Review: Jessica Whiteon Krissy Kneen

Memoir Without Memory

Krissy Kneen’s grandmother, Lotty Kneen, once built papier mâché dinosaurs ‘that didn’t fit inside the house. They were built in sections that could be taken apart, crammed inside my mother’s VW van and driven one at a time to the Sydney Museum for its dinosaur displays’. While these were Lotty’s most famous works, she ‘was fonder of the fairytale characters they made for book week at the local library. She would look at different artists’ impressions of Snow White, the Little Match Girl, Sleeping Beauty, then translate these to her own versions’. However, the female characters ‘ended up looking more like younger versions of herself than like the illustrations in the original books.’ When Kneen, who inherited her Slovenian grandmother’s ‘small round face, big eyes and plump cheeks’, stepped into the loungeroom, ‘a dozen versions of myself used to stare back at me.’ Here is a metaphor for the difficulties Kneen faced in trying to locate her history in a family that offered her scant details. She looks for the truth but finds only constructions, and each time the tale is different. She is modelled and controlled by an artist who did not let her out of her sight.

Kneen’s prolific career began with a collection of erotic short stories, Swallow the Sound (2007), followed by a memoir, Affection (2010). Like a winter bulb, Affection harboured the nutrients for her oeuvre: kinship, intense curiosity and a drive for physical and emotional connection, preoccupations which played out in five subsequent novels and a book of poetry. The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen returns to memoir, but where Affection marked Kneen’s exploration of her memories of young womanhood and bodily desire, The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen chronicles Kneen’s attempts to locate her grandmother’s story and to find how, without the person who made her, she fits into the world.

Kneen has told elements of this story twice before: in a 2002 documentary which she wrote and directed, The Truth About Dragonhall, and in her poetry collection Eating My Grandmother (2014), which won the Thomas Shapcott Prize for an unpublished poetry collection by a Queensland author. In the film, as Kneen writes in The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen, her grandmother and aunt dodged her questions about their history. Kneen implored them to trust her but her grandmother replied, ‘That is the point. I never trust you … Because I know you. Yes. I know you. Deep, deep inside I know you. There!’ Perhaps one storyteller recognised the other, and perhaps Lotty knew that her granddaughter, innately curious, would want to know and tell the story of her heritage.

Kneen wrote Eating My Grandmother in the six months following Lotty’s death, her grief welling in words. In exposing ‘so many family secrets … in the clipped lines on the page’, she disobeyed Lotty’s stricture to keep the family’s knowledge private. In the wake of Lotty’s death, Kneen started to think about searching in earnest for her grandmother’s village in Slovenia. When Kneen once suggested to Lotty that she take her to Slovenia on a holiday, her grandmother made ‘a sound like she [had] sucked in a whole lemon in one breath’. Now, Kneen thinks more seriously about finding Lotty’s history and for ‘any scraps of family who might be somewhere in the world.’ Where Eating my Grandmother was Kneen’s visceral response to the loss of the defining force of her life, The Three Burials of Lotty’s Kneen probes the difficult task of reconstructing a history when, as Kneen writes:

There is nothing to help me find myself. No family eager to give me names and numbers of people who are still alive in the homeland. No old diaries, no old photos that I am allowed to look at, to ask about, to copy. Everything is treated like a state secret. I am treated like an enemy of the people.

But if anyone who has read Kneen’s oeuvre knows, transgression is another part of that quietly growing, underground bulb. Even if her grandmother has determined against it, Kneen still seeks the truth.

The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen is divided into three parts, one for each of the three times Kneen buries a portion of her grandmother’s ashes. The first part, set in Australia, opens with Kneen’s visit to her frail grandmother at Bororen, towards the end of Lotty’s life. Kneen uses this opening to establish Lotty’s matriarchal toughness in a heat so intense Kneen thinks she might throw up. It also shows the strength of the bond between Kneen and Lotty, whom she and her family refer to as ‘Mum’. Unable to bear the heat, Kneen rises to leave, and her grandmother asks, ‘When will you be back?’ When Kneen tells her she’ll only be away a few hours, Lotty ‘crumples down into her tiny wilted body. Satisfied. She can relax. Delay the loss a few more hours, a day at least.’ When Lotty dies a while later, Kneen enters a period that is like ‘waking one morning to find you have slipped into a parallel universe.’ She and her partner bury most of Lotty’s ashes at Dragonhall, the home that her grandmother created.

Kneen’s life seems the stuff of fiction, and she prefaces The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen with this short, cautionary paragraph: ‘When I was a child my family won the lotto and used the money to move to the middle of nowhere in central Queensland to make fairytale characters out of papier-mâché. This is not a metaphor.’ Disregarding her own warning, Kneen builds the idea of fairytales into the first few pages. ‘Where does this story begin?’ she asks, and answers with that most familiar of openings:

Once upon a time my grandmother won the lotto.

Once upon a time my grandmother fled the former Yugoslavia and lived happily ever after in Alexandria in Egypt.

Once upon a time my grandmother fled Egypt with her two daughters and lived happily ever after in England.

Once upon a time my grandmother migrated to Australia where she lived happily ever after with her two daughters and her two granddaughters.

The incantation is ironic, because the evidence of unhappy life is present in the silence of Kneen’s female family members. Her grandmother ‘carried her nationality around like a locked box’ and ‘refused to talk about her past. My aunt tells me I have no story. I know nothing and have no right to a story at all. As the keeper of family history, she is stiff-backed and tight-lipped.’ When Kneen asks her mother for information, her mother replies she’s been thinking of writing down some stories, but Kneen can only read them after she dies. Dejected, she thinks, ‘What joy to be gifted these tiny insignificant details without having to debase myself by asking.’

Without concrete information, Kneen instead observes elements of her grandmother’s behaviour, such as her suspicion of men. Like fairytale heroines in need of protection, Kneen and her sister were locked up at home in the house near Bororen, unable to sleep over at friends’ houses in case they encountered brothers, fathers or grandfathers. Kneen explains: ‘My sister and I were under constant surveillance and it was clear to me that this didn’t come from my mother. Everything she did was in deference to my grandmother, every decision had to be cleared with the matriarch. Our grandmother watched us, judged us, approved or disapproved.’ Kneen’s descriptions of being monitored are consciously neutral. While her sister left the family home as soon as she could, and eventually refused to speak to her grandmother, Kneen’s disposition remains forgiving and thoughtful. She speculates that ‘there must have been horrors in my grandmother’s history to make her so aggressively frightened of the world but she never told us true stories’.

Kneen knows some bare facts: her grandmother was named Dragica before she changed her name to Lotty; she was born in what is now Slovenia, and left as a child to travel alone to Egypt; her wedding dress came from Paris; her husband ‘had olive skin and a British passport’; she fled Alexandria in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Crisis with other expatriates and arrived in England ‘with two tiny children and a suitcase that turned out to contain nothing but a human skull’, but without her husband, who stayed to sort out their affairs. The skull is never explained. At some point the family migrated to Australia and lived in Blacktown in Sydney. Lotty’s husband, a quiet man, was pushed to the margins of the family. Her son-in-law, Kneen’s father, was forced out altogether.

Kneen’s utilisation of fairy tales, and the starkness and paucity of facts in her history, may in itself be an indication of her family’s trauma. In After Such Knowledge: A Meditation on the Aftermath of the Holocaust, Eva Hoffman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, recounts her struggle to understand what happened to her parents, particularly as their experiences were too difficult to articulate. Unable, or unwilling, to express themselves, their communication about the Holocaust was ‘torn’, ‘incoherent’ and ‘unassimilable’. When she was a child, Hoffman’s parents’ ‘fragmentary phrases lodged themselves in my mind like shards, like the deadly needles I remember from certain fairy tales, which pricked your flesh and could never be extracted again’. Her parents’ stories were also like a ‘half awful reality, half wondrous fairy tale’ because she was too young to understand the context for what happened to them, and the vast horror of the Shoah seemed to remove it to a realm beyond time.

Fearfulness and the fantastic mark Kneen’s stories too. She refers to her grandmother as the Baba Yaga, a mythical old woman in Slavic folklore who lives in a house with chicken feet. Her grandmother ‘kept us safely locked up. The chicken-footed house bounced and hopped to make sure no one but the Baba Yaga’s family could come inside’. This is an example of the way that Kneen blends truth and story, sometimes out of creative licence, and other times out of necessity. On occasion, it is too forceful, as in the representation of her grandmother as a snake that slides over the hot earth of Dragonhall and into her granddaughter’s gut. At other times the technique is more convincing. In place of facts about her ancestors, for example, Kneen writes her own fairytale, the story of the girl who would be her great-great-grandmother, born into bloodied snow and named ‘Anastizija’, a name that means ‘resurrection’.

Kneen uses this name to introduce the science of inheritance, for bits of Anastizija’s ‘genetic material and descendants of those bacteria still march their armies around my lower intestine’. She builds on this theme in subsequent chapters, wondering if ‘the secret traumas written in my grandmother’s genes breathed their epigenetic magic into my body: my own obesity might be a distress signal lighting the way back through generations to whatever secret terrors this child survived’. Likewise Lotty’s ‘hoarding tendencies, which have become my hoarding tendencies, are common among survivors of conflict zones: people carrying nothing but the clothes they have with them.’

Science also offers Kneen a clue to her ancestry, when she sends her DNA away to be tested. She imagines that she might be Jewish, and that this could have been the reason why her grandmother fled Slovenia and then Egypt. However the DNA test shows that she is only five per cent Jewish and that Romania is her ‘main reference population.’ Kneen decides to make her long-discussed and desired trip to Slovenia to see what else she can find out.

With no archives or photographs, and few leads, Kneen has constructed a memorial to her grandmother with fairytales, DNA, her body, and food. This memorial is gorgeous, rippling with fables and threaded with Kneen’s characteristic sensuality. It shows how, although a lack of memory can be impoverishing, it can also give rise to the imaginative narration of a subject while still apprehending their sensibility. Yet as the work progresses through Parts Two and Three, where Kneen travels to Slovenia, then onto Egypt, the lush language of fairy tales falls away. It is as though in moving through the world and grappling with the practicalities of travelling and searching, Kneen’s mind no longer dwells in imagination; rather, she focuses on what is before her.

Conceivably this is because, in building context, as Hoffman did when piecing together the history and aftermath of the Holocaust, the allegorical elements of a story are no longer necessary. Hoffman observes that ‘those who are born after calamity sense its most inward meanings first and have to work their way outwards towards the facts and the worldly shape of events’. Kneen begins this outward movement in Part Two, ‘The Second Burial’, which is centred in Slovenia. She and her partner stay in an apartment in the capital, Ljubljana. Kneen sits on the stairs in the market to watch the people. Where once she saw herself in papier mâché creations, now she sees glimpses of herself ‘in the old woman with the bicycle and the trolley full of food, in the bridge of dragons, in the carved-up metal people running, terrified, as they are expelled from paradise on the Meat Bridge, in the old lady locked in heated political discussion with the younger men at the bar on the corner of Kotnikova Ulica, in the woman who volunteers to cook at the second-hand shop and the pride she shows me in her home-grown pickles.’ She wonders, ‘Is this where I belong? Is this me? Am I here?’

A chance encounter in a bookshop leads her to the Aleksandrinke, a group of women who travelled from Primorska, or the Littoral Region, to Alexandria. The Aleksandrinke were a group of Slovenian women who, during the Balkan Wars and the First World War, while the men were fighting and the villages were starving, took up positions as nannies in Egypt. Miren, Lotty’s town, is in Primorska. The bookseller offers Kneen a book on the Aleksandrinke, and in this, too, she searches for herself, ‘peering at the faces on every page. They don’t look like me, exactly, but they are a part of me, or I am a part of them. For the first time I feel as if I belong to something bigger than the tiny lifeboat of my immediate family.’

Kneen and her partner travel to Miren and, with the aid of a friend, James, they search the cemetery and make connections with local people. Kneen soon finds herself ‘standing at the centre of a web of genetic connections’, the pull of which is strong enough for her to bury the second portion of her grandmother’s ashes in a small hole on her great-grandmother’s grave.

She also learns about this great-grandmother, Carlotta, and great aunt Antonia, both of whom went to Egypt. Carlotta’s employer gave her money to bring her children over, but Antonia’s did not, at least not until her daughter Jozitca was a teenager. Jozitca and Dragica, Carlotta’s daughter, were inseparable. Kneen is told several times that they were ‘like twins.’ She is also told a story about wartime rape. She recounts this story to her mother on the phone, and a few minutes later, she writes, ‘my aunt calls and her voice is shaking. It is the first time she has called me directly unless there was a medical emergency.’ Her aunt, the secret-keeper, sets the record straight with a version ‘that sounds more like the second half of The Sound of Music than a real account of my great-grandmother’s life.’ Apparently ‘there never was a movement called the Aleksandrinke. There never was starvation in the village of Miren. They moved to Egypt for the weather.’ Kneen, frustrated, doesn’t believe her aunt. Instead, ‘as in any good fairytale’, she had to set out to find the story for herself.

Around this time, Kneen receives an email from a writer based in Egypt, Beejay Silcox, for whom Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace (2017) prompted dreams of jellyfish. In the third and final section of the book, Silcox invites Kneen to visit. Despite Kneen’s apprehension, the opportunity is too good to pass up. In Cairo and Alexandria, she presents her research to audiences in libraries and receives morsels of information in return: it’s unlikely her father was British, but rather he ‘may have been part Egyptian, Syrian, Maltese from Jewish heritage’. His Britishness was possibly a construct, another cover-up in her family. Kneen meets with Magda, one of the last remaining daughters of the Alexandrinke, whose mother was also from Miren. She visits the nunnery where the Slovene Sisters cared for Slovene women before they were billeted with local Italians. At the nunnery, Kneen feels her grandmother ‘knocking in the little vial of ashes that I keep in my handbag. She belongs here and, because she belongs here, because she met my grandfather here, because of my grandfather’s mother and father and grandfather before him, a little piece of me belongs here too.’

This book does not revolve around the search for sexual intimacy and release that characterises much of Kneen’s oeuvre. Part of me wondered if she was responding to an enquiry, from a small press publisher at a writers festival, as she recounts: ‘When are you going to stop mucking around with erotica?I’m told you can write really well. When are you going to do something serious with your work?’ These questions reveals a diminishment of Kneen’s subject matter, something that Catriona Menzies-Pike reflects on in her review of Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace: ‘In spite of [Kneen’s] profile and output, her novels have not attracted a great deal of critical attention. That may be because they stray from the standard tropes of literary fiction, not least in Kneen’s narrative prioritisation of female sexuality, desire and pleasure.’ I did not think The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen any better or worse than Kneen’s other books for its lack of sex. It is remains charged by her relentless search for connection, her curiosity and sensory awareness, and her quiet, stubborn insistence on telling what she sees as her truth: all elements that I have found compelling in her writing in general. If I did have reservations, it was in the work’s unravelling from its thick richness in first section to the descriptions of encounters with relatives and friends which, although no less wondrous, lost some of the magic of their telling. I wonder whether Kneen was in a rush. She writes of her race ‘to the end of a novel, anxious to begin another, and another.’ She knows of ‘writers who take ten years to write a book, but I am restless’, and notes how writing this book has prompted an awareness of her mortality.

Where Affection saw Kneen grounded by her lifetime partner in a relationship that acknowledges the continuing flare of desire for other bodies, in this memoir she is more uncertain of herself and her flesh. Or maybe it is that the uncertainty has manifested more strongly without the mooring of her grandmother. Kneen muses, with some sadness, ‘I don’t fit in the world, physically. I don’t fit in my home country, culturally. I don’t fit in my family, my personality seems so different from theirs. There are no ropes or anchors tethering me to the earth.’ Against this sense of displacement and dislocation, Kneen’s closure of The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen reads like an invocation. As she sprinkles her grandmother’s ashes into the Mediterranean in her third burial, Kneen refers to her grandmother’s body as:

a marker along our collective journey, a crumb in the trail. A drumbeat — homes, home, home — like laboured footsteps.

                   I put my grandmother in the ocean at Alexandria.
                   I put her in the ground in Miren.
                   I put her in the ground in Dragonhall.
                   And a pinch of her thuds against my wrist in a locket, like a one-word pulse: home.

The repetition of these lines recalls the recitation of ‘Once upon a time’ at the book’s opening, suggesting that this is Kneen’s ‘happily ever after.’ I think, given her restless, questing intellect, that the story, although it closes here, will continue to resonate in her writing. Perhaps these lines more accurately gesture towards a grounding, a settling into the soil of Kneen’s own nature.

Works Cited

Hoffman, Eva. After Such Knowledge: A Meditation on the Aftermath of the Holocaust. Vintage Books, 2005.

Published July 26, 2021
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Jessica White

Jessica White is an author and academic living on Kaurna country. She has published...

Essays by Jessica White →