Category Archives: Uncategorized

Marie Taglioni: The First Female Superstar of Ballet

Marie Taglioni’s overwhelming success in ballets such as La Sylphide triggered a cult of the ballerina which was to last for many decades, and which swept away the image of the acclaimed male dancers of the past. This paper for Dancing Lives accompanies Marie Taglioni on her way to celebrity from Stockholm over Vienna and Stuttgart to the Paris Opera, where she created some of her most memorable roles, and from there to other major ballet cities.

It explores questions such as: which changes in the world of ballet paved the way for Marie Taglioni’s triumph, and how did she acquire her reputation? How did Taglioni describe her own life in her memoirs, and what did others write about her? Furthermore, it reveals how Taglioni’s glory was documented and diffused through artistic representations of her.

Iris Julia Bührle is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow (English) and a Junior Research Fellow at New College,Oxford. She studied comparative literature, history of art and international relations in Stuttgart, Paris (Sorbonne-Nouvelle/ Sciences Po) and Oxford, and she has worked for UNESCO, the Bavarian State Ballet and the Paris Opera. Her doctoral thesis (Paris/ Stuttgart) entitled Dance and Literature: the choreographic adaptation of works of literature in Germany and France from the 18thcentury to the present day was published in German in 2014. She also authored a bilingual (English/ German) biography of the British dancer Robert Tewsley. Her current project is on Shakespeare and dance.

Leaves of Silk

by Clare BrantProfessor of Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture and Co-Director, Centre for Life-Writing Research. Cross-posted with permission from the Department of English at King’s College London.

The Dear Diary exhibition is now open, until 7th July! Promotion got underway well before opening, with various radio features including Radio 2’s Jonathan Ross Show on 4th May, and  BBC London, Monocle Radio, Radio Oxford and other outlets; on 3rd June, I take Dear Diary to Radio 4’s Saturday Live show (listen from 9:00 BST).

One publicity commission was for the Sunday Times series ‘6 of the Best’. I thought long and hard and put together a list only to discover that ‘Best’ is determined by what the picture editor thinks can be illustrated best. Several suggestions hit the cutting room floor. One was  British artist Ian Breakwell’s visual diary – an idea I owe to Lucy Bayley, a PhD student at the ICA (thank you, Lucy). You can see a selection of Breakwell’s work at the Tate, including The Walking Man Diary (1975-1978).

A diary’s lure of intimacy…

Breakwell has made various experiments with the diary form. One of the most compelling is the photographic diary he made of an unknown man who regularly walked past Breakwell’s flat in Smithfield in the City of London, where from his third floor window the artist was often looking out. The images all have the same vantage point and the same mysterious subject; the passing of time is captured through the diary unevenly, so that some photographs are taken seconds apart while others are separated by months. The resulting pattern of similarity and difference, heightened by collage, plays with a diary’s lure of intimacy: by denying us even incremental knowledge, Breakwell makes his diary intriguingly baffling.

W.P. Barbellion
W.P. Barbellion, or Bruce Cummings, unknown photographer, via Wikimedia Commons

Another suggestion was W.P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919). This diary has an extraordinary story. The author’s real name was Bruce Cummings; he made his pseudonym from Wilhelm, Nero and Pilate as examples of the most wretched people to have lived.

Writing a diary gave Cummings the opportunity to call on philosophy for help; as his illness progressed he prepares for death with gentle humour and a sense of beauty…

In 1915 Cummings was a naturalist who went for a medical prior to signing up for the First World War; the doctor  sent him home with a letter. On the way back he read it, and discovered he had multiple sclerosis – and that his family already knew, and indeed had known for some time.  Aged 26, he suddenly had a very short future. Multiple sclerosis comes in several forms, all cruel. Barbellion knew he would be facing loss of functions like mobility, but he mobilised all his mental and emotional resources. Writing a diary gave him the opportunity to call on philosophy for help; as his illness progressed he prepares for death with gentle humour and a sense of beauty. His celebration of existence is poignant: ‘To me the honour is sufficient of belonging to the universe — such a great universe, and so grand a scheme of things. Not even Death can rob me of that honour. For nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time’.

The title of the work The Journal of a Disappointed Man, is slightly misleading: Barbellion  is disappointed in the sense that life is being taken away from him, but he converts disappointment into the most profound celebration of life. Being a naturalist helps: the complexity, beauty and vivacity of other forms of life gives him much to celebrate, and reminds him – and us – that humans are organisms in a mutable universe. The MS Society recommends Barbellion’s Journalto people with multiple sclerosis. I recommend it to everybody. It is sobering, humbling, cheering, comforting  and touchingly human.

Balloon of Mr Sadler
The Balloon of Mr Sadler, 1811, via Wikimedia Commons/ V & A print collections

William Wyndham’s diary provided me with a wonderful case study in balloon madness…

Just as the exhibition powered up, I was also running around giving talks related to my forthcoming book on eighteenth-century ballooning: Balloon Madness: Flights of Imagination in Britain, 1783-1786(Boydell & Brewer, autumn 2017). It was a hectic doubling, except my balloon book does have a whole chapter about a diary. It belonged to William Wyndham, who was an MP, mathematician, classicist and convivial dreamer, and it provided me with a wonderful case study in balloon madness. It also provided methodological challenges, because the diary’s entries about balloons are frustratingly laconic. Having just started his diary, Windham confided to it, like many eighteenth-century people, a sense he was not getting enough done. On 7th February 1784 he wrote ‘Did not rise till past nine; from that time till eleven, did little more than indulge in reveries about balloons.’ (You can read the whole text online, as The Diary of the Right Honourable William Windham, 1784-1810, ed. Cecilia Anne Baring, 1866).

What did that entry mean? What was going on in his head? I had to adapt critical tools from life writing to reconstruct Windham’s  balloon reveries, though joyfully he did turn those reveries into action . On 5 May 1784, at the height of balloon madness, he made a successful ascent with the Oxford aeronaut James Sadler from grounds near Hampton Court, watched by a collection of Fellows from the Royal Society. His diary entry afterwards begins: ‘Went up in balloon. Much satisfied with myself; and, in consequence of that satisfaction, dissatisfied rather with my adventure…’ It seems to have cured his balloon madness; his reveries moved on to other things.

S. A. Andrée and Knut Frænkel with their crashed balloon, 1897, via Wikimedia Commons.
S. A. Andrée and Knut Frænkel with their crashed balloon, 1897, via Wikimedia Commons

Air-minded people can be generous in sharing stories, and a later balloon episode also involving a diary came to me by way of a former student, Eric Larsson (thank you, Eric). It joins a literature of ice which also has dedicated admirers, and a fine critic in Frances Spufford , author of  I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (Faber & Faber 2003). This story begins in 1930 on a Norwegian sloop in the Arctic, with geologists and seal hunters aboard. They discover the remains of an expedition, long presumed lost. On 11 July 1897, the Swedish engineer S.A. Andrée and two companions had ascended in a hydrogen balloon aiming to discover the North Pole.  They had had to land on the ice and travel on foot in rigours which eventually defeated them.  (Read more of their story in the New Yorker magazine).

Each of the three men had kept diaries and all were eventually published. One waterlogged notebook was recovered by a reporter, Knut Stubbendorf, who dried it in his cabin, and recounts the experience of turning the pages for the first time:

“I have seldom, if ever, experienced a more dramatic, a more touching succession of events, than when I began the preparation of the wet leaves, thin as silk, and watched how the writing or drawing, at first invisible, gradually became discernible as the material dried, giving me a whole, connected description written by the dead – a description which displayed unexpected and amazing details, and which allowed me to follow the journey of the balloon across the ice during the three short days from July 11 to 14, 1897.”

This thrilling moment in which invisible writing emerges to be readable, and the visible writing tells of what happened, has stayed with me: it could be a compelling metaphor for what all diaries are and what they do. They say what happened, and they make that a mystery to be revealed, a voice from the dead which can become alive again.

So please keep a diary – you never know if it may fall into a researcher’s hands! And please come and visit the Dear Diary exhibition! You can share your thoughts about diaries and your diary practice via the exhibition website.

Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendants
Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, 26 May – 7 July 2017, Weds–Sun, 11:00-5:30.

You can also contribute to ongoing research in the Ego-Media group by going to their DiaryBox. The Ego-Media team (also members of the Centre for Life Writing) would like to know about the shape of your online day – or night! – so as to understand better how digital traces can be read as diaries, and what they can tell us about self-presentation online. Your contributions  will be ‘leaves of silk’, with invisible ink drying into unexpected and amazing details… Share your stories today.


You may also like to read: It’s In My Diary – behind the scenes of ‘Dear Diary’.

Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and not those of the English Department, nor King’s College London.

Global Lives and Local Perspectives: New Approaches to Tibetan Life Writing

Global Lives and Local Perspectives was the second largest collaboration between two research clusters of Wolfson College: OCLW (Oxford Centre for Life Writing) and THSC (Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Centre). In 2012, Wolfson College hosted the conference Beyond Biographies: New Perspectives on Tibetan Life-Writing; convened by Professor Ulrike Roesler and held in collaboration with OCLW, the meeting had the merit of attracting attention to the rich tradition of biographical writing within the Tibetan literary corpus by placing Tibetan biographies and autobiographies within the broader context of life writing across the world. New avenues of interpretation and understanding were advanced at the time, and, by taking our cue from that, we proposed to slightly enlarge the focus of the analysis to embrace other forms of indigenous life writing, such as journals, memoirs, songs, oral testimonies, and personal narratives, as they are documented in Tibetan historical, poetic, legal and religious literature, as well as on social media.

In the course of Global Lives and Local Perspectives, new approaches to Tibetan life writing had been proposed by the speakers. Whereas it is undisputable that biographies and autobiographies are at the core of the Tibetan practice of recording memories and experiences of the self, it is also clear that such a label crosses over and includes diverse genres and forms, thus opening the field of investigation to different analytical means.

Biographical and autobiographical writing can be used, for example, as a source of information about social, cultural, and political history, as demonstrated by Dr Franz Xaver Erhard and Rachael Griffiths. Through the eyes of the authors, modes of identity construction come to the foreground, thus allowing for a better understanding of the different ways in which Tibetanness was, and still is, expressed. It has been reiterated throughout the workshop that the role on self-perception by the socio-cultural and historical milieu should not be underestimated; individuals are in fact urged to adhere to specific kinds of personhood, that is to say behavioural models considered to be socially acceptable. Dr Marta Sernesi, Miroslav Hrdina, and Sangseraima Ujeed presented contributions describing the edifying character of rnam thar, and the importance given to the observance of precise schemas in the portrayal of the life of an individual considered to be “exemplary”. Interestingly, it is the analysis of the themes and structures of these texts that makes it possible to gain a new perspective on rnam thar, the most popular form in which life writing was carried out in Tibet. Tibetan biographies also provide interesting information about the biographers themselves, so much so that sometimes the real value of these works lies not in the amount of details about the life of their characters, but rather on what the authors or the compilers reveal about their understanding of both their own identity and the socio-cultural environment they lived in, as shown by the presentations of Prof. Per Kværne and Dr Lewis Doney. Furthermore, the recording of life-stories of remarkable individuals was not a perfunctory implementation of a traditional practice; rather, Tibetan authors reflected on the issues of literary theory, developing indigenous explanations regarding the worth of their compositions as well as proposing new ways of narrating the self.

If the importance of biographies and autobiographies for social and cultural historians is clear, the perils of considering these works as mere deposits of dates and names should not be forgotten. Life writing, in all its forms and expressions, is a literary manifestation, and as such it deserves to be considered and discussed. The literary value of autobiographies, journals, and memoirs affects the surrounding society; the creation of a relationship between the work and its audience may lead to the negotiation of issues of exemplarity and legitimacy, as illustrated by the case-studies brought by Prof. Per K. Sørensen and Lucia Galli. Personal recollections may shed a new light on past events, improving our understanding of controversial historical periods, as the decades of the 1940s to the 1960s certainly were for the Tibetan communities along the Sino-Tibetan borders as well as for those living in the central provinces of the plateau, as showed by Prof. Heather Stoddard, Dr Lara Maconi, and Xénia de Heering.

What has been said so far applies not only to biographies and autobiographies compiled in pre-modern times, but also to new forms of individual expression, such as social media, blogs, and instant messaging apps. Creating the self in the moment is a feature that we ascribe to modernity. Technology provides us with the means to immediately share small personal stories, updating our identities constantly though multi-semiotic forms. But writing on the spot, recording the ebbs and flows of the mind, is indeed a rather ancient practice; diary, personal journals, travelogues are all instances of what can be defined as life writing of the moment, jotting down impressions as well as reflections on the self and the other. The contributions offered by Prof. Charles Rambles, Dr LamaJabb, and Dr Theresia Hofer broached the issue of “fragmentary” selves and how it is possible to reconstruct a personal identity by putting together snapshots of life as they appear in legal documents, poems, songs, or instant messages shared on social media platforms.

These are indeed exciting times for those working on Tibetan life writing. The field is ripe with possibilities. Not only the past may be looked at with different eyes, but also the present, and more importantly, the future, all reserve new and unexpected ways of studying and comprehending the ever-evolving Tibetan identity. We planned to collect and publish the contributions to this workshop, with a sincere hope that the study of Tibetan life writing may continue to thrive and develop.

We would like to express once again our gratitude towards those who have made this workshop such as successful event: Oxford Centre for Life Writing (OCLW), Ti se Foundation, Wolfson College Academic Committee, Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Centre (THSC), and the Linying Foundation.

Lucia Galli and Franz Xaver Erhard (Conveners)

Photo by Nadja Friesen (CC0 1.0)

Clio Barnard: The Selfish Giant

Clio Barnard is one of Britain’s foremost directorial talents. She first gained critical acclaim for her film The Arbor (2010), which followed the life of West Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar, and whose formal innovation mixed a documentary soundtrack with fictional reenactment, as actors lip-synched to the words of her interviewees.

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Barnard gained further acclaim when she returned to the West Yorkshire council estates to make The Selfish Giant (2013), which, like The Arbor, challenged the conventions of social realist drama, creating a loose interpretation of the 1888 Oscar Wilde story of the same name. On May 30th at 5:30pm, she will be in conversation with OCLW about her film practice and career, especially as it relates to the role of life-writing in filmmaking.

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Lives of Houses: One-Day Colloquium, 27 May

In a letter to his father sent from Florence in September 1826, the 22-year-old Benjamin Disraeli proudly recounts his visit to Tasso’s prison cell in Ferrara, where he marvelled at Byron’s name – “here scratched with a great nail on the brick wall”. In his 1837 novel Venetia, Disraeli’s complex biofictional engagement with his Romantic literary heroes, Marmion Herbert, a curious fictional amalgam of Byron and Shelley, becomes the lucky master of Petrarch’s house at Arquâ and gives orders “that his absence should never deprive a pilgrim from paying his homage to the shrine of genius”. This ‘shrine’ is clearly on the map of the early-nineteenth-century tourist trail of literary celebrity, visited by Herbert’s estranged wife, Lady Annabel, and their daughter, the eponymous heroine, who – like Byron when he visited Tasso’s prison cell and Petrarch’s tomb – can’t resist the urge to leave her own mark: “I must write my name in Petrarch’s house”.

Disraeli’s fantasy of literary pilgrimage pays tribute to the auratic appeal of physical spaces, laying bare the thin line between the extraordinary and the ordinary. They promise privileged access to an individual’s ‘real’, ‘private’ self, the cradle of ‘genius’ and artistic creation, across temporal and spatial distance, tricking us into an illusion of getting closer to the bodies, and therefore the historical ‘truth’ of our subjects. There lies a central ambiguity in the fact that the houses of famous individuals promise access and intimacy, while at the same time they are part the public sphere, ‘homes and haunts’ eagerly sought out by scholars and tourists. They promise authenticity, while at the same time they present a specific version of a life, shaped by socio-political agendas and notions of creating and preserving cultural memory; a version sometimes uneasily positioned between commemoration and commodification.

“Lives of Houses” will explore new ways of thinking about the intersections of biography, material culture, and notions of fame and celebrity. It aims to encourage a dialogue between academics, biographers, curators, and audiences who study, tell, and productively consume the stories of famous or obscure lives through a variety of different media. Questions to be addressed include: Whose life gets commemorated through physical spaces? How do we recover marginal voices? Who are the agents involved in shaping these narratives and what are the media they avail themselves of? What is the balance between historical accuracy and imaginative reconstruction? What is shown, what is concealed? What survives and what is lost, and how do biographers, scholars, curators deal with the challenges posed by presences and absences? How do scholars write their own experience of their subjects’ private space into their work?

The day’s programme features a keynote lecture by Daisy Hay; a roundtable discussion on “Presenting Houses” with Nino Strachey, Serena Dyer, and Alexandra Harris; a panel on “Writers’ Houses” with papers by Alexandra Harris, Frankie Kubicki, and Nicola Watson; and a panel dedicated to “Musicians’ and Architects’ Houses” with papers by Gillian Darley, Lucy Walker and James Grasby.

Click here for more information and to book your place.

 

 

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Poems of Life and Death

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Are you a member of Wolfson College? Do you have an object with a story to tell? A life story to share?

The Wolfson Life-Stories Day is back, and this year it will be accompanied by an exhibitionA Day in the Life of a College. Wolfson through its Objects.

We are seeking members of College to contribute to either or both events. Please click here for more information.

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Global Lives and Local Perspectives: New Approaches to Tibetan Life Writing. Call for Papers

We invite papers that explore new approaches to the various forms of Tibetan life writing for a two-day workshop to be held at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, on May 12-13, 2017.

The aim of this workshop is to examine Tibet’s rich tradition of biographical writing as documented in Tibetan narrative, poetic, legal and religious literature. Particular attention will be devoted to journals, memoirs, letters, oral testimonies, personal accounts, and ritual inscriptions as expressions of the relationship between the individual and the society, the local and the global, the past and the present, the public and the private.

How and in which ways does life writing shape the public and private identity of the protagonists? What do personal narratives say about the way Tibetans perceived and made sense of the outside world? What role, if any, does life writing play in historical revisionism? Why does Tibet have such an unusually rich tradition of biographical writing and how much creativity was allowed by literary and cultural conservativism? What does material culture say about the life of artists, patrons, and spiritual masters? In addressing these and other questions pertaining to Tibetan life writing, contributors are invited to broach topics including, but not limited to:

  • Issues of Identity Construction, Power Relationships, and History-making Processes in Biographical Writing
  • Factual and Fictional Aspects of Tibetan Life Writing
  • Personal Narratives and Historical Revisionism
  • Perception of the Self and the Other in Biographical Writing
  • Literary Conservatism as a Creative Act
  • Gender Issues
  • Questions of Literary Theory
  • Oral Narratives

Submission

Postgraduates and scholars are encouraged to submit an abstract of up to 500 words (for a 30-minute presentation) together with a short academic CV at lifewriting.wolfson@gmail.com by February 1, 2017.

 

Biographical Borders

In his President’s Column in the most recent Modern Language Association Newsletter (Fall 2016), K. Anthony Appiah tells the story of how a few years ago he decided to organize his books. A daunting task. A philosopher, he tried first to sort his philosophy books into metaphysics and epistemology on the one hand and political and moral philosophy on the other. The result was a philosophical mish-mash. Then he began to wonder whether books about French cooking should go with books about France or books about cooking. Should accounts of African Americans visiting Africa belong with books about Africa or books about America? This is a familiar dilemma for all who buy books, teach them, write about them, and struggle fruitlessly to construct a beautifully coherent shelving system.

As I read Appiah’s provocative column, it occurred to me that those who read, write, and attempt to shelve something as deceptively manageable as biographies run into similar roadblocks. Should all biographies focusing upon a single subject and adopting the conventional cradle-to-grave narrative belong on the same shelf? Perhaps, but then where do you place such books as Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida? She writes about three couples involved in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s: photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn, and journalists Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar. Photography perhaps, given Capa’s fame: but then what about Hemingway? Surely the book belongs on the Hemingway shelf. Or perhaps not, since Vaill’s book is a group biography and one could dedicate many bookcases to that sub-genre. And then there are slice-of-life biographies, books that zero in on a particular moment and then fan out to explore the rest of the narrative territory. Prominent among books on the group biography shelf one would surely find Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923, the moving story of unknown ordinary people who took to the streets to fight for independence. But then Foster’s book is as much compelling social history as it is group biography. And Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe would surely confound Appiah’s shelving efforts in its deft study of figures such as Sartre, Beauvoir, Husserl, and Heidegger, and their intellectual and romantic relationships. Existentialism? WW2? Feminism?

Appiah, of course, is interrogating disciplinary boundaries, but as I read his column I realized more fully than I had before that the impetus for our Biography Beyond Borders day of roundtable discussions (to be presented by OCLW and BIO on November 5) was precisely an effort to leap the fences, to muck up all the neat shelving if you will.

Some twenty-eight biographers will gather at Wolfson, roughly two thirds of them American and one-third European, to discuss such questions as whether biography can be defined nationally; whether biographies of little-known figures (think of Foster’s Vivid Faces) garner more readers in Europe than in America; whether slice-of-life studies (think of Candice Millar’s recently published book about Churchill’s three-month long adventure of capture, imprisonment, and escape in the Boer War: Hero of the Empire) can safely be nestled next to a monumental study (998 pages) of Hitler’s first fifty years (Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939); and whether we can safely say there are any borderlines between history and biography; if so, how can we draw them?

In my recent reading, I found that Ruth Scurr’s innovative study of John Aubrey presented a provocative challenge since she contends that ‘Biography is an art form open to constant experiment’ and she constructs Aubrey’s diary based on his manuscripts, correspondence, and records of those who knew him. It’s an autobiography in the form of a diary written by a biographer. Where would we shelve it? But I’ve come to realize that answering this question is actually not that difficult: Scurr’s book belongs on that massive bookshelf called ‘Life-Writing.’ All of us who will meet on November 5 know that the generous fluidity of biography as a genre has long demolished the boundaries, broken down the walls, and generated multiple ways of writing a life.

Deirdre David is Professor Emerita of English at Temple University. Throughout her long career she has taught courses in Victorian literature, the history of the British novel, and women’s writing. She has published books dealing with social problems in the Victorian novel (Fictions of Resolution in Three Victorian Novels , 1981), the conflicted position of the woman intellectual in Victorian culture (Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy, 1987), and the importance of British women in imperialism (Rule Britannia: Women, Empire, and Victorian Writing, 1995). She also edited The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel (2001), and co-edited (with Eileen Gillooly) Contemporary Dickens (2009). She published her first biography in 2007 (Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life); her most recent work is Olivia Manning: A Woman at War (2013). She continues to teach as a member of the Society of Senior Scholars at Columbia University. 

Photo by Glen Noble (CC0 1.0)

The Truth in Fiction ~ Notes on a Work in Progress

An extract from the talk scheduled for October 25th

In an earlier draft of the novel I’m working on, I wrote a scene in which the daughter in the novel is given a suitcase that contains her father’s papers. I edited this out because it seemed too contrived, only to receive a phone call from my stepmother a few weeks later saying that she had a suitcase which contained my father’s papers, and she thought I should have these.

I remembered then, belatedly, that yes, of course there was a real brown suitcase, one my father had kept in the storage nook above the linen press, and that the case had been kept locked at all times. If you want it, my stepmother said, it’s yours.

After he died there was some concern as to the whereabouts of this case. Those he’d been closely involved with wanted the contents that related to them, or rather, did not want these contents falling into the wrong hands. Everyone wanted to be there when the suitcase was finally found and opened, so that they might lay claim to what was inside. For a while there was much talk of this, until it was forgotten. At some point the suitcase ceased to be mentioned and I didn’t think of it, in any way, until it appeared anonymously in my novel, and then in real life, when I drove home with it in the back of the car.

The suitcase dates from the 1960’s: it is dark brown and made from a material that looks like pressed metal with lighter brown pin stripes carved into it. The clasps are rusted, and only one closes properly. There would have once been a leather handle, but this also broke long ago, replaced by a temporary wire handle now snapped at one end. It is a relatively small suitcase; it looks as though it ought to be light. But when I picked it up I was surprised by the weight; there were meant to be only papers in there. A wave of something like dread swept through me.

I work in a studio at the bottom of my garden, and in this hut is a large, green velveteen armchair. I carried the suitcase from the car and pushed it behind this chair. But even out of sight, its presence bothered me. I felt like I had my father in the room. I kept stopping what I was doing to get up and go and look at the suitcase. I would stand over it with my arms folded and watch it as if it were an animal about to leap at me. Only when I could be sure that it hadn’t moved, and was just as it was the day before would I go back to my work. It was summer, the garden was growing wild. A green tendril of vine pushed its way up between the wall and skirting board. One day, when I went to check on the case, I found the green vine had wrapped itself all around. Spiders had built cobwebs.

Perhaps another person’s instincts would have been to open this case immediately – to set out to make a discovery. And I did think, at first, when I went to collect it, that this was what I would do: that I would be such a brave and reckless person.

But I had never been allowed to open it, scarcely to touch it, in all my life. I did not know it as something openable. Before the suitcase came into my possession I could only remember it as a closed and hidden object. My father, in general, had never been one to open things: he did not open birthday gifts on his birthday, nor Christmas gifts at Christmas, nor his mouth to smile for a photograph. He had in fact been known to keep a Christmas gift for a whole year, until the following Christmas, before finally deciding to open it. The object hidden in the wrapping was beside the point. To open the gift was to destroy what he found most pleasure in; the secrecy, the muted curiosity about what was inside, the beauty of the wrapped object. Opening it would simply be a deflation of all this suspense, an end of desire, and there was the common risk, not unwarranted, that the gift would simply disappoint.

There was some pleasure to be found in thinking similarly, that I too was not obliged to open this suitcase, simply because it had been given to me. I could, if I so wished, leave it closed my whole life. Only, the novel I was and am working on – which centres around a fictionalized version of my father and my relationship with him – had, at the time when I inherited the suitcase, reached a hiatus.

I was stuck and looking for clues. The narrative had stalled. I did not know how to develop the “character”, as such, who was based on my father, I felt uneasy with this very term, I couldn’t decide on the balance between truth and fiction. I was unsure whether I needed to know the truth – as in the facts of my father’s life and family – in order to create a version that I would then call fictional, or whether I could go off the back of my own my memories, and let this material suffice.

If I opened the suitcase, I told myself, I might find the answer I needed. I might find a clue, a link, a secret, something to explain the life I was combing through by memory and anecdote. In the course of my deliberations, I convinced myself that when I opened the suitcase I would absolutely and without a doubt find an answer so incredibly brilliant, so unexpected, that it would simply knock me out.

So convinced, I pulled the suitcase from its hiding place, sat down before it and pressed the small button on the side of the rusted clasp. Papers spilled out. There were his school reports, poems he’d written at university, rejection letters from literary journals, love letters to my mother, letters from friends addressed to his dead brother, a set of appointment slips from Sydney University listing his brother’s appointment times with the counseling service, and so on. I rifled through these, looking for I don’t know what: a diary perhaps, a suicide note.

I was like a clichéd character in a novel, or had the hopes of one. I dug my hands deeper into the case, there were objects at the bottom, beneath the papers, a rustling of plastic. There, in the corner of the case lay a small pink velvet box, of the kind you might keep a ring in. I took this out, opened it, and being the clichéd character which, in that moment, I was, I expected jewels.

The box hinged open, and I let go of it as if it were a hot coal: inside lay a swatch of dark hair. Then, beneath this, was a plastic bread bag containing a stack of envelopes. I took this out, emptied it: on each envelope was a list of detailed descriptions of camera, lens type, aperture, and inside each envelope were a set of meticulously wrapped photographic negatives. They were wrapped in toilet paper, kitchen paper towels, tissues, old thin Christmas wrapping. I transferred these envelopes to a shoebox, and the next day delivered them to a camera shop for developing.

Stephanie Bishop‘s first novel was The Singing, for which she was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists. The Singing was also highly commended for the Kathleen Mitchell Award. Her second novel, The Other Side of the World is published by Hachette Australia and Tinder Press (Headline, UK) and will be released in the US in September 2016 by Atria (Simon & Schuster). It is the winner of The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2015, and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2016, The Indie Book Awards 2016 as well as being longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize. It is also on the shortlist of the 2016 Australian Book Industry Awards and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Stephanie’s essays and reviews have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Australian, The Sydney Review Of Books, The Australian Book Review and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is a recipient of two Australia Council New Work Grants, an Asialink Fellowship, an Australian Society of Authors Mentorship, a Varuna Mentorship Fellowship and Varuna Residency Fellowship. She holds a PhD from Cambridge and is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. In 2016 she will be a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Life Writing at the University of Oxford. Stephanie lives in Sydney. She tweets at @slb_bishop 

Photo by Lizzie Guilbert (CC0 1.0)