The Stella Awards have initiated #stellaspark to fund raise for their literary prize, but also to get people talking about their favourite books by Australian women. I selected Poppy: A Life by Drusilla Modjeska, for exactly the reasons I tweeted. It was moving and powerful and is a useful guide for writers tackling stories where a gap in the evidence needs to be bridged. But Poppy is worth more than a quick tweet to me.
It was a book I invested a lot of time in for a Master’s thesis that was, for complicated reasons, never submitted. Those reasons were not to do with the topic or this text though. I remain full of praise for this story. It’s a novel and a biography; it’s an introspective and reflexive examination of what it takes to know another, even a close relative.
Poppy’s story leads the narrator, Lalage, along the threads of a life lived between faith and reason, between bad mother and good mother, between myth and history, mad and sane, imagination and reality. In her own mother, she found the perfect and yet most difficult subject for a text. I’m getting to know that feeling.
In researching the biography of Poppy, Lalage is driven to invention, so she can write the life of a woman whose secrets are bound up in family, in the myths families tell themselves, in memory and, in the beliefs they adopt and the actions they take. From the silence that Poppy used as a weapon, has been born the story that is true even if it didn’t happen, to quote One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. In turn, the story of Poppy also becomes the story of how myths are adopted and remade.
The story that unfolds resists neat categories. Poppy’s silence forces the narrator to recreate her mother in the form of a novel by going beyond history. Just as the mother adopted the myth of Ariadne, so too, Lalage followed the threads of fact and imagination in order to find meaning and provide meaning for others.
While I (like many writers doing PhDs) remain interested in history as the source of story, these days I’m more interested in the myth making and the remaking of myth by protagonists and by authors. I’m also interested in what characters don’t say. Silence is important in my novella for instance. A central character doesn’t tell her own story so she can tell a different, and perhaps, more important one. And I’ve only just realised this as I’m writing. #headdesk
This goes back to the Wheeler Centre Taming the Beast workshop too. Sonia Orchard recommended going back to the novels we love for help with the problems in our own manuscripts. It’s sound advice and I’ve attempted this before. Now though, I think I do need Poppy again, to see Lalage working to create something from the scraps leftover from a life, and to see how Drusilla Modjeska produces something profound and universal, from this personal search.