Victoria Nugent reviews Blueberries by Ellena Savage
by Ellena Savage
Reviewed by VICTORIA NUGENT
Memoir, poetry, probing essay-style musings and competing inner voices exist side-by-side in Ellena Savage’s Blueberries, a bold and incisive collection of experimental non-fiction.
While Blueberries is Savage’s debut essay collection, she has been widely published, with her works appearing in literary journals, daily publications and various collections. Many of Blueberries’ offerings have appeared in various publications previously, in differing forms and have now been stitched together to form a well-flowing collection that explores big topics like class, colonialism, feminism, reproductive rights, sex and trauma.
In her sharp and intimate prose Savage’s essays probe into what it means to be a woman, a feminist, a writer, a modern Australian and a product of a colonial society. While she never shies away from important issues, Savage imbues her work with a warmth and expressiveness that adds levity when needed.
Keystone work, “Yellow City”, which was last year published in chapbook form, kicks off the collection strongly, taking the form of diary entries tracing Savage’s steps through Lisbon in 2017, a city that she has returned after being a victim of a sex crime there some 11 years earlier. “Yellow City” is haunted by that past incident and by questions about the reliability of memory.
“—‘My first memory.’
—Is buttressed by recalling it.
—‘My first memory.’ A fiction fixed to the linear self.” (8)
Savage lays herself bare in this piece, scraping back the layers to show how the trauma had shaped her in the intervening years since the “encounter during which my flesh remembered the possibility of a violent death. When my body understood for a second that corpses are dismembered to cover-up crimes.” (6)
The second essay, the titular “Blueberries”, explores the learnings that Savage takes from an elite writing workshop she attends the USA, delving into questions of privilege, gender, what it means to be a woman and a writer and what associated obstacles come with those two roles.
The essay had a cadence all of its own, coming back to the phrase “I was in America at a very expensive writers’ workshop” (41) or variations of it to drive home each new stanza. Dropped commas make the prose flow with a heightened sense of urgency, a sort of feverish enthusiasm that somehow sounds more like the dialogue might have with an impassioned friend, eager to convey the import of the issue weighing upon their mind.
The intersection between gender and the creation of art is a key theme of the work, with Savage delving into the role gender played in the dynamics of the workshop and how that mirrored inequality between the sexes in wider society and in the arts.
In many ways, Blueberries could be seen as modern day response to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, delving into these inequalities, even while acknowledging the “thud of guilt knowing that someone, like, I don’t know, my own mother, would have wrung her neck to have been given the opportunity to attend her art’s version of the workshop I was at;” (57)
Savage’s musings hold an echo of Woolf’s own thoughts on women writers, brought into a modern era. Woolf wrote that “it would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?” (Woolf, 87). I found echoes of Woolf’s frustration in Savage’s own thoughts on the writers’ workshop, where she “was disappointed not for the first time that ‘excellence’ was turning out to be mediocrity dressed up in money and maybe masculinity too, not the masculinity that is visible to us, brawny and street-smart, but real masculinity, which is reedy and tepid and well read and invisible.(42)
The piece also touches upon class and race but only in a relatively minor way. Savage recognises her privilege, pondering on the “kind of class mobility that I have because maybe my race is my class now” (45) and at the same notes that women writers made up “ninety per cent of the cohort, and most of them white” (54). Despite this acknowledgement though, white feminism remains the predominant lens for Savage’s analysis.
“Then one day me and my friend were at a big gallery and I looked at a wall of photographs of famous European artists, artists whose faces you’d recognise as those of famous European artists, and for some reason I saw it all at once laid out and the only thing I could say was ‘Where are all the women artists’, like I had only just noticed, which could as easily have been where are all the Aboriginal artists where are all the trans artists where are all the Asian artists, except that we’re talking about a group that constitutes fifty per cent of any otherwise marginalised population and any privileged one too.” (53)
This quote signifies (intentionally or not) that despite Savage engaging with ideas about how race might factor into marginalisation, her chief concern regarding representation still remains how much recognition women might receive in artistic spheres. With her argument about women constituting 50 per cent of the population, Savage subtly indicates a belief that the representation of female artists is of more important than that of the other groups she mentions. Women’s issues are thus given prominence over issues facing Asian and Aboriginal artists. Savage’s analysis stops short of unpacking how women of colour might face further struggles with representation as compared to white women.
Savage better acknowledges her own limitations in “Satellite”, a musing on her family’s Coburg background and the area’s gentrification, where she likens her roots to “an introduced grass species that thrives everywhere by choking its competitors, that avoids detection by passing for a native species, and this laboured metaphor is trying to say something about colonial figures like me who’d really like to not make things worse than they are, but who by simply accepting the yellow blotted sun through the pane of glass, by accepting the home built atop spirits silent and angry, have roots that are caught in the seams of rotten foundations.” (79)
Class and how cultural capital is linked to social mobility is another theme Savage takes an interest in. She puts forward the supposition in Blueberries that “the accumulation of cultural capital for the purpose of social mobility is a stone-cold fact of life” (57), but one that is seldom talked about. Savage links this pursuit of elitism to the willingness of writers to pay for courses of “expensive mediocrity” (46) in a liberal arts environment where a kind of morality is associated with eating locally sourced, organic food, stemming from “the entitlement of an elite class to impose its moral directives on the people whose labour allows them to be elite in some way or another” (50). In “You Dirty Phony Saint and Martyr”, Savage writes that she imagined some of her own accrued cultural capital would “morph into material capital, but it has not, yet and might never” (133), as part of an essay in which she touches lightly on “the nexus of power, privilege and prestige in literature” (130).
In “Unwed Teen Mum Mary”, Savage seamlessly transitions from recounting the process of seeking paid work into a contemplation of what the word choice means, specifically in the context of having the agency to make reproductive choices. It’s a powerful personal essay that both takes the readers into the intimacies of Savage’s own life and looks broadly at the cultural narratives surrounding abortion and how Christian tradition has shaped them.
“In my view, any effort to pair femininity with maternity with biological destiny with virgin births with earthy crystal-lovemaking is an effort to relegate the female form to a position of inferiority, to a state of constant need and gratitude and dependence.” (112)
Savage shows a firm grasp of a variety of styles throughout the collection, playing with form in creative and clever, and sometimes disconcerting ways. “Allan Ginsberg” (fittingly) takes a poetic form, while “Friendship Between Women” has a compelling, rambling, stream-of-consciousness feel, rich with poetic description. Another interesting piece is “Holidays with Men”, which juxtaposes two separate works on each page, effectively creating two pieces in one. The first of the two reflects on a series of vignettes Savage once published in a zine, the second is a form of that vignette series, though one anecdote recounted in the companion piece about an acquaintance recognising herself in a vignette indicates that this version of “Holidays with Men” is not the same one. The eye and the mind don’t know which narrative to follow first but once the reader detangles the two, the combined work is a rich exploration of our modern relationship with travel, as well as the effects of travel upon relationships.
“Travel, in the broadest sense possible,
encompasses the furthest
reaches of a culture. Networks
driven by survival, by desire,
by a twinning of the two, have
flung bodies and stories away
from homes for all of history,
and all of prehistory, too.” (125)
“The Museum of Rape” could also be read in multiple ways, thanks to its use of numbered paragraphs, with the references throughout the text making it possible to skip to other parts of the work for a non-linear experience.
What I am saying is that I understand the total collapse of structured
I asked myself, what does it mean to anticipate the loss
of one’s rational function (7.0, 7.1, 7.2).” (67)
In the penultimate work in the collection, “Portrait of the Writer as Worker (after Dieter Lesage)”, Savage offers anecdotes of a writer’s life, a series of almost fragmented thoughts that strung together paint a vivid picture of how creation intersects with earning a living. Together with “Yellow City” and “Blueberries”, it can be seen as one of the collection’s key pieces.
“You are a writer, and you know what that means: you don’t do it for the money. You don’t do it for the money, which is a great reason people have to not pay you for your writing.” (211)
Savage’s works drip with references to other literature… Hemingway, Shakespeare, Elena Ferrante, Jamaica Kincaid, philosopher Theodor Adorno and the list goes on. By drawing from all these different source materials, Savage expands the scope of the work and imbues it with even more meaning.
As a debut collection, Blueberries is strong, sharply drawn, thought-provoking and easy to devour. Each individual piece earns its place in the collection, providing depth and insight across a broad range of topics and showcasing a rich toolbox of writing styles. Savage digs deep to scratch at the mysteries of self and of social structure in this personal, compelling work, which defies easy categorisation, revealing more with each subsequent reread.
Savage, Ellena. Blueberries. Text Publishing, 2020.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Classics, 2000.
VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.