In this week’s Monday Musings about the Walkley Awards, I noted that Melissa Lucashenko had won the award for Long Feature Writing for her essay “Sinking below sight: Down and out in Brisbane and Logan” in the Griffith Review. I’ve now read the essay, and thought I’d share it with you. I’ve reviewed Lucashenko before, an essay and a short story. I really must get to one of her novels one day!
With her mixed European and indigenous Australian heritage, Lucashenko is well placed to tackle significant contemporary issues and see them from multiple perspectives. The last essay of hers that I reviewed, “How green is my valley”, dealt with stewardship of the land and the threat imposed by climate change. In “Sinking below sight” her subject is poverty. Lucashenko’s essays make engaging reading. Instead of dry reportage, she starts from the personal, and from that draws conclusions that make sense. And so, while “How green is my valley” drew from her experience on a farm in northern New South Wales, this essay draws from her return, after losing her farm through divorce, to the town of Logan, one of Australia’s ten poorest urban areas.
You’ve probably noticed that her subtitle alludes to Orwell’s autobiographical work Down and out in Paris and London which chronicles his experience of poverty. Similarly, Lucashenko writes that she’s been poor before, so “I had the skill set”. But, this essay is not about her. She starts by setting the scene, describing this “Black Belt” region as one in which
Welfare recipients and the working poor … don’t necessarily realise they are hard up. More accurately, many don’t realise just how poor they are, since everyone in their lives is battling.
She then moves on to the main topic of her essay, which is to find out “How do my Black Belt peers manage? How do single mums, in particular, get by on current levels of welfare? And what dreams are possible for the Brisbane underclass in 2013?” To answer this interviews three women currently living in poverty – Selma (27), Marie (38) and Charmaine (49) – and discusses their situations.
Selma, a Yugoslavian of Serbian and Croatian parents, has four children under ten and a partner who is in and out of jail. Having been a refugee and then involved with an abusive Aboriginal man, Selma has some clear views on her situation:
What I don’t like in society … is the judgments put on Indigenous and refugee and domestic violence people. I was in that situation for nine years. They say you make a choice, but I don’t ever remember choosing to be beaten up! From the age of seventeen ’til about two years ago, domestic violence was part of my everyday life.
She blames poverty for violence, saying that “poverty breeds hate”. Lucashenko suggests that the abuse she experienced “had roots also in the trauma and racism of the refugee experience.”
Marie is also a mother of four, with an “on-again, off-again partner”. She is a member of the “working poor” so not quite as poor as Selma. She grew up in a troubled home, had been sexually molested as a child, and was living independently by the time she was 14 years old. She, like Selma, had a history of “severe emotional and physical abuse from her previous partners, who were all, bar one, Anglo-Australian men”. Lucashenko writes:
Marie spoke to me of feeling enormous rage about the past abuses in her life, rage which sits constantly just beneath the surface.
The third woman is Charmaine, “blond, slim and still able to laugh despite a life that would crush most of us [and] the white Australian mother of four Aboriginal kids”. She too was raped and molested as a child, and ended up in a violent relationship in which she stayed too long.
- Underclass expectations, which see people who grow up with nothing, expecting little
- The importance of public housing in providing some “minimal prospect of safety”
- Loneliness and isolation, which drive single mums back to “untenable situations”
- Violence and mental illness in parents and partners, which entrench poverty for women
- Childhood molestation and/or rape, which all three women had experienced
- Women seeking relief in drugs, which of course can initiate new downward trajectories
Her three women, Lucashenko finds, have hopes for the future. Selma and Charmaine are studying, because, as Lucashenko writes
Realising that poverty is a creation of society and its choices, these two women also know that their lives might shift through higher education.
Pragmatic Marie has a saving plan. Their situations though are tenuous. To achieve their goals, they’ll need strength. Better still, though, would be if they got effective financial and other practical support.
Lucashenko opens the essay with the epigraph that “the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth. It’s justice”. Her essay may not be statistically significant from an academic perspective, but anyone who reads contemporary social commentary knows that what she writes rings true – and this, clearly, is why she won the Walkley.
“Sinking below sight”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 41, 2013
Available: Online at the Griffith Review