Finding the Warm Spot in Surrealist Writing

Georgia Robinson talks Lynch, winking ferns and rewound jazz in anticipation for her upcoming performance at the 2017 Emerging Writers’ Festival.

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Georgia Robinson chose writing because it is warm. When I ask her what she means by that, she tells me: ‘Writing is warm and math is not so warm.’ I ask her if math is cold because it requires rational and unemotional thought, but she shakes her head: ‘Warm and cold are not meant to be opposites. Warm things to me are things that lift the spirits in a regular way, like family and animals and movies and love. Not as warm things are trickier, like David Lynch films and philosophy and new friendships and old friendships and probably love again. They are things that don’t offer their reward as readily as others.’

 

‘The room said it hadn’t been watching, but a hot pink blush crept along its ceiling and down my white shirt. I unbuttoned it, and exhaled.’

 

Warm and not warm, light and dark, greys and technicolour, these are the elements that breathe life into Robinson’s writing. They interact with one another, melding and changing and clashing in front of the reader’s eyes. She is a poet first and foremost: ‘I write poetry and then try to make it into a work of fiction. I think my inclination toward poetry is evident in the stories, although I hope by the time they’re complete they could sit comfortably on the fiction shelf.’ Like Inger Christensen and David Malouf, both brilliant poets who have crossed the murky waters over to fiction, it is language above all else that drives Robinson’s writing. Her devotion extends not just to each line, but to each, individual word. Her stories are shrouded in moodiness. They lure us in with a slow burn of action that is interrupted in unexpected bursts. Just as soon as we think we have a grip on our surroundings, we are thrown off course.

 

‘I stumbled into a dream a shade of green so dark it was at first black.’

 

Robinson grew up in Emerald, a suburb in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne’s CBD. It is a beautiful area with lush forests, sprawling hills and a reservoir which lights up with the reflection of the trees. It is under this backdrop, ripped straight out of a Thomas Cole painting, that Robinson started reading and writing poetry. Living with space taught her how to think. The smallest idea could take up a whole day. She spent hours on a swing that hung from her tree house, watching as the seasons changed from warm to not so warm.

When she turned eighteen she moved to Brunswick East. She held onto her slow, uncomplicated relationship with time: ‘I still like to spend a lot of time thinking. It’s important for me to recede into an unpressured, limitless mindset for a while before I write anything down.’ She has lots of green, leafy plants in her room. It reminds her of home.

 

‘There’s an invisible something stalking, connecting, me and them, and if that force wasn’t invisible, it would probably be a grim shade of red.’

 

Ever since Blue Velvet, when Lynch turned the streets of suburbia into a dark, twisted dreamscape, creatives have been drawn to his style of weird and wonderful. Robinson is a self-proclaimed disciple. Her two most recent short stories, The Death of Some of My House Plants and Cause of Death, pay homage to Lynch’s work with its surreal non-sequiturs, moral ambiguity and a manipulation of the mysterious as she transports the reader from one portal to the next. ‘It can be tricky not to go overboard with the use of that influence,’ Robinson admits. ‘I had to consciously tone it down in a lot of places and find my own brand of weird.’ The biggest influence Lynch has had on Robinson isn’t stylistic, however. His success has paved the way for her to create work that pushes boundaries and takes the audience out of their comfort zone: ‘Things get pretty wild in Lynch’s story worlds and sometimes things don’t make sense, but they create a mood and if you let that mood absorb you, you’ll understand things. In both of my stories I think there are elements which stand out as odd and unnerving and a lot of the time they are there for just that purpose.’

 

‘In the room with plush green carpet and wallpaper and the big mirror with little voices, the woman speaks in time with the music.’

 

The Death of Some of My House Plants and Cause of Death are a rumination on the ordinary. The short stories follow the same unsettling trajectory, taking the reader from first to second to third person perspective. The shifts feel natural as we acclimatise to a world where nothing is fixed and the ordinary sits comfortably next to the extraordinary. The Death of Some of My House Plants begins with a mundane reflection that is gradually stirred into its own sedimentary surrealism. The plants are murdered and we are plunged into the unreal. Cause of Death is a return to reality. The narrator becomes the narrated and we cling to an elusive character as he walks through smoky streets on a road that has no end. Both are filled with visual riddles and lush imagery. Light and dark are more than the glow of the television or the bars of shadow from the blinds, they work as a sophisticated dynamic engaging the reader in a sensory experience that hypnotises and holds us captive.

Robinson says that before she begins writing she thinks about the mood she wants to convey: ‘I mentally list the elements I want my work to possess; violence; absurdism; poetic language; transformation. I take ordinary bits from my daily routine and drag them into a chaotic, unsettling climax.’ The ‘silent sufferer’ is a type that appears often throughout Robinson’s work. She is fascinated by flawed characters: ‘Every person who has existed, exists, will exist, has a life all of their own, with wild twists and depressions and absurdities and realisations, and that’s totally normal. It’s always interesting to take one of these lives and pick it apart.’ This idea that we are not one continuous, linear being, but instead fragments of the present, is a concept that is heavily explored in her short stories. Characters are scattered across the pages, leaving the reader to pick up the pieces and arrange them in a way that feels right.

 

‘When he used to take drugs, his favourite part was the feeling of the perfect body temperature, his skin melting into the room, filling the room, feeling whole with luke-warmth.’

 

One of Robinson’s short stories, The Death of Some of My House Plants, is set to be performed at the Emerging Writer’s Festival as part of an event entitled Double Exposure. She has interpreted the theme to be ‘a reveal, a relief, or a change.’ Her work is partially inspired by Park Chan-wook’s most recent film The Handmaiden: ‘Halfway through the film, there’s a wonderful twist, and the story is sort of told from the beginning again in light of the new information. It’s so fun as a viewer.’ The Death of Some of My House Plants incorporates a similar moment of enlightenment when the narrator is shown a tape of themselves strangling a plant. Revelations like this allow us to peel back the layers of the story alongside the characters. Key pieces of information sit nestled among a sea of rich details. The reader must be careful not to hold on to any one thing lest they risk being fooled by a red herring.

The live reading of The Death of Some of My House Plants will be accompanied by a soundscape of street noises which fades into rewound jazz. This kind of relentless background noise has a very Lynchian feel to it. Robinson, who is soft spoken, is nervous about the sound overshadowing the piece: ‘My voice does strange things when reading aloud. I’m not sure if that’s the type of confusion I want to evoke. I like adding some grounding elements where the story gets weird.’ This is a common dilemma for those who write surrealist pieces: How much – if any – strangeness should be sacrificed for the sake of understanding?

 

‘He wonders if light sounds different to dark.’

 

When I ask Robinson to describe her body of work she tells me that it isn’t really a body at this point. Limbs, maybe. So where does this piece fit into the pile of disembodied limbs? A leg, maybe, she says. Like most writers who are barely twenty, it is a difficult time to reflect upon our work. We are asked to define ourselves before we know who we are. We are asked to define our style while we are still trying different styles on. We are still trying to see what feels authentic to us, and what we can authentically communicate to others. Robinson is one of the lucky ones, she has already had one of her poems published in Voiceworks. But that isn’t why she writes. She writes because it’s warm, and because its reward is readily available.

 

Find out more about the Emerging Writer’s Festival event Double Exposure here.

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Understanding Victoria’s Abortion Protest Laws

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Police question an anti-abortion protester outside of the East Melbourne Fertility Clinic.

On the fourth Saturday of every month, the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants finish their service at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and walk the 1.1 km to the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic. The procession, known to the locals as the “Rosary Parade”, has taken place since the clinic opened in 1972. Anywhere from 50 to a 100 members of the group congregate outside the clinic’s gates holding images of foetuses captioned “Alive and Growing” and “This Is a Baby at 3 Weeks”. They link arms to pray and sing hymns from paper booklets. Some clutch Baby Borns to their chest, while others dangle crosses from outstretched hands. They bombard women trying to enter the clinic with pamphlets and flyers and beg them not to “kill their babies”.

The East Melbourne Fertility Clinic holds special meaning for anti-abortion groups in Australia. The founder of the clinic, Bertram Wainer, was an Australian doctor who took on the fight for legalised abortion in 1967 after a woman came to his medical clinic seeking emergency treatment after a back-yard abortion.

In her book Lost: Illegal Abortion Stories Dr Jo Wainer, Betram Wainer’s wife, recounts the horrors of illegal abortion through collected testimonies:

You found them through an underground network – taxi drivers, pubs, mates (it was usually the responsibility of the man involved to find the abortion provider and to pay for the abortion. The woman just risked her body, her life and her dignity). In addition to that, there were non-medically trained abortion providers, the most famous of whom was a butcher by trade who operated on kitchen tables around Footscray. Of course, not being a doctor, he didn’t have access to anesthetics so he used to stuff a rag in the woman’s mouth to stop her screaming and disturbing the neighbours.

When the 1969 Menhennitt ruling came into effect, legalising abortions approved by two doctors and performed to preserve the health of the mother, Wainer established the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne. Slowly the topic of abortion stepped out of the dark corners where it had festered for so long.

The clinic also has a rich history of counter-protests. Eleven years ago, grassroots social feminist organisation Radical Women founded the Coalition for Women’s Reproductive Rights (CWRR) to begin a monthly clinic defence. The aim of the demonstration was to form a defence line against the Helpers. The first monthly clinic defence began in August 2005 and, after 33 years on the frontline, the Helpers were forced to conduct their protest from the other side of the road.

One of the key organisers of CWWR and Radical Women is Debbie Brennan. She states that the main reason CWWR was formed was because those in power were not doing enough to defend the women and staff. “We have always insisted”, Debbie says, “that the only thing that has protected that clinic has been a solid defence line of grassroots activists – not the cops and not Melbourne City Council.”

Crackdown on protests has favoured anti-abortion groups. In 2010 Melbourne City Council issued a compliance order against the CWWR – this was the first time the city’s bylaws had been enforced to protect the Fertility Clinic. The order was against a banner held by activists, which said, “Free Safe Abortion On Demand Now”. CWWR were told that the banner constituted “an unauthorised portable sign in a public place”, a similar tactic to that used by the council against the Occupy Melbourne protestors in 2011. Radical Women responded with a free speech campaign accompanied by a petition that called for the council to retract the compliance order. The petition quickly collected over 60,000 signatures. Debbie says they were told it was the first time Council had ever withdrawn a notice to comply.

Staff from the East Melbourne Fertility Clinic supported the actions taken by Council against the CWWR. At the time the clinic’s psychologist, Dr Allanson, was quoted saying, ‘‘we don’t want any picketing directly outside the clinic.”

The council stopped short of enforcing these bylaws on the Helpers, who continued their harassment. In June 2015, the East Melbourne Fertility Clinic took the Melbourne City Council to the Supreme Court arguing they had failed to act under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act, which states that Council has a duty to take action against “nuisances” that are “dangerous to health or offensive.” The Clinic presented evidence of the protesters making misleading and frightening statements to staff and patients, lashing out at women passing by and singing in the back alleyway so loudly that they could be heard from inside the building. Although the judge presiding over the case agreed that this behaviour could constitute a nuisance, he ultimately ruled that Melbourne City Council could not be compelled to intervene.

In May of 2016, an exclusion zone around Victorian abortion providers came into effect, banning any type of demonstration within 150 metres of a clinic. To the women and staff accessing these facilities, the law is a resounding victory. To the average person passing by the street, it would seem like the anti-abortion movement has vanished into obscurity. Radical Women and the CWRR take a different perspective: “When that clinic is targeted again, and it will be targeted again, we won’t be there to defend it. [The exclusion zone] is against us as well.”

It is naïve to think that a protest ban will somehow quash the vehement anti-abortion sentiment that drives groups such as the Helpers. A state restriction on free speech is also something to be wary of. Victoria’s recent history with anti-protest laws should make us wary of further legislation.

There is no evidence that the Helpers or other anti-abortion groups have slowed their fight. A new Infant Viability Bill championed by pro-life activists is being pushed in front of the Victorian courts. The bill is the first formal attempt at pro-life legislation in Victoria in decades. Although unlikely to pass, it targets a weak spot in the pro-choice movement – late term abortions.

Anti-abortion groups are deeply connected to the conservative right in Australia. Their power to influence state policy should not be underestimated. Just last week it was revealed that conservative church groups are being targeted in a Liberal Party membership recruitment drive. We would also do well to remember that abortion is still considered a criminal offence in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Northern Territory.

Renewed debate in Queensland and NSW will likely see a gradual shift forward in the battle for legalisation. In the meantime, hundreds of women will be caught in the middle, and hundreds of doctors will continue to risk prosecution to help them.