DYING – a memoir

Cory Taylor

Last night I went to the launch of Cory Taylor’s beautiful new memoir Dying.

Cory is a friend of mine but the advertising for this event was the first I knew about her impending death. At first I glanced at it and laughed, thinking it was a publicity stunt. I hadn’t seen her in a long while, but thought she was happily writing in her cottage in Japan. Cory herself said that when she saw the publicity she thought, “How sad,” not realising it was her. But she is. She really is. Dying.

Death is staring her in the face and she’s had the courage to stare right back and write about it. Because, as she says, “I’m a writer. What else was I going to do?” And that is why I love her and why this book is filled with grace and greatness.

The launch was one of the stranger events of my life, half-launch half-living wake, with Cory skyped in from her lounge room, joking that she was speaking to us from the afterlife and that the technology wasn’t so crash hot up there. It’s this sense of humour that infuses a book that could be full of a dark weight, and makes it a joy. A gift to us all. I haven’t even finished it yet and already I’ve marked several passages I want to write out and stick on my wall. Yes, that’s how good it is!

I knew Cory was a wonderful prose stylist before this (and that is my highest praise of any writer), having read her first novel, the Commonwealth Prize winning, Me and Mr Booker. I somehow missed out on her second My Beautiful Enemy which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, but it’s just shoved all the other books off my to read pile.

So there was Cory grinning at us from her lounge room, looking very much like she was dying, but happy – and the crowd of us at Avid Reader, torn between tears and laughter. Brave presenters included her publishers at Text who have already sold the book overseas, Krissy Kneen who called Cory her literary idol and struggled to hold back tears, as did Benjamin Law whose eyes glistened all through his speech about his old friend, thanking her for the gift of this beautiful book that lets us know we are not alone. Kris Olsson spoke about how angry she felt knowing that Cory was dying, so young, only just sixty. How she was angry at the birds, the trees, the sky, the air. But how grateful she was too, for Cory’s writing and her courage in creating this book.

Then the wonderful Fiona Stager of Avid Reader said a few words from her heart, that, had you not already been weeping, would have unstoppered the toughest old cork. We laughed and we cried and celebrated Cory’s writing. A woman in the audience spoke about grief, about not wanting to do stiff upper lip anymore, that we should have all been freer with our tears. And I agree with her, mostly.

Except Cory’s not dead yet. She’s alive and vibrant and fiercely intelligent and funny and last night was a celebration of her life’s work as a writer. I wasn’t going to weep about that. Not then. Only this morning, when I realised her voice is going to be lost to the world.

Don’t be afraid of this book, it’s as funny as it is sad, and is filled with wisdom and love and beautiful, beautiful writing like this.

When you’re dying, even your unhappiest memories can induce a sort of fondness, as if delight is not confined to the good times, but is woven through your days like a skein of gold thread.

I couldn’t recommend a book any more highly. Buy a copy for everyone you know.

WHY WE WRITE – Thoughts after the Brisbane Writers Festival

This year’s festival  was the busiest I’ve ever seen, despite the hike in ticket prices to a number of sessions. So much for 47% of Queenslanders being unable to read, Germaine! It was obvious that people in Brisbane care deeply about reading and writing. But why? Why were we all there? Why do readers keep searching for the perfect book? Why do writers continue to write despite the lack of financial, or other, rewards?

The first session I attended was French Writing in The Pacific with authors from New Caledonia and Tahiti. Chantal Spitz, the first indigenous Tahitian ever published, explained why she writes,”because if I can’t write, I would die.” And I think this rings true for a number of writers. Perhaps we wouldn’t die, but we wouldn’t “Be”to the fullest extent of our being. We write because we can’t stop. Because writing somehow IS who we are.

Chantal Spitz    photo © Marie-Hélène Villierme

Chantal Spitz photo © Marie-Hélène Villierme

Chantal writes in  poetic langauge with strength and courage to bear witness to the truth of the lives of Tahitians and refute the mythologised version of Mutiny on The Bounty babes and lazy fools. Her book Island of Shattered Dreams  brings to life the harsh reality of a colonised people.

A small group “conversation” with Susan Johnson, one of my favourite Australian authors, was next. Susan has published nine books, including Life in Seven Mistakes, The Broken Book, A Better Woman, her powerful memoir of motherhood, and most recently, My Hundred Lovers. Despite being shortlisted for several awards over her career as a writer, she’s never managed to crack a major prize. And she could have done with the money, she said. She needed that money. Her husband was demanding she contribute to the family coffers. “Was she crazy,” she asked, “to keep on writing?”

I, for one, am glad she did. She’s recently returned to full-time work as a journalist to support her family, but I hope that soon some big prize money will come her way and give her the time she needs to keep writing her beautiful prose. Not many writers can do what she does with words, going deep into universal truths, the deeply buried secrets of the heart and body.

In response to the lack of awards for women, Susan and a group of other Australian women writers have banded together to create The Stella Prize, with the inaugural competition running next year.

In a session on Mothers and Their Families I met Claire Bidwell Smith a young American writer whose first book, The Rules of Inheritance, a memoir about the loss of both her parents to cancer, has recently been released in Australia by Text. Grief is a subject close to my heart, it has been a shaping force in my life and I’ve written my own “Guide to Grief”(currently looking for a good home), so I was interested to hear her speak. Like me, the stories of her loss were the first ones she had to tell. The old adage,”write what you know”comes down to this for me. It’s not about what you know out in the world, but what you know about your heart’s inner workings.

I stumbled into Indigenous Story Tellers next and was very glad I did. When Witi Ihamaera sang a welcome in Maori we all knew it was going to be a special session. Boori Monty Pryor, a born showman from far north Queensland, read us a poem that had us laughing and crying at the same time. Chantal again moved us with her words of struggle and Witi showed us how his wise grandmother taught him to question and subvert the ways of the white fella through nursery rhymes. It was a session that had the audience in tears, moved by the plight of these brave people who had the grace to still sit before us, to accept us and let us learn from them. It was humbling to be in their presence.

The last session I attended was Black and Write, celebrating  the success of a program to discover and encourage indigenous writers and editors. Sue McPherson, author of Grace Beside Me won us all over with her wicked sense of humour and stories of battling with her inner-critic called Ethel. But it was Michael Heyward, editor at Text Publishing who encapsulated what the festival taught me this time around.

Books matter. Writing matters. Because books have the power to change people’s lives.