Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Category: Book Reviews

Chronic Uncertainty: Books I Wish I’d Had When (Nearly) Everything Changed

 

Today I’m celebrating the international day of people with disability in all its pride and diversity by recommending a few wonderful books written by people with lived experience of disability and chronic illness. The term in this post’s heading ‘chronic uncertainty’ is borrowed from Jacinta Parson’s excellent new memoir Unseen, mentioned below.

It’s been 16 years since my own health changed and I began losing the ability to walk unassisted, back in 2004. But it wasn’t until 2010 that I found a book that told me I was not alone.

That book was the memoir The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by US author Elisabeth Tova Bailey.

THE SOUND OF A WILD SNAIL EATING by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Struck down by a virus while travelling, Elisabeth Tova Bailey instantly becomes a ‘horizontal person’. Her world shrinks to the size of a terrarium of potted violets next to her bed, a gift from a friend. But then she hears a sound. A snail is munching through those violets.

Her diminished view opens up into the broader natural world of snails, gastropods, connecting with scientists and readers alike. The image which resonated with me the most was her idea of while so many of us exist in isolation, we are like thousands of lights burning all over the world.

In 2010, I wrote a review of this book for a local newspaper – a job I was offered which changed my life. Every month I was paid $20 per 400 word review and allowed to keep the book – important because I could no longer afford to buy books. This was a tiny but huge step in rediscovering my fragmented writer self, piecing together a purpose, and a regular pattern to my month.

 

HOTEL WORLD by Ali Smith

Scottish author Ali Smith is one of my all time favourite writers. Best known for her prize-winning brilliantly political, witty and structurally ingenious books, she’s also had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME. I didn’t know this until I read the opening lines of the chapter ‘Future Conditional’ in her 2001 Booker shortlisted novel Hotel World – lines which could only be written by one who know how it is:

About you – continued…

If you need help filling out this form, or any part of it, phone…

Tell us about yourself.

Well. I am a nice person.

The protagonist is trying to explain to the government welfare officers why she can no longer do her job at a hotel. Her head feels ‘like a bison’, and she exists between worlds, lost in her room at her mother’s house, not fitting into anyone’s definitions, including her own. She hesitates over the welfare application form. Will she write ‘I am a nice person’ or will she cross out the word ‘nice’ and replace it with ‘sick’? She’ll do it in a minute, except she can’t remember how many minutes there are in an hour, how many hours in a day… etc.

 

SO LUCKY by Nicola Griffith

UK-born writer Nicola Griffith’s 2018 book So Lucky packs a punch. The protagonist Mara works at a not-for profit LGBTQIA+ health support organization. On the very day her wife walks out of their marriage, Mara feels a weird sensation in her leg. She’s diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and so begins her reckoning with an ableist world – including her own office colleagues who can’t see the need to install a ramp – and her own changing sense of self. Here’s my review of So Lucky on Newtown Review of Books.  

Nicola’s best known book is the much-acclaimed historical novel Hild set in the Dark ages. Apparently there’s another novel on the way. Nicola’s blog posts ‘Lame is so Gay: A Rant’ and ‘Coming Out as a Cripple’ and her work on own voices is essential reading for any writer or reader who might assume they know what living with a disability is like. Highly recommended.

(Thanks to Nicola Griffith’s help, I finally wrote about my health, publishing the short story ‘Standing Up Lying Down’ in Overland, based on my own experiences back in the early 2000s trying to discover why I couldn’t walk.)

New Books

This year there’s been a crop of excellent Australian books – books I wish had been around when I was navigating the health maze.

SHOW ME WHERE IT HURTS by Kylie Maslen

Kylie Maslen’s memoir ‘Show Me Where It Hurts: Living With Invisible Illness’ peels back the layers of being young and working through multiple health problems, and the labyrinthine process of trying to find out what is going on. Eventually the author learns she has endometriosis, and bi-polar. She has so much to juggle here, including the changes and losses of identity, work, income, and a presumed future. There’s also the beautiful interweaving of the things that get her through – including Beyonce.

The line in this book which resonated with me the most was about the author finally finding a diagnosis and how that offers her a chance to connect with others.

If you’ve ever been told “the diagnosis doesn’t matter… we’re just going to continue to treat your symptoms” you’ll know exactly what this means.

 

 UNSEEN by Jacinta Parsons

Broadcaster Jacinta Parson’s new memoir ‘Unseen’ details her rocky path through the medical and social world, and the many challenging physical difficulties of managing Crohns Disease. There is much to unpack here, including the history and politics of women’s bodies, the need to be listened to and believed, the tensions between independence and reliance on others, and making a new life in work and with family.

The zinger is her comment about being diagnosed with a chronic condition is like being diagnosed with ‘chronic uncertainty.

In the To Be Read Pile

After tuning in to the recent Politics of Health session run by the Feminist Writers Festival, I’m looking forward to reading Katerina Bryant’s new memoir Hysteria, about living with a rare form of epilepsy and the history of pathologising women.

 

 

Books Coming Soon

Growing Up Disabled In Australia will be published by Black Inc in February 2021. Edited by appearance activist, writer, and speaker Carly Findlay, this is latest in the Growing Up series, and showcases over 40 pieces of writing from emerging and established writers.

‘One in five Australians has a disability. And disability presents itself in many ways. Yet disabled people are still underrepresented in the media and in literature.’

I’m also looking forward to Anna Spargo Ryan’s new memoir A Kind of Magic (Picador) July 2021, which was at the centre of a heated publishers’ auction.

 

More Favourites

There are so many other excellent books on disability and chronic illness. They’ll continue to resonate and change lives because of their authors’ honest and generous insights into living in a world that does not always respect, value, accomodate, or adapt to those of us deemed as ‘different’.

 

Favourites include: Jo Case’s wonderful memoir Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s, the ground-breaking Say Hello by Carly Findlay, Susan Varga’s exquisite poetry collection Rupture on recovery from a stroke, and Jessica White’s hybrid memoir on deafness Hearing Maud: A Journey Through Voice – which has just been shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award.

Many things need to change for everyone living with a disability and chronic illness, whatever our particular needs, aims, and situations.

Perhaps now that millions more people have had a taste of what it’s like to live with sudden restrictions, multiple losses, and chronic uncertainty – including the emergence of Chronic Fatigue-like post-COVID ‘long haul’ conditions –  there’ll be more understanding for those of us who live with versions of these limitations every night and day, regardless of whether COVID is there or not.

These books will help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A note about me:

Here’s a photo of me in 2006 in my freezing cold Melbourne lounge-room – ready to submit my PhD. After I began losing the ability to walk in the early 2000s, I had to leave my full time job. For 10 months I worked for 20 minutes most days to finish my thesis and PhD novel. These four PhD tomes were too heavy for me to deliver in person – you can’t carry much when you use a walking stick. By then, I could no longer drive or take the bus because of loss of balance. The tram was better, but the tram stop was too far away. A dear friend drove me to my university, but we weren’t allowed to park in the Disabled parking because I didn’t have a permit, which wasn’t possible to arrange by phone or online. We managed to persuade a security guard to let us park briefly by a door. The lifts to the English Dept were actually working, and we moved slowly along endless corridors until we came to one of my two wonderful supervisors’ offices, and celebrated the moment with tea and cake. Since then, I’ve regained the ability to walk unassisted, and continue to live with several health conditions including Chronic Fatigue/ME.

Emma Ashmere was born in Adelaide, South Australia on Kaurna land. Her new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian FictionSleepers AlmanacEtchingsSpineless Wonders#8WordStoryNGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She has been shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Floating Garden, was shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of the Year 2016. See more of Emma’s posts about writing here.

Small Rooms, Expansive Views: Mind-stretching Short Reads for Lockdown

When the lockdown first hit, many writers said they couldn’t write. And many usually voracious readers said they couldn’t read. It’s as if there was a mass readers-and-writers block. Whether that’s the case or not, I’ve been reading much more than writing. This isn’t a surprise. Whenever I get stuck with writing I turn to books that will stretch the mind.

So I plunged into Hilary Mantel’s glittering boulder of a book, the final in her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and The Light, but I began to intersperse these long-haul travels with shorter works. I’ve highlighted some of these below. All of them blur boundaries between short story collections, short novels, novellas, and perhaps also poetry. In their brevity, risk, restraint, and precision, they peck away at walls and pick the locks of doors, throwing open the shutters to other worlds.

Short Story Collections

Swallow The Air – Tara June Winch

Yesterday, the Australian First Nations writer Tara June Winch won the prestigious 2020 Miles Franklin Award for her novel The Yield.

I’ve just finished her compelling first book, Swallow The Air, which can be read as a novel, or a series of discrete contemporary stories piecing together the fractured lives of her protagonists.

In beautiful sharp prose, the author invites us in to the physical and emotional realities of May and Billy, whose mother has died. May and Billy take very different uncertain paths, a process echoed in the structure of the book, especially the narrative spaces between each stories. These gaps in time and changes of place illuminate their shattered lives, while conjuring a thrumming absence. There is also a momentum, a focus, an urgency to find belonging and wholeness.

The layering of silence and story offers brief moments of readjustment as the reader orients themselves to each new situation. These pauses exist in the silences of family dynamics, the secrets, the private gains, and losses. They also point to the gaps and denials of elements of the outside world, which doggedly persists in trying to silence Indigenous Australians now, and in colonial versions of history.

Listen here to Tara June Winch discussing her work with another Miles Franklin winner, Melissa Lucashenko, as part of the Talking Ideas program at the State Library of Queensland.

Smart Ovens For Lonely People – Elizabeth Tan

Elizabeth Tan’s new short story collection Smart Ovens For Lonely People follows her acclaimed novel-in-stories Rubik. Each of these new stories tilts the world on its axis as she spins a witty and dizzying line between past, present, future, and messes with the borders between human and technology, despair and desire, humour and tragedy.

In ‘Disobeying’, a writer attends a ‘very white’ literary festival. After negotiating her way through a panel discussion with an interviewer who can’t pronounce seem to her name correctly, she waits at her empty book signing table where she spots a man she possibly knows. Time gallops ahead, or is it backwards, circling and zigzagging into the void.

In ‘A Girl Sitting On A Unicorn In the Middle of a Shopping Centre’ a child begins to understand her place in this shining hollow world-of-things, perched between choice and expectation, childhood and the limited prescriptions of womanhood. In ‘Washing Day’ the domestic ‘anomaly’ of a clothes-eating washing machine sparks a national crisis of bureaucracy and conspiracy. In all these stories, anything ordinary and inanimate threatens to become sprawlingly alive – or is it vice versa.

Astray – Emma Donoghue

Best known for her claustrophobic bestseller novel Room, Emma Donoghue’s far-ranging collection Astray enlists a gleanings from the historical record as a starting point. At the end of each story, there are references to these reported events, catapulting the reader into the often more startling realities lurking behind her fictions.

In the opening story, ‘Man and Boy’, we meet the keeper of Jumbo the famous elephant kept at Regent Parks Zoo in the 1880s. The complicated bond between man and beast is played out before Jumbo is shipped off to begin a doomed new part of his life on the other side of the Atlantic, touring with the infamous showman Barnum.

Set in New York in 1901, ‘Daddy’s Girl’ is spoken in the voice of Minnie Hall. Her businessman father has just died and has been laid out across the hallway. She’s peeved at the flocks of newspapermen and reporters besieging the office, threatening to unmask another side to her father’s life.

In ‘What Remains’, two long-term partners in a nursing home, Queenie and Florence, face prejudices of age and ability, colliding with their sense of who they are and were, as they try to pursue their last wishes. All the stories in this collection hone in on largely forgotten historical transgressions, and the conflicts and surprises which ricochet down the years.

Short novels/novellas

It’s worth reading the classic novellas/short novels if you’re interested in this form. Franz Kafka’s 1915 Metamorphosis famously mixes the respectable ordinary and the supposedly shameful strange, the transformation of human to inhuman, and the hidden and the exposed.

There’s also Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s intense 36 page study of dissolving realities in The Yellow Wallpaper, first published in 1892.

Here are a few more recent short novels.

Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

Set in 1990s England, Ghost Wall is told from the point of view of a teenage girl, Silvie, who reluctantly accompanies her parents on a two week archaeological reenactment dig in the countryside. This attempt at time-travelling involves eating gritty porridge, wearing itchy clothing, avoiding the locals, foraging for their own food, and a rising competition between who knows the most about history.

The book opens with a nightmarish depiction of an otherworldly event in an unknown time. Snapping to the present, we slowly learn about Silvie’s doubts, naivete, and knowledge as she navigates this new terrain, and the growing sense of unease as she realizes why she’s there. Running to only 150 pages, somehow Sarah Moss packs in the politics of British archaeological research, family power struggles, issues of distrust, delusion, parochialism, consent, obsession, and solidarity.

 The Fish Girl – Mirandi Riowe

The Fish Girl is an almost fable-like story of a young Indonesian woman’s removal from her tiny coastal village, to work in a house owned by a Dutch merchant. Indonesian words are peppered throughout, details of food, work, and daily life. These add texture and specificity, while asking the non-Indonesian reader to adjust to their own foreignness.

This taut and tense novella is a reframing of W. Somerset Maugham’s story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’, which mentions a ‘Malay trollope’. Miriandi Riowe’s riposte puts her heart-torn, resourceful character at the centre of the world as she faces difficulties and loss, finds beauty and connections, and negotiates her role in a system stacked against her, where colonial hierarchy is enforced and maintained at all costs.

Mirandi Riowe’s latest book  Stone Sky, Gold Mountain is set in the Australian goldfields.

Weather – Jenny Offill

Hovering between short novel and collection, Jenny Offill’s Weather is a poetic meditation on climate change – not so much on impending events – rather the seeping dread.

The protagonist is a librarian, dealing with her eclectic stream of borrowers and all their eccentricities, demands, and foibles. Each vignette swings from one thought or happening, such as delivering her ‘very small’ child Eli to his ‘very big’ school, or drinking too much on a rare night out. She’s also taken on a job answering questions about climate change on behalf of her jaded environmental activist friend, attracting the attention of denialists, preppers, and the generally overwhelmed.

The novel forms itself as a clever accretion of disparate ideas, massing into a visible whole – a bit like a cloud – as it details universal personal frailties, disappointments, jokes, bemusements, and self-effacing confessions. Jenny Offill’s first novel The Department of Speculation is also an accumulation of moments, dealing with the disintegration of the protagonist’s marriage, and the possible reassembling of those shards.

More to Come…

Who knows how long the lockdown will last. Or when some of us will get back to the keyboard, or the library, or the bookshop. I’ve gathered a stash of books, and will return to being transported by Hilary Mantel’s fabulous Mirror and The Light. But I’ll keep stopping along the way to savour a few new treasures including: Ellen van Neerven’s powerful new poetry collection Throat which follows their award-winning books Comfort Food and Heat and Light; also Laura Elvery’s second short story collection Ordinary Matter about Nobel-prize winners., a follow up to her acclaimed first collection Trick of the Light.

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Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

The Bookshelf: Book Reviewing on Radio

I’ve done a bit of book reviewing in the past – in print – but it’s another thing to talk about books on the radio. Being a bit of an avoider of public speaking in the past – this adds another layer. But I do love talking about books.

the bookshelf jun 2019

So it was wonderful to be invited onto Radio National’s weekly fiction program The Bookshelf as one of the reviewers talking about novels with the two Bookshelf hosts Kate Evans and Cassie McCullough. Somehow they manage to put everyone at ease, whether they’re in the studio or calling in from elsewhere – while deftly and wittily dissecting the plot, setting, imagery, psychology of the characters, and the structure and politics at work in that week’s book selection. I kept my trusty reviewing notes on hand – and off we went.

The program will be broadcast at midday today and is also online. There is a fantastic interview with Scottish author Damien Barr, plus links to past programs and podcast extras. A great resource for readers and writers alike.

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

 

Review of Nicola Griffith’s ‘So Lucky’

The New York Times describes Nicola Griffith’s new novel So Lucky as a ‘compact, brutal story of losing power and creating community’. A genre-blurring, ground-shifting book, So Lucky centres on Mara Tagarelli, who’s just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Griffith, a British-American writer who has MS, is known for her acclaimed novel Hild and the Aud Torvingen crime series.

The opening lines throw us right in:

It came for me in November, that loveliest of months in Atlanta: blue sky stinging with lemon sun, the squirrels screaming at each other over the pecans because they weren’t fooled; they knew winter was coming.

As Mara waves goodbye to her 14-year relationship, she loses her footing on an autumn leaf. Later, when she reaches for a bottle of milk, her hand doesn’t work.

Trained as a martial artist, Mara has fought to become confident in her body and her world. After surviving a violent assault at the age of 22, she turned her rage into strength:

[and] … learned to fight, to smash wood with my hands, to stretch my body, to toughen it, make it harder, stronger. Learned not to be afraid: to break their narrative.

But how to deal with MS, this ‘it’, this ‘thief’, this ‘grinning thing’ that’s come to stay?

The most powerful passages spotlight the reactions of others, the casual and institutionalised able-ism. Suddenly the line between Us and Them has moved. ‘Sufferer. Victim. Was that who I was now?’

Mara’s day job involves running a budget-stretched non-government HIV/AIDS organisation. At first she doesn’t tell anyone about her diagnosis, but there’s the profound exhaustion, the limp, the walking cane, the overwhelming effects of summer heat. On top of that, she has to convince her colleagues their office needs a ramp:

… the pavement wavered in the heat and my cane seemed to sink into the blacktop. A man I passed at the door pretended not to see me struggle. The woman behind the reception desk smiled in a bright Southern way … before the cane she’d greeted me by name.

For anyone whose health has changed suddenly, Griffith deftly captures the disorientation of dealing with new practicalities, the confronting recalibration of identity, the denial, fear, anger, and the seemingly random wins and losses with the medical world. Mara eventually takes the advice to ‘find her people’ and attends an MS support group, which spins into the surreal.

She flies across the US to an annual conference, but this time she needs a wheelchair. While the airport attendants reluctantly organise one, they speak about her – not to her – as if she’s a piece of baggage. Things don’t improve at the conference. There’s none of the usual banter or flirting with the other delegates. Even here, she’s become invisible. The wheelchair has written her ‘out of the story’.

But Mara is having none of that. The next time she travels, she’s adapted her survival strategies:

This time I expected to be ignored, so it hurt less. And this time I saw all those people like me on the periphery: people in chairs, people with dogs, people with interpreters. But I was too tired to manage anything but the conference minimum …

Forced to take leave and subsist on her limited health insurance, she draws on her IT skills, contacts, and new knowledge to establish an online community and a much-needed support service. This is where the novel morphs into a harrowing psychological thriller. Mara’s enterprise is hijacked. People’s lives are put at risk as paranoia, vulnerability, and danger collide.

But So Lucky is also punctuated with flashes of subversive wit and fierce hope. Mara has a nifty way of dealing with able-bodied drivers who hog disabled-reserved car spaces, and there’s a blossoming bond with her shambolic dope-growing neighbour, Josh. As for the avalanche of slick MS drug pamphlets, she detects the familiar whiff of a promise and threat, heaven and hell, showcased in these slick, sanitised parallel realities:

Glossy sales brochures full of pictures of clean-cut, unstressed, middle-class people with white teeth posed with clean and shiny mobility aids, or standing on top of a mountain, or riding a bike … They reminded me of tampon adverts … buy this and magically be able to ride a white horse bareback through a field …

Griffith has said So Lucky is her ‘version of just writing a story I want to write … a way to sort of overwrite the ableist narrative … just give people a different story to replace the old story’. Apparently she didn’t plan to write this book. Suddenly it ‘came roaring out’.

Some readers may find So Lucky an unsettling book. For others its honesty, power, and capacity to destabilise certain assumptions are a welcome recognition and an urgent articulation of familiar realities.

Nicola Griffith: So Lucky published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2018 PB 192pp $21.99

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

This review was first published on Sydney’s Newtown Review of Books.

 

Writing Outside Youth: Two Uneasy Pieces by Janet Frame and Ali Smith

janet frame PortraitBlogMay2016 121 (2)

A few months ago I was asked to choose a favourite piece of writing that captured ‘the essence of youth’. This got me thinking about being a writer of a Certain Age who occasionally writes younger characters, and the process of drawing on – or strategically remembering and forgetting – the ‘other country’ of my youth. The young characters who grip me in fiction are usually outsiders, so I turned to two of my favourite writers to see how they do it.

Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’ dazzles because it’s about being young and old – literally – at the same time. In Janet Frame’s short story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’, the protagonist is probably younger than ‘youth’, but there’s a link between the two stories – the moment these characters discover they don’t fit in and are forced to make a decision about what that means.

Here are my thoughts on these two uneasy pieces.

‘Writ’ by Ali Smith

There’s a razor sharp exchange about the vantage point of age in Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’. A middle-aged woman finds her fourteen-old self scuffing about her book-lined house, lolling in front of the blaring television, perfecting the art of looking needy, bored, and beautiful. There’s so much to say – and not say – to this girl as she smirks, shrugs, advances, and retreats.

For a moment they find a patch of common ground when they talk about the Romantic poet John Keats whose writing she’s/they’ve studied at school. But the chasm soon opens up again. ‘He did die unbelievably young, you know,’ says the woman. The girl fires back, ‘No he didn’t … He was twenty-five or something.’

This is trademark Ali Smith, snapping the elastic of time and place, thrusting a two-way mirror between the other and the self. Just when you think she’s writing about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all youth – you begin to suspect it’s more about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all middle age.

‘Writ’ appears Ali Smith’s 2009 collection The First Person and Other Stories.

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‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ by Janet Frame

When it comes to crystallising the tensions between individuality and conformity, belonging and alienation, loyalty and betrayal, I can’t go past Janet Frame. In her story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ a girl learns her place in the world during a visit to her ‘Cultured’ cousins.

The cousins have ‘good trellis work’, a garden full of flowers, and fine lacy clothes. For the girl, it’s an ‘alien world’ where nobody fights, or yells, or sings dirty little rhymes. Her mother seems ‘far away’ and ‘high up’ as she perches at the aunt’s ‘white and ready’ kitchen table. The girl watches how her mother begins to say ‘really isn’t that just so fancy’ about everything she sees.

The girl feels ‘sad and strange’ as she stares at the cooked turnip waiting on their plates. She wants to go home, where she can run wild in the fields and yank turnips out of the ground, and eat them raw under the friendly gaze of ‘an approving cow’. But then she realises. She is the poor cousin. She must do as her mother does – hide her ignorance, oddity, and shame. So she eats her cooked turnip, shows interest in her cousins’ fine lacy clothes, and begins to say ‘just so fancy’ to everything she sees.

‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ appears in Janet Frame’s 1983 collection You Are Now Entering the Human Heart.

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For more recent short story collections exploring the tricky terrain between various worlds and (not necessarily) fitting in, I heartily recommend Paddy O’Reilly’s Peripheral Vision, Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil.

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Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network MUBA prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

 

On gardens in literature: Six novels

blog ungardeners picGardens lie at the centre of many compelling novels as places of sanctuary, nourishment, control and ruthlessness. In others, only a tendril might snake its way in – with striking effect. Here are six of my favourite Australian novels about people and plants.

The Ungardeners by Ethel Turner
Ethel Turner (aka Jean Curlewis) is best known for her classic novel Seven Little Australians. Her less well-known work, The Ungardeners, was published in 1925. Part fable and part witty political satire, the original colour plates suggest it might stretch to a children’s book.
Australian poet and gardener Annie travels the globe with her English stockbroker husband, Peter Purcell. After he suffers a nervous breakdown, they settle in Australia for a gentler life. Eventually Annie lures Peter out of the sick bed and into her world: the quiet joy of the garden.
But times are tough and Annie is forced to sell off some of her land. When she returns from a brief trip away, she discovers “the bit of creek fringed by wattles” has become a housing estate clustering around the busy chimney of a jam factory. Soon her flowers begin to disappear. The neighbouring “slum” children are the culprits, and claim they need flowers for a relative’s funeral. Is it manipulation or ingenuity when Annie discovers the children are selling off her flowers at the local cemetery?
The Ungardeners is about many things, including Australia’s place in a fragmented and rapidly changing world, the universal tension between materialism and art, and the idea of development versus nature.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Gardens are usually seen as the triumph of order over chaos. In The Secret River, gardening brings chaos and dispossession.
When ex-convict William Thornhill takes up a piece of land on the Hawkesbury, he establishes a house and a garden. Armed with a bag of seeds, precious tools, and labouring help, he is determined to slough off his old life of austerity and petty crime. The aim is to move up in a society where the hierarchies of Britain don’t necessarily apply.
But Thornhill’s seemingly simple act of gardening can never be innocent or neutral in a colonial land. As soon as he plants his plot, something – or somebody – digs it up. His garden becomes a “message”, the equivalent of “hoisting a flag up a pole”, a claim that this “insignificant splinter” of the country is now his.
In The Secret River, Kate Grenville reminds us that Australian history is contested ground. One person’s feast is another person’s famine, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.

The Hanging Garden by Patrick White
The Hanging Garden was published posthumously, accompanied by a level of controversy. This ‘unfinished’ novel centres on fourteen-year-old Eirene Sklavos who arrives in Sydney from Greece with her mother, the flighty Australian-born Geraldine. Eirene’s father, a Greek “patriot”, has been tortured and killed in prison. Once Eirene has been delivered, her mother returns to war-weary Europe.
Eirene ends up creeping about a boarding house on the harbour, inhabited by the migraine-prone but not unkind Mrs Bulpit, and another teenage exile, Gilbert Horsfall. Gil has been evacuated from the London Blitz and suspects his father was pleased to offload him.
Gil sees Eirene as a fascinating “snake”. He’s impressed by her casual snippets of Greek myth, her worldliness, and firsthand experience of communism and volcanos. For Eirene, Gil is a “sinewy white monkey”, who swings between being her friend and a traitor.
In the no man’s land of Mrs Bulpit’s overgrown garden above the cliffs, Gil and Eirene discover the fragile possibility of companionship. But loyalties continue to shift as quickly as the fickle harbour light. Their place in the garden is a shared but precarious, fleeting sanctuary, poised between childhood and adulthood, the world and home.

Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
Heat and Light is divided into three parts: Heat, Water and Light. In the Water section, the line between people and plants blurs. Set in the 2020s, the Australian government is evacuating islands in Moreton Bay so Indigenous people can apply to live on a kind of “super” island. However, some of the islands’ mysterious original inhabitants, known as “the plantpeople”, are proving difficult to move.
The protagonist, Kaden, is a young Indigenous botanist. She comes into contact with the plantpeople when she scores a job distributing a scientific formula to them on behalf of the government. Larapinta is the first “specimen” she meets. Green-skinned and of fluid gender, Larapinta “has a face like me and you”. As their relationship develops, Kaden becomes more politicised and suspects her seemingly benevolent role at the company has another agenda.
Heat and Light has been described both as a novel and an anthology, and as a sci-fi/fantasy work. Like the character Larapinta, the book resists neat classification as it pushes back and forth through the porous borders between human and non-human; truth and myth; past, present and future; the other and self.

A Curious Intimacy by Jessica White
A Curious Intimacy is inspired by the nineteenth-century botanist and plant-hunter Georgina Molloy. The protagonist is Ingrid Markham, who rides her horse around Western Australia in pursuit of plants. Back in her hometown of Adelaide, Ingrid has been trained in the rigours of botany by her ageing but liberal-minded father. Unable to make fieldtrips himself, Ingrid sets off with a bruised heart, a passion for discovery, and the latest in collecting kits. With Victorian-era fervour, she is both woman and explorer, finding, cataloguing, and painting her discoveries.
During her expedition, Ingrid meets Ellyn Ives, whose husband has been away for months. The differences between the women are stark. Ingrid flourishes outdoors, and easily fixes a broken water pump. Ellyn rarely steps further than the water-deprived rose beds encircling the dilapidating homestead. Ingrid is enlivened by studying plants she hasn’t seen before. Ellyn is reluctant to leave the unhappy domestic atmosphere where an empty cradle haunts one room. To her the bush looks “all the same”, and is a place where she will become lost. As the two women form a tentative bond, the homestead garden serves as a rickety bridge between their worlds.

The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower
The Watch Tower opens with Laura and Clare Vaizey being abandoned by their mother and cast out of their boarding school. Sydney is in the grip of war. The sisters are adrift until Felix Shaw, a small-time businessman with a purring car and grand ideas offers to take them under his wing.
Laura is persuaded to work at Felix’s box factory. As soon as she settles into the tedium, he abruptly changes his line of trade. Felix keeps both girls off balance, playing them against each other as he zigzags from one shady venture and extreme mental state to another. Any seemingly kind action is attached by a web of strings.
As Felix moves up in the world, he wants the flashy house and garden to match. Once the sisters are installed, Felix marries Laura and Claire begins to refer to her sister as “Hostage Number One”. Felix takes to working outdoors, lunging at the garden like a bayonet-wielding soldier charging across a battlefield.
The garden is only a fleck in the tight weave of this narrative, but it is a potent symbol of Felix’s obsession with appearances. As he tries to assert control over nature, and others, he attempts to maintain his dominance in his relentlessly vigilant corner of the world.

This article was first published in ‘Northerly’ the Byron Writers Festival magazine 2015.

 

Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of the Year prize 2016. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.

The Raven’s Heart by Jesse Blackadder

www.australianbookreview.com.au/programs/51-march-2011/270-jesse-blackadder-the-raven-s-heart

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in May 2020 by Wakefield Press.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

www.echonews.com.au/news/the-sound-of-a-wild-snail-eatingelisbeth-tova-bail/846358 

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in May 2020 by Wakefield Press.

The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

After Jennifer Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her novel ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad,’ her many fans rushed to read her earlier works. Egan’s debut novel ‘The Invisible Circus’ was first published in 1995 and has now been rereleased. Read the rest of this entry »

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

Dana Spiotta’s very cool new novel ‘Stone Arabia’ zeroes in on the life of Nik Worth, a self-styled ‘secret rock star’. It all starts on Nik’s tenth birthday when his usually-absent father shocks everyone by appearing and giving him a guitar. By 1973, Nik has left behind his MAD comics and formed the band The Demonics. They soon score a regular warm up gig in a cruddy bar Read the rest of this entry »