Why we need to write the exclusion narratives

By Glenice Whitting

Every person has the right to participate equally, to be valued, to be heard; therefore, exclusion narratives need to be revealed and scrutinised. Through these stories, we learn from the past and can shape a better future. They are stories of stereotyping, discrimination and mistreatment, and they come from negative attitudes and beliefs. They tell us the accepted norms of the day and enlighten us regarding the future.

Many stories of exclusion from society have not been written because people, by their very exclusion, often accept their fate. However, many years later these stories still affect those involved. And even now we need to write the excluded stories about people that are missing, have mental health issues, are ageing, have suicided, are veterans of wars; stories about refugees, sexual abuse, marital rape, aboriginal exclusion from mainstream society… The list is endless.

In writing Maggie’s story in Something Missing, I revealed what to Maggie was the norm for her day. When she was nineteen, she ran away to New York with her thirty-five-year-old college professor and spent her life as his researcher, writer and supporter. She never received any recognition or acknowledgement when he published a paper in a scientific journal. He was the front person, recognised for his work on reptiles, while she sharedreflected glory. The higher he achieved success, the more she felt vindicated. However, she always felt a nagging feeling of unrecognition for her many supportive services.

Extract from Something Missing:

The wooden door slams behind Maggie making the garland of red chillies quiver. She can still hear Hank ranting and raving that her research is incomplete, full of mistakes. Like always, she followed his orders to the letter. And once again there will be no recognition of all the time and effort she has put into his research, typing pages and pages of his academic writings

As a society we need to come to terms with life’s difficult situations instead of skipping over them in our writing. By writing about sexual abuse and rape within marriage in novels and short stories, we are opening these previously hidden stories to discussion and action.

Extract from Something Missing:

A year later and six months pregnant, Maggie is having a horror of a day. If Hank’s article is to be published in the next research journal, it must be on the editor’s desk by the end of the week. The bibliography is a nightmare. So many obscure references to check and change. She wonders why he doesn’t keep detailed accounts of the books he reads instead of piling them on his desk. Surely he would know what to do by now. All the footnotes must be verified, and he has dozens of them. How does he expect her to get it done in such a short time? She’s already taken several headache tablets. Time for a break.

Reaching on tiptoe to their kitchen cupboards, obviously designed for a giant, she grapples for a mug. Coffee black and strong will help. Rolling her head around, listening to the grisly cracks of stiff muscle and bone, she doesn’t hear Hank sneak up behind her. His arms around her waist, warm and comforting, until he presses his groin and the hardness she has come to know so well against her buttocks.

‘Not tonight,’ she groans.

`Forget the essay.’ He nuzzles her neck.

‘You have to take more care with your references.’ She tries to push him away. ‘If you’d only follow the Harvard Style—’

‘Have you finished talking, Maggie, or are you going to enlighten me some more?’ She becomes rigid as the words hit home. He presses harder, grinds against her, his arms pinning hers to her side. The more she struggles, the more aroused he becomes.

‘No Hank. Not now.’ Her refusal angers him. Lifting her off her feet, he marches into the bedroom and throws her onto the bed. She struggles, pinned down, his face two inches from hers.

Spit sprays when he shouts, ‘If I want to fuck you, I will.’

Wham. Bam. Not even a thank you, ma’am. Being pregnant is no protection. She could eat an apple while he had her and he wouldn’t care.

 The attitude of the past was not to write about these subjects, but to hide the problems and pretend they didn’t exist. In Something Missing, another excluded narrative I write about is euthanasia. Both Hank and Maggie believe in euthanasia and had agreed long ago that if either of them was mentally impaired, they would suicide together. However, when the time comes, Maggie has second thoughts.

Extract from Something Missing:

1995: Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

‘Come with me. We can go together.’ It sounds as if Hank is inviting her on a holiday, or one of his scientific excursions they so enjoyed. This isn’t a trip. Maggie can see it, has read this ending in so many books. The younger doting wife dying in her elderly husband’s arms. The end. Close the book.

This is not a story with a tidy ending. This is life. To die with him would put an end to her pain, but there is no reincarnation. No Happy Christian afterlife. Dead is dead. Finished. Muerto. One of them a murderer, one a suicide.

Goddammit, she’s fifteen years his junior. Has he forgotten that? Has he forgotten his granddaughter? What about Elizabeth? His death will be enough for her to try and understand without losing both her grandparents. Maggie’s mind whirls in every direction. Stay, go, no. Stay, stay. Stay and be free. Free to live her life how she wants to live. Finally do what she wants to do.

‘You bastard,’ she mutters and suddenly feels guilty. This is not just about him or her. ‘What about Barb? Does she have to lose a mother as well?’

When he finally took his own life rather than suffer the indignity of dementia, she had to prove to the police she had an alibi to ensure that she was innocent of his murder. His death meant that she no longer had him to give her a reason for her existence, so she continued to live a life based on his fame.

She had been Hank’s wife for fifty years and, until she died aged ninety years, she still clung to the memory of his successes to maintain her identity. There are many people in the world like this, who have no recognition of their efforts, and their stories need to be told. The younger generation can learn from reading such stories of exclusion and submission to ensure they don’t follow the same path, or fall into the same trap.

When I wrote my first book, Pickle to Pie, I explored what it was like to be a boy growing up with a great-hearted German Grossmutter and finally becoming a man caught between two worlds. Unbeknown to me, by writing my father’s story of the first child to this family born in Australia to immigrants, I was uncovering my hidden German heritage. During World War II the family name was changed from Schlessinger to Sterling before I was born, and I was told by my extended family who came from Belgian. By writing about my father growing up in Footscray and his midwife Grossmutter, I came to terms with my previously hidden German heritage

The challenging goal of writing these stories is to shift destructive and deeply entrenched social norms that are currently limiting and preventing equal participation in Australian life. If we want current and future generations to have a chance to participate fully in life, it is essential that we adequately address, disclose and write exclusion stories.

It is important to make a world where people of all ages are valued and respected, and their contribution is acknowledged. We must pick up our pens and write about people in excluded situations who have not been able to participate on equal terms with others in all aspects of Australian life.