Posts Tagged ‘memoirs’

September 7, 2009

I’m not sure I would have gone out with Richard if he had been straight. I knew he was gay and that made me look at him twice. He was sweet, thin in that helpless way I like. Hips like a girl, cute in an awkward, beaky manner. And then there was his history, the magic of all the men he had loved before me. The secret slideshow of them flicked past in my imagination, a pornographic film with this boy as the star of every frame.

None of us is a stranger to the exigencies of affection: the bittersweet parallelism of falling in love with friends, champing at familial bits, being underwhelmed by our inability to decipher the complex needs of the heart. But these experiences are necessary components of life’s instruction on the subject of the feeling self. Each chip in our emotional armour can be restyled as another lacquered layer; every crick and gripe gives us the opportunity to take stock and reinforce.

In her book Affection: a memoir of love, sex and intimacy, Krissy Kneen has woven episodes such as these into a graceful memoir laden with particulars from her life of learning and loving. It comprises two interweaving timelines: a 2008 strand, and a strand spanning the 1970s to the 1990s. This to-and-fro structure foregrounds the relevance of personal history to present-day life, and illustrates the conversation that exists between experience and memory. And like many good conversations, Kneen’s begins with sex: the discoveries of young Krissy’s sexual awakening, snatched through chinks in her decidedly anti-sex upbringing, remain heady motivations for the adult she becomes.

Detailed depictions of Kneen’s sexual experiences are natural ingredients for this memoir: sex is as vital to Kneen as is breathing. Its purchase on her life, however, is sometimes a source of semantic confusion. ‘I’m not a sex addict,’ she says to Katherine, a friend who is trying to pin down the relevant terminology for Kneen’s outlook. But it’s not really the nouns that are important; it’s the verbs. Terms aside, Kneen is constantly sexually wishing and aware. While talking to Katherine in a café, she thinks ‘about how deeply she could reach inside me with those elegant hands’, and registers ‘the feminine beauty’ of a young Asian man who walks past.

Sexuality is something some of us have in more abundance than others, and Kneen’s descriptions of the strange interface between her sexual, ‘ugly’, desiring self and the rest of the world make for confronting reading. As natural as her sexual activities and thoughts are for Kneen, they are not always readily understood by others. Conversations with fellow drama students about sex come to a halt when she discloses how much she enjoys anal sex. And as eagerly as she approaches sexual encounters, she comes to realise that she has never said no, even to partners who take advantage of her body’s willingness in order to please themselves and to humiliate her. But there is a powerfully structured redemptive arc to this story, which sees Kneen finally embrace a new name and new wisdom with which to greet emotional curveballs like these.

I wouldn’t ever attempt to suggest that memoir be or do anything in particular. But in the case of Affection, what is proffered is both beautiful and pedagogical: it organises the author’s own prospect of her self into an illuminating narrative. To make sense of what one has learnt is a responsibility both lovely and grave, and Krissy Kneen has discharged her burden with brave honesty.

August 14, 2007


an essay :

I can’t understand why I didn’t read Absurdistan sooner. Not only does it offer a whirlwind education in all things globally political, but its cover illustration depicts ‘Bad Guys of the East’ as babushka dolls, with the bespectacled, bemused author’s image adorning the tiniest doll, there at the back. Hello! Hilarious cover. Which, apart from being very cute, also conveys exactly the book’s tone.

Eric Campbell’s Absurdistan (not to be confused with the novel of the same name by Gary Shteyngart) is a memoir spanning a decade of his chaotic and enlightening experiences as a foreign correspondent for the ABC. After failing to achieve better than second- or third-place in the race for several foreign positions, and despairing of ever leaving his dead-end current affairs post (where he may or may not have been covering caravan parks in Eastern Victoria), Campbell abandons his preparations for the Russian positions. To his surprise, he is selected and duly sent to Moscow.

Campbell’s light narrative touch engages from the beginning; his bemusement at the bureaucratic idiosyncrasies of travel in Russia is relayed effortlessly but does not trivialise his accounts of the severe humanitarian situation in various territories. For someone who has zero familiarity with the intricacies of international relations, Absurdistan also acts a crash course detailing major conflicts of the past decade. Campbell journeys through Russian, Belarus, China, Afghanistan and Iraq, sometimes with almost as little knowledge as I possess about situations he is supposed to be reporting.

As much as the broad brushstrokes of the political events permeating the areas Campbell covers are essential elements of this book, his knack for meeting and depicting members of the affected societies shapes the stories immeasurably. Whether civilian, military or official, these people tell more about the landscape than stock footage (you’ll never watch the world news the same ways again) ever could. From the leggy feminist chauvinist pigs in Belarus to the ruthlessly effective and paranoid Chinese officials who epitomise the frightening totalitarianism of the People’s Republic, Campbell has met, lived with and “insert verb here” with them all.

The occupation of journalism also puts its foot in the ring. Campbell’s technical and personal struggles are dealt with are dealt with sometimes cursorily, as necessitated by the exigencies of wartime. Campbell resists playing the disengaged superior Westerner as much as his job will allow. By describing the about-face of ex-Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, whose tears as he described the tragedy at Tienanmen Square disappeared when he was interviewed about Sino-Australian relations in the face of the growing economic strength of China, Campbell brings the hypocrisy of the West to bear. He is also subjected to the tyranny of Chinese propaganda; for the sake of his wife and unborn baby he submits to the officials’ expectations that he toe the party line and thus becomes part of China’s false face himself.

I admit my one gripe was Campbell’s propensity for cliffhanger-esque segues between the episodic chapters. His stories drip with dramatic goodness; they don’t need these cheap little flagposts. Still, Campbell seems a likeable, capable, if goofy guy. Absurdistan is a great, well-judged read by a man who loves his job, and can in fact still be seen on the ABC.

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