Biff Ward is an Australian writer and political activist. Her most recent work is In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin, 2014), a memoir that was long-listed for the 2015 Stella Prize and shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction in the 2015 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Ward is also the author of Father-Daughter Rape (The Women’s Press, 1984), one of the first books in the world on family-based child sexual abuse. In 1992, Ward’s poetry book threes’ company, a collection of her work with that of Donna McSkimming and Deborah McCulloch, won the Wakefield Press/Friendly St Publishing Award. As an activist, Ward has been involved in various issues: Ban the Bomb, Vietnam, Women’s Liberation, Close Pine Gap, Close Nurrungar and support for Indigenous causes. She has also worked as an educator: high-school teaching, the School Without Walls in Canberra, literacy teacher at the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs, Equal Opportunity Officer at the University of South Australia and then director of SPECTRA Consultants, training in harassment prevention, marginalization awareness, and maximising human relations in all its forms. By any measure, an amazing life.
Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone
Congratulations for In My Mother’s Hands and all it’s achieved. What was the original motivation for taking on what must have been a daunting task?
I can’t identify an ‘original’ moment. The story contained in the book was the core experience of my life and, in some sense, was so powerful that it had a life of its own.
Until my middle forties it was largely banished from my mind – not in a conscious way but in that unconscious way most of us have whereby our psyches work to protect us from serious painful memories. In my forties, two things happened: I finally found an effective therapeutic path which allowed me to voice what had happened and I started writing – just bits and pieces at first – of memories and even events that were happening at the time with my mother.
I knew that one day I would write something substantial but it had no shape or coherence for a long time. In the last few years of his life, my father (who died in 1995) used to ask me if I would write his biography and I always said, ‘Yes, I’ll write something, Dad’. All I knew was that it would be nothing like the biography he was expecting. Later, some historians asked me the same question – You’ll write your father’s biography, won’t you? – and I gave them the same slightly crooked reply.
So, rather than an ‘original motivation’, it was more like a wave, almost invisible at first, that gathered energy and power in its own good time, as I was ready and the past had congealed inside me in a form that I could handle. And when the wave swelled into its full form, it was like riding a tube on endless replay – I couldn’t not write. It poured out in the kind of ecstasy I imagine pro-surfers experience.
By the time I came to put it all together, to shape it into the book it became, the only ‘daunting’ aspect was the challenge of getting the voice and the writing ‘right’. I was determined to do it well enough to get published by the publisher of my choice and to do it tenderly enough that it really honoured my family and the demons that we wrestled with.
Long ago, I heard a Doris Lessing interview where she was asked something like, ‘How do you become a good writer?’ And she responded instantly, ‘You live. Live life to the full’. I was transfixed but the interviewer – a beginner, I dare say – just went on with the next pre-prepared question and left that delicious answer hanging out of the radio. The interviewer missed the fact that the fullness of life – the depths and the heights, the despair of the flying high – is what makes literature exciting, satisfying and fulfilling.
It’s fascinating that parts of the ‘wave’ were suggestions you write your father’s biography. Both of your parents are compelling characters and have such interesting stories. How did you go about giving expression to both their lives? Was it about letting them live life to the full on the page?
It’s a good and interesting question.
My father was such a BIG character and his importance in my life so profound, that it seemed natural, when contemplating our family, to presume that I would write about him. But the way I always thought of it was that I wanted to write about what a great father he was – in other words, absolutely about the personal, not the public, man. I knew it would be some kind of memoir, a book of memories.
That intention always had a rider that went along the lines of ‘what a great father he was, particularly in the light of what he was dealing with’. And of course as soon as that angle was established, it actually put the light on my mother, the parent who had in many ways been invisible. It’s not her story, but it is my story about her.
The result is that my book encompasses a great deal more about my mother, in terms of the amount of her life that is touched on or revealed – whereas it deals with only a small amount of my father’s life, personality, actions and achievements. It deals with the parts that were relevant to talking about our family. I tried to give expression to both their lives in any ways that were relevant to my mother’s illness, to tell that story, that slice of the life we all lived.
My goal was to use the techniques of fiction to animate the scenes I was describing, to allow the reader to enter into them and have their own experience or draw their own conclusions. If in doing that they seem to ‘live in full’ on the page, then I am gratified.
As Ruth Ozeki writes in A Tale for the Time Being, ‘[Words] come from the dead. We inherit them. Borrow them. Use them for a time to bring the dead back to life’. While that wasn’t my plan, it’s what the process of the writing brought about. It seems that the writing of the book has brought my mother to life by explaining her experience and guessing at her experience; and it has certainly brought Alison, our dead baby, to life.
I have noticed and also heard from other people that the book often triggers memories for readers, that there has often been more talk (in book groups, for example) about their own lives, their own family secrets, than about In My Mother’s Hands per se. I can only assume from this that the book taps into a universal truth, that most families have hidden bits, and that there’s some energy to be gained in revealing these.
I recently heard about some raptors – the black-shouldered kite and one of the falcons – which manipulate fire. Where all raptors will hang about at the front of a fire to feast off the wildlife that rushes out, these birds will pick up a burning limb and fly to a dry area where they drop it and start another fire. It struck me that the journey to understand is like that: the fire that clears away the dangerous rubbish, flushes out juicy gobbets of revelation and comprehension and then leaves a landscape that is renewed, fertile, fecund. That’s where In My Mother’s Hands was written from – new shoots of green on black, a vivid canvas.
Perhaps the book itself will be the burning branch for someone else’s story.
You’ve mentioned that bringing the dead back to life wasn’t your plan and you’re surprised to hear that the book appears to have tapped into a universal truth in terms of all families having ‘hidden bits’. What other elements of the writing of this book and/or its publication have surprised you?
What’s surprised me most is how much I enjoyed the writing – the first splurt onto the page, the editing and shaping (over and over again), the enormous amount of thinking that goes into writing and the playing with words, trying different combinations, rhythms, weightings, musicality.
I’ve also been delighted by the friendliness within the writing/book-selling/publishing community; talking about writing with other writers; meeting regularly with my writing group. I have found a widespread community of collegiality, respect and engagement.
Another surprise has been the people who have contacted me from the past. In other words, they’ve read the book and got in touch because they knew me, my family, or someone who did. There have been amazing stories of connection which would have been great to have inside the covers of the book! They include a woman who grew up on the street where I lived until I was three who told me, ‘Whenever we went for a walk, my mother would point at your house and say, That’s where the baby died’.
A complete surprise has been a couple of therapists and also a Jungian analyst who have told me that they are recommending the book to their clients. Two others have told me that they have clients who have come in, waving my book, saying, ‘You have to read this!’ So it seems that the healing journey that is implicit in the text – and, I think, not laboured – has connected with some people.
If we could turn to the matter of the baby. The memoir begins with this sentence: There is in my family a grave that was never visited. Was this always the starting point for the narrative? Or was it a matter of finding your way to this point through the drafting and rewriting process?
It’s a good question – where and how the key focus was arrived at. Someone wrote to me about that first sentence when she’d read only a few pages: ‘It makes the absent present, so present,’ she said. I know I love that tension between absence and presence when I am the reader, so I was very gratified to get this email.
Alison and her death were emblematic of the story of the secrets in our family. The first version of the manuscript was entitled Alison and I also played around with The Grave – so the focus on Alison’s death was there from the beginning of the writing.
The Prologue that begins the book with that sentence was a fixed entity for a long time. The honing down was mostly about removing stuff that was my story about my father, and also stuff about me, my ‘coming of age’ story. It was too cluttered, given that the stories that motivated me were the three strands about our dead baby Alison, my mother’s disturbed state and the business of living with silences.
Once I had the first draft, the writing process was concerned with pruning and streamlining and plaiting those three themes into one seamless narrative, one braid.
Despite the familial darkness that is at the core of In My Mother’s Hands, the narrative does not come with an oppressive heaviness. Was this a conscious strategy in crafting the work?
No, it was not ‘conscious’ and I think that’s because I didn’t write until I was out beyond the ‘oppressive heaviness’ myself. I see a big distinction between writing-as-therapy and the telling of a dark tale that has been personally experienced.
Writing-as-therapy is a wonderful form of self-exploration and clarification – but it needs to be private! It is for the self, not for reading by others. It’s what you do if you need to journey through the glades of despair, to drag yourself through brambles and shudder through cobwebs. As well as writing, my journey included over twenty years of very effective therapy. Some people will still titter when I say that – which is an interesting response to a book about mental illness because it is an expression of the stigma that still surrounds any disclosure about seeking emotional help.
Literature is an act of affirmation. Love always trumps despair because we are creatures of hope; we look for the pathways that will take us on or through or around what the fates put in our way. Paul Harding called it ‘the deep and secret Yes’, which is a beautiful expression of resilience, of what it is that allows us to survive and flourish even through the hardest times.