TEXT review


review by Dominique Hecq


Francesca Rendle-Short
Bite Your Tongue
Spinifex, North Melbourne, Vic 2011
ISBN 9781876756963
Pb 246pp AUD25.95


In a mix of novel and memoir, Bite Your Tongue is the story of a spirited teenage girl’s growing up in Queensland, Australia during the 1970s. It is also the story of Glory’s relationship with her mother, the morals crusader MotherJoy Solider. MotherJoy’s ‘Moral Right War’ (43) is set in Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s conservative Brisbane ‘before Glory lost her tongue’ (29). The narrative is framed by the adult daughter’s attempt at recovering her own tongue as she researches her family’s past in archival materials. As such, it is underpinned by both a feminine and feminist sensibility.

Fiction and autobiography coalesce in this rich work, each informing and illuminating the other with its different voices, thereby highlighting not only the ambivalence at the heart of the mother-daughter relationship, but also the adult daughter’s ethical position as a writer. Glory (Francesca) tells her story with respect for the facts, for her protagonists, for her art and for herself. This respect is tinged with awe and ambivalence, or coloured with tongue-in-cheek humour, as befits the occasion, and as already obvious in the title. The result is a writer’s personal history, one fuelled by the narrator’s enjoyment of her mother-tongue despite the real list of books to ban and to burn propagated by MotherJoy (Francesca’s mother, Angel Rendle-Short). This is indeed a potent mix as the image of ‘the crucifix orchids the colour of fire’ (37) that frame the front door to the family home warn the insouciant visitor/reader. Things are set ablaze in this book: desires, passions, sexualities, as well as rebellious and murderous fantasies. And so flames are snuffed: by religion, repression, fear, shame and guilt. Silence.

The book opens with an evocation of MotherJoy Soldier buried near tourist attraction the Big Pineapple in Queensland, ‘ready to rise triumphant when the trumpet sounds and Jesus returns’ (1). This opening scene shifts to an x-ray of Angel Rendle-Short’s hands looking ‘angelic’ (1). We are in ambivalent territory: it is the daughter who embeds her mother-as-soldier in a historicised Australian landscape and in the Christian myth, suggesting that mother is in control of the myth, of history and its repetitions, while at the same time she undermines this idea by placing emphasis on the closeness and fragility of the hands raised as if in supplication, jubilation (‘are they dancing?’ (1)), fear or shame. On closer examination, it is the image, not the text, which strikes the reader on first opening the book. These hands could belong to a writer writing away her own supplication, jubilation, fear or shame on the keyboard.

Kristeva’s thinking in Revolution in Poetic Language (1974) opens up poetic spaces in which the maternal may be conceived of as a difficult rebellion against its repression in the form of artistic and aesthetic experimentation. Crucial are the various forms of jubilation signalled in rhythm, colour, tone and texture, and a delight in the metaphoric quality of objects. Crucial also are the various forms of symbolic defence against the lethal quality of the drive signalled by syntax and form. The delightful playfulness of Bite Your Tongue gestures towards a conception of the maternal as ambivalence through a language embedded in patriarchy that ironically recuperates the fragility and theatricality of the feminine.

While disturbing at times, Bite Your Tongue displays a deeply complex, open-ended and multifaceted concept of the maternal characterised by playfulness and joy in the power of language. As such, it is an exploration into the nature and function of writing. The mother’s realities and difficulties at home with her daughter and in the social world – narrated by Glory and articulated in aesthetic or ethical terms by Francesca – merge by contrast with the possibilities the mother imagines for social change. The mother is an active thinker and organiser, but she muses on her own dreams of moral change in the privacy of her own lounge-room or study at night. Such modes of being are presented in the book as absolutely in disharmony with each other. These contradictory representations of the mother – at once thinking, political and fragile – may seem obvious and therefore unnecessary to articulate.

Yet it is precisely these truths that patriarchy has kept as its dangerous secret, forever trying to suppress. Irigaray’s concept of écriture feminine is especially inflected towards the mother’s body and the patriarchal dominance under which it has suffered, and there are instances when this is stridently voiced in the narrative. See how the following passage poignantly conveys Mother Joy’s conflicted and repressed sexuality, the savagery with which she imparts this to her daughter, the pain of it all, and the legacy:

LITTLE GLORY’S MOTHER SAID Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a filthy book. Dirty. Smut. It was wicked MotherJoy said and didn’t deserve to be read. She said it should go on a dung heap, although she wouldn’t want to contaminate her own compost with pages of this kind. Oh No. Writing about it like this makes the older Glory think of the wet smell and hot steam of green dung sploshing in the chookyard—MotherJoy was at home cleaning out the pens—of the squirt out from behind the dicks. The acrid smell of fresh urine. MotherJoy slipping and sliding on her feet. (62)

Irigaray accords a special significance to the fluid and multiple aspects of the maternal body, not only a literal and physical body, but also states of being that must be phrased and imagined (1985: 238-39). These speculative thoughts are in affinity with the polymorphous maternal spaces created by Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite Your Tongue as exemplified – not without irony – in the above passage and in MotherJoy’s famous cooking lessons. On a Saturday afternoon, making tongue is a popular activity with Glory and her sister Gracie. MotherJoy has a medical background: she liked anatomy. ‘Now in her fifties, a mother of six children, wife to a head-of-department professor-man, busy here with cooking pots and seasonings and the making of tongue to eat, [she is] giving undivided attention, to the smallest two of her offspring. She [is] on a mission from God’ (47). Knives flash above two tongues curled together as ‘in a kiss’ (47). Knives are wielded. It’s an anatomy lesson: ‘dorsum, filiform papillae, fungiform pappilae…’ (48). Words rattle out of MotherJoy’s mouth, and as she does so Glory takes them in, rolls them in her mouth and repeats them ad libitum. The most awe-inspiring of these lessons is in chapter 45. Pig’s head it is today for our sex education. MotherJoy is savage here. We are talking about the female body, and those private parts are exposed with utter disgust. This is not lost on the little girls. Through some inevitable play of identifications, the effect is momentous:

…all Glory could see in the pig made up for the table and ready, were different bits of her own body eddying about in the glistening jelly—ovaries, fallopians, uterus, uvula—the anatomical terms tacked into her skin. Very distinctly too, with all the funny syllables stirred in her gut. Something didn’t seem quite right. (118)

Most striking throughout the book, perhaps, is the intrusively circular trajectory of the oral drive through the spectacular use of the tongue as metaphor: it invades the daughter-mother relationship within both domestic and social spaces, just as it pervades the daughter’s sexual and professional identity. Rendle-Short uses the incremental possibilities of metonymy to enhance the metaphor, thus creating a rich and layered extended metaphor. Tongues are for speaking, kissing, eating, licking, drinking, singing, spitting and praying. Tongues slither, laze, loll, fall off. Tongues tell stories, spit out truths; they lie and sin. Tongues connect human beings with their own bodies, other human beings, souls, pets, animals they eat, plants and objects. When it comes to tongues, human beings dread the knife, which makes them aware that other body parts of their bodies can be cut off. As speaking beings, they lash at others with their tongues, speak in tongues and talk about tongues of flames.

In many ways, tongues are cut in bite-size bits in this book. However, in the end all the bits do fit. Here is no Babel. Here is a fantastical tongue-atorium.


Works cited

Irigaray, L 1985 Speculum of the Other Woman (trans G Gill), Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press

Kristeva, J 1974 Revolution in Poetic Language (trans LS Roudiez), New York: Columbia University Press



Dominique Hecq is Associate Professor in Writing at Swinburne University of Technology where she is Research and Discipline Leader. Her latest book is The Creativity Market: Creative Writing in the 21st Century (Multilingualmatters 2012). Stretchmarks of Sun (poetry) will be published by Re.press later this year. She is currently working on Hush, a fiction memoir of cot death.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 16 No 1 April 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Enza Gandolfo