In a large regional town like any other large regional town in Australia lives a woman in her 60s. One of those battlers – you know them, the people who life has kicked around a bit but they get back up and make the best of things.
She works 2 days a week, volunteers at an animal shelter and loves having her grandchildren over to stay. Except she won’t let them come to her house anymore.
Over the years the public housing where she lives has become more and more disturbing and frightening.
In the townhouse adjoining hers lives a drug dealer. Most nights she’s kept awake by the continuous parade of clients slamming the front gate and doors, yelling out to each other, and roaring down the street in hotted-up cars.
The guy in the end townhouse comes down regularly for his ice. And at least once a week he bangs on the poor woman’s door in the early hours of the night screaming to be let in.
The woman on the other side of her is an alcoholic. She is feuding with a family across the road and has been caught defecating in their front yard. Or she exposes herself to men and boys walking past, summoning them inside. Night or day she’s out in the street screaming obscenities at the world.
Last year another woman desperate to leave burnt down her townhouse and damaged the others next to hers so the commission would have to place her somewhere else.
The police were there again this week when the ice addict was out waving and threatening people with a large kitchen knife.
Every night the woman my friend knows lies alone in bed in the dark, rigid except for a hammering heart, listening to every scream, every cry, every crash, every one of them a potential threat.
The housing authorities know how traumatic and terrifying the woman’s life has become. She has told them. She’s repeatedly begged them to place her somewhere else. The woman can’t afford to live in housing that’s not subsidised, yet if she leaves to live in a caravan park, for instance, she’s lost any chance of getting back into the system if a new placement does come up.
The police know all this. They’re frequent visitors, but nothing has changed.
I was upset when I heard this woman’s story because I had met her. I wanted to believe that if we could tell her story to someone in authority, with the real details of what it’s like to live her life, then they would be moved to do something about it.
Then I started thinking about all those other broken lives: the alcoholic aboriginal woman and the African family she terrorizes, the ice addict, the drug dealer. Tragic personal stories that make up a part of the great family of humanity we belong to. No matter how unpalatable the stories are, or how much we turn away from the telling of them, they will still continue to exist.
As a writer I know the power of story. Like the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith back in 1759, I believe that ‘the source of our fellow-feeling for the misery of others’ is activated by ‘changing places in fancy with the sufferer.’
Fiction allows us to change places with another person in a way that expands our experiences and understanding of their lives. When we know what it feels like to be that ‘someone else’ in detailed and unflinching truthfulness we’re more likely to develop sympathy and compassion for others like them in the real world.
This is fundamental to fiction at its best. And from that real changes are possible.
Remember To Kill a Mockingbird.
There are so many stories we can write.
A powerful post Karen, and for me very topical. I personally know some of the history of public housing in Newcastle and Lake Maquarie and how the environment around the elderly and disabled and vulnerable who live there has deteriorated from a safe environment to a similar state as you describe. I can see how writing ‘fundamental fiction’ is important and perhaps could bring about awareness and possibly change. I think sometimes writing about one horrific true situation can stir the reader to be more aware of others who are vulnerable in our community and encourage that reader to step up and protect.
Margaret, you’ve identified an important aspect of writing: writing about one horrific true situation with specific details makes people more aware of personal situations they’ve had no experience of. And it does it more powerfully than general abstract commentary or statistics. One personal story can say everything.
Very powerful, Karen! Sometimes it’s difficult writing characters that have tragic personal stories, as you discuss in your post. But when we step into their shoes, we get a glimpse of their pain which in turn can be quite transformational. I guess, greater compassion comes from greater understanding. We can learn something new!
Maree, your writing does just that! I’ve read some of your stories and they’ve hit me hard. They’ve changed the way I think. You’re right, understanding can be transformational. Thank you for your stories.
I agree with the comments already posted, Karen – this post is very powerful. Empathy, although often painful, is a prerequisite for any writer wishing to convey the reality of lives such as those you’ve highlighted. In this current world of chaos, where society breaks down a little more each day, this ghastly reality is becoming ever more ‘the norm’. To Kill A Mockingbird is a fine example of an author with empathy – and I also think of Charles Dickens whose commentary on the society of his day was exquisitely imparted via his novels.
It’s not surprising that the novel really took off in the mid 18th century when thinkers were pondering the idea of sympathy. Charles Dickens’ fiction is a perfect example of the novel’s role in expanding experiences and understanding of the human condition. Thank you for adding that to the conversation, Diana.
‘… for others like them…’
What I like so much about Alice Munro’s stories and Alan Bennet’s ‘Talking Heads,’ is the way they turn ‘them’ into ‘us,’ because they are ‘us.’ Their stories show us how we, too, are ‘them,’ and until we’ve ‘walked a mile in their moccasins,’ so to speak, and acknowledge that it’s ‘there but for the grace of God go I’, can we even begin to empathise and represent the rest of ‘us.’
The subtleties …
Once I had a quiet painting student who mentioned in class that it was her birthday the following week. She had no family and lived in a one bedroom unit owned by Department of Housing. As a surprise we gave her a birthday cake with candles, etc., next lesson. Yes, she smiled but then she hung her head and wept. And, I mean wept! She’d never had a birthday cake before. She’d never blown out candles before. She was 65 and that happened nearly forty years ago .
So, even back then, in the late 70’s, early 80’s, there were clusters of the most vulnerable being expected to tolerate and hold up each as neighbours. We, as a society, some forty years later, still accept that ‘them’ be tucked away from ‘us.’ Our inhumane asylum seekers’ policy magnifies that.
As a dear poet friend of mine, Avril Smith, now in her nineties, published in her recent collection, ‘You and I’:
a poem called ‘Black Man’; ‘black’ being the metaphor for ‘them,’ not ‘us.’
‘ I love you/ black man/ You are my equal/ So/ walk proudly/ on the street/ a citizen/ a fellow
human being/ but/ do not/ dare/ to come/ and live/ next door.’
When our gentle painting friend shared her very real and tragic story she was very much one of us, who took our good fortune as a given, hard earned. We hadn’t recognised our privilege.
Our friend’s living circumstances “are not ideal” she said, “but some are terribly … I’m fortunate … some poor souls …”.
Because of our painting friend’s personal experience she was full of compassion for her difficult neighbours. “Of course, I’m scared of some of them,” she said. We felt we were, indeed, privileged to be in her company.
In another of Avril’s poems, published in her moving collection, she reveals a crossing over of ‘them’ and ‘us’ to just ‘us’. It’s called ‘Conclusion’
‘I must admit / that as I sit/ and watch the world go by/ I deplore on every score/ the sins of other folk/ but/ when I move/ from out my groove/ and walk with folk/ and talk/ it’s then I see/ those prayers should be / for me.’
B.t.w. on this note: How good was it to see the two young men who were chosen to be Young Australians of the Year, 2016, for setting up the free mobile laundry service for the homeless. The volunteers have discovered that this service brings more than dignity, it’s brought humane caring contact. I’m proud of these young souls for putting compassion into action.
Which brings us back, once again, to our responsibilities as writers; with writers such as Alice Munro and her ilk, as great role models to follow.
Will you excuse me while I go pick up my pen.
I hope you will pick up your pen, Anne! You have crucial stories to tell ‘us’ all. And I hope you start with the remarkable woman who had never had a birthday cake. She is someone with a vast and beautiful soul. She deserves a medal as much as the guys who do the homeless people’s laundry. Or Alice Munro. And while I’m here, Toni Morrison. The list could go on and on…
Karen, I pass my beautiful painting friend’s story on to you, with my blessing. She was what I’d call a true epiphyte, a Queen of the Night in full bloom, ‘unafraid to face the dark.’ ( that last phrases owes due respect to the lyrics of a song which, I think, is called, ‘Born to be Me.’)
Karen, such a beautifully expressed and poignant story. These are the stories that move our hearts and drive us to take action against the injustice around us. Sadly, there are still too many stories waiting to be told. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you, Shona. There are too many stories to tell so all the more reason to pick up our pens. Thank you for commenting!
i hope she finds better housing. everybody deserves to live in dignity.
Thank you. What has been wonderful is that someone who heard her story has put in touch with people who can help.
I hope this woman’s story (and the stories of all people in difficulty) lead to improvements in her circumstances and wellbeing. How awful to be living in that continuous state of fear.
You’re absolutely right: telling a personal story like this gets to ‘the heart’ of the matter. I think that’s one of the things I like about fiction, in particular – not only do we have a detailed mental picture of a situation, but through narrative and dialogue we also experience the character’s feelings and reactions as if they were our own. Compassion unites us – if we’re willing to open ourselves to it.
Thank you for another thoughtful post, Karen!
Thank you, Joanna, for such a thoughtful response. I agree completely with you: the narratives that are so well imagined they are made visual are the ones that make our readers feel they are right there in the experience. As a result of this post the woman I talked about was offered help, so I’m thrilled about that. Imagine what a real story might do!