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Australian Literature

Susan Francis , blogger, member of HWC

Australian Literature Part 4

By | Australian Literature, News

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 , blogger, member of HWCSusan 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:

https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/susan-francis-rpt/10467926

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.

Ronald McCuaig poet

Australian Literature Part 3

By | Australian Literature, News

Reality Rhymes – blog by Susan Francis

Who’s your favourite Australian poet? This one’s easy! Because I think the ideas explored in Australian poetry, post colonisation, are more unconventional than some of the broader subject matter written about in our fiction. Since settlement, there’s been a long tradition of poets reflecting on marginalised experiences (Robert Southey, the first poet to write about Australia, focussed on the plight of convicts). Later, think of Lesbia Harford, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Komninos and the Avant Garde movement: writers who all sought to capture more intimate, more diverse aspects of Australian life.

Therefore, in the spirit of the unorthodox, let me introduce you to the Australian poet I admire most: a gentle giant of a man, who, in creating a style combining 17th century French lyricism with modernism, set out to examine the lives of quiet desperation led by Sydney women in the 1930s. He represented the battered women; the lonely, frail, discarded women, and the typist from the bank conducting an affair with her boss. The poet is Ronald McCuaig. Born right here in Newcastle.

Ronald McCuaig poet

McCuaig grew up in Mayfield, a few streets away from where I currently live. In 1915, when he was seven years old, his mother died. Afterwards, father and son relied more than ever on each other and his father used to read Ron the poetry of Banjo Paterson. Later, much of McCuaig’s working life, was spent in Sydney, as a newspaper journalist. For many years he worked at The Bulletin and at Smith’s Weekly. He was also a literary critic, editor, short story writer, and poet. These days, most people, if they know of him at all, know of McCuaig because of the two children’s books he wrote, Gangles and Tobolino and The Amazing Football Boots. He was also admired for the light verse he wrote, and the work he produced at The Bulletin under the pen name ‘Swilliam’.

I began a post graduate degree on McCuaig’s work over twenty years ago. During one interview in 1997, with the late, great Geoffrey Dutton (another extraordinary Australian writer), Dutton told me he believed McCuaig had come earlier to the modernist style than Slessor. I was happy with this response because for me, the power of McCuaig’s portrayal of women in his book Vaudeville broke with the idea of representing the mainstream.

McCuaig wrote the Vaudeville poems between 1933 and 34. But the collection was considered too controversial for Australian audiences, and refused by seven traditional publishers. So, in 1938, McCuaig hand printed the book in his living room. Peter Kirkpatrick, writing in Southerly in 1991 states … the sexual candour of many of these poems of urban life meant they were unacceptable to the conservative literary journals and presses, so after four years of trying to find a publisher the author decided to publish them himself…

When you read the following poem from Vaudeville, titled The Letter, it’s clear why McCuaig was forced to publish his own work.

The opposite flat is dark and dumb,
Yet I feel certain he will come
Home to his love as drunk as ever 
And, in a slowly rising fever, 
Noting the whisky bottle gone, 
Will trip and curse and stumble on 
Into the bathroom, pull the chain, 
Fumble the cabinet, curse again; 
Will ask the slut where she has hid 
His toothbrush; blunder back to bed, 
Find his pyjamas tied in knots 
And give her, as he puts it, what's 
Coming to her. 
She won't escape 
Her deeply meditated rape.

 

Betty by the Sea, another poem in the collection, offers a frank comment about women and old age through the figure of Betty, living a life no longer perceived by society as meaningful.

Her drooping flowers dabble upon 
Drooping breasts of crisp cretonne 
The thirsty sun has drained her breasts of milk of human interests…

 

McCuaig only published 150 copies of Vaudeville and I’m lucky enough to own one. Lucky, because I think it’s remarkable, the way McCuaig draws attention to marginalised women by employing irony to evoke empathy. And once again, I’m remined, of Henry Lawson – in this instance, his poem about the prostitute standing under the street lamp.

Australian literature. Does such a thing exist? Absolutely!

[picture of McCuaig sourced from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_McCuaig]

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:

https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/susan-francis-rpt/10467926

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.

Susan Francis , blogger, member of HWC
book cover of Seven Little Australians

Australian Literature Part 1

By | Australian Literature, News

Pages of Us – Introduction  – blog article by Susan Francis

Australian Literature. Does such a thing exist? That was the response from my Head Teacher at the UK school where I taught English. ‘Christina Stead . . .’ , I began to respond but, in the face of her hoots of incredulity, I stopped. Any feelings of inadequacy I may have been experiencing, in the face of teaching the English canon to the English, did not require further reinforcement.

Smarting as I was, my passion and my curiosity for our national literature never dimmed. To this day, I still become excited introducing Garner or Harrison or Winton to the students I tutor. My words speed up, my hands fly in front of my face because it is ‘us’. Us on the page. Us in the images. Us in the colloquial. ‘So what?’ they ask me. So what?

Growing up as a teenager in the 1970s in Newcastle was an uneasy time for me. Overweight and still wearing the cat’s eye glasses on trend at the time (there were no other options) my fit on the wide sandy plains of Nobby’s Beach was not organic. I don’t think I ever ‘fitted’. But I did find acceptance of myself in the books I read. There, between the pages, existed other plain girls, other girls who liked to read and found it difficult to make friends. I discovered my ‘unfitted self’ amongst the personalities and, therefore, I was. I was George in The Famous Five, I was Judy from Seven Little Australians, Laura from The Getting of Wisdom and Jo from Little Women. While these novels were chosen from various western cultures, the point is, through the reflection of my own character in those texts, I determined I wasn’t the only one who preferred a library to a netball court. And this of course is not an uncommon experience.

I draw the same analogy about our sunburnt nation. Our identity developed from and alongside the literature that reflected our unique environment, our vernacular and our irrepressible character. Charles Harpur, our first genuine Australian poet, who lived for more than a decade in the Hunter Valley, is renowned for being the earliest writer creating images inspired by the Australian landscape. John Miller writes he was ‘the only poet of the time who achieves an original Australian voice’. While other poets imagined nymphs and the green rolling hills of the old country, Harpur deliberately wrote what he saw.

The other legend to whom I believe we owe so much is Henry Lawson. Perhaps now out of fashion, he is undoubtedly the poet who, for me, best tries to capture the spirit of the early settlers. His beautiful and profound depiction of the resilient drover’s wife, who alone ‘rode nineteen miles for assistance, carrying [her] dead child’, still quietens the 21st century noise around me. Reading Lawson’s work reminds me of how tough it was in Australia not long ago and from where our empathy for the underdog originates. But more than that, these early Australian writers placed us on the page and provided every European Australian the opportunity to be. The magnificent aspect of reading is that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald says, ‘you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’ So, for a country as isolated as we are, our own literature is profoundly important.

Of course I cannot finish without stating that the mirror Australian literature holds up for me is different to the First Australians’ experience or the experience of those living with a disability or the LGBTQIA experience. And I do not attempt to represent that experience. But I can begin to hope that, for all Australians, our literature starts to reflect more varied experiences because accepting oneself partly requires recognising oneself on the page.

Identity is linked inextricably to Australian literature.

Susan Francis , blogger, member of HWC

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 an listen to that here:  https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/susan-francis-rpt/10467926

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.

for love alone Christina Stead

Australian Literature Part 2

By | Australian Literature, News

Something Novel – Australian Novelists – blog by Susan Francis

In my mid-twenties I formed an attachment to an extremely astute young man: a poet who would invite me ice skating in Prince Alfred Park on Friday nights. Skating in the dark, beneath strings of fairy lights hung from the gum trees – there was nothing more magical. The swish of the blades cutting across the ice, the warmth of my hand held in his, it was all impossibly romantic. So, when the boy took pains to explain to me that he’d noticed every novel on my bookshelf was written by a woman, I experienced an epiphany of sorts. I remember trailing my finger along the spines: Stead, Lohrey and Lette. Ruth Park and Shirley Hazzard. Baynton and Bedford. Grenville and Franklin. There, too, the non-Australian fiction of Atkinson, the Brontes and French. Woolf, Lee and Lessing.

So when someone these days asks me that impossible question: what’s your favourite Australian novel, I make sure to mention Tim Winton. The lyrical descriptions of the Australian landscape discovered in Peter Temple’s crime fiction. Christopher Koch and the evocative picture he painted of Jakarta. I talk about Martin Boyd who has a favoured place stacked beside Peter Carey. There is Stow and Maitland and McGahan. These days my bookshelves hold a more even gender mix. But one thing still holds true; maybe a dirty secret of sorts? For an Australian novel to make it onto my top twenty, somewhere amongst the pages I like to recognise a reflection of a world I know or an individual who strikes a chord. I read Australian fiction to be assured I’m not the only player on the stage.

What’s your favourite Australian novel? I’m reluctant to alight on any one text because the range of Australian fiction is vast. The list is as long as our country is wide. And each work positively enunciates our poignant flaws. And I love that! Australian fiction informs so much about who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. But, if pressed, I admit, it is to Christina Stead’s novel, For Love Alone, that I always return.

Written in 1944, I studied this broad, brown land of a book for my Masters degree, drawn by Stead’s particular understanding of what it means to be an Australian woman. The book was panned by any number of academics for its introspectiveness and realist style. Many preferred the magic realism of The Man Who Loved Children. But when I read this book for the first time, I fell in love with the determined and homely Teresa. The link formed between this character and Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife was due to the values held by both: a shared focus on getting on with things and a singular toughness; a determination to make sense of the world around them. Hazel Rowley wrote in her biography: ” . . . Stead’s earliest memories were all associated with a sense of rejection, which she attributed to her physical unattractiveness. In all her stories about her childhood, she is acutely conscious of personal appearance . . .” And this, of course, is another reason I am so captivated by the book.

Melbourne University Publishing reissued the novel in 2011 and maintain: For Love Alone is the story of the intelligent and determined Teresa Hawkins, who believes in passionate love and yearns to experience it . . . [Stead] superbly evoking life in Sydney and London in the 1930s. 

 Soon, in 2020, my own book will be published. Yet another story of a plain, single-minded Australian woman who gives up everything to travel overseas, following the love of her life. And despite the tragedies and the awful revelations my journey revealed, there is a pattern I like here, a pattern I have only recently identified by revisiting Stead’s work. Independent, brave, raw. A little gauche. The Australian female protagonist who travels far to discover herself. She is a reflection of the landscape from where she originates. A reflection of her nation’s blunt, unattractive prejudices. A protagonist decided to succeed.

Recognising that woman, recognising myself, makes For Love Alone one of my favourite Australian novels.

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:

https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/susan-francis-rpt/10467926

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.

Susan Francis , blogger, member of HWC