Heroine’s Festival of Women’s Writing – Part 2

The preamble for the second panel of the festival contained a quote from French writer Monique Wittig who wrote in her 1960s feminist sci-fi classic

There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed, bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it … you say there are no words to describe it, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.

Remember, or if Lost, Invent

This panel was chaired by Hayley Scrivener who spoke with Catherine McKinnon and Pamela Hart about what drew each writer to historical fiction, to consider what future women might think of contemporary women, if they can share a moment when the reader’s experience intruded on historical reality, and to outline their use of structure while writing. Hayley also asked what advice they would give to their younger writing self, while audience questions were mainly directed to Cate, including her choice of place in writing about the Illawarra over many time periods, and how she dealt with writing an Indigenous voice.

Storyland encompasses different time periods from 1796 and into the future. It is about our relationship with the land from white settlement and the idea came from an article about Matthew Flinders which prompted a consideration of the number of different histories exist: there is more than one history. Cate grew up in a large family with seven siblings and knows that each has a different perspective, or memory, of family events. She also commented that it is ‘amazing’ that our judicial system is based on the notion of a single truth. Therefore, we should approach history with care. ‘We all tell stories, or narrate ourselves, every day’.

Fiction can be more ‘real’ than history, especially if research leads to an authentic voice. To capture the voice of Lola who inhabits the early twentieth century of Storyland, Cate read newspapers and novels of the time, but wanted her character to be tough and not simply a reflection of the popular contemporary view of quiet women obeying their fathers and husbands. She also used historical dictionaries which allowed her to justify some word choices with her editor. Evidence of women shooters allowed Cate to argue for Lola to be an authentically active woman.

While Cate ‘loves’ structure, it often emerges when writing, and re-structuring is common: ‘it’s a living thing – give yourself time to sit back and allow the structure to develop’. She suggested following another female author’s advice: take your story, screw it into a tight ball and hold it up in your hand; think of it as a planet and all the complexity it may contain.

Cate recommended that, as a young writer, she should have been confident and marched forward with her ideas. When asking people to read her Storyland manuscript, she found her first readers thought the narrative was ‘so experimental’. Although the five stories are disrupted, there is still and end to each. She also commented that more publishers were happy with the structure than agents: stay with your vision.

In terms of choosing which elements of the Illwarra to include, particualrly knowing that some readers would be very familiar with the landscape and others not, she chose to follow less well known paths. For example, coal mining could have been an easy choice for the early part of the twentieth century, yet Cate chose to ‘tell a dairy farming story’. Sometimes these choices are driven by the character – in this case her feisty Lola.

In seeking to portray an authentic Indigenous voice, Cate folowed the ethical approval necessary for research as the book was part of her PhD study. She learned that ‘I’, story telling in first person, is very important to First Nations people. Despite her intention to write from female perspectives, she realised (after consulting with community) that her Indigenous voice had to be male.

Pam felt very lucky to have chosen the World War I setting for her novel The Desert Nurse. this is due to the fact that Gallipoli was immediately identified as important to Australian history – the first ANZAC Day was celebrated in 1916. This meant that people kept everything: diaries, postcards, letters, photographs, medals, newspaper clippings … and provided a wealth of primary sources for research. However, Pam quickly realised that there were many different truths. Soldiers would write cheery letters home, yet record their darkest fears in their diaries, providing simultaneous histories.

Future women looking back on our times could well have a more rounded idea, yet still inaccurate. Throughout history, women’s attitudes have been wide and varied with not everyone female behaving in a polite and formal manner. This may have been so with some women in the middle class, yet Pam urged writers to check the veracity of contemporary sources. For example, at the turn of the twentieth century, the pervading notion that make-up may have been seen as ‘cheap’ and suitable for lower classes of women, is easily questioned when reading newspapers of the time and considering the large number of advertisements for make up.

Pam outlined an historical fact that was changed at the prompting of her editor who did not accept the word ‘casserole’ was used in that period: ‘it sound very modern’. Pam eventually changed the word to ‘hot pot’ knowing that such a detail would probably not upset readers, and if her editor was ‘jolted’ out of the time setting, it was likely some readers may also feel that way.

In terms of structure, Pam’s intention to cover the whole war in one book left her with some difficulties. Given that a linear structure could have Gallipoli at the beginning ‘weighing down’ the narrative, so she developed a suitable and equally weighty thread to conclude. As Evelyn, her lead character is a nurse, she was also concerned with the possible repetition of nursing actions over the four year timescale. Pam researched and wrote about different aspects of care to maintain reader engagement throughout the novel.

The possibility of giving her younger writer advice implies that ‘I’d like to change the process, yet the process of invention is its own reward. Even though there is always a gap between the story in my head and the story that ends up on the page. why would I do otherwise? that’s where the truth is –  in the story’.

In terms of writing with an authentic Indigenous voice, it is important to research and track down the custodian of that particular story.

As I once worked as a nurse, I’m very much looking forward to reading The Desert Nurse, and I look forward to re-reading Storyland with Cate’s insights in mind.

*image from major sponsor Neo Perennial Press

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