Bianca Breen reports on what she learned about writing trauma at the Great Big Book Club’s literary fiction panel
On the surface, it seems as though Chemutai Glasheen’s short story ‘The Debt’, in Unlimited Futures, and Maria Papas’ award-winning novel Skimming Stones, don’t have much in common. However, as the second panel at Fremantle Press’s Great Big Book Club got underway, it became clear that Chemutai’s and Maria’s stories and writing processes share quite a lot.
Moderated by author Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes, the panel began with Maria speaking of her book, which follows two sisters and a shared experience of childhood cancer. It’s a coming-of-age novel, but also involves an older person looking back on their life and understanding the far-reaching effects of both disease and familial relationships. Chemutai’s short but impactful speculative fiction story explores how what we do in our world affects what happens in other worlds. And it’s a powerful evocation of why we should care about people who live far from our own reality.
One of the underlying themes that connect both stories is trauma. Chemutai said she tried to find a different way of looking at it. As a teacher, Chemutai works with young people and it was her students who inspired the way she wrote the story. In ‘The Debt’, Chemutai said she wanted readers to be on the same journey as the young protagonist of her story, helping them understand that inflicted trauma can, and will, come back.
Maria touched on how trauma can be assimilated up to a point until something triggers distressing memories. But Maria didn’t want the illness portrayed in Skimming Stones to be something to overcome. She pointed out that, even as families are living through the experience of an illness, other life events – both good and bad – are still happening, and those events are tarnished by the spectre of cancer.
The other theme lining these stories and authors together is how they draw on real-life experiences to shape their creative work. Maria mentioned that she had ‘never written anything that didn’t come from my world.’ Chemutai agreed and shared a story that captured many in the audience. She said it wasn’t until she arrived in Australia that she discovered that she was Black. Growing up in Africa, she was simply a person. Early in her teaching career, a student asked her why her skin was a different colour – and the student’s curiosity and desire to understand differences and similarities stuck with her. Chemutai finds being around young people inspiring, in the way they ‘ask the important questions and remember the stories long after they’ve forgotten everything else.’ It’s those questions that inform her writing – inviting the reader to ask about the world around them, leaving the stories open-ended to encourage them to ask themselves to consider what they can do about the problems.
Though the authors’ stories are fictional, the trauma explored within them is very real, and can’t be wrapped up neatly as many stories often try to do. Maria said, ‘Narratives are supposed to go a certain way – the main character learns the meaning and the book ends.’ Because she couldn’t find the meaning or purpose to her child having cancer, she ‘found it hard to keep to those rules’. While at the hospital with her own child, Maria yearned for stories of hope but she couldn’t concentrate on reading, so she asked for stories from the nurses. The stories and memories the nurses shared with her helped Maria cope with her own experience. And it made her realise that her characters had to relate to each other in their own way, and find meaning in it.
For many writers, the impact of real-life trauma shapes their stories and characters. And sharing that trauma connects the writer and the reader together in a relatable, often emotional, way.
Bianca Breen is a volunteer at Fremantle Press and an emerging Children’s and YA fantasy writer with a passion for Australian authors and stories. She is the creator of YA for WA and Communications Director at #LoveOzYA. She holds a BA in Creative Arts from La Trobe University and is one of the winners of the 2021 ASA/CA Award Mentorship Program.