Maria Papas’s stories and essays have appeared in a number of Australian and international journals including Griffith Review, Axon, The Letters Page, The West Australian, SBS online and Review of Australian Fiction. In 2011 her play Arbour Day won the Maj Monologues competition.
She was previously shortlisted for the T.A.G. Hungerford Award in 2010. She has recently completed a PhD at the University of Western Australia. We asked Maria to tell us a little bit about herself and her work.
Describe your manuscript in your own words.
My manuscript, I Belong to the Lake, explores what it is like to witness a serious and frightening illness in a loved one. More specifically, this novel, written in first person, is an investigation of the difficult subject of childhood leukaemia, especially as it relates to the interactions, guilts and empathies between healthy and sick siblings over time. Told in a recursive fashion, the narrative centres on Grace as she witnesses her sister Emma’s illness, her parents’ struggles, and the displacement and separation of family throughout and beyond Emma’s treatment. In adulthood, Grace (now a paediatric oncology nurse) ends up re-suffering a childhood trauma in response to a present emergency and comes to a crossroad. Will she keep ignoring this past and continue to allow it to replicate in her life, her relationships and other choices, or will she finally learn to recognise the full complexities – irresolute, belated and folded – of what she and her sister have been through?
What inspired you to write it?
I wished specifically to write about paediatric cancer, and I wanted to do so in a way that honoured the fragmented and often disorientating nature in which such an experience is lived and likely processed. In literature, cinema and other media products, I often see cancer represented as a disruption to a character’s norm, as some kind of trouble that must be overcome, or an event that tends to push a character towards a deeper meaning or purpose. I find it hard to comprehend such a neat trajectory, and my aim, writing this book, was to more fully explore an illness like this – especially in a child – not as a plot point, but rather as something that affects individuals in unique ways. What happens to siblings, for example? How does one retain a sense of wonder even in the midst of such heavy hospital treatment? Can families impacted ever leave the shock or trauma behind? These are the questions that kept me going as I wrote, and the questions I hoped to explore.
How long have you been working on it?
How long is a long time? Most of the novel was written between 2013 and 2017, but because it formed part of a PhD thesis, I also spent several non-writing years researching the structures by which narratives of trauma and illness are most commonly told. Between this research and the two modes of academic writing – creative and analytical – I spent nearly eight years trying to understand for myself how it was that I wanted to represent and structure this experience.
What does it mean to you to make the shortlist of the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Awards?
When you write a book, you commit yourself to continual learning and problem-solving process, and you must persevere even when you feel like it might be simpler to give up. No-one completes a book without some sense of discipline and resilience. I teach in secondary and tertiary environments, and I’d love to share this message – yes, work hard, keep learning and persisting – with my students, regardless of whether they are in year seven or at uni.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I am propped up by so many wonderful people – teachers over time, mentors, my family members, my friends (especially those in my writers’ group), the judges of this competition, all the Hungerford partners etc – that it feels appropriate to use this space to say a small ‘thank you’. If I am expressing gratitude, then I ought to add that I completed this manuscript at UWA in the context of a PhD, and as such, I also want to pay my respects to Whadjuk Elders for the privilege of learning on the Noongar Boodjar that UWA is built upon. The manuscript took inspiration from various locations around WA including that of the old Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH) and more regionally, Yalgorup National Park. This said, I want to acknowledge the work that paediatric professionals do to support children and families through difficult illnesses such as cancer; the children who have at one time or another called PMH home; and finally the Bindjareb Elders for maintaining, for thousands of years, the Yalgorup lake systems which provided me with the peace and sense of place I needed to begin this novel.
Extract from I Belong to the Lake
For a long time, we were just friends. That’s what we were. But then one thing happened, and then another, and then before I knew it, he was at my door, ringing the bell whilst slipping his wedding ring into the bottom of the grey satchel he always carried. It would stop me in my tracks, the action of him pulling at his finger and then fumbling with the bag – me on one side of the door, and him on the other, both clear as day and obscured through the frosted glass – and yet I would let him in, the bag rattling with keys and coins and that one piece of gold, and as we made our way through my house, I would simply take the bag, put it in the hallway closet, and pretend it didn’t exist.
Nate knew cancer like I knew cancer. We were both from cancer. We shared it like a password between travellers in a foreign country. Or that moment in a crowd when someone says something or another and they carry just the right inflection, an accent you recognise, the sound of home. That’s what it was like between him and me. He knew where I had come from. He remembered having first spoken to me, not at the lake like I had thought, but caught in the harsh light of a hospital waiting room all those years ago. In other circumstances, he might have been in my class at school – just as easily the boy who won all the cross-country races as the one who hid cigarettes beneath the railing of the drinks trough. He could have been anyone with any skill whatsoever – a maths whiz, a budding scientist, a bookworm – but at the lake where I first came to know him and at hospital where he insisted he met me, we were made the same, without distinction. Mine, Nate said, was a hollow face that would scan and forget him just as quickly as I took him in; it was a cloudy face, reminiscent of the face he also once wore.
Nate knew the patterns on the linoleum floor in the hospital as if they were landmarks in his hometown. He memorised the dinner menu, the nurses’ names, the medicines which were fed through clear plastic tubes, the channels on the televisions above. We were extras, he and I, but also fixtures. We stood on the other side of closed green doors, in corners of busy rooms and at the edges of small porcelain basins where we diligently scrubbed antibacterial gel onto our palms and over our fingers until the skin on our knuckles began to crack. All the while, we watched our siblings – what they were going through, where they were hurting, and how their throats seemed made of the same tiny rips and tears and broken lines that had appeared on our skin. We poured more of the gel on, kept quiet, and washed and washed and washed, both of us, him with David, and me with Emma, washing our hands, occupying those old halls like the peeling plaster that often fell in flakes to the floor, scrubbing back, scrubbing until it stung. Nate stopped touching the bin, the elevator buttons, toilet doors, toilet seats. We were the siblings, the sidelines, farmed out and left behind, old enough to fend for ourselves, too young to understand.
I was thirteen then, and Emma was four. Nate was my age, but his brother was older, sixteen, and supposedly stronger. We were ‘we’. After I found him again, when I was with him, when we lay together in bed, when we whispered and listened to each other speak and not speak, we were ‘we’. We understood. We heard. We knew.
And then, when he inevitably returned to his wife, I became ‘I’ once more. On Friday evening, I stood in my front courtyard with my hands wrapped around that same old china cup. Neighbours that had been out had since gone back inside, facades glowed, and streetlights that had long shielded and given me hope, lit the darkness in the same way as they always did, but this time they also dimmed the sky above, making it hard to see the stars. Along Lake Clifton, where I had come from, the Southern Cross, the Pointers, and Orion’s Belt would have likely been bright pinholes of torchlight behind a heavy blanket. Years had passed since my sister fell ill. Seasons had cycled. It was November again. The leaves were shadowy on the trees again, and the peppermints and bottlebrushes were in bloom. Pollen was heavy in the air.
The winner of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award will be announced at Fremantle Arts Centre on Thursday 22 October. Tickets are free but places are limited so RSVP soon.