Frameworks of Grief: Narrative as an act of healing in contemporary memoir.

As controversial as any evidence of shaping may be in a trauma text…part of what we must call healing lies in the assertion of creativity.  The ability to write beyond the silencing meted out by trauma.

 Leigh Gilmore, The Limits of Autobiography

In his review of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, critic and writer Andrew Riemer admitted to feeling uneasy.  While acknowledging that many readers would respond differently, he noted that reading about Didion’s grief over the loss of her daughter - and earlier in The Year of Magical Thinking her husband - made him feel ‘like an intruder into very private sorrow’.  Riemer applauded Didion’s courage.  He appreciated that the act of writing about Quintana’s and John’s deaths may have been cathartic for her but ultimately he asserted: ‘grief is essentially mute. Didion should have heeded Wittgenstein’s advice to stay silent about those things that words cannot adequately capture’ (2011, 33).  At a time when memoir – particularly memoirs that relate experiences of bereavement, loss and trauma – is enjoying unprecedented popularity, Riemer’s stance and conclusion warrant interrogation.  Should authors remain silent in the face of grief? Should private sorrow remain always private? Is there really no way language can be employed to articulate the experience of grief? And a further consideration, raised by Julian Barnes’ review of Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, is whether ‘autobiographical accounts of grief are unfalsifiable, and therefore unreviewable by any normal criteria’ (2011).  In this article I want to tease out some possible answers to these questions through close readings of two recent memoirs of bereavement, Virginia Lloyd’s The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement (2008) and Maggie MacKellar’s When it Rains (2010).  In so doing I seek to demonstrate not only that it is possible to analyse critically autobiographical accounts of grief but also, through an examination of various textual strategies at play, to show how and why the experience of grief may be, and may need to be, communicated. 

'Alone and in close company': Reading and Companionship in Brenda Walker's Reading by Moonlight

...contrary to the common belief, writing is not a solitary pursuit; it is always conversation.

Alex Miller, Lovesong

Brenda Walker's Reading by Moonlight: How Books Saved a Life opens with a seemingly straightforward childhood remembrance of a family friend who lived surrounded by books. The young Walker is drawn to the man's watercolour of a dead girl and the way in which the spines of the books are reflected in the painting's glass: 'The girl seemed to be floating in a transparent library. It suited her, as if pale girls were best seen through the reflection of ink and paper'. Throughout her memoir Walker paints a portrait of a self reflected and refracted through a selection of 'ink and paper', her chosen books. It is a portrait that at once invites companionable intimacy yet is highly constructed and protective of Walker's solitude. This double movement sets up a powerful tension that structures and drives the narration; it is a tension sustained by the dialectic between the more abstract, intellectual musings of the speaker and the lived reality of her wounded body. 

Kim Cheng Boey's Between Stations: 'The Architecture of Memory'.

and i will take over the chant:                                                                                                                                                Raffles Place, Change Alley,                                                                                                                                                  Calling the dead places                                                                                                                                                             And my father home

                           Kim Cheng Boey 'Placenames'

You do not stop hungering for your father's love, even after you are grown up.

                                                 Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude

Kim Cheng Boey's Between Stations (2009) presents as a series of essays tracing Boey's travels from Singapore, the place of his birth, through India, China, Egypt and Morocco, to his new 'home' in Australia. Having acquired permanent residency in Australia he sets out from Singapore on a year-long journey with the intention of writing a travel book. At least, that is the intention he admits. While Between Stations remains faithful to some of the conventions of travel writing - taking readers to exotic destinations and introducing them to a cast of characters, sights and experiences beyond the known - the essays build in intensity so that, read collectively, they become a layered memoir of loss and mourning. Boey's travels are less to do with discovered new geographical sites than they are to do with the craft of writing and the exploration of the places and spaces of childhood memory. Between Stations operates as a work of mourning for a lost childhood, a lost father and a lost home. 

Bodies of Knowledge: History, Memory, Selves in Tiger’s Eye.

Lateness is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present.

Edward Said, “Thoughts on Late Style”.

For the story of memory is the story of seeing.  

Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude.

Internationally-acclaimed historian Inga Clendinnen is probably best known around the world for her work on Aztec history and the Holocaust.  Between the publication of her Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1537-1570 and Aztecs: An Interpretation, in 1987 and 1991 respectively, and Reading the Holocaust (1998), Clendinnen became critically ill with Active Auto-Immune Hepatitis.  Some years later she published Tiger’s Eye: A Memoir (2000), in which she narrates, in seemingly real time, much of the physical and psychological ordeals she underwent during illness. At first glance this memoir, both in its genre and its personal concern with bodily crisis and mortality, may seem to represent something of a fracture in Clendinnen’s oeuvre.  Apart from this memoir she has otherwise returned to works of historical enquiry: True Stories (2000), Dancing with Strangers (2003), Agamemnon’s Kiss: Selected Essays (2006), The History Question: Who Owns the Past? (2006), The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society: Essays on Mesoamerican Society and Culture (2010).  Significantly, however, Tiger’s Eye, like all of Clendinnen’s writing, explores the complex relationship between fiction, memory and truth.

Clendinnnen announces at the outset that Tiger’s Eye is to be more than 'the story of a medical crisis': 'To lie still as a crusader on a tomb while dreams spin behind closed lids, to surf the tumble of disordered memories as they dolphin away, to feel the mind disintegrate and to fear the disintegration of the self, is to suffer an existential crisis, not a medical one' (1). In fact Tiger’s Eye is an extended meditation on the nature of memory, the fragility of self and the validity of historical enquiry.  As Clendinnen’s liver fails, her body and mind are flooded with toxins, her memory begins to disintegrate, language shreds and terrifying hallucinations engulf her.  As an historian she insists on making sense of this sudden, somewhat inexplicable, story that has become her life.  In doing so she explores aspects of her childhood, memorializes her parents and paints a vivid picture of working-class Australian society in the early half of the twentieth century.

Clendinnen introduces herself as a kind of Alice figure who, through illness, falls into the otherworld. Here she discovers the enormous gulf that exists between the unwell and the healthy, a gulf more significant than “class or gender or possibly homelessness”, where “the healthy consider feeling well to be the normal state of things”(10). Her observations resonate with Susan Sontag’s cautionary statement: “Everyone…holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place”(3).  Clendinnen is not reconciled to becoming a citizen of the “kingdom of the sick” but her body leaves her no choice.  It bleeds and swells. Her skin refuses to keep her insides in.  She is transformed into “a choleric kewpie”(13).  Fittingly, she chooses an epigraph from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “I sing of bodies changed into shapes of a different kind”.  While she is impressed initially by her body’s dramatic physical changes, and while she narrates those changes in considerable detail, it is Clendinnen’s more profound psychological metamorphosis that drives this memoir.  At the heart of Tiger’s Eye is a fraught enquiry into what might constitute a self. 

Talking amongst ourselves: Auntie Rita, a private and public conversation of healing.

“it was something that I really wanted to do for her, as a daughter to a mother, as a gift in a way that she and I could especially share”.

                                                                                            Jackie Huggins, “To sit down and write that book”

“…the written word remains the most common site of conversation between white and Indigenous Australians”.

                        Alison Ravenscroft, “Who is the white subject? reading, writing, whiteness”

In 1994 Jackie Huggins and her mother Rita published a groundbreaking collaborative memoir, Auntie Rita. As the title suggests the book is primarily about Rita’s life but through Jackie’s positioning in the text as commentator, interlocutor and daughter, Auntie Rita becomes a complex inter-generational narrative that charts not only the individual life stories of Rita and Jackie but also a larger story of Aboriginal history in twentieth century Australia. Within this relatively small book the Huggins women tell stories about their experiences that range from Rita’s forcible removal as a child from her traditional land, to both mother and daughter becoming outspoken, recognized advocates for Aboriginal rights.  Jackie notes that the book is “the result of my mother’s and my combined efforts and of our mutual Aboriginality” (3). That mutual Aboriginality, of which both women are rightfully proud, encompasses the vastly different opportunities afforded to the mission-raised Rita and her daughter born in the 1950s. 

 Auntie Rita charted new territory in Aboriginal women’s autobiography not only because it was the first collaborative work by an Aboriginal mother and daughter but also because the narrative self-consciously drew attention to the dynamic, empowering relationship between orality and the written word. As Michele Grossman argues, in Auntie Rita “contemporary Indigenous oral traditions and Indigenous literacy-based economies of representation are…relationally redefined as enmeshed and mutually informing, not starkly classified and divided” (“Xen(ography)” 286). In this article I want to explore how Rita’s recorded recollections and conversations with Jackie and Jackie’s independent input work together to negotiate, in the public forum of the book, personal, racial and, potentially, national healing.