On 16 November Federation Square held a candlelight vigil for the recent Paris attacks. During this expression of sorrow for those suffering incredible hardship, Fortyfivedownstairs lent its stage to three authors whose memoirs expose their raw selves. They told their stories of growing up, facing hardships and trauma with humour, poetry and metaphor. On such a tender evening, the triumphant memoirs of Sian Prior, Maria Katsonis and Hannie Rayson demonstrated the tenacity of the human spirit.
Literary memoirs have a torrid history, causing controversy from St Augustine to Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s Girls and writer of Not that Kind of Girl. The contemporary, confessional style of memoir began with St Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine first felt compelled to write his memoir one night in 371 A.D., in a remote town in North Africa. At sixteen, Augustine had a history of bad behaviour, sexual promiscuity and was without direction. That evening, with no other desire than to commit a crime, he stole a couple of pears from a neighbour’s tree.
That innocuous act led Augustine on a personal journey towards Catholicism, devotion to God and to ultimately give up his deviant ways. It also resulted in a revolutionary literary genre, spanning hundreds of years and giving us harrowing stories of survival, inspiring tales of success and—in the case of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces—controversial ‘memoirs’ that play fast and loose with factual details. These autobiographical stories give us insight into the author’s life, but the best ones are a part of something bigger, a profound journey to answer some burning question about what it means to be human.
Reflecting on her own decision to write a memoir, Sian Prior, reading from her book Shy: A Memoir, said that she (unsuccessfully) attempted to cure herself of a chronic shyness that had plagued her for her whole life. After the readings I spoke with Maria Katsonis about her memoir, The Good Greek Girl. I asked her whether it was difficult to write some of the passages in her book, including her time spent at a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with depression, or the fights she had with her orthodox Greek Father when he disagreed with her life choices. She told me you have to distance yourself when you write about yourself—to become a ‘character’. You’re more or less writing about a version of you that exists within the story.
The lectern for the readers at Fortyfivedownstairs was surrounded by domestic furniture. A bed sat behind it with an old-fashioned bubble-screen TV in front. A kitchen was set up to the left and a bookshelf sat directly between the two constructed rooms. The venue seemed to set up a safe, comfortable space for the personal stories that we were going to hear.
Curator Dena Ross opened the evening, telling us this was the final event for [email protected], a series of intimate literary readings in which authors read from their books and spoke with the audience afterwards.
Sian Prior read from her memoir about growing up as a shy person, someone who constantly questions ‘What if’ and who feels envious of the confident extroverts around her. Stories of her grandmother’s confidence, her consistent indecision about the smallest things and a particularly poetic evocation of the death of her father created this picture of a person in an ongoing, internal battle. For a shy person, Prior explained, hesitations line up like hurdles on an athletic track, stretching into the distance. Some of these hurdles can be cleared with a few strenuous leaps, but exhaustion kicks in after so many jumps. Memoirs like Prior’s are a communication to the reader. The way her personal torment is evoked articulates the mess of anxieties and fears for anyone going through the same thing. Suddenly, the shy reader feels less alone, perhaps less hopeless.
Battles with mental hardship continued with Maria Katsonis’s reading. Strikingly different in physicality to the tall, blonde Prior, Katsonis’s short stature was more than made up for by her confident reading. Katsonis began by reading a passage that began with her graduation from Harvard University, before tracing back to her strict upbringing, where she was labelled a “failure” by her father at age 10 for producing a B+ in school. The author had a long career in theatre and arts policy, but her energetic approach to life was brought to a halt by a sudden, crushing depression. The second chapter Katsonis read was equal parts funny and disturbing, as she contrasted stories of binge-watching Hugh Grant movies with observations of other patients, whose mental illness left them confined to their rooms, sobbing after visits with their families.
Weaved throughout Katsonis’s struggle was an ever present wit; a kind of defence mechanism that alleviated the seriousness of the situation, allowing her to distance herself and show us that humour is present wherever we choose to see it. Continuing this trend was Hannie Rayson with her memoir Hello Beautiful! Scenes from a Life. Best known as an award-winning playwright, Rayson told us she’d ‘be brief’ with her reading. This statement applied more to her writing style than the reading itself, as she articulated her experience in punchline after punchline, eliciting constant laughs from the audience. Beginning with coming of age tales about growing up in ‘Brighton: The horror, Bayside’, Rayson comfortably made fun of herself. She would spin around when a boy called out, ‘Hey beautiful!’ only to be told, ‘not you, you idiot.’ All of this read in her dry, almost drawling voice with the impeccable comic timing of a first-rate playwright, Rayson was perfect to cap off the evening.
Each story presented by the authors was a demonstration in personal triumph, but at the same time an attempt to reach out to an audience who might be dealing with the same things. Stories bring people together. They encourage empathy and communication. Memoirs are living proof that as human beings we can survive and triumph over unimaginable torment.