A great deal has been said about Dorothy Hewett in 2018. Following the publication of two books by Hewett’s daughters: Tilt by Kate Lilley and Do Oysters Get Bored? A curious life by Rozanna Lilley, Hewett’s credentials as an icon of Australian literature have been questioned, some also calling on UWA Publishing to rename their Dorothy Hewett Award for an unpublished manuscript. This conversation emerged with an article in The Australian and has since been discussed within mainstream media, with both Kate and Rozanna Lilley appearing on The Sunday Project. UWA Publishing chose not to rename the award after consulting with Kate and Rozanna Lilley (UWAP released a statement explaining their position). We at Westerly are disturbed by domestic and sexual violence of all kinds, and concerned by the continuing problem it represents in Australian society. But we also respect UWA Publishing’s decision and the manner in which it was made.
This is, and must inherently remain, a complex discussion. Jane Jervis-Read makes this point beautifully in responding to the conversations around Hewett in her recent article in Meanjin. She articulates the power of the #MeToo movement in giving subjective agency and a voice, forcing us “to revisit environments of the recent past so that we can understand them more fully, their objects now speaking as subjects.” Jervis-Read also emphasises the courage that is involved in writing like this, and in asking the public to engage with the full complexity of Hewett’s life and legacy. Rozanna Lilley’s Do Oysters Get Bored? A curious life demonstrates this complexity through its combined essays and poems. The book addresses several themes and issues, and in particular offers insight into the challenges of parenting an autistic child. Within the broader discussion at play, there is a risk that some of the rich and important thinking of this work is overlooked. To offer some space to it as a text, Westerly‘s editor Catherine Noske met with Rozanna Lilley to discuss her writing. Alongside this interview, we have also published a review of the book by Marie O’Rourke.
Catherine Noske: One of the striking things I found in the book and something I enjoyed about it, was the mix of genres between prose and poetry. It seems to me, in reading reviews, that a lot of people have commented that this mix allows different versions of the same story to be told. What interested me about that was the gap you created between different moments in telling, with specific essays with pauses between them rather than a full long-form memoir. The space between the poetry and the memoir accentuated this as well. The conversation between those different parts seem to be a fruitful aspect of your writing. Was the use of the smaller sections always intentional?
Rozanna Lilley: Really, it’s pure serendipity. Basically, the very first piece I wrote, as a non-academic piece outside of things I’d had to write for school, was ‘First Snow’. So that is the start of the book, and when I started on that I had an idea of just writing some separate little pieces. I was reading some David Sedaris at the time, and I was really enjoying it so, in a way, that was probably my model. I had thought that I would write a really gentle, funny thing, and I thought, ‘well, I’ll make some of it about my son’. But you know given the ‘life-is-a-continual-adventure’ kind of thing, I thought I might put some of the other things that were happening in my life in it. So that would be the narrative thread about caring for my father. And then I decided to add in a piece about my later adolescence and early 20s, to give a sense of how my life unfolded in those years. Sometimes the book took a much darker turn than I’d actually intended; it wasn’t what was initially on my mind. The poetry was written separately; some of it might have been written chronologically, but I hadn’t thought of putting poetry and prose together. It was my cousin, Lucy Dougan, who suggested that structure. I used to do some collages; she was angling for that type of structure.
The hybridity is really just because I was writing a couple of different things. I think possibly too, over that period, and less and less now, I was seeing a psychotherapist, who is a psychiatrist. I think sometimes, when I went and chatted with him, things would then appear in my writing; it was almost as if I was telling a story verbally and then I would go and write it in another way. Sometimes I might write it as prose and sometimes as a poem when I was thinking about that time or that event. An example of that would be, in the poetry, the adolescent poems, which I guess have a particular kind of angry feeling. They were all written over one summer holiday when I was thinking about all that; partly as a result of things that had come up in therapy. The psychiatrist was trying to get me to see things from his perspective, and I was really struggling with it because it was all so normalised to me.
CN: The point has been made in a lot of articles about the social context of that moment in time. But a lot of women have had experiences with sexual violence. The role of ‘victim’ can be socially applied and in some senses constraining. Not everyone necessarily like to think of themselves as a victim?
RL: No, I mean I suppose sometimes people do. But no, and that was, in fact, one of my points of, if you like, difference with the psychiatrist’s viewpoint. I thought, well if I see myself in kind of the way you’re suggesting, which is ‘you were a child’, then what room is there for my agency in there? I think you are right, I think it’s quite protective to see yourself as not having been a victim. Of course, sometimes in life, you might have experiences that are entirely coercive, and you didn’t see yourself that way or understand that at the time.
CN: Yes. But there doesn’t seem to be much room in social discourse for women to imagine other ways of narrativising those experiences, which don’t relegate them to passivity.
RL: Yeah that’s right, and I think that some of the ways in which particularly the right-wing press picked up on this stuff was all about that. I felt as though I had lost control of the tone that I was trying to achieve of my own story; where I was trying to balance that sense of agency with a sense of the wider forces or times that I was enmeshed in.
CN: In your poem ‘Dream Mother’, you write:
Never heartsick crippled cancered she never betrayed her daughters and
When I finally tell the despairing-all she is my comfort
The book has been described as “intensely confessional and confronting” (see: https://theconversation.com/in-rozanna-lilleys-memoir-a-curious-life-gets-even-more-curious-99137), but there are elements in the book too, which describe motherhood in a way that is very gentle or quiet. You have said that you’ve deliberately used humour in many instances and I found at moments a deliberate pride in the discussion of what it is to be a mother and how it works. So, it didn’t seem to me that “confessional and confronting” encapsulated the whole idea of motherhood that was covered in the book and the recounting of your own experiences of that role. How do you feel about that sort of commentary?
RL: Even if I wasn’t intentionally exploring the themes of motherhood from different angles, like, let’s say, generational angles, an enormous part of my academic research has been about mothering. That doesn’t come into the book, because I don’t really like didactic memoirs. I guess, for me, a scholarly book is one thing, and a memoir is another, so I didn’t want to relate those two things directly. In my second PhD, I interviewed twenty-two women with kids on the spectrum in Sydney, and I interviewed them across three years. Most of them participated across those three years doing one interview each year. I did all the transcripts and then thematically analysed that material. I published a number of academic articles about it and so forth. I partly did that because I wanted to understand my own experiences of mothering a child on the spectrum within a broader context as well as to speak up for some of those families. I think in a way those stories came to haunt me, like you know how you learn advertising jingles or something. I’ll hear something someone says, and I’ll immediately think of something some woman said to me during those interviews. And so, although that’s not explicit, I think I brought that understanding of the diversity of those maternal experiences to the way I thought about my mothering.
I think one of the funny things is that people, for obvious sorts of reasons, have been interested in mum but for me, I was much more interested in exploring the relationship with my father. To me, it’s more of a father/daughter story than a mother/daughter story but people haven’t latched onto that in the same way. In the review you have in Westerly, the reviewer comments that I was a very different sort of mother to my own mother. I guess that is true in some respects in that I am a very hands-on person. I mean when you have a kid on the spectrum you have to do a lot to support them anyway; it wouldn’t be much use saying ‘off you go’. In other ways, of course, there are similarities. You know, mum was always allowing of people to be their own person in the world to some extent and I think that’s perhaps where I am a little bit unusual in terms of the types of narratives that are sometimes written about kids on the spectrum. They’re often about trying to manage kids in particular directions or whatever and I guess it’s my character to respect the person that they are. Also, my anthropological background is partly one of just being interested in observing people and trying to appreciate what they’re like.
That was an incredibly long-winded answer that probably didn’t answer your question!
CN: No, it does! In a lovely way, it does. It’s really interesting to hear you talk about the father/daughter relationship in your memoir. That really was part of the richness of having these glimpses and these moments; it’s not trying to settle anything into a narrative. There were so many moments which have a different richness to them, and which had different implications on the relationships coming through. That was one of the things I really enjoyed: that it didn’t try to coerce a narrative out of life, which I think is something that I resist or resent in some memoirs.
RL: That’s because I’m incapable of coercing a narrative out of life! (Laughs.)
CN: (Laughing.) Who can? I want to come back to the idea of a public response and to some of the comments around this. In an interview with the ABC, you said:
“This is not about impugning my mother’s reputation as a writer […] it is about writing a story about what happened to me in a particular point in time, in my adolescence.”
Was the reception of the work something that you were worried about? Was the public response anticipated?
RL: The thing I was actually most worried about was the ethics of writing about my son, and that actually hasn’t been mentioned much, so in a way, that is a relief, I suppose. But I did think very hard. I mean, of course, I asked him, but you know he’s not really in a position, particularly at the age when I started writing, to know what the ramifications are. I’ve changed his name, and particularly some of the bits where I might be pointing to some things he does that people would think are not necessarily positive like, you know, eating a pack of Tim Tams or whatever. I really struggled about whether to put those things in but it’s such a family trope – these troubles with food and weight – and that was partly it. Also, I didn’t want to completely suggest that you might not have any difficulties having a kid on the spectrum. It would be a bit ridiculous to write something where you didn’t point to some of that.
That has been a bit of a debate that I have noticed in the press recently. A child on the autism spectrum was shown having a meltdown as part of a ’60 Minutes’ story and some people commented that: ‘no, that’s not respectful’. I think that is a good debate to have. I think we are all becoming much more aware; both of people on the spectrum’s right to represent themselves and to be represented in a deep and a respectful way.
So that had been of concern to me. At one point, I put the manuscript into a different publisher and then I just withdrew it because I felt quite uncertain about the ethics and I was feeling very unconfident about it. In the end, on a better day, I decided that it was worthwhile enough to continue with and once I did, it was accepted. There we go, I couldn’t retract it. (Laughs.) So that was the part of the book that I was actually expecting to have trouble with.
The journalist from The Australian, Rosemary Neill, was the first person who picked up on all that teen sex stuff in it. It’s not that it’s hidden, but I thought that I was just having an interview with her about the book. It became clear in the course of the interview that she actually wasn’t interested in the autism component and perhaps I said a little more than was necessarily wise during the interview because I am a blurt-it-out sort of person: she asked me some things, and I answered. I also told her about Kate’s book, Tilt, and I suppose that because of the two coming out at the same time, it has turned it into a different sort of a story.
A couple of the pieces that were critical of mum or about that time had already been published; one of them had come out years ago in Mascara, and that’s the piece called ‘Poetry in Motion’. ‘Bitter Pill’ had also come out in an online magazine called Hoopla. I had no response at all to ‘Poetry in Motion’, and when I say no response, I literally mean no response: not a single email, a single comment or a single person talking to me. A few people commented about the Hoopla piece on their website but it wasn’t picked up as a story in the wider press.
As far as I was concerned, they had basically just disappeared. I felt like I had already done that topic and then I think people started noticing because the story got framed in a very particular kind of a way in The Australian. I think it got that ‘bad mother’ narrative framing around it; people find that very easy to run with.
CN: That idea of the representation and the ethics of writing about people on the spectrum, and that need for people on the spectrum to be able to represent themselves, interests me. Do you see the arts as having a role alongside science in creating change? How has your research and your writing been received in the community and do you think that writing in this form has a role to play alongside science?
RL: My research has been well received, and it’s been, I would say, a pleasure of my later life. In academia, sometimes you don’t know how people are receiving your thinking! (Laughs.) But, you know only the other day, I ran into someone who I had never met before, and there’s an autism qualification in Queensland, and she said: ‘Oh we have two of your articles as compulsory reading on that.’ So, as an academic I’ve been telling family stories, particularly telling stories about mothers, stories about stigma, and stories about social exclusion; and that’s been the focus of my research. I think that’s all been received well. I don’t know whether anyone in the research community will read the memoir or not. I mean, you know, at the moment I’m in a faculty of human sciences. (Laughs.) There’s not many controls or experimental procedures involved [in the creative work], or there may be some experimental procedures but perhaps not of the kind that would pass muster with them. I think I have gone out of my way in my work to read clinical literature and to try and speak to clinicians in the way that I am writing. I don’t think there is as much traffic the other way. But having said that, there are some maternal accounts and some autistic autobiographies, sometimes now referred to as ‘autieographies’, which have been quite influential. I think you have to leave room for that possibility. For myself, I found reading some of those parent accounts quite important when my son was younger. After the publication of my own book I read Jo Case’s memoir Boomer and Me and also Rachel Robertson’s Reaching One Thousand. And I think they are both terrific books that have a real appreciation of the complex subjectivity of their kids as well as their own search for a different type of identity prompted by the experience of mothering a child on the spectrum. I guess it’s like most things with writing; you don’t really know to what uses people will put your work, or where it will go.
CN: One final question essentially about the humour in your book. At times it seemed to me like a counterbalance to things that are serious and heavy; both in terms of your childhood and your son’s as well. The humour in the writing also seemed to point to self-awareness. Was the use of humour a deliberate construction in the text?
RL: No, it’s not deliberate. I was trying to write in my voice, and I use humour a lot. I probably have a fairly self-defensive use of humour but you know I think that humour has often saved me in some darker times. Sometimes the poetry I think is a little bit black and I wouldn’t really describe it as humorous. That’s the place where I will allow myself to be serious, I guess. I think it’s just me talking and that’s what I do all the time. It’s like I’m the dad-joke person in the family!
CN: Thank you very much for your time.
The National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service is available 24 hours, for any who require support. Call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
Rozanna Lilley grew up in South Perth, the youngest of five children. Her parents – Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley – were both left wing radicals and writers. They moved to Sydney in Lilley’s last year of primary school. After school, Lilley attended a drama school and was in two feature films: Journey Among Women (1977) and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978). Lilley has worked as a social anthropologist at universities in Australia and Hong Kong, returning home when her second child was born. Lilley then completed a second PhD in Early Childhood at Macquarie University. She has published creative non-fiction and poetry in national newspapers, literary journals and edited collections. Her latest book is Do Oysters Get Bored: A Curious Life (2018, UWA Publishing)