I first encountered Michelle one evening in late winter a few months after I had arrived in Brisbane in 2009. It was at dinner on the verandah of a friend’s Queenslander in Auchenflower, and although Michelle wasn’t there, her American wife Heather was. It was strawberry season, and the conversation tipped towards the cheapness and deliciousness of strawberries.
Her name came up again when I attended the Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship ceremony in my long silk frock at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in 2012. I had been shortlisted for the prose section and Michelle won the poetry section, but she wasn’t able to make it to Sydney because she was in Brisbane protesting against Campbell Newman’s liquidation (well, watering-down) of the civil partnership legislation for lesbian, gay and heterosexual couples to a ‘registration’, one of his many moves that have returned Queensland to a cultural backwater, along with his mean-spirited slashing of the Queensland Premier’s Literary awards and massive retrenchments which have depressed the local economy. I’m hearing time and again how hard it is for people to find work at the moment, and many young creative people are leaving the state.
I didn’t meet Michelle until her launch of Ghost Wife: A Memoir of Love and Defiance at Avid Reader, and even then we didn’t have our first proper conversation until November last year over coffee at the State Library in Melbourne. We had several things in common: we’re both struggling up that steep and rocky incline towards Established Writer status; we love academia but are sometimes not sure about it; we’re occasionally stressed out by trying to survive on part-time jobs while writing. That aside, I also liked her directness, intelligence and obvious curiosity about the world and its impact on society (you can read her wonderful essay on Detroit’s abandoned buildings at Meanjin online). I don’t have many writing friends, and I was glad that she became mine.
Ghost Wife details Michelle and Heather’s journey to Canada to get married, as their respective countries, Australia and America, didn’t – and still don’t – allow same sex marriage. Australia also changed the Marriage Act in 2004 to specify that marriage was between a man and a woman, when previously it hadn’t mentioned gender at all. The problem with this, as Michelle notes, is that it creates invisibility:
The more difficult a government makes it to record our relationships, the easier it becomes for people to say, now and in the future, that these relationships didn’t or don’t exist. The more invisible you make something, the harder it is to prove that it matters. So much queer history has been lost, and so much is disputed. So much is concealed behind tales of spinster aunts, playboy bachelors, life-long friendships. We inherit a history of meaningful silences and notable absences. And I was sick of it. (9)
Michelle and Heather’s response was to ‘make our own kind of noise, find our own kind of visibility’ (10), and she wrote this memoir as a testament to their relationship. In crisp and often funny prose, she takes the reader to Newburyport where some of Heather’s family lived, then up to Toronto for the wedding, all the while dipping back into her own family’s history, and into the histories of other lesbians in Australia and America.
There was a striking contrast between the warmth and acceptance of Heather’s family and the thin-lipped conservatism of Michelle’s, who lived in Rockhampton and didn’t attend her wedding in Canada. Her parents didn’t react well to her coming-out, and of her father she writes, ‘I took a lot away from him, including some of the dreams he’d had for me: of a conventional marriage, conventional life’ (137). Meanwhile, her mother’s reaction to her wedding was virtually noncommittal, leading Michelle to understand that, for them, ‘My wedding hadn’t happened. It hadn’t happened at all’ (180). It had been ghosted.
Like Michelle, I was raised in a conservative rural community and my family had difficulty accepting that my brother was gay. ‘Is he one of those?’ my grandmother once asked my cousin’s family. My father’s reaction, ‘I hope he’ll change’, echoes Michelle’s father’s, to whom the possibility of Michelle’s marriage to Heather almost meant the possibility of divorce from her.
A fragment of a conversation with Dad about my brother remains with me – he mentioned how every parent has dreams for their children. To me, a headstrong 22 year old, this was the height of folly: how dare a parent suggest their child live a certain way? Our lives were our own, after all. Later, I realised it’s hard to escape the imprint of your upbringing, and in a rural community the imperative is to get married, breed and not do anything out of the ordinary.
After a few years Dad came around, and Michelle’s parents, too, became more accepting. Her father, in his quiet way, told her he was from a different generation, but that ‘just because you don’t agree with someone, it doesn’t mean that you don’t talk to them ever again. What sort of world would it be if we all did that? You’re my daughter’ (201). I think the pollies would do well to listen to Michelle’s dad.
I was also struck by title of Michelle’s book, Ghost Wife, for it taps into a long history of ghosting lesbians so as to deny their materiality – an attempt which ultimately backfires. In The Apparitional Lesbian, Terry Castle documents how, since the eighteenth century, Western Europe has exorcised the threat of lesbianism by converting it into a phantasm:
Given the threat that sexual love between women inevitably poses to the workings of patriarchal arrangement, it has often been felt necessary to deny the carnal bravada of lesbian existence. The hoary misogynist challenge, ‘But what do lesbians do?’ insinuates as much: This cannot be. There is no place for this (Columbia UP, 1993, p. 30).
If lesbianism is something that cannot exist, it can hardly pose a threat. And yet, Castle continues, ‘one could hardly think of a worse metaphor. For embedded in the ghostly figure, as even its first proponents seemed at times to realise, was inevitably a notion of reembodiment: of uncanny return to the flesh … To become an apparition was also to become endlessly capable of “appearing”. And once there, the spectre, like a living being, was not so easily gotten rid of. It demanded a response.’ (p. 63).
Ghost Wife is one of these responses. As was the rally which Heather and Michelle attended on the night of the award-giving. The more politicians attempt to negate the rights of same-sex couples to marry, the louder the clamour will be. In Ghost Wife, Michelle’s enunciation of injustice rings out with boldness and clarity, and readers will be well-rewarded for listening to it.
Book details: Dicinoski, Michelle. Ghost Wife: A Memoir of Love and Defiance. Collingwood: Black Inc., 2013.
Purchased from Avid Reader.
This is my 2nd review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.