Different Voices: new and emerging writers – blog by Susan Francis
My relationship with Newcastle, the city of my birth, was always problematic. Years were spent away from the place. And now? Well, I have to admit, hand over my heart, I’m in love with it. I discover myself residing in the kind of community that facilitates and supports me in something fundamental to my life: my writing. Here, I engage with other authors, attend local workshops and live a life I’d always, in the folded recesses of my heart, somehow imagined. Despite the personal cost, I’m thankful I’m here. I’m thankful that writing was a love I held in reserve. Because the local writing community encouraged my first peek over the barricade of grief.
My debut book, a memoir, being published by Allen and Unwin, is due out early next year. It’s my tale of love, loss, secrets – it’s about finding identity. And most recently, several of my short stories have been shortlisted in Australian and overseas competitions. Some even published. These days, I’m always meeting promising local or established novelists, playwrights and poets. In Newcastle, I constantly feel like I’ve dived face first into a deep bowl of words.
Volunteering for the Newcastle Writer’s Festival began the journey. That year, I also met the indomitable Wendy James, joined a writing group and signed up for the Hunter Writer’s Centre. Three years later and I attend launches and workshops listening to resident shining lights like Barry Maitland, Keri Glastonbury, Ryan O’Neill, Claire Albrecht, Michael Sala, Jaye Ford and Jean Kent.
And all of a sudden, I’m an emerging writer. At 58! My first book to be published at 59! Who’d have thought? Australian literature, at a neighbourhood level, is a garden-fresh, fascinating experience.
Simultaneously, on the national stage, I watch a wave of Australian literature explode – with the relatively new voices of indigenous writers, women writers, disabled writers, the words of refugee Australians and LGBTQ+ writers. These composers now shift in the direction of the mainstream. Behrouz Boochani, a refugee writing from Manus Prison won two prizes this year at the Victorian Premier’s Literature awards. Carly Findlay’s memoir about growing up disabled challenges everyone who reads it, to see our Australian selves differently. Holly Ringland and Nigel Featherstone create worlds reflecting identities never written about before, never shared, never even acknowledged.
Thus, as an older, white, middle-class woman – I have to ask myself – what do I have to say that is new or even helpful?
When I began writing my book, I remember my late husband said, Suz, write about the love we share and the fact that we are older. Write about our adventures, the emotional and the intimate. He believed one of the remaining marginalised groups within Australian society was us.
So, what do I have to say? Because for a few years I did buy into the idea that I was no longer relevant.
Surprisingly, I have much to say. I have a love discovered later in life to describe. I have grief to express. Images of homeless, elderly women to draw. Or that slumping you suffer under immovable menopausal weight; the creeping, loneliness of ageing; a search for a meaningful life when you live alone, and you’re limping into your sixties with asthma making it hard to breathe in the winter dark. I have the bravery and stoicism of my elderly mother to respect and write about. I have friendship to celebrate and coffee on Thursday mornings in Beaumont Street. I have the sunshine.
Ageing is a difficult, often painful subject to explore. Which is why, sometimes, people don’t like to hear or read about the matter.
But what I’m learning as I grow older is actually something I’ve always understood – about the gift of identifying yourself on the page. When I recall being a young girl and discovering hope for my plain self because I read about other plain girls – that aha moment – that moment when reading made me realise I was not alone – that moment is equally significant now.
Australian literature is no longer theoretical for me. Australian literature is alive and circling around me. It’s local. It’s real. And I’m a part of it. Australian literature. Does such a thing exist? Seems like an irrelevant question.
Susan Francis’ memoir is to be published by Allen and Unwin and will be available early next year. She discussed a brief part of this book on ABC Conversations. You can listen to that here:
Susan has been published in various anthologies, most recently The Newcastle Short Story Award 2019. Her work has been short and long listed for competitions around Australia, including the E.J. Brady Award and the Margaret River competition. Susan has a Masters Degree in Australian Literature and a half finished PhD sitting in her garage. She is a former High School English teacher. Susan is currently working on her second book.