She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life
(Allen & Unwin)
The Perth writing and publishing community has always been supportive, vibrant and innovative—you have to be when you’re a long way from anywhere else—and even if you leave, you’re still considered part of it. It’s why we (or at least I) still claim Robyn Mundy and Gail Jones (among many others) as WA writers. And it’s why Donna Ward is thought of with so much respect and affection, even though she’s lived in Melbourne for many years now.
As founder and publisher of Indigo: journal of Western Australian creative writing (2007–2010), Donna was a poster girl for ‘supportive, vibrant and innovative’, providing a new publication outlet for Western Australian writers of fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. Many are grateful to Indigo for their first publication credit, made even more special by the fact that Indigo’s policy was to read all submissions ‘blind’. And Donna’s formidable marketing skills ensured that the journal had a strong profile nationally as well as locally. One of my earliest published stories appeared in volume 1, and I was thrilled to be part of it.
After moving to Melbourne, Donna founded publishing company Inkerman & Blunt, which has published Angela Meyers, Nick Earls, Lynnette Lounsbury and several anthologies. As noted on the website, Inkerman & Blunt has taken ‘creative leave’, for now, to allow Donna time and energy for her own writing.
Her publication credits include pieces in national, international and online journals and anthologies, and She I Dare Not Name is her first book.
Here is the back-cover blurb…
She I Dare Not Name is a compelling collection of fiercely intelligent, deeply intimate, lyrical reflections on the life of a woman who stands on the threshold between two millennia. Both manifesto and confession, this moving memoir explores the meaning and purpose Donna Ward discovered in a life lived entirely without a partner and children.
The book describes what it is like to live on the edge of a world built in the shape of couples and families. Rippling through these pages is the way a spinster—or a bachelor, or any of us for that matter—contends with the prejudice and stigma of being different.
With courage and astounding honesty Donna uncovers the challenge of living with more solitude than anticipated and what it is like to walk the road through midlife and beyond alone. And she reveals how she found home and discovered herself within it.
Funny, sharp, wise and wry, She I Dare Not Name shows how reading saved this spinster’s life, and how friends and writing and walking brought a contentment and sense of achievement she never thought possible.
Over now to Donna…
2 moments that inspired the book
Many sparks inspired this book; these are two of them.
In the middle the nineties I was in the middle of my forties and consumed with the feeling that all my friends and family were wrapped in a magnetic flow which carried them away from me. They floated in the energy of love and coupling and family-making while I stood in a stark room at the end of a dark hallway.
One day, when caught in this feeling, I was walking down a winter street in Fitzroy, Melbourne, where I was living at the time. The air was sharp, the light slant. I didn’t see the collie dog on the footpath by the table of sale books. I tripped. The collie dog yelped. My knee stung in a serious way, and a pop-sociology book about a group of single women fell into my lap.
It felt like a curse. I threw the book back on the table, limped home and read another of my many books on forming a relationship. Psychological books that suggested successful relationships are a balance between intimacy and solitude, between honesty and compromise. Books that implied the sine qua non of the fully integrated person is a committed relationship and parenthood, and the lack of such events are the hallmark of a damaged, deviant or perhaps defiant individual—perhaps a feminist. And though I was, and am, profoundly influenced by feminism, I still wanted to meet someone and settle down.
Sitting there in the stark room at the end of the hall, I read in anticipation of my release into the universal energy of love and coupling and children. But, when I could deny the starkness no longer, I returned to the collie dog and sale book table and bought that book.
It was a disappointment. The women were single, but not single like me. They were not-yet-married singles, single parents, divorcees and widows. There were no spinsters in that book. The women were American singles which, I discovered, is different to being an Australian single. And shimmering through the book was the insinuation that all single women are misguidedly in thrall to the notion that marriage and family is their only calling—as if they should be so lucky they aren’t married, as if their desire for a partner is evidence that feminism has passed them by. Feminism did not pass me by. In fact, it gave me the power to decide to partner well, and my commitment to partner well left me in a stark room at the end of a dark hall.
And so that book, as disappointing as it might have been, inspired me to write a similar pop-sociology book from the perspective of an Australian spinster who, like many of her coupled and familied sisters, would have preferred her life to be otherwise.
In the mid-two thousands, when I was in the middle of my fifties, I attended a production of Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. The performance, given by Helen Morse, was in the Albany Town Hall. That night, more than ten years after tripping over the collie dog, and only a few years after re-settling in Perth where I grew up, I was wonderstruck by the way Didion used her tragedy to confront uncomfortable truths. In the middle of the monologue, possibly in a flash of light, the thought arrived that I could write my book not as a mind-numbing pop-sociology tome, but as a memoir.
2 places connected with the book
All the places in my book—Peru, where I was born, Perth, where I grew up, Melbourne, where I live now—their orogeny and their faultlines—are my song. And so my book is geological.
I am a geologist’s daughter and my father introduced me to deep time. Being present to the geology of a place is to be present to eternity; it is to know the unhurried pace of evolution, the tardy drift of transformation. Being present to geology is to feel the shell that a grain of sand once was, to smell the fluid rock that is now red dust, it is to remember that eons before me this oh so solid land beneath my feet was different. Thinking geologically is to remember that we are here for the briefest moment.
And my book is river. Growing up by the Swan River taught me what the Vedic people knew, what Herman Hesse writes about in Siddhartha. It taught me that when we sit by the river, when we listen to the river, we become the river’s creature. Even though I live in inner-city Melbourne, the Swan River is within me, and I am in the river, and the river of my childhood is the river of my life, and the river of my life is the river that wraps me in its flow.
2 quotes pivotal to the book
My stake is always, of course, the
unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress.
Remember what it was to be me:
that is always the point.
—Joan Didion, On Keeping a Notebook, Slouching
Towards Bethlehem (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1968)
I began my first degree at the University of Western Australia in the summer of ’73. That year, when I read Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’, it felt to me like the slouching beast had been headed off at the pass. It felt like the poem had resumed its metaphorical reading and was now a memory bank of wisdom for some dark and distant future. There had been a revolution and the centre held, after all. The air was clean, the vision clear, the sky as blue as it could be the day I read Didion’s lines, over which I had stumbled when researching for an essay on Yeats’ poem.
Didion’s lines were not relevant to the poem as much as the poem was relevant to Didion’s ambition to remember her life in order to make sense of existence itself. Didion’s words found their home in me before I fully understood them. But settle they did, and over the years they have risen to the surface on occasion to remind me of their mystery.
Remember what it is to be me. Remember what it is to be the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress.
My dress was not plaid, but it was often silk, since silk was increasingly accessible in the seventies and eighties, especially to a young woman in boomtown Perth. In those days I was an ordinary young woman with an ordinary ambition, albeit an ambition to be a working woman with a family. As each promise of achieving that ambition disintegrated into dust, Didion’s sentences rose to my surface and reminded me to remember what that was like, even though I didn’t exactly know why I should.
The Personal is Political
—Carol Hanisch, in Notes from the Second Year:
Women’s Liberation, eds Shulamith Firestone
& Anne Koedt (1970)
These words ricocheted around and through me like a bullet. They are only the title of Carol Hanisch’s paper which was included in Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt’s 1970 anthology. Hanisch has no problem with the title, but it was not she who gave her paper its name. Firestone and Koedt came up with the title because it reflects the sentiment of the paper. And that is: what is private concerns the whole of society, what is personal informs how we develop policies that affect people’s daily lives—in this instance, women’s lives.
I read Hanisch’s paper in the early eighties, when studying for my Bachelor of Social Work in the Reid Library at UWA. The title and the paper recalled Didion’s lines, which were written only two years before Firestone and Koedt named Hanisch’s paper. It was a decade before I came across them. But that is how it is, isn’t it? We write our thoughts so they will travel through eternity, so they would say to another unmentioned girl in a silk plaid skirt, or whatever might be the fashion of the time: this is what it was like to be me.
Remembering what it is like to be me is to connect to what it is like to be others. To remember a life, to reflect on the ordinary events of it, to note them down and perhaps spin them into some kind of meaning, some kind of wisdom, then share it. This. This is a political act. A political act I aim to do whenever I write.
Photo credit: author photo Manda Ford