Alana Valentine for the ‘What I’m Reading’ series.
I wonder if it is unusual for me to write about a book that I am reading, and re-reading, but I don’t exactly enjoy. The book is the graphic novel Are You My Mother? by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, about her relationship with her mother, her therapists, her writing and her girlfriends. I am fascinated by it, even fearful of it, but I couldn’t describe the effect on me as comfortable.
What simultaneously attracts me and repulses me about Are You My Mother? is the intense self-absorption of the cartoonist certainly, as well as the preponderance of psychoanalytic theory, but also the extraordinary success of the work in America (It is a New York Times bestseller and a Barnes and Noble Best Book of the Year). It is an utterly beautifully told act of obsessive navel-gazing from the author of Fun Home, another work about Bechdel’s family—her father who committed suicide and her mother who survived the coming out of both her daughter and her husband. Fun Home has been turned into a Broadway musical that won five 2015 Tony awards and has a butch lesbian as its protagonist.
Like Bechdel’s mother, I have always been slightly repulsed by the memoir form ‘Oh you know. Inaccuracy, exhibitionism, narcissism.’ But like Bechdel I am often writing stories about real people that are, as she notes, ‘…unfolding even as I write it.’ What genuinely inspires me about Bechdel’s work is the way in which it has the sense of being absolutely candid at the same time as I know that that effect is being conjured by the exquisite artifice of control from a brilliantly talented storyteller.
As in the theatre, in a graphic novel one can break from the grip of primary point of view and look at other details in the frame, here rendered in compelling grey and pink drawings. Bechdel details the most shocking intimacies of her life and illustrates them with scenes that are equally brutal in their candour. I say brutal because they are just so unsparingly domestic, routine, and commonplace. It’s the equivalent of scraping wax out of your ear and making art of out of it and it has the same dread fascination for me. I read the work and exclaim ‘How can she get away with this level of confessional over-sharing and still hold me transfixed like a nocturnal animal in blinding torchlight?’
The nocturnal reference is probably a good metaphor for what happens to me when I read, that is, look at and read Bechdel’s images and text. So much of what she writes about in her struggles to resolve her relationship with her mother, as well as her lesbian desire and life, has been culturally hidden and seldom seen in a mainstream context, especially on Broadway as Fun Home has been. Homosexual desire is still so often the stuff of the shadows, the fetishized, the wild party night, the perverse, the unspoken.
In this context, my new play Ladies Day for the Griffin Theatre Company has been a revelatory journey for me. First I was emboldened by the many homosexual men who I met in Broome who are living their lives in a small regional town with courage and style. Then I was inspired by my work with Dharug elder Rhonda Dixson-Grovenor and her daughter Nadeena when we worked together on The Fox and the Freedom Fighters where they told with such bold mettle the story of both their father Chicka Dixson’s life and how it affected their own. Then I rolled into it all a reflection on the way verbatim theatre is changing and moving and modifying to stay one step ahead of the expectations of its audience.
And so in Ladies Day there is a character in the play who is a writer and who travels to Broome and writes a play about gay men living there. It is certainly not pure verbatim and it probably travels along the scale toward fiction, both to protect some of the very sensitive stories I was told but also because the junction where truth and artifice meet is of increasing interest to me. Alison Bechdel conjectures that for Virginia Woolf ‘what fiction achieves…(is) a deeper truth than facts’ and also describes the work of psychotherapist Donald Winnicott who writes about his theory of ‘me’ and ‘not me’ and the space between them.
The character in Ladies Day is not me, and yet inevitably is me, in some ways. I cannot yet and I perhaps will never have a desire to write about myself in the grotesquely forthright manner of the American Bechdel. But I continue to read and re-read her achievement to let it push me out of my comfort zone, give me the backbone to become vulnerable as an artist and offer that vulnerability to audiences, all the same.
Alana Valentine is a playwright and songwriter. In 2016 Griffin Theatre Company will present Ladies Day, Campbelltown Arts Centre will present One Billion Beats (co-written and co-directed with Romaine Moreton), Tasmanian Theatre Company will present The Tree Widows, Merrigong Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre and the Seymour Centre will present Letters To Lindy, The Street Theatre Canberra will present Cold Light (adapted from the Frank Moorhouse novel) and Venus Theatre in Maryland, USA will present Soft Revolution: Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah. Alana’s plays are published by Currency Press and her website is www.alanavalentine.com