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Overcoming shyness – the making of Sian Prior

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My review was published in June’s Australian Book Review

SHY: A memoir by Sian Prior    Text Publishing       $32.99
Shy is a strange beast – part memoir, part journalistic investigation, part cri de coeur. Reading it, you are immersed in the interior life of an intelligent and sensitive woman. The experience is unsettling, almost voyeuristic. You wonder whether you should be sharing such an intense and honest self-scrutiny, and often feel as if you were breaching the sanctity of the confessional. But discomfort is Sian Prior’s aim: she wants the reader to feel the unease and embarrassment she has had to cope with all her life. For Prior suffers from a common but crippling social anxiety: she is painfully shy.

Prior is a well-known media personality. She has written opinion columns for the broadsheets, covered arts for ABC radio, hosted literary forums, taught creative writing at RMIT. She appears, on the surface, to be cool, calm, collected; one colleague described her as a ‘sphinx’. But that, Prior tells us, is the calculated façade of a professional woman determined to show that she is completely in control.

At a party some years ago, Prior experienced a severe panic attack whenfaced with the daunting task of making small talk with strangers. ‘It was as if someone had spiked my drink,’ she writes. ‘My limbs were growing rigid and my smile was the tight rictus you see on the faces of young ballet dancers… sweat was trickling down the insides of my arms.’ Fleeing the party, she determines to find out more about shyness in order to write an article or book about the condition.

Prior, ever the journalist, prepares a focused list of questions. ‘What exactly was shyness? … Was shyness the same as introversion? … Was shyness born or bred, or both?’ And then, more tellingly, ‘why was I still fighting this battle after all these years? And why did it matter so much to me?’ Prior’s quest is therefore not simply rhetorical but a personal and anguished search for self-knowledge and identity. ‘Sian-ness’, as she admits herself, sounds a lot like shyness.‘ Shy … a timid little word that begs to remain unnoticed. only three letters long and it begins with an exhortation to silence: shhh.’

She reads widely, interviews psychologists and scientists, finds fellow sufferers who share their experiences, investigates the biological and social reasons behind shyness. She also reveals much about her journey from ‘Shy Sian’ to ‘Professional Sian’. Prior’s father drowned in the year ofher birth. Despite a loving relationship with her mother and stepfather, Prior keenly feels the loss of a parent who, it transpires, was also shy. Her mother, a psychologist, recognising the signs o fa withdrawn child, helped and encouraged her. Her shyness appeared more pronounced because her elder sister was an extrovert. Prior depicts herself at secondary school as tall, awkward, and androgynous-looking, desperately wishing to be noticed and to make friends, yet shrinking away from attention. These conflicting push-me, pull-you emotions plague her for years.

Until she discovers sex.  Relationships provide much-needed security. She can want and be wanted in return, without the scrutinising gaze of society. Nevertheless, there is a degree of rescuing behaviour towards her lovers. Her first boyfriend is agoraphobic – she launches a campaign to rehabilitate him. Years later, she meets ‘Tom’, her great love, whom she weans successfully off heroin. Through helping her men, she is clearly trying to help herself.

Prior candidly examines the apparent dichotomy she displays between a life in the public eye and the agonies she experiences in social settings. She explains that she is an expert in adopting personae, and ‘Professional Sian’ is more than willing to interview the famous, make speeches, host political debates. For someone who fears rejection, collective praise is empowering. Still, she faces a furore because of an article she wrote about Julia Gillard. Gillard had described herself as shy, and Prior’s opinion piece described that admission as a sign of weakness. Now she recognises the article was more about her own response to shyness than about Gillard herself. But Prior takes such criticism on the chin: she has no wish to be invisible.

Yet when she returns to the home a fear of the reflections . Prior invested much in this failed partnership, and Shy is an attempt to put the record straight after being sidelined by a man who no longer wanted a monogamous relationship. Despite meticulous and intriguing research
into social anxiety, it is the arc of this affair that remains the fulcrum of the book.

Prior’s style is fluid and confident, from Q&A to scientific analysis, reminiscence to interior monologue. She writes with great sadness about her post-breakup trauma, and here there is passion and poetry. It is common knowledge that Prior was musician Paul Kelly’s partner for ten years, yet she insists on calling him by the pseudonym, ‘Tom’. Why such coyness? Prior explains that this is her story, not his, and that Kelly’s fame could detract from her account. But this seems a spurious argument. By not naming Kelly, Prior is evading a reality that would see her reflected compellingly and indelibly in that fickle mirror. •

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Monday masterpiece: Kenneth Mackenzie’s The Young Desire It

 

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The Young Desire It by Kenneth Mackenzie        Published by Text  $24.95

There is a black and white photograph taken of Kenneth Mackenzie in the 1930s, showing the author as a young man. It’s hard to resist that sensitive face, the sensual, perfectly curved mouth, the penetrating gaze. There’s a touch of Trevor Howard, of Oxbridge intellectual. Subfusc with absent pipe. A whole era is summed up in that image.

Yet Mackenzie was a Western Australian and his most famous novel, The Young Desire It, was published in 1937 when Mackenzie was 23. His life thereafter never reached the heights of that first, early success. Other novels were published, fizzed and faded. He married and had two children, but after a career that also encompassed poetry, journalism and the law, Mackenzie became a recluse, battling ill-health and alcoholism. He drowned in 1955 – the circumstances surrounding his death remain unknown.

I would probably have remained unfamiliar with Mackenzie had I not read critic Peter Craven’s fulsome review of The Young Desire It in the Australian Book Review recently, as it’s just been republished as Text Classic. I was also urged to read the book by WC Chong, Text’s head of design and illustration, whom I interviewed for a forthcoming Pageturners podcast.

Summed up, the narrative is conventional enough – a boarding school story, a 16 year-old boy’s rites of passage, the burgeoning of an adolescent love affair with a country girl. Erotically-charged yes, plot-driven, no. What impresses, as David Malouf writes in his excellent introduction to the new edition, is that it’s “perhaps the earliest novel in Australia to deal with the inner life in a consistently modernist way.”

One of the dominant features is the novel’s languid sensuality and lyricism and lush, haunting evocation of place. When the novel opens, the hero Charles Fox is about to go to boarding-school but before leaving indulges in a final walk, mushroom picking in familiar woods. Brought up alone and a child of nature, Charles is completely at one with the landscape. “Here the first mushrooms appeared, breaking through inches of half-softened crust from the moister warmth beneath, just as if for their pulpy, round heads it was no feat at all. They came up in a night: they seemed to come even as he walked about stooping with a knife to take them into the basket; against the darkness of the earth they shone like moons, and the pink flesh of their secret undersides was wonderful to see.”

This is gloriously poetic with obvious Lawrencian undertones, and indeed Mackenzie acknowledged DH Lawrence’s influence. When, later, Charles meets Margaret for the first time in his retreat in the woods, she appears almost like a spiritual emanation of nature, even before the second theme of love and sexual awakening is introduced. The reader has already been primed to expect the following: “Charles watched her…carefully seeing with a sort of delight that he had never known before that moment, the happy movement that turned her face away, and threw into full view the side of her head, smooth and fair, the one long plait near him fallen and hanging on her knees, and the soft curve of breast and arm. She was very beautiful, he thought.”

Towards the end of the novel when the two consummate their love over the summer, Mackenzie builds up the sexual tension between them with almost heart-stopping intensity. You feel the heat of the day, hear the beating of their hearts, witness their bodies’ abandonment to “the blind volition of their own single will”. What the young desire is not simply sex, of course, but freedom, independence of action and thought within the constraints of a conservative society, the need to be completely oneself. The novel aches with that passionate wish and struggle, which is tackled with fervour and immense literary sophistication and discipline, bookended by the largest chunk of the novel, which describes Charles’ time at school.

Modelled on an English public school, Mackenzie depicts the day to life of Chatterton as a factory for making English clones out of colonial country bumpkins. In this, the novel is quietly satirical. More graphic by far is the emotional and sexual life of the school. Charles’ instincts are completely heterosexual, but at Chatterton he discovers a hothouse of homoeroticism, veiled seductions and more obvious approaches, and his confusion at how to deal with this and survive is handled by Mackenzie with extraordinary sensitivity. The success of this section lies in part in its autobiographical content. In a letter written years later, Mackenzie recalled: “When I was at school I, being angel-faced and slim and shy, was apparently considered fair game by masters as well as certain boys. The boys were at least honestly crude in their proposals; but the masters – young men whom I thought very mature and wise – had a much better technique. They wooed the intellectual way, just at the very time I was beginning to comprehend something of literature and music, and so was most gullible.”

On his very first day, Charles is brutally gang-raped by a pack of boys under the pretext that he’s actually a girl. Later, he comes under the spell of Penworth, a young Classics master out from England, who is captivated by the boy’s beauty and love of learning. For Charles, Penworth is someone to look up to, a role model. When Penworth kisses him, Charles’ experience with Margaret has already laid the foundation for what he desires and his main concern is how to negotiate the inherent difficulties of the situation – rejecting Penworth’s advances whilst somehow managing to retain his favour in the classroom.

For the 21st century reader, this scene is truly shocking. Penworth’s action is a blatant betrayal of trust and we’re perhaps more aware of its lingering whiff of paedophilia and sexual abuse today than readers in the 1930s. Yet magnanimously, Mackenzie presents a predominantly sympathetic portrait of Penworth which is essentially non-judgmental, highlighting their similarities rather than their differences. Like Charles, Penworth is lonely, isolated, artistic. Penworth’s growing realisation of his own inner nature and his attraction to Charles – which both excites and repels him –  makes him one of the most fascinating characters in the novel. Again, for its time, the subject matter and the way it is tackled are groundbreaking.

The Young Desire It has all the hallmarks of a true classic – dazzling writing, deep insight and themes that are both of their time, yet timeless. As Malouf writes: “Among Australian novels it is unique and very nearly perfect, a hymn to youth, to life, to sexual freedom and moral independence, written in full awareness – and this is a second miracle – of the cost, both to others and to oneself.”

Read it: as an introduction to a largely forgotten Australian author who deserves full recognition.


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A Reluctant First Lady: Fiona Capp discusses ‘Gotland’

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In the middle of the Baltic sea lies Sweden’s largest island, Gotland. It’s a wild place, lashed by unpredictable weather, with high, rocky escarpments, medieval churches and towers, cobbled streets, a fortress dating from the Middle Ages and vast expanses of beach that spread out to sea.

Novelist Fiona Capp knows Gotland well. She’s been there three times and is fascinated by its limestone cliffs and timeless presence. Gotland is a refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life. Wandering through the winding streets, gazing at the turrets of its ancient buildings, you’re transported back into a long-lost European fairy-tale. The hazy light and grey landscape of this bleak yet magical space could not be more different from Australia.

Gotland is also the title of Fiona Capp’s new novel. It’s where her heroine, Esther, escapes to after her politician husband David is elected leader of his party, and just before he wins the general election. A shy and private soul, Esther’s uncomfortable with the spotlight. No-one could be a more reluctant prime ministerial consort. She just wants to continue teaching her Year 9s and negotiate the difficult adolescence of her fourteen-year old daughter, Kate. This polarisation of private versus public selves is at the heart of the novel.

Capp could not have known, when she was writing the novel, about the current state of Australian politics, when so much debate has focussed recently on the way in which the media have portrayed the former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, the curiosity and speculations over her private life and her very public ousting from government. But she admits to being curious about the partners of politicians, and their ability to cope with the intensity of public scrutiny.

“There is so little privacy today”, says Capp. “The intrusiveness of social media, the constant media gaze trained on public figures, the way you’re being judged and publicly discussed was something I wanted to explore. It’s something I understand because as a writer, I have a very private life when I’m working on a book, yet once it’s published there are interviews, public appearances, readings, signings – not all writers are comfortable with this”.

You sense that Capp feels a touch uneasy with the publicity demands of book tours and writers festivals herself. She’d much rather be scribbling in her retreat, a room in a Fitzroy hotel. Her partner, the novelist Steven Carroll, writes at home, but she prefers “getting up and going to work, I like that discipline of going somewhere else specifically to write”. A quietly-spoken woman, she becomes animated when talking about Gotland and the themes of the novel. It’s a book about different kinds of love, conjugal, the love between siblings, parents and children, as well as the unexpected, heady rush of sexual attraction between two people.

The novel examines the way love, and ideals, change over time. After twenty years of marriage, Esther begins an affair with Sven, an artist who lives in Gotland. In this relationship, she’s trying to recapture the raw passion she and David had in their youth, not simply for each other, but for life in general. Both active in student politics, she and David had believed that anything was possible. Yet with the passing of time, they have both had to accommodate, make do. Sven, too, no longer takes the kinds of risks he faced when he was younger, creating anonymous, pop-up sculptures that sprouted overnight in the landscape. He also learns the importance of playing by the rules. No-one has absolute freedom to do exactly what they want.

So is this a novel about the inevitability of compromise? Capp smiles. We can’t escape the pressures of society, she says. “But of course passion is reignited in subsequent generations – Kate, Esther’s daughter, is also an idealist. As a graffiti artist, it’s true she breaks the law, but she means well, her motives are pure.”

Capp is well-known for her memorable evocations of place. Her novel Night Surfing and her non-fiction work, That Oceanic Feeling, both captured the wonder and mystery of the sea. Her love of the ocean was forged during holidays as a child at her grandparent’s Mornington Peninsula retreat. This intimate connection with the coast can also be seen in her descriptions of Gotland, all sea mist and brackish waves, lowering sky and chill, biting air. You could step out of the pages of the novel directly into that vividly poetic yet tangible landscape.

Our expectations of life may alter as we age, but everyone needs a special place to dream, says Capp, a place where they can be themselves. Perhaps one of the take-away messages of the novel is that even for a day or two, we are all entitled to get off today’s frantic merry-go-round and experience our own, personal Gotland.

Gotland is published by Fourth Estate,  $24.99