Idle thoughts on memory and fiction

Hello bloggers
The thoughts that follow emerged as I was struggling with an essay I am writing about Helen Garner and her writing. It’s tough stuff critiquing this writer, but I persevere because to me she exemplifies a writer who struggles with issues of rage and the desire for revenge. It’s not easy to link such emotions with creativity but that’s my aim.

I cannot manufacture the sense that comes over me unbidden when someone says something that triggers a memory of a feeling, that I know is beyond words. Often it’s stirred by thoughts of things, objects from the past, the needlework, the colours of the silken threads we wound together into two thin strands to get just enough depth to our stitches. I could stitch then, the names escape me, featherstitch, hemstitch, knot stitch. The little knots we sewed in the centre of each flower as the stamens, the pure straight line of the French stitch, the outline of the eye blue cornflowers, the blood red poppies. I wanted to put together the yellow gold and purple, religious colours. If you chose them in your colouring book, they signified an unhappy childhood. I wanted people to know. The three crosses marked against the round green dome of a hill, the crucifixion. I copied this image from others, an Easter image along with the oval shapes of eggs, lined and patterned. My memory of working on colouring in: the pleasure of keeping the colours within the lines. My pleasure at making sure the spread of colour across the centre of the image was evenly spaced. I learned to tilt my pencil to one side and use the spread of the exposed lead to shade in colour. All the tricks we learned as children. All the colouring-in skills, to compensate for the knowledge that I could not draw freely. I could not create images out of nothing like my big sister and brothers. They could draw. They could paint. They were artists. I could only imitate and clumsily at that. But the feeling the sheer pleasure of trying remains with me. It rockets through my mind, like the blur of lights on the Christmas tree, blurred under my unfocussed eyes whenever I tried to create a whitewash of colour. It was a way of escaping inside my mind, every thing smudged, the outlines blurred, the details reduced. Life was less difficult that way.

The pleasure of reading out loud to the class. Sitting at my desk in grade five and six, hoping against hope that my turn would come. The joy of leaping over words, pronouncing clearly even the difficult words. This was something I could do. I could read out loud, even though I was a dullard. Why did I feel such a dullard? Did Mother Mary John tell me as much?

‘I knew you were bad at arithmetic,’ she said, peering over her wire spectacles, ‘but I didn’t think you were this bad.’ Mother Mary John once in my final year at primary school told me that I was as senseless as a wet hen. I had accidentally knocked over a flowerpot. Bill uses the expression against me whenever he considers that I’m in too much of a rush and accident-prone. Whenever I make a mistake.

To fictionalise requires a letting go. These feelings I write about, these inchoate child feelings of ecstasy and pleasure at the sheer brilliance of things, the smell of freshly ground coffee beans, the sight of diosma in spring, the smell of jasmine, the smell of a rock freshly plucked from the ground after I breathe onto it, the sight of certain colours captured at just the right moment, the sense of déjà vu, when I go over an event in my mind, exactly as if it’s happening again for another time, my dreams. All of these. I have lost my train of thought.

This is my struggle. To hold firm to a line of thought, a line of reasoning that can travel from one point through the middle to its end. Now it has come back to me. I associate Helen Garner’s difficulties with fiction, my own difficulties fictionalising with a rift between my adult self and the sensations of that little self. Helen Garner rarely seems to write about her childhood experience, at least not lately. She draws on adult hood. Where have her memories gone? Has she written them all out? Is she too fearful of the label, too self preoccupied, too narcissistic. Murray Bail probably canned her that. He’s got that male objectivity, that distance that marks one sensibility off from another. I have to keep telling myself that it’s okay to write like a woman. It’s okay to write from my autobiographical self. It’s okay to put myself on the page with all my self- preoccupations. Once down on the page they are no longer mine anyhow. Like the experiment we did in Mrs Raj’s biology class.

Twenty five year eleven girls at Vaucluse Convent for ladies. Mrs Raj our new and exotic biology teacher who speaks with an accent and wears brightly coloured saris over a cropped bodice. I can still see the line of her coffee coloured flesh between the waist of her sari and the edge of her top and I wondered two things: Why isn’t she cold and what do the nuns think? This is in the late sixties. Women do not expose their midriffs except in advertisements for bathers or those Metre Maids on the Gold Coast. The nuns are already railing against the amount of leg showing under our school dresses when we hitch them up desperate to wear a mini dress, a la Jean Shrimpton.
We are sitting on our high stools in the new science block, which was built on government funds where the old tennis courts once stood. Our arms are adjacent to the bench tops in pale pinewood. The copper taps each shaped like a swan’s neck fall into sinks along the line of bench.
‘Each of you girls take a glass.’ Mrs Raj has put out a series of clear glasses and set them on the bench top, one per girl. ‘Now I want you to spit into your glass.’
What! A murmur from the classroom that bounces off the walls. What is she saying?
‘Spit into your glass, girls, as much saliva as you can get.’
We look at her face. She is serious. We spit away. Giggles grunts and the splashing whistle of twenty-five girls spitting into glasses.
‘Now set the glass in front of you and wait.’
The puddle in the bottom of my glass of bubbly saliva is thick and sticky. My stomach roils. As if I have exposed something that should not be seen. As if I should rinse the glass under the tap for fear that others will see it too. I cannot look over at the other girls’ glasses. It is as if we have been asked to take our clothes off and we are standing naked, eyes ahead, hoping that no one will notice our vulnerability, that no one will cross our gaze.
‘Now,’ says Mrs Raj. ‘I want you all to drink it back up’
‘Yuk,’ the class calls in one voice.
‘Do as I say girls. It will not hurt you.’
Loud swallows and grunts as each girl tries to take back inside the saliva she had so eagerly parted with a few minutes ago. It is cold on my tongue, worse to swallow than medication but I get it down.
‘Now, girls, the reason I have asked you to do this is to show you the difference between the inside and the outside.’ Mrs Raj is serious. Her voice does not falter, even underneath the singsong lilt of her Indian accent. ‘When the saliva is in your mouth, as it is every minute of every day, you don’t notice it. Your saliva is you. Spit it out and it becomes not you. Drink it back and it’s like something completely foreign to you, when only minutes ago it was you.’
Mrs Raj beams a smile that shows all of her large straight teeth, white against the gleam of her skin. The red smudge of paint on her forehead matches the redness of her lips and the faint blush in her cheeks.

I could talk now about sameness and difference not only between aspects of your self but between yourself and others. I could go into an academic tirade but I’ll resist and let my anecdote stand alone for what it’s worth.

Countries and conferences

Dear Bloggers
I have just come back from the sixth International Auto/Biography Association conference that was held in Honolulu, or Waikiki, however closely you define the location of the university of Hawaii, on the island of Oahu, not the ‘big island’ of Hawaii as the locals so lovingly call it. It was summer and the temperature was tropical but not sultry, not most of the time. They overdid the air-conditioning throughout the conference to the point of protest. I thought I might have needed a cardigan for the evenings, after the sun had dropped and the air picked up the night cool, but the nights were balmy. Still I needed my cardigan for the large Keoni auditorium, which despite the presence of some 200 people seated in its core, was like an icebox. Every time I opened the large swing door to the auditorium and crossed the floor to find my usual seat at the front, the room gave off a blast of cold. It was like entering the beer fridge in Safeway.

The podium stood to one side at the front of the auditorium alongside a long narrow cloth covered table raised on a dais above which the panel members sat for each plenary. It was indeed a place for academic scholarship and I heard the words of the academy more than once. For me a new language. In many ways the whole experience was one of being inculcated into a new language, into a new mythology. Beginning with the multi tiered composition of the delegates.

To begin, there were the dignitaries, the so-called keynotes, those well published in the area of life writing, and auto/biographical theory. These also could be classified along the ranks of seniority. There were the old gods, the most famous, Philippe Lejeune and Paul John Eakin, the Frenchman and the American. The guests from the Anglophone world included the likes of Susanna Egan and Margaretta Jolley. The Americans probably occupied most of the significant positions, the famous academic twins, Julia Watson and Sidonie Smith, Nancy K Miller, though she kept in the background. She was referred to, her work at least, but she kept to herself.

On day one she sat beside me ever so briefly. I had planted myself in the front row. Why do they bother to put out chairs for a front row, no one bothers to occupy them except me? A line of chairs from one side of the room to the other, the empty chairs that signified a space between the speakers and the audience. I fractured that line and though at times I felt dwarfed by the high orange cloth covered dais that overlooked the Keoni auditorium. Like being in the front row in a picture theatre when you sit face to face with the screen.

‘I’d like to sit close to the front,’ Nancy K Miller said, muttering to herself. I gestured to the empty chair beside me. She had no choice but to sit and I introduced myself.
‘Nancy Miller,’ I repeated when she told me her name. ‘One of my favourite footnotes.’ She winced. She did not enjoy the limelight, at least not my pleasure at meeting her. ‘You coined the expression, ‘When memory fails I let language lead,’ I said.
‘Did I write that?’ she said. ‘It sounds pretty good.’ I nodded in agreement.
‘It’s a little too close to the podium for me here,’ she said.
‘Feel free to move.’
‘I’ll just go back a bit further. No offence.’
‘No offence.’
Was I offended? I asked myself? It was not meant as a snub. I recognised that the closeness to the front mountain of the front dais was overbearing but in spite of myself I felt peeved. Snubs like this happened often at the conference, but not nearly so often as the warm and friendly gestures of other people, most generally the lesser beings, the ordinary conference attendees, like Carina from Portugal who read her paper out in French and gave the audience, most of whom could not speak any French, a taste of what it is like to live in a foreign land, the foreign language like a blast of icy wind in your face and the bitter taste of exclusion, unable to understand.
She would do it differently next time, she told me afterwards. She had wanted to be understood and although many people praised her for her bravery in presenting in French, that had not been the aim of her paper.

Philippe Lejeune as the first keynote speaker spoke French but he sat alongside his adoring and competent interpreter who provided a translation of every word for the mostly ignorant audience. French became the second dominant language at the conference perhaps because Philippe and many of the Canadians speak French too. German came next and although the Chinese were reasonably well represented, not so well represented as perhaps those from other major countries, I did not hear much Chinese. There were many jokes about the hegemony of English, including the one that in ten years time, Chinese will be the dominant language simply because of the number of western students learning it.

As much as there was a cultural inclusiveness there was a cultural divisiveness. Philippe Lejeune acknowledged the odd comment from an English speaking person, he speaks English himself, but mostly he chatted with the French, including a couple of young women, perhaps his students. One had a tough look with fierce eyes and a shaved head. She hovered around Lejeune, much like a buzzing bee around a flower.

Tim Dow Adams, a footnote from America, had us in stitches much of the time. He looked so familiar to me, as if he could have been one of my brothers. We joked often throughout the conference. He spoke to everyone, and was the first to greet me when I climbed off the conference bus in front of the East West Centre at Hawaii university where the conference proceedings were held. The East West Centre consists of several floors of seminar type rooms some with open structures and desks into which translation boxes had been set. We did not use the translation boxes, nor did we use interpreters, except for on that first day with Philippe Lejeune and later at the performance on the Tuesday evening when the Hawaiians spoke and sang in their own language and the whole proceedings were presented in both English and Hawaiian.

Is this boring enough for you? I have so much to remember here, so much to try to record before it all dribbles from my memory into the trash heap of my unconscious mind.

I shall try to record some of my personal highlights.

Julie Rak from Canada, a woman of the future as one delegate told me works with popular culture and continually remarked on the need to be aware of the influence of popular culture on the field, the blogs, technology etc. Julie Rak remembered me when she and I were talking to Emily Hipchin. I had presented alongside Emily Hipchin and Susanna Egan in Mainz, Germany two years ago. Emily recalled the terrible question/comment from an Irish woman in the audience. Her Irishness had little to do with the question I suspect, maybe more the fact that she was studying at the university of Vienna were they are conceptually driven, no room there for the self reflexive). This young woman stood up after my talk and asked,
‘Is this appropriate?’ This said before suggesting she could not relate to what I had presented. And then both Craig Howes and Tom Smith (two other dignitaries) came to my rescue. They talked about how difficult it is for academics used to coming at material from a distance, from behind the interpretative façade, to deal directly with autobiography and the autobiographer.
‘I use that example with my students,’ Jule Rak said. ‘I use it all the time to try to demonstrate how it’s possible to do it, how it’s okay to do it and yet how difficult it s for the audience to receive it.’
‘That woman was hostile,’ Julie Rak told me. No wonder I had felt the floor swallow me up after she had asked the question, is this appropriate. I’d heard of academics on the attack. This was my first ever conference and this my first question during discussion time and it was an attack.

At this conference, when I presented my own autobiographical material the audience did not seem flummoxed. I was though when Alfred Hornung (a German dignitary) asked me to talk about the ways in which language makes family secrets possible. I found it hard to answer his question and then his wife’s question (she’s a professor at another German university) that followed on immediately,
‘How do I link what you have written with revenge.’
Oh dear, my paper was not to do with revenge. I wrote about empathy and the inner and outer.
I posted this blog some time ago but for reasons I have still not understood, it refused to show on the screen. This time it will, I hope and wonder, is it worth it?