Faces up to writer Ivan Southall

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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