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Telling it like it was: Mandy Sayer’s troubled memoir


THE POET’S WIFE BY MANDY SAYER         Published by Allen & Unwin, $32.99

Five months after her marriage to the writer Louis Nowra, Mandy Sayer read a press clipping from the United States recounting the death of the Indian-born writer, Reetika Vazirani, who had killed herself and her two-year old son while housesitting for friends. Her suicide note mentioned the child’s father, the award-winning African-American poet and academic Yusef Komunyakaa. There had been problems in the relationship.

Sayer was shaken. For she herself had been married to Komunyakaa for a turbulent ten years. During that time, she skidded from euphoria to depression. The Poet’s Wife is her recollection of their relationship, from their meeting when she was 22, to their parting, eleven years later.

Although Sayer is a fiction writer (she won the Vogel Prize for Australian writers under 35 for her first novel, Mood Indigo), she’s perhaps best-known for her award-winning memoirs, Velocity and Dreamtime Alice. This is not surprising: few novels are as colourful and extraordinary as her own life. The daughter of an alcoholic mother and Gerry, a free-thinking, jazz-loving father, she spent her late teens and early twenties touring America with Gerry, busking as a tap dancer while he played drums. They earned little, slept in claustrophobic rooms and roach-ridden outhouses, ate one meal per day, dressed themselves from charity bins and mixed with junkies and artists. All of this is recounted in Dreamtime Alice and the current memoir picks up from where Alice left off.

Sayer met Komunyakaa in New Orleans on Mardi Gras, 1985 and the memoir’s Prelude is a sensual, passionate account of their love-making for the first time. “I pressed my face into his hairless chest and inhaled, drawing the scent of his sweat down deep into my belly, where my song always began…. I drank him in, all his sadness and temerity, his silence and saliva, his breath which tasted like damp country earth.”

Yet ten years on, this tender and lyrical start to their life together had turned into a nightmare in which Sayer endured Komunyakaa’s cruel jibes and ongoing infidelities. When she finally left him to return to Sydney, she’d discovered that not only had her husband carried on an affair with a previous lover for the duration of their marriage, but had recently fathered her child. And there were many other women. He was a compulsive liar – he told Sayer he was 38 when their met, but in fact he was 44, twice Sayer’s age – he’d managed to falsify his army discharge papers and passport. The more Sayer delved, the more deceit she uncovered. At the end, she felt she no longer knew her husband at all.

Still, they fell in love. When they met, he was an out-of-work university teacher, poet and Vietnam vet. She recognised his brilliance and the power of his writing won her over. “Even though we’d grown up in vastly different cultures and countries, we’d both known poverty, domestic violence and the expectation that neither one of us would ever amount to anything.,” she writes.  “That was probably what united us more than anything: our shared defiance of that prediction.”

Kominyakaa had his good points: he provided Sayer with a proper home, the first she’d had in years. He encouraged Sayer to go to college and earn her BA, and championed her early writing. When he was unemployed, she supported him by dancing in the streets. When he found work as a university lecturer and began publishing his verse more regularly, she wrote, taught and completed her MA. They moved from the USA back to Sydney, from Sydney to the USA, as job opportunities arose. At the beginning, the sex was mesmerising. She recounts an almost idyllic period of their lives together when they wrote at adjacent desks, editing each other’s work. Yet by the time he was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1994, the marriage was already in trouble.

Kominyakaa was a master of verbal abuse. Insults ranged from taunting Sayer about her weight, her lack of sophistication and basic education; he laughed at her poor housekeeping skills, her inability to cook. He’d go on tour with poetry readings and “forget” to call her, stay out late or hang out with students rather than come home.  Sayer recounts his unspoken surprise – and maybe even jealousy – at her literary successes. He became more and more controlling, even of her own writing, which was the last straw.

Early in their marriage. Sayer miscarried; later, realising Kominyakaa no longer loved her, she terminated a pregnancy. Their disintegrating relationship is symbolised by the caged doves Kominyakaa gave Sayer as a present: after a while, the male began pecking viciously at the female, so Sayer freed them both before one bird destroyed the other.

As Sayer’s depression grew, she described her suicidal feelings in her diary, writing in Spanish, a language Kominyakaa didn’t understand, because she was convinced he was spying on her. At her most desperate, she kept a plastic bag hidden beneath her pillow, so that if things got too bad, she could always suffocate herself. There are fleeting passages where Sayer comes across as a victim, but not for long. This tough, street-smart woman was more than capable of protecting her precious busking patch in King’s Cross by swearing fiercely and taking on anyone who’d dare to muscle in. In her dealings with Kominyakaa, she gave as good as she got, but after a while, he wore her down. She was simply exhausted. More importantly, he’d betrayed her trust.

Kominyakaa and Gerry didn’t get on. There is a sense of Sayer emancipating herself in this memoir, disentangling herself from the influence of the two most important men in her life, to become the writer she is today. The memoir also traces the developing state of race relations from the late Eighties to mid-Nineties, especially in Australia. At one point, after a job interview at Sydney University, where he affects an upper-class accent, Kominyakaa explains to Sayer how important it is for black people to learn to “switch codes” – adopting one pattern of speech with white authority figures that conform to white expectations, another with family and friends. This schizophrenic mind-set dictated by race, Sayer believes, underpinned his own volatile behaviour towards her. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but it’s a fascinating thesis.

Sayer is a natural-born writer. Sentences, similes, reminiscences flow out of her like water. There’s superb poetry in the pain. She recounts this significant chapter in her life with much humour and not a trace of self-pity and you’re left with huge admiration for her courage and survival instincts. What also emerges from this memoir is her unswerving dedication to writing. Innately disciplined, a typical day could include writing in the morning, teaching and studying in the afternoon, teaching a tap dance class at night as well as reading for pleasure.

Mandy Sayer won The National Book Award in 2000 for Dreamtime Alice and The Age Non -Fiction Prize for Velocity. I’d be very surprised if this third memoir doesn’t garner equal awards and praise.

I’ll be talking to Mandy Sayer in a forthcoming Pageturners podcast on 3MBS.


My Mother, My Father: remembering our parents

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My review appears this month in Australian Book Review.

My Mother , My Father, edited by Susan Wyndham                 Allen & Unwin  $29.99

In  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), novelist Dave Eggers recounts the horror of seeing both his parents die within one year, leaving him and his sister as sole carers of their young brother. Eggers recalls the intense pain of being orphaned at the age of twenty-one, but also the frustration and acute resentment at having to grow up too fast.

There being no uniform pattern to death, it breeds conflicting emotions.  Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, we all face our parents’ final exit in our own way. Susan Wyndham describes the ‘chaos of grief ’ that engulfed her following her mother’s death in 2011. This spurred Wyndham, the Sydney Morning Herald ’s literary editor, to assemble an anthology of essays from some of Australia’s best-known writers, as a tribute to ‘the people who have known us the longest’ – our parents and their legacies.

The fourteen memoirs in My Mother, My Father, include reflections by Helen Garner, Thomas Keneally, David Marr, and Mandy Sayer. Each resonates with a personal voice. Some are diary entries or interlinked thoughts, others more linearly focused. All are united in their unsentimentality and their desire to put cards on the table, frankly assessing both the positive and negative contributions their parents made to the adults they are now.

What emerges is a kaleidoscope of snapshots, vividly recalled anecdotes. As Nikki Barrowclough writes, ‘death gives memory added power’. Caroline Baum, in ‘Waltzing the Jaguar’, remembers her dapper, cosmopolitan, impatient father and their shared love of cars. As a child, she would nestle close to him in the front seat of their Jag when they drove through the car wash, forgetting their frequent rows, ‘as if we have undergone a ritual of purification, all the tensions that encrust the chassis of our family washed away’. Garner, in ‘Dreams of Her True Self ’, recalls spotting a girl on the street wearing a blouse from the 1940s: ‘At the sight of it a bolt of ecstasy went through me, an atavistic bliss.’ Her mother had worn one just like it when she was a baby.

Several memories amuse. Others twist the knife. Kathryn Heyman’s last meeting with her father was in 1990.She had just had her first play produced and was writing a second. He was completely uninterested. ‘Curiosity about my life … is beyond him. I tell myself it’s okay, that I don’t need him to see me, to notice me.’ ‘ A Tale of Two Fathers’ poignantly contrasts this indifference with the approbation and encouragement of Heyman’s late father-in-law.

The need for parental approval remains overwhelming, as does the acute desire to meet expectations. ‘I amhaunted by the things I did not do, the things I should have said,’ Susan Wyndham regrets in ‘Disbelief ’. Thomas Keneally recounts his early years, his ineptitude at school, wishing for parental ‘redemption’ in ‘Independence Days’. He believed himself a ‘massive failure’ in their eyes after abandoning his  seminary studies to concentrate on writing, this inadequacy only intensified by the early success of his brother, a doctor.

A young Susan Duncan realised that she had failed to fulfil her mother’s criteria of physical beauty – ‘Esther Jean’ damned with faint praise. ‘It was my mother’s dissatisfaction with me that taught me to distrust praise or compliments (her own rare approval was always delivered with a painful sting in the tail),’ Duncan writes wryly.

Yet even parents found wanting are missed, sometimes with a visceral rawness. The death of Keneally’s father ‘seemed to shatter the interior of the earth I stood on’. ‘ Oh, if only she would walk in here now,’ Garner laments, at the same time acknowledging her mother’s increasingly marginal presence in her life. For others, grief is heartfelt but kept within boundaries. David Marr recalls the deaths of his parents in ‘Afterlife’, admitting: ‘We were never a close family, affectionate but not entangled.’Nevertheless, Marr is ‘struck by something unexpected: a sense of growing into them … I find I am morethem than I ever was. It’s a reassuring surprise. I’m easy in their company.’

So what’s left? Rituals of closure, funerals, wakes, and the mixed blessing of clearing up parental possessions. In ‘Goodbye, Porkpie Hat: 16 Ways to Say Farewell’, Mandy Sayer’s funny, touching, episodic memories of her divorced jazz musician father and alcoholic mother, the flotsam and jetsam of lives left behind includes: ‘the saucer on the coffee table, knotted with roaches from his final joints; a racing guide with numbers scrawled in the margins; crockery and utensils on the sideboard, mostly stolen from pubs and clubs.’

Children also take on their parents’ physical and psychological makeups.  ‘Her ghost is in my body,’ writes Garner. ‘I have her long narrow feet with low arches… her fine grey-brown hair that resists all attempts at drama.’ Noting that his parents ‘died in character’, Marr quips that he expects to ‘make a noisy exit clamouring for attention’.

Lingering deaths from cancer or dementia, recounted in stark detail, are harrowing; children wonder how theycan help parents towards a ‘good death’. In a short space of time, Barrowclough’s mother, brother, and partner died; her anguish leaps off the page. But there mare life-affirming stories, too. For Jaya Savige, a chance discovery of a photograph among his dead mother’s belongings led to a reunion with his long-lost biological father. With loss, there is also recovery, growth, understanding. Some kind of an ending; some sort of solace. 