The Meaning of Death

Capture

I have been busy, again, this month. UTAS – the University of Tasmania – has been offering free units and one in particular piqued my interest.

The Meaning of Death:

“This subject will take you on a rich, challenging and stimulating journey through Literature, Philosophy and History. We explore some of the many ways in which death inspires great art, determines history and defines life.”

It looks like it’s going to be an interesting one – considering death from not only a philosophical standpoint, but also a literary and historical one as well, and in my first week I am not disappointed. But what has been the most amazing has been the parallels with my own writing and recent research. Of all the possible subjects, our first lecture is entitled “Death and the Black Literary Imagination”. The “Black” here is African-American, not Tasmanian Aboriginal, and yet I suspect that many of the issues faced are experienced on both sides of the Atlantic.

The matter in particular that interested me was the way in which death comes across in African-American writings. Death is not seen as an end to life, as many in our Euro-Western world would see it. Rather death is seen as an escape, a freedom from the intense hardships of life, a passage into the life-that-comes-after.

I suspect that most, if not all, readers know at least something about African slavery, and the way in which the slaves were treated by their white masters, and the horrific conditions they lived in (is this a generalisation? Were there ‘good’ masters, ‘good’ living conditions? I don’t know enough about the topic to be so specific). It was not uncommon for African women to become pregnant by their white masters. As I have learnt this week, many women killed these children whilst still in the womb.

What readers may not know about is the experiences of the Tasmanian Aboriginal women, stolen by the Sealers – a group of men living on the Bass Straight Islands, occupied in the task of killing seals for their oil and pelts.

The men were left on the islands for months at a time, dropped off by larger ships and left to their own devices, the ships returning to pick up the ‘catch’ and drop off much needed supplies. And how did these sealers survive? They stole (and in some cases, traded for) women from the Aboriginal bands all along the north coast of Tasmania. These women were treated as slaves – often receiving brutal punishments for not obeying the Sealer’s orders, and generally used however the Sealer saw fit.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal women also fell pregnant to the sealers, their white masters. There are reports of these women beating at their stomachs to kill the child within. There is no explanation sought or given as to why they would do this – aside from some assumptions that they hated ‘mixed-blood’ babies. For example, Nicholas Brodie notes one instance of an Aboriginal tribe supposedly so strongly disapproving of a ‘half-caste’ child that they threw the infant on the fire. (‘From ‘Miss Dalrymple’ to ‘Daring Dolly’: A life of two historiographical episodes’ Aboriginal History: Vol 38 Shino Konishi (ed.), (2015, Canberra) p.90)

On the other hand, there are accounts of why the African women killed their babies; because life was so unbearable, and death was seen, not only as an escape from the terrible life of slavery, but also a passage home, to Africa. Our lecture included readings of poetry by Grace Nichols – from her book ‘I is a long-memoried woman’ – heartwrenching poems of mothers who chose to set their unborn child free rather than bring them into a life of hopelessness.

And so I ask myself – did the Tasmanian Aboriginal women have the same reasoning? Was it not a ‘hatred’ of mixed blood children, but rather a desire to ensure their children did not face the same existence they themselves had been trapped in?

And finally, here is a quote from one of the readings for this first week:

“The point is too important: for black and white… writers, in a wholly racialised society, there is no escape from racially inflected language, and the work writers do to unhobble the imagination from the demands of that language is complicated, interesting, and definitive.” Toni Morrison, ‘Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination’ (1992, USA) pp.12-13

I love that idea – writers ‘unhobbling’ the imagination from the constraints of language – and I can only hope that I have been successful in that task in my own writing.

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Six Sentence Sunday – Published Stories Series #2

The next story I had published this year was also thanks to Five Stop Story. My story ‘Sanctuary’ also received an Honorary Mention in their June Competition.

This was her sanctuary. Her place of rebirth, from a life of surviving to a life of living. It was the place that taught her beautiful places could be visited, and peace obtained, without the exorbitant prices that so often seemed to go along with the island get-a-ways and rainforest eco-resorts. She had soon stopped watching the travel programs, those which inspired the mind to dream and then disappointed the heart with a price unacheivable in any foreseeable future.

She had never really thought about the holidays that could be taken in her own ‘backyard’. There were always the advertisements and promotions for the beautiful national parks in the area, but she didn’t know how to camp.

This story was written several years ago, though to be honest I have no recollection now of what triggered it. A warning though – it does contain references to death, specifically euthenasia, so if that sort of things upsets you, don’t read any further.

http://www.fivestopstory.com/read/story.php?storyId=3157

The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D – read-a-long #3

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Nichole Bernier does such a great job of digging into the fears we all have, of showing the fears and other emotions that affect how we act/react in daily life.

Overall I think the message of this book is one of how similar we all really are underneath. We may react differently to life’s events, but overall we are the same. I also think there is a message towards the positives of being open. We fear so much – but if we are open to one another we learn how similar we all are, and can have deeper relationships from it.

Look at Kate, reading the journals. She discovered an Elizabeth she had never known and when she came to the end of the journals she found herself grieving again – not for the Elizabeth she had known, but the Elizabeth she hadn’t, and only now was beginning to meet.

At first I assumed that Dave had taken the last journal. I was so angry at him for it! When I realised it was missing I skimmed through the last  section, hoping to see sections of text in italics to show that Kate had indeed found the journal. When I couldn’t find the italics I felt cheated somehow. But Nichole wrapped up the end of the story satisfactorily – without the need to ‘read’ that last journal.

The ending was quite unexpected – while I began to doubt that Elizabeth was having an affair, the idea of Michael as a healer of some form. At first I assumed Elizabeth was seeking help for depression, but when the true reason came out everything fell into place. I understood Dave, and felt sorry for him.

The argument between Dave and Kate gives another insight into life in general. Dave accuses Kate of using Elizabeth, of only seeing her as a mother. Yet Kate’s response is equally valid – that the identity of ‘mother’ is the one Elizabeth presented to the world, she hid all other sides of herself. How often do we do that? Hide the truth due to fear of what those nearest us might think. I am guilty. There are few who know of my writing, of my desire to be a published author. I am becoming braver, as more of my short stories are published (or accepted for publication) I find myself feeling a little more confident, a little more able to share my writing with my family and friends. Unlike Elizabeth I have not hid this from my closest family and friends, but there are still members of my immediate family who do NOT know that I write at all.

I liked the first paragraph on the final page “It was all so exhausting, trying to be understood. She’d once read a quote… that had stuck with her: If you knew all there was to know about a man, you could forgive him anything. There was something reflexive in the forgiveness, but of course, once you knew what made a person into a collection of oddities and defenses. The work to reach the knowing was exhausting, not the forgiving. That seemed to happen on it’s own.”

I really enjoyed being part of the read-a-long – it’s interesting to hear others views on the book, and what parts others picked up that I missed, or didn’t really think about in terms of the larger story.

Thanks very much to Bree at 1girl2manybooks@wordpress.com for hosting us and Allen and Unwin for providing the book! 🙂

The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D – Nichole Bernier – Read-a-long

 

This is part 2 to the read along of The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D. Again – SPOILER ALERT and check out Bree’s blog for more discussion!! http://1girl2manybooks.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/the-unfinished-journals-of-elizabeth-d-by-nichole-bernier-read-a-long-discussion-part-2/

PS This probably won’t make much sense unless you’ve been following along – for the first section check out: http://1girl2manybooks.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/the-unfinished-journals-of-elizabeth-d-by-nichole-bernier-read-a-long-discussion-week-1/

and my first post: https://heatherj22.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/the-unfinished-journals-of-elizabeth-d-read-a-long-2/

p201 Max says “Well’ her family isn’t seeing that trunk again anyway unless you make peace with the fact that you can’t control the way she is going to be remembered. What she did is what she did.”

This quote relates to what we were talking about last time – about whether or not her journals should be shared with her children. And I suppose it made me think of other things too – if the journals are an honest account of our lives – why shouldn’t our children/loved ones read them? What are we afraid of that we hide away the true parts of ourselves from those we are closest too? We assume our emotions are unique, that no one else feels the way we do, yet of course everyone has a range of emotions and feelings. Perhaps by reading the journals Elizabeth’s children will be able to better understand their mother, and maybe even themselves and the consequences of their own actions.

From the reading so far it is easy to see ‘blame’ on both sides as to why Elizabeth had an affair (if that indeed is what happened). There were moments where she should have recognised something in Dave – p. 167 “I know this should be telling me something important, something I should be noting carefully… It’s about what you owe to someone who is in a bad way, a pact you made when you enter into a relationship… to see her out of this world as she saw you through it.” And yet she dismissed it, or ignored it and continued on, as though this would not matter at a later date. And then when it did happen, when she got sick and he did not contact her, she still let it pass and took him back afterwards. She knew from the outset what he would be like. Though I guess that happens to us all – there are things we don’t want to see, facts which, if acknowledged, would have led us to make a different choice to the one made. Kate sums this up well: “The effects of your choices might not be clear at the moment they were made. But if you turned back to see where you’d come, there they’d be, the ghost of the path not taken leading to the places you would never go.” p. 172

I no longer feel sorry for Dave, and that’s probably not fair – but I’m seeing him as a weak individual who would rather run from any pain than face it and deal with it and I’m guessing that is what has sent Elizabeth off – again assuming that is what has happened.

I want to know what’s missing from the journal – what pages Elizabeth tore out…

I have to admit, Kate is annoying me with her paranoia – her obsession over what might go wrong. Fear of terrorist attacks in Indonesia, of germs the baby wild rabbits might be carrying. She is so focused on what could go wrong.

And these are some other quotes that really stood out:

“I have to accept that I have no more idea of what happens in the solitary parts of his mind than he has of mine, and wonder if all couples are like this. In love and simpatico in many ways, but ultimately unknowing and unknowable.” p 256

“In the end I go back to that same feeling I’ve always had about confidences. The other person rarely has anything useful to offer and usualy you leave feeling no better, sometimes worse.” p. 258.

“What if all mothers experienced times of hopeless obliteration, and no one told?” p 263

The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D – read-a-long

Check out Bree’s blog here for more comments on the read-a-long so far. (Warning – Bree’s blog and the following post both contain spoilers to what happens in the book – up to page 136).

I am thoroughly enjoying this book!!

The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D begins a few months after the death of said Elizabeth, who has left her journals – a large collection she has been writing in since early teens – to her friend Kate – and not her husband Dave. Dave has browsed through the most recent journal and found references to another man, jumping to the conclusion Elizabeth was having an affair.

Kate, her husband Chris and two children have gone away on their annual holiday, extending it this time by 7 weeks due to the death of Elizabeth, and Kate takes this time to read through the journals, starting at the beginning. Kate is surprised to find an Elizabeth who is largely unfamiliar. As Kate discovers Elizabeth’s secrets she begins to question how well we really know those around us.

Bree has asked a few questions in her post about the book so far:

Do any of our read-a-long participants keep diaries or journals, no matter how frequently? If so, have you ever thought about what might become of them after you are gone? If you had a choice, what would you want done with them?

I have kept journals on and off since I was about 12. Some were written in daily, whilst others are lucky to have a few weeks worth of entries. But I have always been aware that others might read them and that has definitely affected what I have written in them (When I have something serious to vent I write it on loose paper and burn it!). I would hope that if something happened to me my partner would read them and keep them for my children for when they are older.

 If you were the recipient of someone’s journals, would you read them? Or would you destroy them unread, so that their thoughts would rest with them? Or maybe you’d keep them until their children were old enough to decide what to do with them?

I would be reading journals someone had left to me for sure! And I would keep them for her children no matter what they held. For me, it’s like something Chris said early on – about Kate making a choice about what Dave and the kids need to know, about what’s best for them. But like Chris is saying – it’s not really Kate’s place.

I feel sorry for Dave. He has lost his wife, only to learn that her journals – the keepers of all her secrets, are to go to a friend, instead of him, her husband. Then he discovers proof (he thinks) that she was having an affair. To be honest if I was in his shoes I don’t think I could have resisted reading the journals, even though they hadn’t been left to me.

There is so much to talk about in this book. So many points where I felt a heartbreak for what was happening – p. 9 when Elizabeth’s son Jonah says “Did you know my mum is dead?” and there is that awful pause before Chris kneels down and says “I know buddy. I’m really sorry about that. My mom’s dead too. It’s hard isn’t it.”

I recorded so many other comments but here’s just a few. On p 19 Kate notes that the journals were agitating the healing process. It is partly for this reason I would give the journals back after I’d read them. No matter how hurtful the truth is, the not knowing, the lack of certainty means there is no room for Dave and the kids to move past what happened.

And p 20 “to free the key she had to relock the trunk, an excluding click that felt a further insult to [Dave]”.

At one point Kate found herself responding to the journals, like she was speaking with Elizabeth of that time. “Don’t trust him.” But she acknowledged that, “of course, whatever was done, was done.” p 75

I could talk about this book for hours, pages, but I’ll leave it here.

Next week we’ll have the next discussion (pp 137-272) So keep an eye out for that! And if you’ve read the book and would like to comment – feel free! 🙂 (Just up to p 136 though – I haven’t read the rest yet!!) 🙂