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Collected stories

I'm Laura Kroetsch, Director of Adelaide Writers' Week. Come and journey with me through the marvellous world of literature. If you feel inspired, get involved and leave a comment at the bottom of the stories!

Stranger than Fiction

31 January 2018

One of the things I’ve always admired about Adelaide Writers’ Week is its willingness to remain literary. In a too- fast world ruled by screens and tweets and not really experts, people who write books are to be treasured and this event and in particular its audience do just that.

During my time here at the festival there is usually a book or a writer who captures the imagination of the festival staff, a book that gets read more than the others. In past years the book has always been a novel, but not this year, this year is all about non-fiction and two titles in particular – The Trauma Cleaner and Priestdaddy.

I have yet to meet anyone who did not adore The Trauma Cleaner which on the surface of it seems unlikely. The book is about a man who becomes a husband and father, then leaves to become a drag queen, undergoes gender reassignment, is a sex worker, then a trophy wife and finally a successful business woman. Her name is Sandra Pankhurst and she is utterly compelling, in no small part because she had the great good fortune of having Sarah Krasnostein salvage her story.

This book fits no category easily; it is utterly fascinating, sad in a good way and somehow inspiring. Krasnostein connects us not only to Sandra and her story, but also to Sandra’s clients, the hoarders whose homes she is tasked with cleaning. Her clients are regular people who through an experience of trauma have lost hold of what is understood to be a conventional way of living. They are lost among their things be they painting, dead animals, rotting food or books – the things that give their lives meaning and familiarity.

What Sandra shows her clients is kindness and understanding. She treats them like people and in so doing reminds us they are. As does the author who thoughtfully considered the lives of her subjects and through her exquisite prose gifts these stories to us.

These qualities also inform Patricia Lockwood’s insanely good memoir Priestdaddy, an account of a year when she and her husband returned to live with her family. As a young writer, Lockwood soon realises that she has a unique and rather extraordinary family life. So she sets about recording the experience, creating the characters that are her parents and the life they share as a family with a host of young seminarians.

Her father, a man who underwent his conversion experience on a submarine is a Lutheran priest who has converted to Catholicism, so a priest with a family. His wife is a life-long Catholic who knew he would come around, a worrier of the first order and, to my mind, the hero of the book.

The book opens:

“Before they allowed your father to be a priest,” my mother tells me, “they made me take the Psychopath Test. You know, a priest can’t have a psychopath wife, it would bring disgrace”.

She set a brimming teacup in front of me and yells, “HOT!” She sets a second one in front of my husband, Jason, and yells, “Don’t touch it!” She situates herself in the chair at the head of the table and gazes at the two of us with total maternal happiness, ready to tell the story of the time someone dared to question her mental health.

Lockwood, a poet, is a wonderful story teller, and her father, a man with a great enthusiasm for wearing underpants and nothing else, plays electric guitar, is wildly conservative in his views and is a priest. Her mother is a woman who worries, loves to drive, and is at times called upon to explain her husband’s behaviour – he uses Palmolive dish washing liquid when he showers. Generously considered, brilliantly written, and always thoughtful, Priestdaddy is also howlingly funny.

This will be good year for non-fiction and good storytelling. Among the books you don’t know you really want to read are Kate Cole-Adams’ Anaesthesia, a fascinating exploration that is a history of the medical practice, an account of her own experiences as well as those of others, including both doctors and patients. It is an absolute page-turner.

Also worth reading is Jenny Valentish’s Woman of Substance: A Journey into Addiction and Recovery, another hybrid that relies on history, neuroscience research, personal experience and reporting. What she does is to both explore why women have a different relationship with drugs and alcohol and explain why women engage in self-destructive behaviours including eating disorders, compulsive shopping and high-risk sex: Utterly compelling and not always an easy read.

Other books in the program that are a mix of lived experience and scientific research are Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness and Jim Robbins’ The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us about Ourselves, the World, and a Better Future.
Both are deeply personal books that explore our relationship with the natural world and importantly what that world can tell us.

There is a lot to consider in the 2018 program and I hope that as you sit under the trees this March you encounter great stories coupled with a quality of insight, currently unavailable in short format storytelling.