Thinking about life.
I’m in a reflective mood today. This morning, I learnt of the passing of a friend and fellow writer, a good, humorous and caring man who left this life far too soon. Today I have been not only sorrowing over losing a friend but, knowing how death took him so unexpectedly and suddenly, also thinking a lot about life. I’ve been thinking about what kind message I would like to leave behind for others. Of course, I pour all my beliefs into the novels I write, but what I write now, I hope, will help explain the source of those beliefs; and why I believe it is so important for us to seek our authentic lives.
It always distresses me when I hear about the declining of book sales. This is not only because I am a writer who dreams of the day when I can financially support myself through writing, but also because of my own life story. I know about the power of books. I know about it because a book changed my life.
I have written about this book many times over the years. I received it for my tenth birthday; a chapter in that book opened the door to my destiny. At ten, I didn’t realise how much I needed a hero, a guiding light that would help me navigate through those difficult times, times when defeat seemed to stare me in the face. That book’s chapter about Elizabeth I gave me my first hero, and then led me to my second, her mother, Anne Boleyn. Their stories gave me examples of strong and determined women – women who seized their voices and true identities in a time when women were told to be silent and remember their inferiority.
As a child, I was also told, in so many different ways, that girls were inferior to boys. You see, I was born into a working class family where boys were seen as far more important than girls.
My father used to say that if you were born poor, you would die poor. My father used to say lots of things about how it was impossible to change the life you were born into. My father was a product of his times. Born in the slums of the Isle of Dogs, he was a child of the Great Depression, and still a child when he was evacuated with his two younger sisters to escape the Second World War bombing of London. Separated from his sisters, he was placed on a farm where he suffered abuse and starvation.
Dad told us many stories of his hard upbringing. Living in a two-room tenement flat, his parents struggled to feed their family of six children. There was no proper bed for the children. At night, his mother would overturn the kitchen table and make it into a makeshift bed. When a bus killed his younger brother, my father – who, in his best moments, tended to combat life with a black sense of humour – told his own children he was happy to get an extra meal that night. “Life’s tough,” he would tell us. “Just deal with it.”
My father was an intelligent man who had great love of history. He was a union man and a cardholder member of the communist party. He is the only person I have ever known in my life who actually hero-worshipped Stalin. My father also was a man who never received the opportunity the break the chains of his history. A born storyteller like many Cockneys, my father should have authored books, or been a history professor, but he never had the chance to stay at school.
Thanks to the brief legacy of free university education put in place by the Whitlam era, two of his daughters did go to university. I cannot help feeling disillusioned with Labor’s performance in recent times, but I will always vote Labor because Whitlam’s vision gave me to key to the life I live today.
I was twenty-two, with a baby and a three-year-old, when I became a university student. My father had shut the door on my hope of finishing High School and following after my older sister, when she became the first, in many, many generations, in our family to study at University. I believe now he was terrified, terrified that by supporting two daughters through university he would be dragged into the poor house. For those born in the slums of London, the grim reality of the poor house was scarred into their mentality. As soon as I had completed my Year 11 exams, just after my seventeenth birthday, my father told me I was old enough to make my own way in the world. I moved out of home and found a job as a shop assistant. I was still a teenager when I met and married my husband; I was still a teenager when we had our first child. At twenty-one, I was pregnant with our second child and battling depression. Early marriage had clipped my wings before I learnt to fly. I was so young I thought I had to give up all hope of ever becoming a writer because I was now a wife and mother.
My older sister, by then a university graduate, was then working at La Trobe University. When I confided in her about my depression, my sister, who also knew how much I had wanted to finish High School, suggested La Trobe University’s Early Leaver’s Scheme. “Why not apply to that?” she asked. Over thirty years ago, I would not have applied if I knew it was going to cost my family close to $100,000. It would have been a too risky a gamble. Hardly believing I had managed to pass the entrance exam for La Trobe’s Early Leaver’s Scheme, it felt to me like a risky life gamble when first I started at University, and that was without the worry of a huge debt looming over my family. Since that time, I’ve been awarded a Bachelor of Arts, a Diploma in Education, a Graduate Diploma in Education and a PhD. My God – pinch me please – I now tutor at university.
Completing my Bachelor of Arts gave me the confidence to return to my childhood and teenage passion of writing fiction. My first novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This? was published in 2002, and my second novel, The Light in the Labyrinth, the artefact for my PhD, was published in 2014. Besides the psychological benefits I received through gaining this academic success, my family also reaped the benefits of having me able to gain work in well-paid professions. But it is far more than this. University opened the door to me achieving the kind of life I dreamed about as a child: my authentic life.
My father’s life was twisted by his early years of great poverty. All through my childhood, I saw glimmers of the man my father should have been, but he could never free or separate himself from that monkey on his back, a monkey created by his memories of deprivation and desolation. My father thought life was hell all through his adult life. He was often cruel to his own children, children I now know he loved, because he thought he did them no favours by being kind and loving. He wanted to toughen us up so we would survive.
I am passionate about education because it can transform lives. I believe education would have transformed my father’s life; I know it transformed mine. I am passionate about books because they are the stepping-stones of education. Books inspire us and make us think.
Years ago, just before I started my PhD, I wrote in Future directions: Creative Writing as a Life Tool:
“Books take us on unexpected and life-changing journeys. Writer, reader – the energy between text and mind continually exchanges the power of creativity – the possibility of connection, reverberation, of no longer hearing babbling from another human-being but the song they really sing. Writing connects us and its most powerful means of connection is built through books” (Dunn 2010).
“Why are there so many roadblocks put in the way of writers; why does society not want us to write? Is it because writing is one of the ways we can set ourselves free – because writing makes us aware of the chains put upon us by society and also provide the keys to unlocking them? Because, as Le Guin writes, “The size of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are not are not permanent, and not universal, not necessary” (2004, p. 230) (Dunn 2010).
More than five years down the track, and I have not changed my views. Reading and writing are vital life tools. Books not only transform the lives of individuals, but also have the power to transform the world.
Dunn, Wendy. Tertiary Writing Network; 2010. Future directions: creative writing as a life tool.
Le Guin, U. K. (2004). The wave in the mind : talks and essays on the writer, the reader, and the imagination. Boston
Dedicated to Adrian Murphy, a writer who deserved far greater recognition. Gone too soon.