Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 20, 2018

Author event: Enza Gandolfo at Beaumaris Books

As promised, here’s my report combining Enza Gandolfo’s author event organised by Beaumaris Books… with my notes from her session at the Williamstown Literary Festival last weekend.

Enza is the author of Swimming (Vanark Press, 2009) which was shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Award in 2010 (see my review), and now the recently released The Bridge (see my review). Once again the event was held not at the bookshop on the South Concourse but at a nearby café/function venue called Ginger Fox.  The admission price included a copy of The Bridge and as is usual at these Beaumaris Books events also included a two-course meal featuring dishes mentioned in the book.  So we had pasta from p.10; Bolognese sauce and fried chicken from p. 207; followed by lemon cake from p.9 and gelato from p.47!

Cheryl, who owns and runs the bookshop with her husband Andrew, introduced The Bridge with a sobering memory from her childhood.  She was in grade 2, when her friend’s father died in the bridge collapse.  At that age she struggled to comprehend how her friend went from having a father to not having one.  She is right when she says that all of us have memories of that day…

Enza is a warm, sincere and engaging speaker and she spoke generously about her journey through four or five careers before becoming a writer.  There were no creative writing courses when she was growing up as the child of Sicilian migrants in the 1950s and 60s, so she became a teacher, eventually deciding that although she liked young people, she didn’t much like schools, so she became a youth worker.  From there she took on an advocacy role for refugees and migrants, doing policy work and ethnic services for refugees who by then were mainly Vietnamese.  A writing course at TAFE finished just as Masters and PhD courses in writing became available, and she wrote her debut novel Swimming for her PhD.  She has always wanted to tell the stories of the invisible people in the books that she read as a child: women, working-class Australians, and migrants.

There are two kinds of writers, she says: those who plan and outline, and those who don’t.  Enza begins with a place or a setting, a couple of characters and questions to explore, and the first draft is in fragments.  She talks to her characters as a way of separating them from herself and her own experiences, because although some events derive from her own life, she doesn’t want her books to be about her.

Both Swimming and The Bridge explore grief, perhaps because Enza was born into a house of mourning.  Her grandmother’s other son had died, and she often heard this grandmother say that her life was over.  Yet Enza could see that it wasn’t, that people do somehow find ways to go on, and so her interest in grief and resilience dates from these early memories.  Through two strands, the story of Antonello who struggles to cope with the trauma of the West Gate Bridge collapse, and of Jo, a 19 year-old VCE student whose recklessness and folly causes a terrible accident, The Bridge also explores questions of culpability and guilt, how we apportion blame , and how the consequences of terrible mistakes can never be foreseen.

Westgate Bridge, seen from the walkway near the Memorial Park (Image: Kham Tran, Wikipedia)

Why the bridge?  Enza lives within walking distance of the West Gate Bridge and sees it daily.  It is a Melbourne landmark that gives her the bearings of our city.  She takes regular walks through the wetlands of the memorial park, but even when it’s lovely, she is still conscious of a monstrous structure above her.  She has memories of being in High School when an announcement called all the students who had parents working on the bridge to go to the office.  It’s a melancholy place.

Class is an issue that permeates the book.  All the adults that Enza knew were working people, and industrial accidents were regular events.  Her own father was lucky not to have broken his back but he lost part of a finger at work.  The working men who lost their lives in what is still Australia’s worst industrial accident died because their employers failed to provide a safe workplace. And they have never been held to account, because corporate Australia never is held to account for these preventable deaths.  (No one went to gaol over the wilful negligence at Wittenoom either, an issue explored in Michelle Johnston’s Dustfall which I recently reviewed).

Still, Enza felt hesitant about writing the story of the collapse, because she felt it was not her story to tell.  And then a chance meeting with a worker who had not been there on that fateful day, changed her mind.  She realised that the men were intensely proud of their work on a bridge that was to be a magnificent landmark.  This man had had a brother who worked on the bridge and he knew many of the men who died.  He felt that he needed to work on the bridge so that it could be finished, and most importantly, so that it would be safe.  This man’s story made her feel that the impact of the collapse was a story that needed to be told.

However, the catalyst for the novel was actually not the bridge, but the story of a young woman whose drink driving had caused two deaths and severe disability for two other people.  A common story, and one that has most of us shaking our heads in dismay.  Yet the judge in this case had noted that she was not a party girl: she was quiet and hardworking and hardly ever went out.  An uncharacteristic folly coupled with immaturity and recklessness had caused terrible tragedy.  She was punished with a six-year gaol term, yet Enza found that people she knew were judgemental about this (as I myself remember being at the time).  This judgementalism was the trigger for questions about being responsible for a shocking accident. How do you live with it, when it’s your fault?  Can you ever have a future again?

What motivates Enza to write is that writing gives the power to create empathy and understanding through rendering alternative points-of-view.

During question time, it wasn’t long before the subject of women’s freedom to walk their city came up.  In the novel both Sarah the lawyer and Jo, the young women who has caused the terrible accident, walk the streets to clear their heads.  The recent murder of a lovely young woman called Eurydice Dixon in parkland in an affluent suburb of Melbourne, one of the safest cities in the world, has shaken our sense of security.  It seems so wrong, doesn’t it, that just as we fail to have safe workplaces, we have failed to create a safe city for women to walk in…

You can buy Enza’s book from Fishpond: The Bridge and of course from Beaumaris Books.

 

 

 

 

 


Responses

  1. This sounds like such a good book. I have put it on my list at the library. Enjoying your posts about the festival.

  2. Destined for shortlists!
    Oh, and BTW, even though it’s a very ‘Melbourne’ book – it breathes the sounds and sights of our city, it would work just as well in other states. Like that beautiful book, The Floating Garden by Emma Ashmere – which is shadowed by the building of the Sydney bridge and is a very ‘Sydney’ book, it’s about people and ideas and questions. It’s universal.

  3. I have this book on my TBR and look forward to reading it.

    • I hope you enjoy it, I certainly did!

  4. The bridge was finished after I moved to WA and the very first thing I did on a business trip to Melbourne was get my boss to drive me across it. I love it, I’ve done a bike ride over it, and am only sorry that sides had to be made so high (after another tragedy) and restrict the view from the top.

    • It is a beautiful bridge…
      I remember that tragedy, as I think every Melburnian does, every time I cross that bridge.


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