In 2022, the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP) and Westerly Magazine came together to offer our inaugural joint prize for Life Writing. This competition was open for writers at all stages of their journeys; both emerging and established authors were encouraged to enter.
In judging the prize, we considered Life Writing as a rumination upon memory and experience, and welcomed submissions of autobiography, biography, memoir and essay. We received a rich and brilliant catalogue of entries, making our task in reading difficult as well as enjoyable. We would, in this, like to offer our gratitude to all the writers who submitted—Life Writing is clearly thriving in Australia.
Ultimately, we selected Suzanne Hermanoczki as the winner with her delicate and intricate piece ‘Doors’. Her work reflects upon a holiday stay with family in Hungary, and is an intelligent and masterful consideration of portals, vision, and closings and openings.
We’re proud to now offer this piece here in publication online, recognising its timeliness and importance in reflecting on our world and the current conflict in Ukraine. Alongside publication, Suzanne has received $500 and a subscription to the Magazine.
Our congratulations to Suzanne!
In Ken Josephson’s photograph ‘New York State 1970’, a man’s arm stretches out over the horizon. In his hand, he holds ‘a postcard of an ocean going ship out over Lake Ontario’. Yet, the way Josephson’s photograph is ‘made, not taken’, it wants you to believe the ship is out there on the ocean. John Berger in ‘Magritte and the Impossible’ explains this: ‘through the gap behind the appearances of the sea and sky a dark free impossible emptiness.’ On closer inspection of Josephson’s photograph, the ship is floating above the sea, a gap in the (perhaps blue?) horizon. Where is he / Josephson / the hand / the photographer standing? On the shore? A jetty? You read somewhere that Josephson snapped this himself, but how is that possible? In some of his other images, the hands in the pictures look like someone else’s hands. This photograph reminds you of Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images’; the oil on canvas painting of a smoker’s pipe with the French statement, ‘Ceci n’est pas un pipe.’ This is not a pipe. Ceci n’est pas un bateau. This is not a ship. It is not sailing over the ocean. But it is also of a ship sailing over the ocean.
Sieuw David Hill in his poem ‘the Waterer’ comes to a similar conclusion of how: ‘[ . . . ] if you know what you’re doing, sometimes, a plastic watering can will hold an ocean.’
Several years ago, when you were in Budapest, your cousin took you on a tour of the city. He was carrying a book by photographer Erich Lessing and several personal photographs. It was 2012. Summer. The city was burning hot. Your cousin would walk, talk, and suddenly stop, this time it was at a doorway. Without waiting, he began—speaking in Hungarian, pointing to the places around him, pointing to photographs in the book, pointing to the photographs in his hand. His son, your second cousin, would translate. This is where your father worked. A gesture to the empty shop front. You felt compelled to take a picture. On your phone, a photo of a vacant interior space.
Your cousin led you down some back streets until you were standing outside a huge tenement. This place was where he lived, his son translated. You never knew that. Your cousin then began pressing all the door buzzers; he was trying to talk his way inside the building. Eventually, a woman holding a baby came out. She looked hot, bothered. She wasn’t budging from the doorway. There have been thieves here, she said, eyeing us up and down. Her cheeks were flushed. She kept bouncing her grizzling baby on her hip. Your cousin showed her his photographs. She didn’t look at them. Still, he kept talking and talking until the woman relented. Five minutes, she said holding the door open.
Once inside the tenement, the change was immediate. The inner space was green. Cool even. It felt like entering The Secret Garden. All the apartment balconies faced inwards, towards the inner courtyard. My cousin held out his little square photograph and pointed to the top right corner. There, he said, is where your father lived in the city. You asked him to hold the photo up. As the woman rushed over to complain, No photo! No photo! You snapped. His hand. A photo of a building within a photo of a building. Outside. Inside. Out—
While in Budapest, you read Hungarian writer Magda Szabó’s novel, The Door / Az Ajtó sitting at the table of your other cousin’s kitchen. You keep the white grille door locked but open, to look out at the tenement’s courtyard. The hint of sunlight, the heat, the unfamiliar bird calls, the ever-changing shadows cast by the tall birch tree growing from the centre of the courtyard. A glimpse of leaves. A snapshot from the kitchen table—a uniform wall of rectangular windows and closed doors. As Gaston Bachelard notes: ‘the window is the house’s eye.’
Louis Simpson in his poem ‘Magritte Shaving’ observes this too: ‘The houses look at one another, / a language of windows.’
While in Budapest, you stay with your other cousin. Your other cousin thinks you’re lazy but doesn’t say it. Not directly. It’s the way they look at you, the way they lock the grille door in the morning before going off to work, (sometimes at a shop, sometimes as a cleaner), leaving you to spend entire days reading (Szabó) and writing. You alternate your time here, or in the photographic archives in the Magyar Nemezeti Múzeum researching, taking notes, or a café writing, or walking.
In the basement archives you study what Geoffrey Batchen refers to as ‘vernacular’ photos of ‘everyday’, ‘ordinary’ life, before, during, and after the 1956 Revolution in Hungary. After your first email, requesting (in English) to access their photographic archives (yes), you are greeted at the Múzeum door by Katalin the gentle librarian. You recognise the beginnings of a return smile hinted at the edge of her polite lips, yet, all the time you are there, it never comes. Still, each day as you enter that room another box of photographs would be ‘left out’ for you. Despite the heatwave outside, the archive was cool, ghost cold even.
The message you learn by heart while travelling alone on the yellow trains of the Budapest metro: ‘Tessék vigyázni, az ajtók záródnak.’ Please be careful, the doors are closing.
‘… y el paisaje se retrata en grises…’ Somehow you forget that life existed back then ‘…el color del sitio es gris, como en un eterno otoñal…’ From World War II in the 1940s, to the 50s, time was not a series of black-and-white photographs. ‘Y luego las tropas soviéticas se quedaron con el país y todo se tiñó de grises…’ (Agustín) Seeing colour, a red star, a green uniform, a brown shoe, surprises and shocks you.
Szabó’s The Door / Az Ajtó is about the relationship between a (middle aged, middle class, educated, and recently successful) writer Magda, and her (older, old world, uneducated, peasant class) cleaner Emerence. Lucy Jeffery makes this point about doors in Szabó’s novel in her article, ‘Finding Home in the Homeland in Post-1956 Hungary’ (2020):
the act of opening the door becomes a metaphor for leading the way towards recovery through the exposure of Hungary’s repressed memories of suffering during the Second World War, Rákosi’s reign of terror, and the prolonged Soviet occupation . . .
Visiting the basement cellars of the House of Terror Museum / Terror Háza Múzeum on 60 Andrássy út, the thick metal doors with the scratch marks of the ÁVO prison cells are what stays with you. The locks bolts key holes spy holes. The metal flaps for food or perhaps a gap to let light in.
‘If what lies beyond Emerence’s door is Szabó’s documentation of the nation’s history, its opening and immediate stench marks her belief in the need to confront the fact that there is something rotten in the state of Hungary’ (Jeffery).
Your other cousin tells you their apartment used to be the communal toilet for the entire floor. Stains by the window; the ceiling where the paint never takes; mould that seeps.
Like a rat that keeps wanting to creep back through the door.
In her poem ‘Lies I Tell’, Sara Borjas writes: ‘A window can be a mirror. It can also be a door: that is the truth.’
You tell your other cousin The Door / Az Ajtó, is showing at the cinehaz. –You want to watch this film in Hungarian? they ask. You reason since you’ve read the book, you can follow what’s happening on screen. Your other cousin agrees to accompany you. The 2012 film by Hungarian director István Szabó, based on the book, was made in English. It’s strange in ways you can’t articulate. Yet this version with its yellow Hungarian subtitles and mis-lip-synched German is dubbed ‘so badly that [the…] voice seems to be coming from a distant room even in tight close-ups’ (Oleszczyk). Wanting so badly to understand, you watch the film in languages you don’t quite speak with someone who understands the language but doesn’t quite understand the film. After, your cousin tells you, the film is important, but can’t explain why.
You’re disappointed with the film. Such a subversive work of literature written by Magda Szabó deemed ‘an enemy of the people’ in 1949 by the Communist Party and banned from publishing (1949–1956)—the historical, cultural, and personal complexities, the original language nuances—all but lost. Absurd is hearing its cast speaking in colloquial county English accents further replicated in their quaint regional and English villager ways. ‘Emerence should not have been played by anyone other than Hungarian,’ many fans write at the casting of Helen Mirren (née Mirenoff—of Russian (father) and Scottish (mother) descent). What’s missing is the Hungarian-ness. The only character you understand with surety is Emerence, the uneducated villager / peasant, who she is, what she represents. As Cynthia Zarin puts it, ‘[n]o one is allowed past her closed front door’.
You understand this need to keep the front door closed.
You understand how and why she must sweep and clean.
‘When I let myself drift into the intoxication of inverting daydreams into reality, that faraway house for me becomes for me […] a house, that is looking out—its turn now—through the keyhole!’ (Bachelard)
Your Hungarian father was paranoid about doors and keys. As a child growing up in the suburbs of Brisbane, you and your siblings would carelessly leave the doors wide open. Upstairs. Downstairs. They were always slamming. Perhaps an open door was an invitation for thieves and rats to come in. Fingers feeling for keys and homemade weapons hidden in the dark ledges above them. At one point he wrote on the door downstairs. His square letters in broken English. ‘Pleas clos de door!’ In this house, you can still find traces of his chalk messages.
In the poem ‘Lies I Tell’, Sara Borjas writes: ‘My father has one door but I can’t find it: truth.’
You search for places noted down from the archival photographs. You spend your summer being a ‘Flâneuse’ (with a capital F). Walking around the city viewing it like Hirsch and Spitzer describe as ‘liquid time’, trying to ‘make connections’ of the Revolution that erupted and ‘imagining’ how it was crushed in these streets; ‘sensing’ its history that is in part, yours. Tired, you end up photographing doors and windows. (The spaces above the windows? What are they called?)
So you photograph your other cousin’s door. Free of wheelie bins and parked cars, you are able to see the tenement’s front door. Painted an ugly, utilitarian, enamel brown, it’s banged up and chipped. There’s a no-standing sign and a torn notice to ‘keep the door closed’. On the next storey, the windows are adorned with circular arches above and faux balconies below. Yet it’s the building’s walls you’re drawn to; discoloured, weathered, like skin pockmarked with smaller bullet holes and larger pits where Russian tank shells hit it; ‘the exhausted world still showing the traces of WWII […] the grey and pale colours characteristic [of…] Budapest’ (István Szabó).
It reminds you of the image on the cover of Szabó’s book. ‘The door in this photograph was found by Marc [Atkins] in a small side street in Warsaw, Poland, in the late 1990s. It was originally shot on 35mm black and white negative film,’ the agent emails you. There’s a clear Bachelard dialectic implication of outside and inside. The door in Atkin’s photograph is a grey-toned brown (like bark or a tree trunk). It’s like Josephson’s ‘photo of a photo of a tree in Chicago, placed on the bark of the same tree then photographed again, then again—a study in sequential imagery’ (Borelli on Josephson). What you note of Marc Atkin’s photo / Magda Szabó’s door is its dereliction, the unspoken poverty, and years of cumulative neglect; how the paint is barely holding onto the weathered wood. There’s an ornate diamond-shaped carving in the door’s centre and from what you can make out, a huge pile of bird shit.
You never quite catch people entering and exiting buildings in Budapest. Only glimpses. It seems rude to stop and stare and observe people doing that. Perhaps if you do, someone will notice or accuse you of casing the joint. Perhaps they’ll point and shout at you. Call you, a thief!
Once when walking down a street, you hear a violin playing. You stop outside the closed window (or was it a doorway?) to record the moment. As Berger explains: ‘What fills the depicted moment is the sound of the [violin], and mis, by the very nature of painting, we cannot hear. (Magritte frequently uses the idea of sound to comment on the limitation of the visual).’ You wanted to capture this Magritte-like moment—instead you’re disappointed at your amateur shaky-cam mise-en-scène of an unremarkable empty street and a barely audible second hand-melody on your pink-Nokia-phone. Like the sentiment felt by Linda M. Kauffman in her (less-than-enthusiastic) review of Marc Atkin’s exhibition Liquid City: ‘The photographs, all black-and-white, are only occasionally interesting and provocative, and the fragmented narrative wanders.’
The reason why the writer Magda hires the old cleaner is so she can write (mark of a new era, that she can). Yet old world Emerence doesn’t quite understand this / work. Similarly, only when you offer to clean, does your other cousin respond. –Really? –Yes, really, you say, I know how to clean. (As a kid, you had to help your mother, who couldn’t speak English, clean other people’s houses, hating it and people’s treatment of you). You want to explain this, but you don’t have the language, besides, your other cousin only sees you as you are now—a visitor, on holidays with time and money; Western, privileged, lazy; they wouldn’t understand or accept your past, the truth is only the present. –A writer? What work is that? Together, you clean. The office (of a film company, you later learn) is on the bottom floor apartment that looks out onto a tiny square courtyard. The small building though rundown, is quietly beautiful. Gyönyörű. Austere (a friend described Budapest as). You offer to wash up, put the dishes away, clean the kitchen, wipe the surfaces, take out the garbage, vacuum. Like Emerence’s initial response to Magda’s request of help: ‘I don’t wash just anyone’s dirty linen.’ Your only request is you will not clean the toilets. Your other cousin nods. They understand there’s a limit of what they can ask / you’ll do. After you finish cleaning, you photograph the tall, dark, church-like arched windows opposite. Yours open. Theirs closed.
Sara Borjas writes in ‘Lies I Tell’: ‘As a girl, my mother slept in a shack with no windows and one door: that is the truth.’
Katalin the librarian comments that the photo of the captured Russian tank with the Hungarian soldiers standing atop was taken outside the Muzeúm. ‘On the corner,’ she says, pointing outside. The soldiers were waving a flag in victory. (They won the first Russian tank attack! Yet their victory was an illusion, the city invaded, ruined; the sound of those iron doors locking). A circle had been cut out of the flag’s middle, removing the Stalinist red star, yellow hammer, and golden wheat stalk. Memory studies theorists Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer ask, ‘What happens after individuals, groups have been […] killed off by others within the same nation state […]?’ Every time you passed the corner, you thought of the soldiers, the tank, the flag, Katalin’s hand holding up that photograph.
In his last lines of his poem ‘Old News’, Hungarian born-British poet George Szirtes writes how: ‘at each new report, / their distant footsteps sounding / down echoing halls / through blood-stained front doors.’
When you first hear the news reports. When the bombs begin dropping on Kyiv. When you see the line of Russians tanks waiting to invade their city. When you see remnants of buildings walls, broken like snail shells. When you see men taking up arms. When you see burnt out bodies in parks, or littered on streets. When you hear the repeated pleas to the West, ignored. When you hear of women being raped. When you follow an old man leading a reporter through a door, to the basement of the school where they hid, the living amongst the dead. When you see an old woman in a scarf who looks like your grandmother, your nagynéni, wandering around her looted, decimated village. When you cry on the phone with a Ukrainian-Australian writer witnessing the atrocity that is 2022. When they tell you about a relative explaining how, waking up to this feels like a butt of a rifle landing on your head. Shocked, you have already written this, years ago, a puska, the butt of the rifle, smashing teeth, a mouth full of blood spilling from the blow. You are looking at photos. You are standing in the presence of ghosts, your post / memories resurfacing, while history repeats.
You realise this, what is outside is already inside.
‘witness, remember, refuse lies, resist violence, hold each other close’
What slips through the gap when a door is left wide open.
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Suzanne Hermanoczki is a writer and teacher of creative writing. Her work on death, memory and postmemories, immigrant trauma, code-switching, and multiculturalism, has been published in local and international publications. She began studying Creative Writing at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) while living and working there. Suzanne’s work was highly commended in the 2018 AAWP/Australian Short Story Festival Emerging Writer’s Prize and was the winner of the Affirm Press Creative Writing Prize in 2014. She holds a PhD and Master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.