Sarah Krasnostein, The believer (#BookReview)

One of the reasons I love reading fiction is to be introduced to lives and cultures I know nothing about. This is less so in nonfiction, but Sarah Krasnostein’s latest book, The believer, fits the brief. In it she explores questions concerning what people believe and why through six different people (or groups of people), all of which were foreign to me.

The six “beliefs” are eclectic, but can be divided into three categories : personal lives (a death doula and a woman who had been incarcerated for over 30 years for murdering her violent husband); religious lives (through a Creation Museum and some Mennonite families); and the unexplainable (paranormal seekers/ghostbusters and ufologists). These six “cases” all come from either the USA or Australia.

Different readers will be drawn to different ideas in the book, but in my reading group, the most popular were the two personal stories – death doula Annie, and ex-prisoner Lynn. Lynn’s story of abuse at her husband’s hands first and then the justice system’s was heart-rending. Yet Lynn had come to understand that she’d made choices, and had gone on to use her life to make things better for others. Inspiring.

The book has a disjointed three-part structure, with one of each of the three categories explored in “Below”, the remaining three in “Above”, and then some reappearing in the final “Coda: Here” section. Within these sections, the stories are told over several alternating chapters, so no one story is told in one go. One of the questions my reading group discussed was whether this structure helped or hindered our reading. We didn’t resolve this, though the overall consensus seemed to be that the alternating did keep us interested. There was probably method to the placement of the stories, but it wasn’t always clear to us, which might be more to do with the time of year and our concentration levels.

Lightbulb moments

What we did all agree on, however, was that the book had some great lightbulb moments – and for many of us, it’s the lightbulb moments that make a book special or memorable.

One refrain that ran through the book was that life isn’t easy or simple. Mennonite Becky says that “life isn’t just a bed of roses”, and ex-prisoner Lynn understands that “pain is a part of life”. Ufologist Jaimie has a more positive spin, seeing that life “is not just going to work and dying”. There are mysteries out there to explore.

However, for me, the most significant moment occurred in “Before”, in a Paranormal/Vlad chapter. It concerned the need for certainty. Krasnostein references German neurologist, Klaus Conrad, who coined the term apophenia, which essentially means that we look for meaning and coherence, and will go so far as to perceive them in unrelated events and ideas. We will, writes Krasnostein, “choose certainty over accuracy”. “We are compulsive converters of fact into meaning”.

I hope I’m not oversimplifying, but Krasnostein then cites a Science article which talks about the human desire to “combat uncertainty and maintain control” and the importance of this to psychological wellbeing and physical health. You can probably see the lightbulb here: it explained, to me, why some people have found the pandemic harder to handle than others, and why some people can become susceptible to conspiracies. People who feel out of control will look for patterns and answers. For me, living with questions is interesting – and in fact real, because I’m not sure there always are answers – but I feel I better understand now, those who do not feel this way, those who demand certainty, such as “promise there will be no more lockdowns”. I better understand why people might turn to conspiracies when authority doesn’t (indeed, sometimes can’t) provide consistent answers.

Other lightbulb moments were less applicable to my life, but were interesting nonetheless. An example was the Mennonites fear of higher education. It “contains an unacceptable risk of assimilation”, potentially causing tertiary educated members to leave the community (the Mennonite kingdom) and be assimilated into wider society. Higher education threatens their understanding of the world, their faith in the Bible as explaining the world. Krasnostein writes of one Mennonite man who had moved to New York in a mission “to make a difference in people’s lives”:

Anthony’s conflict comes from the fact that the certainties he received instead of education are poor tools for daily living.

There’s that idea of certainties again. Anthony tells Krasnostein that “Theology always scares me because it takes the things that seem simple and makes them complex”. This too returns us to the idea of certainties. Anthony sees life simply. In the Mennonites’ belief in a “loving presence”, they see (create?) “a perfect pattern embroidered into the fabric of reality”. Patterns, again.

What added to the book’s interest was that Sarah Krasnostein was, herself, searching to understand “belief”. She admits to occasionally envying Anthony and his co-believers’ “refusal to accept the absence of evidence as the evidence of absence”. She says at one point, “If I could only ask the right questions I could understand”.

This has not been one of my typical review posts, partly because this is a different sort of book, but mostly because I finished it nearly two weeks ago and am not in the brainspace for doing my usual thing. Forgive me. However, you should be grateful, because this book is jam-packed with stories – some tragic, some poignant, some inspiring and some, I have to admit, infuriating (I’m looking particularly at you Creation Museum) – and it would have been tempting to share too many of them. They weren’t, of course, all equally interesting. And occasionally, they got a bit bogged down in detail to the point that I risked losing the thread. That’s the challenge Krasnostein faced in meeting so many people and wanting to explore all their thoughts and ideas. Overall, it works. Her lyrical prose, and warm, open heart play a big role in that.

Talking about UFO sightings, ufologist Ben tells Krasnostein that “we need to find all these little stories. They build up into a big matrix of stories” which, for him, might locate the “truth” of the events. However, this is also exactly what Krasnostein did in this book and, in doing so, she found, as she writes at the end,

six different stories, six different notes in the human song of longing for the unattainable.

My reading group was a little disappointed that in the Coda, Krasnostein didn’t give us a clear summation of the sort you often find in nonfiction works. In fact, though, I think Krasnostein did find something very real, a belief that could help us accept each other’s wildly different shores a little more: it’s that we are “united in the emotions that drive us into the beliefs that divide us”. That is quite profound, and worth spending some time absorbing.

Challenge logo

Sarah Krasnostein
The believer: Encounters with love, death and faith
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9781922330208

Sydney Writers Festival 2021, Live and Local (Session 2)

My second Sydney Writers Festival’s Live and Local event for 2021 was an hour after the first one. This left me time to fill in. It was disappointing that the National Library’s Bookplate Cafe was closed by then, which I think has happened in previous years. It would have been nice to sit down with a cuppa, or a cool drink. However, there was the bookshop, so I did business there instead!

Richard Flanagan and Laura Tingle: Conversation, Saturday 1 May, 4pm

If I hoped that this second session would not be as demanding on my ability to simultaneously take notes and absorb the discussion as the first, I was to be disappointed. This session featured multi-award-winning writer Richard Flanagan and the also award-winning journalist Laura Tingle, and I think I took even more notes. In fact, once again, Karen Viggers, who was also taking notes, nudged me a few times to say “get that down”! What a hoot!

Flanagan is always entertaining, which doesn’t mask the thinking and humanity in what he says. Tingle proved, not surprisingly, to be up to the task of interviewing – conversing with – this man. The topics ranged far, but stemmed mostly from Flanagan’s latest two books, his non-fiction exposé, Toxic: The rotting underbelly of the Tasmania salmon industry, and his latest novel, The living sea of waking dreams. Flanagan also referenced Tingle’s writing, particularly her latest Quarterly Essay (#80), The high road: What Australia can learn from New Zealand. Flanagan has appeared several times on my blog.

Tingle started the traditional way by introducing Flanagan through his oeuvre. She noted its breadth of subject matter, then turned to Toxic. Read it, she said, if you want to be depressed, and horrified, and, oh yes, informed. It spoiled her breakfast, she said, wryly.

Flanagan, ever the humorist, suggested he is creating a new genre, Tasmanian non-fiction horror! Then, in one of his several compliments to Tingle, he said that in the last year Australian journalism has become stronger, better, and that this has been largely due to our women journalists, particularly Laura Tingle.

Flanagan then read, as requested, from Toxic – a particularly unappealing description of the physical matter involved in the industry – before answering Tingle’s obvious question regarding how Tasmania has responded to it.

Apparently, Toxic is “the fastest-selling book ever” in Tasmania, going to three print runs in its first week. Flanagan and his publisher had kept the project secret until the day it was placed in bookshops, without pre-publicity, with just his name and title. It has had immense support in Tasmania, but the government and salmon industry have been silent.

His plan had been to write a short article, but he just kept discovering patterns of intimidation and violence. Ultimately, he said, companies run rogue when there are no rules, and there is no proper governance in the salmon industry. There’s a lot we don’t know about the food industry, he added. He wrote the book for the public. He wants it to help people make decisions in supermarket aisles. (And, perhaps, Tingle for her breakfast!!). Responding to Tingle’s question about its impact on the state election that day, Flanagan said that exit polls were showing a stronger result for the Greens.

Tingle asked about Tasmania’s history of “f*****g up its water supplies”, about the confluence of business and bureaucracy in this. Flanagan talked of Tasmania’s particular history – the near genocide and the convictism which encompassed slavery. Many pathologies persist when you see mass trauma, he said. Most Tasmanians are the issue of the first quarter of its history. He commented on the abuse of power, and the use of silence and fear to retain power. He also quoted Chekhov:

Write about this man who, drop by dropsqueezes the slave’s blood out of himself until he wakes one day to find the blood of a real human being–not a slave’s–coursing through his veins.

Flanagan added “word by word” after “drop by drop”! (As Jim noted in his comment on my previous post, the subtitles frequently got tricky words and names wrong. I didn’t note them down, but I do remember Chekhov becoming “check cover”)

Tingle then turned to his books in general, suggesting that there are about people shaped by greater tides, people who have no control over their destinies. She was eloquent, and drew out a typical, somewhat self-deprecating Flanagan response that this “sounds plausible”.

Every writer, he said, belongs to both their birthplace and the universe of letters. Like many writers, he seeks the universal in the particular, and his particular is “this strange island”. All his books come out of the wonder of his original world in the western Tasmanian rainforests. He suggested that the history of novels is not made in the great centres. Joyce wrote in that tucked-way place of Dublin, Marquez in his fictional place, Macondo, and so on.

Tingle returned to her question, reframing it somewhat, to reference power. His characters she said are not authors of their own fate. Power doesn’t have to be at the centre of literature, he replied. Yet, in his latest book, The living sea of waking dreams, the characters are trying to control the mother. Her life is about people trying to control others.

Flanagan then made a point that made me sit up. He said there’s a potent and poisonous myth that everything is about power. He talked about how identity politics is a zero-sum game. The truth is, he said, that most things are not political. He quoted that grim poet, Larkin, who said that ”what survives of us is love”. Flanagan’s characters are about love, he said. This is the nub of what life is about. Seeing life through power is a “false compass”. This bears more thinking, though there is truth in what he says about love.

Tingle turned to time, to the linear time in European thinking versus Indigenous circular time. Does fiction free us of linear time, she asked? Flanagan talked of identifying two ideas underpinning European art: everyone is alone, and time is linear. BUT, he’d come to realise that no one is alone, that you only exist in others, and that time is circular. Stories go back and forth, in and out. Yolngu people, he said, have a tense that combines past-present-future. This is more what he grew up with.

There was more talk about Tasmania, but the next point I want to share is his idea – one Indigenous people understand – that “Bush is freedom, City is oppression”. We need our political leadership to open up to Indigenous heritage and ways of thinking.

Tingle then threw in a statement made by past conservative New Zealand PM, Jim Bolger, who, when asked “why the Waitangi Tribunal”, responded “because the country’s honour was at stake”! Imagine this from a contemporary Australian politician?

Flanagan’s response was that not thinking Bolger’s way led to “the slow corrosion of us as a just and democratic society”. He said that the “battle to be a good people and a good society matters”, but we are losing this as we continue to allow such things as Aboriginal deaths in custody. He said that the battle for the soul of nation is the battle for a nation worth living in. (Karen whispered to me, “so eloquent”!)

Then he referred to one of my all-time favourite books, Camus’ The plague (my review). The plague is always there. It’s deeply disturbing, he said, how out of their comfort zone many of our politicians are.

We then moved to Australian literature. Flanagan noted that there’s been a great surge in Indigenous and women’s writing, though he’s “annoyed” that women from the past are not getting the credit they should. Women – such as publishers Beatrice Davis and Hilary McPhee – have shaped a different literature here compared with American and Europe. He barely tipped the surface, though, of the depth of women’s contribution to Australian literature from its beginning.

Moving right along, Tingle asked Flanagan whether he was moving more into non-fiction. Not a bit of it, was, essentially, the reply. But, he did say that non-fiction gets you out of the door which is good for novelists. In the end, it’s story that’s important and fiction has a “profound spiritual aesthetic and intellectual tradition”.

The conversation then moved the challenges confronting writing stories (fiction and non-fiction), today: libel laws, not to mention the “wall of noise” and “multiple strands”, which Tingle said make it hard to pull stories together.

For Flanagan, there’s one simple story – rapidly growing inequality. He spoke of how the richest and most powerful have connections with politics, and act in ways that cloak the state’s withdrawal from where it should be, like education, health, environment. They manufacture identity wars in ways that shroud real needs.

He said his latest book looks at how words can create a wall between people rather than a bridge, and then talked about politicians lying in the morning, then again in the afternoon. This is the tactic of totalitarians. It creates a situation in which truth has no value, leaving you with opinion. When that’s all you have, “society moves into darkness”.

After all this, and a little more on politics and writing, the session ended with Flanagan reading a lovely piece from Toxic about an octopus. Flanagan said that despite it all, he’s not despairing: there’s hope in beauty and wonder.

It was hard to cut much out of this!

Sydney Writers Festival 2021, Live and Local (Session 1)

This is the third year I’ve attended Sydney Writers Festival’s Live and Local live-streamed events at the National Library of Australia.

More often than not, I attend these events alone, but I was lucky to find that one of our wonderful local authors, Karen Viggers, was also attending alone, so I had company in my note-taking and we did manage a little debrief after each session too. We had both booked two sessions – the same two. Karen has appeared a few times on my blog.

Sarah Krasnostein and Maria Tumarkin: Conversation, Saturday 1 May, 2pm

Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic

This session was to be Sarah Krasnostein with Helen Garner. However, on Friday, an email announced that Garner was unable to attend and would be replaced by Maria Tumarkin. I was a little disappointed, of course, but I was very happy with Maria Tumarkin as replacement. I’ve read and reviewed her impressive book, Axiomatic, which won the Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Best Writing Award and was shortlisted for several other awards.

Writers festival conversations are interesting beasts. They are, formally, interviews, with one person’s role being to talk to the other about their latest work, in this case, Sarah Krasnostein and her book, The believer. But, what often happens, and what happened here, is that although it was clear that the focus was Krasnostein’s book, the session did feel more like a conversation with Tumarkin actively engaged in sharing ideas. Some of her questions were almost as long as Krasnostein’s answers. Indeed, at one point she admitted that she was taking a long time to ask her question and that “Helen would never do this”! She got a friendly laugh.

Here is how the Festival program described the session:

Sarah spent time in Australia and the US talking to six extraordinary people who held fast to a belief even though it rubbed against the grain of conventional wisdom. Her research culminated in The Believer: Encounters with Love, Death & Faith, a deeply humane and deftly drawn enquiry into the power of belief.

The program continued:

Sarah is joined by Maria Tumarkin to explore what we believe in and why – from ghosts and UFOs to God and the devil, dying with autonomy and beyond.

This is not, in fact, how it came out but, I’m not sorry, because what we got was something far more interesting. No, let me rephrase that. I don’t know how interesting the suggested topics might have been but I loved what they did talk about – because they spoke to matters that interest me.

With a nod to Helen Garner, Tumarkin started by quoting Garner who has apparently said that her first lines “come as music from some other place”. She wondered if that’s how Krasnostein’s books start.

“Not anything like that!” said Krasnostein, and she talked about her research and writing processes which topics interest me. She basically, as Tumarkin reframed it, “squirrels material without having a particular idea” about where it’s going. With The believer, Krasnostein “stumbled across the Mennonites” and went from there. She holds her material close, she said, “until it tells you what it is”. (A bit like Michelangelo finding the sculpture that’s already in the block of marble?)

Tumarkin asked what inspires Krasnostein. She replied that it’s the wonder of what she finds in a day, and telling story of that. In other words, she’s driven by curiosity, and finding the story under the surface.

Tumarkin then asked how Krasnostein fixes or anchors her stories. How she finds their core, I guess she meant. Krasnostein said it’s not about what she likes but what is “interesting”, about finding different versions of the world. She didn’t know exactly what she wanted to know about belief when she started.

However, she knew she didn’t want to write magazine pieces or a book of essays. She wanted to “articulate the commonality”, to know the stories we tell about our “interior vulnerabilities”. She talked about her book comprising a “house of unlike things”. Tumarkin liked this – because it mirrors her own way of thinking – and asked her to explain further. Krasnostein paraphrased German sociologist-philosopher-critic, Theodor Adorno, saying “that harmony in art is not achieved by forcing components into resolution but making space for dissonance”. [I hope I got that down right, Karen!]

Then she said something that interested me. She wanted to come up with a structure that would demonstrate (mirror? reflect?) what she wanted to express philosophically. I love writing in which the structure informs or reflects or enhances the meaning.

This clearly also interests Tumarkin, who feels that much Australian non-fiction is formulaic in argument and structure. This is paradoxical, perverse, she said, because books are where “very different things can live together”, where you can practise dissonance and find unlike things.

This led to voice. Krasnostein said she prefers first person but you have to balance being in there too little against too much. She argues that third person is the most narcissistic because it means acting like God. All non-fiction is subjective, involves selection; a first person voice recognises this. Regarding how and where you put yourself in, she said that sometimes it’s for ethical reasons (to provide context, say), sometimes practical (such as reporting conversations), and sometime technical (such as to move the narrative along). However, while Krasnostein prefers first person, she is “never comfortable” about putting herself in!

Krasnostein mentioned Tumarkin’s writing about memoir vs confession (such as here), saying she doesn’t like memoir so much. She thinks it’s hard to see out of one’s own life.

Tumarkin asked about her approach to developing relationships during her research, suggesting that you can’t really see or know another person’s world, but you can connect on, say, an axis of fear or wonder. (I’m reminded of EM Forster’s Howard’s End theme, “Only connect”)

Krasnostein talked about doing the research to find the “right” people. Then it’s case-by-case, and depends on each person’s physical and emotional availability. For her, duration is a dimension of the story, as people change over time. Consequently, some relationships take 2-3 years to develop. In factual writing, it’s not about friendship. She said that Janet Malcom (whom I know Garner also admires) writes about this. Her ultimate contract is with the reader.

Tumarkin teased this out, suggesting there are other ethical responsilbilities besides to the reader, including to the subject matter. She commented that people are unreliable narrators of their own lives, and asked how Krasnostein balances responsibility to the person (the subject) and the reader (who needs the truth). You know the person in front of you is an unreliable narrator but you cannot undercut them.

Krasnostein said it’s partly about context. If you unpack the context – if you show the situation the person is in, and you honour their truth – you can respect everyone’s humanity and meet your ethical obligations. (This made sense to me. I would probably use the word “respect” too: you respect their story, their truth, which writers can do, at least partly, with tone.) She referred to Dorothea Lange, and the Frances Bacon quote on her darkroom door:

The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention. 

Krasnostein said she is interested in “bearing witness”, in seeing different views of same world rather than in making judgements.

The conversation continued, with Tumarkin asking Krasnostein about whether her legal training helps her work. Krasnostein identified the positives as being the story (context, character, evidence) and the training in writing directly, boldly. It taught her to “be frank on the page”. Somehow, this led to a discussion about resolutions – about how “resolution” is for fiction and the law, but not for non-fiction. Resolution is unsatisfying, they agreed.

Interestingly, Krasnostein described herself as a “pointillist”, as someone who only sees detail, which, she said, was “good for a writer, terrifying for a person”! However, I’d say that to write what she does, she is also able to see the forest.

There was a little more, but I’ll close by sharing Tumarkin’s essay on “wildness” that Krasnostein referenced, because it shows their mutual interest in “not following formula”. Tumarkin writes that

the essay moves by sway and swagger, not always but often enough. What it never does is march toward a preordained horizon. You can never give an essay its marching orders.

I love the way these women think, so it was a real pleasure to see them both in action.

Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein

Garner and Krasnostein on stage

Krasnostein (L) and Garner (R), & Auslan interpreter

To say I was thrilled when Son Gums’ partner offered to buy tickets for us to see Helen Garner in conversation (last Saturday) would be an understatement. I have never seen Garner live before so that would be one bucket-list item ticked had I a bucket list! The fact that the conversation was to be conducted by Sarah Krasnostein (author of The trauma cleaner) was the icing on the proverbial cake.

This conversation was, in fact, the opening event of the Wheeler Centre’s inaugural Broadside Festival, promoted as “two days of an unapologetically feminist agenda”.

The Festival was opened by the Governor of Victoria, Linda Dessau, who referenced Barack Obama’s recent statement that “tweeting and hashtagging isn’t activism”. Festival Director Tam Zimet then started proceedings, explaining that the Festival’s purpose was “to bring conversations that are too hard or too much to Melbourne Town Hall”. She quoted Zadie Smith who was also in Melbourne for at the Festival, and who described writing as “taking the temperature of the moment”. This, of course, beautifully describes Helen Garner’s writing.

The Conversation

The conversation centred around the recent release of Garner’s Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987, so the conversation began by discussing both diary writing and the process of preparing them for publication. Krasnostein, who asked rather long but always thoughtful questions, talked about the role and function of diaries, suggesting they exist for their own sake but are also works in themselves. Garner’s diaries, she said, contain harvested and preserved details from the world, but also show Garner’s “fearless self-scrutiny”, plus “the things one can think but not say”. Garner said that she has always loved notebooks and pens, and how as a child she loved the peace and solitude she got from writing her diaries.

Several times through the conversation, Garner described her diary-writing as being partly about practising writing. She writes everyday, agreeing that you can’t wait “for ideal conditions”. For her, it’s all about “mother discipline”, by which she meant using the time given to you. She also commented on how much work you do when you are asleep, and referred to lessons from Marion Milner’s book, An experiment in leisure which taught her to sit quietly, with a sense of “nothingness”, to let ideas sort themselves out. This is not the same as waiting for inspiration, though. Garner, being her plainspoken self, said that “inspiration is bullshit”. Instead, “you do things little by little”. Writing, said Krasnostein a little later, is not the hard part. It’s getting to the desk.

Later in the conversation, we returned to diary-writing as stacking up the practice hours. Garner said she knows “how to put a sentence together”. (If you love Garner, like I do, you love her sentences.) But, said Garner, writers also need to know grammar. Without it, you can’t criticise your own work. The lack of grammar teaching is a “terrible loss”. Writers also need to read a lot to see how other writers do it. She bemoaned the fact that some books look like no editor has been near them. You see their “life-force leaking out of every joint”.

Krasnostein quoted Joan Didion’s statement that “style is character”, which somehow led to Virginia Woolf’s statement that you tell the truth about yourself first before you can do so about others. Krasnostein wondered whether being clear-eyed about yourself – one of Garner’s strengths, for me – was training for how to write in public. Garner took this to suggest that being honest about yourself gave you permission to write about others, but she didn’t think that would “stand up in court”! Garner suggested that memoirs can sometimes play fast and loose with other people!

Around here, Krasnostein asked whether revisiting earlier diaries – for any of us I think – shows that we are unreliable narrators of ourselves! Garner essentially agreed, saying that “memory is a creative act”. Reading one’s own diary “can be bracing” because it shows how over time you change stories, often showing yourself in a better light. There’s no way out of this, Garner believes, you just do the best you can. “Everything is fleeting, fleeting, fleeting”, she said. Writers write down stuff because they are terrified of forgetting. (I know the feeling!) “Writers are afraid of losing things”. This returned us to an idea that recurred through the conversation, that of writers preserving. Krasnostein quoted Philip Larkin’s statement that “the urge to preserve is the basis of all art”.

Of course, the process of making private diaries public was also discussed. Garner said she cut a lot. Her challenge was to decide what others might find interesting. She established certain criteria, such as she would not rewrite, and would only change (or add) something if it would otherwise be meaningless. A diary, she said, “has no voice over, unlike a memoir”, meaning that you can’t say “I did that then, but no way would I do that now, because now I’m a nicer person”. Accepting herself as she was at the time of her writing brought her to understand that she wasn’t unique, which made her feel more “comradely” with others. “We all hurt and are hurt,” she said. Krasnostein offered the idea that “the more vulnerable you are, the more you connect” to which Garner replied that this is what she hopes!

Another point Garner made was that tone is important, that “tone is character”, to which she then gave a feminist twist by saying that women have felt they’ve had to tone themselves down. She writes short books, she said, because she feels she has only a limited amount of reader’s attention.

I loved Krasnostein’s summation of the diaries as offering a new expansive view of Garner, but retaining her familiar voice, her “forensic eye for detail”, and her “lean lyricism”. I can’t wait to read my copy.


There were several questions, but I’ll just share a couple:

  • on her daily writing practice: She rents an office, which stops her getting caught up housework! (In other words, she has “a room of her own”!) I particularly liked her point that she makes her notes about the details, say, of the court cases she attends, but, separately, she also documents her engagement with what she’s seen/heard, what she thought and felt. This material is “brightly alive … a treasure trove of information”. It doesn’t fit into the other boxes but it’s the richest when she comes to write. This is what I think is often missing from my reports of literary events. I need to do more of it.
  • on whether her views on Feminism had changed since the me-too movement: Not really seemed to be the answer. Garner, like many of us I believe, simply knows that when she discovered Feminism it changed her life: “It was like I’d been underwater and I finally put my head up and took a breath.” The me-too movement, like most movements, has been mixed, but “these things keep developing”.

Kate (booksaremyfavoaiteandbest) also wrote this up – including Garner’s comment about age freeing her to talk to random people on trams.

Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein
Broadside Festival 2019
Melbourne Town Hall
9 November 2019

Sarah Krasnostein, The trauma cleaner (#BookReview)

Sarah Krasnostein, The trauma cleanerI’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t planned to read Sarah Krasnostein’s biography The trauma cleaner. I feared it might be one of those sensationalised, voyeuristic stories, but how wrong I was. I thank Brother Gums and partner for this great birthday gift.

I was wrong because … no, let me start with why I thought what I thought. The subject of this biography, Sandra Pankhurst, is a transgender woman, now in her early-sixties. She’s been a drag queen and a sex worker, and now has a trauma cleaning business, which means she cleans houses after murders and other difficult, messy deaths. It also means that she cleans the houses of hoarders, particularly those whose hoarding has resulted in squalid living conditions. And there’s more. Pankhurst was also an abused, neglected and rejected adopted child, and she experienced the violent death of her pregnant girlfriend. You can see why I feared what I did.

But, I couldn’t have been more wrong, for two main reasons – Sarah Pankhurst is a compelling human being, and Sarah Krasnostein a wonderful writer who knows her subject well. I’m not surprised that the book is doing well on the award circuit this year, including winning the 2018 Victorian Prize for Literature.

First Pankhurst

Born apparently a boy, and adopted when 6-weeks-old by a couple to replace their son who’d died during childbirth, Pankhurst’s life was fraught from the start. He was adopted because his parents had been told they couldn’t have more biological children, but his life was upended five years later when the inevitable happened. A son was born, followed by another two years later. His parents told him they’d made a mistake, because now they had two sons, and proceeded to increasingly exclude him from the family circle. He was physically and emotionally abused and neglected. Unbelievable – except that we all know, don’t we, that human beings are capable of unbelievable cruelty.

Eventually, Pankhurst left home, married, and had children, but his gender dysphoria began to affect his ability to live the life he’d forged. He left his family, and over the next couple of decades was a drag queen and sex worker, and underwent sex reassignment surgery in its early days in Australia, to become the person now known as Sandra. She lost a pregnant partner through a vicious assault by a club bouncer, and worked in the brothels of Kalgoorlie. All this at a time when gay and transgender people were ostracised and brutalised, particularly by those in authority. Then she married an older man, George. She ran a small hardware business with him, and became a respected leader in her community. It was after this business failed that Pankhurst moved into cleaning and thence to her current speciality of trauma cleaning.

Now, popular wisdom would say that a person so neglected and abused would end up abusing others, or, at the very least, be bitter, but not so Pankhurst, which makes her an amazing being, or, as Krasnostein says, “utterly peerless”. Here is just one example of her tender but firm care of a hoarder – Janice, whom she and her team struggle to keep from going through the bags of “rubbish” being thrown out.

And then, speaking to herself [Janice this is], sharp and low, ‘Why do you do this? You know what rubbish is.’

‘Because you see yourself as rubbish,’ Sandra says. ‘Time to start seeing the good in life. You deserve it.’ The angel statue suddenly slips off the couch and bounces on the carpet; a wing snaps off.

‘Is that a bad omen?’ Janice asks, looking up at Sandra frantically.

‘You know what it’s saying?’ Sandra answers with a smile. ‘I’m broken but I’m not dead.’

And this is what she does, time and time again, building up her damaged clients, gently guiding them to make better decisions, and, above all, treating them with absolute dignity, all the while surrounded by a squalor most of us would run a mile from.

And now Krasnostein

But what makes this book so captivating is Krasnostein’s skills in telling it to reveal Pankhurst’s extraordinariness. I’ll start with the mundane, the book’s structure. It begins with an untitled preface in which Krasnostein introduces Pankhurst, and then moves into the first and unnumbered chapter titled Kim, who turns out to be one of Krasnostein’s clients. From here we move to the numbered chapter 2 which begins the chronicle of Pankhurst’s biography with her childhood. The book then progresses in alternating named and numbered chapters – switching that is, between clients and biography – until the last two chapters which are both numbered. This structure does a number of things, one of which is to show, as we go, how Pankhurst’s own experiences have made her the empathetic, but no-nonsense, trauma cleaner (no, person) she is.

This brings me to the book’s genre – a biography of a living person. To write it, Krasnostein had to traverse several mine-fields, the first being the presence of the subject. It’s clear that Krasnostein is close to her subject, which could make us question her objectivity. Fortunately, I’m not a huge believer in objectivity, but I do believe in being thoughtfully analytical, and this is what Krasnostein achieves. She doesn’t hide her admiration of Pankhurst. Indeed she addresses Pankhurst in her “preface” calling the book “my love letter to you”.

Related to this minefield is the fact-gathering one. There are gaps in Pankhurst’s memory. She is not, Krasnostein says, “a flawlessly reliable narrator”:

She is in her early sixties and simply not old enough for that to be the reason why she is so bad with the basic sequence of her life, particularly her early life. Many facts of Sandra’s past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality.

Krasnostein suggests various reasons for this lack of reliability, including drugs, trauma, and the fact that she has not spent her life surrounded by people who have always known her and with whom she’s shared life’s stories again and again, building up a personal history. Makes sense – and suggests another fallout from the ostracism and neglect experienced by people like Pankhurst.

One of these Pankhurst-memory-gaps relates to her first marriage. Whenever Krasnostein questions her about this time in her life, about the way she left her wife and children, pretty much high-and-dry and with no ongoing interest or involvement, Pankhurst, who exhibits such empathy in so much of her life, seems unable to answer. Krasnostein writes – and this is also a good example of her gorgeous style and of her attempt to get at “the truth”:

When I ask these questions, Sandra genuinely seems to be considering them for the first time and uninterested in pursing them further. We have floated across the line and here we stay, becalmed, past her outer limits. The mediaeval horizon where you simply sailed off the edge of the earth or were swallowed by the monstrous beasts that swam there.

With a biography of a non-famous living person, there are few documentary sources against which the biographer can validate what the subject says, but there are other people. And Krasnostein speaks to them, including this first wife, Linda, who was treated so poorly but who seems to bear no animosity. She’s amazing too. That’s the thing about this book: there’s such a display of basic human compassion amongst people, many of whom have so little.

And finally, if you haven’t already noticed, there’s the language. It frequently took my breath away with its clarity and freshness. Here’s a description of Sandra after she’d experienced a brutal rape while working in a Kalgoorlie brothel:

It’s not the first time she’s had crippling pain that she pushes into a tight little marble and drops down through the grates of her mind, somewhere deep below.

It may be that I loved this book so much because I had no real expectations, but I think it’s more than that. The trauma cleaner is an elegantly conceived and warmly written book about a woman who could teach us all something, I’m sure, about tolerance, acceptance, and respect. With a red-face, I recommend it.

AWW Badge 2018Sarah Krasnostein
The trauma cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay & disaster
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925498523