RUBY: WE HAVE some disagreements, my mother and I, and not only about fairy tales. Mum says that I'm wrong, that actually, we were lovely children.
Emails go back and forth under the Pacific Ocean, from San Francisco to Melbourne. When I write that I was kicked out of playgroup for biting, she is annoyed.
'You weren't kicked out of playgroup,' Mum writes back to me in a comments thread. 'I cracked down hard on biting, early. I know what you're trying to show here, but it's not your characteristic wildness. It's the wrong picture. You were NEVER allowed to hurt other children. Can you reframe that line? 'Kirsty's kids threw eggs off the garage roof to test gravity' was how my friends described my lack of boundaries.'
Fifteen minutes into one of our Skype conversations she says, suddenly:
'Maybe I should have read to you less.'
'What do you mean?' I ask.
She doesn't answer: maybe you wouldn't have turned out as a writer as well. Or maybe you'd be here. Of my mother's three children, only my youngest brother still lives in Australia.
Over Skype, Mum holds up a copy of Andrew Lang's The Red Fairy Book, which she bought for herself when she was fifteen. The line snaps, a delay making the image jump forward. I have a copy of the same book on the bed beside me. The same stories, with 16 000 kilometres and an entire ocean between them.
KIRSTY: I WAS A mean mother. When my daughter couldn't sleep at night I'd allow her to get out of bed only if she agreed to do housework. My hope had been that sleep would be more appealing than domestic labour. Sadly, this technique was not successful, except in the sense that the tiles in the kitchen shone. That housework was more appealing than sleep made me worry that I'd read her too many of the wrong kinds of fairy tales, stories of oppressed princesses who were redeemed or rescued through housework. Or perhaps I had told her too many scary stories that plagued her dreams at night.
While I was pregnant with Ruby, I read Maxine Hong Kingston's novel Warrior Woman. It's a story about fairy tales, mothers, daughters and the life we imagine as versus the life we lead. It seared something inside me. It was a book about two cultures – China and America – and the way we build imaginative bridges when the country of our birth is not the country of our imagination. For generations, my own family had tried to integrate their imagined past with their Australian reality. I was a fifth generation Australian but, like Hong Kingston, I could still hear the siren call of my ancestors' mythologies.
When Ruby was born she was dark and exotic compared to my bland blondness. She seemed to be an infant warrior woman, a creature of fairy tale. It was as if I had imagined her into being. I couldn't wait for her to be old enough to enjoy books, to find herself in stories. I couldn't know that the stories I would tell her would shape me as much as they would shape her.
I was twenty-two when I became a mother and still close enough to my own childhood to not have lost my attachment to childhood rituals. I'd read fairytales compulsively all through my teens and they were my personal cure for insomnia. Not that they worked. I would often read until dawn, particularly Andrew Lang's fairy books.
As a young mother, I hadn't quite reached the phase of critically revising my childhood. I cheerfully imposed on my kids a version of my own chaotic upbringing and extended it to incorporate the things I loved. Parenting was almost a form of self-indulgence, an opportunity to play, and I was soon the parent of two more infants. In love with the company of children, and still young enough to remember every unpleasant schoolyard experience, I leapt at the idea of home-educating. In some ways, it was simply an excuse to spend much of my days reading stories. I told the Education Department that my approach to home schooling was 'literature based' and I set about busily constructing a slap-dash curriculum that centred around hours of reading to the kids, morning, noon and night. We routinely visited our local libraries and bookshops and rather than give the children pocket money, I gave them each a tiny budget for buying secondhand books. I had no qualifications as a teacher, had finished high school and simply plunged into the world, but I was sure that the best way to educate my children was through stories.
At the end of every day, I would sit with the baby on my lap and Ruby and her brother either side of me and we would immerse ourselves in books. Although I had been raised a Christian, by the time I was in my twenties I had only two central tenets of belief – the power of story and the wonder of the natural world. I described myself as a Christian pantheist. The world was full of magic, and stories were the key to discovering it.
We read Greek myths and European folklore, British and American classics and a miscellany of Australian stories as well. But the volume of Australian children's literature I read them was swamped by world literature, particularly European. Tentatively, I read Aboriginal myths to them though I was painfully confused about cultural appropriation. I forced 'magic pudding' down their throats, though they didn't seem to enjoy it any more than I had as a child. Perhaps we can only convey what we love and feel deeply, what we can share without reservation. I dragged out all my favourite fairy books, and the story I loved the most, 'The Enchanted Pig' from Andrew Lang's The Red Fairy Book.
In the story, a princess finds her fate is to be married off to a pig, magical, of course, but a pig nonetheless. At night, he takes human form. Desperate, the princess accidentally precipitates an extension of his curse by trying to bind him as a man. Her pig-husband wakes in a rage. As he leaves her he says 'we shall not meet again until you have worn out three pairs of iron shoes and blunted a steel staff in your search for me.'
The princess visits the house of the Moon, where she gives birth to a child, and then visits the Sun, the Wind and the Milky Way. She crosses fields of ice and climbs mountains of flint until finally, when she finds herself one rung short of a ladder to reach her husband's hut, she cuts off her little finger to finish the ladder and climb the final rung to reach him. Sometimes parenting, for all the love I bore, felt like crossing fields of ice and climbing mountains of flint. Some days I felt exactly like the princess in iron shoes with a baby strapped to her back, searching for a lost love. But the lost love wasn't so much a person, as an idea, an object of desire, an ambition that I couldn't will into being.
I remember reading those fairytales of pain and suffering to Ruby and her brothers and finding they squirmed with discomfort, though they loved the darkest tales of evil forces overthrow by reckless courage. So I read them stories of warrior princesses, and knights in armour, of cunning girls, and dragon slayers, of girls who lived in forests and dressed in furs, of brave tailors and dancing princesses. We floated on a sea of stories. Some they clung to and others seemed to sink without trace.
At the time, it didn't occur to me that there was a weird disjuncture between most of these stories and the Australian suburban landscape in which we lived. Perhaps, like many Australians, it wasn't until I left Australia that I started to see that I had inflicted the same folly on my children that I had suffered myself. My story landscape was at odds with my physical landscape. I had fed my children a world of stories but few that bound them to the landscapes of their home.
WHEN RUBY WAS eight, we moved to France to live in a tumbling down farmhouse in the Alpes Maritimes. Doggedly, I continued with my home-schooling plan. But one morning, some months after we'd settled in the valley, I stepped out into our garden and found Ruby and her brothers busily constructing fairy houses. They were talking in one of their made-up languages and they looked up at me with slightly dazed expressions and began explaining how they had been talking with the fairies all morning. There was something about the quality of their explanation and their expressions that alarmed me. Ruby was nearly nine. I had read her one too many fairy stories. When the fairies became more vivid than the neighbours, I knew we were in trouble. They were taking this whole fairy story business a little too far. Perhaps, at home in suburban Melbourne, the stories had felt removed but here, in an ancient stone house set in a wild, overgrown garden with the Loup River cutting through the ravine at the bottom of our driveway, all those European folk and fairy tales were much more plausible. Later that day, I enrolled all three children in the local village school.
I suspect, as a writer, I often try to redress the gaps in my own and my children's upbringing. So now I write the children's books I wanted to read myself, both as a child and as a parent – or perhaps early parenthood inflicted on me a particular form of arrested development. With my latest novel, The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie, my tenth, I feel I've finally struck a balance between Australian landscape and European traditions. It's a book I was searching for when I was eleven, a fusion of magic and landscape without resort to twee Anglo-Australian fairies nor the appropriation of Aboriginal myth. The challenge for non-indigenous Australian authors will always be to find the secret places in the landscape that their immigrant gods and fairies can inhabit.
RUBY: SOME OF those stories were so real to me that now, as an adult, they have the quality of memory. The black waters of the river Styx beneath the hull of the boat; the hard, uncomfortable wood of the wishing chair in a cold headwind. I can open a door in my head and walk across the Yorkshire moors below Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, or feel the despair before dawn as Aslan lies dead on his slab of stone and the sun breaks over the mountains.
I had no feeling for the difference between the burning bush and the faraway tree. Mum read us Bible stories with the same seriousness as she read everything else. As a child, I loved going to church and seeing adults behave about the stories in the Bible in a way that I felt all stories should be treated. It convinced me that, through ritual, the world of the page could be threaded into the everyday.
On hot summer afternoons in suburban Melbourne, I waited for my friends the Vivian girls to get out of their Catholic school down the road. Together, we snuck into the convent gardens of the Little Sisters of the Poor and ran, skirting the flower beds, chickens scattering before us, down to the cool green grass under the peppercorn trees. Lying in the dappled shade in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary we prayed for powers both wonderful and terrible. Flight, vengeance, and all the freedom that seemed to belong only to adults.
But I did not grow up to become a princess who married a pig and quested through parenthood.
In my early twenties, I married a conventional, Hans Christian Andersen kind of prince: a man thirteen years older than myself. In counseling, before we divorced, he told me that he thought I had been read too many fairy tales as a child, had watched too many romantic comedies as an adult. That, as a result, I didn't understand what made a relationship work between a man and a woman.
I felt, of course, that the opposite was true. I felt that I was railing against the confines of my gender, and that I had to dance in the red shoes, no matter if they killed me. We divorced, I left the safety of the path and jumped into the bush, went to work in development in Indonesia. And I became so angry with fairy tales, and the insidious whispering of gender I imagined I had picked up from them as a child. I wielded Angela Carter like a shield against convention.
A few months ago, sitting on the floor of the children's section at the San Francisco Public Library, I opened the contents page of a battered edition of Grimms for the first time in many years. As I scanned down the title page, story after forgotten story opened up inside my head. But they weren't the stories I was expecting to remember, the stories that make up the background hum of gender expectation; Little Red raped in the forest or pouting and buxom in the latest blockbuster, Belle patiently awaiting her Beast's transformation.
The stories I found inside the cover of Grimms that afternoon in the library were the stories I'd loved as a child, then forgotten. You might not know the story of the bird, the mouse and the sausage who live together in the forest. (Although they could just as well live in the bush, if we choose for them to do so. Let's do that.) Every day, the bird goes out into the bush to collect sticks for the fire and brings them home to the mouse, who sets the fire and the table with its nimble little hands and feet, while the sausage makes the stew for dinner, swishing itself around the pot to season it perfectly.
Things go well for the friends until one day the bird goes out into the bush to collect sticks and meets another bird on the path. 'Why are you working so hard?' The stranger bird asks. 'You do all the hard work, while the mouse and the sausage laze around the house doing nothing.'
The bird goes home and complains to the mouse and the sausage that things aren't fair, that they must all change jobs.
The next day, the sausage goes out to collect sticks in the bush and is eaten by a wild dog. The mouse makes the soup, jumps into the pot to season it, and drowns. And the bird sets the fire with its clumsy claws, burns down the house, and dies.
I loved this story. I loved it. But then I forgot it. And Disney never made a film about the bird, the mouse and the sausage. The fairy tales I loved back then were about social groups struggling with power. Not about one single prince saving one single princess, but about twelve princesses escaping through the night, about seven brothers who turn into swans, about three friends: a bird, a mouse and a sausage. Maybe part of their attraction was that, as a child, I felt the reality of being part of a pack where arbitrary power was ever-present.
It's a story I wish we told more often. Not the hero's quest, not the story of the individual struggler who comes out on top, but the story of the group, at the whims of a wild world. There are many ways to skin puss in his boots. The princess and the pig could be a story about men who are forced into the role of pigs, or it could be about a brave woman striking out over the moon and the stars with children strapped to her back. The bird, the mouse and the sausage could be about the importance of knowing your place or it could be about the violence of the social relations that force us into those places.
I know that Mum worries that something about our upbringing – the stories, the shifting of countries, or some potent interaction between the two – is responsible for the fact that only one of her three children lives in Australia. And while it can't be a coincidence that my brothers and I now all work in the arts, as a writer, a musician and a visual artist, I think the cause and effect is complicated. We all feel tied to the Australian landscape, even if Mum feels she didn't have the right stories to tell us that would tie us to it. We dream of the smell of eucalyptus – the feeling of hot tarmac and the bite of salt is summer, and the wash of light in the bush is true magic. The physical landscape of Australia is lodged deep in our bodies and hearts.
Whether or not she intended it, Mum's 'curriculum through literature' did teach me something important: that knowledge is not only discovered, but created too. That the stories we tell ourselves about the world can be dangerous.
As an adult, stories about science have been more interesting to me than the actual science. When I see photos of the millions of people walking in ever-narrowing circles around the black granite box of the Kaaba every Haj, I think of the pull of the stories that brought them there. Of the stories, how they are told, and how they are interpreted, that are hardening the borders of our nation states, forcing people with other stories out, onto boats to drown at sea.
And maybe this is the important thing about having enough stories in your life as a child: stories can inoculate against the power of that one strange, single-storied bird. The bird who whispers in your ear that you, and only you, are more important than the sausage, and the mouse.
You need many princesses in the bushlands, many birds, many stories, before you can learn to doubt.
'I BLAME YOU. All those years of my confusion over reality.'
Mum laughs, 'Yes. But then … I was confused when I was young. I think I just grew out of it after having you.'
'Right. So if I don't have kids I'll stay confused forever?'
This is an argument we have a lot. I say that Mum is trying to pressure us into having kids and that she should back off; she says she can't help it if she loves them.
'No,' says Mum. 'That's not what I'm saying! I'm saying: you were the end of feeling confused about reality. I'm saying: they fuck you up, your sons and daughters.' She's referencing the Phillip Larkin poem that she used to recite to us when we were little and angry:
They might not mean to but they do
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extras just for you.
'The meter's no good with sons and daughters, Mum, it'll never work.'
'Don't worry –'
'I'm not worried –'
'– but you will, you'll end up with a son or a daughter, or some young person in your life, who will fuck you up and teach you about reality. It happens to everyone; you get older and then there are people who change you. Obviously, the fairy tales have affected both of us. Maybe that's a generational thing – I'm still coming to terms with the magic pudding, while you mess about with dark Indonesian gods.'
Words and images race from Melbourne along thousands of kilometres of submarine cables, under parched boats floating on becalmed reefs and around island nations, until it hits the mainland in San Jose on the coast of the US and segues into California's terrestrial fiber optic network. On my screen, Mum holds up The Red Fairy Book, and waves it at me.