By Georgia BlainNon-fictionScribe Publications

The Museum of Words: A Memoir of Language, Writing and Mortality

In late 2015, Georgia Blain was diagnosed with a tumour sitting right in the language centre of her brain. Prior to this, Georgia’s only warning had been a niggling sense that her speech was slightly awry. She ignored it, and on a bright spring day, as she was mowing the lawn, she collapsed on a bed of blossoms, blood frothing at her mouth.

Waking up to find herself in the back of an ambulance being rushed to hospital, she tries to answer questions, but is unable to speak. After the shock of a bleak prognosis and a long, gruelling treatment schedule, she immediately turns to writing to rebuild her language and herself.

At the same time, her mother, Anne Deveson, moves into a nursing home with Alzheimer’s; weeks earlier, her best friend and mentor had been diagnosed with the same brain tumour. All three of them are writers, with language at the core of their being.

The Museum of Words is a meditation on writing, reading, first words and last words, picking up thread after thread as it builds on each story to become a much larger narrative. This idiosyncratic and deeply personal memoir is a writer’s take on how language shapes us, and how often we take it for granted – until we are in danger of losing it.

Portrait of Georgia Blain

Georgia Blain

Georgia Blain published novels for adults and young adults, essays, short stories, and a memoir. Her first novel was the bestselling Closed for Winter, which was made into a feature film. Her books have been shortlisted for numerous awards including the NSW, Victorian, and SA Premiers' Literary Awards, the ALS Gold Medal, the Stella Prize, and the Nita B. Kibble Award for her memoir Births Deaths Marriages. Georgia's works include The Secret Lives of MenToo Close to Home, and the YA novel Darkwater.

In 2016, Georgia published Between a Wolf and a Dog and the YA novel Special (Penguin Random House Australia). Between a Wolf and a Dog was shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize, and was awarded the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction and the 2016 Queensland Literary Award for Fiction. Georgia passed away in December 2016.

Judges’ report

More than just a memoir of reckoning with mortality, this is a deftly written and deeply moving (in all senses of the word), story of disease, death, language and writing. Museum of Words uses photos and images to enrich its ravaged, at times ravishing, text.  

It is also a powerful evocation of the relationship between three women, Georgia Blain, Anne Deveson and Rosie Scott, and those women’s relationship with language. Blain takes her readers through the awfulness of the coincidence of fact and fiction in the final years of her life, and opens up new ways of understanding the work which writing does in intimately shaping a writer’s life. This is a skilfully executed and vital work, which provides a beautiful articulation of the place and threads of memories, stories and words.

Extract

Looking back, I wish I had paid more attention to it; it was the only clue as to what was going to follow.

I remember telling several friends. ‘There is something wrong with my words,’ I would say.

I wasn’t that alarmed – it was just that my speech wasn’t quite right. I certainly wasn’t worried enough to see a doctor, but I was concerned enough to remark on it several times.

Most of the time, the conversation would slide off into a discussion of forgetfulness, the inability to remember names, faces, and even places, as we reached our late forties and early fifties.

I had always prided myself on my memory, but I, too, had become someone who forgot.

Once, a friend of mine reminded me of a trip we’d made to Rome together.

We were having dinner at her house and reminiscing: tales of our youth, early loves and drunken nights.

I was confused. I was sure that the first and only holiday I’d had in Rome was the visit I made in my early forties with my daughter, Odessa, and my mother, Anne. We went to visit Anne’s brother, who spent half his time living in Trastevere, and the other half in Umbria, with a woman in each location.

My friend laughed in disbelief: how could I fail to remember the earlier trip I’d made with her, along with my boyfriend of the time, and a friend of ours, Russell? It wasn’t until she took out a photo, the four of us sitting by the Spanish Steps, all eating gelati, that I realised I had been there before. And then the details came back. The hotel we had stayed in had a curfew, and we’d had to rush back each night to get in before the door was locked. My boyfriend and I were arguing terribly, on the brink of breaking up. I remembered the time he had shouted at me in a clothes shop and left in a temper. We’d been locked in battle about whether a neckline was square or round. Our friend Russell spent every day visiting a magician. He was trying to buy a levitation trick, and the magician had to know if he was worthy of the trick, if he could learn it and perform it faultlessly, before he would sell it to Russell.

How could I have forgotten all of that?

But each time the conversation drifted off into lapses of memory (my Rome story frequently trotted out to demonstrate – laughingly – just how bad I was), I knew that this problem with my words wasn’t just forgetfulness. It was something else.

At the time, I was under a lot of stress.

My mother was in her eighties and had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I was the only child in Sydney and I felt very responsible for caring for her. I wanted to fix everything, and I ran around getting rosters in place, cleaners, sorting her money, wrangling her friends, all of who were eager to help.

She resisted, usually by pretending that she would get better, sometimes by actively dismantling the care I had setup. By nine o’clock most mornings, I had fielded at least a dozen phone calls from people who had no idea what was going on in this sea of frequently changing arrangements.

For the past 15 years, she had lived in a converted shop by the beach, which she’d painted yellow with a bright orange door. The shopfront washer office, a huge book-lined room with an old shearer’s table in the middle. Like me, she was a writer.

She wrote three books in that house – one a novel, the other on resilience, and the last on peace, just before her official diagnosis.

She and I were very different. I was more introverted, more organised, and so terrified of deadlines that I usually got projects done months ahead of the due date.

She was gregarious, loved people, ignored deadlines, read drafts of her work to friends in cafés, and frequently drove editors and publishers to pull out their hair.

However, this last book of hers was more troubled than most. She just couldn’t seem to get it done. She printed out draft after draft, always on yellow paper (she loved yellow paper). Sometimes, she told me it was 35,000 words; sometimes, 170,000. Footnotes and references were frequently lost, hard drives crashed, she was convinced that a ‘rogue font’ had got into her computer, manuscripts were couriered back and forth from Melbourne to Sydney in an attempt by the publishers to wrangle the project by putting it into hardcopy, but old drafts got mixed in with the new.

She became distressed, sometimes even angry, each time I tried to broach the topic of the book.

It was like she had forgotten how to write, but it wasn’t the words that eluded her; it was all the building blocks that she had once had at her command, the way in which a book is put together, that had gone missing.

All writers struggle with this at times. But with Anne and this last book, it was as though each time she assembled it, a pernicious wind swept all the pages up again, flying them to each corner of the house, out on the street, and she had to run around frantically trying to gather them.

I know now that this was the first evidence of Alzheimer’s.

At the time I was suspicious; I think she was, too.

After the book came out, and she had finished publicising it, she finally agreed to do tests. The results were not good.

As I write this in my room, also book-lined, I am curious as to how long ago the publication date actually was. I get up and find a copy of it. I only have one,whereas I have so many copies of her other books.

Waging Peace, by Anne Deveson.

I look to the date and I am shocked that it was only three years ago.

Our lives have changed so much since then.

She is now in a nursing home and rarely leaves her bed. She knows us still, but she doesn’t really know what is wrong with me. Just after I got her into care, I was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour, first signalled by something going awry with my own words. And it was not forgetfulness.

As I type this I am aware that I have hit my limit—about an hour of the intense focus and concentration necessary to assemble sentences on a page, and I am done in. Nothing is making much sense anymore. It is like the cotton in the branches of the cottonwood trees, the trees that line the river in the park at the bottom of the hill where I live.

Each spring this cotton forms, floating away in the breeze, wafting, insubstantial, and always so maddeningly out of reach.

The Premier’s 21 Shortlist