The Pain That Works Its Way Through Families

Josephine Rowe on Australia, intergenerational trauma, and her new novel ‘A Loving, Faithful Animal’

I n the 1970s, the Australian author Christina Stead wrote across the Atlantic to American poet Stanley Burnshaw: “Every love story is a ghost story.” The phrase, like a restless apparition, continues to haunt — attributed at times to David Foster Wallace and Virginia Woolf, its exact origins remain unknown. With the work of Josephine Rowe, one could take Stead’s equation a little further: every story is a ghost story, an act of writing into and away from loss. The past haunts, and Rowe draws our attention to what is left behind: objects, artifacts, stories.

I first encountered the work of Josephine Rowe at a monthly reading series back in the homeland we share — though Rowe hails from Melbourne, and I from Sydney: the two places that divided my own childhood and family, linked only by the long, black ribbon of the Hume Highway. That night I’d followed the trail of a boy I liked in the hopes of being, for a short while, in the same room as him — up a set of creaky stairs to an apartment above a convenience store in Newtown, to somebody’s bedroom that had been converted into a performance space for the night, a red velvet armchair marking center-stage, the distant rush of traffic on King Street in the background. I sat on the floor, drinking mulled wine brimming with pulpy oranges from a paper cup, staining my teeth. I no longer remember if the boy was there or not. What I do remember is a woman with long auburn hair reading from a slim volume of short fiction. I remember her wearing glasses, though I have not since seen any photographs of Josephine Rowe wearing glasses. Maybe this is a mutation of memory — something to do with the clear-eyed gaze she turned on places so familiar to me, the singular vision that wrestled the terror and beauty of the Australian landscape into a topography of small, transcendent moments — sparse, but highly-charged. I remember a story about foxes and how loyalty is a learned thing; another a story about a father teaching a daughter to break beer bottles, and how this, too, might be a kind of love. I went home alone that night, but less lonely than I had been, clutching a copy of that first book of stories as if it was a talisman.

Josephine Rowe’s debut novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal, considers the shadows of violence that dog one family from the Vietnam War to their rural Australian home. But here, Rowe also provides us with maps of other kinds of tenderness, other acts of grace. Follow her, and you just may find a way out of the darkness, towards a shaky but luminous hope.

Madelaine Lucas: A Loving, Faithful Animal is deeply rooted in a dusty, dry, isolated Australian landscape. You’re based now in Tasmania, but have lived in parts of the U.S. as well as Canada. How has this changed your relationship to place? Is it easier to write about the Australian environment when you’re oceans away, or right in the middle of it?

Josephine Rowe: Most of A Loving, Faithful Animal was written from oceans away. It was an almost tactile pleasure to write of Australian coastal pools from the heart of a Montreal winter, in the midst of a polar vortex. Would I have written about it so joyously and gratefully from the edge of the Coogee Women’s baths, or from a diving block the Newcastle Baths? No, I would have gone swimming.

At a certain remove — emotional, temporal or geographical — things crystallize. It’s a matter of perspective, which is partially illusion. We begin to feel as though we might see and understand things clear to their outer edges. There’s also the question of what survives such distance, be it abstract or physical, what rises out of the white noise of minutiae.

But yes, all places seem easier to write once you’ve left them, or with the traveler’s hyper-awareness that comes from being very new to them. There’s also a kind of coda of this sensitivity that comes in the process of leaving — the smash-and-grab of remember this. I suppose the shared element in these three situations is an awareness and appreciation of distance.

ML: Animals have a kind of totemic power in your work. In the novel, the characters seem to have more of a sense of empathy towards, and kinship with animals than they do for the members of their own family.

JR: Yes — what is it? I remember overhearing my father talking to our family collie with a gentleness and affection that he would never show to my sister, mother or me, that I believe he might have been incapable of showing us. I listened from behind the back door — I might have been about 10 — with something of a bewildered, a curious relief. Oh; that person is in there. Somewhere. I remember, too, the swift, gruff shift in his tone when he realized I was there, how embarrassed he seemed. Eat your food now, he said to the dog, and went back inside.

What our culture does to males, in particular — to men and to boys — in shaming tenderness out of them from an early age. It’s infuriating. And it stems from fear that tenderness will somehow render them defenseless, weak, open to attack. For whatever reason, affection towards animals is more permissible.

ML: Your previous published works of fiction have been composed of beautifully whittled short stories, some of them only spanning a paragraph or a page. I’ve read that A Loving, Faithful Animal began as a short story. What was the process like of developing this into a longer, sustained narrative? Do the two forms feel, to you, like drastically different beasts?

JR: The longer feels more vulnerable, absolutely. There’s something armadillo-like about those shorter works; balled up tight, and gone over so many times they feel — at least to me, knowing how many editorial layers they comprise — as though they’re lacquered, armored. Whereas the novel, especially in inviting so many voices, has so many points of articulation. Which somehow feels more…exposed? I instinctively feel this way about dialogue, too, and maybe it’s an aesthetic, on-page thing: here’s a narrows, or a fragile bone.

There’s also something about writing that can be contained all at once in one’s visual field — this sense of seeing it in its entirety is comforting to me. The novel, longer stories and essays…writing towards these is more like wading out into dark, open water, a night ocean. It’s uneasy but a little thrilling, too. You’re less sure of what’s there, about to brush your leg. I’m still talking about authorial process, though, rather than as a reader, and I’m certainly not making value judgments: I will keep both forms, please. I read an essay by Annie Dillard recently that held longer narratives (in fiction and non) as superior, as they draw upon the greater temporal experience an author might have over the course of penning it, however many years:

“Into a long, ambitious project you can fit or pour all you possess and learn. A project that takes five years will accumulate those years’ inventions and richnesses.”

I take her point, regarding time. But short stories — and poems, essays, etc. — can accumulate that way too, over years, can draw upon that breadth of lived experience and shifting concerns. The best writing, at whatever length, does hint at that strata, and that long gaze fore or aft, but if pressed I might say it’s more exceptional to witness in the space of a story.

Author Josephine Rowe. Photo by Jason Montano.

ML: The novel is told from multiple points of view, with each chapter being told by a different member of the same family. How did you arrive at this structure?

JR: A Loving, Faithful Animal started as a short story, and the only voice was Ru’s, echoing my own interest in the imaginable link between my father’s panther tattoo, that of a mascot kept at the Puckapunyal Army Base in central Victoria, and the phantom big cat said to stalk that area.

As it tendrilled out into a longer work, it became evident that Ru would simply not be able to tell all of it, that here were corners around which she couldn’t see, no matter what age she might be positioned at. I was also wary of having her young judgment cast over everything. Diplomacy, then.

ML: The multiple perspectives also allow us to see how Jack’s experiences of the Vietnam War have ricocheted, affecting his family in different ways. Can you talk about the idea of inherited memory that comes up in the book? Did scientists really traumatize mice with the smell of cherry blossoms?

JR: They did, yes — in a study at Emory University several years ago. And I’m no advocate for traumatizing mice, so I was a bit conflicted about referencing this study. But it did strike me profoundly, when I heard about it, as vividly illustrating the inheritance of fear.

The mice in this study were conditioned to associate pain (electric shocks) with an otherwise innocuous scent, acetophenone, akin to cherry blossoms. The subjects’ offspring — and their offspring’s offspring — were observed to fear the scent alone, at first encounter, despite no negative stimulus. Mice whose parents had not been conditioned to fear it showed no adverse responses.

The study has gained a lot of attention, as it is quite a tidy metonym for intergenerational trauma — I think I first heard of it on an episode of RadioLab. It led me to considering my own fears — those shared with my father, but with no direct experiential grounds — and wondering about the nature of such legacies, or how to parse coincidence from legacy.

ML: One thing that unites all these characters — aside from place, and blood — is voice. Even simple phrases, like calling an argument “a blue,” speaks to an Australian vernacular that is so familiar to me and, even in its gruffness, comforting. Did you know from the beginning that voice was going to be essential in capturing these characters? I’m also curious what your favourite Australian colloquialisms are. (My personal favourites are “We’re not here to fuck spiders” and “Off like a bride’s nightie.”)

JR: In showing the novel to early U.S. readers I was often perplexed by the things picked up as exoticisms. So many wavy underlines on the manuscript: Skerrick!? Chook!? And maybe they stand out with similar clarity for you for the inverse reason: because they’re familiar, nostalgic — like a catching the scent of eucalyptus in Oakland or Manhattan.

To me the vernacular isn’t intended as ornamental at all — it’s the natural, audible landscape. As I imagine Glaswegian is to James Kelman; he’s simply recording, just trying to page it true to ear. The characters in A Loving, Faithful Animal share a lexicon, as do most households, but that’s only one element of voice — each of them sounded very different to my ear. Hopefully that individuality carries to readers less familiar with Australian colloquialisms. There’s always the danger, in writing vernacular — especially if it’s being read at some remove — of characters becoming caricature. But at the same time, to completely iron out this phraseology — to bestow everyone with an RP (received pronunciation) kind of eloquence would be false, and in a way, reductive. Some of the smartest people I’ve known say “fink” rather than “think.”

ML: You’ve spoken elsewhere about how you were working on stories about Australia’s colonial history and out of this emerged a narrative about a family and the long-ranging aftermath of the Vietnam War. I’ve also read that your father was an army man and that some elements of the novel are autobiographical. I’m wondering if the process of writing the novel was one of cutting closer to the bone? Was there some resistance, at first, in digging deep into experiences that felt, perhaps, close to home?

JR: I’m comfortable with lived experience, including difficult lived experience, being a launch point for stories or poems or essays. But yes, this was much harder, for many reasons, and it dredged up a great deal more doubt. Partly because it was cathartic, and I was in some ways distrustful of that catharsis: Who’s this for? Does it need publishing, or has it served its purpose? Around the time I was most impeded by such doubts, and over-interrogations of worthiness, Romeo Dallaire fell asleep at the wheel after a long stretch of insomnia related to his recollections of the U.N.’s failure with Rwanda. This, coupled with (Canadian) reports of military suicides related to PTSD, which prompted some briefly-lived media lip service about speaking out and de-stigmatizing mental illness, which was in turn followed closely by the closure of several regional returned service leagues. And I thought, fuck it. There really isn’t enough talk of duty-of-care, and not enough awareness of the intergenerational repercussions of conflict.

The depiction of violence was difficult to navigate throughout writing, and in some respects remains so. I’ve heard a few times, recently, domestic violence dismissed as an Australian trope, which is frustrating and saddening. This disinclination to look is part of the same greater victim-shaming culture that allows it to be clichéd: Don’t talk about it anymore, no one wants to hear, it’s boring.

Violence handled gratuitously, however — violence in place of substance — is entirely deserving of scorn. With the novel, I found it a difficult negotiation; I didn’t want Jack to be two-dimensionally monstrous (the Ruined Vet stereotype) but I didn’t want to shy away from his brutality, either, nor of Evelyn’s re-rendering of it. At the same time, I didn’t want to list into misery porn. The end result is far less centre-stage, visible cruelty — far less sadness in general — than there was in the day-to-day of my own upbringing. In fact I think of this as quite a hopeful book. I needed for it to be, and I’m relieved when I hear from readers who arrive at the same take.

This disinclination to look is part of the same greater victim-shaming culture that allows it to be clichéd: Don’t talk about it anymore, no one wants to hear, it’s boring.

ML: I love that line from Louise Bourgeois you quote elsewhere — “Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it and then, if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor.” Writing, for me, has always been a way to grapple with experiences that have felt chaotic and impose a shape on them, so I relate to that. But I imagine there is a difficulty here, when writing about violence at war or at home, which is often senseless and unfathomable. What were the challenges of wrestling narrative coherence around the character’s experiences of trauma?

JR: Here’s another good one from Anne Truitt:

“The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s most intimate sensitivity.”

Physical and psychological violence is part of what steered me to literature in the first place — initially as a place of refuge, then later as a means of agency. Writing has made it more fathomable, has been a means of metabolizing. For Jack, who has no outlet, really, artistic or otherwise, things remain curdled. Like so many veterans he’s been shamed into silence about his experience in Vietnam (and I feel this post-war silencing is particularly damaging in the case of the Vietnam War, for a number of reasons — personnel who were conscripted into a conflict that was later downgraded in a way that would exclude them from returned service leagues and benefits, among much else). Ignorance of harm is its own violence.

Jack can only really meet the war and its effect on him slantways, in small, isolated (diffused) glimpses, and is shaken when images or echoes of the war come uninvited. It always seemed obvious that his section would be fragmented in the manner it is, interspersed with the rhetoric of others — political speeches and talking heads and medical journals and field manuals. Half-remembered songs, doctors’ diagnoses. An aversion to himself as first-person subject. It felt truest to him, closest to his interior. I appreciate that some readers will find it distancing or alienating, and perhaps this is as it should be — inhabiting another’s sense of alienation should feel discomforting. Jack’s chapter is certainly more heavily reliant on reader empathy, in understanding that others’ thoughts don’t adhere to the same patterns as our own.

Physical and psychological violence is part of what steered me to literature in the first place — initially as a place of refuge, then later as a means of agency.

ML: There’s a great attention to language in A Loving, Faithful Animal. I’m curious about your process. Are you the type of writer who carefully considers each word before you put it down, or does the rigorous editing come later?

JR: I write and edit fairly frenetically, fastidiously, over a number of formats — longhand in journals, on the backs of envelopes, etc., going back and forth between these and the laptop (and occasionally the typewriter), and long walks. The months a draft spends in the desk drawer or in some backwoods of a document folder is just as important. In short, it takes me forever to do anything. I even edit cocktails, mid-drink. I’d make for a terrible journo.

ML: I’ve noticed that many of your stories are written in the 2nd person point of view. Do you think this is an impulse that comes from also writing poetry?

JR: Ah — I was actually thinking about this the other day. I’ve always been a little nonplussed by readers who resist second person narratives on grounds of personal taste or a lack of familiarity, especially given how natural it is to spoken conversation. I tend to dismiss it when it’s leveled as vague criticism of a work, as my take is that the reader or reviewer objecting just hasn’t read widely enough. My response is typically, okay, keep reading, you’ll get over that. But in thinking about how it’s so often a blind spot to writers and readers of fiction, I did land in the same place. So you’re quite possibly onto something there. Everyone — all of us — should read more poetry. It’s the form that most encourages leaning out towards another’s thinking.

ML: Who are the writers that you continue to return to for inspiration? What books are on your desk?

JR: My desk is currently in pieces in a Tasmanian storage locker, but writers who most frequently travel along in my suitcase include: Michael Ondaatje, Rebecca Solnit, James Galvin, Jayne Anne Phillips, Denis Johnson, Virginia Woolf, Sarah Holland-Batt, Alice Munro, and more recently, Annie Dillard.

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