Thursday, July 29, 2010

Una the Naughty Little Sister

Una has an interesting relationship with the My Naughty Little Sister stories by Dorothy Edwards. She loves them because they are an absolutely True Story of her Life. They are the Chronicles of Una. But she is also slightly concerned. Why is it always her that is naughty? Why is never Freddy?
"Maybe they are made up books about somebody else?" I venture, in the face of her ardent belief. "Maybe it's not you at all."
"No," she insists. She is the naughty little sister, even though we seldom use the word naughty in our house.
This belief is deeply ingrained. One day I tell her, "Maybe it's time for me to teach you how to sew?"
"I already know how to sew," she grumps. In the face of my disbelief she adds: "Remember? In the naughty little sister?"
On another occasion she comes up to me and says, "I would like to try spongy trifle again."
"Okay..." I say, with a question mark in my voice. When have I ever made spongy trifle?
"I think I would like it more now." And I realise, it is the naughty little sister who has tried it before (without much success by the sounds of things).
Una has impressive powers of recall when it comes to The Naughty Little Sister. She knows more of the stories than I do because she listens to them on tape* at night in the bedroom she shares with Fred. She remembers the time she (as the naughty little sister) bit Father Christmas and when she went and visited a grumpy neighbour on her own.
It is not that surprising that these books have filled the gaps in Una's own memory. False memory making is a past-time of both children. "I remember when I was in your tummy and I wanted you to wake up so I kicked you and kicked you," says Fred. "Remember when I was a toddler and couldn't speak properly and I said Mama? Papa?' prompts Una (to which I respond with a non-commital mm.) As these stories get more elaborate, I find myself internally rebelling. I sometimes feel threatened by their made up memories, as if my own real memories of their infancies are being undermined.
From their point of view there is already so much in their short lives that has disappeared (something they are constantly reminded of as this pregnancy sends Martin and I down memory lane to a time when they were present, but before their conscious memory begins). Fred barely recalls kids she went to kinder with two years ago (and is surprisingly uncomfortable about going back into this shadowy half-remembered place, now that Una has just commenced her first term at the same kinder - I remember similar physical unease as a child at the idea of going "back"). In my experience with Fred she had an uncanny memory up to the age of about 3 or 4 - she would ask about playmates she hadn't seen for months and despite the fact that she only watched ABC Kids on very rare occasions her product recognition was nothing short of alarming. Her memory, while still good, is now far more selective. I guess she's asking a lot more of it as she learns to read and spell and do maths, as she consumes information about the human body and Japan and the difference between front and back support at gymnastics.
For Una finding such a clear record of a life that resonates with her feelings and experiences and sense of self has more than compensated for these black spots, for the shadowy patches of forgetting. By taking on the identity of the never named Naughty Little Sister she can put a narrative to those feelings, to her sense of who she is and her place in the world.
There will be a time, not very far from now I suppose, when Una has to face the fact that these memories are false. For example as I wrote this post I asked her, "What's the earliest thing you remember?"
"I remember things," she said. "Some things. I remember when I was the naughty little sister. Freddy had a doll and it said Mama when you leaned it back and closed its eyes when you tipped it forward and opened its eyes when you stood it up and I took it, and I threw it out the window–"
"No!" said Fred, who has come home from school out of sorts and in the mood to contradict (usually she is very indulgent of Una's naughty little sister fantasies). "I NEVER had a doll like that."
Una begins to cry. "You did! Yes you did!"
And Fred, in the face of Una's false remembering begins to cry too. Martin intervenes, and all the while Una is insisting that Fred DID have that very doll, she did, she did.
Later I ask her what she remembers from when she wasn't the naughty little sister. She understands the question straight away, but answers with the stories we've supplied her with (her first word, 'Hi!', the time she chopped her finger off). I suspect that it's not that the memories aren't there, it's more that she doesn't know what to recall, or how to bring it to mind, she isn't sure how to answer the question. Her own memories are sensual flashes triggered by a smell or a place or a feeling, or implicit (remembered in the unconscious actions of the bodies, like walking, talking, holding a pen, threading a bead) - they aren't a narrative with a beginning, middle and end.
The real naughty little sister?
One day sitting on the couch, cuddling into my belly, Una says, "Can you write a book called the big little sister?" Almost as if its the act of writing that makes reality. She is asking me to write her into being. And look, here it is, a placeholder for memory, if we are both to forget this time in our lives when she became the naughty little sister.
And in the end, how much more authentic (or less?) are her memories of being the naughty little sister than the stories we have told her about herself. As adults I think we assume that our memories are the sum total of who we are and I think we definitely privilege "episodic" (or narrative) memory over implicit memory and sensual memory. We are inclined to construct ourselves through memory... As I mentioned in my previous post, in Star Trek - but also in Buffy, Lost and many other popular narratives - (conscious) memory is identity and loss of memory threatens cohesiveness of self.

Memory is identity, at least in part. But memory is also fiction. It is unreliable. It is imprecise and relative and tricksy. Memory is myth-making. And myths always borrow from previous stories, from the accumulated history of human memory. Una's conflation of her own memories with the stories of the naughty little sister strikes me as a very literal, external performance of a process that is normally a lot more discreet: the way we incorporate books into our psyches, how books cohabit with our souls, how books weave themselves into our complex neural web and become - sometimes indistinguishably - enmeshed in memory and self.

As a compulsive reader throughout childhood this thought is astonishing and reassuring, that the books are still there, and part of me.

As a writer, it is both a powerful thought and an extremely daunting one.

*Thanks Jelly, for the book and the tapes.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

By a name/I know not how to tell thee who I am

Of names, some are proper, and singular to one only thing; as Peter, John, this man, this tree: and some are common to many things; as man, horse, tree; every of which, though but one name, is nevertheless the name of diverse particular things; in respect of all which together, it is called a universal, there being nothing in the world universal but names; for the things named are every one of them individual and singular.
Thomas Hobbes

`What sort of insects do you rejoice in, where you come from?' the Gnat inquired.
`I don't rejoice in insects at all,' Alice explained, `because I'm rather afraid of them -- at least the large kinds. But I can tell you the names of some of them.'
`Of course they answer to their names?' the Gnat remarked carelessly.
`I never knew them do it.'
`What's the use of their having names the Gnat said, `if they won't answer to them?'
`No use to them,' said Alice; `but it's useful to the people who name them, I suppose. If not, why do things have names at all?'

Yesterday Fred had gymnastics. During her class I sit upstairs and watch or chat to the other mums. I can see when the class is ending, and I go downstairs to meet Fred coming out the door. Yesterday I was caught up in the conversation as class ended and Fred came upstairs to find me. She often comes up before class and it's not a big gym, though between classes there is always a throng in the cramped foyer, so it wasn't an overly alarming scenario for her. However she was most upset that I wasn't downstairs to meet her and had a little cry when she saw me.
I got a little telling off in the car for forgetting her.
"But we were talking about you," I said. "I was telling Emma's mum about you walking to school."
"But talking about me isn't me," she protested. "I am not the talk of me. I'm real me. I'm not a word. I don't live in your mouth."
I thought it was interesting that she made this distinction so abruptly, that she so violently separated the word girl from the skin girl. It is an insightful distinction - Frederique might have been Daisy or Anouk and Una was very nearly Kitty.
And yet, without her name, who is Frederique? The word girl can live without the skin girl, and the skin without the word, but each of them adrift, signifier and signified. For Ferdinand de Saussure, a founding father of semiotics, only together do they make up the sign, the object.

Is naming truly arbitrary? Or is naming destiny? When I name a character in a book I already know the sort of person they are, and I choose a name that I think reflects their place in the world, the values and attributes that they are composed of, and also their status in the novel. Do we shape our children with the names we choose. There seems nothing arbitrary about Fred's name now, it seems entirely adjectival. We chose it because we wanted her to be Fred/Freddie/Frederique, a chameleon child who could alter her name with her identity - be wild and boyish Fred, or sweet and girlish Freddie or glmaorous, elegant Frederique - and to us she is all these things. In herself she is far more gender neutral than Una, her favourite game is tiggy (which I used to call chasings, but what's in a name?), her hair has the sometimes appearance of a cartoon character at top speed (but it can also fall in soft, ethereal waves around her face), she is kinetic and likes science and maths and maps - in my view non-gendered activities. Yet she is fascinated with the mystique of her own femininity. She is complicated and changeable like her name.

As I write this, she is trying to make a pencil out of foam, reclaimed lead that mysterious separated itself from its pencil and stickytape. It is a stormy exercise that is leading to much frustration.

When we named Una, we gave her a simple, clearly feminine name. It is everything Frederique is not - straightforward, easy to spell, difficult to modify (though as it turns out easy to rhyme with: Una Balloona, Una Petunia, Una in the Moon-a, Una the Tuna). Pearl, her middle name, was an extra secret gift (Frederique doesn't have one, because we didn't feel she could possibly ever need one with such a fabulous elastic name as Frederique). And she is a simpler girl, or, perhaps it is just that my relationship with her is simpler. I love her dearly, but I can see the edges of her. With Fred (and I have blogged about this before) I have always found the boundaries ambiguous, where she ends, where I begin. We are more similar but also, simply, she was my first and my mother-identity was born with her. Frederique is the name of the piece of me that broke off, and became her.

That their personalities are reflected in their names can hardly be a surprise, we named them, and the values reflected in our naming also inform our parenting. Recently on a name forum that has become my new guilty pleasure there was a question about naming as branding - are we giving our babies a "brand" that they will carry with them through their life?

I asked Fred tonight if she would be a different girl if we'd called her Daisy. She took a moment to decide, swinging between yes and no. Finally she said, "No, because I would still look like me."

I asked Una the same question - what if we'd named you Kitty, would you be different? Not entirely understanding the question, but instead responding as if she'd been offered a choice, she said, "I'd like to be different." (She is the one out of the two of them that sometimes talks about changing her name, though I remember Fred went through a phase of it a year or two ago). Una said,
"Then people would look at me and say Hello Una and I would say I'm not Una, I'm Kitty."
Fred said, "But no one would know you because you'd be different."
Una replied, "But I'd still have the same clothes."
It interests me the importance the girls put on their appearance as determining who they are as opposed to their interior existence, or the history they have lived. (In Star Trek identity is always attached to memory.)

At eight I changed my name to Laura. It didn't stick. At ten I changed the spelling of Penny to Penni. That whim continues to haunt me. I was confronted with the choice when I published my first book. But by then, I felt branded, in the literal sense. Marked permanently by the shape of my name. It was the same reason I kept my maiden name. I just couldn't conceive of being called anything else. (Having said that, I see the appeal for changing it as well.)

My mother wanted to call me Rowena. Who would I have been if I'd been called Rowena? Penelope is a name attached to folklore and myth. The wife of Odysseus (aka Ulysses), who was courted by suitors when her husband went missing after the Trojan war. She promised to choose one to marry when she finished weaving her husband's funeral shroud, by day she would work and at night she would unravel it, until she was dobbed in by a servant. Odysseus turned up just in the nick of time. Is it because of my name that I studied Classics at uni, that I became a weaver of stories (and a liar)? Rowena apparently was a scheming Saxon seductress. So maybe I wouldn't have been totally bland and boring, though for some reason I think of Rowena as a bored housewife. No offence to Rowenas out there, but the name Rowena makes me uneasy.

Perhaps there is something about the almost-name that haunts me with an other person I might have been. There is almost a touch of the abject: that which “disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous” (most commonly identified in the spectacle of the corpse). Rowena is more not-me than Susan or Jacquie or Lily or any other girl's name.

So I am curious, do you know what other name you might have been called? How do you feel about it?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The third that lay in our embrace

This poem has been flying around my head lately and I thought I'd share it in full here.

Woman to Man
by Judith Wright

The eyeless labourer in the night,
the selfless, shapeless seed I hold,
builds for its resurrection day -
silent and swift and deep from sight
foresees the unimagined light.

This is no child with a child's face;
this has no name to name it by:
yet you and I have known it well.
This is our hunter and our chase,
the third that lay in our embrace.

This is the strength that your arm knows,
the arc of flesh that is my breast,
the precise crystals of our eyes.
This is the blood's wild tree that grows
the intricate and folded rose.

This is the maker and the made;
this is the question and reply;
the blind head butting at the dark,
the blaze of light along the blade.
Oh hold me, for I am afraid.

I wish I had more time and space to think in poems, I have a busy few months ahead: teaching a new course at Melbourne Uni, a week's regional tour during the writer's festival, rewriting Only Ever Always (which I am beginning to suspect I shall be writing Only Ever and Always), a few gigs in Book Week, beginning a new project for which I have received my first ever grant (Vic Arts) and all the while finishing off the making a baby.

However, things have been deceptively quiet this last week. I've been settling Una into a new routine - she's switched from three days at her creche to one day at her creche and three shorter days at the council kinder 10 minutes down the road. This was partly because as much as I love her creche I was sick of the drive. Partly because she kept saying, "I love the teachers and I love the kids but I don't like the creche" (which I think means she's getting bored after a year and a half) and partly because as her first year at school looms closer, with no other prospective enrollments, it suddenly seemed very important for her to have the opportunity to mix with kids closer by, kids she might encounter again at the market or in ballet classes.

Now she's started and happy with the change, I really have to settle myself into the new routine as well. Or before I know it, the third that lay in our embrace will be here, with a name to name it by, and my time will shrink down to the size of a sparkle in a baby's eye.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Hello Baby - 20 weeks

Part One

Twenty weeks. The scan was long and the baby was unco-operative, with his back to us for most of it, fast asleep.
"That's one relaxed baby you've got there," the sonographer said, poking my belly savagely, trying to get him to move.
"Can we have that in writing?" we asked.
The sonographer whisked around doing all her measurements, and as Una and Martin and I tried to puzzle out limbs and appendages, Fred would declare confidently, "There's a foot, there's a leg." And she'd be right. Una got bored and frustrated, I think she thought she'd be seeing, you know, the baby, instead of this fluid creature made of shadows and light.
The sonographer wanted to count the fingers and toes, and managed all but the left hand, which he stubbornly held in a fist.
"It's got a big head!" Fred cried. The sonographer laughed, but didn't correct her. I cringed.
Unfortunately after Martin took them out it got more interesting, though that may have been because I had the chance to take more of an interest. The sonographer sent me off to the toilet to empty my bladder and jiggle about a bit and I came back and the baby changed position, opening up his pesky fist, but waving his foot cheekily in front of his face. The student sonographer zeroed in on the baby's face and switched it to 3D, which is very strange and oddly brown and sepia looking and still fluid, but sort of thickly so. Yet every now and then there would be a clear flash that would take my breath away - there's his nose, his chin. His profile is very similar to Fred and Una's. There's a 3D photo too, but it's one only a mother could love. Anyway, I love the classic ultrasound shot. It's luminous and mysterious, shadows and light.
On the drive home, Martin asks a tired Una, "Did you like seeing the baby?"
"No," replies Una, grumpily. "It was too complicated."
All is well, anyway. And yes. It's a boy.

Part Two

Which brings us to naming.
We've already decided the boy's name we had for Fred and Una - Gulliver - is probably out. I still love the sound of it, the feel of the word on my tongue. But not only is it rising in popularity, there is a Gulliver among the small clutch of children Una's age in our town. And I've used up most of the magic, names, we've discovered, don't always keep.
'What about Edward?' I say.
Martin shrugs. 'I like it, but don't love it.'
And same with Charlie, Laurence, Nicholas, Irving, Isaac (and it's cool nickname Ike), Asher, Satchel (is it a name? Is it a manbag?)...pick a name and we have picked over it. All perfectly good names, all lovely names, all names we like even. And yet. And yet.
We go back and forth. When the girls go and stay with with their Nana for the night, he reads me names out of a library book while I lie in the bath: Names for your Australian Baby. He discovers Toshio. He loves it. "This is it. This is the name." I like Toshi. I really do. I taste it on my tongue. I roll it around for days. Martin makes the mistake of airing it in public. "He has to live with that name all his life," one older relative says. She's worried that it's too different. We point out that Frederique isn't really part of our cultural heritage either. We say that it came from a book of names for Australian babies. In the end she laughs and says "Well good luck to you." I know she will love our baby whatever we call it, but this kind of sours the name for me. Do I love it enough to fly in the face of other people's disapproval? Why do I care so much? I am too sensitive to this sort of criticism. I intuitively feel like my parenting choices are being questioned, that we would name whimsically and without care for our child's possible future as a brickie's labourer/prime minister. With Frederique and Una, when we finally came up with their names, we sealed our mouths closed. I think it's how we knew, finally, that we'd come up with the right one.
"Benjamin,' suggests Una.
"But we have a Benjamin." (The girls' uncle.)
"Geoffrey," says Una. "John."
I like John, I am plainer in my tastes than Martin when it comes to boys' names. "Too plain," says Martin.
"Joe," says Fred.
"We already have a Joseph." (My sister's little boy.)
"Not Joseph," says Fred. "Joe. It's a completely different name."
"Not Joe," Martin and I say, though I am regretful. With my plain tastes, I like Joe.
Fred picks up the namebook. In excitement she exclaims, "What about Barry? It's Irish for "spear"!" We laugh. She's serious.
Una cries, after suggesting Benjamin for the fiftieth time, "You never like my names."
But Fred and Una don't like the names we suggest either. They are deeply, profoundly conservative in their tastes and will only consider names they have encountered themselves through creche, school or literature (Joe is from the Faraway Tree).
"What about Tolliver?" I ask Martin after hearing Tolly (in this case short for Bartholomew) on Poirot. There is a Michael Tolliver in Armistead Maupin's fabulous Tales of the City series. The more I think about the name the more I like it. It's literary, has a similar tactile presence to Gulliver on the palate of the tongue. Martin tries it on for size. A day or two later he says "I don't think I can do it." I nod. A little bit sad. Goodbye Tolliver.
Sacha. We agree on Sacha. We love the name. But has it gone to the girls? There is a girl Sasha in the wider family circle. Does it matter? On this we can't decide, we are equal in both our love of it and our ambivalence. The girls are more emphatic. "That's a girl's name," they insist.
Tonight Fred and Una carry names from me to Martin, in a sort of game - I suggest a name, they relay the message and bring me back Martin's danced gestures (to the Pet Shop Boys) in response, which are either positive or negative. Fred calls it our secret language and asks me breathlessly after each of her performances, "What does it mean?" Una is a censor, refusing to even ferry the name she doesn't like - Marmaduke.
And so the search goes on.

We are open to suggestions.