‘I remember you,’ my friend says to me one day. ‘You were the child that used to bite.’
As a child my friend was brutalised by nuns in an orphanage. She began her career as a nurse, then became a primary school teacher. After that, in her 70s, she did a Masters in Creative Writing and also completed a PhD in English. Now she’s a life-writing practitioner and edits collections of essays by leading scholars around the world. I am a creative writing academic. She mentored me through one of my first research articles. She recognised the boy I had been when she read my first book.
Back then, she’d get parachuted into problem schools to sort out difficult classes. She took over my class after the previous teacher left.
And I was the child that used to bite.
‘They warned me about you,’ she says. ‘The other children. They told me to stay away from you. But I saw what was behind your eyes.’
I only recall biting one person in my life. I can’t remember where this happened or even when, but I think I was five or six — by this time I’d already been in three different primary schools and would go to several more.
This is what I remember: a door shutting. My mother on the other side of it. Trapped in a classroom. A teacher’s leg. My teeth sinking into that leg. I think I bit the calf. Did the teacher scream? I remember the humiliation of laughter from the other children and hiding under a table with that laughter all around me.
Maybe after this incident I became a habitual biter, but I suspect that I simply developed a reputation — the animal child. I spoke English poorly. It wasn’t my first language and a year or two earlier I hadn’t known it at all. No one taught me; I was expected to pick it up by listening, which I did badly. One teacher flicked me on the head or the ear whenever I lost focus, and everyone would laugh. Other children frightened me. It wasn’t the fear of being harmed physically, but the fear of humiliation — of being laughed at and, in some fundamental way, denied. I have never completely dealt with this fear. Crowded rooms still make me nervous. There is a part of my own gaze, ephemeral as a phantom limb, that still frames me as an outcast.
At home, my Dutch stepfather kicked me with his metal capped boots if I crossed my legs. Only women crossed their legs, he said. Did I want to be a girl?
I had an older brother, tough and popular, who looked at me with contempt. I was too weak, too vulnerable. He expressed his rage with random attacks. One moment he’d be smiling, the next he would hurt me. He was angry at me for all sorts of reasons. Our biological father had sexually abused him before our mother had escaped by taking us to the other side of the world. No one would have guessed that this had been his experience. How could anyone possess that much confidence while carrying that around inside? Our father had obsessed over him while showing no interest in me whatsoever.
Is it strange that for all the relief I feel at having been spared my father’s affection, that there remains in me a sense of rejection?
I have one other memory of this school where I first met my friend: another teacher is dragging me by the arm. He’s going to cane me. I am terrified of being caned. I have been kicked and hit by my stepfather. I have been dragged by the hair, often in public, but being caned is new to me. I become a dead weight. I shriek like a trapped animal. The teacher looks down at me with disgust and leaves me lying there with all the children looking on.
All of this is to say that I was not renowned for my toughness, and resilience was not a word I ever heard.
I don’t like the way resilience gets used these days, but I like where the word comes from. In its Latin origins, Resilire, there are several different meanings: to leap or spring back, to recoil, to shrink from. All of these definitions seem to me contradictory. Isn’t that perfect?
Every morning when I wake up, I am afraid. I talk myself into getting out of bed. I am not unhappy. Far from it. I actually feel very happy. But I am afraid. I am a fearful person. I blame this on the thing that I have chosen to do with my life. I mean, did I choose it? Did I really choose writing? I actually don’t know.
But I know when it happened. I was sick. We had returned to Holland after three years in Australia. I was either eight or nine years old — I know that it was summer. My birthday was in the Dutch summer. I was confined to a bed for weeks, my life suspended in the amber glow of an endless sunset. My stepfather came up the stairs, entered the room, and looked down at me.
I remain afraid of him, even now. He reminds me of a time when I felt powerless, where any moment might see me hurt or humiliated.
On that day, he gave me one of the most precious things that I have ever received. He gave me The Hobbit. Later, he gave me The Lord of the Rings. The words in those books piled up in my mind. They caught fire. They burned without disappearing. They gave off a heat that filled my dreams. It astonished me that those small imprints of ink on yellowed paper could blossom into visions in my mind. That was when I became a writer.
What I wonder is this: was this experience so intense because I’d been trapped in this room for weeks? Was it so intense because of my loneliness, my sense of isolation, my fear of my stepfather, of other children, the fact that I had no sense of control in the real world?
Resilire. The question I have with this word is — what direction? For spring back, I mean. Towards the object or away from it? Both?
On any given day, when I finally get out of bed, I make a coffee and sit at my computer and write. Or rather, I grasp whatever weapon-like object I can find and engage in hand-to-hand combat with the demons that have gathered in my house in the hours while I have been sleeping. I spend part of my day running away. I tell myself that I am leading my demons into a trap.
It’s a lie. The fighting is desperate. Most times I’m not sure if I’ve won or lost. I taunt myself. I despise myself. I throw everything at my pursuers. I break off suddenly to answer the door, sign for some item that I ordered in a moment of online shopping escapism. The postal worker glances past me into my disintegrating unit, wondering no doubt what has been happening here — why the sweat on my forehead and the desperate gleam in my eyes?
Of course, it’s not as bad as I make it sound. It’s nothing really. Oh god, I’m pursued around my apartment by nothing. I obsess over nothing. Nothing looms over me every time I wake up. I have to talk myself into getting up just so I can face nothing.
Writing is I suppose like any art. It’s a path to something. To what? Well, maybe nothing. Maybe that’s the point. I am 46 and I am still learning not only how to write but how to feel about writing. Maybe the second part is the most important. I don’t know how anyone could sit down to write a novel and not feel terrified.
There is a pressure in writing, a sense of expectation. Every time I write a novel, the first two or three years feel utterly precarious. I don’t know if what I am doing is madness, a delusion. I force that uncertainty to one side. Day after day I struggle to make something out of nothing. When I am not teaching or looking after my children, I pour everything into this imaginary thing.
And for what?
For a structure that might disintegrate the moment it is held up to someone else’s gaze? The easiest thing for me to see at the end of the day is all the ways that my words have failed. And if I do have a day where I succeed, I go to bed knowing that the next day will be no different. The demons will gather. The pursuit, the desperate struggle, will begin again.
If I am still the child that bites, I mainly bite myself. Sometimes I feel such anger at all my failures, at the disparity between the feeling I have inside me and the paltry words that I manage to get on the page, that the only way to survive is to lash out, to find some external source worthy of my rage. Alone in my home, I rail at the world. I scream at my walls. I abuse inanimate objects. One day I crouched in front of my washing machine and screamed at it, ‘You’re nothing but a white good appliance and that’s all you’ll ever be!’
I stay away from twitter.
But here’s the thing. I am lucky. I am lucky that I have a mother who taught me how to ask questions that could lay open my world. One of the biggest questions I ask myself is ‘can I do this?’ There is only one painfully long way to find out. I am lucky that my stepfather gave me a book when I needed it. I am lucky that I carry around with me ideas and images that I can unpack into a world wherever I am.
I am lucky that I still feel astonished by the magic of simple words on the page, that they still give me joy. That’s why I started. That is what always draws me back. I am lucky that, for all my fear, all my terrible self-doubt, I am hungry enough to try something new, to write for the first time in the genre that sparked my love of storytelling, though I have no idea if I can pull it off and haven’t known for the last three years of trying.
I am lucky most of all that the fear I feel every morning is the good kind, the kind that makes me feel like a child — not powerless, but vulnerable, and needing to face something in order to grow.
Resilire. To spring back. To recoil. To shrink from.
To spring back.
Writing NSW has commissioned ten Australian authors to reflect on the complex relationship between writing and resilience. This series is supported by Create NSW
Commissioning editor: Kirsten Krauth
Michael Sala was born in the Netherlands in 1975 to a Greek father and a Dutch mother, and first came to Australia in the 1980s. He is a lecturer in English and Writing at the University of Newcastle. His debut, The Last Thread, won the 2013 NSW Premier’s Award for New Writing and was the regional winner (Pacific) of the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize. His second novel, The Restorer, was in 2017 shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
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