Writing the Unspeakable

What is an unspeakable topic? This question was tackled this morning in Writing the Unspeakable, a conversation between panellists Stephanie Bishop, Antonia Hayes and Peter Timms, chaired by Jane McCredie.

Stephanie Bishop, author of the recently released The Other Side of the World, pointed out that certain topics are not necessarily unspeakable, but that people are staunchly resistant to talking about them. Bishop cites motherhood and maternal ambivalence, and the profound dissatisfaction that can present with new motherhood. Bishop alludes to mothers who feel they cannot admit to their conflicting emotions: “They love their child, but they also feel opposing forces.” Bishop moves to the topic of migration, reflecting that often, when one migrates, it is assumed that a better life, or a happier story will welcome them: “In my book, that doesn’t work out. It is hard to accept that a wrong decision has been made.”

Peter Timms, Tasmanian author of Asking for It, feels it is important to push past the notion of the ‘unspeakable’ to dispel common narratives. He cites the Bill Henson controversy, in which photographs of semi-naked young people were seen to be destroying the innocence of children: “I don’t think they [children] are innocent at all. I think they are monsters! I wanted to explore this idea that children are ‘supposed’ to be innocent.” Timms argues that adults want to assume that young people exist in an innocent state, such as that of the Garden of Eden. Further, Timms argues that this blanket assumption of innocence is also applied to minorities, such as Indigenous Australians, who face these stereotypes (the ‘noble savage’ ideal). Instead, Timms argues that children and minorities are people, that “they are complex creatures.”

Antonia Hayes was interested in exploring the idea of family secrets in her recently released debut novel, Relativity. Family secrets are inherently unspeakable, she argues, because they are “not talked about, not addressed, and left unsaid.” In Relativity, a mother keeps a family secret to protect her son, and the novel explores how this action causes damage within the family dynamic. This leads to another unspeakable topic, that of family violence. In her novel, Hayes worked to humanise the perpetrator of family violence, to try to subvert the stereotype of the ‘monster’: “we unconsciously categorise people all the time. Maybe this person isn’t a monster. Maybe it was a snap moment of rage.” Hayes muses: “is someone good, bad, or can they be both?”

This question directs the panellists to the question of innate goodness or evil. Bishop argues that this overt branding of ‘evil’ may be an act of self-protection, because it is comforting to isolate an unspeakable act to reinforce the notion that evil is not contagious. The idea of whether someone is ‘themself’ when they have committed an unspeakable act is explored. Timms laments this idea of moral neutrality, arguing that it is now commonplace in the legal system to argue that there is a host of mitigating factors to discount their unspeakable act: “I was not myself. I was on drugs. These are common excuses to avoid punishment. Societal punishment is important, otherwise we end up with anarchy. How far does our understanding of these people go?” Hayes interjects: “there is a danger of taking it to the other extreme, to have a lack of understanding. If people can access that darkness within themselves, that awareness will prevent [further unspeakable acts].” McCredie notes that Helen Garner, author of This House of Grief, received a negative response for her analysis of a family that was devastated by an ‘unspeakable’ tragedy; readers interpreted Garner’s attempt to understand as purely ‘making excuses’ for the perpetrator of family violence. Timms added that there is a danger in normalising certain acts.

On the topic of family violence and maternal anger, Hayes said that she enjoyed Bishop’s novel, and the mother’s uninhibited impulses. Hayes notes that readers of Bishop’s novel were quick to pathologise the mother, instead of considering her humanity. Bishop agrees: “there does seem to be a tendency for readers to say that she [the mother] is doing these things because she is ill, rather than reacting with an extremely human response.”

Timms refers to disability as being historically unspeakable, as one of the characters in his novel is put in a home due to his Down syndrome, and is never visited or seen again: “After his mother is killed, the father is just hopeless. The disabled child was just too much, who had to be disposed of.” McCredie notes that this attitude to disability was common in 1950s Australia. Bishop notes that this theme of family secrecy is prevalent in the novels by Hayes and Timms, and in both instances, the secrets end up wreaking damage of their own. Bishop adds: “The characters all build a narrative about their lives, they have a story about what their truth is, and their truth is what makes life manageable for them.”

Humour is an invaluable device to approach unspeakable acts. Timms notes that his book is actually a comic novel, “despite the murder and death! I set out to write a funny novel, and when something awful happens, a joke is made about it, to disrupt expectations.” Bishop adds that this is akin to real life, when you lose someone, and you feel bad for laughing, but it must be understood that humour and grief are inexplicably linked. McCredie adds that humor is a tool used by people who work in extreme conditions.

Do writers have a responsibility to explore unspeakable acts? Timms jokes that writers have no responsibilities. Bishop reasons that while writers have no responsibilities to write on the unspeakable per se, they are often drawn to these acts or experiences. Hayes feels that the sharing of these stories is important to humanise tragedy, quoting Stalin (“one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are a statistic”). Bishop cites Helen Garner’s writing as evoking a sense of empathy from a specific circumstance. McCredie draws parallels to images: “just like the photograph of the little Syrian boy on the beach.”

Timms highlights the power of fiction, and the ‘circling’ nature of narrative, “which gives you the freedom to examine difficult subjects, and the moral and ethical implications without even coming to any conclusion. This is a power that rests almost exclusively to fiction.” Bishop agrees, noting that society often comes to a collective opinion very rapidly, and writing can work to analyse why something has happened, instead of shutting down discussion.

Are writers of unspeakable acts negatively affected because of their controversial topics? Bishop felt that readers assumed that the mother in her novel was a direct manifestation of herself, which, she argues, is an assumption particularly placed on female writers: “If that is the experience of that character, then it must also be your personal experience.” Bishop argues that as a female writer you are inherently gendered, and that there is an alliance between what you are writing about and what is going on in your own life. Bishop asks: “Why is Ferrante [Elena Ferrante, author of the Neapolitan series] viewed negatively for writing in a confessional style, yet Knausgard [Karl Ove Knausgard, author of the My Struggle series] is lauded for his writing style?” Hayes agrees, noting that a theme in her book is theoretical physics, and although she has read countless books on this branch of physics and is confident in her knowledge, she is repeatedly questioned about whether she understands what she is writing about. Hayes notes that we don’t instinctively question the authority of men, or the breadth of a man’s intelligence.

Writing the Unspeakable concludes with a question from the audience: are there some things that should remain unspeakable? Hayes feels that fiction is a safe parallel universe where everything ought to be explored. Bishop agrees, noting that “if you self-censor, you get stuck very quickly.” Timms argues that writers should self-censor, as there are such things that should remain unspoken. He cites the health of society as he warns against utter ghoulishness: “Wallowing in violence isn’t necessarily right.” Bishop adds that there is a fine line between indulgence and truth-telling. Ultimately, on writing the unspeakable, Timms feels it is important to be as honest as you can: “Once you rid yourself of shame, it then frees you to tell the truth.”

By Hannah Grey