Purple Prose is an anthology comprised of fourteen autobiographical short stories by Australian women writers. The writers use the titular colour as their organising motif but the result is kaleidoscopic: purple evokes Phoenician dye, bruises, purple feathers cloaking pigeons’ throats, the Dockers’ team colour, Krishna’s ‘deep blue, almost purple’ skin, and Impressionist art (p. 132). Each story is keenly self-aware, reflecting on what it means to fictionalise experience, to turn life into a narrative for others to read: ‘Black and white and purple all over,’ Tracy Farr writes, ‘life fuels fiction, the connections impossible to control’ (p. 93). The epigraph from Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which opens the anthology, compares writing to conversation. In the manner of conversation, each author takes the reader into her confidence, communicating the private, the personal, and the previously unspoken (or unspeakable).
Natasha Lester’s ‘Things I Cannot Say’ adroitly walks the line between humourous and heartrending. For Lester, purple evokes a memory of the March sisters on the cover of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Recalling her relationship with her own sister, Lester writes, ‘We played together like Beth and Amy […] We talked about the complexities of the world – was God really everywhere, even in our mouths? – like Jo and Meg […]’ (pp. 12, 13). However, the analogies break down when Lester reveals that her sister was a transgender man, ‘locked in a body she hated’ (p. 15). Secrets and silence replace the easy communication of their childhood. Lester’s brother (once her sister) withdraws from the world and stops speaking. Lester struggles to articulate her grief, and her guilt over her grief, for the sister who no longer exists. ‘I should focus on what I’ve gained, not what I’ve lost,’ Lester writes, but ‘[m]y games were played […] with a ghost-girl who still haunts me’ (p. 20). The story ends with the hope of a ‘renewed relationship’, poignantly invoking the scene in Little Women where Amy falls through cracked ice while skating. (Amy has been fighting with Jo and this scene is a catalyst for their reconciliation.)
Shards of our renewed relationship might break off at any moment. But there is also beauty reflected there, in the possibility of the ice strengthening, of not breaking, of a new world of love forming (p. 21).
Themes of transition and transformation re-emerge in Anne Manne’s ‘Into the Whipstick’ and in Amanda Curtin’s ‘Towards Metamorphosis’. Here the transformation is caused by age. Manne draws a tragic parallel between motherhood and caring for an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s. ‘Old age,’ Manne writes, is a case ‘of growing backwards […] an unravelling, a movement towards unbeing, not becoming’ (p. 48). Curtin, conversely, paints ageing as ‘a process of becoming’. While this process of becoming ‘works both ways’, it ‘need not be only about degeneration and loss’ (pp. 177, 185). Curtin writes with candour and comic self-deprecation. She invokes colours to convey the invisibility of older women (muted pastels and greys) and resistance to that invisibility (red and purple). Of her own experience of ageing, she concludes:
I’m not harbouring an outrageously flamboyant self who longs to break free and fling herself into the purple spotlight […] But nor do I wish to be rendered socially colourless – unseen, obsolete, dismissed (p. 185).
Colour in language becomes colourful language in Toni Jordan’s ‘Blue Meat and Purple Language’. Jordan remembers her mother, whom she calls ‘the princess of profanity, the conquistador of the cuss’, describing her language as ‘technicolour’ in ‘a sea of pale and beige words’ (pp. 37, 44). Reflecting on the opprobrium her mother’s language generated, Jordan considers the gender-based power relations underlying the social taboo against swearing. ‘Who did make up these stupid fucking rules?’ she asks (p. 44). The idea of “ladylike” language is a way of policing how women speak, feel and act: ‘In your box, ladies. Certain words, and the emotions that may or may not lie behind them, like rage or free expression, are not for the likes of you’ (p. 40). Jordan also notes the tendency to view profanity in fiction as a debasement of literary language. She satirises this idea with relish. Analysing a quotation from Shakespeare’s Othello, she writes (perceptively), ‘Iago is being a shit all right […]’ (p. 43).
Liz Byrski’s ‘Maiden Aunts’ and Lucy Dougan’s ‘Mary’ centre around the untold stories of female relatives. Byrski writes of her childhood encounters with her maiden aunt Vi, a chain-smoking bohemian with an ‘extraordinary purple room’ full of oddities (p. 35). The memory of Vi inspires Byrski to uncover the histories of her aunts who were among the two-million “surplus” women left without the prospect of a husband following World War II. Dougan celebrates the matrilineal legacy, both legal and personal, of her great-grandmother, Irish emigrant Mary Coade. Dougan interweaves Mary’s story with her own in a narrative that is fractured, experimental and intensely visual. In ‘Velvet’, Rachel Robertson gives voice to this impulse to discover and record the unspoken histories of women relatives: ‘I wish I had asked [my mother] more when she was younger’ (p. 70). If we neglect to ask about these histories, Robertson warns, all that will remain to us are ‘our own faulty recollections’ and family photographs with their ‘slanted stories’ (p. 70).
The University of Western Australia