Laura Pettenuzzo reviews Open Secrets Ed. Catriona Menzies-Pike
Ed. Catriona Menzies-Pike
Reviewed by LAURA PETTENUZO
As both a reader and writer, I was eager to dive into Open Secrets, to immerse myself in the wisdom of those with far more literary experience. As a disabled writer still shielding from COVID-19 and knowing that many of these pieces were written at the height of nation-wide restrictions, I was curious to see how (or if), the authors would engage with the impact of the pandemic. I came away from Open Secrets feeling simultaneously impressed, soothed and challenged. The multiplicity of my reaction affirmed the cohesiveness of the collection.
There’s no magical thinking here, no waxing lyrical about the elusive muse and the passion that more than makes up for the lack of recognition or remuneration awarded to writers in so-called Australia. This is a collection that boldly confronts the realities of the writing life, particularly during a pandemic: the challenge of making ends meet, the additional pressures for those living on the intersections of marginalized identities and despite it all, a commitment to the written word.
Open Secrets asserts the imperative to address the lack of recognition and compensation for writers in so-called Australia. As Catriona Menzies-Pike notes in the introduction, we live in a world that “measures value in dollars and widgets and accords so little to literature”. Fiona Kelly McGregor’s ‘Acts of Avoidance’ lists the pay rates for the publications she’s written for in the last few years and adds that, disappointingly, “these rates have remained the same since 2017.” In ‘Award Rate’ Laura Elizabeth Wollett recounts being shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (PLA). In an imagined acceptance speech, she says, “Thanks for the money. It’s a lot. I wish there was more to go around”. Despite her simple aspiration “to live and write,” Woollett doubts her ability to write if she wins the PLA, asking her husband, “What if I get so comfortable, I stop trying?” Her fears are echoed by other contributors, for different reasons.
No excavation of the writing life would be complete without a focus on imposter syndrome, which Open Secrets tackles with a frankness and vulnerability that called out to my own sense of writerly inadequacy. While Elena Savage Lisa Fuller’s ‘Fight or Flight’ confronts “the horrors of the blank screen” and the “urge to run” that it evokes. It is both heartening and disappointing that success does not dispel the “dark passenger,” as Fuller calls her disparaging self-talk. There are few Australian authors who have known as much success as Fuller in recent years, yet she describes being gripped by “absolute terror.” Receiving an email from a student wrestling with similar doubts, Fuller tells them, “The only way through is never to stop writing or learning.” ‘Fight or Flight’ was written as Fuller was “trapped inside [her] house,” during lockdowns, an experience that stifled some writers and galvanized others.
Several essays in Open Secrets explored the experience of writing (or attempting to write) amidst a global pandemic. For instance, Suneeta Peres da Costa described her mother visiting her unmasked, proclaiming, “COVID-19 is not contagious!” Throughout De Costa’s piece is the refrain, “I’m supposed to be writing this essay on technology,” even as she describes all the activities she does which are not writing. Peres da Costa captured the universal struggle of the literary craft, which, for some, was exacerbated by lockdowns: the way it seems we sometimes have to grapple with ourselves to simply sit down and do the work. She masterfully evoked the sense of futility of that work given all that was unfolding in the world, wondering if it “will matter even less now than any time before, given relative prospects of dying from an incurable virus”. But it was Fiona Wright’s piece, ‘On Being A Precedent’ with which I related most, which explicitly and bravely illuminated the ableism inherent in so much of the pandemic response and the writing life. Wright rejected the notion of a “new normal” because its precursor (normal) is so often “something that rejects us regardless of whether or not (and consciously or not) we mould ourselves to fit”. For Wright, and for many disabled people, the pandemic and restrictions brought a rare and unfamiliar sense of alignment with the able-bodied world, as well as opportunities to work and socialize that had previously been deemed impossible. Wright’s piece concludes with her defeated observation that she can only “watch on as wider society refuses to adapt for people like me, or to change”. The world, Wright noted, is vastly inaccessible to those of us with disability, as is much of literature.
The complexity of prose and ideas in some of the essays, ironically, mean that it is only accessible to a well-educated and/or highly literate audience. Writing, however, does not have to be intricate to the point of inaccessibility to be beautiful, engaging, and successful. I imagine this collection may have had a wider potential audience if it approached some of its ideas in a way with which readers with varying levels of literacy and/or education could more easily engage.
Open Secrets is not so much a celebration of the writing life as it is a collective, frustrated lament at the economic uncertainty with which creatives in this country must live, the impact of the ongoing pandemic and the long and often arduous and emotionally fraught writing process. And yet, each of the writers continue to sit down at their desk, at a table in their local café, in a park, pouring words onto a page or a screen. They believe, as one day I hope we all will, that literature and humanities mean “having a natural interest in the true, beautiful and the good,” which is worth all the rest.
LAURA PETTENUZZO (she/her) is a disabled writer living on Wurundjeri country. She has a Masters in Professional Psychology and writes Plain and Easy English for various organisations. Her words have appeared in SBS and The Age. Laura is also a member of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council.