Uplifting and quietly triumphant: Debra Adelaide launches ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’ by Fiona Place

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother by Fiona Place, Spinifex Press 2019 was launched by Debra Adelaide at The Shop Gallery, Glebe on 3 May 2019

I first saw — though not met — Fiona in the early 1990s at a premier’s literary awards, when her book Cardboard received a prize. At the awards the minister for the arts, Peter Collins, announced that Fiona would not appear to fetch her prize given the sad fact that her mother had just died. However, someone whispered in his ear that Fiona indeed was there to receive her prize, and so she stepped up to the stage.

I remember this tall elegant composed woman, saying something very simple but very moving: that she was here because her mother would have been very proud of this award, and would have wanted her to come along and receive it in person. What struck me — aside from the courage of this woman — was the voice, the dignified, honest voice, of someone in grief but managing to find a way to express that grief without falling into pieces.

That voice is the same one I heard when I read this new book of Fiona’s, this remarkable book, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.

I’ll come back to this voice, but I just want to take another detour into the mists of time. A few years after that literary awards night, I was lucky enough to be able to include Fiona and her story ‘Apocalypse Now’ in my edited collection  Motherlove, published way back in 1996 – so long ago I had to think hard while writing these notes. 1996 was of course also the year Fraser was born. And I know this because I remembered that Fiona and her husband brought baby Fraser, just a few months old, along to the launch of that book.

Motherlove was a collection of stories, fictional and memoir, about giving birth and having babies. Just want to read a passage from Fiona’s story, which comes near the start:

I sat next to my grandmother in the nursing home as I had ny mother in the hospital. In death the two women took on an even more striking resemblance: their faces almost indistinguishable. I held my grandmother’s hand. She’d outlived both her children; her son dying while still a boy – a soldier in the war. Now she could join them. And with the afternoon sun fading, and only the distant sounds of birds to disturb us, I farewelled her.

Darkness was approaching. I packed the few belongings I wanted to keep and thanked the staff. Minutes later, battling with the traffic, I was overcome by an enormous sense of responsibility – with both women  gone it was I, the daughter, who must keep alive the strenght and beauty of their spirits. I accelerated out of the corner and down onto the freeway, the seatbelt hugging my bulging midriff; being a mother, I realised, was now up to me. 

That passage expresses something very important about the story of Fiona’s personal and writing life, a story that is essentially continued here in this new book, written so many years later.

Because this is the story not just of being the mother of someone with a disability, but the story of being a mother full stop. And it’s also the story of being a daughter, a sister, a wife, the story of someone very much connected with what it means to be part of a family, a community.

And, this book is as much about others, about all of us, as it is about Fiona and her son Fraser and her family. It confronts what it means to be human in a social sense and what it means to be perceived as being different in a world that expects conformity, a world that imposes categories, definitions, and labels on everyone who’s judged as not fitting in.

In this book we hear that same voice of dignity and honesty that I mentioned: it’s a clear voice, a confident one, a compassionate one, a courageous one.  A lot of sadness, suffering and grief are confronted here, but this is balanced by love, joy, and clear-eyed examination of a host of issues that we as a society in our constant quest for perfection often prefer to ignore.

Coincidentally, while reading this book I have been watching the ABC’s Employable Me program. Anyone who wants to bash the ABC should take a good hard look at programs like this, which are created on a shoestring budget. Employable Me presents people with disabilities as ordinary people because they are. It presents their voices, their words, their real, exposed, unadorned, ordinary selves. It shows us that the things we take for granted, like having a job, become so tough and challenging for people who do not happen to fit the mould. 

In Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Fiona has represented the ordinary chaotic, unpredictable domestic world that involves juggling work and children.  It is all so familiar, but with the added challenge of having a child and then young man with a disability in the mix. This entire story is told with frankness but never bitterness, and often with great humour. For example, Fiona paints a picture of organising her three boys into and then out of the car to childcare, pre-school and school in the mornings, then back again in the afternoons. In those military-style operations, the exhaustive and exhausting planning involved, the time and motion checks needed, the inbuilt risk factors to accomplish an everyday event, all made me groan and smile at the same time, and I only had to have fractious toddlers to wrangle. 

This book is both a handbook and a memoir. It also covers a great range of topics and is extremely informative without sacrificing its narrative strength and its consistent flow of voice. All through it’s like having an intimate conversation with a hugely informed and sympathetic friend. We are given information on science, eugenics, disability, family life, mothering, parenting, creativity, education, history … the list goes on.

As I said, this is all told with humour, warmth, grace, intelligence and honesty.  Perhaps the greatest achievement of this book is the fact that Fiona manages to argue a case and assert a position with passion and conviction but without even once being polemic, and without lapsing into rancour about the numerous difficulties and the discrimination that she and Fraser and her family have had to endure.

This is a book that is uplifting and quietly triumphant. It is deeply moving to read of Fraser’s achievements, his artistic career, his development into the full personhood he deserves like every one else. In fact, it is a privilege to be given this insight, and we should all be grateful for Fiona for this. 

When, many years ago, my youngest son Callan was bald from chemotherapy, my family and I encountered prejudice and resistance and in one shocking instance, abuse, that, until then, I never imagined could be directed at a child.  

Having experienced this myself, I know that, to produce this story, this book, Fiona has reached deep into herself, into memories that are and will always remain confronting, into some vulnerable, grief- and pain-filled place.  But from first to last page this book is both reasoned and passionate, an argument for embracing difference as normality, for focusing on ability, not disability, and it gives us all a family story that every family can relate to.

In chapter 32  (page 273) Fiona tell us this: “no words. No words that can express the exquisite joy’ …

What then follows details in the simplest yet most effective way, Fraser’s contribution as an artist and his many successes, with lists of his numerous exhibitions and awards and shortlistings, from 2009 to the present day. These few pages  — just a list — actually speak volumes.

And elsewhere Fiona has indeed found the words, and as I said the voice, to tell this story.  I have just one complaint about this book: there are not enough samples of Fraser’s art work! But then perhaps there is an entire other book in this; I hope so.

Congratulations to Fiona, and to Fraser, for this wonderful book. Make sure you buy at least 2 copies because you will definitely want to give one away. 

 – Debra Adelaide


Debra Adelaide is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at UTS where she currently oversees the postgraduate coursework program. She is the author or editor of 17 books including several best-selling anthologies (Motherlove, Motherlove 2) and four novels: these include the critically acclaimed The Household Guide to Dying (2008) and The Women’s Pages (2015). Her two collections of short fiction, Letter to George Clooney and Zebra have also been widely praised. Her research and teaching interests include the culture of reading and the writing life, both reflected in the edited collection The Simple Act of Reading (2015) and in her latest book Innocent Reader (2019). She has been the judge of numerous literary awards and has been shortlisted or longlisted for several herself and is a member of Sydney PEN, an author ambassador for the Sydney Story Factory, and the fiction editor of Southerly, Australia’s oldest literary journal.

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother is available from http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=318/


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