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.
‘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.
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.
Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review and Sleepers Almanac. Her debut novel The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press and was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize.