Biff Ward, The third chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War (#BookReview)

Biff Ward’s The third chopstick was my reading group’s October selection. It’s the second book by Ward that we’ve done, the first being her memoir, In my mother’s hands (my review), about growing up with her academic father, the historian Russel Ward, and her mentally ill mother, at a time when mental illness was shameful and to be hidden. It was a moving book that engendered an engaged and wide-ranging discussion. Biff Ward, in fact, attended that meeting.

The third chopstick is another personal book, but one that’s not so easy to classify. I would describe it as hybrid memoir-creative nonfiction. Memoir, because it’s about her experience as an anti-Vietnam war protester who later chose to meet Vietnam veterans and listen to their stories. And creative nonfiction, because, although nonfiction, it uses some of the devices of fiction to engage its readers. These include hinging her story around one particular vet, Ray, whom she describes as her “muse”, her “archetypal veteran”, her conduit, perhaps, to “the missing piece”. His story, combined with his powerful presence, gives the book its compelling, narrative drive.

The implication of what I’m saying here is that while The third chopstick is historical it is not an academic history. Although Ward did the historian thing, and conducted recorded interviews with vets, she does not attempt to present an “authoritative” analysis of protesters or of vets, but a thoughtful, personal quest. It has no footnotes, although there is a selected reading list at the end, and there’s no index. This is not to say, however, that it doesn’t add to our understanding of history, because it certainly does.

The book has a logical, and more or less chronological, structure, though there is criss-crossing of timelines where appropriate. It has three main parts – Protest, Veterans, Vietnam – which are bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue. In Protest, Ward describes her life as a protester, and introduces us to her ongoing interest in Vietnam long after the war ended. In Veterans, she introduces us to the veterans she met and interviewed, shares their stories and experiences, and reflects on these. Finally, in Vietnam, she discusses post-war Vietnam, including how Vietnamese people have processed, and live with, what happened. She has visited the country many times – as a sole tourist, on war-themed tours, and as a tour leader herself. On some of those visits, she either accompanied or met vets. Through these postwar connections, she starts to bring together her central questions concerning how we Australians got caught up in this, and what it did to us – as a nation, as individuals – though, of course, there are no simple answers.

“a scrambled snarl”

A bit over halfway through the book, while interviewing Nick, an SAS veteran of the war, Ward confronts the issue of “killing”. Nick’s story causes her to think about that and, thence, her stance as a pacifist. She realises she’d never really grappled with it. She had, she writes, a ‘”natural” antipathy to killing, a generalised kind of pacifism which yearns for peace’ but she also believed that, if needed, she would strive as hard as she could to defend “me and mine”. Her pacifism was “a scrambled snarl of thoughts and feelings”. She doesn’t explore this further, as it’s not the subject of the book, but …

… I liked this expression because what her book does is explore just what “a scrambled snarl” war is, whichever way you look at it. I particularly liked her various reflections on war. She makes the point early on that it is well known that war takes years to recover from. Vet Graham tells her that medieval knights “used to go into a monastery after being on a crusade”. He himself had, after leaving the army, been ill; he’d been in hospital and at a health farm, before spending “thirteen years, mostly alone, making music, keeping quiet”. By the time Ward met him, he was working with the Federation for Vietnam veterans.

Throughout the book, then, Ward reflects on war in general, but I’ll just share a couple that captured my attention, both resulting from her reading of Ray’s journal, where he expresses the trauma he experienced. It leads Ward to suggest “that the truth of all war is only these depthless oceans of grief”. A few pages later, she discusses “moral injury”, which “refers to an injury to the soul, to morality, to what can happen when a soldier has to do something against his own sense of what is right and wrong.” The injury done to Ray is immense.

Ward may not have intended this, but her book also functions, at least a little, as a cautionary tale, because she shows how easy it is to believe you are doing the right thing when you protest for a humane cause, and be oblivious to the potential for unintended consequences. The anti-Vietnam War protesters’ beef was with the government and its policies, but the result, as we all know now, was that the soldiers who went to Vietnam were vilified – not so much by the core protesters but by others who took their ideas on without understanding the politics. Ward shares some of the facts and myths about how it played out.

Ward also discusses those other two big fall-outs from this particular war – Agent Orange and its ongoing impact on the health of both soldiers and Vietnamese people, and PTSD, which she describes as the Vietnam vets’ gift to the world.

What makes this book a particularly good read, besides all this subject matter, is the language, which mixes journalistic-style reportage with more evocative writing. There’s too much to share, but here’s one describing her experience of transcribing Ray’s journal:

As I transferred his words from the page to pixels on my screen, they sometimes spiralled off and pranced about the room like leering pixies.

(This sometimes necessitated her needing to take a break!)

Here’s an appropriate point to explain the title, because it came from Ray, as she explains in Chapter 2. While in a restaurant, he places two chopsticks in parallel lines, about two centimetres apart, across a bowl, and names the space between the two as “normal life … where people get born and grow up …” etc. Then, he takes another chopstick (“the third chopstick”), places it parallel to the others, the same distance apart, and says

The veteran lives here, alongside but separate, see? He can see this life, he pointed back to the first space. He can see what other people are doing, but he can’t join in. He doesn’t know the rules anymore. It might look like like garbage to him. It’s got no connection to what’s happening inside him, see?

The secret, Ray continues, is for the veteran to be able to handle both “his own stuff” and join in. There’s a little more to it but that’s the gist.

    Lest you be thinking so, The third chopstick is not just relevant to those who lived through the Vietnam War era. As I read this book, I couldn’t help thinking about a war that is happening right now. Near the end, Ward writes:

    So even today, for the People of the Bag*, the mountains and the rivers, the land and the water and their interconnectedness are concepts integral to the way Vietnamese conceive of themselves. And, I chucke to myself, those men in Washington and Canberra thought they could somehow beat them, that the People of the Bag would eventually give up? Really?

    Given its origins in a leftie anti-Vietnam war protester who went on to engage openly and genuinely with soldiers involved in that very war, The third chopstick is quite an astonishing book. For anyone interested in the complex experience of war, it makes excellent reading. All eleven who attended my reading group agreed.

    * The Vietnamese, from their Creation Myth

    Biff Ward
    The third chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War
    Penrith: IndieMosh, 2022
    ISBN: 9781922812025

    Meeting Biff Ward

    WardMotherAllenUnwinIn her comment on my review of Biff Ward’s beautiful memoir, In my mother’s hands, in which I mentioned that Biff had been present at my reading group, Stefanie (So Many Books) asked if I planned to post specifically about Biff’s presence. While I don’t always do this when authors visit my group – Biff was our sixth author in our 27 years – I did do so for Marion Halligan and Alan Gould. Since our discussion covered a lot of ground that I didn’t include in my review, I figured that this was one of those visits to write up …

    The writing process

    The most common questions readers ask authors tend to relate to why and how they wrote the book in question. We were no different. And really, I think such questions can be good ice-breakers because “how did you come to write your book” is surely a question most authors can answer without too much angst? For Biff, the answer was quite complex. She said that her father, and others, always assumed that she would write his biography, but she wasn’t interested in biography … and so … WardFatherDaughterGrove

    Biff had, she said, been writing for 40 years or more. Her first book was the ground-breaking Father-daughter rape*, published by The Women’s Press in London in 1985. One of our reading group members, a psychotherapist, knows the book and said it is still referred to for its discussion of child sexual abuse. Biff, quite rightly, seemed rather chuffed at this news!

    The memoir, though, was written over 15-20 years – in bits and pieces. The first “bit” she wrote was a reminiscence of her mother’s in which she remembered hearing of the assassination of the Romanovs. Uncertain about where Russia was, she asked her father who vaguely said, gesturing, “over there”. For her mother “over there” meant “out of sight beyond the horse paddock”. It’s a lovely anecdote shared between mother and daughter, but it has deeper resonances in terms of her mother’s life, and Biff included it pretty much untouched in the final memoir.

    Biff said that she started writing more on the memoir as she transitioned to retirement, but work on it intensified after she attended a writing retreat in Byron Bay in 2009. By the time she presented it to her publisher, Richard Walsh, it was 105,000 words, but it was gradually whittled down to the final 70,000 words. We wondered whether she could publish some good short stories from the bits edited out.

    We aren’t, I guess, a very original group because another question we asked is a common one: how did you choose the title? Biff responded that she brainstormed it with her writing group. Her original title had been  Alison, for her parents’ first child who had died at 4 months, but then, through brainstorming, it was decided that the title should refer to her mother. The final challenge was whether to go with At her mother’s hands or In her mother’s hands. We agreed that “In” is better. It feels more inclusive, and less aggressive.

    We also talked a little about the sources of her information, but I mentioned some of those in my review. I was intrigued by a reference in the book to how a lover washing her hair brought back childhood memories of her mother washing her hair. It made me wonder what memories don’t come back and the implication of almost serendipitous memory-joggers like this on the final story. I loved Biff’s answer that the “memoir” form is more forgiving than “autobiography”. It is, after all, about memories, so what you do and don’t remember, for whatever reason, is essentially what it’s about.

    Writing (and reading) as therapy

    If you’ve read the book, or my review, you’ll know that the underlying story concerns mental illness. You won’t be surprised then to hear that the book brought out some painful (but valuable) sharing. It was truly special that we all, including the “stranger” in our midst, felt safe enough to do this – and for that reason, obviously, what was shared in the room will stay there. I can say though that it also brought up the idea of writing as therapy. Biff believes that writing for therapy is valuable – but in journals and diaries, not in published books.

    Related to this theme, we asked whether writing the memoir was a painful or traumatic experience but, as Biff mentions in the book, she had undergone extensive psychotherapy so had, she said, worked her emotions through before she came to write the book. We also asked her whether she was angry about her childhood, but she said she was more sad than angry. She said, thinking of her father, that partners can suffer more than children. That’s a generous response I think – but then this is a generous book.

    We also talked a little about the way the family had hidden its problems, but we could all relate to the fact that people are generally anxious to say “I’m fine”. People don’t, as Biff discusses in her book, have the words, the language, to express difficult things. Biff did refer, though, to the moment in the book when she and her father had finally been able to talk about “the terribleness” they had experienced. An “odd word” she wrote in the book but it was lovely, she told us, to have been able to be honest about their experiences. Biff’s father had his failings, about which she’s clear in the book, but he was she said “a deeply moral man” and late in his life regretted his less admirable behaviours.

    Our reactions

    As you will have gathered we all enjoyed the book and deeply appreciated having Biff present for our discussion. We shared our various reactions – profoundly moving, harrowing, kind, a stimulus to remembering our own childhoods, and the like. One member used the word “endearing” for Biff’s portrait of her father, for the way she showed her love for her father while writing “all sides” of him. Biff said she enjoyed finding the words to describe him.

    A point that intrigued us was the fact that a country university, the University of New England (UNE), had employed a “communist” academic who had been rejected by the major city universities. Biff told us that UNE had quite a reputation for employing “all the Reds that no-one wanted”! We all loved this.

    Near the end of the evening, Biff unveiled the “show-and-tell” she’d brought. It was a beautiful, sensitive portrait of her mother painted when she was in her late 20s. A cropped black-and-white version is in the book (p. 62) but to see the original full version in colour was, well, special. But then again, it was just one more special thing in an evening that was very special.

    * Lest you be concerned, this book is not about Biff and her father – there’s no such sexual abuse in the memoir – but about her later research into child sexual abuse after meeting two young abused girls in a women’s refuge.

    Biff Ward, In my mother’s hands (Review)

    Biff Ward In my mother's hands

    Courtesy Allen & Unwin

    “Profoundly moving”, “a kind book”, and “harrowing” could be blurb words for Biff Ward’s memoir, In my mother’s hands, but they’re not. They are some of the words used by members of my reading group when we discussed the book this week with – lucky us – the author in attendance.

    It’s quite coincidental that I happened to be reading this book right when Annabel Smith asked me to name my favourite memoir for her Friday Faves, which resulted in my follow-up post on memoirs this Monday. However, I’m glad it happened this way, because it’s given me an excuse to continue the discussion a little more. There’s so much to say about Ward’s book, but for this post I’m going to explore just two aspects: the reading experience, and its literary qualities.

    On reading In my mother’s hands

    So, let’s start with the story. Biff Ward is the daughter of one of Australia’s most influential historians of the mid-twentieth century, Russel Ward. At our meeting, she told us that people expected her to write his biography, but, she said, that was never her interest. Instead, she found herself writing about her mother. In doing this, though, she did in fact write about her father – but in a memoir, not a biography, because this book is about her experience of living in a family with an increasingly delusional, paranoid mother. What that experience was like – and how she eventually unravels the full story – makes compelling reading.

    But, there’s more to reading this book than the story, strong as it is. There is how Ward tells it. She evokes the times beautifully – particularly the 1950s and 1960s – showing, in particular, the devastating result of the lack of understanding or awareness of mental illness. And she does this while inhabiting the child she was at the time, that is, she manages to tell those years from her child’s eye view, interspersing this voice with her experienced adult one. Take, for example, her description of when, as a teenager, she’s home when her mother is visited by “top girl” or “the queen bee of the university wives”. Ward believed this visit showed her mother was being talked about publicly, and she felt “shame and embarrassment” as “Top Girl bustled down the hall and out the front door”. That word “bustled” perfectly captures the idea of a “busybody”. Later, though, she sees it differently:

    Now I can see that the network of women, connected through the university where their husbands worked, might have cared about my mother. Or might have wanted to care but were not sure how to go about it.

    Also contributing to my reading enjoyment was how seamlessly Ward incorporated her research into the story to substantiate her feelings and ideas. She quotes from letters her father wrote to his parents and sister. (How wonderful that these were kept, says this librarian-archivist!) She talks of speaking to friends and family members later about their memories. She shares her research into official records. She refers to her father’s autobiography. And so on. None of this is tedious, but is woven naturally, logically, into the narrative.

    Then there’s Ward’s honesty in confronting difficult truths, and her ability and willingness to reflect on her experiences and comprehend their meaning or implications. Here she is, for example, on her response to her father’s overwhelming (and surely unreasonable) request for her to look after her mother for a year:

    I didn’t know that somewhere inside me was a plan. My motivation was buried way too deep for me to connect that first touch of an erect penis with the request Dad had made of me.

    You can probably guess the outcome.

    It would be easy to read this book with anger – to be angry particularly with Russel Ward for his failings – but that would, I think, miss the point. Ward is not angry – and indeed her father did a lot right too. Her tone is more one of sadness, than of anger. She appreciates the culture of the times and she knows that people are flawed. I loved this – the generosity with which she relates what was clearly a traumatic upbringing.

    What makes a memoir literary?

    This might sound like a snooty question, but literary non-fiction is a recognised genre, and memoirs are making literary award lists. So, what makes one memoir stand out over another in terms of literary qualities? Critic Barbara Lounsberry captures my perspective: “Verifiable subject matter and exhaustive research guarantee the nonfiction side of literary nonfiction; the narrative form and structure disclose the writer’s artistry; and finally, its polished language reveals that the goal all along has been literature.” (from Wikipedia)

    So, narrative form, structure and “polished” language. While I wouldn’t call In my mother’s hands particularly innovative or challenging in terms of style and technique, I would call it skilled and polished. Ward’s use of her child’s voice interspersed with her more reflective adult one effectively draws the reader in. Her use of foreshadowing – such as “I missed seeing that I had been provided with a rehearsal of what was to come” and “It’s hard, looking back, to pick the precise moment when a turning point arrives, when your life is about to change” – picks up on a structural device common in fiction. (It also neatly demonstrates the memoirist’s ability to think back).

    The jewel in the crown, though, is her language. Ward’s writing is generally direct and to the point, but she has a great eye for metaphor and produces some gorgeous images that can encompass multiple ideas. I loved this description of her mother’s increasing (often self-imposed) alienation within the family:

    Even when there weren’t visitors, we hardly spoke to her. As her delusions grew, as she had almost no everyday conversation, we cut off from her, twig by twig. Our family tree grew its gnarled limbs around us and through us, in the imperceptible way trees do, so that we didn’t notice how weirdly shaped we all were.

    This obviously distorts the traditional family tree motif but also, I think, subtly suggests the tree of (non) life?

    And then there’s the title itself. In my mother’s hands references so many ideas – the fact that children are (rather defencelessly) in their parents’ hands; the idea that as a nurse her mother had had caring, nurturing hands; her mother’s grotesque habit of gouging and hurting her hands (invoking Lady Macbeth, and the mystery at the heart of the book); and her mother’s terrifying attempt to strangle Ward in her bed when she was 12 years old. Literal, symbolic, metaphoric. They’re all there in those four words.

    The chapter titles are similarly evocative, usually brief and apt, such as Brittle, Knife, The Cobweb, Running. Language is, in fact, a significant issue in the book because in those awful days when mental illness was not understood, Ward, her father and younger brother had no language to explain to each other, let alone to outsiders, what they were experiencing. Sometimes Ward would lie, she said, because “when there are not adequate words, fiction will suffice”; other times they would use “shorthand” to obscure the reality.

    I could write more about the language in this book, because I found it perfectly tuned to the story and to conveying the feelings within, but I’ll leave it here.

    At the end of our meeting, I mentioned to Ward her longlisting for the Stella Prize. She smiled a little wryly, and said, in relation to missing out on the shortlist, that she felt in good company being “rejected with Helen Garner and Sonya Hartnett”! She sure is – and on the basis of this book, I’d say she well deserves being mentioned in the same breath as those writers.

    awwchallenge2015Biff Ward
    In my mother’s hands
    Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2014
    ISBN: 9781743319116