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VPLA 2023
Childhood: A Memoir

Non-Fiction Award Shortlist

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Title: Childhood: A Memoir

Author: Shannon Burns

Publisher: Text Publishing

Things may have been good for a while, but it didn’t last: they argued fiercely and he left. Weeks later, she tracked him down and said she was pregnant. So he moved back in with her and they prepared themselves for parenthood.

Eleven months later I was born. By the time my father discovered the deception, it was too late.

In this arresting memoir, Shannon Burns recalls a childhood spent bouncing between dysfunctional homes in impoverished suburbs, between families unwilling or unable to care for him. Aged nine, he beats his head against the pillow to get himself to sleep. Aged ten, he knows his mother will never be able to look after him: he is alone, and can trust no-one.

Five years later, he is working in a recycling centre – hard labour, poorly paid – yet reading offers hope. He begins reciting lines from Greek lyric poets, Keats, Whitman, speeches by Martin Luther King, while sifting through the filthy cans and bottles. An affair with the mother of a school friend eventually offers a way out, a path to a life utterly unlike the one he was born into.

 


 

Judges’ report

Shannon Burns has written an extraordinary memoir of a childhood in which he is unwanted, mistreated, and for the most part, unloved. He becomes adept at self-reliance and avoidance, withdrawal and applied brutality. He is saved by his own persistence and his discovery of literary classics in second-hand bookstores, the canon that has been disdained by a generation of post-modern literary opinion makers. His reading offers a new universe in which he can lose himself and learn new lessons. The writing is direct and devastating, deep and clear-eyed, remarkable in its capacity to evoke both horror and compassion in his reader.

 


 

Extract

THERE IS AN almond tree in our backyard, overlooking prickly weeds and surrounded by a cast-iron fence. It offers little shade and rarely blossoms. At the back of the house are slatted windowpanes, which I can remove when my mother fails to come home or if I’m locked out and desperate to go to the toilet.

I can see my mattress drying on the back porch too—and relive the disgrace of it—alongside a green and blue budgerigar called Pretty Boy, who will later die from exposure when he is left outside at night, uncovered.

In the front yard there are soursobs and down the end of the street there are red shrub roses, which I pick for Mum, making a show of wooing her, of being her handsome man and one true love. I am four or five.

THIS IS WHAT I think I know: my father met my mother while he was dating her older sister. Or my mother started dating my father despite her sister’s desire for him. Or…

She was in her late teens. He was close to twenty. Neither had finished high school and both were decorated with amateur tattoos. Things may have been good for a while, but it didn’t last: they argued fiercely and he left. Weeks later, she tracked him down and said she was pregnant. So he moved back in with her and they prepared themselves for parenthood.

Eleven months later I was born. By the time my father discovered the deception, it was too late.

There is something chastening about this mode of conception, about knowing that, by most standards, your beginning was aberrant. And for the comparatively ‘respectable’ Greek side of my family, the associated shame or embarrassment was hard to remedy. It was worrying enough for an unmarried Greek girl to mix with boys who were not from her tribe, but to fall pregnant to one outside marriage was irredeemable. What had gone wrong? Why did my grandparents migrate to Australia if this was to be the result? Was it all a terrible mistake?

My conception brought shame to half my family, and was the elaboration of a harsh deception committed against my father by a teenage girl who was prepared to do whatever it took to hold on to him. Even so, I’m told that he began drinking heavily when my mother went into labour, and that he strode proudly through the streets of Elizabeth North in the early hours of the next morning, rousing the neighbourhood with the joyous announcement of my birth. And while I can’t recall meeting any great-uncles or great-aunts or second cousins on my Greek side, or ever stepping foot inside an Orthodox church, my yiayia adored me, and my papou endured me without too much distaste.

MY FIRST TRIP to town retains an explicit association for me: adoption. My father was legitimising his guardianship of my step-sister. I must have been six at the time, which would make her nine and the year 1987. I recall nothing of the moments leading up to the ceremony. I remember walking into a courtroom, then looking up from behind a high polished balustrade to the bench. The magistrate appeared sacrosanct—like a god. He spoke with temperate but absolute authority as he looked down at my parents and my stepsister, smiling, and then as his eyes passed over my face.

Somehow, between that moment of looking and my faint memory of exiting the building afterwards, my father had become my stepsister’s father as well. I recall the moment of affirmation but nothing more specific than that. I experience it like a click of the fingers, a rapid movement during which the universe resets and the deepest things are recalibrated while the surface remains unchanged.

Two thoughts take shape in that tiny window of flickering memory. The young boy—me, in the past—studies his father while the magistrate addresses him, and senses his father’s subordinate place in the world. The boy sees a cowering fear in his father’s eyes. The man who ‘doesn’t like’ crowds becomes the man who is afraid of crowds. The long-haired, fierce-eyed hater of authority becomes the small man, looking up at a bench, entirely incapable of being an authority. The boy understands that his father is given to disparaging certain things because they represent his own failings.

His next realisation, nearly cancelling out the first, is that those who wield authority are astonishingly fallible. Who in their right mind would permit this pitiful man to have power over a vulnerable little girl? How could the judgement of a self-evidently superior human being, leaning over a tall, commanding bench, be so unsound?

He had been living with his father and stepmother for only a short while but he’d already settled on a few clear truths. They didn’t appear to love him—at least not in the way that his mother loved him. They didn’t particularly seem to want him. And they were scary.

I recall more from later in the day. I see my blue waterproof pants, boots and jacket, and my smudged and widened image reflected on the giant mirrored balls in the middle of a wet, deserted mall in the heart of Adelaide. I remember leaping and straining to touch the top ball but falling well short. The burden of my parents’ usual anxieties seemed to lift as the rain slapped down with a soothing, regular surge against my plastic hood. I remember moving further away—the constraints that bound me to them lengthening with their shift in mood—and splashing my new sister whenever we came near a puddle.

I recall all of this perhaps because the day had already defined itself so clearly and my mind decided to store its events somewhere safe—or maybe because a mysterious figure, standing just above and to the side of a small child in waterproof blue, was able to lean down and whisper into his ear, not for the last time: Pay attention now. This is something we both can use.

 


 

About the author

Shannon Burns is a writer, critic and academic from Adelaide. His work has appeared in the Monthly, Meanjin, Australian Book Review and the Sydney Review of Books.

 

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