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!

Ros Collins, Rosa: Memories with licence (#BookReview)

Book coverMemoirs are tricky things. There are readers who love them, readers who hate them, and readers like wishy-washy me who sit in the middle. I sit in the middle because, for a start, I don’t like to say “never” when it comes to reading. I sit in the middle because I couldn’t cope with a steady diet of memoirs, particularly those how-I-got-over-my-[whatever trauma or challenge it was], which is certainly not to say that I don’t admire those memoirists or don’t enjoy some of their fare. And, I sit in the middle because I don’t like formula, because I like books that try to tackle their subject or their form a little differently. So, the memoirs I mostly read are those which play with form or whose subject matter offers something different. Ros Collins’ memoir, Rosa: Memories with licence, does both of these.

First, the subject-matter. Rosa deals with, as the book description says, “Anglo-Australian Jews [who are] often overlooked in fiction and memoir.” Having known many Anglo-Australian Jews through my life, I was interested to read Collins’ discussion of her family’s life, as a contrast to those more directly Holocaust-influenced lives of European Jews we’ve all read about. It’s not easy being Jewish, I believe, regardless of personal or family history, so I was interested to read this story.

Then there’s the form. The subtitle, “memories with licence”, suggests that this is not going to be your usual memoir. For a start, it is told third person about a person called Rosa, which is the name given to the author Ros by “two elderly men from Southern Europe” whom she met on a recent Anzac Day Eve. She goes on to say, in her Introduction, that it is this “Rosa who wanders through the following stories, sometimes fictionally, sometimes autobiographically”, though I hazard to guess it is mostly autobiographical – just told one voice removed! Near the end of the introduction, she says that:

Rosa is much more personal [than her previous family history book, Solly’s girl] – and freely written – and I have taken liberties with the truth. Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say. Memories with licence.

The book has been classified on its back cover as Memoir. And that is how I have read it, as it reads true.

So, why tell it this way? Collins says she wishes “to entertain”. Her aim is not to delve into world history, cataclysmic events, or, even, dystopian futures. She wants, instead to shine a light on lives that may not be well known to many Australians, on Anglo-Australian Jewish lives. Taking a third person voice enables her to tell her story a little more objectively, to comment on what people, in particular Rosa, were, or may have been, thinking and feeling. Third person also enables her to get out of the main subject’s voice and head. It enables her to suggest what others might be thinking, such as Rabbi Szymanowicz:

Rabbi Szymanowicz stopped surreptitiously searching the room for younger people with whom he might more profitably connect, and looked at her. Seldom, if ever, had he met an elderly congregant quite like her; for an eighty-something-year-old Rosa did not come across as a sweetly gentle Miss Marple – more likely to be opinionated and argumentative.

This sort of statement could not be made in the same way in a traditional memoir. A traditional memoirist can not so directly get into the head of another character. A traditional memoirist can only suppose what another character might think (unless they are quoting documented facts from, say, letters). Taking this third person approach gives Collins more licence. She can, for example, “guess” about the relationship between her two grandmothers, two women who were not happy because they lost significant supports, when Rosa’s parents married.

All this could be disconcerting to some readers, but Collins has been honest from the start about what she is doing. Ultimately, the important thing is whether the book rings true and I believe it does. Rosa’s character – her humanity, her sense of her own flaws, her uncertainties, as well as her pride in her achievements – shines through.

Another way in which the book departs from traditional memoir is in its lack of linearity. While there is an overall movement from past to present, Rosa is not told chronologically. Instead, each chapter or “story” takes up a theme through which the story of English-born Rosa (Ros) and Australian-born Al (Ros’s husband Alan) is told. Chapter 4, “Jellied eels”, for example, explores food, Jewish culture, and Rosa’s navigation of it all. Collins explains how, as a child, Rosa had been told what she could and couldn’t eat, but not told why. Her mother expected her to “just accept the traditions” but of course this is not the way to hand down traditions, not, certainly, “to a difficult daughter – full of unnecessary questions”!

Collins also tackles, gently and without polemics, what Israel means (or, might mean) for Anglo-Australian Jews. For those of us who find Israel and the politics of the region highly problematic, it’s useful – though not necessarily convincing – to be reminded that in Israel, as Rosa quotes Golda Meir saying, “nobody has to get up in the morning and worry about what his neighbours think of him. Being a Jew is no problem here.”

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.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeRos Collins
Rosa: Memories with licence
Ormond: Hybrid Publishers, 2019
ISBN: 9781925736113
186pp.