The mother who writes, and the writer who mothers
18th October 2014
I wrote this guest blog post for Bree at 1girl2manybooks but then I really liked it and wanted to publish it here too. It’s about being a mother who writes, which can often be a contradictory dual identity, but in the case of Nona & Me mothering had some quite sweet parallels to the story I was writing.
As a brief aside, for any creative mother who has grappled with the fact that creative endeavours such as art and writing draw from the same well as mothering, I highly recommend The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood by Rachel Power and a documentary called Lost In Living by Mary Trunk – you can watch the trailer here.
Anyway, more on that another time. For now, here’s the blog post:
The mother who writes, and the writer who mothers.
Many authors say that writing a book is like giving birth. In the case of Nona & Me this was more literally the case than usual. The idea for the novel was conceived just months before I conceived my third child, and most of the writing was done while I was pregnant. My due date provided an unmovable deadline for the first draft. I was racing the bump and I won by an extremely slim margin: I finished the draft on a Thursday, printed it out to give to community members for feedback on Friday, and went into labour on Saturday.
I had a girl and we called her Nina, after Nina Simone. Funnily enough we didn’t even think of the similarity to ‘Nona’ until weeks later, when I started getting feedback on my first draft. The story is set in the remote Aboriginal community of Yirrkala, where I was living at the time. I felt it was important to get feedback from people who had lived and grown up there. I also worked with a fantastic Yolngu woman and teacher, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr Stubbs, to ensure the material was culturally correct. I took my newborn baby Nina with me to these feedback meetings, balancing her on my lap or laying her down to sleep on a mattress while we talked. Nina’s days growing inside me may have been filled with the tap of fingers on keyboard, but her early days in the world were very much about human connection.
Those first-draft conversations centred on how to make the friendship between Nona and Rosie, and their two families, stronger. The bones of it were there, but it needed more detail and love to flesh it out. I had talked to many people for research during the writing process, but now I was looking for something specific: I wanted to talk to mothers with children who had grown up in Yirrkala, to learn what that friendship felt like from the inside. I was lucky: friends put me in touch with a Ngapaki (non-Aboriginal) lady who raised her children in Yirrkala in the nineties. She was no longer living there, but I spoke with her for hours on the phone. She was generous with her time and open about her experiences: her family’s life had been very much intertwined with that of a Yolngu (Aboriginal from east Arnhem Land) family. The Yolngu mother had become one of her best friends. They had fished, cooked, laughed and cried together. Their children grew up as siblings, with the community their extended family. It was Rosie and Nona’s mothers’ story in real life. Hearing about this manifestation of the ideal of it ‘taking a village to raise a child’ brought tears to my eyes.
The second draft was a lot stronger. I rewrote while Nina slept: a few hours in the morning, a few in the afternoon. I submitted it to my publisher, Black Inc, and luckily they loved it. The editing process was gentle and supportive, like a mother cooing to her child, wanting only the best for its life. And now, two years after Nona & Me was first conceived, the book is making its way out into the world. And I feel anxious and excited because, even if it isn’t perfect, it is my baby. I can only hope readers love and cherish it as much as I have.