Extinctions by Josephine Wilson was launched at The Grove Library by Lucy Dougan, poet and judge of the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.
Hello, it’s fantastic to be here on such a celebratory occasion. I’d like to acknowledge that we’re standing on the land of the Wadjuk people of the Noongar nation and to pay my respects to their elders past and present.
Family, friends colleagues and students of Josephine’s, I hope in what follows I can truly communicate to you just what a privilege it is to be standing here tonight to launch Extinctions. This book is precious to me because I’ve known Josephine (Jo) for a long time now (I think we first met on the phone at Varuna sometime in the early 2000s) and I’ve witnessed her commitment to her writing life – to life in general – and especially her family life, and I’ve also had the absolute privilege of her writerly and sisterly solidarity, and the privilege of being half of our poetry Bobbsey-Twins act at Curtin for this last year. Extinctions is doubly precious to me because it is the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Dorothy was (and remains) my beloved aunt, and if ever a writer knew what it was to juggle home life, writing and working life it was her, and if ever a writer understood both the strength and fragility of family life – sustaining that through a life lived large – then it was her too. For both those reasons - and for the moral beauty and braveness of Jo’s book – to my mind she is the ideal inaugural winner of the Hewett prize and Extinctions embodies the spirit of Dorothy’s memory perfectly. If Dorothy were still around today she would have been absolutely thrilled. Before I talk a little more about Josephine as a practitioner, as an artist, and also about the sentimental education of her curmudgeonly and yet ultimately loveable creation of Frederick Lothian (concrete engineer and soft shell structure expert) I want to say a great big brava to Terri-ann White for a number of things: for reviving UWAP so stylishly; for her unstinting support of literature produced here – and that is something not short-sighted but acknowledges the past, as in the Hewett award (the Stow bio is another lovely examples – one could go on). I want to thank her personally for honouring Dorothy’s work and memory in the sometimes stony face of that one time boys-club also known as UWA, and I want to extend that thanks also to Kate Pickard and Charlotte Guest at the press for being such a committed team. So, brava team UWAP.
But now for our woman of the moment: Josephine has had a distinguished and diverse career in the arts and one of the pure joys, I think, of Extinctions, is the many ways in which is synthesizes so many of her talents and areas of knowledge and interest…areas of brilliance. Jo’s first novel Cusp was also published by UWAP in 2005. Jo holds a PhD from UWA – Extinctions was an outcome of that achievement. She’s also written for performance, worked as a dramaturge, as an independent curator and arts writer, and has received significant accolades for her poetry. Along with these achievements and attainments Josephine has had a long and devoted commitment to the arts here and nationally, serving as a peer on panels for DCA and the Australia Council, as well as sitting on the Board of PICA. Many of you here will also know that Jo is a gifted and dedicated teacher in the tertiary sector, and that that sector is not always the easiest for a writer to be in – in fact they can take a bit of a buffeting in that sector. I look at her with great admiration always, and sometimes wonder how she holds all of these balls in the air up at once. But she does, and when I ever have a moan to her (which can be quite often – poor her) she says “but we’re having a good time aren’t we!” Which always give me hope and courage. I think of her as a courageous spirit in all the different roles and aspects of her life.
Turning to Extinctions, our book for much more than the moment. I was recently on a panel and asked what literature moved me, what had perhaps brought tears. Answering that, the thing that occurred to me most is it’s not books that have made me cry that sprung to mind but books that made me both cry and laugh, and I would now add Extinctions to this list. This is not an easy thing for a novelist to achieve, and when the style, the tone, the characterisation, the plotting, the whole tenor of the book, allows both those things happen, then you know as a reader that you are onto a rare and good thing. Trust me when I say, as I’ve read this book three times now, that it has a genuinely cathartic action – also rare and hard to achieve. Jo, as an artist marries a whippet intellect and erudition (worn lightly, might I add) with a profound emotional intelligence. The marriage of these gifts is in abundance here.
What is it that we want a novel to do? I think we want it to be about big ideas. I think we want it to ask deeply difficult human questions. I think we want it to speak to now and, I think we want – and maybe without really understanding why or how, at least on an initial read, for the very form to somehow also be telling the story. I really can’t begin to tell all the elegant ways in which Jo achieves this in Extinctions but she does it from page one. This novel has the most beautiful and again lightly worn fugue-like structure: it has leitmotifs (such as the phrase ‘I have enough’ which recurs and with a meaning that deepens with which reiteration). It’s a profound and sustained allegory about bearing the stresses and strains of life beyond theory and learning, It’s a reckoning of the present with the past. Sometimes we almost sense that the free indirect speech of the central character, Fred, sits effortlessly between those two orders – the past and the present. It’s reminiscent of Bergman in this way and it’d be true to say that Jo wields the vision of an auteur. In this reckoning between past and present lies (not only for Fred but for all the central characters) a path towards redemptions, not the easiest of redemptions and not the most solid but tantalisingly there as a possibility. And perhaps most of all it’s a meditation on how art can become both beautiful and useful beyond the scope of the ways in which we’ve been lead to think about that conventionally. What is it that makes something beautiful truly useful and not just a thing to collect or a status symbol? How is a knowledge of beauty useful? The plot bears this and bears it out with the greatest dexterity (and also with a very clever comic logic. I’m convinced in another life this woman could write situation comedy, and maybe she just will, even in this life, if there’s a Breuer chair in the first act then they’d better be etc or …). There is so much more I could say about this novel, especially the ways in which it reflects so tenderly and intelligently on the complex territories of adoption and its sensitive consideration of the Stolen Generation. I love especially that it blows to smithereens the myth of old age as something serene but makes it as complex, crazy and difficult as any life stage. That’s a very great gift to the reader. Jo, I absolutely salute you for this gorgeous book and its dazzling cultural coordinates that span for ET to Bach and well beyond, its cleverly embedded images and most of all its compassion for human frailty, and its robust love of language. And congratulations to the Hill-Wilson combo for everything they do with such grace. I declare Extinctions launched at the Grove Library on this Wed the 26th of Oct, and I agree completely, one should always get up to help cut up the capsicums.