Saturday, 29 August 2015

Moving Among Strangers by Gabrielle Carey

Today I had the pleasure of attending the Honouring Randolph Stow event at the NSW Library.

The Honouring series is the brainchild of my friend Julia Tsalis, the Program Manager at the NSW Writers Centre. On their website she says:
Sometimes we forget about the great when revelling in the new. In its annual Honouring Australian Writers series, the NSW Writers’ Centre pays tribute to writers who have made an important contribution to our literary culture.
In 2015 we turn to the West Australian writer Randolph Stow. Perhaps best known for The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea and To The Islands, which won the Miles Franklin Award, Australian Literary Society Gold Medal and the Melbourne Book Fair Award in 1958. He was also awarded the ALS Gold Medal for his poetry in 1957 and won the Patrick White Award in 1979.
A writer fond of silence, known for the metaphysical and existential qualities of his writing but also a master at evoking the Australian landscape, Randolph Stow embodied contradictions. Geordie Williamson, says of him in The Burning Library, ‘In him, as in no other non-indigenous writer in our literature, landscape and mindscape are one.’
Honouring: Randolph Stow brings together Gabrielle Carey, author of Moving Among Strangers a memoir about her family’s connection to Stow, Suzanne Falkiner whose biography will be released in 2016, Richard Tipping a poet and producer of a documentary on Stow, and West Australian author Alice Nelson (The Last Sky) whose career has been inspired by him.

In preparation for this event, I read Gabrielle Carey's Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family.

Carey's award winning book is a curious, but pleasing mix of family memoir and grief journal as well as a homage to little known Australian author and poet, Randolph 'Mick' Stow.

I say little known, because when I told family, friends and colleagues (yes, even colleagues!) where I was going today. Only a couple of them had heard of Stow.

My relationship with Stow is not much better. I've only read one of his books and that was his children's story about Midnite, and sadly, the talking cat put me off too much to ever enjoy it properly!

But I do seem to have this fascination for Australia's long lost and forgotten authors.

I'm curious about why we, as a nation, do not seem to celebrate, embrace or cherish our award winning, highly acclaimed authors.
Their childhood homes do not become museums, no "so and so was born here" plaques pop up on suburban streets and rarely do they have university or school wings named after them. They're lucky to have a street named after them!

Carey echoes my concerns in her book when she reminds us that:
Other countries seem to be able to preserve significant writers' houses - why are there so few in Australia?

However, after the Honouring Randolph Stow event today, I wonder if part of this lack of recognition starts with the authors themselves.

All four panelists spoke of Stow's famous silence.

Suzanne called it his "authorial invisibility". Richard told us how Stow had said, "writers are writers because they're not talkers." And Alice quoted poet Louise Gluck's "eloquent deliberate silence" to describe Stow's personality.

Meanwhile Carey's tender memoir is an endless parade of Stow's reticence which she sums up towards the end by saying,
Stow's silence doesn't appear to have been an unfriendly one. His temperament and philosophical bent both point towards a faith in silence and deep doubt about language.

This is not someone searching for the limelight or to have his name forever blazoned across the skies. His story writing and poetry were personal, they were part of his search for home.

Maybe we don't need to make a fuss about his childhood home or where he went to school, except of course, there is no denying, that it is the fabric of our childhoods that shape us is so many ways, consciously and unconsciously.

Stow himself also said (in reference to Joseph Conrad) that "I think one does need to know a great deal - well, a certain amount, anyway, about an author's life...and not only what he chooses to have known."

So, what have I learnt about Stow in the past week?

He could speak and read about five languages, he was fascinated by the Batavia wreck (so much so that he taught himself to read Old Dutch so he could research the source materials), he loved to read Conrad and Joyce and he 'wrote' his books in his head whilst walking and only physically wrote them down once he had it complete in his head. Sadly, he had two such books in his head when he died.

Stow also had an incredibly mellifluous voice (not unlike Princes Charles but with an Australian undertone) that we heard thanks to the resurrecting of Tipping's interview with Stow from the 1988 film A Country of Islands. More than preserving old homes and the placing of plaques, we need to ensure that archival films and interviews like this are conserved for future reference.
The 8 minute excerpt we heard today was one of the highlights of a stimulating afternoon.

I look forward to reading one of Stow's adult novels (now republished by Text Publishing) or seeing one on the big screen soon. I also highly recommend Carey's memoir for those who love their family memoirs and author biographies entwined in a happy embrace.


  1. Anonymous30/8/15

    Great review that proves that if we all read the same books...we all think the same way.
    You always seem to find an author ( 'down under ') to add to my reading list!
    Stow's comment about needing to know about an author's backround is very important I find it gives me more insight into the storyline.
    On the other hand, I read Hanya Yanagihara's ('A Little Life', Man Booker longlist 2015) comment that she thinks a writer's backround is irrelevant. she says its fiction, I make it up!

    1. Nice synchronicity there as I planning on reading A Little Life next :-)

  2. Merry-Go-Round in the Sea was a set book in South Australian high schools in the late 1980s, so I was exposed early - I think too early to appreciate his writing at all without a good understanding of the historical context. I keep thinking I ought to re-read it, as my mother read it at the same time as I did and really enjoyed it. I suspect the curse of not wanting to read what one is being forced to read may have played a role in my never returning to Stow too!

    1. From what I've learnt recently, I think Merry-go-round by the Sea is probably his most accessible book & where I was planning to start.

      I'm now probably a similar age to that of your mother in the 80's (wow I just freaked myself out a little with that idea!) So maybe I'm of an age to appreciate it too, is where I was going with that thought ;-)


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