Francesca Rendle-Short has been many things in her life: radio producer, editor, art gallery worker, and mother of two now-adult children. She has a Doctor of Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong. ‘My mother would have been appalled!’ Recently Rendle-Short relocated from Canberra to Melbourne where she is Program Director of Creative Writing at RMIT University. As well as Bite Your Tongue, she is the author of the novel Imago (1996) and the novella Big Sister (1989), and has written for the stage.
Despite her blazingly fierce commitment to writing and language and ideas, Rendle-Short is the kind of woman who describes her students as “so cute!”, and I remember one particularly intense conversation a couple of years ago during which she jotted down notes with a pen attached to what can only be described as a foot-long aerial with a fluffy pink pom-pom on the end, the sort of flourish a film-maker might give to a ditzy, Paris Hilton-like character, someone who is all style but no substance. Except Francesca Rendle-Short is all style and all substance, with a good dollop of complexity thrown in.
Bite Your Tongue mixes fiction and non-fiction as it explores growing up in Queensland in the 1970s with a mother who, driven by an intractable religious faith, developed a ‘death list’ of books to burn, a list that includes The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Lord of the Flies, amongst many others. By all accounts, Angel Rendle-Short was most effective, fronting major public meetings and getting politicians to listen to her and – what’s more – take her seriously.
Through her extensive campaigning to have these books struck off school curricula because, so she believed, they were rotten or pornographic or both, Angel Rendle-Short brought shame and embarrassment and confusion to her children, who simply wanted the space to be, well, children. One of the most harrowing sections of Bite Your Tongue (which the author describes as a story about ‘unbiting’) is when MotherJoy, Rendle-Short’s name for the mother character in the fictional strand of the book, uses a dead pig’s head to explain the female reproductive system.*
Let’s take a heady dose of courage and go exploring.
Nigel Featherstone: Congratulations on Bite Your Tongue (Spinifex Press, 2011). It’s a brave and original book, a tough book, being an exploration of the weight of a highly religious but terrifyingly conservative mother on her children. It’s been out for a couple of months now. Even though you’ve used the prism of creative memoir, how has it been for you as a person to make this story public, which is exactly what ‘being published’ is all about?
Francesca Rendle-Short: Do you know, I’ve always wanted to ‘make this story public’ as you put it. There is something delicious about making work, about writing – you want to share it, like a really good meal. From when I first started writing I knew that I wanted to write for an audience, for readers, and with this book it was no different. Why else do it; it is as simple as that. Why write? The wonderful Joan Didion, who I was listening to this morning as it happens in an astonishing new short film of her reading chapter 2 from her new memoir Blue Nights, says it this way, famously: ‘Writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.’ She also says: ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking … What I want and what I fear.’
Writing this book gives me voice. It helps me work out what I am thinking about my mother, about being her daughter, her child, about the things that went on in my family, in my house, at my school, in the city I grew up in. It’s a story about trying to get close to her. Daring myself. She was so very scary. Loomed over me. I was very afraid of her. Like Joan, I wanted to write about wanting and about fear. I wanted to write about softness too, and laughter. I wanted to give the small frightened but joyous girl in me space to sing her own song. And I wanted to give her a stage to sing on with me as her first audience, and then allow others to listen in. Write it with others in mind. Translate. Connect. Reach out. To touch. Speak to. Perhaps, and I’m thinking this as I write here to you (knowing it too has audience), if I could do all of this in front of others, publicly, about this very particular story of her hatred and fear of books and writing, of all the books that we all love to bits and pieces – all those 100 books she wanted to burn – then it is a way of silencing any reproach. It protects. It saves.
It’s hard too. I know I’ve put it off. It’s taken me to now. Because in writing about my mother – doing the very thing she hated the most – I am writing about myself.
NF: That’s such a strong statement Didion makes, but of course she’s right. Speaking of strong statements, recently I read in an interview with Ernest Hemingway in The Paris Interviews: Volume 1 (2006). The interviewer asks ‘A fundamental question: As a creative writer what do you think is the function of your art? Why a representation of fact, rather than fact itself?’ Hemingway replies, ‘Why be puzzled by that? From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all the things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?’ I immediately thought of Bite Your Tongue and its form of creative memoir. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on Hemingway’s observation. And also on the fact that – irony of ironies – through having this book published you may well have given your mother immortality.
FR-S: Immortality. My. Such a gigantuan concept (is gigantuan a word?). That’s what she yearned for: immortality in the arms of her saviour. So indeed. Is my mother now turning in her grave, back on earth? Don’t you love that expression – turning in her grave? Angel often used it as an expression of ultimate condemnation. As I mouth the words, even today, I immediately conjure up someone who has been dead a long time, lying deep in the earth, all bones and rattle, and probably cloth too, turning slowly over. I think she would do more than turn turtle, don’t you think, in this case, if we’re talking about immortality, being published, in Hemingway’s words ‘truer than anything true and alive’. She’d be doing an Eskimo roll to right herself for sure – isn’t language fabulous – all splash and hubbub and contortion and unsettlement.
No, I don’t believe in any afterlife. Just had to add that. And I don’t mind thinking about the dead or talking about the dead either. I don’t find it disrespectful in the way it is sometimes talked about; rather, it expands the mind and heart. I’m quite interested in the science of bodies – what happens after we die, how we decompose, what we become, how nothing can disappear; how even the smallest particles of dust can’t be swept away, they just move somewhere else, into another state – become soil in which to grow things. It’s the law of conservation of mass: nothing in a closed system can be created or destroyed. Not sure where this might lead us metaphorically, mind. Or in terms of invention. Although, doesn’t Ecclesiastes say, there is nothing new under the sun.
Which brings us to invention: ‘You make something through your invention… and you make it alive’, quoting Hemingway again. What higher praise for fabrication than that? To make something come alive, live, breathe. Especially when you write about those things that would ordinarily lock you in a space of silence and shame – just move it into another state. Let the light in.
I’ve just finished reading Jeanette Winterson’s new book, her autobiography entitled Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? I love this book for lots of unsurprising reasons – her mother burned Jeanette’s books for one, her candidness for two about the life of writing and writing her life starting with her first book Oranges, and the fact that her mother, like mine, ordered her daughter’s book in a false name (as Angel did with my first book, Imago), to name three. In Why Be Happy? Winterson talks about the power of stories and the belief she has in fiction because ‘that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced.’ The beauty with writing, and the beauty about writing in the particular way I’ve chosen to write Bite Your Tongue as a ‘semi-fiction’ as one reviewer describes it, is that we can make a choice as to what to include and what to leave out and how to frame the ‘unbiting’. Stories, whatever they are, will always be partial, by definition, a version of what could be told, an invention. Figuring out those choices is the responsibility of writing and also its pleasure.
There is something else in this equation – the reader, and what the reader brings to the work. As Jeanette Winterson puts it: ‘When we write we offer the silence as much as the story.’ She adds later: ‘The facts are, after all, only the facts, and the yearning passionate side of you will not be met there. That is why reading ourselves as a fiction as well as fact is so liberating.’
Intervention by invention.
Which is why my mother would have been appalled.
You are right – it is a very nice irony.
NF: Onto more a prosaic matter. Writers – particularly novelists – often say that with each book they have to relearn the task of writing, almost as if they’re starting their writing career from scratch. Have you found that with Bite Your Tongue? If so, could you tell us how the writing process of this book has been different to the writing of your previous work? Perhaps this isn’t such a prosaic matter after all!
FR-S: At the recent opening to the Melbourne Writers Festival (in 2011) at the Town Hall, Jonathan Franzen talked about the idea of re-inventing the writer’s self with every book. About it being an imperative. That you have to become a different and new person in order to write a different and new book. Or, to put this the other way, with each book there is an emptying out; you wonder what’s next.
I suppose it’s different for each writer and it must depend on what book you are writing, but for me, I can’t really compare my two, there were so many differences. Like two different species or planets – universes. It’s funny, too, I can’t remember what the first experience was like, as the second has now eclipsed it. Process is process is process – it moves you on, changes you as you go. (And I’m a slow writer.) My interests are always with what is happening now, what I am writing at the present moment, where my thoughts are heading. It’s a bit the same with books: my favourite book is the one I last read, or thereabouts.
In fact, I’d be hard pressed, really, telling you what the process with this current book was except to say I just had to keep writing one word after the other. There’s nothing glamorous to it. There wasn’t one thing I did; there were all sorts of methods. Writing without looking back. Writing what I most feared, what I was really afraid of writing. Rewriting to pare things back. Reimagining (and so rewriting) whole slabs of text. Rearranging sentences and paragraphs and sections as a way of rewriting and recasting. Transposing text – I LOVE transpositions – it’s the way to uncover and be surprised by the poetic. Rewriting my rewriting from memory. And so on. Again and again and again and again. It is a task, you’re right. There is no shortcut to doing this thing called writing.
Ah……………………………………. and then a good lie down.
NF: I love that idea of writing being a process of putting one word after the other. I’m also interested in that good lie down. Some writers suggest that they finish one book and get straight into the next. For example, if Trollope finished a novel halfway through a writing session (he wrote between 5.30 and 8.30 every morning), he’d simply start another. Other writers say that novels are heavy things to carry around, so they need a fair bit of time between books to recover. What’s your take on this? And yes there’s a hint of a sub-text: do you have an inkling about where you might want to go next as a writer?
FR-S: As a writer I think you are always ‘carrying something around’. You can’t escape it really. Then there is the idea of practice, of making it happen; that idea of routine is important, isn’t it? Practice so that it’s normal and not strange. Giving the carrying around space and weight and vista in your life to give it the chance to make it into something. Do you know I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because there is all this talk about us being time-poor in our modern society. Some writers talk about ‘unplugging’ their gadgets in order to create more thinking and creating space. I heard the other day about an app or something that can ‘glue’ your machine up for a time (is this just story?) so that you really can get into it, whatever the ‘it’ is. Breathe. We are drowning in screen and screen culture – I know I am – it’s almost impossible not to be in some way. White noise. It chokes us. Email is the worst offender. The challenge creatively is to create space enough to imagine and dream and think-through – to lose yourself to your work. Get hooked. Get lost.
Saying that, I’m not like Trollope writing for three hours in the wee smalls before everyone else is up. I envy him that. You can do that, can’t you?
I’m more of an interstices girl myself. I write in the gaps between things. (Love this word: interstices meaning ‘between closely spaced things’ or ‘space between’ and that’s where I like to put myself.) (There’s also that word ‘interstitial’ meaning that empty space or gap between other spaces that are full of structure or matter.) Writing (for me) is about learning to empty myself into the emptiness.
So what’s happening now?
Little projects and a big lurking one, too.
I like doing the little ones. It’s a bit like doing scales – as a musical form, beautiful in and of itself. Such pleasure. Even this little bit of writing here talking to you falls into this category. Another is that I am about to embark on writing collaboratively with a wonderful photographer who works from a mobile phone – a collection of poetic postcards from/to Rome – writing here in a square format, writing black and white, writing light and shade. It will be a terrific summer project. I’ve got a project about ‘Pineapple Girls’ and the Pineapple Cannery in Northgate, Brisbane, on the hop. And, of course, there is the writing that I do as an academic – papers and performances and essays and so forth. I love the puzzle of all these small works, how they challenge me intellectually and creatively.
The big one lurking – carrying me around – is writing my father. (This seems so obvious a next step doesn’t it, after writing my mother in Bite Your Tongue?) I’m not sure how this will turn out. I’ve already written little pieces about him, as you know (you published ‘My father’s body in nine drawings’ in Verity La, for example). Of course my father is lurking in Bite Your Tongue, both as ‘my father’ and as the fictional Onward. I don’t want to say too much more (because any new direction is always so tenuous and nascent) but what I can say is that I am curious about who he is or was (he died last year). He’s a bit of an enigma, to be honest. I’m interested in him as a writer (he published 18 books), as well as his medical work (he was a paediatrician in Brisbane). I’m also intrigued by his commitment to, and belief in Creationism. His fundamentalism. His particular sort of Christianity. (And the current debates around fundamentalism and Creationism versus evolution.) How often my father thought my mother went too far, but how she too thought he was extreme at times as well. How he hated confrontation but exercised such authority throughout his life, demanded it.
Or maybe I’ll change direction altogether and write crime or something…
*This introduction is borrowed outrageously from another piece on Francesca. Luckily I wrote it, so I can borrow outrageously without a speck of grit on my conscience.