Tag Archives: Kirsten Krauth

Reasons to love a novel: issues and empathy

When I was writing the novel that eventually was published as The Sinkings (2008), I used to become anxious whenever anyone asked me that dreaded question What’s it about? It wasn’t that I was trying to keep it a secret, nor that I was lacking in focus. But I believe it can be creatively disastrous to talk too much about a work still in development; that it can have the effect of closing off what is, and should remain for some time, an open question. My novel was ‘about’ many things, and I didn’t have a neat one-sentence answer handy. (Come to think of it, I still need more than one sentence to describe The Sinkings!)

I remember, one time, mumbling, Oh, it’s about a convict. And, another time, mentioning intersex. In the latter case, the person I was talking to responded, Oh, so it’s an issues novel.

An issues novel. I don’t think I’d heard that term before, but I immediately understood what my friend meant. I’d read novels that position a medical condition or a current controversy or a matter of social justice front and centre, with everything else—characters, relationships, place, dramatic arc—almost incidental to that, there merely as a vehicle for the big ‘about’.

The Sinkings isn’t like that. But it does—among other things—explore the black, white and many greys of an ‘issue’, and that kind of exploration is one of the things that inspire me as a writer. And I realise, too, that it’s something I find compelling as a reader.

I love the capacity of fiction to spirit us, emotionally and intellectually, into the skin of other characters, to worry for the impossible situations writers have put them in, to feel their dilemmas for ourselves, to wonder: Why did this happen? What if I were that person, in that time, that place, that situation… would I have done that? What would I do?

The experience of falling into the universe of a book, and into the skin of the other, can help us to understand, to think, to feel, and when people do that they are far less likely to fear or to denigrate. In other words, it can engender empathy.

My reading in 2013 brought me to several impressive books that did exactly that. In this post I’m highlighting two of them.

In her hugely successful debut novel, Fractured, Dawn Barker gives a compassionate portrayal of a family pulled to pieces by a young woman’s severe postpartum mental illness. The beauty of the way Fractured is structured, moving forwards and backwards from a pivotal event, is that cause and effect are kept in suspension, layering the reader’s means of understanding the how and the why. Similarly, the narrative point of view is continually shifting, so that we see what is happening through the eyes of the young mother, Anna, her husband, Tony, her parents-in-law and her mother—a strategy that tends to keep the reader’s allegiances also shifting, making judgment impossible. This extract is from Anna’s point of view.

fractured coverAs soon as Anna sat down in the waiting room, Jack began to cry. Just give me a break, she wanted to shout. Just shut up for five minutes. I can’t do this. But, of course, she didn’t shout. She stood up and pushed the pram back and forward, back and forward. The lady sitting across from her was trying to catch her eye; Anna felt obliged to meet it.

‘Aww, he’s so little! How old is he?’ The woman leaned over to see into the pram.

‘He’s four weeks,’ she said with a slight smile, then turned away.

‘He’s so beautiful.’ Now the woman’s head was right inside the pram. ‘Hello, gorgeous boy. What’s the matter with you? Are you hungry?’

‘No, he’s not,’ she said. ‘He’s just crying. That’s what babies do.’

The stranger raised her eyebrows and went back to her magazine.

‘Sorry,’ Anna mumbled. Her face burned. She didn’t want to cry, not here, in front of everyone. She sat down and took a deep breath, but she couldn’t get enough air. Her lips and fingers tingled. That woman was staring at her, but her face was blurred around the edges and white flashes exploded in front of Anna’s eyes. Was the woman laughing at her? She gripped the arms of her chair with her numb fingers and hoped she was smiling.

—Dawn Barker, Fractured (Hachette, 2013)

Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl—also a debut—is one of the most confronting novels I’ve read in a while, plunging me into what is now an alien world, but which of course was once (a long time ago!) my world: that of an adolescent girl. Fourteen-year-old Layla is an impressively drawn character—intelligent, sexually precocious, terribly vulnerable. Her story is given nuance and context by those of two adult characters—her mother, Margot, who is struggling with lonely middle age, and an unrelated Japanese man, Tadashi, who has a disturbing sexual fetish. just_a_girl is a powerful, and often uncomfortable, look at contemporary culture, with Layla at the heart of it, as subject and object, as confirmation and contradiction. Living, for the duration of the novel, in Layla’s skin made me reflect that it has possibly always been so with teenage girls, and to feel compassion for both the girl beneath the armour and the armour itself.

Here is part of the opening passage:

justagirl_web_mainEdnThe guy formerly known as youamizz told me he’d be wearing a red Strokes t-shirt. I see him from the train as it pulls in at Newcastle. He’s not bad enough to make me run away. But he’s older than I thought. Old enough to be my … maybe. He looks average but also kinda sweet when he spots me. He’s got a pretty hot bod. His smile lights me up. I can feel him framing me. Sizing me up as I swing towards him. I’m in my poxy school uniform. As I always am when mum drops me off at the station heading to granny’s. Mum doesn’t handle change. She gets suspicious. I went to put on my jeans and boots in the train toilet. But I opened the door to the puddles and stench and just thought, fuck it. At least he already knows.

He takes my hand. Kisses me on the cheek. Laughs and we’re away. He’s just as funny in real life. I relax and sit on the wharf and he buys me hot chips. We check into a hotel down on the water at Honeysuckle. The concierge asks if he requires an extra trundle bed for me.

—Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl (UWA Publishing, 2013)

Fractured was one of the most reviewed novels in the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lisa Hill has just posted an excellent review of just_a_girl.

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Writers ask writers: author for a day

kirstenkrauth_webThis month in our Writers Ask Writers series, the question posed is: If you could jump into the life of another author, past or present, for one day, who would it be and why? And it’s a pleasure to welcome, as guest blogger for August, Kirsten Krauth, who has recently released her accomplished debut novel, just_a_girl, described as ‘a Puberty Blues for the digital age’. There are links at the end to Kirsten’s choice of author, along with those of Annabel Smith, Natasha Lester, Sara Foster, Emma Chapman and Dawn Barker.

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Katharine Susannah Prichard seems to have been a presence in my life since the beginning of my writing career. The first validation I ever received as a writer was as winner of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Award in 1996. And a few years later, a story of mine called ‘The prospect of grace’, which draws on the lives of four famous couples including Katharine Susannah Prichard and Hugo Throssell, won the Patricia Hackett Prize for best contribution to the literary journal Westerly (the story has since been included in Inherited).

DSCN3567I have been a member of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, in the Perth hills suburb of Greenmount, for many years, and last weekend I spent a few hours there fulfilling my duties as a member of the Literary Advisory Board. Serendipitous, because it gave me an opportunity to take a photograph of the lovely old weatherboard house that was once Katharine’s home and place of work, and is now still a place where writers work—and learn and share writerly things.

Katharine Susannah Prichard was productive in her long lifetime. It makes me reel to think of what she achieved: 13 novels (translated into 13 foreign languages for international publication), 10 plays, five short story collections, two volumes of poetry, an autobiography, a work of non-fiction, and many pamphlets and articles. I doubt there are many literary writers who could come close today.

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While I admire this amazing output, it is not the reason I would choose to be Katharine Susannah Prichard for a day.

Nor is it because she had an especially happy life. She did not—or so it appears, at this distance, to me. I don’t doubt that there was happiness, both through her writing and in her personal life; one only has to read the passionate dedication to Hugo Throssell in her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, to know there was love:

To you, all those wild weeds
and wind flowers of my life,
I bring, my lord,
and lay them at your feet;
they are not frankincense
or myrrh
but you were Krishna, Christ and Dionysus
in your beauty, tenderness and strength.

But she also lived through unbearable personal sadness, losing her father and, later, her husband to suicide. And as someone who cared deeply about social justice, and believed in fighting for something better for all of humanity, happiness frequently eluded her.

As a young journalist, she worked in the slums of Melbourne, witnessing the plight of women slaving in sweatshops. In 1908–09, she spent a year in England, a time of hunger marches, Salvation Army soup kitchens and extreme poverty—symptomatic of a fraying social fabric (as Virginia Woolf was to say, ‘On or about December 1910, human character changed’). Returning to England just before the First World War, she remained there throughout the war years, and took part in suffragette marches and feminist lectures on women’s issues such as birth control. For a week in 1914 she reported from the battlefront in France.

These experiences deepened her compassion for the powerless, a thread running through so many of her novels—exploited Aboriginal women in Coonardoo (and the play Brumby Innes), returned servicemen in Intimate Strangers, struggling timber workers in Working Bullocks.

DSCN3573They also formed in her a great interest in pacifism and socialism and, later, in communism—and this last made her a target of official inquiry. It took guts to be a communist in those times. She became known as ‘the Red Witch of Greenmount’, and during the years of the Second World War her house was searched and she was put under surveillance amid fears that she was signalling from the hills to enemy craft at sea!

It’s not because I long to be notorious that I would wish myself into Katharine’s skin.

But I admire Katharine Susannah Prichard. I admire her commitment and her compassion—and especially her fearlessness. And that is why I would like to be her for a day. I would like to feel that kind of fearlessness in my blood. I harbour a suspicion that I might also find it an adulterated brew, tainted with the self-doubt and uncertainty that are found in any writer. But I imagine, I am sure, there is much I could learn about courage from this remarkable woman, this compassionate writer.

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Here are the links to companion posts from our group and guest Kirsten Krauth:

Kirsten Krauth: When I was a kid, a family member was obsessed with [Leonard Cohen] … I always rolled my eyes; it’s so embarrassing when adults think their music is cool.—Read more here

Annabel Smith: [As Truman Capote] the day would begin with me lounging in my smoking jacket while I opened my mail, including fan mail, letters of outrage about my sexuality and moral degeneracy …—Read more here

Natasha Lester: [Joan Didion] made meaning out of her life. She wrote about unique experiences in a way that made them seem commonplace and connective.—Read more here

Sara Foster: I will go back to a day in 1990 on a crowded train and become JK Rowling the moment she met Harry Potter in her imagination for the first time …—Read more here

Emma Chapman: I wanted to write about the stereotype of the ideal writer: someone who is free to write when they want, read when they want, and take the day off when they want. That’s the life I wanted …—Read more here

Dawn Barker: Mary Shelley … had lots of trauma in her life, but she had one wonderful summer that would change her life and propel her into literary history.—Read more here

PWFC author collage

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