TEXT prose


Lynn Davidson


A roof over my head



On a single day in a wintery week I finished reading Charlotte Wood’s blazing novel The Natural Way of Things and went to the Degas exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. I went to the exhibition in the early afternoon instead of applying for a job – or another in the patchwork of jobs that keep a roof over my head. I needed my brain to be washed through with colour and dance and process. I wanted to remember about movement and change; things even more reliable than death and taxes.  Later that day, on a 1½-hour train journey from work, hungry for dinner, I finished Wood’s novel. I read how the main character, Verla, makes a hard and conscious decision to ‘jump off the bus’ that is taking a group of brutalized girls ‘home’ to the implied safety of a corporate, market-led world.
I teach creative writing, and now that tertiary teaching has been largely casualised, my working life is mixed: rich, stressful, and very often and very suddenly just not there. There is no continuity. So, four evenings a week I travel three hours to tutor kids for two hours at a modest hourly rate. This saves me from financial free-fall when the university semester ends (well, not quite, this job is also ‘casual’ but the holidays are shorter and the work more reliable). I give you this context because both the book and the exhibition are about work, about women’s work. So here’s another bit of context. I was a single mother who raised two children without financial support from their fathers. Any reserves of energy and time were spent on a very long battle around custody of my daughter. But those difficulties aren’t the defining things. Our little family had, and has, a good time. It’s just that I’m writing about women’s work and art, and suddenly this fact of single parenting seems important to say.

Christos Tsiolkas describes The Natural Way of Things as ‘a howl of despair and fury’ and that, ‘As allegory, as a novel, as vision and as art it is stunning.’ It is about a group of young women who are taken to a compound in the middle of the Australian desert because, it seems, they have been outspoken, and broken some rules of patriarchy. They are made to wear long dresses and bonnets and their heads are shaved. It is a novel about misogyny, corporate power and survival. Wood reveals something often inexpressible in daily terms, about us – we humans – our trappedness in roles and consolations for those roles. She reveals something often inexpressible about those who think they are the makers, and those who suspect that they are the ‘made’. Wood writes, ‘The mercury spreads through her, icy, unstoppable. She was an empty space to be occupied. When she was gone he would find another.’ (Reading this on the train, on the long journey from work, I felt my chest constrict. I wanted to get off.) I could in some way recognise and relate to Yolanda, a character who, in despair and in refusal, redirects her process of becoming towards the earthy life of rabbits. Who has not at times wanted to become a rabbit? (On the train a toddler sitting on her mum’s lap reaches across the seat to stroke the arm of my jacket. I smile and say ‘it’s soft isn’t it’. She then gets me to stroke the grey fur of her toy koala and we agree that that is also soft. Then she strokes my jacket again, and lifts up her koala so we can both stroke it and agree on its softness. We do this five or six times.) Who hasn’t at some point wanted to become a simple, earthy creature: colour and movement on a wide wild plain.

Much of the art included in the Degas exhibition shows women at work: laundry workers with strong shoulders and forearms and the steam of hissing irons, brothel workers waiting for clients to turn up, and dancers inspecting the sole of a foot, adjusting a strap across a strong shoulder. There were muscled calves descending a delicate spiral staircase. There was the work of preparation: long swathes of hair held in one fist. There was a lot of balancing on one leg. The sculptures were often of women washing themselves: an armpit, a long sweep down a torso, their long, long hair. We saw them twist around to do this cleaning of self, and how that made certain folds in stomach or side. The women seemed to be emerging from bronze, as though making themselves.  Birthing themselves. Wiping themselves clean to achieve their form. Dragging their hair free. And as I looked at the paintings and the sculptures, I saw that Degas understood something about female oppression. Something about contracts and power and survival. It’s an intelligently curated exhibition. The famous painting Finishing the Arabesque, which is so beautiful, has a note explaining how the dancers who weren’t the principal dancer often had to supplement their income by providing sexual services for men who had come to watch the ballet. It gives you pause for thought. It draws you to the background of the painting where the rest of the dancers gather.  It makes you wonder about the principal dancer, so graceful and pretty in her white flower-like dress. In the exhibition, through all of the washing, all of the work, all of the drudgery, is grace. Some misogynist painters aligned with Degas thinking, mistakenly, that because he did not idealise women in his paintings, that he hated them like they did.  His famous bronze of the young ballerina, the one he strangely and wonderfully ‘dressed’ in a shabby tutu and thick satin ribbon in her hair, was criticised for being ‘the ugliest of the ugly’. It isn’t ugly. She isn’t ugly. She was a fourteen-year-old dancer. She was a girl standing confidently. In this alone, she is beautiful. Her mother was a prostitute, and at some point this young dancer disappeared back into the place that is called the underworld. Who can know for sure what Degas thought of women? But I see these hard-working women as strong and in some way self-realising. Self-making.

In her acceptance speech for the Stella Prize, Wood said that when she was having a hard day, wondering why she was ‘writing a dark, bleak book about girls imprisoned and trapped and reviled’she wrote herself a series of reasons to keep going, and this is one of them: ‘To make, at all. To create is to defy emptiness. It is generous, it affirms. To make is to add to the world, not subtract from it. It enlarges, does not diminish.’ And this is another: ‘Because as Iris Murdoch said, paying attention is a moral act. To write truthfully is to honour the luck and the intricate detail of being alive.’To finish reading The Natural Way of Things on the same day as going to the Degas exhibition is to hear a vital conversation across centuries about art and women and power and unmaking and making. The conversation is at least as vital now as it was then.

I got my undergraduate degree slowly, before, during and after having my kids. It spanned the period when I was with my son’s father (my husband) and then my daughter’s father, and the beginning of the long period when I was on my own. Student fees were low in those days; a degree was affordable. My last two papers were taken extramurally and I sat my final undergraduate exam when my daughter was a fairly new baby. My mum waited with Tamara outside the lecture theatre while I sat the exam so I could feed her just before and straight after the exam. A few years later, I managed to complete my MA in English Literature just before Work and Income New Zealand cut subsidies for university study for people on the Domestic Purposes Benefit. My parents brought Elliot and Tamara to the graduation ceremony. Tamara fell asleep on the floor at their feet, but Elliot stayed awake and upright, proudly wearing a suit he’d borrowed off his mate. I felt that study was helping me towards finding work that mattered to me; it kept a light on that illuminated the future. It also kept me in touch with the conversation about literature and, if I couldn’t afford to meet friends in town for a movie, I could meet up with the wonderful Seamus Heaney any time I liked (my MA looked at Heaney’s ‘Station Island’ poems). Doing this study gave me structure. It kept me hopeful and helped to stave off depression. If I couldn’t write much because it was hard to bring a struggling and fractured and tired self to the empty page, I could study. The poetry books, the deadlines, the necessity to get into the city most weeks and the trips to the library, without question, kept me sane.  It is a particular and deep circle of hell to be raising children on next to no money, while defending yourself as a good mother to lawyers in the Family Court. I would drive myself to meetings with my lawyer and to hearings. I would drive myself home. After picking up the pieces, there would still be my funny and interesting children, and there would be my study, my words, my books, the library, seminars, tutorials. The Family Courts stuff went on for all of my daughter’s young years, starting when she was just under two years old and finishing when she turned 16, when she could make up her own mind, and chose to shift into to one home, with me. She was no longer dragged confusingly between houses on a roster that I, let alone her friends, struggled to keep up with. A roster that had a lot to do with ensuring her father could continue to work without too much impediment.

When people ask if libraries are important and relevant these days I want to scrape my fingernails down my face. Are you kidding! As the days get darker (and they are getting darker), libraries give us context; they contain our past, our present, our future, and the way we are different and the same. They are also warm places for cold people. There are free books for anyone who wants them, and free WiFi so you can do a job application if you need to. You can do your homework in a library if it’s too noisy at home. They are a safe place and they contain some of the wisdoms of the world.

I have taught creative writing to people from all walks of life, which I find to be the same walk, pretty much. I have taught and learned so much from older women at a WEA writing class at the Otaki Women’s Centre. I taught on the Whitireia Writing Programme for many years, first of all in Porirua (oh the riches of being there) and then on Lambton Quay in Wellington. While at Whitireia I wrote and delivered a year-long poetry course to a brilliant group of writers – this was the same year that I did an MA in Creative Writing at IIML. I felt like a gatherer of treasures that year, gathering from my extraordinary class at Whitireia, and gathering from my classmates at IIML; buckets of interesting, enriching stuff passing between hands as I moved between student and teacher, between Kelburn and Lambton Quay. I have taught people of all ages and backgrounds, of varying and surprising talent. I have learned there is no way to predict who will be the really interesting writer – degrees or confidence or verbal eloquence are no indicator, neither is having been in prison, or having a mental health problem, or being poor or marginalised. I tutored fiction and poetry at the stately and beautiful Melbourne University, holding tutorials in the Ian Potter Art Gallery on campus; tutorials where students didn’t want to leave at the end of the session because the conversation about a comma in a poem, and the surprise when you took it out, was just too interesting to shut down. These lovely, financially privileged, ordinarily confused young people laughed out loud, and often, at how far they had fallen into the poems; fallen into the language. Melbourne University, in a recent School of Culture and Communication Sessional Lecturer and Tutor Selection Review, have made a ruling that: ‘no sessional coordinator or tutor should continue either tutoring or sessionally coordinating a subject for more than 3 years without significant review or reason (e.g. lack of another appropriately qualified applicant).’ My hunch is that this safeguards the university against having to offer a tutor or coordinator a permanent position because they have taught the same course over several years. The ruling will lead to the loss of some experienced and well-qualified tutors and course coordinators. One wonders who the less experienced tutors will turn to for support and advice? I wonder how we tutors will continue to keep a roof over our heads. I wonder what the students who pay ever-increasing fees at this prestigious university will think about tutors who perhaps don’t have the skills and experience required to do the job.

Last year I completed my PhD in Creative Writing. I have a debt now, and still only fragmentary, casual work. I am not alone in this. I have to hold on to the value of the work I did for my thesis. I think I took part in the big conversation. I have to keep reminding myself that the work is valuable, even if it’s not particularly valued in the corporate, commercial world. I’ll keep on with it, the writing and the research, because it’s what I do – taking heart and inspiration from art and words, most particularly at the moment from Degas’ fourteen-year-old dancer who had the damn gall to look confident and undiminished. But the old structures that helped me stay sane through personally difficult years, those old structures in their freshly elite forms, seem to be coming apart. With increasing pressure to fit the market model, universities are damaging what matters: equality of opportunity, creativity and an invested, committed workforce. I want to write something now about how we are makers, and that when those big structures are no longer fit for purpose, we will make smaller more human-scale ones. But for now that would feel overblown. Let’s just keep the lights on in the library. If the lights are on in the library, we could gather there when our universities are finally and irreversibly reduced by the market-led stakes to which they are tethered.




Lynn Davidson writes fiction, essaysand poetry – most recently Common Land, a collection of poetry and essays. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including Sport, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite, PN Review, Best of Best New Zealand Poems, Essential New Zealand Poems and Another English: Anglophone Poems from Around the World.  In 2013 she had a writing fellowship at Hawthorden Castle in Scotland. Lynn teaches creative writing and recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing through Massey University, Wellington.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence