The final few days of the 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival were brilliant.
Without question, the highlight of this year’s Festival was the Book Club. There were a handful of ‘book club’ events, with authors hosting 20 Festival-goers for a discussion about a book of their choosing. Like all good book clubs, there was plenty of wine, cheese, and dessert. I went along to Sarah Krasnostein’s group, where we discussed one of her favourite novels, My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.
Sarah began by laughingly admitting that when people recommend books to her, she ignores their suggestions (“…because they don’t really know what I like”). However, when her therapist pressed Lucy Barton into her hands she trusted that it was for a reason and read the book. She was instantly captivated by the idea that “…we all love imperfectly.”
I loved The Trauma Cleaner and I loved Lucy Barton, so I was interested to hear Sarah’s, and others, thoughts on the themes of trauma and loneliness in the book, and how childhood experience has a long-ranging effect on the course of a person’s life. We covered all that and more. There was general consensus that Strout has the extraordinary ability to pack so much into so few, and such simple words, and that her use of stories to demonstrate the broader emotional narrative was astounding.
We explored some aspects of the book that I hadn’t previously thought about, notably the idea that perhaps Lucy’s mother was imagined (the jury was out on this one – there seemed to be evidence for both scenarios).
Sarah graciously signed my copy of The Trauma Cleaner after the event and we kept taking for another 20 minutes (about listening/ being heard/ palliative care biographies/ inter-generational trauma). I was only fan-girling a smidgen 😀
On Saturday, I headed to another of Krasnostein’s events, this time she was in conversation with Judy Atkinson (author of Trauma Trails: Recreating Songlines). They were discussing the therapeutic power of writing, listening and being heard, and how these things contribute to healing.
Although Atkinson’s book focuses on Indigenous Australians, it is being used around the world for other indigenous communities. Her examination of generational trauma and specifically how that is expressed (and healed) when it hasn’t been ‘done directly’ to a person was fascinating. Noting that there has been six or seven generations of government intervention in Aboriginal lives, she emphasised the importance of expressing emotions through physical means – dancing, art, poetry, music – “They’re just feelings. Dance me anger, dance me joy. And they do. You find balance in creating a ‘felt sense’.” She went on to say, “I believe we have a brain in our feet. It allows us to make sense. Country heals.”
Krasnostein’s experience of generational trauma is different (her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor) but said, “It still filters down in ways that we are surprised by.”
Krasnostein discussed researching The Trauma Cleaner. Initially, she was curious about her own shock at what she was observing however knew that “…the act of listening without any preconceptions is your strongest form of evidence.” It was only then that the personal life experiences of Sandra Pankhurst (the trauma cleaner) emerged. After accompanying Sandra on cleaning jobs for three years, there was a common element – “…what I was seeing…was human pain in the absence of social connections.” She went on to say that lack of social connection should be part of our definition of poverty (wish I had taken more notes at this point!).
The discussion turned to healing. Atkinson said simply that “…healing is the most amazing, painful process.” While she had observed healing at the individual level, she acknowledged that there was a huge amount of work to be done at the broader level. Krasnostein agreed, saying, “We know people are silent survivors for their own reasons but that is very different to a silent society. Silent survivors are no excuse for a society that is not willing to listen.”
Four authors – Jessie Cole, Majok Tulba, Mara Wilson and Nevo Zisin – shared a piece they had written to farewell their childhood. Each had a very different story.
Mara Wilson, a famous child actor, spoke of her mother’s death when Mara was aged eight – “It’s too much of an oversimplification to say that my childhood ended when my mother died. In fact, when your mother dies, your childhood never ends.” She concluded by saying that she didn’t miss childhood – “It might have been simpler but it wasn’t easier.”
Majok Tulba, a refugee, gave an evocative description of life in his Sudanese village. He was followed by Nevo Zisin, a transgender activist, who gleefully began by declaring that it might have been the first time a “Jewish, gay, trans guy had ever spoken in a church” (the session was held in the chapel at Mission to Seafarers).
Lastly, Jessie Cole. Raised a free-spirit in the forest of northern New South Wales, Cole began by saying, “When I was a child, I believed the world loved me as much as I loved it.” Cole’s childhood was shattered when her half-sister, Zoe, suicided. Her father, “…muted in the magnitude of his sorrows…”, fell into a deep depression and soon after, also suicided. Cole said, “By the time he took his own life, I was the oldest woman in the world.”
Cole reflected that with the loss of her sister and father, she also lost her ability to trust – “If you are terrified of love you will choose the opposite without really realising it” and asked “How do we navigate this territory when loss guides our choices?” Her stillness and her measured words about something so painful left me in tears. An incredible end to an amazing Festival.