Melissa Lucashenko is an award-winning writer of novels including Steam Pigs, Mullumbimby and Hard Yards, and an essayist whose work regularly appears in Griffith REVIEW. She lives between Brisbane and the Bundjalung nation, and has been a board member of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council. In this interview she speaks about her piece 'Sinking below sight', a report from outer-Brisbane's impoverished 'Black Belt' and the stories of three women living with the day-to-day challenges of poverty, domestic violence and life on welfare.
How did you come to meet the women whose stories you tell in the piece?
I put a call out to my friends and family asking for people who were struggling and who were prepared to talk to me, and to be interviewed. I also went into the [Fortitude] Valley Mall, and different places where homeless people hang out, to talk to people. I had done a pretty complete draft, which I'd put aside and gone on to other things. Then I got a call from Sisters Inside where the manager, Jenny Speed, said, 'You have to come and talk to this young refugee woman who's doing a placement with us.' So I went in the next day and, sure enough, Jenny was right, and that woman – Selma - was the backbone of the piece.
But Marie you knew earlier in your life?
Marie was my stepdaughter when I was very young myself, living in Eagleby. I was seventeen when I was looking after Marie and her two brothers. People used to think that we were siblings rather than stepmother and stepchildren. But I made it out of Eagleby. And Marie didn't, basically.
What do you think it was about those particular women that made them want to tell you their stories?
I think there's a quality of fearlessness to all three women. Fearlessness and openness are two qualities they have in spades. Each of the women I spoke to didn't want the money. I think I paid them $50 each for their trouble, and even though they're dirt poor all the women tried to give the money back. The men I interviewed, the homeless men, I don't think any of them tried to give the money back. Mind you, the men were probably in more dire straits.
The women, at least, had rooves over their heads?
Yes, although the man I'm thinking of who pocketed the money very happily, he was housed as well. He was fascinating, actually. He was in the Valley Mall, not homeless but begging on the street. He said, 'I'm not a beggar, but people do give me money.' He was in rags, but he had a very clear distinction in his mind between being a beggar and being someone people gave money to.
One of the most compelling things about the piece is that you begin by speaking about your own experience, and your own troubles, which had lead you back to living in the 'Black Belt.' Was that one of your motivations for writing the piece?
Well the old cliché of 'write what you know' is a cliché for a reason, not just because it's useful advice. In another sense the piece had it's origins in me reading George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London when I was very young. Orwell has always been a role model for me in terms of the clarity of his writing and his political thought. My life has taken me into nooks and crannies of Australian life, but you often don't get much more than a superficial journalistic glance into them. For a long time I have thought that it would make a good book to do Down and Out in Brisbane and Melbourne, and I may end up doing that at some point.
There's also a school of thought at the moment which encourages writers to speak from personal experience, and to write about reality, because there's so little reality elsewhere.
I know what you mean when you say there's not a lot of reality elsewhere. I think that maybe 'authenticity' and 'intimacy' might be better words. As a species we crave intimacy. The trick as a writer is to not make that a false intimacy. It's confronting to put your own life out there for people to read, even in snippets. You have to learn how to do that in a way that's real and doesn't leave you, on publication day, hiding in the toilet in the foetal position.
Was it a daunting thing to do, to write about your own experience of poverty, if only in snippets?
Yes. I have a horror of the prurient, and one thing about Orwell's book that has always struck me is that even though there's racism and anti-Semitism in his work, there's never any condescension to the subjects that he writes about. I wanted to make clear that I'm not any better than the women I'm writing about. It's just that my life's had a different trajectory to theirs. I wanted to say that it could so easily have been me in their shoes, and to a small extent it is.
Were there things that the women revealed when they spoke to you which you weren't expecting to come out?
Yes and no. I live in Woodridge, I live cheek by jowl with poor people, and I've worked with criminalised women for at least twenty years, so it takes a lot to surprise me, when you're talking about the lives of the underclass. It was really Charmaine's story that surprised me the most. Because I know Charmaine personally. When you're from this demographic you don't tend to sit around saying 'My grandfather raped me, I grew up in a house without windows.' Because most people have those stories. It's not that it's hidden. It's just that you might laugh about it and then go on to talk about the footy. It's taken for granted. So when Charmaine told me about the level of abuse that she'd experienced I was shocked. But I wasn't surprised. But if you look at women, in poverty, in Australia, in this demographic, you can pretty much assume they've been raped. And you can pretty much assume they've been molested. And you can pretty much assume they've been punched in the head by men. It goes with the territory.
And yet they were, as you said, fearless. They're incredibly strong.
Well that's what being punched in the head multiple times does for you. It raises the bar. Again, it's a cliché, but it either destroys you or it makes you stronger. And these women are definitely not destroyed. Charmaine's at the end of her tether, and Selma's exhausted, but they're certainly not destroyed by it. Another woman I know who did jail time, and went through a lot of violence, said to me once when someone was talking about risk, 'they wouldn't know risk if they fell over it. Risk is when somebody's trying to kill you.'
Given that you're a novelist I wonder what role you think writing and 'giving voice' can play in revealing, or even breaking, those cycles of abuse and poverty?
I think 'giving voice' is a bit problematic. There's a great quote – I don't know who said it, naturally – which is that 'the fed don't understand the hungry.' We can never be in anyone else's shoes, and it's very easy to forget that. I have some understanding of what it's like to be in Eagleby when you're young. But I have almost no idea what it's like to be a Yugoslav refugee, being imprisoned in a house in Annerley. And I don't know what it's like to be a white Australian who grew up being raped by my grandfather. So I can't actually give voice. What I can do is talk about those situations. But it's my voice, and it's very much my decision what to include and what to exclude.
And what role can storytelling play?
Stories can be incredibly powerful, and in a sense societies are held together by the stories they tell each other, or that they allow themselves to tell each other. In terms of my own work, it's like chipping away at a rock face, really. The short answer is, you never know. You never know who you actually touch with your work, or what impact you have. You just lean into the wind, and you try to be truthful, and you try and write work that is going to be both honest and moving. And that's all you can do.
I know you have a degree in public policy, and I wondering whether that background, however distant it might be now, informs your interest in some of the issues you brought out in the piece?
I was thinking about it earlier, and I guess one thing I was trying to bring out in the piece was the odd mix of structural factors and just sheer luck, good and bad, that makes up people's lives. All of these women are poor because of the violence and because of intergenerational poverty, and those things can be attacked in policy and should be attacked in policy. And if Australia doesn't do that then Australia is setting itself up for a nasty awakening, I think, because at the moment the violence of the Australian underclass is directed almost exclusively against itself. And while that's the case, the middle class can sit back and wash it's hands. I don't think that that's going to be the case forever. But apart from structural factors there are just stupid strokes of luck that can affect people's lives so radically. I was working as a delivery driver in 1982, and I applied to go to Griffith, and I had no real concept of what it meant to go to university, or how my life would change. I said 'If I get in, I'll go, and if I don't get in, I'll buy myself a better car and take out a loan.' It doesn't sound like much but that could easily have set me on a path where I would never have gotten a tertiary education. And here I am twenty-five years later, I'm a novelist. I'm still poor but I'm a novelist. And I understand my life. And understanding your life is absolutely the most valuable thing you can have.