Essay: McKenzie Warkon writing

Paper Princess

People often ask me why it is that I write so much. I never know what to say. I’m back home in Australia, on a flying visit from New York. The colour of the leaves, the birdsong, everything is tugging at my senses, bringing me back to a past that’s becoming nebulous, fantastic as the years in New York pile on.

My sister takes me to the storage unit that holds some lost chunk of my Australian life. There’s the metal shelves I spent two days assembling. There’s the double rows of books, slightly random, abandoned and sad. I don’t really care what happens to them anymore.

I’m digging through it all for the few more personal things I might still care about. Here’s the old metal tin. In it, letters from former lovers. I leaf through them, glance at the handwriting. I know they all complain about the same thing. That the writer cannot reach me, that I remain hidden from them. Well, I was hidden from myself, hun. It gives me no satisfaction to know this now.

Among the letters, a postcard. A picture of an institutional building. Somehow, I know it’s a hospital. I turn the card over. It is my mother’s handwriting. She is writing to me from this hospital. The last place she was ever to be.

I’m smash cut into a memory of visiting her in it. We took the long ride from Newcastle down the old Pacific Highway to Sydney. I am six years old. The ride bores me. We pass the exit sign for Crow’s Nest. Funny name for a place, I say. I’m asked to be quiet. My father is trying not to get lost.

I’ve brought something to show my mother in the hospital. A paper cone, colored in with my coloured pencils. There’s a flat paper head attached. She is a princess. Maybe I made her at Sunday School. We are not a religious family. I was being sent across the road to the Baptist Sunday school to get me out of the house – give my father and older siblings a break from me. I think about this sometimes. What it must have been like. They all knew she was dying.

I’m holding my paper princess. I see that my coloring is not quite as good as I’d like. I missed a bit. But I don’t have my pencils. I show her to my mother. The feeling that remains, from this event, long ago, is one of disappointment. That her reaction wasn’t anything. I can now put myself in her place a little, but I don’t let myself dwell on what she could have felt, to see her youngest child, a little grumpy from the car ride, but chattering away, as if nothing was happening, while knowing that this child will soon be motherless in the world. I am older now than she was then. I have kids of my own. If I think about this too much, her pain becomes mine.

There is none of this in the postcard she wrote me from this hospital. Its tone is light and chatty. Written to a child, in the loopy hand that reminds me of my sister’s. I asked my sister to tell me a bit about our mother. I remember very little. This memory from the hospital is one of exactly nine memories I have of her. My sister told me that Joyce Wark was brave and proud and reserved, that she didn’t let her feeling show, that she went out of this life keeping her suffering to herself.

It’s strange, this postcard – delivered back, from me to me, via storage unit. I have no memory of it. How do you forget the one thing your dead mother ever wrote to you? That it even exists? I brought it back to New York with me. I look at it sometimes. What else falls out of memory? Sometimes I doubt any of us have any idea who we are at all.

I am sitting at Public Records, a café and bar in Brooklyn, with my friend Jackie. She has her notebook out. I am writing this on my laptop. My phone’s timer is on. We’re free writing together, across from each other. I don’t want her to see me cry.

The one thing I know best about my mother is her taste in literature. Her books filled the house, long after she was gone. My father gave a brace of her hardbacks away once, and I was furious with him, although I did not know why. I think now that the books were my link to her. I read them to find her.

She had a taste for literary modernism. I contracted that taste from the yellowing pages of her books. She even had Joyce’s Ulysses, which was banned in Australia for a very long time. I especially loved the bright orange jackets, slightly faded, of old Penguin paperbacks. She was a reader. That’s really about all I know about her.

Another of my handful of memories of her: a time she took me to Cardiff public library. We are in the children’s section. It was after play school, where she took me one morning a week. I liked it there, but there were two little girls I wanted to play with, and I never could, until one day they invited me to tea under the slippery dip. But it started to rain and we were all called inside and I was sad because I did not get to join their tea party game.

After play school, the library. Maybe she took me to cheer me up that day. I remember my mother as a warm presence, a benign ambience, but I don’t have an image of her. All I remember of the library is the bright colors of the books, in rows, in racks: reds, yellows, blues. Some exotic looking books in purple and orange. I had to choose just one book, but I wanted them all.

Writing is what my mother gave me. She must have given me other things. I was loved. I feel that this has to be true. I have no way of knowing other than the evidence of my body, my life – that I can love and let myself be loved, even when I’ve not loved much of myself. Writing is the thing that she gave me that I can remember, at least a little. Writing is what left traces. In my love of reading, in the library she left, and in the postcard, that I kept, and forgot.

Becoming a writer filled the solitude left by her leaving. I know that she did not abandon me. She had cancer. Feelings don’t always answer to reason. Sometimes they just make a void around themselves and remain, undetected. When I started transition and went on hormones, the past all came back to me, came out of its nothingness. All the loss, all the longing, all the pain, and with it this time, at least, an understanding of this compulsion to write, this refuge in writing. When I am writing, I am always writing to my mother. 

Another memory: my mother and I are visiting her parents in Ashfield, a suburb of Sydney. My father isn’t there – he never comes. It’s just the two of us and my maternal grandparents who I barely remember and who seemed remote and scary. We’re on a big bed together and my mother just read me that Winnie the Pooh story where he attaches himself to a balloon and flies into the air to steal honey from the bees. The bees don’t fall for it, and Piglet has to get Christopher Robin to come and shoot Pooh down.

She read me that story. I remember this because I reads the same story to my own daughter and the pictures brought it back to me. I didn’t like the story. I didn’t like the ending, so I made my mother tell it a different way. And the balloon had to be orange – my favorite colour. I could not read yet, and my minor motor skills were so poor I could not colour within the lines – but in that moment, I became a writer.

For fifty years I’ve been answering her postcard. Telling her about the books I read and how they could go differently. And, finally, I had to write to her about how I could go differently. I had to not just come out as a transsexual, in the world, but in writing. Only now I’ve lost her twice, lost into a deeper solitude. She wasn’t there for the childhood where everyone thought I was a boy and even I believed it too. And now she is not there for the childhood that I did not have, as a girl. The letters that she is not there to receive are from someone else who she is not there to not recall. But I keep sending them, as I always have. As I need to do.

For thirty years I’ve written into the void using the name McKenzie Wark. I never really knew why. McKenzie is my middle name. It was my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. I feel certain now that of my two given names, it’s the one my mother chose. Maybe I use it as a signal, or sigil, flung across blank forgetting so she would know it is me and that I need her. Need her at least to have been.

The timer went off. I stopped typing on my laptop. Jackie put down her pen. Dub music filled the space – the DJ had started while we were writing. Gorgeous deep cuts, beyond the reach of Shazam. Lost in the stringing of sentences, I hadn’t noticed although it probably entered the rhythm of typing. We left Public Records and set off on foot, across Brooklyn, to the Brooklyn Bridge, to Manhattan. Jackie wanted to show me her favourite bookstore – Two Bridges – tucked away on the second story of a Chinatown mall. And I loved it. Except that it didn’t carry any of my books.