Kathy Hunt | June 06, 2009
Article from: The Australian
The Weight of Silence
By Catherine Therese
Hachette, 284pp, $29.99
AS this book demonstrates, becoming a writer in Australia does not begin with a declaration of intent. This may happen in the US and the old world but it is different here, historically so in a country that loves talk but suspects language. Pots and paintings can be held and hung but, prizes aside, an appreciation of the real weight and value of words is not endemic.
Perhaps this is why so many official ways have been found to legitimise and justify writing, from the humble community house and its creative writing class to the PhD pot of gold at the end of the academic rainbow, where many hands make light work of what should always be an individual endeavour, as lonely as that is.
Publishers also play a role in shaping a nation's literature, as distinct from merely printing and selling books. Hostages to their simple but inflexible financial agendas, they are bookies in all but name, backing the safe and predictable over the dark, bolting horses of originality and talent. Occasionally, however, something unexpected happens in the neatly regulated world of international publishing, and this is it.
Born quietly in 1965 -- quietly because her mother never made a sound in the labour ward -- Catherine Therese wrote the first draft of this memoir when she was four. This would have been about the time her mother chased her on to the family's Blacktown veranda at the point of a purple feather duster, the colour remembered 40 years later by a girl born to write about it.
In a nod to the era, Therese summons up the Vietnam War, Vatican II and the slow erosion of the White Australia Policy. More importantly, it was also the time her father went from liking to needing a drink, just one of the secret burdens implied in the book's title.
Any writer will tell you that living in fear stamps experience on the creative mind. The Weight of Silence is fuelled by the author's childhood fears: fear of her father's alcoholic rages, fear for her mother, fear of being the odd sock in her family and outside it, fear, a writer's fear, of being a nobody, of disappearing in the mix, of never existing on the page.
Therese need not have worried. A force of nature, she explodes in print, leaving the PR girls scrambling after her in a messy, inarticulate attempt to package her themes: the child's experience; family life; the importance of remembering; losing yourself; finding yourself; growing up in an alcoholic household; and, the big one, teenage pregnancy.
"How did I end up a slut up the duff?" our heroine asks, Answer: the same way as everyone else, but with a little more sand in your pants.
Climaxing in possibly the longest, loudest labour ward scene in modern Australian writing, the newborn weight of silence comes in at a good old-fashioned nine pounds, four ounces. It's a boy, fathered by the revolting Arnold, a totally unsuitable and therefore irresistible swain. In one of her pithy observations Therese describes the doomed relationship: "The more we went together the less of him showed up." But "the lost puppy thing he did with those eyes" is addictive, even if his vocabulary is in single digits and rarely goes beyond "Yee-ha."
Being young, Catholic and pregnant is confusing for the girl who took Maria Goretti for her confirmation name. The patron saint of rape victims, the Italian martyr with the multiple stab wounds has it all over a schoolgirl of easy virtue who, for her sins, must climb the mountain of paperwork pertaining to premature pregnancy.
What, for example, does BFA mean? Big fat ankles? Bachelor of fine arts? She is shocked to learn that the initials stand for baby for adoption. Having dished up nearly two pages of full stops to indicate that words have failed her in communicating her stunned reaction to being pregnant, the writer also gives us 1 1/2 of BFAs to emphasise the seriousness of that predicament. It is bold, brave and visually stimulating, a style spike in a book that combines prose, performance poetry and a kind of rap.
Hatched mainly at the Varuna Writers House, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, a property donated by genteel author Eleanor Dark, such pyrotechnics may seem radical, but Dark herself was no stranger to experimentation or controversy, and if people imagine that Therese is less of a writer for being hip and lively let me disabuse them of the notion.
She may never write another book -- this is, after all, a memoir that has been incubating all her life and is now out of her system -- but what she has done and how she has done it is what good and great writing is all about. Yee-ha.
Kathy Hunt is a literary critic based in rural Victoria.