Ros Collins, Rosa: Memories with licence (Author’s response)

Book coverLast October, I reviewed a book by Ros Collins titled Rosa: Memories with licence. As the title suggests, this book is not quite memoir, but neither is it really fiction. My post generated quite some discussion from commenters, which resulted in my saying “Maybe Ros will comment here and answer the questions”. Unfortunately, just as her book was launched, Ros had a sudden hip fracture, resulting in hospitalisation. Now, getting back to normal, she has contacted me saying she’d love to respond to the comments, but that it was long. I suggested making it a separate post. I do hope those commenters see it, and read what she has to say.

First, though, for those interested, she writes that she is well into “a new book based on [her late husband] Alan’s 19th century ancestors. It will be creative non-fiction.” Love it! And now …

Author with her bookFrom Ros Collins …

Some background

My first book, Solly’s girl (2015) was as factually accurate as I was able to research. It was intended to complement my husband Alan’s memoir Alva’s boy (2008). Even before that, he had used his terrible childhood experiences in autobiographical fiction, namely The boys from Bondi which is now part 1 of his trilogy, A promised land? (2001). The eminent critic Fay Zwicky called that ‘a psalm to life’.  It seemed an essential task for me to complete the history of our two families.

Rosa developed out of a number of short stories which undoubtedly accounts for the third person-first person dichotomy. My publisher Louis de Vries and editor Anna Blay at Hybrid, dealt with the anomalies with enormous patience. Three chapters, “Jellied eels”, “Sheyn Meydl” and “Rimonim” were part of my work for an online course in short story writing that I undertook in 2017. By the time I’d read William Trevor, Raymond Carver, Hemingway and many other masters of the genre, I knew it was not for me.

However, ‘Creative non-fiction’ had great appeal. “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.” (Gutkind, Lee. The best creative nonfiction, Vol. 1). I embarked on Rosa with enthusiasm and a great desire to entertain. Like Alan, I also believe in the  power of humour and only wish I had greater skills.

Response to the comments

 ‘… worn out with fictionalised Australian Jewish memoirs…’  was one I could easily relate to. I was director of Makor Jewish Community Library (now the Lamm Jewish Library of Australia). One of my proudest achievements was to establish the ‘Write your Story’ program whereby I hoped the community ‘would be able to write its own history’. To date more than 150 memoirs have been published. I believe the comprise the largest such series in the world. Inevitably, as Melbourne has so many Holocaust survivor families, the tragedy of the Shoah features prominently. It is however a multicultural series: memoirs have been written about Jewish life in Egypt, Argentina, England – and Australia.

So as far as Australian Jewish literature is concerned, it seems to be overwhelmingly preoccupied with Holocaust memoir or peeks into the exotic world of heavy duty orthodoxy. Sephardi or Spanish-Jewish history has also afforded subjects for writers: People of the book comes to mind.  But Anglo-Australian-Jewish writing is very limited. One of your commentators mentioned Judah Waten. He mentored Alan and urged him to write his first book of short stories, Troubles (1983), which was highly commended in the Alan Marshall awards.  Waten, Morris Lurie, Serge Liberman, et al, born here or not, all write out of the European tradition; the migrant/survivor experience is very much to the fore. Alan’s ancestors arrived either on a convict transport or later as free settlers in the 1800s and Rosa (me of course) is British, a ‘ten-pound Pom’ who in the 1950s wore white gloves to visit the ‘city’. Anglos. And this difference makes for confusion. It’s unlikely that your readers are familiar with communal conflicts but I’ll just open the subject by pointing out that the Jewish Anglo community in Australia was ‘more British than the British’. For many of them the mother country was still considered ‘home’, and ‘the Empire’ really mattered! The ‘reffos’ – the migrants – were often disparaged, even despised. To get a picture, don’t bother with the history books, read Alan, much more digestible and he makes the reader laugh as well as cry.

Your readers mention the Americans and British including towering figures such as Roth and Jacobson, both of whom are favourites of mine. They would doubtless be puzzled by the fact that many local Jews couldn’t warm to Jacobson’s The Finkler question [see my review] which I greatly admire. I imagine it’s the British connection. I understand how difficult it is for the mythical ‘general reader’ to come to grips with Jewish lit in all its complex variety. It helps to remember the profoundly different histories. Australian, American and British Jews are far from being all of a piece. Howard Jacobson for example has been exasperated by critics who have called him ‘the British Phillip Roth’; he retorts that Jane Austen is a far greater influence. Australian reviewers have found shades of Dickens in Alan’s work.

I’d like to  mention some helpful titles which have impressed me, authors who have made me think about identity and heritage, my place ‘down here at the bottom of the world’ as I said in 1957.

On being Jewish by Rabbi Julia Neuberger is straightforward, accessible and sensible. Baroness Neuberger, a member of the House of Lords, is a Reform rabbi (the first woman to head her own congregation in Britain), a tireless worker for social justice and progressive values. She’s younger than me but we share some knowledge of Anglo-Jewish life in the 1950s. Her ancestry is German-Jewish; her ‘British-ness’ is rather like my own.

Jews and words by the eminent Israeli writer Amos Oz and his daughter, historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, is a wonderful ‘blend of storytelling and scholarship, conversation and argument’; it also includes some great jokes.  What I like so much about this book is the way the authors introduce themselves:  At this early stage we need to say loud and clear what kind of Jews we are.  Both of us are secular Jewish Israelis. And then this, As Jewish atheists, we take religion to be a great human invention. ‘Jewish atheists’ must be very confusing for some  readers!  

Closer to home is Australian genesis: Jewish convicts and settlers 1788-1850 (1974) by J. S.  Levi and G. Bergman. It is eminently readable and beautifully illustrated. It should never have been allowed to go out of print but most libraries will have a copy. Rabbi John Levi is of ‘Anglo’ heritage and is a most sensitive and compassionate scholar. His reference book, These are the names: Jewish lives in Australia 1788-1850 (2013) is an invaluable guide to the lives of the more than 1600 Jews who came to Australia in that early period. It has been fascinating for me to read the transcript of the trial at the Old Bailey of ‘our’ 17-year old convict. He became a respectable citizen in Goulburn and the local ‘Hebrew congregation’ would meet in his store for ‘champagne suppers’ to celebrate Royal Family events back in the mother country.

An essential guide to Australian-Jewish literature is Serge Liberman’s monumental Bibliography of Australian Judaica (2011).

Did I have a ‘plan’?  Was it all ‘true’?  Did I want to protect others?  No, yes and no. I wrote Rosa because I wanted to. Isn’t that how most writers operate? The events I’ve dramatized are true but obviously I am unable to replicate conversations that took place in the past. ‘Licence’ was a word suggested to me by my kind mentor Karenlee Thompson who has written so movingly about bush fires in Flame Tip [see my review].  For example, I know my maternal grandfather went AWOL from the army of Czar Alexander and I’m guessing he was forcibly conscripted like so many other little Jewish boys at the age of 12 and couldn’t contemplate another 25 years of army life. I know he received letters from his sister in Kiev until in 1941 they suddenly ceased, and I’m assuming my great-aunt perished with 34,000 others in the massacre at the ravine of Babi Yar. And, as I write in the book, I have no wish ever to set foot in Eastern Europe. Israel is another very different matter.

Sue, you conclude your review with a most perceptive paragraph:  Rosa, then, is a warm-hearted, open-minded “memoir” written by an Anglo-Australian Jewish woman for whom being Jewish, as for many I believe, is as much, if not more, about history and heritage as god and religion. In this book, Collins interrogates her family’s past, and her late husband’s story, in order to come to a better understanding of herself, and of what she would like to pass on to the next generation. This book is testament to that soul-searching, and makes good reading for anyone interested in the life-long business of forming identity, Jewish or otherwise.

I never set out to be an apologist for my heritage and it has been a surprise to learn that so many readers have found Rosa ‘enlightening’, an opportunity to see the variety in my community. The misconceptions are often funny but also appalling at a time when intolerance and racism are on the rise in this ‘lucky country’.  So I shall end here with two stories about electricians:

My electrician who is an intelligent much-travelled man asked me: Won’t you get into trouble with your rabbi for not wearing a wig? He was amazed that I laughed and even more surprised to learn that rabbis really have little authority – they’re teachers – and although I seldom attend a service I cannot be disenfranchised.

My son’s electrician had a much more sinister question. Pointing to the mezuzah on the doorpost of my son’s house he asked:  It’s full of blood, isn’t it?  My son, completely secular, Vietnam vet, non-kosher, a painter – and a proud Jew – replied:  Of  course it isn’t, there’s little piece of paper inside with a prayer and blessing written on it; I’ll take it down and show you. But the electrician was horrified:  Ooh no, don’t do that, we’d better not touch.

And that, Sue, is how it all starts with rubbish like that, words that lead to swastika flags in Beulah and book burning …

If in Rosa I can open some windows I think it’s a good thing.

And so do I. Thanks very much Ros for appearing out of the blue with this warm, open and informative response to the comments on my post. I look forward to seeing your next book!

Tangea Tansley, A break in the chain: The early Kozminskys

Bookcover for Tansley's A break in the Chain

Book cover* (Courtesy: Affirm Press)

In the postscript to her novel A break in the chain, Tangea Tansley quotes Doris Lessing‘s statement that ‘fiction is better at “the truth” than a factual record’. This gets to the nub of my challenge with this book, which is a fictionalised account of three generations of the author’s family, particularly her great grandparents and grandparents. As I was reading it I was reminded of Kate Grenville‘s discussion in Searching for the secret river on how she commenced writing The secret river as nonfiction and ended up writing fiction. But more on that anon.

There’s a lot to like about this book, particularly if you are interested in Australian social history. It starts in Prussia in 1856 with a young man, Simon Kosmanske (later Kozminsky), playing violin to the cows on his father’s dairy farm. His father, Moses, does not think Simon is taking his work seriously enough, and so orders him to “Go to Australia and make an old man proud”. Australia, at the time, was of course at the height of the gold rush and was many a man’s destination. Simon, though, didn’t want to go, but go he did – and he eventually established Kozminsky, the fine jewellery and objet d’art store that still operates in Melbourne.

The novel chronicles in five parts the story of Simon, his marriage to Emma, and of his son Israel and his marriage. The first part which describes Simon’s trip to Australia and his first years in the colony as he tries to establish himself is fascinating. And then the story moves into the main drama which gives rise to the title. This drama centres on Judaism, its observance, and decisions made to marry within or outside of the faith. It is an intriguing story with some strong and interesting characters. However, as Tansley explains in her enlightening postscript, there are many gaps in knowledge about some of the key characters, particularly Emma. She writes:

For a family of journalists and writers, my family has left behind a sad lack of primary source material: no journals or diaries or letters and a dearth of documents of any kind. This meant that what was originally planned as a documented biographical work became instead a hybrid – a family memoir laced with fiction.

Those of you who know the Kate Grenville saga regarding The secret river will see why I was thinking of it as I read this book. I’m not sure that Tansley has pulled it off quite as well as Grenville. I wonder whether, in fact, she kept too close to the “facts” while aiming to write fiction. She writes, again in the postscript:

I resisted the temptation to write Emma into a fictional background, although Kozminsky family stories present a number of alternative lives for Emma.

Grenville, on the other hand, moved more thoroughly into fiction, changing the name of her protagonist from that of her ancestor, which freed her to explore more creatively just what might have happened in the lives of settlers like her ancestor. She did this because she found her factual account wasn’t working. Grenville says:

I was determined to write a book of non-fiction, but the only parts of this ‘assembly’ that were interesting were the ‘flights of fancy’ where I’d created the flesh to put on the bones of research. Where, in a word, I’d written fiction.

Grenville started off researching Solomon Wiseman because she “needed to know” what had happened in the early settlement, particularly between the settlers and the indigenous inhabitants. Tansley wrote her book to search out the “truth”, for past and future generations of her family but also “to fill what I see as a gap in the settler history of Victoria”. These goals she achieves pretty well, particularly the latter one, but I think she has used the story-telling mode of fiction to give us the “facts” rather than get to those larger “truths” that we can find in fiction. And this is probably because the story’s drama is hampered by her decision to not tackle the central mystery: what was Emma’s past that affected her so, and why, without giving anything away, did the family react as they did to Israel’s marriage? It is in this, I think, that the “truths” can be found. Without them, we have an interesting story, a good social history, but we don’t understand the real “truth” behind the “break in the chain”.

Overall, though, Tansley’s style is sure. She uses a chronological narrative structure, with a third person point of view in which the perspective shifts occasionally from character to character. These work well for the story she wants to tell. While there’s the occasional misstep in the writing (a forced image, or a too-obvious statement), she also writes some lovely descriptions particularly as the novel progresses and she warms to her story. Take this for example:

Bending to the ground he pulled at a shoot of grass only to find  that an entire yard of runner came loose with it. He flung it away. Damned rhizomes. They had a lot in common with extended families. Not much to be seen on the surface, but underneath you could be sure there was a vast network of tentacles working away in their subterranean hideout, linked for the term of their natural lives in dark and closeted conspiracy.

My final assessment? Well, it’s interesting for its social history. It’s also engaging for Tansley’s generosity towards her characters despite their flaws and the mistakes they make. And I enjoyed the opportunity it has given me to further tease out my response to the history-as-fiction question. I’ll conclude though on another question. Emma says to Israel that “the past is only good for the experience it provides”. Does this imply a duty to share the past (something Emma herself doesn’t do)?

Tangea Tansley
A break in the chain: The early Kozminskys
Mulgrave: Affirm Press, 2011
315pp.
ISBN: 9780980790467

Review copy supplied by Affirm Press

* The cover image is a detail from Frederick McCubbin‘s Study in blue and gold. The subject is Eileen Kozminsky, Tansley’s grandmother.