Today I welcome Susan Hawthorne into the attic. Susan’s post is about her latest novel, Dark Matters, and how in writing it she’s attempted to turn politics into poetry using Greek mythology and physics. Susan’s novel is an important one, especially given the current political climate, and I’m deeply grateful to her for sharing her story here in the attic.
‘This is a novel that has been difficult to write, and for some it will be difficult to read. But that’s what writers do.’
Susan Hawthorne is the author of two novels, Dark Matters (2017) and The Falling Woman (1992) and a verse novel, Limen (2013). Her poetry collection, Cow (2011) was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Award, New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. Susan is the winner of the Penguin Random House Best Achievement in Writing, 2017 Inspire Award for her work as an outstanding lifetime contributor to increasing people’s awareness of disability. She is a publisher and Adjunct Professor, College of Arts, Society, and Education at James Cook University, Townsville.
Dark histories and the wars against women
Writing a novel is complex. I have known this for a long time, but only when my mind was so full of all the possibilities in my most recent novel, Dark Matters, did the complexity of it really strike me again.
I have written three non-fiction books and eight collections of poetry, but the two novels I have completed created a certain brain buzz that did not occur with the other forms. I think this is because in a novel you have so many balls in the air at once and they have to come down in the right order.
‘In a novel you have so many balls in the air at once and they have to come down in the right order.’
As a lesbian writer who has been up front about my sexuality for at least 35 years, there is always a hesitation about just how personal and obvious one can be. No one wants to be pigeon-holed. When a white male writer writes his views, they are taken simply as that: opinions about the world; when a lesbian or a feminist or a writer from a very different cultural background does the same thing, it is frequently taken as didactic. One is accused of telling not showing. So writing a novel in which very political ideas lie at its heart has to be handled carefully. Mythic elements and ideas from physics are my way of transforming politics into poetics.
I began thinking about Dark Matters in 2002. The core of the novel – the torture of a lesbian and how she survives that – has remained, but many new elements have been added. Think of it like this: the core of the novel is the sun. Around it, are circling planets: some are characters; some are themes; some are strings of metaphors. Like planets, they are of different sizes. Some characters have a much greater gravity.
In the case of Dark Matters, Kate is central to everything in the novel. It is her story of being arrested, imprisoned and tortured. But it is also about the important people, events and ideas in her life.
Her niece, Desi, is the interpreter of Kate’s story. She is young and has her own issues to work through. When she discovers that the boxes left behind by her Aunt Kate are more thought-provoking than she had anticipated, she reads them with intense interest and wants to know more. Kate’s lover, Mercedes fled Chile with her family as a refugee in 1975. Desi realises her understanding of the political history of South America in the 1970s is sorely lacking. And so, she decides to embark on a research trip to Argentina and Chile which helps her unravel some uncomfortable political truths, not just about Latin America but reflecting on the Australian political context.
Mercedes is the third major pivot of the novel. What Desi discovers about Mercedes helps to make sense of what has happened to Kate.
In addition to these planetary figures, other characters come and go like asteroids or comets whizzing through the solar system and leaving passing trails.
Desi thinks of her actions of sorting papers as an attempt to make order out of chaos. Outside this imaginary solar system is what Mary Daly has referred to as the background. Deep background like Deep Space is the material that makes up who we are, our knowledge of history, our cultural heritage and much more. As a novelist, one of my tasks is to bring that Deep background into the foreground.
Myth and poetry are ways of delving into human mysteries. They tell us about our psyches. Her Greek background and the depth of mythic tradition entrance Kate. She begins to rework these stories, framing them as resistance to the violence that is being done to her.
A story that keeps returning is that of the abducted child, Persephone. Kate writes about this ancient myth from Greece, and as Desi learns about the Disappeared in Argentina – the children forcibly removed from mothers who are arrested and tortured – she reflects on the children of the Stolen Generations in Australia. The stories come around in different shapes but all reflect how warfare against women and children is carried out.
‘How is it possible to ignore the many lesbians who are tortured and never read about it?’
In Dark Matters, I explore ideas around perception: how is it we take in or ignore what is in front of us? Physics has much to tell us about this, about how we know what we know and how we might measure it. How can something as enormous as dark matter go unperceived? How is it possible to ignore the many lesbians who are tortured and never read about it? Why, when lesbians are tortured, are they not included in campaigns to stop torture?
This is a novel that has been difficult to write, and for some it will be difficult to read. But that’s what writers do; we bring ideas into the world in a different way from what is possible in the media or a work of non-fiction. My ideas in this book have come from a great deal of research carried out and published in peer-reviewed journal articles. Fiction takes longer because the ideas have to percolate through your body and mind so that they can emerge as stories. It’s been quite a journey, one that will continue to affect me.
I’m booking into October already, so if you’d like to squeeze in a post for Writers in the Attic before the end of the year, please send one in!
The topic is anything to do with writing. For example, your writing life, what writing means to you, or what has influenced your writing. 600-1000 words is a good length, and I acknowledge the time and effort involved in writing these pieces by sending a small gift as a thank you.
If you have any questions or would like more information, feel free to contact me.