The Abyssinian Contortionist by David Carlin, UWA Publishing 2015, was launched by Cate Kennedy in Melbourne on 12 March at The Melba Spiegeltent:
Background: Sosina Wogayehu learnt to do flips and splits at the age of six, sitting in her parents’ lounge room in Addis Ababa. Twenty-five years later, Sosina has conjured herself a new life in Australia as a professional contortionist and circus performer. Sosina is able to juggle worlds and stories, and by luck she has a friend, David Carlin, who is a writer.
Good evening! And thanks for this invitation to launch The Abyssinian Contortionist.
I have been reading, besides David’s book, a textbook by Lee Gutkind about writing creative non-fiction, called: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up! In it he says:
The words “creative” and “nonﬁction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques ﬁction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonﬁction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonﬁction stories read like ﬁction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.
The word “creative” has been criticised in this context because some people have maintained that being creative means that you pretend or exaggerate or make up facts and embellish details. This is completely incorrect. It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time.
“Creative” doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonﬁction: “You can’t make this stuff up!”
This thought certainly stayed with me as I read The Abyssinian Contortionist. Even its title seems absolutely unimprovable. It’s been a big life so far, Sosina, and I have a feeling it’s nowhere near close to slowing down yet. I’ve been thinking too about creative non-fiction and how it relates to a story like this, part biography, part cultural meditation, part simply following a charismatic friend around, recording how she and the world interact.
I have a question that dogs me about writing generally, in fact it’s a question I find one of the thorniest when thinking about ‘making art’ of any kind, whether it’s literature or painting or circus. And that is, what’s it for? What are you doing this thing for – to express what? To convey what? To change what? What is the point of creating narrative in the first place? What is the USE of it? One thing I do know about making something, it’s not to hide in the desk drawer. It’s to connect somehow with other human beings.
It’s something made, and made for a reason – to offer a version of events, in this marvellous and terrible world, which can serve the purpose of revealing or illuminating. I like George Saunders’ definition of a good story – that you come out of it a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.
In his book Crossing Open Ground, the writer Barry Lopez talks about how storytellers establish trust, and I love this, too, and keep coming back to it, because trust seems more than anything to be the key which turns the lock between two people, a reader and a writer. He says: “The power of narrative to nurture and heal, to repair a spirit in disarray, rests on two things: the skilful invocation of unimpeachable sources and a listener’s knowledge that no subterfuge or hypocrisy is involved.”
Unimpeachable sources, and no lying. So it seems to me that if we’re going to write a true story like this one, a story that gives us such a fascinating glimpse into a life and a spirit, a culture and a time, we need a writer prepared to follow the integrity of that true story wherever it leads, even if that’s into self-confrontation or conflicted feelings, or even if it’s right outside the author’s comfort zone and in reporting on it, he or she doesn’t come off looking like the wisest or cleverest or most objective of reporters. In fact, something strange and wonderful happens, in this pursuit of honouring the source and avoiding hypocrisy – the opposite seems to happen, and that makes the story. Subjectivity. But honest and humble subjectivity, not afraid to bare its heart. This reporter is our envoy now, taking us by the hand and saying look, what do you make of this, doesn’t this just break your heart? Doesn’t this woman I’m accompanying here just take your breath away? It’s not that David is effaced or invisible or full of false modesty (which is probably just a more cunning manifestation of ego anyway), it’s that he’s the kind of travelling companion you’d want: noticing every small and telling thing, choosing the ones that matter, showing what true thing happens next in all its unimpeachable authority. When you’re a kind and compassionate and thoughtful person, like he is, there doesn’t have to be a pretence at expertise or a constant elbowing, intruding persona. All that falls away and there’s the story, the one you absolutely couldn’t invent, and without subterfuge, told in a gentle and familiar voice. It’s held up with insight. The other thing that expertise won’t buy you.
And you’ve got to love a book whose first chapter opens : “So this is sort of how it happened.”
Later in the book we read:
Circus is a realm unto itself of distinct acts and apparatus. Some tricks are cheap sleights of hand while others are rare and precious, only acquired after countless hours of hard and often dangerous work. The secret art of circus, those adept will tell you, is to never let the audience know precisely which is which. They work at making the easy ones look difficult and the difficult ones look easy. I fell into directing circus only for a few years, sideways from directing theatre. The only circus I ever directed, actually, was Circus Oz, and in my case that was enough….In truth, I love Circus Oz. Circus Oz embodies – very much on purpose but somehow by accident as well – many of the finer attributes of the Australian soul: a breezy openness, a rude sophistication, a faux-slapdash wit and grandeur. (Australians try very hard at appearing not to try too hard at anything we do.)
This is the best thing about circus: it attracts and (generally) accommodates all sorts. The most buttoned-up springy gymnasts. Tattooed freaks from good families who have dedicated their youth to ingesting swords and gargling fire. Ascetic vegan devotees committed to the Zen of pole-climbing or the Tao of teeter-board. Fluky kids from the bush who otherwise would be fixing cars or mowing lawns instead of hopping across a tightwire in a tutu. Divas, lost souls. Melancholics. An Abyssinian contortionist, aficionado of the bouncing juggle; and however briefly, a pasty white boy whose best Big Top skill was bluff and the weathering of egos: Sosina and me.
Only bluff and the weathering of egos, David? I don’t buy it. Maybe writing creative non-fiction/biography/essay hybrid stories makes you the plate-spinner, keeping all those individual units of narrative spinning while teasing us with some light careless banter, one hand resting calmly on a new pile of plates. But I’ve been thinking…no. In this book at least, you are the ringmaster. But a certain kind of ringmaster.
Up near where I live in north east Victoria there is a surviving old-style family circus called Perry Brothers Circus. You can drive past their farm in the King Valley and see a couple of camels grazing in the front paddock and out the back, the surviving elephant. The elephant doesn’t actually do anything in the show – he’s just there for display, brought out of retirement, a vestige of the old glory days when circuses like Perry Brothers traipsed the country, travelling from town to town. The kind of circus you’d run away to join. I recall Mrs Perry telling me once that they drove the circus up into Far North Queensland once and swam the animals across rivers because they couldn’t afford vehicles to transport them, and at one river one of the performing horses got taken by a crocodile. (See? You couldn’t make this stuff up.) Anyway, Perry Brothers circus is a classic. The ringmaster is the guy who’s sold you the tickets and the uncle of the boy who’s sold you your popcorn. He’s the husband of the woman who does the whipcracking and the nephew himself, I think, of Mrs Perry who manages the performing chihuahuas as they go up and down their slides and seesaws. He’s the one who makes sure the generator’s running, puts an ad in the paper before the circus comes to town asking local farming families if they’ll donate a bale of hay for his animals while the circus is in town. No doubt he also stacks the chairs and takes the little big top up and down too. Then in the middle of the show he comes out for his own stint, as a clown who can’t get his bike to stay together. He’s comically frustrated every time something falls off, then rejigs the bike and gets back on and rides around holding it together, stopping again when it falls apart and putting it back together in ever more outlandish configurations, until it’s not so much a bike as a collection of junk on one wheel, and the ringmaster/clown takes a running jump and climbs it and rides that too, with sudden joyful aplomb, and you just can’t help but applaud wildly, because this is how clowns hide their skill, isn’t it, making you concentrate on the unlikely momentum of a joke-bike held together in pieces but which turns out to be cunningly built after all, a testament to wheels and balance and someone incredibly skilled at making it look easy.
I love how you announce this narrative and then step back and give the show to Sosi, David. I love the way you follow her, her loyal friend more than anything else, and let her tumultuous tumbling life take over and tell itself. A book like this shows that it is possible to be honest and straightforward and yet creative and artful at the same time. It’s not always evident from the audience’s seats, but it takes a lot of time and attention to make something appear seamless and effortless.
Not sleight of hand – no hypocrisy or subterfuge – but some other more generous spirit, up in the back row somewhere, is focussed on training the spotlight so we know what to pay attention to.
Like all good stories, this one tells a bigger story, one packed inside like a magic trick inside a sleeve. This is a book about one amazing woman – and we are so lucky to have you, Sosi, something I would never have been fully aware of until I read David’s book – but it’s also about culture, difference, talent, sorrow, persistence, exploitation and a sort of glowing, uncrushable endurance.
It’s a testament to you, Sosina, the contortionist from Abyssinia, but in launching this book I also want to acknowledge the invisible conjuring which allows me, and every reader of this lovely book, to feel for you. To feel admiration, and empathy, and awe, and affection for you, as if we actually know you and have travelled along this path with you. To be moved by your life and your story. All of this sense of friendship and recognition and insight has been conjured by your friend and biographer David Carlin, and we share it through him. All we have to do is read it. It’s a quiet kind of skill compared to others under the big top, but no less memorable for that. I’m honoured to be launching it tonight at the Speigeltent, and on with the show.
Cate Kennedy is an award-winning author who lives in regional Victoria. Her novel, The World Beneath, won the NSW Premier’s People People’s Choice Award in 2010, and her short story collection, Dark Roots (2006), was shortlisted for both the Steele Rudd Award and the Australian Literary Society God Medal. Further, her poetry collection The Taste of River Water won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award CJ Dennis Prize for Poetry 2011. Her most recent collection, Like a House on Fire (2012) went on to win the Steele Rudd Award in the Queensland Literary Awards.
The Abyssinian Contortionist is available from http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/collections/new-releases/products/the-abyssinian-contortionist-hope-friendship-and-other-circus-acts
Rochford Street Review has the The Abyssinian Contortionist available for review. Please contact us if you are interested https://rochfordstreetreview.com/about-rochford-street-review/contact-rochford-street-review/