Category Archives: memoirs

Toyo by Lily Chan

toyo

In 2005 I met Lily Chan in a writing group in Perth and she shared some early chapters from her work-in-progress, Toyo. Like many books, it involved a long journey for Lily, but I was thrilled when it was published by Black Inc in late-2012 and won the 2013 Dobbie Literary Award. Four years late, I’m finally reviewing it. Continue reading


Boundary-rider?: the early Katharine Susannah Prichard on the edge of fiction and autobiography

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I gave two papers on Katharine Susannah Prichard in July. The first was on 9 July at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in Canberra and was called “History of a troubled autobiography: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Child of the Hurricane”. I’m hoping to develop it further into a chapter of the critical section of my thesis and also as a standalone publication. It was a little scary presenting my paper to an audience of Australian literature academics, but they were generous in their responses and I think it went well. I have been encouraged toward some further reading in mid-century Marxist responses to auto/biography and Freudian thought.

My second paper was at the Limina postgraduate humanities conference at UWA on 29 July. The conference theme was “beyond boundaries,” and so I wrote a paper on the boundaries between fiction and autobiography in Katharine’s 1906 serial, “A City Girl in Central Australia.” I’d been looking at this serial for chapter six of my biography (“Outback: Tarella Station, 1905”), and it fitted neatly with some of the thinking I’d been doing for the paper on Child of the Hurricane. It’s pitched toward a general audience and I’m not reworking it for scholarly publication, so I present it here on my blog. Continue reading


Second Half First by Drusilla Modjeska

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Before I started reading Drusilla Modjeska’s Second Half First, my father-in-law asked me what it was about, and I couldn’t give a good answer about what I expected. Modjeska herself has some trouble with this when she meets her old lover late in the book and explains it isn’t just about him, even though he’d triggered it, “It’s about a whole lot of other things, my mother, psychoanalysis, reading, writing, New Guinea, living away from where I was born.” (332) It’s a digressive book, rhizomatic, I suppose; tellingly, at one point Modjeska objects to another biographer who has “everything hammered into place.” Continue reading


Biographical contradictions: Drusilla Modjeska Vs Victoria Glendinning

A key moment in the history of Australian literary biography was a panel on biography at the 1988 Adelaide Writers’ Week. On the panel were Australians Brian Matthews and Drusilla Modjeska and Britons Victoria Glendinning and Andrew Motion. Glendinning was already an established traditional literary biographer; Matthews had just published the postmodern Louisa and Modjeska was about to publish the hybrid fiction/biography of her mother, Poppy. In 1996 Graeme Turner used the panel as a starting point for exploring the state of Australian literary biography in his essay “Reviving the Author”. The Southern Review collected the papers in one of the more substantial statements on biography in Australia. Now Drusilla Modjeska has returned to that panel and her dislike of Glendinning’s approach to biography in her memoir (out last month), Second Half First. At the time, Modjeska made the comment the Australian biographers (well, particularly her and Matthews) were interested in exploring the lives of those not usually considered worthy subjects for a biography. “How extraordinary,” Glendinning said, apparently condescendingly. Continue reading


One Life by Kate Grenville

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One Life is Kate Grenville’s account of the life of Nance Gee, her mother. The project began when she found the fragments of her mother’s own attempts at autobiography and put them alongside the hours of interviews she recorded with her before she died in 2002. She ended up going far beyond these primary sources to write a book which would have wider appeal than the family. As I listened to the book, I found myself curious about the writing of it. I was grateful to find Grenville give this insight on her website:

There were several problems. One was the cautious biographical voice of the early drafts: writing full of things like “she probably thought” and “she must have felt”. In the absence of definite knowledge, a biographer is stuck with that caution, but it saps the energy of the writing and the vividness of the moments. Another problem was that in these drafts, two voices were competing to tell the story: Mum’s voice, quoted verbatim, and my own, filling in the gaps. …

The book that’s now between covers is my attempt to find a path between all these obstacles. My mother’s voice appears both nowhere and everywhere: the verbatim voice has gone but phrases and often whole sentences from her memoirs appear on every page, almost in every paragraph. Where it enriches the texture of her story, I’ve added material that I found in research. …

This book, then, isn’t a biography or a memoir. It isn’t history, nor is it fiction. It has elements of all of these without being any of them. Like most of the tales we tell ourselves and each other, it’s that compendious and loose-limbed thing: a story.

From <http://kategrenville.com/node/82>

Continue reading


No Limits: Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year

salinger-year

On Saturday, I heard Joanna Rakoff talking on a panel at the Perth Writers’ Festival called “No Limits” with Hannie Rayson and Ros Thomas. Ostensibly, they were discussing the question “when it comes to writing about yourself, are some things off limits?”. Yet the compere declared at the beginning he wouldn’t ask the authors what they had left out of their books, as obviously they wouldn’t want to tell us. Continue reading


Moving Among Strangers: Gabrielle Carey remembers the dead

I couldn’t put down Gabrielle Carey’s memoir, Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family (UQP, 2013), so in one important sense, it is a successful book. Yet I was reading it most of all to learn more about the enigmatic Western Australian writer Stow, and on Stow the book intensifies the mystery of the man, whetting my appetite for more without satisfying.

Carey’s mother was friends with Stow when they were both young, and she wrote to him when her mother was dying. After a brief correspondence remembering the links between the families and mentioning some things Carey never knew about her own family, Stow retreated from further contact and died not long after. Carey attended the tribute held in his honour in Perth, and the trip prompted her to re-establish contact with the estranged Perth side of her family. She finds herself embarked on two quests: to understand the secret lives of her parents, and to understand the reason for Stow’s retreat to England to work a barman and publish very little in the last forty years of his life. The connection between the two strands does not always feel strong enough, or more that they seem such different goals. At one point Carey comments on what a messy person she is, and it is a messy book in some ways (in a good and bad way), delighting in co-incidence between the two quests and moving forward with a kind of stream of consciousness. It has the immediacy and pace of a quickly written book, and also some of the lack of polish.

Carey is careful to tell Stow’s associates that she is not his biographer (p. 207); ‘Stow already had an authorised biographer who had actually met him and interviewed him and had been working on his project for more than ten years. My book was something else, although I didn’t try to explain what. I wasn’t sure myself.’ I hope this book is only an appetiser for Roger Averill’s book, when it finally appears, and that it will be the successful account of Stow’s life which Stow deserves and the biographer no doubt deserves after so long invested in the project. (Earlier in the book, she briefly describes meeting Averill in the UWA Reid Cafe, and I couldn’t help imagining I could have been there, typing away on my laptop, not aware of the conversation going on nearby.)

Carey is indiscreet and opinionated, saying things many people would not put in print (‘I…deceived my last husband to have an affair with a younger man from my yoga class’), and perhaps her disarming honesty is part of the book’s appeal. Her judgements are often funny; sometimes grating, when she says something I don’t like, such as generalisations about Western Australia.

It feels to me that the real subject is Carey herself, and that is only a problem if one is wanting the real subject to be something else. I think I tend to find every memoir a little indulgent, which is probably largely an attitude I was brought up with. It might also be the attitude of a biographer, for whom the focus should be on the other, the historical subject one is recovering.

That said, I am fascinated by the genre of biographical quest, and this book has strong elements of it. The quest to uncover the truth of the subjects reveals things the protagonist never knew about their heritage and about their character. It leads them to exotic places (well, Perth, Geraldton and Old Harwich). Some of the story is told in the letters of the subjects. All these elements are present; it’s just that Carey is not trying to produce a true biography of either her mother or Stow, but a memoir of the quest itself. A book should never be judged by what it is not trying to be, and it really is an interesting book.