Emily Perkins – Candour v Confession: on reading Robyn Davidson’s Tracks

Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson in Tracks (2014)

Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson in Tracks (2014)

At the Byron Bay Writers Festival this month I met Robyn Davidson, and have since been immersed in her book Tracks. As you might know from the recently released movie of the same name, it’s about her odyssey on foot and camel from the centre of Australia to the coast in the 1970s. I haven’t seen the film but have gone online to search images of various characters who feature in the book, mostly to discover that the real people (‘the originals’) have been usurped by screen-stills of their movie-star avatars. Take only photographs, leave only footprints, or something.

This memoir has got me thinking about the literary difference between confession and candour. There is intimacy to a confession that draws you in, makes you lean closer. I often admire softly spoken people for the effect of their modest pitch. But speaking up and speaking clearly doesn’t have to mean shouting. (I have a theory that this is something women, particularly, worry about, for various obvious reasons.) Tracks reads like a direct, honest book, and involves transformation and soul-searching, but has none of the tinge of confession that we often find in personal stories. Davidson does not position the reader as more or less powerful than her narrating self. She’s not in search of absolution and she accepts there are limits to understanding, even as she tries to expand her own – and ours. If she moves us, that is an effect of the work, not the primary goal, which seems like something simpler, such as exploring, if that’s not too reductive.

If the book were being written now it’s easy to imagine a different and possibly diminished version – even, in our documented age, the self-consciousness of a journey undertaken in order to tell the tale. Back-story, confession, analysis, struggle, revelation, growth. The book as it stands resists that order, refusing to psychoanalyse itself in any simplistic way, and spares the author nothing, good or bad, in all of her incarnations through the desert. It’s beautifully shaped: expansions and digressions are made and much is elided. The shifting tone is anecdotal, lyrical, pragmatic, bewildered, funny and angry, and in leaving questions unresolved the memoir chooses honesty over comfort.

Robyn Davidson

Robyn Davidson

There’s more that I’m thinking through about this, and if anyone has responses I’d love to hear them. In the meantime here is a distinction between candour and confession I plan to take into my writing and teaching: confessional work asks to be forgiven, or to be liked, whether ingratiatingly or confrontationally; candid work has other motives. In candid writing the writer and reader are equal, with cost and reward to both in the investment. No one is showing her pain to elicit sympathy, and no one is falsely comforted by a sense of superiority or ‘there but for the grace of God’. Candid writing generates more clear-eyed recognition than misty sympathy. A book like Tracks is interested in exploring the larger nature of the story it is telling, leaving an open space for the reader to enter. Before the 18th Century, when ‘candour’ came to mean ‘freedom from reserve in one’s statements; openness, frankness, outspokenness’, its meanings included ‘openness of mind’ and ‘freedom from malice’. Its root cand also belongs in candle, and accendere: to kindle, to set alight.

Emily Perkins teaches the MA Fiction Workshop at the IIML. Her most recent novel is The Forrests.

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Best of the best

We were pleased to see The Best of Best New Zealand Poems getting an enthusiastic review from Terry Locke in the new issue of the Journal of New Zealand Literature.  When a review opens like this

 The title of this book is a double superlative whammy and does a good job of attracting attention. The big question, of course, is that having gained attention, does the book sustain and reward it.

you worry for a moment about what’s to come. Then you read on, and at the words

 My simple answer is yes, and I’ll explain why.

you heave a sigh of relief.

We were pleased with the review, which at seven pages in length is substantial. But we were particularly interested in Terry Locke’s comments on the poets’ own commentaries, which from the beginning have accompanied BNZP’s annual selections.

The commentaries function differently. One sort provides an insight into the composition process. An example is Andrew Johnston’s account of how he came to write ‘The Sunflower’, a poem which is one of my picks for the book as a whole. The account itself is manifestly intertextual, with references to Swinburne, Ashbery, the King James Bible and the painting of Anselm Kiefer. This sort of commentary cues the reader’s appreciation of craft. . .  Another sort of commentary is illustrated here, from Rhian Gallagher:

“My father was, as they say, a man of few words. He came out from Ireland in his twenties, worked on building the hydro dams down south and then in the freezing works, hard manual labour. The physical act of burying him was my brothers’ and my eulogy to him. The poem comes from these real events. There is a nod in the poem to something of the ritual involved in a Catholic ceremony while at the same time wanting to break through the potential veneer when ritual turns into an empty vehicle.”

This kind of commentary functions as an interpretative cue. Juxtaposed with the poem, it enters into dialogue with it and the ensuing relationship contributes to a reader’s meaning-making process. . . for me, the commentaries were irresistible, contributing enjoyment and enhancing engagement with each poem anthologised.

If you’d like to subscribe to the Journal of New Zealand Literature, you can do so through their website. The current issue is particularly lively, with reviews, learned articles, thoughtful polemic, and a piece of memoir from current NZ Poet Laureate Ian Wedde.

You can listen to most of the poets in The Best of Best New Zealand Poems reading their poems here and full information about the anthology is here.

On 23 July as a curtain raiser for National Poetry Day on 27 July, Chris Price will introduce a baker’s dozen of the 25 poets whose work was chosen by Bernadette Hall for the 2011 issue of Best New Zealand Poems. We welcome Hera Bird, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, Janis Freegard, Rob Hack, Dinah Hawken, Anna Jackson, Helen Lehndorf, Kate McKinstry, Bill Manhire, Harvey Molloy, Marty Smith, Ranui Taiapa and Tim Upperton.

Check out the full Writers on Mondays programme here.