Liz Byrski and Rachel Robertson (eds). Purple Prose. Fremantle, Western Australia: Fremantle Press. RRP: $27.99, 202 pp, ISBN: 9781925163094
In her personal essay about her relationship with her elderly mother, ‘Into the Whipstick’, Anne Manne writes that if asked to do a word association on the prompt purple her mind would immediately conjure the word fidelity (47). After reading this and the other fourteen pieces inspired by the colour purple in Liz Byrski and Rachel Robertson’s edited collection Purple Prose, I would say that the predominant word that flies to my mind is relationship. In this richly varied canvas of memoir and personal stories crafted by some of our best women writers the importance of relationships resounds. Relationships with mothers, lovers and ex-husbands, with aunts and fellow football fans; a relationship with a sibling that had to be renegotiated, poignantly explored by Natasha Lester; even brief encounters such as Sarah Drummond’s ‘man with whom [she’d] had a cursory but … what is the word … Instructive? enlightening? conversation with just once …’ (81). Indeed, the quote from Laurence Sterne with which the collection is opened—‘writing, when properly managed … is but a different name for conversation’ (7)—reminds that conversation is at the heart of our encounters and leads the reader to the next thought: that the literary equivalent of relationships is connections between experiences and ideas. As contributor Tracy Farr remarks, ‘Life fuels fiction; fiction holds truths that sit, waiting to resurface—waiting for an invitation to write about purple—and to connect’ (85).
The fifteen authors deliver a wealth of connections in response to purple and the resulting themes and topics—too diverse to portray faithfully in this review—spin off from delicious associations which include a mother with a potty mouth, the feathers of a pigeon’s throat, the Dockers’ Purple Haze, Krishna’s deep blue, almost purple skin and the memory of a younger self’s painted toe nails. At times purple explicitly drives a piece, as in Hanifa Deen’s ‘My Descent into Purple’, which explores colour and identity: ‘We begin to slowly understand the place of colour in our lives, and identify with certain pigments at our mother’s knee’ (163). At others colour emerges subtly or catches the reader by surprise, as in Lucy Dougan’s snippets of family history in ‘Mary’: ‘Purple is also the colour of bruises (life holding on too hard) … an eye-shadow compact I owned called Wuthering Heights’ (99); and Toni Jordan’s wonderful homage to her unconventional mother whose speech ‘always seemed purple to me: ripe and heavy as a plum, as full of meaning and subtext as a bruise’ (38).
Unsurprisingly, bruising is a recurring motif in several of the essays, an inevitable consequence of our bumping up against each other. As Jaqueline Wright remarks: ‘people will bruise us. We know they will because we’ve been bruisers ourselves’ (149). The origins of purple dye, and the colour’s associations with wealth, royalty and feminism are other repeated themes. Another is transformation and how women adapt to change, or metamorphosis as Amanda Curtin describes it in her piece of the same name and in which she says: ‘I need to believe that, in growing older, the focus might be on the growing’ (185).
I found that with each new piece, I read less consciously for the purple in the prose and increasingly became lost in the always intriguing, sometimes humorous, and often poignant range of experiences shared. In these instances, the colour ‘washed’ over me in a process beautifully echoed in Rosemary Stevens’s essay about art when she explains that the Impressionists broke with the standard practice of mixing colour on the palette and ‘applied their colours raw from the tube to be mixed in the eye of the beholder’ (141).
Byrski, whose previous works include novels such as Family Secrets (2014) and Last Chance Café (2011), and non-fiction including In Love and War: Nursing Heroes (2015); and Robertson, memoirist and author of Reaching One Thousand (2012), contribute essays of their own to Purple Prose, as do Annamaria Weldon, Deborah Hunn and Lily Chan. The greatest contribution the editors make, however, is the conception of the whole, arising we are told, during a ‘conversation between two friends over a cup of tea’ (7) in a herb- (I imagine lavender) scented garden. It is a delight to dip into these works by leading Australian writers of such diverse ages, cultures and backgrounds—our own purple-clad royalty—and to allow oneself to be showered, in Stevens’s words, by a ‘jacaranda blessing’ (141).
Helena Kadmos writes short stories and is published in Australia and the United States. She teaches in the English and Creative Writing programme at Murdoch University where she also pursues a research interest in the short story cycle.