Three Poems

“A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is.”

Jeanette Winterson

 

MOOD SWINGS

How many moods did you experience today?
Did your heart feel real joy at the sight of a child laughing
a pure white cloud passing
over a field of rape-seed.
Did your heart bleed
when a young mother swore at her child
and a wild-eyed man
stood on a corner beating himself
with his fists.
Was it despondency you felt
in the season of mists

if you’re anything like me
I hate to see the sun acting weak.
Does it all feel bleak
when you think of the future
or when you remember
what it use to be like
before things got complicated
before you were obligated
to satisfy others.
Does it make you feel sad
when no one bothers
to remember you care
when life seems totally destructive
and unfair.

How many moods did you experience today?
Did you start the day gloomily
progressing to looking
optimistically
at the hours unfolding.
Was it that moment
when you were holding your loved one,
or was it that instant
when you were excited about
seeing your daughter
or hugging your son

if you’re anything like me
that’s what I look forward to.
When I see that they’re safe
those moods,
those heart-tearing moments
that fill you with fear
suddenly disappear.

When you hear their voices
the choices you’re
faced with are boiled down
and the frown on your face
quite frankly feels
irrelevant and wrong.

How many moods did you experience today?
Did your heart ache when someone you love
raised their voice.
Was the choice all theirs
did you think who cares
if you’re crying or dying
for stability and love –
did you think
what have I done
to deserve this situation
that painful altercation
with the people I love?

Is God above watching and controlling
the journey you’re on,
are the devils at work
where shadows lurk,
do you look in the mirror and see
a cold-blooded smirk.

Does that dark scary mood go away
when there’s good
is your drug of choice laughter and light
or hatred, of course
that’s when the might of your heart bears down
with a terrible, terrifying force

yes, you experienced thousands of moods today.
No matter how hard you try
they won’t go away.

Those moods – you can curse them
or nurse them
because they are here to stay.
Those uncontrollable feelings
will always haunt you and
get in the way.

 

(C) Maree Giles, November 2, 2011

 

KINGSTON TATTOO

she showed me her tattoos today
the unveiling took months
she thought I would criticize
chastise
disapprove
cry

but I did none of those things.
I did say: please don’t get any more
that’s enough.
three is enough
any more
you’ll look tough.

the words she chose in some dimly-lit back-room dive
could have been written on paper, good and hard
in a special book perhaps
or a hand-made card.

I understand her longing, regret and sorrow
but now there’s something written there all the time
a constant reminder
today
tonight
and tomorrow.

she thought I would criticize
chastise
disapprove
cry.
I did none of those things.

though I watched from afar
my heart was pierced by that needle
ink
blood
pain
set forever in a permanent scar.

Maree Giles (C) 2012

 

ARAMOANA

He arrived in the small south island city

got right to the nitty gritty.

Everyone opposed what

he proposed, an aluminium smelter.

No poetry in that –

Fat cat from Switzerland

planned to plonk it right by the ocean.

His promotion shattered the dream

A scene of edelweiss,

wild strawberries and

mountain goats.

Clear-throated yodellers, spa centres

where bracing air

could cure any disease.

Please tell the truth

the uncouth

fact of the matter is

that Swiss valleys lay dead

from contamination.

Civilisation and

safety not being an issue.

Can you believe the stupidity?

A touch of serendipity, protesters

a great deal of persuasion

scared the brazen official

back to Geneva

the deceiver no match

for local unity.

 

(C) Maree Giles, March 17th 2010.

All Rights Reserve

The Freedom To Write

Anna Akhmatova (Russia), memorised all her poems to avoid persecution and death.

In his Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in 2012, the author Salman Rushdie said that, “no writer wants to talk about censorship.” Of course, he knew all about censorship and how it can cripple creativity, especially when it comes with a death threat.

During my incarceration at Parramatta Girls’ Home an officer confiscated some poems I’d written and tore them up in my face. The poems were an honest account of life inside the institution and how it affected the girls. Those words were lost forever and I felt that somehow I was “bad” for trying to express myself on paper. It took a long time to get over.

Censorship can make you feel “dead”, it stifles creativity, cripples the free-flow of ideas, makes you afraid to say what’s on your mind. It is the ultimate ‘writer’s block’. The censor’s crocodile eye, always alert for signs of truth-telling, forever ready to pounce and shut you down, is a dichotomous beast as it also comes with fear of the writer. This in turn leads to a feeling of isolation and deflation for the writer, and a sense of power for the censor.  And in so many cases, including my own, it comes with ostracism. If left unchecked it can lead to self-doubt, depression and frustration.

Self-censorship as a choice is something all serious writers need to consider. Should a writer hold back from the truth to avoid hurting others? Is freedom of speech a writer’s right? Should a writer disguise the truth, change names and settings, dates and anything else that might identify someone who has something to hide or is ashamed of? I believe it is incredibly important for a writer to have that freedom of choice, and if it’s the wrong choice, well, the writer should be prepared for any repercussions.  In certain situations disguising a character based on a real person is necessary, and all responsible writing tutors and books on writing advise writers to approach with caution. But having the freedom to explore ideas, and the psychology behind human behaviour, is vital. Without that freedom the world would be even more full of ignorance. Like the air we breathe, seeking truths in writing is necessary for understanding, empathy and progress.

Rushdie went on to say this: “The creative act requires not only freedom but also (this) assumption of freedom. If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today. If he is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear. If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free.”

Taking away a person’s right to write freely and creatively is a particular kind of insidious bullying. It takes a lot of courage to overcome it and get the creative juices flowing again. You somehow feel the censor is right, and you are wrong. It is inhibiting, which of course, is the aim, and at its worse, creatively debilitating. Censorship comes from many directions, not only from dictators and religious fanatics, but also from family and friends. It is not confined to film and government directives.  The expression “kindness begins in the home” is not true of every home. Home can also be where violence, ignorance and pain resides. And from there, hatred can spill out of the front door into the community, and to extended family members, and friends. Truth is always healthier than cover ups and lies, even if it does involve humiliation. If a novel can encourage self-examination and empathy then that novel has done its job well. If it can prompt forgiveness and invoke shame, fantastic. The writer has succeeded in making a difference.

Rushdie also said, “. . . when censorship intrudes on art, it becomes the subject; the art becomes ‘censored art,’ and that is how the world sees and understands it. The censor labels the work immoral, or blasphemous, or pornographic, or controversial, and those words are forever hung like albatrosses around the necks of those cursed mariners, the censored works. The attack on the work does more than define the work; in a sense, for the general public, it becomes the work . . . At its most effective, the censor’s lie actually succeeds in replacing the artist’s truth. That which is censored is thought to have deserved censorship. Boat-rocking is deplored.”

But for me boat-rocking is essential to a writer’s growth and to the greater good of the world. Just imagine what the world would be like without books, without media communication, without stories, opinions, ideas and thoughts. Rushdie said that censorship is not good for art, and it is even worse for artists themselves.

When I wrote Invisible Thread, republished as Girl 43 by Hachette Australia two years ago, I self-censored the story. It was a decision bound by fear and oppression. Fearing legal and personal repercussions, I changed the name of Parramatta Girls’ Home to ‘Gunyah,” an Aboriginal word that means ‘shelter.’ I really did believe that Percy Mayhew, the Superintendent at Parramatta in 1970, would hunt me down and take me to court, denying the truth about the violence and cruelty he meted out on the girls. I thought my family would use the book and my incarceration against me, and some of them – on my father’s side – have. It’s no use saying it’s a reflection of their limitations, because the fact is, the pain runs deep.

I wrote Invisible Thread in total isolation, that is, I made decisions about it on my own, with no advice from anyone. I worried the book would offend or hurt former Parramatta girls.  I worried that former officers might read it and come after me. I worried that social services in Australia might prosecute me and deny any culpability. I worried about the publicity and how that might affect my life and my family, in particular my children and my mother. There had at that time been very little publicity about the Home. Now of course, it has had a great deal of media attention and was part of the controversial government apology made by former PM Kevin Rudd to the Forgotten Australians. How I wish I’d had the courage to name the institution and the perpetrators of abuse behind those locked doors and high walls. Now, the world knows some of the names of these people, and justice is at work.

In my writing I seek the truths of life. I want to find out what makes people tick. That doesn’t make me arrogant, or an angel, or a clever-clogs any more than Salman Rushdie or any other censored writer. Writer’s are truth-seekers. It is part of the job-description, and we have a natural ability to empathise and get under the skin and inside the mind of our characters. We naturally want to share our insights the same way that other artists do, tell a good story, provoke conversation and debate, increase understanding, empathy, emotion, recognition (readers thrive on ‘light bulb’ moments), and change.

Vulnerable poets and writers like Osip Mandelstam (Stalin’s Russia), Anna Politkovskaja (Putin’s Russia), died because of their art, they fought for their craft, and were punished. Isaac Babel more or less stopped writing when Stalin tried to force all Russian writers to adhere to his concepts of “Socialist Realism,” but was convinced that the authorities would change their minds in time. Censors, professional and amateur alike, rarely change their minds because that would be an admission of guilt and misjudgement. It really is up to writers to be steadfast in their search for the truth in order to engender social change.

Hitler’s Book Burnings

Great News – Parramatta Girls’ Home Precinct Heritage Listed

This morning I woke to the news that Parramatta Girl’s Home Precinct has been Heritage listed by the Australian Government. However, the footprint they propose to preserve is small and large sections of the site are still being targeted by developers as perfect for building new homes. This would be a tragedy as it is one of Australia’s earliest convict settlements. World Heritage listing is the next goal. Thanks to the tireless work, vision and dedication of women like Bonney Djuric and Jeannie Elizabeth Hayes, Heritage listing has now been achieved. It really is an emotional day as our experience has once again been validated. Healing can continue and with dignity and courage we can all fight the developers and preserve the entire site for the education of future generations.

Visit the Parragirls website for more information.

Permanent Online Exhibition: Life Inside Children’s Homes and Institutions, National Museum of Australia 

 

The Lionel Shriver Hoo-Ha Over Cultural Appropriation in Writing

The Lionel Shriver Hoo-Ha Over Cultural Appropriation in Writing

Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival has caused a huge international discussion, and reminded me of the angst I put myself through when writing The Past Is A Secret Country, the story of three Australian Aboriginal sisters (triplets) who find one another as adults after being separated at birth. One of the sisters is white. Freya also has an innate spirituality, the origins of which dumbfound her. That is until one of the sisters tracks her down in London. At last the truth begins to unravel.

There’s a lot of mystery surrounding their conception, too – how could the two black sisters have white parents? This might sound far-fetched, but is grounded in facts that I spent a long time researching. It can happen. A dormant gene can suddenly throw itself into the mix, years later. Hence the offensive term, ‘throwback.’

Writing the story was tricky. I wanted it to be accessible to white readers, so I strove for credibility and authenticity, without being too dry, or worse, sentimental. The research was intense. It often felt like an academic exercise, a university degree, requiring hours of reading, note-taking and analysis. Some of the chapters are written from the sisters’ father’s viewpoint in the tricky second person. The aim was to show his bigotry and shame at having produced two black babies. He makes the decision to take them to Melbourne to an adoption agency, and the white girl goes too, as he is by then highly suspicious. Second person narratives are confronting, and a highly effective way to make the reader squirm. Empathetic engagement is also part of the reasoning behind these kinds of choices in writing. I think my publisher at Virago found it a difficult book to promote because the current debate wasn’t in the news back then. So it sank into oblivion. But like my other novels, it examines the human condition in a deeply provocative way. It takes guts to write books like that. Books that are challenging and confronting and make you think and reflect and hopefully, change long-held views that are narrow and dogmatic.

My second novel, Under The Green Moon, also addresses similar questions about race and inequality and the significance of Aboriginal spirituality. I found myself drawn to these subjects thanks to my solitary childhood in a bush setting just outside Sydney, where I often stumbled across rock drawings and caves with evidence of former inhabitants. I was intensely influenced by my natural surroundings: the sounds, smells, sights, animals, textures, patterns, light, and the things I couldn’t see, a primeval, powerful presence that stoked my imagination and soul. Later, when I started writing the story and read books like Daughters of the Dreaming, by Australian anthropologist Diane Bell, my childhood experiences made more sense. Obviously the Dreamings are something I would never purport to fully understand or feel capable of interpreting. Aboriginal culture is diverse and incredibly complex, and the Dreamings mean different things to different groups. For example for some Aboriginal communities the Dreamtime is a past reality, at the same time a past reality and a concurrent reality with the present reality. It gets much more complicated than that, and even some of the most experienced anthropologists struggle with their understanding of it. My novel looks at the broader ethnology while at the same time draws on some of these elements.

Under The Green Moon is the story of two young girls, one black, one white, who become friends during the Depression in Sydney. Inevitably the black girl becomes one of the Stolen Generation. There are several references to the Dreamtime and ancestral visitations and connections. I suppose you could call it a ghost story, but to me it’s a lot more than that.

The current discussion, prompted by Shriver’s speech, has reverberated far and wide. I think if she were a less haughty character she may have avoided some of the accusations about her speech being cavalier. If it had been delivered by a softly spoken, shy black writer, for instance, the reaction may have been quite different. All writers need to be brave and not tread softly.

This notion that a writer should only write about what they know is one I ditched a long time ago. If that type of constriction is going to be placed on me as a writer seeking truths and commonalities in the human experience, then I will gladly give it up and go back to teaching or journalism, both of which deal in facts. I write fiction because I want to learn not just about facts, I want to delve deep into the human experience and understand what makes people tick. Fiction writing is an endless learning curve, rarely boring except at the editing stage when every comma and full stop has to be placed in the most appropriate place, and every word has to be the best one for each job. When I write I constantly ask myself the question ‘what if?’ For example, I could have made the sisters in my story white. But that would have been tame and too much like so many other stories out there.

I’m one of three sisters – one of which I’m not related to by birth – and we were separated at birth, my birth, when I was ejected from my father’s side of the family. So I felt I had sufficient inside knowledge to tackle the subject, especially as we also met later in life, like the three sisters in my novel, when I was in my early thirties. This kind of experience is one that millions of people have, and it shares familiar dynamics, such as a deep sense of rejection and worthlessness, jealousy, confusion, bitterness, as well as health issues like depression and despair and thoughts of suicide. These are universal human experiences. But to stretch my imagination even further in this book I came up with the idea of making the sisters black. Was I afraid of writing from a black person’s perspective? Well yes, and no. I thought black readers might object. I didn’t want to offend anyone. I was aware that I had to be careful and respectful. On the other hand I found the idea fascinating and irresistible. It held so many possibilities for a writer. I grappled with the ethics and morals of writing such a story, and at times felt intensely uncomfortable. But I knew that I’d done my research to the best of my ability. I tried to get permission, or at least, the blessing of Aboriginal elders near Uluru, where part of the story is set, to publish the story. But at that time I lived in London and a trip to Australia wasn’t possible.

Shriver has been criticized for writing a book about obesity, yet she is not obese. So, where do we draw the line with cultural appropriation? Many white writers write about cultural and individual experiences they have never known. It’s fiction! They make it up and they do their research. And this hesitancy writers have about how fiction interacts with history is also rife with the risk of censorship. Again, it’s fiction!

My latest novel, which I’m currently working on, is about a fashion mannequin in post-war Sydney. Have I ever been a mannequin? I wish! I didn’t live during that era, either. But my mother did, and she has been able to help with a great deal of oral history. She has an incredible memory and is articulate and clear with her facts and details. I’ve also spent hours in libraries both in Sydney and London, and have plans to visit museums in Paris. I’ve spent a small fortune on books to help bring that era to life in my novel, and gathered fashion details that make the story feel authentic. I’ve used the internet, in particular TROVE, the National Library of Australia’s invaluable online research library. I’ve changed and embellished historical facts and blended them with imaginative fiction. I’ve no doubt readers will pull me up on some of these points, but fortunately publishers can include an author’s note stating that ‘some facts have been changed.’ Rewriting history might seem an arrogant pursuit, but it’s fiction, it comes from the imagination, and the imagination should be granted complete freedom. Any form of censorship in fiction is, for me, immoral.

Cultural appropriation, whether it’s at a fancy dress party where everyone’s asked to come as Mexican cowboys or Spanish bullfighters, is healthy if it’s done with light-hearted humour and respect. Wearing a sombrero doesn’t have to diminish the culture from whence it was born. Did anyone object when Paul Hogan’s stereotypical outback character burst onto our screens as Crocodile Dundee, or Marlon Brando stuffed his cheeks with cotton wool to play the part of a mafia godfather? These stories and fancy dress occasions serve to broaden our appreciation of travel and experience and different cultures, even if it seems in the moment to be nothing less than a bit of a laugh or a tongue-in-cheek interpretation. We have become far too sensitive about these things.

Writers who stick their neck out like Shriver are trying to break down prejudices, and her point about building barriers by separating ourselves into groups and narrowing the gaps, is valid and true. We are all human, regardless of culture or colour, and we all share the same emotional landscape of pain and sorrow, joy and hope. How can we ever begin to understand other people if we don’t metaphorically ‘step into their shoes’? This is what empathy is all about – understanding someone’s emotions and experience, and then acting and reacting sympathetically and sensitively. It’s a bit like a child who is torturing a bird suddenly realising that the bird is suffering. A light bulb moment. Fiction should be full of light bulb moments, when the reader thinks, That happened to me! Or I know exactly what that character’s going through. Or even better, I’ve done that to someone, I hurt them like that, and I know it was wrong. Or, So that’s how it feels. Fiction digs deep and reveals and exposes human truths. That is why it is so important. It can encourage better behaviour and portray humanity in all its delicate and violent detail.

I recall another less recent debate in the media proposing that literary fiction generates deeper empathy in readers than commercial fiction. Which simply suggested to me that empathy is one of the key purposes of writing fiction. Fiction can prompt empathy far more effectively than non-fiction. As the late Elvis Presley once said, “Cut me and I bleed.” We are all the same at heart. Likewise, fiction can open hearts and minds to embrace the unknown and remove the fear. Writers, not politicians or teachers, or scientists or anthropologists, can do far more to deepen our understanding of the world’s different cultures, because they dare to imagine.

Maree Giles © 2016