Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Amazing library documentary

I borrowed this fabulous DVD from the library I work at, titled The Hollywood Librarian: A Look at Librarians Through Film. It's a documentary not only about the representation of librarians on film, but on the purpose and history of libraries and the passion and dedication of their staff. It's a shame it seems to difficult to obtain, but if you can borrow a copy (from your local library!) I highly recommend it. It's made me all happy and inspired and grateful that I chose this career, on a day where I needed the reminder!

Monday, 20 July 2015

My first piece of published fiction.

This is my first piece of published fiction. It appeared in issue 94 of Voiceworks magazine, in Spring 2013. It's called Bronte. I wrote about the experience of being published here.

They named her Bronte, unable to decide between Charlotte and Anne. ‘A windswept name,’ thought Rebecca, with the exhilaration of someone about to do something not quite sensible. Bronte slithered out from between Rebecca’s thighs, cold and wet, with a thatch of dark hair plastered to her face. She lay gasping like a dying fish until the doctor wiped the mucus from her mouth and smacked her smartly on the back.

When she was five years old, she leapt off the roof of the house, landing in a sticky tangle of thorns and snapping her collarbone. When Rebecca and John asked her what on God’s green Earth she had been thinking, she blinked at them and said ‘I was thinking I wanted to die.’ Rebecca and John sent her to a variety of doctors who sifted through her mind to no avail, until Bronte told them exasperatedly (and with extraordinary articulation for her age) that she hadn’t really wanted to end her life, she was just curious to see what dying felt like. John wondered about her. Rebecca chewed her nails, and doubted.

When Bronte was seven years old, her younger brother Joseph was born. He was blond and fair with rosebud lips and beautiful, fat-baby limbs. Bronte held her own skinny wrists up to compare, saw the sallow shade, almost blue - the colour of a sickly oyster. Joseph had cream-coloured skin, fresh and blooming with health, and Bronte stroked the downy crown of his head, wondering if Joseph too, was curious to know what dying felt like. Rebecca lifted the baby away, into the cot, a flutter of muscles shifting beneath the skin of her forearm.

When Bronte was eleven years old, Rebecca’s mother came to live with the family. Grandma Joan had a brain tumour that was killing her slowly and creatively, playing dice with her senses and nerve impulses. Rebecca felt bloated with the richness of who her mother used to be. First, Grandma Joan’s short-term memory went, slipping quietly out the door one night and blending seamlessly into the detritus of the summery storm. Next, it was her ability to chew her food. Rebecca sat up next to her, five times a day with a cloth and a bowl of pureed slush. She developed a rhythm. First, you spoon into the open mouth, then massage the jaw and throat gently, ensuring the food is swallowed without incident. Then use the cloth to wipe the saliva and partially masticated mess off the lips and chin. Spoon, massage, wipe. Repeat. Bronte sat beneath the dining room table, transfixed, and Rebecca fought the urge to scream at her to go away. But she didn’t, and Bronte wouldn’t.

One morning, Bronte crawled up to Grandma Joan and held her nose and mouth pinched shut with her thumbs and forefingers. Rebecca came into the room just as Grandma Joan turned blue. The slap on Bronte’s cheek turned into a perfectly formed five-fingered bruise. Grandma Joan died not long afterwards, anyway, when her heart puttered to a long overdue stop. Rebecca cried for days and it was up to John to cook dinner for Bronte and Joseph. Bronte marched her peas around the edge of the plate and used her fingers to flick them neatly at Joseph. Joseph roared with laughter, his chubby fists beating the table with enthusiasm as he tried to catch them in his open mouth. Rebecca howled from the next room.

Bronte woke up the morning of her thirteenth birthday with Grandma Joan sitting on her chest. She tried to yell, but all that came out was a flattened gasp. As she struggled, Grandma Joan leant forwards, eyelids drooping, looking for all the world like she was falling asleep. Chewed food dangled from her lips on strings of drool and Bronte gave an almighty shove right as the longest string snapped. Grandma Joan toppled backwards off her chest and disappeared. Bronte sat up and looked around the room, afraid to move, her breath coming in great lungfuls. Words sat on her tongue, scrambling forwards before she gulped them back again, weighing her options. She thought it better not to bother her parents and besides, her mother tended to tighten her lips when Bronte mentioned Grandma Joan. The next morning, when Grandma Joan appeared again, Bronte didn’t panic.
‘Hi Grandma Joan,’ she said, easing herself out from under her and waiting to see if she would disappear. Grandma Joan nodded and tried to answer, but her words came out garbled like they had in the last few months of her life. Bronte frowned. Surely death would have brought some form of relief from life and the pain that came with it? When Grandma Joan appeared once more, several days later, Bronte was still unable to understand her. Instead she sat on the edge of her bed, her toes freezing as she watched the ghost of her grandmother articulate something Bronte couldn’t grasp. Bronte made a fist and rapped herself on the skull a few times, but nothing happened, apart from an annoying pain in her head.

By the time Bronte was fifteen, Rebecca had shut down. She spent all day in bed, emerging only to use the bathroom and sometimes not even then. John would carry the soiled sheets from the bedroom to the laundry and Joseph would clap his hand over his nose, too young to be discreet. Rebecca ate soup and toast and drank copious amounts of herbal tea, and when Bronte brought a tray into her room, Rebecca would roll over and pretend to be asleep until her daughter had left. Bronte crawled beneath the bed one time and lay there, breathing softly, and Rebecca was torn. To tell her to leave would mean betraying the fact she was awake. But to say nothing and continue to lie there, mother and daughter trapped in a waking cycle of pretence and mutual animosity, was more than she could bear. So Rebecca sat up and pulled Bronte out from under the bed by the ear. 
‘I want you to stay out of here,’ she said in a voice hoarse from disuse. Bronte said nothing - just narrowed her small, dark eyes as she confirmed in her mind what she had always known. From then on, Joseph and John were in charge of bringing meals, and if neither of them were home, Rebecca would go hungry. Bronte sat in her room and tapped the wall rhythmically, lightly with the toe of her shoe, hoping Rebecca could hear it. She used Morse code, constantly spelling out the same words: ‘Your mother visits me at night.’           

Bronte left the nest at the age of seventeen. She had a battered black suitcase (left to her by Grandma Joan of all people) and the promise of cash when she needed it from her father. She found a room above a derelict dry-cleaning store and took up a smoking habit, using handfuls of cash she earned from dishwashing at a restaurant a few streets away. One night, the apprentice chef cornered her in the laneway behind the restaurant. The clouds were streaky across the night sky like spilt paint and Bronte felt the outline of the bricks in the wall digging into her back when he pressed against her, his mouth wet like a snail. Bronte’s hands went limp at her sides. She stared at him through apathetic eyes. He let go of her and dropped eye contact. Bronte readjusted the shirt she wore and hitched her handbag higher on her shoulder. She turned and left without a word.
The next time he tried it - at a house party thrown by their work colleague - Bronte let him continue. Glasses of red wine had made her feel warm and smooth and supple, and their tongues were heavy in her mouth as he kissed her. The tan of his skin made her arms look like dirty snow. His breath was harsh in her ear as his grip tightened on her hips. Afterwards, Bronte lay on the rumpled bed clothes in the spare room, staring at the patterns on the ceiling made from rain-soaked plaster. Her fingers itched for a cigarette, and she wondered idly if she should walk home in the rain or stay over. A muffled, strangled sound brought her out of her wine-induced, post-coital haze. She stared at the apprentice. He was crouched on the carpet clutching his clothes. The bones of his spine stuck out like knuckles. Bronte stared at him without saying anything for a while, and then looked back at the ceiling. Perhaps intimacy would always be an unbalanced transaction. She wasn’t sure if that was the sort of thing she should know. Grandma Joan sat in the corner of the room, but Bronte ignored her too. What was the use of having questions when the answer couldn’t be articulated?

When Bronte woke up the apprentice had gone, and the pre-dawn light was creeping in beneath the curtain. She dressed, pilfered some cigarettes from the handbags of her colleagues and disappeared out the front door. She padded across the grass in the dormant lung of morning, her breath making webs of fog in her lips. She didn’t realise she was walking to her parent’s house until she looked up and saw the street sign. When she reached the letterbox, she lit a cigarette and crouched down. The curtains were closed, the house cocooned in its slumber. Joseph’s bike was lying in the grass. Bronte sat and smoked until the sun was fully risen. She watched her family wake, the house come alive. She sat and smoked and watched as her father made breakfast and her brother did the dishes. Her mother sat at the kitchen table, reading.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

JASA Conference (Canberra)

This weekend, I fully embraced my book-nerdness, and went to Canberra for the Jane Austen Society of Australia (JASA) weekend conference titled Emma: 200 Years of Perfection. Mum and Marnie had agreed to come with me, and use the opportunity to see Canberra and catch up with friends while I was diligently absorbing all things Austen. It was nearly as good as our 2014 tri-generational European extravaganza! (See earlier blog posts).

We drove to Canberra in a day, and didn't even have to leave early! Mum and Marnie picked me up at 9am, we loaded my stuff into the car, and off we went. Apart from a couple of lightning fast coffee/petrol stops and a lunch break in Holbrook, we drove straight along the Hume Hwy for the whole beautiful, sunny day, and arrived at the Rydges Capital Hill hotel in Canberra at 5.30pm.

Holbrook for lunch
I was at the Forrest Suite at 6pm for dinner, having joined a table with the handful of others who I know from the Jane Austen Society of Melbourne. We were joined by some Sydneysiders and enjoyed a three-course meal, discussing all things Austen, before meeting the speakers for the conference.
Ooh, fancy!
Speaking at the event (as well as MC-ing and generally organising), was JASA president Susannah Fullerton, who lectures on many different writers and their lives. I've heard Susannah speak many times and she always has something interesting to say. Emma is her favourite novel of all time, so this weekend was a project very close to her heart.

Also joining us were married American professors Sayre N Greenfield and Linda V Troost, who have written extensively on Jane Austen adaptations (among many other things), Canadian professor Barbara K Seeber who has written about the role of nature and animals in Jane Austen's work, and British professor David Norton, who spent most of his career concentrating on the history and textual importance of the King James Bible before returning to Jane Austen in his 'retirement'.

It was a good introductory session with lots of questions and laughs, but it was early to bed for most of us afterwards, ready for a full tomorrow. Marnie and Mum had been out gallivanting but we put the heater on, tucked ourselves in, and read our books until we dropped off to sleep.

We were up early, and I have my charming cold that I thought I got rid of last week which made for an interesting night's sleep. Nevertheless, I was at the conference at 9.30 to collect my conference folder and buy a very small amount of things - I am on a strict budget. (Most of the stuff in the photo I either already had or was complimentary!)

I have already eaten at least one of those cookies.
First session was Barbara Seeber on Jane Austen and animals, describing not only the role of animals in Austen's work, but also how certain characters are given animal characteristics - it's not obvious, but the evidence is there! This was followed by morning tea and a chat with new people from all over Australia and New Zealand. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield did a joint presentation next on Emma and multimedia, concentrating on the three most recent productions - the 2009 BBC miniseries, the Bollywood adaptation titled Aisha, and the multi-platform web series, Emma Approved. Having seen two out of the three productions discussed, there was plenty of new insights for myself to discover!

David Norton spoke about Mr Knightley and Emma as lovers - a very sweet and swoon-worthy analysis of the timeline of the novel, pinpointing the moments their relationship changed. After lunch, Susannah Fullerton spoke about the locations in Emma, geographically and historically, and the significant details that the locations tell us about the scenes and characters that inhabit them. After question time with the speakers, in which passionate debate took place about the benefits of different Emma adaptations, it was time for another break!

Mum, Marnie, and our Sydney cousin Margi picked me up to drive around Manuka while they decided where they would eat dinner. I chattered and they listened politely, and then we headed back to the hotel for Midsomer Murders before dinner began.

On Saturday nights the conference attendees are invited to dress in Regency attire. I didn't, and there was only a handful of the 150-ish dinner guests who did, but they looked lovely and received lots of compliments. Apparently at the Jane Austen Society of North America conferences (5-day affairs that have between 600-700 attendees), most people dress up every day and they have pop-up stalls to hire costumes if you don't have any.

I came back to the hotel room at about 9.30, and finally finished Emma, which I'd been rereading, with a head full of new insights that made it twice as fun. Thankfully, I had a slightly better night's sleep.

The next morning I was back for more, buying a couple more bits from the stall. I bought a second hand copy of Villette by Charlotte Bronte in a beautiful old binding. I was standing with Marnie and we opened the book and the handwritten name inside was J. Fowler, which was Grandpa's name. A really special, slightly spooky coincidence!

Sayre Greenfield spoke first this morning, talking about words in Austen and particularly the language in Emma - what do all those pauses and dashes signify? Barbara Seeber spoke about the challenges of teaching Austen, including the often unconsciously gendered readings, where criticism is applied to qualities in one character, but not to the same qualities in a character of the opposite sex.

After morning tea, Linda Troost delivered probably my favourite talk of the conference, which discussed whether Frank Churchill was a good guy or not. She used a close reading of the text to separate what the narrator and what Emma thought Frank was thinking, and what his motives were, contrasted with what he perhaps is actually thinking and what his motives are. For anyone who remembers the scene in Box Hill and his many comments about Jane Fairfax, you would have an idea of how interesting this became. David Norton concluded the conference by speaking about the wonderful, comical, pitiful, brilliant Miss Bates, also touching on what Sayre was analysing about the dashes and pauses in her speech. Miss Bates, according to David Norton, is a lot savvier than we perhaps give her credit for. (And he also threw in a reference to how she was a sort of Austen counterpart to Hagrid in Harry Potter - ten points to David).

And then it was finished! Thank yous were said, and gifts handed out. We went downstairs for one last meal and I sat with yet another group of lovely people. I have felt very welcomed on this conference and made a lot of new friendships. I dashed around at the end to say my goodbyes, and then met Marnie and Mum out in the hotel foyer. We left Canberra at 2.10pm, and I walked in my front door at 9.55pm. And we only stopped briefly for dinner and once for coffee, and didn't speed! On the way home, we reported on our weekends and reminisced about our European trip. I am a lucky girl indeed to get to travel with my mum and my grandmother, and if it weren't for them, I wouldn't have been able to attend this weekend, so I am exceedingly grateful.

Oh, and today it is one month exactly until Sean and I leave for Japan!