Odette Kelada is a lecturer in creative writing, with a PhD in literature researching the lives of Australian women writers. Drawing Sybylla, winner of the 2016 Dorothy Hewett Award for an unpublished manuscript, quite obviously draws on Kelada’s background teaching post-modern writing and on her researches.
‘Sybylla’ of course references the heroines of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung, two young women with the same name, one the author of a mock autobiography of the other, each mistaken for the other and for Miles; but Sybylla is also from the “Greek Σιβυλλα (Sibylla), meaning prophetess, sibyl. In Greek and Roman legend the sibyls were ten female prophets who practiced at different holy sites in the ancient world.”
Sibyl Jones stands on stage reading from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) a short story in which the writer, forced to remain in her bedroom, descends into psychosis and imagines herself and other women to be trapped inside the patterns of the wallpaper. The I of Drawing Sybylla is seated on the stage behind Sibyl Jones, drawing:
I pick up my pen and dribble ink onto the page. Flowers grow either side of the red margin. Monstrous petals with goblin faces leer from the middle of them.
From her random scribblings and leaking pen Sybil’s face emerges – “Now the figure I have drawn peers out from the ropes of vines” – names herself Sybylla, takes us on a journey through time. “I have landed in a red country, red dirt, the land of girt by sea, a great island between Asia and the Arctic (sic). Gold rays of a hot sun burns the eyes.”
Lucy, 1901. We become a young woman with a strict mother, brighter than her brothers but not permitted to share their tutor, scribbling at night on scraps of paper, contemptuous of women romance writers, “I’m going to write about my own country for a start … I’m going to write about the bush like Lawson and Joseph Furphy.”
[Lucy is a Miles Franklin figure, although younger, and this is, deliberately of course, set in the year of the publication of My Brilliant Career, but Kelada is wrong to go along with the characterisation of C19th Australian women writers as ‘Anglo-Australians’ and writers of mere romance.]
Sybylla leads us on:
‘Did you like Lucy? In walking through the gaps between the words of The Yellow Wallpaper, we have crept behind the pattern. Lucy is only the first of the women we must meet who have been lost inside it.’
Vera 1929. A young woman, a poet in Sydney Bohemia, in a cafe on the night of the Artists’ Ball shows Jack a poem she has written. Jack asks, “Are you going to be topless, Vera?”.
[I don’t recognise ‘Vera’, apparently the daughter of poet and alcoholic Christopher Brennan. I have read that women could only enter the Sydney art scene at this time by offering their bodies to the men. Jack “down from Brisbane” is probably Jack Lindsay (son of Norman).]
Layers upon layers. Sybil on stage reading The Yellow Wallpaper. Sybylla her ‘shadow’ leading us behind the wallpaper. We travel with her through land and sea. Peer into the water for the stories of women writers.
Stella 1932. A history teacher in her mid thirties is given cause to reflect on Captain Cook’s reception when he raised the Union Jack at Botany Bay. She asks the school’s indigenous charwoman who of course does not know. At home she must care for her aged parents, Father home from the Great War, only able to write late at night, and getting letters from ‘Nettie’.
[‘Stella’ refers to Miles Franklin, but also to Marjorie Barnard who I think also had the care of her parents. To confuse us, Kelada brings in Flora [Eldershaw] as a sister. Dates are all over the place, so: Miles was 53 in 1932 (Barnard was 35) and ‘Father’ would have to have been over 40 in 1914. And so on. Jack Lindsay, above, was in London in 1929. But the author is having fun with these constructs, while making her case about the difficulties facing women writers.]
We move on. “We are passing through a dark time. The Depression is over but the war has started. Nothing can touch us here. It is beyond the horizon.”
Eve 1954. A caricature of (American) middle class life, dinner parties and martinis, incongruous in Australia. A wife and mother whose ‘scribblings’ interfere with her wifely duties, whose husband controls her drinking, but still she is led astray by ‘Judith’, her muse.
[I have no idea who this might be, though I think Kelada has seen too much American TV. Australian middle class life in the 1950s was much poorer, even for doctors’ wives].
Sybylla pushes a little girl on a swing, high into the sky. When we see her again she is …
Susanne 1979. Susanne is a good Catholic girl who goes up to uni with a bursary to study teaching, moves to Arts, falls into the women’s movement, has unhappy experiences with men, takes a woman lover, goes down to Melbourne to stage a play at La Mama.
[Susanne is everywoman. All the men she meets are 1950s stereotypes. I know when I started this blog I wrote I am not a feminist, but that’s only because I believe socialism means equality for everyone. After the 60s guys were trying as hard as their girlfriends to do sex right. Any woman who thought she should “lie back and think of England” wasn’t being fair to herself or to her partner.]
The journey has been hazardous to say the least. I hope they are out, those women – Lucy, Vera, Stella, Ruby, Eve … Susie. I hope they feel the fresh air on their skin and breathe in their freedom.
I have a theory about lecturers in Creative Writing who write novels, and that is that they try too hard to be post modern, stories within stories predictably leaking into each other. But Kelada has a lighter touch, is playful as well as purposeful. And if at times I felt I was the dart board in a game of darts, still it was a book I enjoyed reading (and decoding).
Odette Kelada, Drawing Sybylla, UWAP, Perth, 2017