I still have to pinch myself that I’m primarily an author of non-fiction – because I always dreamed of being a novelist. Most of my earlier writing was of people and places that only existed in my head.
While I haven’t let go of that original dream (I have at least two novels currently percolating in my brain), I have realised there are great stories all around me. Why do I need to invent anything when I can use events that actually occurred and people who really lived? Especially when many of these stories remain largely untold.
I certainly discovered this as I researched and wrote Many Hearts, One Voice, although sadly, the realisation was too late when it came to my grandmother and her ancestors. I could make the excuse – possibly legitimately – that she seemed reluctant to talk about her past, and so Mum and I were hesitant to ask the questions that might uncover any skeletons in the closet. But if I’m completely honest, I probably wasn’t interested when it really mattered. Consumed by the daily details of my own little world, I didn’t take the time to consider her life outside being my Nanna.
I know hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if I had my time over, I’d ask a few more questions, dig a little deeper, be more interested. After spending the past eight years immersed in the war widows’ stories, I’ve come to value the rich and complex tapestry of people’s lives.
Some of the women I interviewed for Many Hearts, One Voice were initially reluctant to tell their stories, believing they had nothing of value to add, that their story wasn’t very exciting – and yet once I got them talking, there was always something valuable to record, always a story worth telling, whether that be a little known historical fact, such as what a parlour car was, or simply their experience of living in a particular time and place. Without their story, history would be lost and we would miss out on those alternative perspectives to existing narratives.
I recently launched a local anthology arising out of the Past Tense group that meets at the KSP Writers’ Centre in the Perth foothills. Each story in the collection, titled Truth or Lies, adds something to what I know of the world, offers alternative perspectives to known events, or invites me to experience unfamiliar times and places – from local stories describing a country medical practice in Mundaring and farm life in Chittering, to far flung locations such as Brunei, Vietnam, Ghana, Calcutta and New Zealand.
Truth or Lies includes the re-imagined lives of loved ones, as well as personal memories evoked by a particular keepsake or photograph. I read about the experiences of childbirth in 1940; waiting for news of loved ones in Melbourne during the Second World War; visiting Ghana in the 1970s and sailing into Auckland. There were gentle reminiscences, tales of travel and adventure, and stories that took courage to tell.
As the anthology’s title suggests, memoir is not as simple as just writing down what happened. The blurb on the back cover of Truth or Lies asks, “Is memory a reliable quality or would someone else sharing the event tell it differently?”
Memory is by nature partial and subjective. No two people will tell the same story in exactly the same way. We might even recall something because someone else told us it happened. And sometimes, we ‘remember’ things that didn’t actually happen at all. At times, it could be argued that there’s a truth in fiction that we’re unable to express in non-fiction. In volume one of her autobiography, Doris Lessing goes as far as saying:
I believe that whether you’re writing a story as close to your own memory as possible, have chosen to re-imagine a scene from an ancestor’s life, or created fiction with “its roots embedded in truth”, whether you’ve come to these stories with reluctance or a sense of urgency, whether the stories are for you alone, for your family or a wider audience, these stories matter.
I like to think of it in terms of these words by Charles de Lint:
Over to You
What story or stories do you have to tell?