Saturday, April 22, 2017

Inspirational Women Writers Lead to the Stella Prize

Judy Davis played Sybilla Melvyn in the 1979 film, My Brilliant Career
When writing a short story about a family in Australia during the Great Depression, I recently found myself referencing, almost subconsciously, books I’d read in early childhood. Beatrix Potter, author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and May Gibbs, author of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie both came to mind as I related the differences between a childhood set against an English landscape to that of an Australian childhood spent in the bush. Thinking about those influences a little harder, I realised many of those early experiences of storytelling are still informing my writing now.
I didn’t notice these were female writers at the time; that came later, and when these classics were published many females wrote under male pseudonyms, even when writing specifically about and for girls. But women write differently to men and though I read many books by male writers too, the ones who really reached me were the female voices.

Returning to those women writers who set me on the path to literature and writing has been an inspiration. Miles Franklins’, My Brilliant Career, published in 1901, particularly so because it’s written by a sixteen year old girl, who understands the concerns of girls in an unashamedly chauvinistic world. Franklin’s passion and determination to become a writer, at a time when failing to conform to social mores could subject a girl to judgemental psychoanalytical assessment, has inspired feminists and women writers around the world.
Born in 1879, Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin published the story of Sybilla, trapped on her parents’ farm near Goulburn in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales and forced to choose between a conventional path of marriage and her plans for a ‘brilliant career’. Writing under her great-great grandfather’s name, Miles, but full of barely disguised biographical detail, her protagonist rebels against the dullness of women’s lives and what she describes as the degradation of marriage which to her is nothing short of unpaid drudgery.
Sybilla’s character is the embodiment of the fears, conflicts and torments of every girl and could well be the topic of magazine articles anywhere around the world today. She is plain and therefore not valuable in the marriage market. She equates ugliness with being unloved. She is rejected as abnormal because she is too outspoken. Sybilla is offered marriage to a man who admires her spirit and character but finally rejects him because she cannot have marriage and career.
2017 winner of Stella Prize, Heather Rose
She was just a little bush girl with first-hand experience of the struggle to make a living as a writer. Now the Miles Franklin Award is Australia’s most prestigious literary prize. Established through the will of Stella Miles Franklin, her bequest honours a novel of literary merit depicting Australian life in any of its phases.
Miles Franklin
Now a major literary prize celebrating great books by Australian women, the Stella Award, saw its first winner in 2013. Celebrating women’s contribution to Australian writing, this legacy of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin raises the profile of women’s writing, encourages a future generation of women writers and builds awareness of the work of Australian women.
Next time you fail to find that creative impulse when facing the blank computer screen, try going back to the early writers who inspired you; read their biographies and stories, and rejoice that you are not limited by low expectations, inferior education or intellectual aspersions. In this have-it-all age, when women writers can choose to combine marriage, children, travel and careers with writing, remember Sybilla and her cohorts had much narrower choices.

Friday, April 14, 2017

3* The Other Side of the World, Stephanie Bishop

   Stephanie Bishop’s story of migration was originally published as, Dream England, a more layered and subtle title than, The Other Side of the World. Why was this changed? In fact, all through the novel, the sense of another hand at play suggests too much intrusion of things that don’t fit. Given the great list of those she thanks, it only adds to the feeling that she has been mislead by well meaning ‘others’ into writing a story that is not hers. She says she is influenced by her mother’s and grandmother’s experiences, and perhaps because of this, she is not writing the story only she can tell.

  Maybe this is why the character of Charlotte is so unappealing. From the outset, she is self absorbed, unloving and an unadventurous whinger. Yes, she may have post-natal depression, but Henry is the one with my sympathy. You wonder how a woman/girl like Charlotte would have had the courage to marry a mixed race person in 1960s Cambridge. That was another thing that didn’t gel. A number of plot devices were not thought through. For example, how did ten- pound-Poms suddenly have the money to fly around the world: Oh, I know, Charlotte can sell a painting. Really? What a writer writes does not have to be true. It is a made-up story after all. But the reader has to feel as though it is true. 

  The migrant experience is central to the novel, but this theme was not actually explored. Charlotte may wish to return to England, but it is not Perth that is causing her melancholia. She is unhappy within herself whether in Australia or England. Perth as setting was not convincing either. It didn’t feel as if Bishop or Charlotte had ever been there. Henry’s trip to India was more convincing and there were some very descriptive passages depicting his surroundings and the turmoil he felt for his mother who sent him away to school. These passages revealed the author’s talent.

 Stephanie Bishop is a lyrical, and at times beautiful, writer. She explores big ideas and is capable of moving and evocative prose. Creative writing schools focus on the eight-point story arc. I think Stephanie Bishops should ignore this prescriptive approach and write her narrative from the heart.

Friday, April 7, 2017

3* Inga Simpson, Where The Trees Were

The Lachlan Valley, New South Wales
     Canberra as setting was a novelty for me. I enjoyed the cycling along its thoroughfares and roundabouts, or circles, as they are called in the capital. I loved the bush descriptions too and related instantly to those free days when children could roam and explore without fear.

     I couldn’t quite settle into the story though as Where The Trees Were swapped back and forth between adult book and children’s book. At times I felt like I was reading to my children and then it would change to adult fare of museums and government departments, which in themselves would make interesting fodder for fiction. 

     Many readers seem to love this novel, but I just found too many references to food and what Jay and her parents were having for breakfast or lunch. This read like a creative writing class. What became of the group of friends was worthy of development but tended to be lost in mundane dialogue.

     Apologies if I’m being too harsh. I plan to try Simpson’s Mr Wigg and Nest to see if it was just Where The Trees Were that didn’t hit the mark.