published 20 September 2007
Francesca Rendle-Short on love, shame and family slides
“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1977.
When I was small, on some Saturday nights when my family wasn’t entertaining people from the church with barbecues, we’d beg to have a slide night. We’d crowd into the lounge room, close the curtains and ooh-and-aah at my father’s pictures of us, his family.
Looking at photographs is a bit like reading books; they invite such acute feeling, where you reveal yourself in the most intimate of moments. Whatever that feeling is, they illicit desire. Here, the word ‘illicit’ spelt with an ‘i’, as a verb – because in my family desire was illicit, like alcohol, like dancing.
I am writing a story about Queensland in the 1970s under Joh Bjelke-Petersen when censorship was part of the public debate, when my mother was an ‘anti-smut’ morals campaigner, her target the English textbooks I was reading in high school.
She railed against what she called permissive educationalists, teachers who promoted alternative lifestyles, unabashed sex education, the spread of venereal disease, moral corruption, homosexual marriage and lesbianism. She was moral guardian to the children of Queensland.
People thought her mad. In the press she and others like her were called crazy reactionaries, ‘anti-professional’, irrational, ratbags. She was laughed at, labelled, dismissed. “It could only happen in Queensland,” people said.
A cautionary tale, is the way Inez Baranay put it to me one day.
Only in Queensland.
When first I started writing this story I pretended I wasn’t. I explained it away to myself; I lied. I was writing, ‘in private’ I told myself, something I’d never have the courage to make public. For I felt implicated (even without considering what my family might think): if anyone were to read this story, even as a fiction, they would ‘read’ me. This wasn’t a story to feel proud of. You see, the trouble with shame is that it mutates, it inhabits you, it colonises your imagination for ill so that you feel ashamed about revealing the shame – you take cover.
But a funny thing began to happen. An imaginative space took shape in which my fictional narrator Glory Solider could tell her story. I put aside what all this might mean and just kept going. With Glory as my imagined interlocutor, I began thinking (and writing) about the possibility of making public very private thoughts about things that had been made public, which once were private.
Glory finds the words, the way in which to put things.
A funny thing.
Robert Dessaix talks about how writers put themselves in the way of something else. How writing is a waiting experience. Waiting until what’s inside crosses with outside, outside with in.
What I am talking about is Susan Sontag’s idea of being vulnerable or unprotected, open to attack – and mutability or change, not in a fickle or inconstant way: how writing and books can open us up to the idea of ‘making different’, even to the possibility of redemption.
‘Girl sitting in a crate of Queensland pineapples, 1924′ (Permission courtesy © National Library of Australia)
‘Pineapple Girl’ got me going. Pineapple Girl crosses my heart. I found her at the National Library at the front desk, as a PictureAustralia postcard. I took her home. I enlarged the postcard, stuck her to the wall, made her into a screensaver. I thought – yes, this is what I am talking about.
Pineapples place me in a landscape. They give a picture (a flavour) of home. They say something, lots of things, about Queensland, about where I grew up. They give a sense of time too, about the era I am talking about, about kitsch.
I love her wry smile too.
Francesca in the frangipani corner, circa 1964
Now this is pineapple girl – my Pineapple Girl – in a garden with the smell of Queensland up her nose! (And yes, this was probably one of the slides we looked at on a Saturday night.)
The smell is of warmth, vegetation, a smell of surfeit and wetness, fecundity. It takes me back to feel desire rise up from within.
She’s got the same smile as the original ‘Pineapple Girl’, the same teeth. That saucepan haircut my mother was rather fond of.
My mother’s handwriting on the back of a photograph: ‘Going to church’
I can see my mother’s hand moving across the paper in a flourish with the black marble fountain pen she loved to use.
I smell blue ink. See flicks fly off the nib as she shakes it down.
I am that close to her body. I feel the touch of her hand spelling out the words across my skin.
‘Going to church’ probably taken by my father, circa 1964
Francesca and Angel, mother and daughter. All very prim, proper. But look, holding hands.
My favourite element here, and the thing that pricks – or what Roland Barthes might call punctum – the cock of my knee, how it softens my body, makes me lean towards her.
We look like we are from the same family, don’t we? No mistaking! With the same bone structure around the nose and mouth?
I tripped over this image of my mother while looking for something else. I tell you: when I did, rockets went off.
The year is 1975. The story is about a campaign to stop a new women’s FM radio station in Brisbane, 4BW. Angel managed to stop a meeting of more than 900 women in ten minutes flat.
I remember the fake silver jewellery. The off-lime spotted suit – I rather liked her in this outfit. She’s concentrating hard, isn’t she? She’s got something to say.
She’s in the paper again. It’s her all right. Dressed in a batik kaftan she made herself; she was good at sewing. Full-length, in a swing around her body. And again, with the same favourite silver jewellery she was a dab-hand at wrapping around her throat.
Is she squinting or smiling? Not sure. Can I read uncertainty in her eyes?
I wonder how it all happened: what was her mood that day? What was the exchange with the photographer like?
What pricks here (what I like) is the last letter ‘e’ in the word permissive, how it separates from the rest, the way it drops below an imaginary bottom line, like it is riding away, being set free. A bit the way my name slides off too.
Helen Ennis gave me the word for this kind of photo – the ‘vernacular’, from the Latin verna meaning home-born slave. Vernacular is a good word too because it gives a measure of the voice, the vernacular of Francesca at that time. It’s about speaking directly.
This red umbrella of flower gets me close to imagining I’m there, places me underneath the tree next to the letterbox, clicking the shutter.
It was a big house too, an old Queenslander. See here: one of the four palm trees that grew like sentinels at the four corners of the garden. How they sway now in my imagination. Give me a view. How the fruit bats talk away up there at night, raucously so, choreographed with swinging yellow fruit.
This is the view from my bedroom in St Lucia. An odd choice you might say. It’s very grainy and out of focus – ‘very vernacular’. You’re thinking: too dark really to see properly.
What I like is that it’s not just about looking outside – to the sky and vegetation, a dormant frangipani as it happens – it’s also about ‘crossing over’, going from one to the other (which is what fiction does). The dark of the room and the light outside is a doubling: you can’t have one without the other.
I reckon you can’t have shame without desire, desire without some shame.
What happens of course is that as I look now through those louvres, I become fourteen or fifteen years old, lying on my bed at the back of the house, gazing up, to the outside, to the Brisbane sky, to beyond.
All this is a bodily thing, a double act – flesh-and-blood and linguistic. Writing grows skin, grows bones, grows a heart. The words transmute on the page into necessary fictions. Virginia Woolf talks about how writing gives shape; gives her, her proportions.
So what I am thinking is this:
At least if, as a writer, you submit yourself to the task there’s a chance of ‘making different’, redemption, even in the smallest of ways – Ray Bradbury’s idea of how books stitch patches of the universe together. You get close enough to touch – perhaps, to love.
Francesca Rendle-Short doesn’t live in Queensland anymore; she is writing a novel about growing up there. In any case, she often finds her heart gambolling north across the border. This essay is based on a paper given at the National Library of Australia conference, ‘Love and Desire: Literature and the Intimate’, which was held on 23-24 September 2006.
© Francesca Rendle-Short
Overland 188 – spring 2007, pp. 19-25
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