Many Australian families have family secrets. These secrets were created to put a lid on tragedy and shame that was too much to bear. Secrets were supposed to protect the family, yet too often they perpetuated a sore which was felt by the next generation.
Kristina Olsson unlocks the secrets of her family through her acclaimed family memoir, Boy, Lost. She sensitively uncovers the trauma of her mother’s first marriage, the unhappy life of the child removed from his mother’s care and the unspoken grief which affected her mother’s relationship with her younger children. For many it is too hard to begin to lift the lid on family secrets, let alone share them with the world. In an interview for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, Kristina Olsson explains how she tackled this difficult task.
“Before I wrote the book I went to all the members of my immediate family to ask them what they thought of the idea”, Olsson explained. “It was such a sensitive area to be straying into, and I wanted to make sure that the prospect of my writing this story wasn’t distressing to any of them.”
The bedrock of a nonfiction book is research. Olsson interviewed family members and visited places that were important to the story of her mother, Yvonne, and Peter, the son who was removed from Yvonne’s care by her violent husband.
“I worked very hard to determine as many of the facts of my mother’s early life as possible. I spoke to everyone who might have a grain of information; I went to Cairns, where the dramatic events took place, and walked the streets, visited the train station (over and over), the hospital where Peter was born, museums and libraries, pored over photographs.”
Yet no matter how thoroughly Olsson researched Yvonne’s life, Olsson was confronted by gaps in the story that were never going to be found. The book could not be written unless Olsson devised a method which would produce a coherent narrative for her readers. She decided that she had to “re-imagine” the episodes which were crucial to Yvonne’s life but were not recorded by her or anyone else.
“The journalist in me kicked at this at first”, recalls Olsson. “But finally I realised that there are so many missing facts about just about all women from the last century. They weren’t the ones whose lives were commemorated. Their histories weren’t seen as important. Their lives would be lost to us altogether, not just my mother’s but so many others, if writers don’t do this ‘joining of the dots’. It’s not about making it up and passing it off as fact. It’s imagining our way in based on as much information as we can gather, and alerting the reader to this, so that they don’t lose trust.”
Boy, Lost is a book about one family but Olsson sees that her family’s story is typical of many Australian families in the twentieth century. “Everyone was losing kids”, commented Olsson about post-war Australia in an interview on ABC radio. The scale of child removal and the damage it caused to families is now recognised and named. We remember the Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families when we talk about the Stolen Generations. The Forgotten Generations were children who were in institutional care because of issues such as family poverty, death of a parent,forced removal by the authorities or who were removed from their parents overseas and came to Australia as child migrants. Then there were the Forced Adoptions – babies who were removed from their unmarried mothers. This list is by no means comprehensive. It goes on to include children like Peter who were torn away from their mothers in a time when marital abuse was largely ignored and mothers were powerless to contest custody in marriage breakups.
“I hope this book resonates with families who have lost in any way over the past century or more in this country”, says Olsson. “My own family’s loss occurred in a very dramatic way, but loss is loss, and particularly in mid-century Australia there was a lot of it about.”
“I’d also be pleased if readers thought some more about our country’s historical treatment of women and children, in the often cavalier way the mother-child relationship has been treated, and the effects that play out over generations.”
It is inevitable that the memories of events so long ago will differ among the various members of the family. “There were frequently more than one version of events”, Olsson explains. “In the end I accepted I had to write my own, but to concede publicly this was the case”. She didn’t show anyone her manuscript until it was published.
Her family held together throughout the process. “I am very, very grateful to all of them”, says Olsson. “Each one was fulsome in their support of the book and of me.”
Boy, Lost, has already won the non-fiction award at the Queensland Literary Awards and has been shortlisted for many other awards including the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards which will be announced tomorrow night (19th May). It has been reviewed for the Challenge this year by Paula Grunseit and Janine Rizzetti. Jessica White wrote about the book and its launch for the Challenge last year.
I’m Yvonne Perkins. Currently I am researching the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of soldiers who served in World War I. In my spare time I enjoy reading history and sharing history on my blog, Stumbling Through the Past. I can also be found @perkinsy on twitter.