Real-life feats of derring-do
The Abyssinian Contortionist: Hope, Friendship and Other Circus Acts By David Carlin UWA Publishing, 244pp, $29.99 A biography written across several years in realtime, in the immersive style of narrative nonfiction, The Abyssinian Contortionist is a book as striking and memorable as its cover art. Its author, Melbourne-based writer and teacher David Carlin, charts the course of his friendship with a circus performer named Sosina Wogayehu, who was born in Ethiopia, visited Australia as a teenager in the late 1990s, and has lived and worked here since.
It feels strange to summarise Wogayehu in a sentence as stark as that, however, as hers is a story of such emotional depth and complexity that it is certainly deserving of a book-length narrative. In Carlin, we have a narrator of rare honesty and bald self-doubt. On numerous occasions he makes clear to the reader that this story was written in close collaboration with its subject: he writes of poring over early drafts of the manuscript with Wogayehu, taking in her feedback and sharpening his prose accordingly.
At one point, while visiting an Ethiopian locale of special significance, he writes, “I look across at Sosina relaxing in the cool air, chewing on her lunch. ‘Do you think this is where the book should end?’ I ask her.” (The answer is self-evident, as the story continues for another 10 pages.)
This meta, self-reflexive style of writing easily could have been a gimmick, and quickly tiresome, but from the outset it is clear Carlin is a master storyteller who is well-equipped for the challenge of capturing the life of a woman about whose culture, at the outset, he knows practically nothing. The subject of The Abyssinian Contortionist is clearly a remarkable person of unusual social mobility and ability, yet Carlin manages to navigate the high-wire act of astute observation without falling into hagiography.
Wogayehu’s story begins in her birthplace, the national capital of Addis Ababa, where the eight-year-old entrepreneur earns pocket money by selling single cigarettes to passers-by each afternoon after school. (This fact alone speaks volumes of her canny character.) Life in Ethiopia is tough, and although her father has a job at a local brewery and her mother runs a combined hotel, restaurant and cafe attached to the family home, their means are limited. Sosina teaches herself how to bend her body into seemingly impossible shapes by watching a weekly German variety show on the only television station in the land, and it is in the family lounge room that her career as a contortionist and circus performer takes root.
So she joined Circus Ethiopia, a group that performed on Broadway in New York, in London and Europe, and in Australia. A scandal erupted within the ranks of the performers, who were disturbed by their exploitation, financial and sexual, during a visit to our shores. The man at the centre of subsequent charges, Marc LaChance, committed suicide after confessing his sins of pedophilia. A splinter group of 15 performers, mostly teenagers, fled Circus Ethiopia seeking humanitarian asylum from the Australian government, which eventually relented by agreeing that Sosina and her friends could stay.
It was while working as a director for Circus Oz — “among trapeze bars and tightwire walkers”, as he puts it — that Carlin crossed paths with the young performer, who had recently graduated from the Australian national circus school. As he notes at the beginning, he was drawn to make a book “that traced the contours of the gap” between the two of them. Carlin states early in the piece that he was also looking to write about something other than himself, having published his acclaimed debut in 2010, Our Father Who Wasn’t There, about his father’s suicide when Carlin was six months old, and his resultant search for paternal figures.
This story, however, would have been a far less compelling read if it were a straight biography, as Carlin-as-narrator is present throughout its telling. His regular asides are by turns poignant and comedic, as the narrative smartly jumps between reconstructed scenes from the past and first-person observations in the present without jarring the reader. This is quite a skill, and it is one of Carlin’s chief achievements here, as the book was written across several years and includes two visits to Ethiopia. The closing chapters see Carlin tagging along to his subject’s home town following a death in the family, where he is allowed the rare privilege of bearing witness to the startlingly wide-screen, surround-sound manner in which Ethiopians mourn and grieve. In these scenes, Carlin’s fishout-of-water presence — as a tall white guy among a sea of dark skin — is never clearer, and his insights into this foreign culture are many and worthy. Throughout The Abyssinian Contortionist, his writing is so crisp and vivid that, on reading its final pages, I felt a deep satisfaction and a longing for more.