Helena Kadmos is in the final year of her PhD candidature at Murdoch University, where she is investigating, creatively and critically, the potential of the short story cycle to tell stories about women’s ordinary lives.
Volume 31, November 2014
Feminist theorists have written extensively about the nature of knowledge about, and formed by, women. Broadly, their contributions have focussed on ‘the critique of the individualism of modern epistemology, [and the] reconstructions of epistemic subjects as situated knowers’ (Grasswick, 2013, np). They have challenged traditional views of knowledge as fixed and unyielding by claiming that various facets of identity, such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity and class, impact on reading and research, shaping, for instance, the questions that are included and excluded from the reader’s lines of enquiry. These factors are therefore epistemologically significant in thinking about who can know, and what one can know. For instance, philosopher Lorraine Code asserts that the creative interplay between objective and subjective facets of knowledge construction mean that ‘knowing other people, precisely because of the fluctuations and contradictions of subjectivity, is an ongoing, communicative, interpretive process [that] can never be fixed or complete …’ (1991, 38). This claim seems particularly pertinent to the interactive processes by which individuals come to a greater sense of who they are in the context of the wider family. In this article, I draw from this body of work to examine how the short story cycle might, in a specific and concrete way, imaginatively represent these processes. I argue that characteristics of the short story cycle, such as the open-ended lapses between stories, and the focus on minor narrative arcs, make it a suitable form through which readers may piece together disjointed and sometimes inconsistent detail to achieve some sense of knowable truth about women whose lives contain aspects that remain unarticulated. I illustrate these arguments with the example of Purple Threads (2011), a collection of stories based on the personal experiences of Wiradjuri writer and scholar, Jeanine Leane. By focussing on discrete experiences in each individual story, Purple Threads builds a uniquely Australian picture of three generations of women and girls who experience simultaneous and multiple oppressions on the basis of their colour, sex and class, yet survive and in many ways thrive by drawing on a range of skills and resources. Specifically, I use examples from this cycle to show that knowledge passed within and between generations in families is not neutral, objective or finite, but accumulated through exchanges that are often uncertain, sporadic and inconsistent.
When I speak of family knowledge I mean the broad spectrum of information that is passed within and between generations. This includes the day-to-day teaching designed to prepare children to live safely and independently as adults, and understandings of a deeper, broader kind, including family history, the values that shape family structures and ways of engaging with each other and the world, and stories from the past about individual members or events. Importantly, this includes instances when knowledge is revealed and others when it is withheld. These silences are often felt nevertheless and are incorporated into meaning-making processes. Therefore, both the presence and absence of information contribute to building a knowable sense of women’s lives. While I use the term “information” here, I acknowledge that it is an inadequate descriptor for the tangible and intangible material we use to construct knowledge. We receive snippets, either directly given to us (however filtered and impartial), or observed, discovered, happened upon by ourselves, through which we make inferences and speculate about certain truths. Nevertheless, alternative terms, such as data, wisdom, or intelligence, seem equally constrained.
The short story cycle illuminates these interactive processes of making sense of experience—one’s own and others’. Its greater emphasis on isolated and sometimes discontinuous events reflects how knowledge is gained in similar ways. Further, as independent narratives within a unified whole, the stories in a cycle inevitably contain some details that are not followed up on in subsequent stories. These inconsistencies between the stories confound the reader’s expectation for narrative closure in the form proposed by philosopher Noel Carroll: ‘the result of the narrative structure’s answering of all the pressing questions it has stirred in the audience’ (2007, 15). Instead, readers learn to be prepared for the possibility that not all their questions will be answered by the end of the text, creating a different understanding, too, about the extent to which one person can ever claim to fully know another.
Accepting what cannot be known takes on particular significance in relation to the shared history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Many Indigenous scholars, and others working in the field of Indigenous studies, have discussed the problems and politics of knowing others, and their ideas bear on my position as a Euro-Australian researcher investigating a text by an Indigenous writer. Indigenous scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson claims that the dominant regime of academic knowledge is shaped by whiteness, and is therefore ‘culturally and racially biased, socially situated and partial’ (2004, 88), as ‘whiteness opens and forecloses certain ways of reading the Indigenous Other because racial codes are always present in whatever we do and think’ (2006, 255). Non-indigenous scholar Linda Westphalen acknowledges the contentiousness of this position as a researcher when she says that ‘historically, research into First Nations discourses, knowledges, experiences and histories has tended to have been at the expense of, rather than of benefit to, First Nations peoples’ (2012, 60). The importance of these claims cannot be denied. My whiteness shapes my reading and research. However, its actual impact is difficult to determine because my identity encompasses many factors, including my sex, gender, class and sexual orientation. Indigenous scholar and activist, Marcia Langton, illustrates this point when she argues that, while anti-colonial criticisms of the representations of Indigenous people in all forms of cultural expression are essential, it is a ‘naive belief that Aboriginal people will make “better” representations of us, simply because being Aboriginal gives “greater” understanding’ (1993, 27). She describes this as another form of universalizing Indigenous people, ‘without regard to cultural variation, history, gender, sexual preference, and so on’ (27).
Moreover, Yin Paradies, demonstrates the potential complexity of identifying one’s speaking position when he says:
I identify racially as an Aboriginal-Anglo-Asian Australian … my personal history compels me to identify as more than just Indigenous and as other than exclusively White, … I refuse to “surrender my other identities” in order to be Indigenous and, as such, I also identify as “and/or” as well as “not/nor” Aboriginal-Anglo-Asian (2006, 357).
By way of acknowledging that understanding of what it means to speak as a situated knower is an evolving process, I borrow from Lorraine Code to claim that my situation as a knower has epistemological consequences, but is not epistemologically definitive (1991, 4). I accept that my reading is partial, situated and contingent, without being able to determine the full implications of this claim. I also see the benefits of ongoing communication between Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers. David Hollinsworth, for instance, suggests that we ‘create alliances and negotiate collaborations across our partial identifications’ (1995, 97) and Westphalen encourages ‘continuing successful alliances between academics and authors’ (2012, 71). I acknowledge and appreciate the interest that author of Purple Threads, Jeanine Leane, has taken in my research, and am grateful for the conversations we have had that have helped enrich my understanding of her book and the form in general.
Short story cycle is one term, of several in circulation, which refers to collections of self-contained narratives that are linked in one or more ways to bring cohesion to the overall text and to expand or modify the meaning of the stories when they are read together. The simultaneous independence and interrelatedness of the stories sets the short story cycle apart from other narrative forms, such as collections of stories, or novels, even where the latter comprise chapters narrated from different points of view. Often, short story cycles are marketed as novels or collections of short stories, but researchers from the United States, such as Forrest Ingram, Susan Garland Mann and James Nagel, reasonably claim that the emphasis on isolated incidents, rather than a sequence of events that form an overarching plot, distinguishes the form. Ingram’s study is widely regarded as the first attempt to systematically identify the core features of the genre, or ‘the devices by which the “many” become components of the pattern of the “one”’ (1971, 19). Mann (1989) takes a more historical approach, tracing the development of the form as a mode of storytelling with roots in oral traditions through various literary phases to the contemporary cycles of the late twentieth century. Nagel (2001) launches from these previous works to assert that the contemporary short story cycle is popular amongst writers of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds wanting to explore the complex process involved in the formation of identity.
In Australia, the short story cycle form has been used by established writers such as Frank Moorehouse, Thea Astley and Tim Winton to explore themes about place, family and identity, prompting some critical interest from scholars in the interweaving structure of individual texts. For instance, Brian Kiernan claims that the ‘interlinking of characters and themes [in Moorehouse’s cycles] … imply an elusive pattern of interaction, one in which connections are not made as they would be in a traditional novel’ (1981, 75); and Stephen Torre, writing about Winton’s The Turning, draws on Wolfgang Iser’s theory of reader response to claim that ‘the structure built out of the interaction of seventeen stories determine reader participation in the text’ (2009, 282). Nevertheless, a comprehensive discussion of the short story cycle in Australian critical discourse is still developing, aided by researchers such as Victoria Kuttainen, who claims that the form, by virtue of its own structure of discontinuous stories that share unstable borders, is well suited to expressing the ‘lingering anxieties about boundary management’ that are a feature of settler societies (2010, 5). She remarks: ‘for the Indigenous communities affected by settlement and for other cultural groups that have remained sidelined … the nation cannot be regarded as a progress plot’ (3). As an alternative narrative form, the short story cycle, she claims, ‘is useful for articulating certain inconsistencies in those national fictions and in the myths that these settler nations once told themselves’ (11). Indeed, Jeanine Leane’s Purple Threads sits within a growing field of short story cycles by Australian Indigenous women, including Tara June Winch, Gayle Kennedy, and Marie Munkara. These texts represent developments in the tradition of Indigenous life writing that increasingly broaden the field from auto/biography to encompass more overtly creative non-fiction or fiction texts. They also support Nagel’s claim that the short story cycle is often used by writers from diverse ethnic backgrounds wanting to articulate themes about identity formation and place. Further, the simultaneous independence and interrelatedness of the stories in Purple Threads structurally mirrors the many ways that knowledge is shared, received and sometimes withheld in families.
Purple Threads is based on Leane’s childhood in rural NSW. It won the David Unaipon Award in 2010 and was shortlisted for both the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize and the 2012 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Indigenous Writing. The title refers literally to the purple wisteria that grows in wild abundance around the countryside in which the book is set, and figuratively to the women whose influences remain with the protagonist even after their passing. Each of the ten stories and epilogue stands alone and can be read independently. However, they are bound to each other in several ways. Each shares the narrative point of view of a child called Sunny. There is the common setting of Gundagai and its surrounds in the late 1960s and 1970s, and a small ensemble of other characters. Further, the stories are thematically linked around notions of family, and individual and cultural identity. While these stories are light-hearted in tone, and the collection has been described as ‘irreverent’ in style (The Wheeler Centre, 2013) this relatively small and accessible book can nevertheless be unpacked to explore many themes about Indigenous women’s experiences in Australia, including ways that we come to a greater understanding of ourselves and others.
Sunny and her younger sister Star are cared for by their Indigenous Nan and Aunties Boo and Bubby in an old house on land that was once part of a larger farm owned by their late white grandfather, William. Boo and Bubby are the unmarried daughters who stayed at home and cared for their father, and now their mother and nieces. Sunny and Star’s mother, Petal, is Nan and William’s youngest child, but she is rarely actively involved in their upbringing. The stories follow Sunny from about age five to early adolescence, and cover a range of experiences, including her resistance to Sunday school and her confusion about the role of the church and religion in the family, her distant relationship with her mother, meeting her father and white extended family for the first time, and starting school. The Epilogue of the collection, told from an adult Sunny’s perspective, reflects on these early years and offers a meditation on family and how an individual’s cumulative experiences help to shape her life.
The central character, therefore, is an Indigenous child in the particular geographical, historical location of rural NSW in the late 1960s. She lives in a non-nuclear, multi-generational, female-dominated family. For the most part, she has been protected from white assumptions and prejudices about her cultural and ethnic identity. These subjective factors situate her in a specific way to encounter, receive, absorb and respond to a range of experiences throughout her early formative years. While her story is engaging and effective in eliciting the reader’s interest and empathy, this book reveals as much about what Sunny comes to know and understand about her family, in particular the women who are central in her life. Nan and the Aunties are richly drawn characters who offer insights into the diversity of Indigenous women’s experiences in ways that challenge limited stereotypes and that many readers may find refreshing. For instance Nan was raised a Christian and ‘always said it was best to keep up the act in public’ (1), but her real spiritual solace is found in her garden, an extensive, flourishing oasis of native and exotic plants. Aunty Boo is a swearing, staunch, realist who takes an interest in politics and identifies with the women’s movement. Younger Aunty Bubby buries herself in romantic novels, re-reading her favourite, Wuthering Heights, well into her old age.
Leane draws readily on imaginative storytelling techniques to capture these women, including evocative imagery, metaphor, characterization and extensive use of dialogue. Nevertheless, the stories are based on actual incidents from her life, significant moments that represent the impact that her Nan and Aunties had on her developing sense of self. The imaginative elements of the stories, usually associated more with fiction than memoir, are necessary, I believe, to accomplish the minor narrative arcs of the independent stories in the short story cycle. In such narratives, where the author attempts to tell the stories of her female relatives creatively, scholar Tess Cosslet’s observations bring to mind connections between these attempts and the short story cycle form. She views them as ‘feminist-inspired move[s]’ (2000, 142) to reclaim or recover the mother’s subjectivity by writing the mother’s [or aunts and grandmothers] stories in conjunction with one’s own (141). In some instances the mother’s story is lost or hidden (where older relatives are dead, illiterate, or are not writers, for instance). Cosslet claims that very often the author wishes to restore subjectivity to the mother and other female relatives, while also showing their influence on the protagonist, and that these objectives often involve harnessing specific narrative strategies. She describes this as a ‘complex move – the telling of several interconnected life-stories at once, emphasising both the similarities and the differences, the interrelationships and the separateness, of their subjects’ (2000, 142). The imaginative aspects of the stories in Purple Threads, therefore, reinforce the idea that knowledge is not purely objective or empirical, but interpretative, contradictory and unstable, and that meaning-making requires and engages the subject’s imagination. While this can be achieved in a more straightforward, sequential narrative, the short story cycle is particularly adept at conveying interrelationships between people, places and events. This is because its focus on isolated events often leaves some narrative strands unresolved at the conclusion of the stories, and the reader is naturally drawn to connect these points, and to cross-reference between stories to reunite disparate and discontinuous details. In these ways, Purple Threads creates spaces where the reader can appreciate the vitality yet complexity of these women’s ordinary lives. The stories give voice to these women’s knowledge about the land, about what they have learnt as colonised people surviving in a white patriarchal society, and about coping with the ensuing difficulties that inevitably arise in such circumstances.
Many short story cycles reflect what is sometimes thought of as modular, rather than linear, narrative designs. Rather than a sequence of causes and effects, the raw material for the stories is presented in a more fragmentary way, and the reader is encouraged to draw these threads together to enrich the meaning of the overall text. While not limiting this effect to short story cycles, novelist and creative writing teacher Madison Bell claims that this can be an ‘attractive way to show relationships between events or people or motifs or themes’ and that the form is often inseparable from the very meaning of the text (1997, 216). Making a more specific claim about the short story cycle, Karen Weekes argues that: ‘the episodic nature of this mode perfectly complements its content of isolated incidents to be knit together in the search for meaning’ (2000, 7). This can be seen in Purple Threads. Through self-contained stories we see how the girls learn about themselves and others through various means. In many cases through the women’s direct example, but often too the girls make connections between what they hear and see, and through what is left unsaid. The reader also pieces together people, places and occurrences, remembers information previously revealed in one or more stories, and is alerted to knowledge that is withheld, thus experiencing the processes by which Sunny herself gains a deeper understanding of her place in the family and the broader society. The short story cycle therefore, through the cumulative reading of several isolated events represents, structurally, these processes through which knowledge is acquired.
Early in Purple Threads the idea that knowledge is acquired in discontinuous and mosaic, rather than linear, processes is inferred by the reader. In the first story, “Women and dogs in a working man’s paradise”, Sunny describes the daily task of accompanying Aunty Boo into the hillsides to collect tufts of wool stuck in fences, or cut off the backs of dead sheep, to be used for weaving and knitting, and picking up stray or abandoned animals to be taken home and added to an ever expanding menagerie: ‘Our wheelbarrow was always full of lucky lambs and our bags packed with dead wool, all gleaned by women in a working man’s paradise’ (6). The word ‘gleaned’ is interesting here. One original meaning of the word is ‘to gather or pick up ears of corn which have been left by the reapers’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 2012), which implies the skimming-off of the produce left over by others. Common usage of the word broadens its definition to include the processes by which a person gains knowledge, piecemeal, or slowly. Together, these meanings suggest how the less powerful in society, such as Indigenous people, and particularly women and children in 1960s Australia, obtained the social, intellectual and material resources they needed to survive. For Nan and the Aunties, the world that dominated their lives and home (to which they were mostly physically confined), was initially controlled by the father and sons, and continues to be monitored by the white farming community that owns land on all sides of their plot. Understanding of white cultural assumptions and practices is an important resource when navigating their ways through these dominant cultures. This is suggested in a scene where Aunty Boo is using binoculars to spy on a gathering of local white farmers. When Aunty Bubby asks her what she’s doing, Boo says, ‘Never ya mind, sista-girl. I’m jus’ keeping an eye out. Learnin’ lotsa things ’bout this lot’ (143). For Sunny, her world is ruled by adults who hold and sometimes protect information and knowledge about the family and the world, to be given or withheld at their discretion. The short story cycle, a composite of separate experiences in different stories, leaves the reader to also glean information, make links, cross-reference and draw conclusions. In this way it aptly demonstrates how Sunny pieces together the information she gathers, directly through knowledge that is specifically and intentionally imparted to her, or indirectly through what she understands from a look, tone of voice, or silence. This forms the knowledge base about her family and her place in society.
There are many times when the women, Nan and the Aunties, speak directly to the girls in order to teach them something. Their unique vernacular, peppering their talk, as they teach the girls about the world, share stories about the past and reflect on the present, is unguarded and immediate. In one example, when speaking about the Country Women’s Association (which Nan calls the Bloody Cranky Women’s Association), we are told, ‘Nan said she’d never seen a “pack o’ more sour-faced women” in all her life. “Bloody gossipin’ mob, always pokin’ ’round afta church askin’ questions ’bout things that aren’t none of their business”’ (14).
These moments also function to instruct the reader, to record the women’s knowledge for future generations, especially as alternative points of view (to those portrayed as “white”) about the right ways to treat the land and other people. For example, Aunty Boo, complaining about the impact of white farming practises on the soil says, ‘“Look what they done to this ground, girl! Should be black and beautiful jus’ like ya could eat it! An’ look, girl. Jus’ look at it … tired and brown, what’s left of it”’ (3). In another scene, she further laments, ‘“… bloody wasteful, that’s fer sure! See ’em leave dead sheep with good wool jus’ lyin’ out in the paddocks ta rot. An’ baby lambs! Lor’, never seen one of ’em stop an’ pick up a lost baby lamb”’ (143). In yet another scene, she and Sunny stop by a white neighbour’s house where they find an elderly man sitting on the veranda, presumably left alone for hours. This is in stark contrast to the treasured way that Nan is cared for in their home. In direct judgement of what she perceives as white family-structures and social customs, Aunty Boo remarks, ‘“He’s old an’ sick, love. Had a stroke … that means his body’s getting’ old and shut down, but it don’t mean ya treat ’im like he’s not there an’ got no value”’ (150).
Alongside these examples, there are many conversations between the women that take place in front of the fire or during long walks in the countryside, echoing traditional storytelling practices. These moments usually occur within the tight circle of the three older women, whom the two little girls watch and listen to. Sunny tells us that ‘I was always listening to their late night talk around the kitchen fire’ (13). The reader, through Sunny’s narration, also watches and listens from outside of this fireside talk. Anne Brewster, who has written extensively on Aboriginal literature, claims that oral storytelling features prominently in Indigenous women’s narratives, and that it is often ‘didactic (drawing a moral from a particular story or incident)’ and highly colloquial, ‘suggestive of everyday conversation’ (1996, 52). The purpose of these stories is twofold: as lessons for younger family members who have not lived through the times the grandmothers did; and as means of breaking through the blindness of white ignorance about traditional Indigenous culture, and Indigenous experiences of colonisation (43). Teaching, in all forms, is a process of passing on, often from one generation to the next, and may be better understood as an interactive process, because there is always some mutual exchange as lessons offered are interpreted and reapplied in other contexts. In keeping with the nature of the short story cycle, this process may be seen as complex and cyclical rather than monolithic and linear. This is because in a cycle, stories and themes often spiral in a pattern of return, as characters, places or events are revisited, not to the same place they were last seen, but alongside, slightly forward. The spiralling shape of these encounters represents how, in making sense of lessons we learn from others, we modify them and reapply them according to our own needs and situations. Thus the encounters are transformative. We don’t keep repeating the old lessons (or returning to the place of their first offering) but transform and adapt them according to our new experiences and encounters.
I have shown that snippets of directly communicated knowledge and wisdom are scattered throughout the stories, but equally prevalent are the ways that Sunny, shown to be powerless to intervene in the adult world, gathers and reworks knowledge for herself as she tries to make sense of this world. She waits, watches and, most importantly, she listens. She says, ‘I shut my eyes and feigned sleep …’ (37), that ‘I always kept one ear open until I fell asleep. I learnt a lot’ (114), and, ‘I couldn’t resist … and eased forward on my bottom, ever so quietly, till I was close enough to Gypsy to rest my chin on her back and tune my ears to the kitchen’ (127). There is a quality to the adult talk she overhears that comes with the dark and the quiet, when work and other distractions of the day have subsided. She notices the tone of voice used in conversations, and the silences in speech—voids she tries to make sense of as best she can. It is through her child’s perspective that a picture of the women builds slowly, becoming more complex as she grows and is able to understand more clearly what she hears and sees. It is through overheard, discontinuous conversations that she learns about her mother: ‘I knew heaps about Petal, heaps more than Petal knew about me—and more than I was supposed to. Not a day or a night went by without hearing some talk about her’ (22). In the same way, the reader develops a greater understanding of these women’s lives through the experiences that are directly represented in the stories, and through the conclusions drawn by what is left unsaid, or unresolved.
Through Sunny, Leane explores events that made an impact on her life, and that helped to develop her awareness that some people viewed her and her family as different, and sometimes “less than” others. As we have seen, in the creative re-telling of these stories listening is an important means by which Sunny picks up the detail and gathers information that is reworked, according to her understanding at a given age and stage, to help her make sense of these experiences. But what cannot or will not be shared are equally important in the processes of making meaning. These silences may represent characters’ shameful experiences, or frightening or painful knowledge about living in the world from which the older women try to protect the young girls. The story, “Coming home”, when Sunny meets her white family for the first time, abounds in instances where Sunny is exposed to patchy and confusing information that she struggles to understand. For instance, in one scene, while lying on a sofa on the veranda of her grandparents’ farm, she overhears her grandparents and aunt talking about Petal:
‘I wanted a good Catholic girl for our Dinny …’ I could hear Grandma’s lament to Paddy and Sister Bernadette carried on the hot breeze … ‘But an Abo! Lord, what did I do to deserve these trials and tribulations?’ (74).
This is the first reference to any form of the word Aboriginal in the text, which until this moment, has centred exclusively on the family as they look outwards towards the world. The reader is led to conclude that from the family’s perspective, the racial category, Aboriginal, is irrelevant. Sunny is, therefore, perplexed enough by the unfamiliar word and the tone of voice through which Grandma utters it that she raises the matter with Petal later that day:
‘What’s an Abo?’ I asked her.
Petal wasn’t good at explaining things like the Aunties were, and she wasn’t patient either. The colour in her face rose.
‘Wait here!’ …
Later, above the clinking of the cups and plates from the afternoon tea, we heard harsh words coming from the kitchen …
‘You’ll have a bit of respect, Mother!’ (75-6).
Sunny doesn’t directly share with the reader what she makes of these conversations, but we can assume they unsettle her and that opportunities to seek clarification are limited. One of the reasons she and Star are forced to piece together sometimes confusing pieces of information is that they are often forbidden to question matters that are deemed to be adult business. Knowing this, after Sunny’s innocent questioning above, Star admonishes her sister that she ‘… shouldna asked too many questions’ (75). In a later story, “Lying dogs”, Sunny is again reprimanded when she enquires about the bruises she sees on the face of a young female neighbour: ‘Aunty Boo gave a loud snort like she always did if I asked the wrong question to the wrong person and I knew I was going to be jarred for it as soon as she got me on my own’ (116). When Star tries to prod the matter further Aunty Boo responds with an even stronger warning: ‘I’ll kick ya little arses if I ever hear youse kids askin’ questions like that an’ shamin’ people – ’specially women and kids’ (116). These warnings give a clear message to the children, and the reader, that some things should not be questioned or discussed. Restrictions around certain information can lead to silences in families, secrets that are kept for years. In some instances, these secrets are never revealed. Similarly, some events in short story cycles, and the characters who feature in them, are not referred to again after “their story” ends, and the reader may never be informed of their fates. The withholding of information about these characters and events can be as illuminating as what we have been told.
Lorraine Code claims that ‘knowledge of other people is only possible in a persistent interplay between opacity and transparency, between attitudes and postures that elude a knower’s grasp, and traits that seem to be clear and relatively constant’ (1991, 38). The “truth”, therefore, about others (and therefore a sense of oneself and one’s family), is constructed from what can and cannot be told, what is and what is not known. The silences themselves form integral aspects of a whole picture that forms.
Fiction writer and scholar Natalie Kon-yu has documented her own struggle to write about female relatives when some of the information about those women was either restricted by other members of her family, or had been lost in the transition from one generation to the next. She acknowledges that some writers use fiction to tell the stories of women whose lives had been otherwise marginalised in society, but she says that she was ‘concerned that a fiction which followed a trajectory of confession and revelation might perpetuate the myth that women’s lives can simply be re-traced and revealed.’ This, she argues, becomes an almost impossible task when ‘the kinds of gaps, silences, contradictions and omissions in women’s stories … have traditionally rendered them unknowable, and, in many cases, unwriteable’ (2009, 3). She further claims that ‘writing about women’s histories—which have been lost, obscured or omitted from public archives—in fiction is made even more difficult by the genre’s dependence on revelation and closure’ (2010, 2). These claims suggest strongly held assumptions about knowledge (at least as it is revealed through realist narrative fiction) as complete, and objectively available, rather than achieved through a process of interaction, negotiation and reconstruction. They also add weight to the idea that a more open-ended form may prove useful for articulating some women’s experiences where such certainty cannot be guaranteed.
I have argued that the short story cycle lends itself to accommodating silences in stories, that it is sympathetic to the unknowable and the unspeakable, because its essential structure as collections of independent yet interrelated stories means that some narrative strands will necessarily be left unresolved at the conclusion of each story. This is what distinguishes stories in a cycle from chapters in a novel. But secrecy may take on a strategic significance in Indigenous women’s writing like Purple Threads, because historically, connections to country, culture and family are very often disrupted to the extent that for some Indigenous people, silence is a form of self-preservation. Brewster explains:
If storytelling is an important part of family life, so too is silence. … Aboriginal people have for a long time been interviewed by anthropologists and government officials who document and define their lives and their culture; resisting the demand to speak and reveal information can thus be seen as a way of Aboriginal people asserting ownership of their lives and their culture—in other words, of establishing their power (1996, 24).
Purple Threads engages the conflicting tensions between the reader’s conventional expectations for objective, knowable truths, and a writer’s impulse to be faithful to the secrets family elders chose to protect. The short story cycle may have assisted Leane with this dilemma because it typically leaves some questions unanswered by each story’s end. If then, for many readers of western realist fiction, the desire for resolution may be tied to a need for control, Leane’s actions to withhold knowledge or, at least, acknowledge the unknowable, can be viewed as a form of resistance as described by Brewster. The reader is alerted to the possibility of this position early in the text through Aunty Boo, who says, ‘… ya never give away ya best secrets …’ (26).
Some degree of “not knowing” is inevitable in all families as the arrival of each new generation means that some knowledge is left behind in the stories that are carried forward. Some experiences are therefore lost, literally buried with family members. This is poignantly explored in Purple Threads through Sunny’s recollection of information that is forever withheld from her. For instance, in a couple of the stories uneasy references are made to events that occurred while Aunty Boo was in domestic service. In “Waiting for Petal” we are told that Aunty Boo ‘was hell-bent on moving on from her career in the O’Brien household and the goings-on in their chapel’ (25). Later, in another reference to the chapel in “Lilies of the field”, Boo says, ‘I use ta hate that young Martin O’Leary from the Knights o’ the Southern Cross, always skulkin’ round when I was in there’ (46), and Nan responds with: ‘Best let that sleepin’ dog lie. Like them Catholics say, he’ll get his rightful judgment in Heaven’ (47). The silences around Aunty Boo’s experiences with Martin O’Leary hint at the kind of shame that can shroud women’s lives in secrecy, and that Kon-yu encountered in her attempts to write her relative’s life story. Sometimes, while these experiences are not completely understood by Sunny, who is not privy to all the details, their significance is nevertheless felt and the undercurrents of shame that surrounds these secrets is well rooted in her. As she grows older the warnings take effect. The reader understands that Sunny eventually stopped asking questions, in doing so possibly unconsciously colluding with her family to keep some secrets buried forever. In the epilogue, an adult Sunny reflects:
… I never asked Aunty Boo what happened in the O’Brien’s chapel late that evening all those years ago. That was one sleeping dog that I’d always let lie. It could rest in peace forever (154).
While other narrative forms can, of course, handle silences and lapses in stories, the short story cycle seems to be especially suited to doing so because, by its very structure of independent, yet related stories, it does not promise to answer all questions, or to resolve all issues; instead, it allows some loose ends to dangle between and beyond the stories. Not all of the stories in Purple Threads are fully resolved, and one of the reasons for this is that the child who is recounting these experiences may never have heard all the facts. The short story cycle can represent how a family’s knowledge about their different members’ histories and their present lives may be interpreted and pieced together in fragmentary and sometimes disjointed ways. Thus, as individual knowers in specific contexts rework this information, according to subjective needs and understandings, knowledge is built upon over time, through revisiting the past with fresh ears and eyes. The creative potential of the short story cycle also provides flexibility through which to restore subjectivity to women who have been marginalised and ignored in society by imaginatively representing significant moments in their lives and giving voice to their reflections on and interpretations of those experiences. Drawing on these characteristics of the form, author, Jeanine Leane has paid homage to the women who had such a profound influence on her, recording with humour and diligence the stories they told, the knowledge they passed down, the advice they gave, and the secrets they took to their graves, reminding the reader that what is told, and what is not told, all contribute to the creation of a complex story.
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