Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In their skin

Have you ever wondered how historical writers bring life to characters of the past in a way that is eerily realistic?
That's the hook to the session when Sharon Huebner and I talk about writing historical characters back into existence, at Write in the Great Southern, next Monday.

It's taking place at the Liberte' bar. As a great southern barfly I well remember the old bar where our feet stuck to the crappy carpet at the end of the night and there were some nasty fights over which pocket the black ball went into. These days, the champagne is more expensive and the bohemian ambiance more contrived but the place still reverts to the whaling town it always was when a girl does a graceful slide to the floorboards in the witching hour. When she goes down, she can look like a heeling ship in slow motion. It's quite beautiful if you appreciate these kind of things.

Ahem, anyway ... back to historical characters and my gig ... close friends know that over the last week I've hit a wall when it comes to writing the lives of sealers and Aboriginal women in the 1820s. I have four people in the story that I've been recreating for four or five years now. One man possesses a moral compass. One man is entirely without a conscience and possibly psychopathic. One woman is grabbed in the middle of the night and taken to the islands. And the main character is a seven year old Aboriginal girl dropped off the edge of her known world.

Yesterday, I read the chapters in the thesis where I explain my 'novel'. It was the first time I've been able to read it for ages without despising it. Pedophilia, infanticide and Stockholm Syndrome. God, and I thought I was writing about blokes in boats and warrior princesses sailing across the Southern Ocean. Not so. My old predator dreams have returned and alerted me to something more serious going on. It is my own stuff, yes but I also feel like I'm awakening the dead and not all of them are happy.

A few days ago I sprung the question of invoking dead people to a heritage officer who was showing me some good fishing spots on google earth: "Look. This may sound like a whacky question but I want to know what you think from an Aboriginal perspective. I've been writing about these sealers for a few years now -"
"- oh those sealers, they were bastards," he said. He's aware of the work I am doing. The seven year old girl came from his country and we've talked about her before.
"I'm getting some really bad dreams. Nightmares. I'm wondering if you think I'm ... you know ... waking them up or something."
He was grumbling about the slow speed of his government computer but when I said that, he stopped and turned his chair towards me.
"You have to learn how to look after yourself, Sarah."
"I don't know how to. I don't even know what is going on."
"I have to do it all the time. Only a few months ago we were digging up the old peoples' bodies in the sand dunes a bit north of here and reburying them in good ground. For me, and I think I know what you are going through, it's different though, but for me, every week in this job it is a ... a ..."
"Occupational hazard?"
"Yeah, yeah. I have to check myself emotionally, every week."

What I liked was that he was immediately on the same page as me. There have been a few other folk: MF, my phd supervisor, Cro and others who, when I tried to explain my own psychological cost of writing out the trauma of the girls and committing their experiences to writing, all stepped up and said "You're not going crazy, Sarah. This is real." I cannot go into everything they expressed here right now, only to say, thanks.

Later he gave me some sandalwood, saying, "This stuff is really nice. It's good sandalwood. I got it out near the place I was showing you on the computer. Smoke yourself, smoke your house. You've gotta fix yourself up every week, girl."

It looks like any old bunch of twigs and branches, slightly gnarled and a barked grey that scrapes away to brown under the fingernail. Much like any dried wood you would drag out of the bush when you wanted to make a quick cup of tea. That night I put a cigarette lighter under a frayed end of a branch, blew on the embers til they glowed red and waved the small piece of wood around my body. It smelled beautiful, like incense.

So it is kind of interesting that next Monday I'm going public to talk about bringing historical characters to life, while the same characters are crawling through my dreams wanting to either beat/rape/brain me with lumps of wood, or be saved from the same fate. Okay. I so want those psychopathic sealers and traumatised girls to just go back to sleep and leave me alone right now. There are other, nicer trajectories I want to go on: landscape, research and the archives: but the bad dreams ... the idea that I am summoning up people and at the same time accepting my own dark side  ... it has to be acknowledged, otherwise my side of the talk would be half-arsed.
What to do. Just go there, I guess. 

In Their Skin: Finding the Body and Soul in Historical Writing.
Feb. 25th, 3.15 - 4.15pm @ Liberte'

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bringing Bessie Flowers Home

Something special is happening on Sunday in Albany's St John church gardens ...

Welcome to the country of the Minang people. The homeland from where Bessie Flowers and five other girls left 146 years ago. They left not knowing how long they would be gone or if they would ever return. We at last welcome them home.
Uncle Ezzard Flowers.

Bessy Flower, or Bessie Flowers, she was a clever girl, spoke fluent French and once defeated the Victorian chess champion at his own game. She left Albany in 1867 for Gippsland, where she worked as a teacher, an amanuensis for her new Aboriginal community and as a domestic servant. Bessy always anticipated her return to Albany. She missed her home-country and wrote, 'never mind, I won't have very long to stay'.*

Bessie married in Gippsland and had eight children, two of whom died. She never returned to Albany. She died in 1895, aged 43. This Sunday her Koori descendants are coming from Victoria and Up North to congregate in the gardens of the Anglican church, the same church where Bessie once worked as an organist. 

So if you are in town, join the local Noongar community for a moving ceremony of song, smoke and sand as they welcome home the spirit of Bessie Flowers.

1.50 pm, Sunday, 24th of Feb. St John's Anglican church lawns. After that we'll walk up to the town hall where Ezzard Flowers, the Aunties and Sharon Huebner from the Monash Indigenous Centre will be talking about Bessie's life and sharing some stories about their own.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Just Wow

The Endurance getting slowly crushed by ice

Last night I read an article by Jo Lennan in The Monthly. Here is an excerpt:

"Wonderful, aren't they?" Jarvis said as he donned the mitts. "They look just like beavers. There are lots of jokes, obviously." The rugged 46 year old slipped the lanyard over his head. "It's like a kid when you don't want him to lose his gloves - but you cannot afford to lose your gloves. You put one down, it gets blown away and you lose your fingers."

A composite photograph and drawing of the Endurance crew's whaleboat hut
on Elephant Island
He was preparing for a journey that is now underway: in mid January, Jarvis and a five man crew set sail from Elephant Island, off the Antarctic coast. They aim to re-enact Ernest Shackleton's 1916 sea-and-land crossing to a whaling station on the island of South Georgia - and, along the way, to photograph signs of climate change.

Sir Ernest Shackleton

To keep things interesting, they've gone with vintage gear, right down to their replica seven metre whaler - "really a hopeless boat." The Monthly, February, 2013, p.13.

A drawing of the whaleboat James Caird sailing from Elephant Island
to South Georgia to raise the alarm of the Endurance sinking.

Shackleton and crew arriving at South Georgia

"The cliffs we descended whilst crossing the island"
South Georgia.

The Endurance's journey in red.
The James Caird in blue.

This morning I woke up to Fran Kelly on Radio National interviewing Tim  Jarvis, who has just made it, along with Barry Grey, from Elephant Island via the huge seas of the Southern Ocean to South Georgia and then overland to that island's whaling station. They achieved this amazing feat with much the same equipment as Shackleton's crew: hobnail boots, sleeping bags stitched from reindeer hides, beaver skin mitts, a single wooden adze for a mountain climbing pick and a wooden boat whose maximum speed is around two knots.

I've rarely heard Fran Kelly, the cool-as-a-cucumber political reporter, sound so excited.
Here is a link to her interview. It's great.

And here is a link to The Shackleton Epic's website:
Colour images: Adelaide Now and The Australian.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

And that was all she wrote

The woman is perfected
Her dead  
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity 

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.
Silvia Plath 

Sarah T and Sarah D

Sarah Toa and her alter ego - that woman who was birthed as Sarah D -  are set on a course to collide sometime very soon. My book is coming out this year and I'm building a website under my real name to sell it and to publish the photographs I have taken of the fisher men and women whom I've been writing about for five years or so.

Most of these guys would prefer to remain anonymous. They are quiet people who work the inlets every day. Having their images posted on the internet may bother them. (I'll ask them first, mind.) They are capable of accessing the weather reports and getting the latest market prices but they are still old-school when it comes to their privacy. Fisher folk and gold prospectors will never change like that.

Anyway, what I'm really on about is how to move from this winedark sea telling ripping yarns, to a public persona who has to flog her book. When we were driving from Albany to Denmark yesterday, my friend said, 'whenever I am faced with two choices like yours, I choose both.' I really like this. Choose both.

This blog has been a space for me to bare my throat, to expose my belly. Originally my pseudonym was created to protect me from litigation but everyone in this small town knows who I am anyway. sarah toa freed me up to go Beloved on the arse of people and corporations that gave me the shits, whilst dressed in an attractive princess warrior suit and raising a middle finger to the world.
(Beloved? Read Toni Morrison and weep.)

Writing as sarah toa also taught me to write as a human being, to admit my frailties ... it is a great leveller that pseudonym. But what happens when my first book comes out and the reviews begin? I know the reviewers will google my name and find the stories about love affairs and parties and my cranky outbursts about dredging our harbour and photographs of my grand daughter and legendary screw ups.

I'll get over this (It's like turning forty - you freak for the month beforehand and get up on your birthday and life is still quite okay ... ) but right now on the eve of publication, it is a conundrum. I'm not giving up sarah toa because I like her/me. A WineDark Sea and her followers have nurtured me for years. I don't want to censor myself but I have to learn how to protect this sarah toa child.
I choose both.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Queen of My Heart

An orb weaver strung an impossible web between the sky and the wind, between two trees for the night. She’d done the radials when we first saw her and was working on the wheel. She had three or four lines dancing around the outside already. 
'Oh look, she’s got lots of babies!' I said.
But he replied that they weren't babies and he was right; she was capturing midgies, tiny black prey dotted around the outside of her new web.

I walked under the web to see it from the other side, up against the gunbarrel sky. I blundered into one of her main support struts and watched dismayed as the whole construction caved in on itself. The orb weaver frantically tried to restrain and rebuild the flailing threads of her home before the sun went down.

Oh come then and rove
To the seas or the grove,
When the moon is rising bright
And I'll whisper there
In the cool night air
What I dare not to - in broad daylight.

What do you do with a one who hands you candied sweets so laced with desire and carnage? And what was Percy Shelly really up to, while his wife was writing Frankenstein?

‘I’m weaning myself,’ I  said to my friend, in the days, weeks, before he sent me that poem. She was both impressed and  doubtful with my resolution. She knows me. She is a good friend.

Weaned? I must be hauled away by oxen and tied to a stake on a foreign beach, burned alive and my smoldering organs set out for the brindle dogs to fight over, before I would leave. Here lies a woman boarded by pirates, set alight and burned to the waterline, before she would be weaned.

I keep thinking about that spider. When I wandered into her web, I was both oblivious and hyper aware of the cornerstones that she had built, rebuilt and repaired. From the peppermint trees to the cobweb to where the rain fell on hot gravel, he and I walked away thoughtless and innocent, hand in hand like exiles from the garden.

Queen of my Heart
Percy Byshe Shelley.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

High Tide, Low Tide

Can you see the arcs of stone under the water? Polarised sunnies would help, I guess. These stone fish traps in Oyster Harbour are estimated to be about seven thousand years old. They've been breached, or at least scattered around a lot but recently I was down there and noticed one of them managed to snare a black bream.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

So Much Fun

Google search terms that end up here can be both hilarious and a bit disturbing. Some people search for my full name looking for a Scottish quilter, police woman, sprinter, violinist ... and they find me, poor buggas. Others are on a more quixotic venture. Here are some search terms that arrived at A WineDark Sea this week. Below each search term is a link to the posts they got to.

1. Ivor cutler herring
Whoever you are, wherever you are, you are so very cool.

2. Kundip and surrounding land for sale
Go away. I don't like you, already. 

3. Bodies of Subversion: a secret history of women and tattoo
Go to the New York Times. God. All I did was steal two pictures (two! and the copyright was over like a hundred years ago).

4.Matthew Flinders map
Well. You're lost, mate. Thousands have come to A WineDark Sea looking for Flinders' map. It's a sorry fact that I was infatuated with Indiana Jones when I wrote about Flinders getting stuck in Mauritius, but here you are. Two hundred years after Flinders first posted his happy snaps, people are still hunting for that map. What the hell. Admit it. You are lost. Not my fault.

5. pinoy pigeon
Finding-a-pinoy-racing-pigeon's-leg-ring-at-the-top-of-a-mountain is a great story if I may say so myself. This is a true ripping yarn.

6. aboriginal naked
7. aboriginal naked woman
Errk. I still can't work out how you got here. Really.

8. blood sports when wearing something tight
Oh of course! Leonard Cohen. Who else would mention extreme blood sports and tight clothing in the same song?

9. Chris Langslow
Those dastardly ukelele wielding asylum seekers have some explaining to do. Again, not my fault. Absolutely nothing to do with me.

Notes # 243

Wow, what those little burnt offerings do to me. Why I return beats me, except that they still exist and nearly didn't, just like me. Anyone who has been swimming in A WineDark Sea over the years will know the story of my notes that survived the fire: an unpleasant incident where I set fire to fifteen years' worth of personal diaries to appease a jealous fiance who would have preferred to marry a clean-slate girl. The thing is the fire's remnants are rather beautiful artifacts. The stuff written in them is the standard agonised navel-gazing formative stuff that when you read later are boring as shit, tawdry and excruciatingly embarrassing. But as artifacts, they are beautiful. Precious ... taonga, as Merc said once.

Romancing the Medicine Wheel ... I think I was referring to the wolves in this quote above and how they disappeared from Europe and the Americas due to people's fear. Cue the twenty first century and replace wolves with folk you don't know.

 I still love the Nepalese books, hand made of cloth paper with beautiful designs on the hard cover. My pen bounces over fibre strands, making the writing shaggy with texture. At that stage I loved my fine Artlines. These days any Uniball or Bic will do but I still buy these books to write stuff in.

Once upon a roadkill I found a kookaburra and a picture to sticky tape its poor old tail feathers to.

A dream ... the same dream I still have from time to time. I break into a house that isn't mine. The inside of the house is gutted by fire but there is a complete bookshelf of the most amazing books. I know I'm in danger so I can't sit and relax to read (there are no chairs anyway). On the table are candelabras burning four, five six candles.


The day I was tattooed for the first time, she turned up at my house with a milk crate full of her equipment and set to work on me. I was romancing Stormboy's father-to-be at the time and she tattooed him too. We spent a summer's afternoon in a sweaty fugue of pain and endorphins. She was really beautiful and getting tattooed was horny, given the hormones and natural painkillers coursing through our bodies. Later we went for a swim at Muttonbird to cool off. All the colour dropped out of my tattoo and she had to come back and do it again. My foot has been retouched again since. Getting your foot tattooed, that drumming of needle on bone, it really hurts.


Several pages of the diary look like this. After I'd set fire to the whole stack and stoked them for several hours, I went to bed exhausted and quite traumatised. My fiance got out the hose, bled the text into flaking charcoal. He could have been coming from honourable intentions, but for hiding the remaining diaries from me because he wanted to read the rest in private. Days later I realised what he'd done when he started quizzing me. I found his stash of my diaries, took them out to the rubbish truck as it went by, threw them in. 

This is one of the few books that survived. For some reason I kept it and wrapped it in a silk scarf. As I opened it tonight, pieces of it fell into my lap, pieces that I brushed away like cigarette ash.

The hose-soaked page above is detailing a tarot reading with a man sitting resident in a local crystal shop. I still think about that reading sometimes. He talked about a straight-backed woman with a red plait down her back going to market with her produce. "This is you," he said. "But not yet. Now you're stuck with the same thing that will play out over several seven year cycles." Even though he claimed to be a gypsy and smelt like cum (no, really) and used cards that he claimed were his grandmother's and probably weren't, even though he was leery ... I know now this old bloke's words have repaid me more than the twenty bucks I gave him seventeen years ago.