The real-life setting for Invisible Thread is Australia’s most notorious juvenile detention centre for girls under eighteen, Parramatta Girls’ Training School (also known as Parramatta Girls’ Home), which closed in the early Seventies. Young girls were sent there by the childrens’ courts for being ‘neglected,’ ‘uncontrollable” or ‘exposed to moral danger’. Many came from violent, difficult and unhappy backgrounds which they fled for their own safety, only to be arrested and sentenced to a place where brutality and sadism were allowed full reign by the state authorities.
In 2009 Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a national apology to children in the Australian care system, including Parramatta and Hay girls, and thousands of others who have passed through over 860 similar Homes across the country. These children suffered emotional and physical abuse that has affected their lives deeply. They are the Forgotten Australians. This national tragedy affected more than 500 thousand children and had its roots in Australia’s dramatic and brutal convict past.
A memorial was also unveiled to mark the national apology in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens, in honour of children in care whose lives were changed forever under the tyranny of the so-called authorities charged with protecting them. Many other memorials in other parts of Australia have since been unveiled in public spaces.
When the story of Australia’s Stolen White Baby Scandal was uncovered in the 1990s, thousands of women spoke about their experience for the first time. The deep emotional torture and social repercussions of these forced separations reverberated down the years, as far back as the 1920s and beyond.
Those affected by forced adoption continue to live with the scars of this illegal and misguided scheme, which has now found its rightful place among a long and shameful list of government-backed crimes against Australian society.
In 2013 former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a Public Apology to the victims of the so-called Stolen White Baby Adoption Scandal.
From the 1950s to the 1970s an estimated 150,000 unwed Australian mothers had their babies forcibly adopted under a practice sanctioned by governments, churches, hospitals, charities and bureaucrats.
Some women were tricked into signing adoption papers, drugged and physically shackled to hospital beds.
In February 2014 the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard testimonies from women who were incarcerated at Parramatta Girls’ Home and the Hay Institution for Girls.
Invisible Thread is the story of a young girl’s clash with the powerful human machine behind this government system, based on the author’s personal experience and her observation of the girls and officers she knew at the institution.
Invisible Thread was written ‘ahead of its time’, before the general public neither knew nor cared about what had taken place, and before there had been any publicity or talk of possible Apologies from the government. The story of the Forgotten Australians and the unmarried mothers, unwitting victims of these two appalling human rights atrocities, is told in Invisible Thread through the eyes of Ellen and her small group of friends – young, innocent girls whose lives are damaged and changed forever at the hands of their ‘carers.’
Fourteen-year-old Ellen is confused and unhappy when her mother marries a man she doesn’t like. Her mother’s high standards and her mean step-father’s lack of empathy force Ellen to leave home. At a music festival in the country she meets Robbie. Robbie is mean too, but Ellen’s in love, and being with him is more fun than it was at home. Life seems better until Ellen is arrested for running away and, considered to be in ‘moral danger’, is sentenced to a notorious reform school. Ellen is terrified, but the magistrate at the Children’s Court in Sydney has made his decision. Behind the high walls of the borstal Ellen is subjected to humiliation, degradation and brutality. The staff nurse, a sinister type who is against unmarried mothers, discovers Ellen is pregnant. For this disgrace she and the other staff make Ellen’s life even more miserable – her only escape is her dreams and writing poetry. Everyone wants Ellen to give up her baby for adoption. The coercion confuses and frightens Ellen, but she wants to keep her baby no matter how difficult. But when the baby is born in a Sydney hospital, it is immediately “stolen” by staff and removed to another location. When Ellen is finally released and sent home, she is drawn by the invisible thread that links a mother to her child, a bond so strong that nothing and no one can destroy it. With the help of Frank, a disillusioned doctor, Ellen begins to search for the baby, but it’s impossible. During her search she uncovers an illegal conspiracy in which babies, taken from people like her (‘breeders’) are sold to couples wanting to adopt.
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Under the Green Moon
Drawing on her family’s life in Sydney’s famous Botany Bay area, the author has vividly captured the life of a lonely young girl who makes friends with an Aboriginal girl. The two become close, but Australia in the 1930s wasn’t the place for cross-cultural friendships. Soon the authorities step in and the friends are separated.
With her striking looks and long blonde hair, Daisy Entwistle brings a shudder to the residents of New Sands in Botany Bay. For Daisy is eerily similar in appearance to her grandmother Rachel Calthorpe who, forty years earlier, drowned on a ship bound for England. It isn’t her death, though, that haunts the community: it is her association with an aboriginal girl, and the vicious assault that left a young man lucky to be alive.
But looks aren’t the only thing that Daisy has in common with her grandmother. When Amelia, an aboriginal girl, joins her class, Daisy discovers a different Australia, and she is determined to discover the truth about her family’s past.
Giles’ fluid style and genuine storytelling talent lends itself beautifully to this Australian version of To Kill a Mockingbird. – Ireland on Sunday
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The Past Is A Secret Country
Ancient memories, a mysterious past, new beginnings…
Freya Kirby’s battle to regain custody of her children is about to take her back to her past in Australia, to a time of hidden truths – towards a spiritual heritage that manifests itself in her dreams, but which she does not recognise or understand.
Freya has a mysterious, innate gift for healing. She’s going to need this gift, for one day the wounds of the past arrive in the shape of Connie. High-flying Connie is an indigenous Australian with an American accent. As unlike the fair-skinned Freya as it is possible to be…
And when she meets Peggy, who lives in Australia’s heartland, Freya has an unforgettable experience that will at last reveal the truth and reconcile her with the two mysterious strangers in her life.
Passionate about her children, unsure of her future and confused about her earlier life, Freya is certain of only one thing; she must embark on a quest that is at once spiritual, emotional and physical. A journey without expectations, to an unnamed destination.
The author drew on her experience of living on a houseboat near London for this story, as well as the year she spent working on a sheep station near Walgett, NSW.
Extensive research about Aboriginal culture and spirituality helped the author create a moving and insightful portrayal of the lives of Australia’s rightful owners.
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Questions & Answers for Reading Groups
What inspired you to write The Past Is A Secret Country?
It wasn’t a conscious decision to write about three sisters, but in hindsight I can see that it had its roots in my own situation. I have a half-sister, and my half-sister has a half-sister. I never knew them until shortly after my daughter was born. I had also never met my real father. The birth of my daughter threw up all sorts of questions that I felt needed answering. I grew up with a sense of something missing – my father – although I was never obsessed about meeting him, there was a niggly awareness from a young age that my life was different to my peers, who all grew up with a father. I grew up in a house that was all-female, my mother and my grandmother, and visiting aunts and cousins. My grandmother looked after me while my mother, a single parent, went out to work. After my daughter’s birth, I wrote to my father. He and his wife replied with a telegram. It said, quite simply: ‘Welcome to the family. We look forward to meeting you.’ A few weeks later I received a letter from my half-sister. Although I couldn’t afford it, I managed to scrape the airfare together to travel to Australia, with my son and daughter, to meet them. That was the underlying inspiration for the book, but I also wanted to explore the themes of identity, the importance of family, the complexities of family, divorce, child custody and adoption, racism and the difficulties we face as humans when all the odds are stacked against us. It’s about facing our problems head-on, with courage, and learning from our experiences, good and bad. It’s also about the healing power of forgiveness and being honest and open about our relationships.
What was it like, meeting your father and sister for the first time?
Apart from the birth of my children, it was up there as one of the happiest days of my life. My sister and I hit it off immediately. We were so similar in many ways, but in other ways, totally different. I liked that about our relationship. We had completely different strengths, but we also shared a few negative traits, like low self-esteem. It was quite an experience meeting her that first day; we were both very excited and overwhelmed with emotion. Over the years we became very close.
It was quite strange meeting my father for the first time, as he was a total stranger, yet I felt very comfortable with him. He was very ill with Parkinson’s disease. When I arrived in Sydney to meet him he was in hospital. The first thing I did when I got off the plane was find a public phone ( mobiles were uncommon in those days) and call him. But his wife answered my call, and told me I wouldn’t be able to meet him because he was ‘too ill.’ It was a huge blow. Gut-wrenching. When I spoke to my sister later I discovered her mother was finding it all too difficult. I felt very sad for them all, but I was also determined not to go back to the UK without having met my father. I didn’t want to cause any trouble, but I’d flown all that way, and got myself into debt to pay for the trip, and I needed to meet him, so he could see for himself I had forgiven him for abandoning me. If I didn’t meet him it might be too late. He was already in his seventies. Thankfully, a meeting was arranged. We all went together to the hospital to visit my father. It was awkward meeting him for the first time with everyone there. I wanted to speak with him privately. But it was still an uplifting, unforgettable moment. I know now that these experiences have inspired and enriched my novel. I am living proof that it is possible to draw on your own life and weave it into your fiction writing – and get away with it. After all, the freedom to write is vital to break down barriers.
Why did you give your characters an Indigenous background?
I wanted to stretch myself, and my readers. I asked myself the question What if . . . the sisters had a mysterious past? What if . . . they were born black, to white parents? What if . . . their mother had not been unfaithful, as her husband Henry suspects, and the girls’ black roots came from a dormant gene? Would this be even possible? I did some research and discovered that was indeed possible, and has happened. One case in particular attracted me, that of a young African girl who was born to white parents. What a shock it must have been to the mother in particular. In that case the parents were loving and accepting. But what if they weren’t? Henry is a bigot, so of course he can’t bear to even look at the babies. And so he takes them to the city and has them all adopted.
I’ve always been interested in Australia’s Indigenous people. Where I grew up on Sydney’s northern beaches I spent hours exploring the bush near my home, and often came across beautiful rock drawings of kangaroos, koalas, emus, snakes, and deep caves that had clearly been used at some point as shelters – there was plenty of evidence of people having been there: empty shellfish, stones arranged in patterns around abandoned campfires, called middens. But where were these mysterious people now? I was fascinated as a young girl exploring the area on my own, and when it came to writing the book I looked back at those days with shame at my ignorance. But it wasn’t my fault. We simply weren’t taught about Australia’s real Indigenous history at school. The text books listed Aboriginals under the same chapters as fauna and flora. There was nothing written about the annihilation of whole communities. Those who weren’t slaughtered were hunted out of these areas like wild animals. They fled inland, leaving nothing but rock drawings and warm embers behind. Some ended up in Sydney’s inner west. Their ancestors are still there today, still struggling to hold their heads up and show their dignity in the face of degradation and prejudice. I wanted to explore the spirituality of Indigenous culture, the beliefs and laws that make them unique and special. I knew all along it was a risk, writing about something that is not popular. I knew deep down it would not be a best-seller, but I lived in hope. After all, there are many stories about black cultures that have been hugely successful. I wanted to share what I learned with my readers, with the world. So I took the risk. And I’m glad that I did, because what I learned when writing the book opened my eyes to the beauty of these inspiring people.
It must have been difficult writing a story set in Australia when you were based in the UK. How did you go about your research for the book?
I’ve worked in the outback, and I have also worked with Indigenous children. At the time of writing the book I was unable to visit Australia so I had to rely on books for my background material. I read many, but one in particular stood out : The Politics of Ritual in an Aboriginal Settlement, by Francoise Dussart, Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies at the University of Connecticut. Dussart spent ten years studying female ritual leaders at the Yuendumu settlement in Central Australia. Her work shows how these women transcend the inflexible physical divisions that separate them from the men, and how they are able to work side-by-side with the men, yet retain their individuality as women, as Warlpiri and as members of residential kin groups. These women, whose authority depends on complex networks of both male and female relatives, not only sustain the Warlpiri cosmology but also exercise power over such issues as mining disputes, land reclamation, and the production of acrylic paintings. Dussart explains how rituals conceptualized as a form of social currency are imbued with a value-laden sensibility of ‘winning’ while expressing and maintaining social harmony. The complexity of these strong women appealed to me as a woman and a writer. Because there is so little written about the more private aspects of their world, I wanted to try and convey their spiritual beauty and depth through my characters. I am not an authority, far from it. But I hope the story conveys something of their complex culture, in particular how nocturnal dreams are integrated into the Dreaming, and how some women are more spiritual than others.
Why did you choose to write the chapters about Henry, the sisters’ biological father, in the notoriously tricky second person?
I felt it was the perfect medium for his voice, as it is very intimate and powerful. You feel as though what he is thinking are your own thoughts. It’s quite disturbing, and that was the aim, because he’s a bigot. I wanted to get inside his head and show his outlook clearly. It does make people squirm when they read those chapters – it’s quite uncomfortable and challenging.
The storyline is complex – there’s a lot going on: the two other sisters; Freya’s new love, Sam Jenner; her ex-husband Neill and his new wife; Freya’s children and the custody battle with Neill. Then there are the main challenges that Freya has to face: confronting her adoptive parents in Australia; confronting her biological father, Henry, and meeting her third sister, Peggy, in central Australia. Discovering her true identity as a ‘black’ woman, with a deep and complex spirituality, even though her skin is white, is the pivotal moment. Why did you write such a complicated story?
I didn’t plan it that way, it just evolved, in the same way that real life evolves. Life is complex, and puzzling, and often very painful, and nothing is as it seems. I guess as I wrote the story I kept asking myself: What if this happened, or that, and the story just grew from being open as a writer and allowing myself the freedom to explore ideas and different scenarios.
Have you ever thought about writing a purely romantic story, something less serious and literary?
The book I’m writing at the moment is a romantic adventure set in the outback of Australia. Although the main character will venture towards the coast during her travels. So it is also a kind of travelogue. It’s not frivolous, because it will deal with a lot of life issues that ordinary people face: how to find love and be loving, how to attract someone in the first place. |It addresses things like good manners and open communication. There will be lots of drama, but it will also have plenty of gentle humour. It is the first of a series I am developing.
Is it hard to write something ‘lighter’ after writing literary fiction?
Yes, I have to admit I’m finding it tough. But my former publisher, who is now retired and also living in south-west France, is helping me enormously. She is teaching me the importance of showing, not telling, which is especially important in more commercial fiction. To show means to write the story in scenes, to avoid the trap of writing too much narrative, of ‘telling’ the reader what is going to happen next, and why or how. Show what is happening in scenes, so that the story unfolds before the reader’s eyes – using dialogue and action/reaction.
Will you ever write another literary novel?
I have already started one set in Calcutta, India, or Kolkata, as it is now called. It is the story of two sisters in a changing world. Unlike the romantic fiction series, this one is flowing out of me quite easily. But I want to wait awhile until I’m able to visit Kolkata and do some more research. The basic premise is how progress affects people’s lives. The protagonist’s brother-in-law works in the concrete industry. His boss’s company is knocking down some of the city’s oldest and most beautiful palaces to make way for new buildings. The protagonist’s mother lives in one of these palaces – but she can’t afford to keep it from crumbling. The city’s damp climate is affecting the plaster. But the main reason she refuses to give it up are the families who live there with her – people who lived in the surrounding shanty towns. When these tin shacks were knocked down to make way for new apartments that they couldn’t afford, she invites some of them to live in her palace. The protagonist has to fight the concrete industry and think of ways to save her mother’s home, and in doing so she falls out with her sister.
I’ve also started a psychological thriller set in the Tarn, where I live, which is loosely based on my experiences here. It has all the ingredients of a nail-biter: murder, forests teeming with hunters, a neighbour with no conscience whose family are thieves, a mercenary who works for the Indonesian government, hypocritical ex-pats who care only about image and social climbing, hippies who take the meaning of Liberty, Fraternity, Equality to a whole new level.
Wench there’s time, I’m working on a poetry collection.
Where do you do your writing?
I do most of it at my desk in my study, which overlooks my garden in south-west France. It’s a beautiful place, and sometimes when I glance through the window there are deer standing in the wildflower meadow peering back at me. It’s an inspiring setting, but it doesn’t really matter where I am, because I’m always writing in my head: in the car, at the local cafe or bar, walking around the market, sitting on a plane or a bus, taking a shower, cooking the evening meal. People who don’t write really don’t understand it. They can’t imagine what it’s like to have words and sentences and ideas for stories constantly forming in your mind. But that’s really how it is for me. It can be frustrating when you can’t put those ideas and words down on paper or your computer. So many things get in the way of getting it all written down: moving house, housework, getting plenty of exercise, travelling, cooking, keeping in regular touch with friends and family, reading, surfing the net, gardening . . ! But of course you have to prioritise. Easier said than done! I do think it’s important to have a dedicated work area. A haven where you enter the fictional world as soon as you’re there. Visual prompts are helpful. I have a pin-board with photographs and magazine cuttings of the various settings in my books. And pictures of people who resemble my characters. And quotes from other writers on writing. And scraps of paper with ideas I’ve jotted down. For the romantic adventure series I’ve put together a collage on a large sheet of card, with Australian animals, and people that are typical of the places my character will visit, with scenery and other quirky paraphernalia that you might see in real places. It’s amazing how it transports me into the story as soon as I see the pin-board. It sparks ideas and helps keep me focused. Music is also good for creating the right mood for the story you want to create. I love my work and am grateful I’ve found what I’m best at. I hope my passion might inspire other writers to keep going. Because it’s not an easy profession. It’s hard work. But the personal rewards are enormous.