Unpublished Manuscript Shortlist
Author: Amy Brown
Divided into three distinct parts, Stillwater is a novel exploring female identity and relationships – those of the present moment, but also those uncovered in history. It is a meditation on both motherhood and creative freedom, which is deeply attentive to the way language shapes our conceptions of reality and selfhood.
The first protagonist, Ida, devotes herself to writing a novel. This allows Brown to explore the economics of wage labour and parenting, and to pose large, irresolvable questions of being and language with a melancholic lightness of touch. The mood is curious, restless and foreboding, a masterful toing-and-froing that is both funny and brutal in its self-assessments.
The second section is a manuscript within a manuscript – the fictional ‘Stillwater’, which interrogates and imagines the relationship between Stella Miles Franklin and her more conventional sister, Ida. This dip into the past – and Australia’s literary history – is a foil to examine the idea of a ‘career’, the barriers that have always obstructed women’s progress, and the consequences of ambition.
The final section presents an alternative contemporary protagonist, Stella. Stella – who like her literary namesake chooses to go by the name Miles – is queer, a star performer with a huge Instagram following and an unquenchable desire for freedom. The story of this contemporary protagonist again enables Brown to explore questions of identity and expectation, and illuminates a complex set of resonances across time.
It’s unlikely but possible that I had a sister. A twin I absorbed in utero, who in a way still sustains me. If I regress thirty-seven years now to the insides of my mother and consider the possibility of company growing next to me, which does not survive and is instead consumed (odd to think of myself as the stronger of the two; this is not a position I’m used to holding), I start to wonder about her. She’s identical to me in all but longevity. Let’s change that imaginatively; now she’s simply identical. She takes up room and nutrients that I didn’t have to share in reality. This affects me. Pieces of what I would’ve been are hers. We are as close as it is feasible to be, limbs linked, soft skulls butting, tiny hands holding. And then we’re born. I emerge first—or does she? Nobody can tell because we are so the same that it doesn’t matter in that moment. We emerge. No longer immersed and merged, but now two. Twin. We cry in unison, but it’s two cries and the doctor congratulates our mother on our good squawks. ‘Two healthy girls, nice and pink,’ he says. Mum holds us on her breasts briefly, says hello and then we’re carried away by midwives to be washed and dressed in our matching knitted outfits.
I’m startled by how easy it is to write this fiction. It worries me that by the time I’ve imagined you up to my (our) present age, I’ll have trouble believing you don’t exist. There’s already a flickering of grief, like the beginning of a fire.
What if you were the star to my industrious femininity. The firebrand. The art monster. The bohemian. The success. If I did in fact eat you, do you exist in the doubts I have about my conformity or the rare instances of thwarting convention? You would be the brightest shade of green in my eye, the copper that exists in certain lights in my otherwise mouse-coloured hair, the daring to speak despite the thundering heart that is certainly my own; the place that I go in the throes of absolute pleasure is, I suspect, through a doorway between adjacent rooms of our minds; the times that I see how I ought to behave and ignore it are coaxed by your voice.
But, if you were whole, a whole sister—who sucked her left thumb and had eyebrows that curled up at the ends and a pigeon-toed gait—what would you have done? You would’ve ridden behind me on the Timor pony at the beach. In the photo, instead of one little girl with flaxen plaits and a sundress, squinting into the camera, there would’ve been two. The child holding the mane would’ve been beaming awkwardly—lips pulled tight over baby teeth, knowing this is a happy moment being recorded. The child holding her sister’s waist would’ve stared unsmiling at her father, just above the lens. As soon as the camera clicked, she would scramble down, her bare feet finding the hot sand, with no concern for the animal’s sharp unshod hooves. She wouldn’t hear our father scolding her because she’d already be apologising to the pony, her mouth close to its nostrils.
You would’ve been there at my side during every click of the camera, influencing my reactions. I would have been as unstable as you would’ve been noble, comfortable in yourself. We would’ve worn matching calico tunics in the chorus of a primary school production of Noah’s Flood; both too young and inept for a leading role but coveting one nonetheless. We both would’ve sung with immense gusto, equally flat, and we both would’ve been told by the director that we were much too loud and tuneless. At this, I would’ve (and did) start whispering, then simply mouthing the lyrics. You, however, would’ve lost no volume. At home, you would’ve bellowed in our bedroom, bellowed in the bath, bellowed in the backyard until our parents could bear it no longer and said, ‘Would you like singing lessons?’ And you would’ve said, ‘Yes.’
You might’ve had an odd voice. This might’ve led to your being bullied by other children. I, your only friend, might’ve recognised the social risk of being affiliated with the pariah and been cruel. I might’ve said, ‘It’s time we made our own friends,’ and proceeded to do all I could to fit in. This might’ve involved ridiculing you for mishearing the teacher’s instruction and writing your own story on the blank piece of paper you thought you’d been given, not realising that on the other side was a fill-the-gaps exercise in which you were expected not to create whole sentences, but to choose only adjectives. I can imagine being unkind, spurred only by the desire to win acceptance. But it’s also likely that your aloofness—an apparent imperviousness to the attacks of jealous and confused children—won you admirers eventually. Perhaps one of the boys I liked was more interested in you, reasonably given that you were more interesting. You didn’t even attend our school balls, finding the tradition boringly gendered. Maybe you and a friend sneaked a bottle of vodka and lay on the roof of the packing shed in her dad’s orchard and drank it, watching for shooting stars and wondering, when there was a shallow earthquake, whether you were just drunk or the plates were shifting.
I expect you drank too much. Even more too much than I did. And then stopped altogether. Now, if you were real, I imagine you would have no caffeine, alcohol, or drugs of any sort. You would have an elegant ceramic mug, made by a friend/lover and sip herbal tea from it during our Zoom conversations, which would be infrequent. You’d ask after your nephew, and I’d ask after your music. These would be our contributions to the world, and we’d possess a complicated respect for each other. While talking, I’d try to focus on your half of the screen, but my eyes would keep flicking back, comparing your face with mine, checking my expression. This is something you’d notice, and not do yourself, but not scold me for either. If I called you now, I’d see you with the familiar wooden panels of the bach behind your back. You’d be renting it for the year, living there alone, supposedly composing and going for walks, waiting for the world to open and allow you to tour again. I’d say, ‘Hopefully late May! Or if not May, then June. Or maybe July? August? I can’t wait to see you.’
‘I’m going to gobble that child up, you know.’
‘We’ll see you soon, Stella.’
‘Yes, I hope soon.’
And your eyes would mirror mine.
About the author
Amy Brown was born in Aotearoa in 1984 and now lives in Bulleke-Bek with her husband and son. She moved to Australia in 2009 to do a PhD on contemporary epic poetry at the University of Melbourne, where she lectured and tutored in creative writing before becoming a secondary teacher. She has had three collections of poetry published by Te Herenga Waka University Press: The Propaganda Poster Girl (2009), which was shortlisted for a New Zealand Book Award; The Odour of Sanctity (2013) and Neon Daze (2019), which was named as one of The Saturday Paper‘s best books of 2019. She is also the author of the ‘Pony Tales’ series of children’s novels (HarperCollins). Stillwater is her first novel for adults.
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