Ian Wedde and Helena Brow
I went to hear Ian Wedde and Helena Wisniewska Brow in conversation with Harry Ricketts about memory, home and exile at the Writers on Monday series held at Te Papa by the IIML. Ian and Helena have recently released memoirs where they trace family narratives and the idea of home. For Ian, his home shifts from Blenheim to Bangladesh and the UK, whereas Helena traced her father’s journey from Poland to New Zealand in 1944.
Wedde thinks of memory as the unreliable engine of the unconscious. He explains that memory is a dream-like condition, which, if you open yourself up to it, and are alert and receptive to odd occurrences, it opens you up to possibilities that you couldn’t imagine. I think this ‘opening up’ to memory is much like an unconscious writing process where you open yourself up to delve deep into the unconscious and write about what you find there.
Wedde uses two metaphors for describing his investigation into home and the family narrative. The first is a rooks nest. When the Wedde family were living in England, Ian and his twin brother would climb up into a massive rooks nest that was attached to the side of a country house. The nest was a tangle of branches which was fabulous to break into and investigate but also stank of the excrement of the birds’ life and death. Tracing the idea of home has the same dualism of the fantastic and the repulsive. The second metaphor, and the title of Wedde’s book, is The Grass Catcher. When Ian was growing up his father had a grass catcher attached to the hand mower that he detached and hung up on the garage wall when not in use. When the Wedde family came home in the car the headlights of the vehicle would highlight the grass catcher and it would become an awful object, a mask that had within it the sense of the uncanny; of the familiar and unfamiliar.
It is through objects that both Wedde and Brow tell their stories. For Brow it is through photographs that acted like prompts and created a space for stories to be told. Brow’s book is called Give us this Day a line in the Lord’s prayer that Brow knows by heart in Polish, and signifies living for the day, and also her father’s struggle to get through a day. Ricketts noted that at one stage in the narrative Brow’s father is eating grass on the side of the road for sustenance.
What caught my imagination, or sparked memories for me, was Wedde’s discussion of the unheimlich (the uncanny), which is a sense of something neither being totally familiar nor totally unfamiliar. It’s also the sense of the familiar in something unfamiliar and the unfamiliar in the familiar, and that these two senses cannot be held completely apart. While Wedde liked the grass catcher when it was doing its job of catching grass, on the garage wall it became the unfamiliar, a mask, but at the same time it was the familiar grass catcher. The grass catcher was something liked but also feared. Wedde uses this dualism (familiar/unfamiliar) frequently and how this tension rubs-up against each other in his reflections about home, and his family.
Wedde’s reflection about his dad’s grass catcher sparked a few memories of my past in which the familiar became unfamiliar, and scary. When I was an adolescent our family lived in Sarah Street in Timaru in a two-storey roughcast and brick house. Upstairs, there was a full-length mirror on the wall outside my bedroom. While in the day time I saw the track marks of a duster running over the glass, at night time when the hallway light reflected off it, the track marks made a man’s face with flowing hair. The mirror became something to avoid, to not look at directly because I was scared of someone (aside from myself) looking back. It was all just the stuff of an adolescent imagination but I still remember being freaked out by something familiar becoming unfamiliar and scary.
I also felt that tension when my family lived on a five acre block on the outskirts of town. There was so much space and it was so quiet that it was comforting, but I was also scared of the space and quiet. It seemed impossible that there wasn’t someone out there, watching. Alongside this fear of people lurking, I was also scared of the fact that there might not be anyone there. The enjoyment I felt in the open space and solitude also rubbed up against my fear of it. And I guess the same can be said for the idea of home; at times you want to escape it and be alone, while at other times you’re sacred of being alone and run to it.