Gativa means naughty in Italian and it looks like Dad’s strap hanging in the closet above the loaded hunting gun. Pazza means crazy and it looks like bottles of booze, painkillers and the sound of Mum’s voice. Vacca means slut, it looks like a dented ping pong ball battered between friends, lovers and fill-in fathers along the Frankston Line. Mia means me and it looks like a fire lit in a black room without windows or doors.
Gativa is what the family started calling me once I turned four. Trouble followed me in the shape of a leather belt as a child who never knew what she’d done wrong. The rules never made sense to me no matter how many times I was told not to touch or speak unless I was spoken to. Nonno Otto teaching me to dance was the only thing I liked about being little. Once I started high school Mum called me Pazza cause I wanted to paint instead of bake, become a rock star instead of behave like a good Italian girl and kept running away. My best friend Babette is the one who gave me my first sketchbook, the only fourteenth birthday present I kept. Vacca is what I turned into a few years after this. Vacca is what my family call girls who fuck guys they have no intention of marrying. Getting into something I can’t get out of isn’t something I’ve done since Clay and I nearly destroyed each other.
It was just after I turned twenty-four that Audrey, my first city friend, leant me the key to her art studio in Brunswick. These keys gave my guitar and I access to a life we still don’t know how to live. The strings need replacing and tuning, this is something I never learned to do during my life along the Frankston Line.
Stories found in books, movies, songs and artwork are what I clung to like a security blanket. Even still I need to believe they have answers cause people don’t make sense to me. In all fairness I rarely stick around long enough for them to. If I was a cartoon character it would be the gingerbread woman running faster than the gingerbread man ever could. But no matter how fast those pastry legs could run I’m confident I’d get eaten before a single person ever really made sense to me. No matter which windows I observe people through I always get confused with who the person seems to cause it always ends up being too different from who they really are.
It’s the same with me too I suppose. Soon as I realised the beauty about being no one is that I could pretend to be anyone, everything became too confusing. Now there are all these pieces of me and people I got too close to and none of them will go away. Doesn’t matter what I try the mess breathes with me and the pieces remain with me at Audrey’s art studio on Breese Street.
Starting life over again hasn’t happened like I’d imagined it would.
The past in pieces remains inside me. Each piece, a red-eyed monkey scratching its way through the skin on my back. I want it all out of me. I want to know what it’s like to look through eyes without dry tears inside them. I need the silence I don’t know how to sound out of my throat to scream and the igloo heart to melt into a beat.
Sometimes the world burns into sadness that smells like ashes. This time I’m not going to fail to collage out of me a reflection that feels like mine.
My eyes are light brown but they feel black. My hands look like any other artist’s but they’re monstrous. They create things that disgust me. My hands only create something beautiful when they hold the pick that knows how to strum its way through the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album By The Way.
My black hair sits like an electric-shock round my head and body wears a red-and-black chequered dress. The material is thick and holds the pieces in, pieces I stole from the southern suburbs’ grey pages. With the colours that survived inside me I keep painting for my own version of order and sense.
I am here, a commitment freak committing, to showing the blank walls covered in butcher’s paper the way it looked when no-one else was watching.
So what’s your novel about?
After having read an excerpt from an initial draft of the novel I’m writing, local writer Jon Bauer’s response over coffee was, ‘So what’s your story about?’ I had no idea how to answer the question. He said confronting the essence of what his novel was about was an obstacle he too had to overcome in redrafting his novel, Rocks in the Belly. From what he said during our discussion I came to understand I wasn’t taking responsibility as a writer, or even beginning to step up to the role of the writer. In not having a clear understanding of what was at the heart of the story I was trying to communicate made for bad writing that lost readers’ confidence, trust and interest and therefore destroying the possibility of making a connection. To successfully access the working class world of the novel I needed to set up the significance of every exchange between characters and be strategic about setting. The purpose of each scene included in the initial draft wasn’t something I’d consciously thought through. I’d arranged scenes according to instinct rather than logic. Having never doubted or questioned my impulse I had no idea that what I was submitting to publishers was a magnificent mess. Nor had I considered what the purpose of exchanges between characters was, where the tension was, what was at stake… in the 114,000 words that made up the ride the protagonist took me on.
The thought of sitting down with the draft that had violently come out of me, made me want to destroy the word document and run away overseas. The last thing I wanted to do was sit still long enough to figure out what the book was actually about. Tweaking sentences was all I’d assumed Jon’s feedback would include. So when he told me to forget tidying up sentences and confront what I’d done I felt challenged. Unsure if I could do this or if I even really understood what he was talking about I kept thinking about it until what he said made sense to me. It was months before I was ready to take his advice and have a look at what was on the page, recognise what was there, digest it, accept it and begin to write the story.
The urge to run and destroy is powerful and still with me but a lot of people have given and continue giving me feedback and encouragement – and this is why I continue retrieving the word document every time I delete it. From the recycling bin on my lap top I begin again to chip away at the story hidden in the draft. Recognising and claiming the story is something of an excavation process, involving culling the roughage, rewriting and redrafting. The main point taped to my desk is: At different points having meaning and significance hidden from the reader works to effect only if the writer is aware of the stories and how they are part of the greater story. When setting things up remember the reader only knows what you expose to them, they’re not in your head, they’re not familiar with the story’s world like you are.
It had been seven months since I’d touched the initial draft titled Collage. With Jon’s advice, and editor of Torpedo Literary Journal Chris Flynn’s suggestion that I consider free indirect focalisation instead of first person narration in mind, I descended into a six week rewrite where it was just me and the word document. As I read the novel I found all the stories inside the larger story although present had yet to be written and there were superfluous characters and scenes cluttering things up. Consequently I came to the embarrassing realisation that I’d been under the impression I had a draft of a novel but what I actually had was some potential material for a draft. The manuscript is now titled ‘Disobedience’. It’s written in third person and the hunting gun is the object that acts as a structural device. It’s in the set up and the novel is structured so that it will go off in the final act. Its context and significance is derived from the daddy-daughter tension, dysfunction and confusion informing the crippled relationship explored throughout the narrative. This both motivates Mia’s search for a father in all the older male characters she chases and sends her back through the family history that hides the origin of poison that affecting, haunting and in many ways disabling members of the Bauta family.
Through discussions I’ve had with writers both experienced and working on their first extended fiction, I’ve come to realise this difficulty of articulating what one’s story is about is a shared one. The struggle and anxiety that accompanies the writing process is in part a consequence of the fact that in many ways the story remains hidden from the writer’s consciousness. Seeing the novel for what it is, and the characters for what they are, happens incrementally, one facet or layer at time. At present the overarching narrative of Disobedience focuses on the period in which Mia comes to accept that her parents are incapable of loving her or seeing her as she is. The key to this acceptance is obtained through the implicit realisation that her existence confronts her mother Tina with her affair, the sacrifices and expectations of marriage and motherhood and how they cost her realising the dream of becoming a singer. Tina’s resentment increases during the years Mia enters adolescence, it is here that Tina is unable to ignore her body has aged. Tina’s not the domestic housewife and self-sacrificing mother her migrant Italian parents raised her to be. When she looks at her eldest daughter all she sees is the youth she no longer has and blames Mia for freedom, choices and career she never had.
Over the years Mia’s father Marco treats Mia with love when he recognises elements of himself in his daughter and the leather strap at the slightest indication that she’s not his. When he sees characteristics of his brother Santo in her he’s over come with rage and Mia is his boxing bag. These ambiguous acts of love and hate haunt Marco who struggles with alcoholism and anger. In order for Marco to see Mia as his daughter during the novel’s key scene, he makes her larger than life by insisting she’s his re-incarnated great-grandmother, Adrianna. To see her as the twenty-year-old young lady standing before him would involve him having to acknowledge his biggest fear, that the daughter he’s raised with his wife might not be his. Being in many ways a traditional Italian man, Marco’s unable to endure the threat the question of paternity raises to his sense of manhood, pride and self-respect. What seems like Marco’s superstition and drunken rant is actually a means of concealing a truth that would potentially destroy him. The effects of Marco continually erasing Mia by oscillating between acts of love and hate throughout her life cripples her in many ways and ultimately establishes a blueprint for the way she in turn treats herself. The section from the scene included below occurs in the last eighth of the novel, where it functions as a silver spoon breaking through the shell of an hard boiled egg, while it gives access to a logic for the way her parents treat her it also stabs into the realisation that Santo, who raped her as a pre-pubescent, may in-fact be her biological father.
Dad’s smiling at Mia, looking at her like he’s seeing her for the first time. Part of Mia wants to believe she’s his great grandmother Adrianna but she can’t stand the name and this word just doesn’t feel like her.
‘All ‘is time an’ there I was thinking you was Santo’s kid.”What?’
‘Never been able ta speak ’bout it properly but ya mother an’ Santo had a thing goin’ on afore you was born.’
‘Yep. He was already married to ya Aunt Alicia. I found out ’bout a year after you was born, just over a year after ya motha and I got married. ‘At’s when I found out what’s they was up to.’
‘Ya mother says ya mine but I cants know fa sure. Sometimes I see ya an’ I know ya his an’ part of mi could kill ya, others I reckon ya mine. Todays I know ya mi kid fa sure.’
‘What did the paternity test say?’
‘Couldn’t do one.’
‘But you have to.’
‘Trust mi ya don’t want mi to.’
She looks at Dad and tastes the sour vomit filling her mouth.
‘Cause if you was Santo’s kid you don’t wanna know what I’d have ta do ’bout it. I stopped ya mother from getting one after I insisted on one. It’s been real hard Mia.’
The thought of Mother and Uncle Santo together spews down the sides of her mouth. The can of gin and tonic falls from her hand, the cigarette dangling between her fingers burns into her thigh and she faints. Dad tries but fails to catch her.
Tina and Marco’s attention is consumed with their second daughter Larissa who’s fatally ill during infancy. Uncle Santo and his wife Alicia are the only family able to look after Mia during this time. Uncle Santo, who has implied paedophilic tendencies, does as he pleases while Mia lives under his roof. From the moment I picked up a texta and began projectile scribbling fragments of the story on my sketchbook I knew it had to do with a girl who was sexually abused as a child and although this has consistently been present in the way Mia functions as a young adult, it’s largely hidden from her consciousness. Therefore, saying the unsayable and acknowledging that which the mind is unable to consciously recall, necessarily becomes sensed through the menacing presence of Mia’s imaginary enemy – Sad Clown – her inability to breathe in certain situations, sexual encounters with older men who overstep the paternal role she has given them. In instances where these relationships become sexual Mia is overcome with waves of paralysis and blanks out. There are two instances in the novel in which an expression of the desire to reveal and articulate the abuse is made, firstly through Mia’s disproportionate reaction to another character’s experiences of sexual abuse, and secondly towards the end of the text, which includes a journal entry made when her psychologist sets her the exercise of writing about something that makes her feel strange and confused. The journal entry is included below.
Until Larissa was five she was in and out of hospital all the time. Little Luke had died. Nonno Otto had died. Uncle Fabio and Dad were fighting. I was in the room listening to Uncle Pino say I was an uncontrollable brat and the last thing he needed. Ended up being one of Dad’s five brothers Uncle Santo and his wife, Mum’s unbelievably fat younger sister who took me. I was always being dropped off at their place. Then all of a sudden, for like three months, I was living there.
The first time Uncle Santo looked after me I was inside green apples stitched on a sleeveless dress. I actually used to like wearing dresses all the time. Its weird cause aside from the chequered one Babette gave me, these days I don’t even own one. Anyway I was Playing Sonic the Hedgehog on Sega Master System Two and on my last life – Dr Robotnik was taking it. But there was still a chance I could win and free the animals.
Uncle Santo stood in front of the TV and turned it off.
‘Hey I could’ve won what did you do that for?’ I remember seeing red and watching my hand throw the control pad at him. He was standing so close, like right above me. Still don’t know how I missed and hit the TV screen.
Pulling at my curly blonde hair Uncle Santo wrapped his hand round my neck. His breath stank of salami. We were in the spare room. That’s where the Sega was and I slept. It had a door that lead to the garage where he made cabinets and stuff I don’t know the names for. His eyes were closed. The noise was everywhere. The hand holding the back of my neck was strong. I couldn’t breathe. In my throat I can still feel it. My body couldn’t move. My mouth couldn’t talk. I still can’t breathe sometimes.
After he left me in the spare room I sat on the carpet staring at the blank TV til his wife was in front of it and said we were going to an all-you-can-eat buffet for dinner. I ate til I threw up. In the toilets I bled from the steak knife I pressed into my inner thigh.
After that it felt like he was always waiting for me. Waiting for Dad or his wife to drop me off on their way to wherever they were going without me. Uncle Santo took me to swimming lessons and stayed the whole time.
I began to get pretty good at disappearing by climbing fences, wandering streets, hiding in front yards and hanging out at the local Milk Bar and Fish & Chip shop with some kids I made friends with. But this all stopped once I stole one of their bikes. From then on I rode from Aspendale to Mount Chelsea Park where I’d sit near the skateboard ramp and watch clouds bloat in the sky.
But them cloud-watching days ended the evening the tyres got slashed by one of the skaters who in all fairness had warned me, ‘Girls that aren’t in our gang ain’t allowed in the skaters’ part of the park.’
Not long after this Larissa was doing better so I got to spend more time at home.
During a school day, blood arrived without me cutting. Mum was so happy she boasted over the phone to my aunties that I’d become a lady. All the mothers have this thing going on with their daughters and their periods. To have a barren daughter’s shameful. Means she’ll never get married. Me, I hated the fertility crap, curves were happening with smells and patches of hair where there’d never been anything before. Each day in the mirror I saw my body and face looked less like me. Horrified at this disgusting thing people kept calling Mia, I had no idea how to get rid of her. I was trapped til I realised I was free. Uncle Santo stopped finding me. The confusion inside me felt like the vomit I flushed down the toilet. Confused then like I’m confused now, I don’t know if any of it really happened. Its weird cause no matter what I do or who I become it still feels gross enough to hide inside the words I’m not sure every time I see anything that reminds me of green apples stitched to this sleeveless dress.
The above journal entry reveals this information prior to Mia fainting at the possibility of Uncle Santo being her father. Mia’s realisation results in her accepting her city friend Audrey’s offer to live in her brother’s art studio till she sorts something else out. In the studio Mia collages the wall and shoots the pieces of her past, particularly the images of Mum and Dad, with a paintball gun. The reason I have chosen to spend the article relating this aspect of the story is that until two months ago it remained hidden from me. Its presence has always been there considering that in the initial treatment I wrote Uncle Santo was Mia’s abuser, that Dad and Mother have always treated her with disdain and differently from their other two children, and that Mia’s sexuality is mixed up. Ideas surrounding the Electra and Oedipus complex in Greek mythology and psychoanalytic theory, conversations with a sexually abused people in my life and movies such asBeautiful Kate (2009), Mysterious Skin (2004), Blessed (2009), Suburban Mayhem (2006) and Kathy Acker’s oeuvre have together acted as an axe enabling me to axe into the diseased heart beating at the core of what the novel’s about. Threading this realisation through involved me becoming acutely aware and almost uncomfortable with how much I’m not conscious of what I’m doing when I write because despite this part of the story being hidden from my awareness, most of it was already there and needed to be broken into.
Acker, Kathy. Bodies of Work. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1997.
Acker, Kathy. Don Quixote, which was a dream. New York: Grove Press, 1986.
Acker, Kathy. Great Expectations. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1982.
Freud, Sigmund. The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. Norton: New York, 1989.
Sophocles. Three Tragedies. Transl. H.D.F. Kitto. Oxford University Press: London, 1962.
Beautiful Kate. Rachel Ward. Australia: Roadshow Entertainment, 2009.
Blessed. Ana Kokkinos. Australia: Icon, 2009.
Mysterious Skin. Gregg Araki. United States: TLA Releasing, 2004.
Suburban Mayhem. Paul Goldman. Australia: Icon Film Distribution, 2006.