As part of the 2013 Melbourne Writers Festival, the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E) hosted a series of events where I was invited to speak from the perspective of reader. Here I share my talk, inspired by some of the strong women of my reading life.
MADE BY READERS: AMY TSILEMANIS
Reading and writing have always been very special to me. When I was quite young, before I could read, my mum used to record tapes of her reading my favourite stories for weekends when she was away. And according to the dust cover of my first novel Pigs Can Fly I wrote my first short story when I was four. I’m not sure of that accuracy but I certainly did and do love books ; )
Last month I staged my first solo exhibition here in Ballarat and the theme of course was books and reading. The show was called ‘The Space Between’ and through various artforms I looked at people’s relationship with books, reading, and the search for knowledge in this time of rapid change. When interviewing my younger sister for the project and asking if she could imagine a world without traditional books her answer was “hello, museums!” which was sort of a joke but also kind of interesting. The discussion around reading and technology is a whole other talk, but my research did tell me that paper or digital- words, and stories are still as important as ever.
I think one of the things I love most, is the way that reading is such a personal, intimate experience but at the same time wonderfully universal. In both instances, it is about sharing, and sharing stories, knowledge, passion, and ideas is a powerful thing, making it necessarily a political thing. Again due to time, I won’t speak here so much of the huge inequity between those that read and those that can’t (or their varying levels of access) which of course colours this conversation. But rather I want to focus on the power of words and of engaging with them, through some examples in my reading life.
As a child, learning to read, and then write, there was a process of discovery, that included learning of my own sense of agency, of having a role in shaping the story of my life and how I found meaning in the world around me. Storytelling is all about communicating, exploring, learning…
In Grade One, our teacher gave us a writing task of copying out a story- I think it was Jack and the Beanstalk, and my best friend Clare and I weren’t too pleased about that, we wanted to use our own imaginations, and as I remember make the hero into a heroine! But we were told we couldn’t. My friend’s mother Ann Stafford, also a teacher, didn’t care for this much either and took a stand for us. She is now an internationally renowned literacy coach and interviewing her recently for my show what came through really strongly with teaching children to read was the idea of critical reading, leading to critical engagement with the world- sparking thinking and questions. It seems like an obvious thing but I think it’s a really key part of reading and properly connecting with text.
Clare and I later at age ten also set about writing our autobiography ‘Growing up in Wonders’ We were strange kids but these were important lessons about the power of story and our engagement with it, whether through reading or writing.
I have always been interested in the smart, slightly wild heroines of literature (does anyone remember The Story of Tracy Beaker? That was one of my favoirites), & hence my recent excitement over my first encounter with Miles Franklin. This month I tore through My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung (I have a lovely little edition here, that came to me as a cast off from the library). For those unfamiliar, Franklin wrote My Brillant Career when she was still a teenager as a kind of fictionalised autobiography starring Sybylla Melvyn, that was published in 1901, and wrote My Career Goes Bung afterwards, capturing the entertaining but troublesome exeriences of Sybylla/Miles post publication (not published until the 40s). Miles Franklin was a woman before her time, wanting to be not only a reader, but a writer, and choosing a career over marriage.
Within My Brilliant Career, social/cultural ideas around reading and literacy are also presented, for example- Sybylla’s experience as a governess with a semi-literate family, hungering for reading material where the only thing available is the father’s farming diary, and when she finally has a physical breakdown from the stress of her situation, there is the heartbreaking scene that describes him sitting down to write a letter home to her parents, and taking three hours to get out the simplest of messages.
In the book she says: “Why do I write? For what does anyone write? Shall I get a hearing? If so, what then?” Reading and writing is about voices- being heard, being shared, bring critically read and experienced. With the example of My Brilliant Career– the ‘what then?’on the one hand, was the shame bought upon her, the upset in her family and community as she had written so honestly. But at the same time as the father character reminds her in My Career Goes Bung it meant some people who had never read another book picked up hers and READ and got something out of it, including the many girls around the country that wrote to her, saying that she had captured just their feelings. It is remarkable that over 100 years on, this book can speak so freshly and clearly to the likes of me, on the nature and consequences of conventions, of the hunger for life and experience, of being different, of having a distinct voice.
The other book I want to mention is set in Iran: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, A Memoir in Books. While very different, the voices of these two smart, strong women reach out across time and geography and I love that. In the space between reader and writer, words and the world, conversations are opened, experience shared, and understanding begun. When I read of a bright teenager longing to experience the world in rural Federation Australia, or of a bright woman challenging oppressive politics in Tehran, worlds open, and in these two examples, to quote Nafisi on the secret book club she holds for her female students- “a place of transgression…a wonderland” is created. This may be true of both the act of reading, and the content of books themselves.
The story of the book club, where they read Nabakov, Austen, Fitzgerald, is told through the stories and lessons of the books they study, within the context of a world where they are in retreat “an active withdrawal from a reality turned hostile,” one in which their reading habits are scrutinised and potentially dangerous.
Reading, writing, and knowledge is power, and when taken away, our freedom to connect, challenge, ask questions, share, be together, and act, is severely lessoned. I am lucky to say that I have never been in this situation (beyond my Grade 1 stand against the stifling of imagination and creativity) and I hope to keep sharing the joy of reading in whatever way I can.
I’d like to close with Miles Franklin’s dedication in My Career Goes Bung:
“To all Australian writers who were as young, are as young, and who each decade will be forthcoming as young, as I was when foolhardily I first tried to write.”
Poem boats/boat poems for friends
August. Bergamo: A letter to Miranda July?
Dear Miranda July,
On the night of August 18th 2012, I started reading your book ‘It Chooses You.’ It was on my friend’s bookshelf where I was staying and couldn’t sleep as I had been sent the ear infection of Lucifer (plus throw in a heat wave). It was fitting as we had not long ago watched your film The Future and I enjoyed reading some of what went on behind the scenes and I also love peeking into the strange lives people lead and the weird artefacts that surround them (do you know the magazine Found?)
I read about half of the book that night and the other the next morning whilst sitting in an Italian emergency room. There was a TV screen listing our names and level of urgency. I was code white: non-urgent.
Did the ear infection choose me?
To make me stronger? More empathetic? To improve my Italian?
Anyway, there I was, surrounded by people with oxygen masks and all manner of things plugged in, and fluids and bandages (& in my head ‘I don’t want to get old, I don’t want to get old’) and I got to the last chapter about Joe and his sixty years worth of dirty love limericks and it all somehow felt ok, and amazingly sad of course! but I held the book to me, in its handsome hardback cover and paper stock, as they called my already strange name in an even stranger accent, to be bestowed with antibiotics for the devil in my ear.
Thanks for the not-sleeping/emergency room read. It was perfect,
P.S- Please note that throughout this experience, having that day watched a documentary about Bob Marley and his life, I had Don’t Worry About a Thing… running on repeat in my head. The final scene depicted people from all around the world doing Bob Marley related things. Would it have been inappropriate to join people’s hands together between wheely beds and wheel chairs and cruise through the Bergamo hospital singing Bob Marley? It was the one thing missing from the documentary… ; )