Faces up to writer Ivan Southall
The last time I was in Canberra, I had a near-death experience. Twenty-one years ago, I came to the national capital to take up my first teaching post. I had applied to co-ordinate a course called Professional Writing, even though I didn’t believe in the concept of writers as professionals and certainly didn’t know any.
During the job interview, I had sat opposite the panel, attempting to demonstrate professionalism at the same time as distracting attention from my maternity smock, hoping they would assume I was plump rather than pregnant. Being polite, they didn’t ask, and being cagey, I didn’t tell them.
The baby was expected to arrive no later than October 25, the last day for handing in my final marks for the students. But October came and went. And then the first week of November, the second and the third. I tried inhaling clary sage, horse-riding, having sex in unconventional positions, all to no avail. The doctor was beginning to talk about inducement, which would have meant going to hospital, something I was determined not to do.
Finally, on November 17, I felt a sudden sharp pain in my thighs. He was on his way. Except at that point I didn’t know it was a he. I had refused the offer of prior knowledge, just as I had refused all of the other antenatal tests and advice for “older mothers” — I was 37 — including the warning that having a baby at home, at my age, was dangerous and irresponsible.
Early the next morning, at the end of a long, long night accompanied by a midwife and my then partner, I lay in the bath with a baby in my arms. I looked at his genitals and thought: “So that’s why you’re such a little troublemaker!” I was so happy that I didn’t realise I was losing blood at a near-fatal rate. Not until I was in the ambulance with a uniformed paramedic strapping black harnesses to my limbs, like large blood pressure belts, did I understand that my life was in the balance. We both lived. Now, more than 20 years after the birth of my son, Canberra is again the backdrop for a personal drama. I have arrived on a mission to track down a letter at the National Library amid a dangerous crisis of faith that keeps me awake at night and causes panic attacks by day.
All my life I have put my faith in books and literature and writing. It is how I have created meaning and purpose. But of late I have begun to wonder whether novels and poetry, with their webs of literary illusions, have conspired to ruin me; whether what I believed to be sources of wisdom are in fact pernicious forces that constantly lead me astray.
My psychic dependence on books became clear only when I had a dream about being swept up in a cyclone and the only solid thing I could find to hold on to was a bookshelf. Needless to say, it wasn’t weighty enough to keep my feet on the ground.
It feels as if all those years, and all those books, both written and read, have been leading to this moment where I sit in judgment of myself and my vocation. Something like a Carmelite nun who, after 50 years, looks down at her worn hands and her worn habit, and suddenly and irrevocably loses faith.
To understand how I got here, I need to go back to the beginning, to the books that formed me. From my earliest awakenings as a reader there were three books that had struck me deeply, perhaps too deeply: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Coral Island by JM Ballantyne and Ivan Southall’s Sky.
Each one, I realise now, is about a child or children abandoned in a foreign, wild and dangerous place, uninhabited by adults. Each one, in a sense, is a story of shipwreck. What, I wonder, was the root of their deep appeal? Was I simply hungry for adventure? Or did I unconsciously seek heroic suffering? Something that would test me to the edge of endurance?
I suspect now that the qualities I admired most in an adult were courage and bravery, and I wanted desperately to develop and prove those characteristics in myself.
I look back on my life and see that, at every turn, I chose the path of most resistance, deliberately seeking out hardship for reasons that seemed inexplicable to my family and often to myself.
I distinctly remember the moment I turned the last page of To the Wild Sky, published in 1967, when I was eight, because it was when I made the very first of those fateful, deliberately To the Wild difficult decisions: I decided to become a writer. This is the book that started it all. It is a story of children travelling in a light plane when the pilot has a heart attack and dies, leaving his young passengers utterly alone, mid-air.
Which is pretty much exactly how I feel now. Although mostly unread and unknown to young people of the present generation, in the 1960s and 70s Southall was a literary superstar. Selling in the hundreds of thousands and translated into more than 20 languages, Southall produced 23 books for children and was the only Australian to be awarded the Carnegie Medal.
While he was reviled by some critics, and accused of racism, sadism and even raping the child mind, his young readers loved him. Many wrote to him to say so. I want to find out if I was one of them.
So I begin my adventures into the Ivan
Author Ivan Southall