Poetry Shelf review: Barbara Else’s Laughing at the Dark

Laughing at the Dark, Barbara Else, Penguin, 2023

     It is a rich, special evening, unexpectedly meaningful. We’re a community of six, nested together by the depth of our experiences, the age we are, the years we’ve lived through, and this particular year 2020 that has clarified what’s important to us: optimism, love, the deep meaning behind the apparently mundane. This is what matters. Our families are safe, for now anyway. We’re sitting in a circle of friends with whom we don’t have to explain ourselves. None of us knows what even the next day might bring to any of us. But tonight we’re here.

from Laughing at the Dark

The threshold of Barbara Else’s memoir, Laughing at the Dark, has me pivoting on notions of dark. Great title! I am skating from imagined childhood dread to personal challenges to the beauty of night to incongruity. When I close the book, having read it over the course of a weekend, I am savouring the final page. It describes an intimate poetry reading on National Poetry Day 2020, a time when public events were prohibited. Barbara is in her “community of six”, reading poems, sharing nibbles and drinks. I step from this exquisite moment into the glaring light and dark of my own world. It resembles stepping from cinema dark into the glaze and blare of a city street.

I loved reading this book, I feel completely wrapped in its unfolding disclosures, the fluent writing, the accumulation of personal connections. It is the first time I have read a memoir where I know some of the people, in this case two daughters, having walked along Te Henga’s black sand talking life with Sarah on many occasions, and having sat in cosy Dunedin cafes with Emma, also talking life. I bring to my reading the way Barbara’s imaginatively dexterous Travelling Restaurant series inspired me as a children’s author. The delight I felt when she was awarded the Margaret Mahy Medal for her services to children’s literature (her novels, her numerous anthologies, her agency and assessment work).

I cannot think of another memoir that has formed such poignant bridges between itself and my own life. There I am, back in a London lounge sitting for weeks and weeks, scarcely able to move, knowing I had to become a writer, and there I am, walking out for good into the dark night, parking under a London streetlamp, the street gleaming wet, every physical detail film-noirish, knowing I could not wait until I had had babies and bought a house with my unfaithful partner. This searing recollection makes Barbara’s narrative all the more acute, her writing fluency bringing me deep into the intimacy of her “dark”.

At a young age, Barbara falls in love, gets married, has babies, is a dutiful wife and follows her husband Jim wherever his medical studies, research and work pull him. This is a memoir of “becoming”, of becoming mother, writer, lover, woman. It is written in the present tense, an intricate and satisfying layering that renders each scene so much more powerfully. To say “she is sleeping” has far more semantic possibilities than the done-and-dusted “she slept”. I move between the present tense of the past and the present tense of the woman writing. She is at her keyboard, reflecting back, retrieving and censuring, highlighting and considering, but she is also facing a serious health issue. She is undergoing radical cancer treatment that leaves her fatigued, with scant appetite and joy in food, plagued with despair. She has shelved her next adult novel, picked up the bare bones of the memoir and, as she can, finds energy and focus to write. I am reminded of Michele Leggott and Sam Neill who have also faced tough cancer treatment and found writing solace in the littlest nooks and crannies, in the potent dark and restoring light. As I do too.

More than anything, the memoir affects me along the intricate threads and resonances of women “becoming”. The women’s lib movement in the 1960s and 1970s re-defined how, what and who a woman might be: in the kitchen and out in the world, perhaps as mother, writer, engineer, politician, doctor, rugby player. Barbara acknowledges Fiona Kidman, poet and fiction writer who debuted as a writer in 1975. Many women, like Barbara, were affected by Fiona’s groundbreaking example; women could write their own subject matter, in styles and plot structures of their own choosing, foregrounding the domestic world, an ordinary world if they chose and, above all, representing the lives and desires of women. It become very clear from this time forward that there was no single model or recipe for rebellion, for being a woman. Barbara’s memoir underlines this notion.

I am reading the memoir caught up in the entwined threads, reminded of the organic nature of being, of the way a state of becoming is alive to movement and possibility, as well as to challenge and self-doubt. Along one thread, it’s a handbook on becoming a writer, not dogmatic but provisional, on negotiating rejections and acceptances, on being both visible and invisible (not having ones’ books on a festival stand!), the thrill of speaking at festivals, the nourishment of doing writing courses, being in a writing group, having friends, peers, mentors and family. You get to follow Barbara’s progress through her choices and her experience of writing in a private unpublished testing-of-the-self setting to existing in the public arena, much awarded, widely published and sold, and notably esteemed.

Barbara’s story touches upon the stories of how many women have undone the shackles of thinking and being defined by men. This is her unique story but it will resonate with many readers. It is a story of rebellion and courage, of listening to one’s inner voice and finding ways to make the interior dream a physical and intellectual reality. It is a story of empathy and connection. I close the book, the intimate poetry reading a perfect image to hold as I make lunch, but I know we are not there yet. We are not yet fully liberated from societal behaviour that has represented and limited woman. I am reflecting back on the thought paths Laughing at the Dark has evoked: personal, literary, thought-prompting, heart-tugging. This is a gift of a book, and I am so grateful to have read it.

Barbara Else is an acclaimed writer and editor. She has written plays, short stories, novels for adults, children’s novels and a non-fiction work, and has edited collections of stories for children. She has held a number of fellowships and residencies: the Victoria University of Wellington’s Writer’s Fellowship 1999; the Creative New Zealand Scholarship in Letters 2004 and the University of Otago College of Education/Creative New Zealand Children’s Writer in Residence 2016. She was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2005. As a literary agent and assessor, she has discovered and mentored a number of emerging New Zealand writers, and helped establish the New Zealand Association of Literary Agents and New Zealand Association of Manuscript Assessors. Her awards for her children’s books include Storylines Notable Book Awards, Honour Awards and the Esther Glen Medal, and she has been internationally recognised at Bologna with a White Raven. She received the Storylines Margaret Mahy Medal (2016) for her services to children’s literature.

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