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Refusing Not to See: On Kylie Ladd’s Mothers and Daughters

Read Tuesday, 16 Sep 2014

Jo Case reflects on the defining themes of Kylie Ladd’s new novel, Mothers and Daughters: the complexities of female friendships, 21st-century adolescence, and the divide between black and white Australia. It’s all set against the stark tropical beauty of Broome, where Kylie and her family lived for a year.

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One of the things I love about Kylie Ladd’s novels is the way she uses them to explore the things we talk around, or straight-up avoid, in real life. And she does that through characters who feel real, like people we can imagine knowing – or even being.

The women in Mothers and Daughters, Kylie’s fourth novel, are long-standing friends: they met as parents when their children started school, and bonded through netball training and classroom reading, school drop-offs and Friday afternoon drinks. They cherish each other, but they don’t always like each other – not in every moment, and not even at every stage of their lives.

Fiona internally sighs when Caro turns a transaction at the Qantas desk into a long, chatty conversation with the clerk. Morag is both envious and a little judgey at Caro’s immaculate grooming for the plane trip – but compliments her to cover it up. They all indulge in the occasional silent commentary on each other’s parenting.

But they also support each other in their worst moments – from drunken follies like Fiona vomiting in the hotel pool to major life upheavals (which I won’t reveal). They love each other despite knowing their flaws, and even to some degree because of them. Fiona, who flashes her breasts at a young man who tells her she’s too old for him and consistently comes out with the most prejudiced statements, is appreciated by the progressive Amira (and the others) for her very outrageousness. ‘She was wicked Fiona. She did and said things the rest of them would scarcely dare think. She was their collective id.’

And – I think this is perhaps the real test of a friendship – these women argue and make up. They make mistakes and forgive each other those mistakes.

It’s this complexity – and Kylie’s willingness to create characters for whom love and affection bump up against irritation and resentment – that makes them real. This is female friendships as I recognise them. And it’s refreshing to see those complexities on the page.

And this is reflected in the relationships between the women’s teenage daughters, too – perhaps more intensely. Teenagers are creatures of change, of transition. Naturally, this means their friendships often are too; not all childhood friendships make that transition to adolescence. And even if they do, they’re often altered in some way. In Mothers and Daughters, Kylie traces those shifting alliances and identities, and the way girls can grow apart and pull back together. She looks at the role of personalities and circumstances in that process. And she beautifully explores that duelling urge and reticence to grow up, particularly in the character of Janey, the gorgeous popular girl you love to hate as a reader … but are also lured into empathising with as you see the insecurities and uncertainty that prick below the surface. (No mean feat.)

Kylie is a writer of great empathy; that quality is at the heart of her novels, I think. And it’s deeply attractive. Empathy is one of the reasons we read; to enter other lives, other people’s heads, and find out what it’s like to be them. And when we experience things through the perspectives of characters we can identify with, those characters give us a valuable window onto other experiences.

Something Mothers and Daughters does especially well is to look at complexities of various kinds, and try to understand them.

Friendships, as I’ve said.

The relationships between mothers and daughters, of course: including resentments, misunderstandings, the generation gap, second-hand ambition, pride, embarrassment, camaraderie and love.

Sex. Childbirth. Getting older, as women – and becoming less visible in the world.

One of the big things Kylie tackles in this book – and I think she’s very brave to do this as a white Australian writer – is the divide between black and white Australia.

Kylie spent a year living in Broome with her family, and it’s an experience that profoundly affected her. She’s written about her personal experiences and observations elsewhere, and the way that living there forced her to see what a divided country we are, the cultural differences that exist. The gaps in opportunities and resources available to black and white Australians. And the casual racism that exists, everywhere. The assumptions we make. And the political correctness that can mean we avoid making observations for fear of getting it wrong, or being racist ourselves.

What Kylie does in Mothers and Daughters is refuse to not see. She draws on her experiences in the north-west of Australia and describes life in a remote community from the inside, from various outsiders’ points of view. And some of what they see, and how they interpret it, is confronting. Amira, the teacher who is working in the community for a year, and her daughter Tess, are the characters with the most understanding of, and affection for, it. Bronte, one of the teenage girls, is entranced by Aboriginal art and deeply touched by stories of the Stolen Generation. At the opposite end, there is the starkly racist Fiona (Bronte’s mother), who uses words like ‘boong’, believes some of the Stolen Generation were probably better off without their mothers and gets annoyed by ‘all the fuss’ over Sorry Day. And then there’s Caro, who develops a crush on a local Aboriginal man in a way that uncomfortably merges with exoticism.

Some of what Kylie’s characters say and do is shocking. Some of it is racist. Some of what she observes about the Aboriginal community where Amira lives and teaches reflects stereotypes: kids who don’t attend school, teenagers who get pregnant. But some stereotypes have a basis in observed truth – even if what causes them is deeper and more complex, and they form only part of the picture. And when we pretend they don’t exist at all, we’re not genuinely engaging with the issues. And how do we confront prejudices if we don’t acknowledge they exist? It is uncomfortable to read some of these passages on the page, but it gets us thinking about our own attitudes and assumptions. This is a good thing.

Indigenous author Anita Heiss, in her latest novel, Tiddas, has her characters talk about what makes the Great Australian Novel. Some of the things they talk about include: that it should challenge the reader’s values as Aussies. That it should entertain while providing a message. And that it should definitely include Indigenous themes and characters.

Kylie has done all of these things in Mothers and Daughters. She doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but she poses the questions.

It is confronting and challenging to do this. It is easier as a writer not to write about these subjects, so you can avoid any danger of being called out as prejudiced, or plain wrong.

But folding Indigenous themes and characters into stories of everyday Australians and Australian life is, surely, Reconciliation in practice. It is a risk, but I commend Kylie on taking this risk, on writing the world as she sees it, and inviting us to think about why we are the way we are. What we should celebrate, what we can do better. As women, as mothers and daughters, and as Australians.

What’s more, she entertains us thoroughly along the way, with the seeming ease of a writer who is a practiced and proven storyteller.

This text was delivered as a launch speech at Fairfield Books earlier this month.

Kylie Ladd will be one of the authors at The Next Big Thing, here at the Wheeler Centre, in November.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.