no idea what was about to hit you the year you were thirty-two, the year I’m immersed in right now. It was a big year, a year of such immense heartache for you. But there were many years like that. You survived it, like you survived every year but your last. It’s not like I can actually warn you, but please know I’ve seen, as much as anyone can from this distance, and I care.

Until next time, N.


Publication of Many Hearts One Voice by Melinda Tognini

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It’s Non-Fiction November, at least for children in Britain. (I think it’ll be hard to wrest November from the growing momentum of NaNoWriMo.) A decade ago, I was in a writing group for a season with Melinda Tognini; like me, she went on to do a master’s in creative writing, but unlike me, she tackled a non-fiction topic – the history of the War Widows’ Guild of WA. It was the first time I’d encountered someone writing non-fiction within creative writing, and it was one of the seeds that would eventually lead to me writing a biography for my creative writing PhD. It’s been a long road to publication, but Melinda has got there! On the weekend, WA’s governor launched the book she began for that master’s: Many Hearts, One Voice, published by Fremantle Press. I’m thrilled for Melinda and the great press she’s receiving for the book. She’s written an interesting post on the genesis of her book on her blog. Melinda brings a novelist’s eye to the writing of history, and as she writes on her site, “I am particularly passionate about telling ‘invisible’ stories – those stories absent from or sidelined in the dominant narratives of our history – and empowering others to find their voice.”


Certain Admissions: true crime as biography

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Certain Admissions: A Beach, A Body and a Lifetime of Secrets by Gideon Haigh (Penguin, 2015)

Certain Admissions is a gripping narrative of the murder of Beth Williams, her body found on a Melbourne beach in December 1949, and its aftermath. It becomes a biography of John Bryan Kerr, the young man convicted of the crime on the basis of a disputed confession, as well as an account of Haigh’s archival quest and an investigation of the many byways related to the case. It was the highest profile case of its time, perhaps due to Kerr’s charm and the salacious details of the crime. Continue reading


“Elephantasia” – John Sutherland’s take on Jumbo and elephants in general

Jumbo-skeleton

John Sutherland, Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation (Aurum Press, 2014)

Such was my ignorance I didn’t even realise Jumbo was a particular late-nineteenth century elephant, the world’s most famous elephant. The story of the life and death of Jumbo as he is captured in Africa and exhibited – and mistreated – in Paris, London, and the USA is a fascinating one. It offers a cross-section of the era in the most incredible way – colonialism, emerging technology, sexual mores, exhibits. This was an elephant with links to both Queen Victoria and P. T. Barnum, the great American showman. Continue reading


Writing beautifully, wearing research lightly: Rebecca Skloot’s achievements in her book on Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta_Lacks_(1920-1951)

Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Macmillan, 2010) is an exemplar of creative non-fiction, an intriguing combination of biographical quest and popular science. It was ten years in the writing, as Skloot lived off student loans and credit cards on her quest to follow the story of Henrietta Lacks, the black woman whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 and seem to be immortal, multiplying and living on for decades, and used in thousands of medical breakthroughs.

In her long acknowledgements, Skloot writes that one of her friends ‘taught me to care deeply about story structure’ (Loc 5157), and Immortal Life is indeed a brilliantly structured story. Through much of the book, Skloot alternates chapters retelling the life and afterlife of Henrietta and her cells with chapters recounting Skloot’s own quest through the late 1990s and 2000s to uncover the story. A simple but invaluable orienting device is a timeline indicator at the start of each chapter. Other biographies and histories should consider using it. While Skloot is in the action and gives a couple of biographical clues about herself in the prologue (‘I grew up white and agnostic’; she mentions a marriage and divorce during the writing of the book), for the rest of the book she remains restrainedly silent about her own life, except to the extent it directly affects the quest.

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From Chapter 29, it is Skloot herself who is at the centre of the afterlife of Henrietta and for the final eight chapters, the quest is recounted chronologically, with the focus on Skloot’s relationship with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, who has been deeply affected by the legacy of what happened to her mother, and the way her contribution to science has been long unacknowledged. She mentions in passing that an editor who “insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident” (loc 217). While the troubles of the disadvantaged Lacks family and their attempts to deal with Henrietta’s legacy are so important to Skloot’s purpose and the achievements of the book, the editor may have been onto something, however misguided and extreme her remedy. Those final eight chapters almost feel they could be from a different book. The beautiful, understated writing of the rest of the book is overwhelmed by long sections of dialogue from Deborah and the others. It’s captured well, and it’s a story worth telling; I wonder, though, if it needed condensing and balancing.

One of the accomplishments of this book is the way Skloot wears a decade of research so lightly. There are no footnotes through the book, but notes on the sources for each chapter at the end. The book reads more like a novel than most biographies; Skloot has managed to find enough detail to show as much as she tells. Here is the opening paragraph of chapter one:

On January 29, 1951, David Lacks sat behind the wheel of his old Buick, watching the rain fall. He was parked under a towering oak tree outside Johns Hopkins Hospital with three of his children— two still in diapers—waiting for their mother, Henrietta. A few minutes earlier she’d jumped out of the car, pulled her jacket over her head, and scurried into the hospital, past the “colored” bathroom, the only one she was allowed to use. In the next building, under an elegant domed copper roof, a ten-and-a-half-foot marble statue of Jesus stood, arms spread wide, holding court over what was once the main entrance of Hopkins. No one in Henrietta’s family ever saw a Hopkins doctor without visiting the Jesus statue, laying flowers at his feet, saying a prayer , and rubbing his big toe for good luck. But that day Henrietta didn’t stop. (loc 239-245)

She interviewed David Lacks while he still alive, so some of the detail must come from him; she also references the research she did on segregation, and she visited the hospital, observing the Jesus statue and presumably the oak tree. But did she know he parked under it on that day? If she couldn’t be sure, was it an acceptable guess? I’m not sure, but I am in awe of the way her book manages to read as one that is simultaneously meticulously researched and beautifully written.