This essay is part of a new Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to the labour of writing called Writers at Work. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists, and scholars to reflect on how writers get made and how writing gets made in the twenty-first century.
My skin is white, or rather it is a soft, warm pink, which is the colour of the skin of the most dangerous and successful pillagers in recent times. I descend from them. I am them. Nothing is random. I am capable of killing another person but I would prefer not to. I would prefer not to survive an apocalypse.
My parents and siblings are all alive. None have ever been to prison. None have ever abused me, or each other, to my knowledge, unless you count light-to-moderate corporal punishment, which I don’t, though I think it should be banned. Both my parents have read Jane Eyre. I cried a lot in girlhood, mostly over infractions that were described to me as ‘spilt milk’. There have always been books in my house. I have hunted for feral cats, unsuccessfully. I have never slaughtered an animal. I have always felt the presence of a force with designs on my exiguous freedom. I enjoy the liberties of adulthood considerably.
I don’t know where, exactly, my family originates from. Both my grandmothers were liars. Neither of my grandmothers were, historically speaking, lucky. My mother is becoming interested in genealogy. She discovered a somewhat recent ancestoress who birthed seven children, then died at thirty-four. Historically speaking, this woman was not a lucky woman. Most people who have ever lived and died were not, historically speaking, lucky people. I, on the other hand, am the luckiest woman to have ever been born. I am thirty-one years old.
Luck makes no sense. Interventionist gods do not exist. Barbara Baynton – author, liar, gold-digger, survivor – delivered her own baby, alone, in a shed in the bush with no running water. There are few historico-spatial windows in which people like me have not had to be pregnant and nursing for the duration of their reproductive lives, and I live in the middle of one. Barbara Baynton also opposed (white) women’s suffrage. Survivors of historical cruelty can be politically incorrect too. There is no precedent for someone like me to have access to a public in which to exhibit her uniqueness. Yet here I am, unique.
All my grandparents are dead. I am estranged from most members of my extended family. Many of my relatives lived, or live, with obsessions and addictions, and I am aware of what this might tell me about my own genetic predilections.
I have a lot to live for. I would like to write one decent book. I would like to earn a living from teaching. I enjoy getting drunk with my friends. I am a ‘people person’. My monthly prescription costs six dollars fifty. I am loved.
The worst feature of human society is servitude. I would like there to be a social revolution but I would prefer not to live through it. I don’t cry often but when I do it is with gusto. The last time I cried, I cried for days. I lay on the wooden floor and slapped my palm against it in a melodramatic fashion. The action was involuntary, yet it felt delicious and indulgent. I have been financially independent since I was eighteen. I am not particularly responsible, but I’m not profligate, either. I forgo exercise when on a deadline.
My most useful personal quality is that I am practical. I don’t mind being disliked. I don’t mind cleaning up vomit. I can turn three dollars into a nutritious meal.
I have no ‘full’ cousins. My closest cousin is a fundamentalist Muslim revert. She unfriended me on Facebook after our grandmother’s funeral at Auburn Mosque, which I did not attend, because before dying, our grandmother disowned my father in a way I found heartless and unjustified. I care about the author behind the work. I care about the signifieds. The question of who a speech act is addressing tells me all I need to know. I don’t know what it feels like to love God, but I am attracted to the idea. I know how to load and shoot a double barrel shotgun.
To critique an act of kindness for the value it bestows the bestower is to misunderstand the human need to be helpful. To never engage in sexualised labour is, for a woman, to fail at working under patriarchy. Sex workers know this. Trade unionists should know this. Writing is easier, more pleasurable, than most paid work is. Teaching is as hard as waitressing, but the conditions are much better. People who use Melbourne Central train station should honour escalator conventions more thoroughly. Extending one’s middle finger is often the correct answer to the question. When a stranger coughs in public, one should move six feet away to avoid the bacterial silage.
My least useful quality is I don’t like being made fun of. Some people find this a reason to make fun of me, which I can see the humour in but don’t enjoy.
I have eaten frog legs and fried grasshoppers. Both taste green in different ways. I am a bad actress. I could never be a spy, which is what spies must say to their lovers. I don’t like writing fiction because I fail to understand the difference between fantasy and construction. I harshly judge dishonesty, most of all self-deception. Yet I like to big-note myself. I like to feel that my choices are difficult. I am gifted at certain forms of human closeness. My husband calls me ‘the good wife’ after a self-sacrificing television wife who unshackles herself to become independently rich and morally corrupt. My relationship to animals is one of distant yet mighty respect. I am protective of people younger than me. The living writers I most admire are Jamaica Kincaid and Maria Tumarkin. I hold two powerful passports.
Last financial year I earned $34,769 AUD. In raw terms, this puts me in the world’s wealthiest 2.6%. In less raw terms, not so much. I know that time to write costs money, but this claim depends on a condition of entitlement to a future pool of unreal money that I don’t possess. I want to live in a society that is not obsessed with work. I know I am a dispensable person, economically speaking. Although I know that nostalgia is dangerous, I allow it to influence my decisions. One of my former best friends no longer speaks to me. Doubtless there are others who no longer speak to me, but I don’t speak to them either.
I was raised to believe that a ‘healthy’ ego is one that lays supine before the authoritarian Madam superego. I am embarrassed for those who make a habit of bragging. I am often embarrassed for myself. I object to the term ‘imposter syndrome’, because it assumes that the native and desirable state for human activity is mastery and arrogance. I don’t believe in absolution, that the forgiven are truly forgiven. I do believe in getting on with it; I believe in living with ghosts. I worry about my parents’ physical and financial future but I don’t do anything to help. They hide twenty dollar notes in my purse when I go to the bar to buy a round of drinks for them. Part of me believes that it is up to the highest-earning sibling to help the parents, and I am not that. Soon, all of my parents’ children will live in nations far from them, a fact I am one-third responsible for.
I am concerned I have reached the summit of my intellectual potential, and the view from it is jankier than I’d hoped. I find myself circling the same questions again, each time thinking myself wiser, each time unable to answer them with any more conviction. I am more productive when someone I love has been cruel to me. People who regularly eat luxury café foods on weekends should not say that they are ‘poor’. Australians are a uniquely stingy people.
My student debt sits at $30,598. On two occasions, working data entry for a groovy corporate publisher, I was paid enough to have to make payments against it. Each day, after lunch, I cried silently at my desk. After two paycheques, I was fired. Lately I have been feeling financially comfortable. I own four dresses by a designer I like. Recycling will not fix anything. Writing will not fix anything. I will not receive an inheritance aside from a few good jazz records. My view that inheritance should be abolished and replaced with a classless social structure could therefore be construed as convenient. It is unlikely that I will have children. It is necessary to let go of the idea of the future as an untrammelled past.
At all times, I have at least one bruise, burn, or graze on my body. I have been in love more times than is socially acceptable at this particular historical matrix. I have never been in love with a person who belonged to someone else. I know that possessive language in the love arena is a language of coercion, of patriarchy, of control. I also know that being possessed is a fact of being seen, and known, by someone else. Like Ado Annie, I give my consent freely, when I can, to almost anything.
I frequently fall over while walking on cobble-stone laneways. I find some aspects of urban conservation suspect. I did a PhD to pay for time to write and then I spent too much time writing a not-great PhD thesis. Supermarket dips offend me. I am more concerned by how bureaucracies naturalise subject-object relations between humans than I am by the abstract destruction of the environment. I became more sexually conservative after reading Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. I want to live in a society that is classless, but one that can tolerate beauty. I want to live in a classless society.
This Writers at Work essay has been funded by Creative Victoria. This stage of the series has also been funded by Arts Queensland and Arts Tasmania.