Writing lives, seeking a different way

Helen Garner: “A story lies in wait for a writer. It flashes out silent signals. Without knowing she is doing it, the writer […] turns to follow” (Garner [2004] 2006, 25). True. For now, though, I feel that I must resist the story that is “flashing out it’s silent signals,” the story that I know won’t let me rest until I write about my travels in Vietnam and Malaysia, and about the people I met there, and spoke to deeply, to return to my discussion on literary docu-memoir.

This week’s blog is drawn from a part of my essay titled “Literary (creative nonfiction) docu-memoir: a different way of writing a life,” which was published in the international European Journal of Life Writing Vol. 3, 29 October, 2014 http://ejlw.eu/   http://ejlw.eu/article/view/136/ http://ejlw.eu/

Evolving the form

            I now turn to my own work of literary docu-memoir about a group of overlooked people (for want of a better descriptor I will say “a group of people” even thought they are not exactly a group as such) in Australian society, and begin with an explanation of my focus on the experiences of the Forgotten Australians.

This group of care-leavers, of whom I am one, are of mainly Anglo-Celtic heritage. Like the Australian Indigenous children of the Stolen Generation and the so-called British and Maltese Child Migrants (the Forgotten Children), they spent part or all their childhood in foster care or Children’s Homes in Australia sometime during the mid-part of the twentieth century. As children, nearly all these people suffered severe hardship and horrific psychological, physical and sexual abuse that was unprecedented, and felt the effects of displacement. With the Forgotten Australians, as with care-leavers who were in orphanages in England, displacement was mainly socially motivated. As children, these people were denied a voice, and that is still something of the case today. There are many thousands of Forgotten Australians, but for various reasons not many write, or even tell, their stories.  A very few would like their stories to be known, but feel that they lack the ability to write their memoirs to publication.  Several of these people asked if I might write their personal stories in a literary work and tell their stories “true.” The problem for me as a creative nonfiction writer was how to approach the task ethically, how to stay true to the facts to honour my contract with the reader, and also with the subjects whose personal stories would be made public in a literary work.

My supervisor at the time, now my mentor, suggested that one way in which I could approach the task would be to write a literary docu-memoir. I decided to try and evolve the form pioneered by Parker, and tailor it to fit my work on the care-leavers. My subject focus dictated that my perspective and treatment would be necessarily different to that of Parker.

Before I could begin, because I was dealing with living people, I needed Ethics Approval. The Ethics Committee required that I write Participant Information Statements and Consent Forms tailored to my potential participants. After receiving signed consent forms from the potential participants, and taking a lesson from Parker, to help make these participants feel more at ease I arranged to interview them in places of their choosing.  During the interview process, two things happened. One: each of the participants freely said on tape that they were only speaking with me because I was a writer and also a Forgotten Australian who had been through similar experiences to their own. They said they felt that I would understand them, and could be entrusted to present their stories. This made me very aware of possible power-positions and ethical boundaries. Two: at one point in each of the interview sessions, suddenly the participant’s eyes seemed to go so clear that I felt that I was looking deep down into her or his very soul and I instinctively knew that what I was getting from the participant was trust, and what I was hearing was a fullness of her or his thoughts and feelings. For me, this was an awe-inspiring experience. Nothing was said, but from that point on, the participant seemed to forget the tape-recorder and appeared to hold nothing back. When crafting my book I knew for certain that I could not possibly disclose to the reader everything that had been said in the interviews, even though said on tape. I had to be vigilant that I include nothing that could betray any participant’s trust in me, and also decipher the meanings in their words as truly as is possible. To tell too much in a literary work could very well prove intimidating for the reader. These people’s experiences were indeed very shocking, and even more traumatic than I have revealed in my book. So to best convey a sense of the subjects’ experiences, I tried to choose which threads to follow from the wealth of detail granted in the interviews, and to write just enough to inform potential readers and satisfy my subjects that I was telling their stories “true.” Even so, some critics might question as to whether I tell too much. My answer is that as a Forgotten Australian who has spoken with many other Forgotten Australians, not to reveal the truths of their stories would be condescension and betrayal, and to once again humiliate these people and deny them a voice.

To be continued …

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