Between 1985 and 1990, Janette Turner Hospital wrote four books which had one-word titles – Borderline (1985, novel), Dislocations (1986, short stories), Charades (1988, novel) and Isobars (1990, short stories). I’ve read the novels, and they imprinted on my mind Hospital’s love of metaphor. In these works, her titles clearly herald her concerns, and I love that. All this is to say that I thought I might kick off my contribution to Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week, with a short story, so I checked The Oxford book of Australian short stories. I found a few to choose from, but the writer who grabbed my attention was Janette Turner Hospital. I’ve read four of her novels, and have her latest short story collection, Forecast: Turbulence, on my TBR. I enjoy reading her.
The story is “The inside story” and it comes from the Dislocations collection, which was first published in Australia in 1986. I specify Australia because, at the time, and for many decades, Hospital was living overseas, primarily Canada and the USA, but elsewhere too. I note, however, that her website says that she returned to live permanently in Australia in 2019.
And now, the story. There is, as you’ll have realised, wordplay in the title. It is set “inside”, with the first person narrator being a teacher of a college literature course in a jail – an American one I presume, though it’s not specified. However, it is also about the “inside” of the characters, about their selves, particularly the narrator. The story involves this narrator, speaking from a later time, telling about the period she spent as a teacher in the jail, sharing her experience and some of the interactions she had with the inmates. So, she is also an outsider, coming from outside, and also an outsider in terms of not having shared experience with her students. For the first half of so of the story, her students are simply “they”, suggesting they are alike in their attitudes and reactions to her, but towards the end two, Jed and Joe, are differentiated.
For budgetary reasons, our narrator is limited in what she can teach to what’s available, so she chooses Malamud’s The fixer as a follow-up to Sozhenistsyn’s One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich which had not gone down well. She’s surprised, thinking they’d “enjoy the prisoner as hero”. Not this lot. After all, these are the people who had told her:
We can’t afford your romantic empathy … Please check your angst in at the cloakroom, before you see us.
Still, our narrator tries:
‘Kierkegaard suggested that we are all equally despairing, but unless we can write and become famous for our despair, it is not worth the trouble to despair and show it.
You people with a tragic world view, they sighed, you make like so difficult for the rest of us.
And so the story continues, with the narrator trying to understand their experience, and how they manage the brutality of prison life, while they fend off her desire to understand and “reform them with culture”. When she suggests reading Franz Fanon, they are not interested in “another tragic bloody humanist–because that would be the kind of invasion of our head space we can’t afford in here”. In other words, while she is concerned about their “moral survival”, eschewing the cynicism of her colleagues, their focus is pure survival.
She’s not the only one who started with “idealism and compassion”. Another is a guard, but he learns:
The institution could only operate in black and white, he said. Grey got it from both sides. Get out, he said, while you’re still human.
Inevitably, there is violence, and the job comes to an end.
I enjoyed the story, though my brief search of the internet suggests that it is not mentioned the way some others are from the collection. Anthology editor Michael Wilding, however, must have liked it, though he doesn’t mention it in his preface. There is a lot to think about here in terms of dislocations – the prisoners from their lives, for a start, and our narrator’s confrontation with ideal versus reality. Who is our narrator? Does she stand for liberal do-gooders that I can relate to from the 1970s and 80s. Why did she take this job, and is her closing answer completely honest?
On Hospital’s website is a link to an interview with literary editor, Steven Romei, in which she tells him that
All of my writing career is about how human beings negotiate dark matter. I am extremely interested in how people negotiate catastrophe, not because I’m morbidly interested in it but because I’m interested in the secret of resilience, that’s what I’m always exploring in the stories and the novels.
As for how this story fits into Bill’s conception of Gen 4 (see my first paragraph), I’m not sure. Hospital was an expatriate Australian writer when she wrote this, which places her at a remove from specific Australian movements, but – maybe – you could read it as occupying a transition between 196Os and 70s idealism and the cynical neoliberalism of the late 1980s. Then again, it could just be itself, and reflective of Hospital’s ongoing interest in “moral survival” and outsiderness, not to mention “dark matter”.
Janette Turner Hospital
“The inside story”
in The Oxford book of Australia short stories (ed. Michael Wilding)
Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994
Orig. pub. in Dislocations, 1987