By Ellena SavageNon-fiction Text Publishing
Sometimes I think it’s possible to live with anything. That we’re wired to survive-survive-survive, to grip onto the gnarliest thread until life is pried from our bones. Other times I think, it’s not possible to live at all. Not at all.
Blueberries could be described as a collection of essays, the closest term available for a book that resists classification: a blend of personal essay, polemic, prose poetry, true-crime journalism and confession that considers a fragmented life, reflecting on what it means to be a woman, a body, an artist. It is both a memoir and an interrogation of memoir. It is a new horizon in storytelling.
In crystalline prose, Savage explores the essential questions of the examined life: what is it to desire? What is it to accommodate oneself to the world? And at what cost?
Ellena Savage’s critical theory memoir could not have existed without the writings, passion and persistence of intersectional feminists decades earlier. The words ‘the personal is political’ were a simple rejoinder in the face of pompous masculinist gesturing. The very provenance of the phrase is lost to history but the potency of its call and its significance in allowing feminists to unite over vastly different personal circumstance gave rise perhaps to the perfect conditions for the flourishing of feminist identification around race, class and sexuality. And just as second-wave feminists worked to undo complex links of privilege and oppression, postmodern feminists distilled language to challenge the gendered and dualist thought of the Enlightenment and the binary notions such thinking spawned. Gender and the body were back in the centre and their marginalisation was flatly refused.
It is within this context and with this intellectual birthright that Ellena Savage can so confidently glide across history, world events, cultural theory, postcolonial intention and identity politics through memoir, employing the major and minor keys that life brings –underemployment, a mixed bag of lovers, abortion, sexual assault, food tasting, muddled memories, ambition and domesticity. Savage swings through the weight and flatness of class, the ugliness of the Australian settler positioned on an unceded Indigenous landscape, love that is not happy and moments of life that do not succeed but have no fear of failure.
The breadth of the contemporary writing that writes one’s own body as story has forged a powerful collaboration of academic, research-driven and creativity-based practice. It makes the nonfiction essays in this ambitious and engaging book every bit as relevant as any of the writings in the traditions of intersectional writing and autoethnography. Savage’s writing is at times measured and focused; at other times it flings emotions and attitudes wildly in different directions; it cherishes associative techniques, but at all times it builds towards a powerful and nuanced understanding of the chaos and order inherent in every well-considered life.
The librarian gestures towards a desk and chair by the window, so I follow her hand and sit down, spread out my books next to a young guy, seventeen maybe, who is eating a meat pie. It’s a quarter past ten in the morning and he’s eating a meat pie with sauce from a brown paper bag, and he’s reading a magazine about sneakers, and for this sequence of facts alone I adore him, but also I would like it if the pie funk was not so intense. The window is partially obscured by a council design, something to remind passers-by that this is a diverse community in case they hadn’t noticed. I am sitting now with a stack of histories of this small part of the world that I know best, but don’t really know, not really. When I was sixteen they didn’t have the desk at the library window, just an armchair or sometimes no furniture at all, so I’d sit on the floor with my backpack next to me in the sun, and I’d read about communism and existentialism and surrealism and dada, and I wore a beret, I think, and I saved my Macca’s income to pay for a French tutor because we didn’t have French at my school, and I knew I didn’t have a real education because that was the index. More than a decade later I’m sitting here breathing in meat-pie steam but now I am reading about chain gangs and scarred trees and bodies buried deep beneath the tram tracks and I don’t know French and I am horrified. I am trying to remain horrified lest this horror slips away, I am horrified by what started here two hundred years ago so that in the early 2000s I could dream about Europe propelled by junk-food money and mass-produced cliché hats made from the hair of an introduced species that has ravaged this land.
Now that I know I am parochial – and still I am embarrassed by this fact, by all the things I did not become – now that I know that the only constant in my life of elective insecurity is my proximity to a tram line, an artery thumping out north from the city, I am also certain I don’t belong here, because I don’t, but there’s nowhere else to go but ashes and dust, or Scotland. And now that my parochial character is clear to me it’s too late: my roots have dug in deep like those of the serrated tussock, which is an introduced grass species that thrives everywhere by choking its competitors, that avoids detection by passing for a native species, and this laboured metaphor is trying to say something about colonial figures like me who’d really like to not make things worse than they are, but who by simply accepting the yellow blotted sun through the pane of glass, by accepting the home built atop spirits silent and angry, have roots that are caught in the seams of rotten foundations. I know this fantasy will be demolished someday and the stories trapped beneath it will finally go free, but by then there’ll be no one there to listen, and this sadness is worse than anything.
Before it was Coburg Coburg was called Pentridge, the satellite city built around the foul prison, the ‘bluestone college’, secure housing for the indentured labourers who built the road from Melbourne to Sydney, prisoner chain gangs carving the stones and laying them out rain hail and blistering wind. I google ‘chain gang melbourne’ and I find an article about the ‘music band Chaingang’ and a clever headline about chain restaurants. It helps to feel constant low-level indignation, I suppose, though I wonder about its overall effect on a person’s health. I take beta-blockers to help with the general whiplash feeling in my body, tension of the mundane kind, my jaw tight and my sleep sleepless but I lie there anyway with my eyes closed waiting. In one episode of real chain gangs of Melbourne some prisoners (slaves?) from Pentridge village working in the mud field smashed their leg irons and made a run for it, five of them, and then another one who hadn’t been in on the plan, Robert Taylor, seized the opportunity and bolted too, but he was older and slower and he ran in the wrong direction and by the time the guards knew it Robert Taylor was the only one within firing range so they shot him in the back, the bullet entering from the left side of his spine and exiting from the right breast, and afterwards someone wrote that ‘the expression of his countenance was calm and serene, as though he had died without pain’, what a hero, and what of the other five men, let’s hope they ran and ran and found new names and something to fill out their days other than chipping boulders and laying stones, and who descends from these mavericks anyway, whose great-great-great-grandfather fled indentured labour and made life anew, if new life is possible, truly, in this old haunted land.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist