The Shadow of Lost Children: An Interview with Kristina Olsson

Kristina Olsson’s mother married aged sixteen, madly in love with a too-charming older man. After they moved far from her Brisbane family, he turned abusive, starving and badly beating her. As she sat on a train bound from Cairns to Brisbane, poised for escape - her baby boy in her arms - her husband boarded, snatched the boy, and threatened to kill them both if she followed him.

The boy, Peter, grew up longing for his absent mother and abused by his father, compulsively running away to find her - spending time in children’s homes and on the streets as a result. Meanwhile, Yvonne was told by authorities that her child would be better off growing up with his father, so she built a new family and tried to bury the grief that always threatened to break the surface.

Kristina Olsson’s book seeks to explain the tragic loss at the heart of her family, with great empathy, insight and intelligence. She also draws poignant and telling comparisons between the experiences of her one family and Australia’s history of stolen children.

Jo Case interviewed Kristina about the detective work of piecing together the story, re-imagining her mother, and why this book was the hardest thing she’s ever written.

Your book is a family memoir but places your mother’s loss of her child – and the indifference she met from authorities when she tried to reclaim him – in the context of Australia’s history of stolen children. How did you weave that personal and wider cultural history together? And when did you realise that would be integral to the book?

I suppose the shadow of lost children was always there. I’d done some work with the Forgotten Australians and with Sisters Inside, and seen the knock-on effects of the separation of mother and child close-up. But the question of ‘why didn’t anyone help her?’ became more urgent as I learned more of my mother’s story, and led to that wider context. I saw our family story was emblematic. There were so many lost children across the decades, and we averted our eyes from them all.

Writing the book, you had access to your half-brother Peter’s public records (police, courts, social workers) and you were able to interview him. Yet writing your mother’s experience was harder, wasn’t it? How did you go about entering her story?

I began with surviving family members, and the memories of my aunts, my father and my sister. But even they couldn’t access the deep trauma and grief my mother had suffered and that she carried with her, always. That kind of suffering cannot be documented, there is nowhere to go for a record, so I had to move beyond biographical or journalistic questioning and try to re-imagine parts of her life, based on the stories I was told and my own experience not just as my mother’s daughter but as a woman and a mother myself.

The story at the heart of the book – your mother’s story of her baby being taken from her as she sat on a train, poised to escape her abusive husband – is one she ‘never told’. You write that you ‘conjured it, guessed it from glances, from echoes, from phrases that snap in the air like a bird’s wing, and are gone’. What kind of power did a story like that hold for you? And how hard was it to reconstruct – and then share – it?

This was the one that nearly got away. I’d always understood I couldn’t write this story; there were too many prohibitions around my mother’s life. Instead I wrote novels that featured boys who were a bit odd, or missing, about a woman who buried the grief of losing a child with broken china in her garden. So in a sense I’d been writing my mother’s and Peter’s story always, trying to assemble it from those echoes, those birds’ wings. Still, when Peter asked me to write the story six years ago it took me some time to feel I was entitled to.

You write about the many ‘concessions I had to make, truths I had to acknowledge, before the story revealed itself, gave itself up, settled into its shape’, referring to the way certain events in the family story had been collectively understood, including by you. What did that process of seeing things anew involve?

This question is at the heart of my own inheritance. That is, of the silences and the ‘looking away’, of the lack of entitlement I felt to the story in the beginning. It took me a couple of drafts to see I had to break an invisible forcefield around knowing. There were so many things we weren’t supposed to know. But entering the story with a whole heart meant I was finally able to look at my mother as the woman she was, and at my own experience.

Your mother is an extraordinary character: passionate and driven, naïve and knowing, tenacious and fragile. Most strikingly, she is a survivor who has managed to build and nurture a new family, despite the horror of her first marriage and losing her son – which must have taken enormous courage. How was it to write your mother? And were you hoping to pay her tribute, in a way?

I certainly wanted to honour her strength, her courage and the things that survived in her: the love she was still able to show, despite everything, her compassion for others, her tenacity. But it wasn’t easy at all. How do we ever get our mothers right on the page? Especially those who have suffered so much. It’s audacious even to try.

One of the extraordinary things about this book is the way that it reveals the complexities of your family’s experience; it resists casting characters as all good or all bad; you even make attempts to understand the cultural motivations driving the undoubted villain of the story – your mother’s abusive husband. Was that important to you, to show the complexities of your experience?

Yes, it was important. But that’s part of the writer’s job, I think, burrowing into uncertainty, negotiating the blurred lines. I also wanted to give my mother the dignity of volition, not to bind her to victimhood. She was passionate and driven, and in the early days of that unfortunate relationship she was happy, making her own choices. I wanted to try to understand that, and that meant trying to understand Mick, and what made him.

Your book hints at the difficulty your mother sometimes experienced raising Sharon, a child who was fathered by her abusive first husband – and was the sister of the son she had lost. While your mother was devoted to Sharon, there are moments where she seems concerned by those reminders. Was it difficult to write these sections? What made them important to the book?

Not difficult, but unnerving, I suppose. There were so many light-bulb moments for me as Sharon explained her particular relationship with our mother. Sharon lost part of her identity too when her biological father stole her brother; I think she struggled to assemble a sense of herself. She, of course, was the link between my mother and Peter and her old, cruel life, but she also represented the life Peter might have had. It was yet another string of sadness, of potential lost.

This is such a taut and lyrically told story, a family memoir that spans decades and yet is beautifully contained. How much work was it to craft this complicated story – one that encompasses so much material – into the taut book that it is? Was there much writing that you lost in the editing process?

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written. There were countless drafts over nearly five years. And yes, a cache of paragraphs and longer pieces fell out. It’s always difficult to lose material – I mourn some of it still! – but I had a perceptive publisher and a brilliant editor who saw the shape of the story clearly. I’ll be forever grateful for their care of it.