December 2009

Jessa Crispin


An Interview with Amanda Curtin

My luggage on my return flight from Australia was crammed full of books. It's not often that I binge buy books anymore -- having them just appear magically in my mailbox still gives me a little birthday-like thrill most days -- but in every bookstore I found myself in, there were stacks of Australian authors I had never heard of, and they were just so irresistible.

The first book I pulled out upon returning to Berlin was Amanda Curtin's debut novel, The Sinkings. It's based on the true story of a body found in the 19th century Australian outback, brutally murdered, and identified as a man from the area, only to be found at autopsy to have the sex organs of a woman. I'm a sucker for any sort of gender tweaking, and I dug in. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to find the book contained dense layers. It deals with intersexuality in an intelligent, compassionate, and not at all false way. Then there's the issue of family estrangement, immigration, grief, poverty... all without slipping into sentimentality or letting the story be overwhelmed by the subject matter. It's a powerful, intricate work.

I caught up with Amanda Curtin to talk about The Sinkings and other matters over a series of emails from her home in Australia.

Where did you first hear the story of Little Jock, and what drew you to begin researching it?

I've been fascinated by Little Jock for a long time. I first heard about the story in 1994, when I was editing the introduction to a dictionary called Convicts in Western Australia. One of the coeditors made a chance remark that I would never forget. She told me that of the nearly 10,000 convicts who were transported to the Swan River Colony in the middle of the nineteenth century -- all of whom were supposed to be male -- one might have been a woman.

She was referring to the remains that had been found at the Sinkings in 1882 -- a  dismembered, decapitated, possibly disembowelled body that had initially been identified, at autopsy, as that of a woman. But later, when the head was found and the victim was identified by several Albany residents as Little Jock, a male sandalwood carter and former convict, the surgeon recanted, backpedalled furiously. He said he was mistaken, he’d used wrong measures. When I began to read the documents in the archives, however, it seemed to me that he never was truly convinced that this body was a male.
An early researcher in the 1990s put forward the proposition that perhaps a female convict had ‘slipped through the system’, but others speculated that the victim might have been intersexed -- a "hermaphrodite," to use the nineteenth-century term.

It was a fragment of history that was irresistible to me, and although I didn’t begin my research until much later, I often thought about Little Jock, this sandalwood carter/former convict who might have been a woman. What kind of life would he have had? Where did he come from and what brought him to Swan River Colony as an ‘unwilling emigrant’? Did he have a family? Was he loved? What led to his brutal murder? In 2003, when I began a PhD in Writing, I knew it was time to imagine my way into that enigmatic story and bring it to the page.

How much did you know about intersex before writing the Sinkings?

I knew very little about it, so I immersed myself in the research, looking at intersex from many angles -- medical, personal, ethical, political, historical -- and then trying to imagine my way into it, to find a place for my story. I found myself drawn to the perspective of a parent -- the bewilderment and fear, the dilemma of what to do, how to know what’s best for your precious child. What if I found myself in that position? What would I do? How would I feel? The ‘what if?’ questions gave me a way to begin creating the character Willa.

Was it a struggle to balance the research with the fiction? By which I mean, how did you keep it from sounding like, "Okay, now here is a textbook definition of this medical procedure" and keep the flow of the novel?

Well, it was a struggle to stop researching! Research has its seductions—no doubt about that. But when it came to writing, I don’t think I was overly precious about letting a lot of it go. When you do immerse yourself in a subject, another world, another time, you know so much more than you can ever use in the fiction, so what you choose has to be about what serves the story, what comes plausibly from within the characters, their perceptions, their obsessions. And then there’s how you convey what you know. Because The Sinkings is a novel that incorporates the process of research into the story itself, with one character researching another (and becoming herself seduced by that process), the information Willa is learning about Little Jock could be revealed to the reader at the same time, as though they are sharing in the discovery. But other information about intersex, medical procedures, treatment—that had to be conveyed in a different way, through Willa’s memories, her fears for her daughter, the ever-present imagined conversations between her and Imogen that pick away at her guilt, challenge her motivations. And these two modes of storytelling often converge, because Willa’s research nearly always ends up being refracted through the lens of her preoccupation with Imogen.
I am sorry to make this comparison, but I can't help but think about Eugenides's Middlesex while reading The Sinkings, as they seem to be foils to one another. Eugenides seemed to take a romantic, mythological approach to his book, which caused some controversy in the intersex community, while you took a much more earthy, realistic approach. Did you read Middlesex before you started work on The Sinkings?

When I first heard about Eugenides’s wonderful, inventive novel, I’d been researching full-time for a year, I’d begun writing and I’d already made important creative decisions relating to point of view, the conditions that my two intersexed characters would have ("intersex" being an umbrella term for a range of medical conditions), narrative approach, etc. I confess I was relieved when I found out that Middlesex was so different to mine, in all these respects. It was later that I read the criticisms by some sections of the intersex community—particularly over Eugenides’s use of the term "hermaphrodite," which is considered pejorative today, except of course when intersexed people use it defiantly themselves (an early newsletter of the Intersex Society of North America was called Hermaphrodites with Attitude). (The terminology continues to evolve: recently the term DSD (disorders of sex development) was introduced, particularly in the medical context, but I’ve read arguments for and against it by different groups in the international intersex community.)

Also very interesting was the geneology storyline. My parents are really into that right now, so it rang true to the crazy emails I get from them updating me on my Viking ancestry. Have you or your family delved into that for your own ancestry?

Oh yes, family historians are often delightfully eccentric! At one point in The Sinkings Willa refers to the crazy things people do in the name of their family tree.
One of my mother’s cousins is an extremely experienced genealogist and has traced several branches of our family. My own efforts so far have been minimal and humble but still curiously enthralling. For The Sinkings, of course, my genealogical research (as Willa) centred on Little Jock, and I almost feel now as though he has become part of my family, that I’ve adopted him. Along the way, I spent a lot of time in the library of the local genealogical society and saw first hand the excitements and frustrations of people researching their place in the world. I can appreciate how easily it might become an addiction!
I read somewhere that genealogy is the third most popular hobby worldwide, coming in behind stamp collecting and coin collecting, and I think there’s something endearingly vulnerable, poignantly human, about the way we seem to long for a connection with our antecedents, to know where we’ve come from.For many people, too, it’s an act of generativity, a desire to pass on this link with the past to the next generation.

In your bio, and in one of your answers, you mention getting a PhD in writing. Can you talk a little about learning about writing in a university setting, and then actually going about writing The Sinkings?

The Sinkings was written as the creative component of a PhD in Writing undertaken at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia. I’m not sure I could have written it had it not been for this context, given that it took a full year of research. But it also gave me other benefits. I had a wonderful supervisor, Associate Professor Richard Rossiter -- someone who was there with the work from its inception, knew what I was trying to do, acted as a sounding board for ideas and gave me confidence when I needed it and blunt feedback when I needed that more. I think that having a time-frame in which I was expected to produce the novel also gave me momentum and put positive pressure on me. And the collegial environment, with other postgraduate writers sharing the journey, was supportive and inspiring. All through my studies at university, one of the most productive experiences, for me, was learning from other writers, and I’ve seen this happen with students when I teach writing, too.   

The layering of the stories is actually quite intricate, how you're able to get Little Jock from one country to another, and then jump back to Willa's research, and have the reader still know where everyone is. How did you keep it all straight?

After some trial and a lot of error, I decided to write the historical and contemporary narratives separately. I often tend to think as a writer in shapes and patterns, and I pasted up on my wall a rough crayon sketch that looked a bit like a spine, with nerves branching off from this, arteries and veins circling it. Little Jock’s narrative was the spine, and I wrote that first. I didn’t plot the main narrative — Willa and Imogen’s story — in advance, because that’s not the way I work, but it was creatively stimulating (and, given the complexity, practical) to have the historical narrative there so I could weave the contemporary, with all its threads of past and present, around the spine, embracing it, bouncing off it, holding it together. The stories intersected here and there, but Willa’s research, chronologically, was going in the opposite direction to the historical narrative, as most biographical research tends to do. It reminded me of a quote by Kierkegaard, which eventually became the epigraph for The Sinkings: ‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards’. As well as speaking powerfully to the way Willa was trying to make sense of decisions she had made for her daughter, this seemed also to reflect the way the novel was constructed.

Do you have another work in progress? I'm wondering if it'll be rooted in history as well, or if you're sick of research and want to write about space ships or something next.

Sick of research? Not me. Spaceships? Never! Actually, I shouldn’t say never: strange things often seem to colonise my imagination, and once they do, I’m obsessed.

The past has its hooks in me, and I’m drawn always to what the past brings to bear on the present. My second novel, still a work in progress, begins in the first decade of the twentieth century and reaches back to mythologies and superstitions that inform those times and forward to the consequences borne by later generations. It’s set in north-east Scotland and Western Australia. Perhaps my antecedents are at work here; from the moment I set foot in Scotland I said to myself: Yes, this is where I come from. I’m a third-generation Australian, but still there is this pull.

I’ve just had the great pleasure and privilege of being awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship to work at Hawthornden Retreat for Writers in Scotland in January–February 2010, so I hope to get a lot done in the chilly northern winter.