TEXT review

Fibrillations of life writing

review by Moya Costello


Offshoot: Contemporary Life Writing Methodologies and Practice
Donna Lee Brien and Quinn Eades (eds)
UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA 2018
ISBN 9781742589626
Pb 338pp AUD $39.99

Staying: A Memoir
Jessie Cole
Text Publishing, Melbourne VIC 2018
ISBN 9781925603507
Pb 260pp AUD 32.99


‘Books talk among themselves’, Umberto Eco (1984: 61) once quipped convincingly. Readers overhear those conversations, I assert. Some books sing to you (as Francesca Rendle-Short, in her performative essay on memoir in Offshoot, says of Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race [232]). Offshoot crackles at me. Staying ululates.

Offshoot crackles for two reasons. One, it is a combination of critical and creative work, and these fibrillate against each other. And two, its co-editors, Donna Lee Brien and Quinn Eades, are, as they themselves candidly say, ‘very different individuals, with quite different scholarly and creative approaches and networks, at different stages of our careers’ (xi-xii). And the editors celebrate difference, as they ‘nestle’ the various contributors – poets, scholars and more – ‘against each other as a means to creating a conversation’ (298). 

When I look for the definition of ululate online, what comes up immediately is this: ‘howl or
wail as an expression of strong emotion, typically grief’. Howling and wailing are, perhaps, a little too strong for the affect of Staying. Staying is an expression of strong emotion. And the emotion is grief … but the affective residue of the book is also acceptance and resilience.

Jessie Cole is not a contributor to Offshoot, but her most recent book, Staying, after two novels, is a memoir. Perhaps the most comparable piece with Cole’s in Offshoot is Zoe Thomas’ ‘(Snippets of) Littoral Freedom: Collecting Nostalgic Remnants on the Distant Shores of Childhood’. Thomas’s work features a strong place and paternal relationship. Cole’s three books share a resonant triplet-ness. They are set in the Northern Rivers (although not clearly stated, with the exception of Staying, as such). The Northern Rivers is subtropical, and, with high heat, rainfall and good soil, its biodiversity is significant in scope. Central in the memoir is her father’s descent into madness.

Cole’s memoir is an extraordinary thing. In any context, anywhere on the planet, in this moment, it echoes, though personally, multi-various forms of global-public trauma (for example, Australia’s lack of official reconciliation with its Indigenous peoples, Nauru, Yemen, Syria, Israel/Palestine). Devastating is the suicide of Cole’s step-sister and then her father. Dreamlike and exceptional is her upbringing in the hinterland forest of Byron Bay. Courageous is her putting-pen-to-paper for this memoir. Deeply reconciling is her devotion to the land, much-beyond-concrete-cityisation:

Returning home … was fraught… How rare it is for the dispossessed to regain their homeplace. When my family fled our home at the height of my father’s madness, we never expected it to be restored to us… Returning … there was a sense of welcome in the rolling hills, the endless green expanse of forest, and the curving, bright-pebbled creek of my home. (161)

As the editors of Offshoot say about the genre of life writing itself, it has ‘numerous innovative incarnations’ (3). Brien and Quinn sharp-sightedly mention biography as inclusive of ‘non-human animal stories’ and objects (308). Jessica White states in her essay on the writing of Annamaria Weldon in The Lake’s Apprentice is that it is an ecobiography of ‘the myriad life forms’ in Yalgorup, a Western Australian coastal national park. White defines the genre of ecobiography as ‘a grafting of life and environmental writing which illuminates our embeddedness in, and dependence on, our ecosystems’ (121). Equally ecobiograhical are the nonfiction poems of Jeanine Leane, ‘Gatherers’, and Phillip Hall, ‘Brolga Clan’.

A singular characteristic of Offshoots is the inclusion of another form of ecobiography: exquisite plant drawings, and poetic-descriptive text, by Alice Ewing. Brien and Quinn state that the ‘botanical examples … reflect and tease out some of the themes of each section’ (5) – for example, the emblem for the first section on history is a lichen, ‘the embodiment of age and longevity’ (11).
So there’s more than one piece of ecobiography in Offshoots. There are more than two poems and more than one fictocritical piece. Marion May Campbell’s fictocritical work is triggered by her father’s story, eerily echoing, in many of Campbell’s phrases, Cole’s memoir: ‘orphaned of the father function’ (280); ‘traumatic orphanage’ (281); ‘Why did this father … court danger almost daily?’ (282). It’s fictocritical labour to cross genres: ‘Genres can suggest traumatic wounds through their very corruption or interruption, and perhaps transform traumatised memory into productive becoming’ (290). Cole’s productive becoming came through writing per se: ‘I found a way to sense-make through words’ (256). Rendle-Short says of the term memoir that its basis is in mer-mer, that which we cannot grasp, and hence murmur (225) and a self, or other, barely calling.

In relation to ‘numerous innovative incarnations’, Dallas J. Baker's proposition is that ‘queer life writing’ is yet ‘an unfulfilled’ or ‘emerging promise’ (150). I’m wondering if queer life writing, in the Australian context, is missing recognition because it is increasingly done experimentally – that is, in a queer writing mode per se. Offshoot bears witness to this strategy through its section ‘Embodiment, Experiment and Fictocritical Modes’ in particular, where Marion May Campbell specifically refers to ‘Queering’.

One never approaches – does one? – an anthology by reading from beginning to end, even though the reader is surely cognisant of the considered placement of each text against its predecessor and follower, and, in the case of Offshoot, in labelled sections (genre history, biography, writing the self, experimentation and hybridity). I usually read the intro and conclusion first. I look for familiar names. And then topics or genres of interest. So as any reviewer, or, indeed anthologist/editors would say, I cannot be exhaustive in my coverage of contributors.

Both books, Offshoots and Staying, have liveliness (and so they should!). They are, metaphorically, flotation devices. They are buoyant. They bear well the weight of being immersed yet alert in the mer-mering liquidity of change.


Works cited

Eco, U 1984 Postscript to The Name of the Rose, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego CA return to text



Moya Costello has become an adjunct/casual lecturer at Southern Cross University, with the Schools of Arts and Social Sciences and Business and Tourism. She has four books published: two of short creative prose and two novellas. She has many publications in literary journals and anthologies.


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Vol 22 No 2 October 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker