My book group (I say with inner pleasure at finally belonging to one) usually decide on books to read for the coming months by asking for suggestions from the group. Being completely illiterate in fiction since about 1979, I leave it to the rest of the group to offer suggestions, which are usually made up of lists gleaned from recent prize winning works allocated literary awards. In this way, for this month we had decided on The Road from Coorain, by Jill Kerr Conway, reviewed inspiringly on the front cover as “The internationally best-selling memoir of an Australian childhood”, something we all probably guiltily felt we should read. I didn’t have a copy, wasn’t planning on buying one and ended up getting an interlibrary loan for the bargain price of $1.00 and picked it up from my obligingly helpful local library.
The book had come across from the other side of the city, nowhere where anyone from my book group lives, so I wasn’t taking up a copy that would live on my bedside unread for two weeks, then extended for another week on loan and finally returned half read… If the truth be told, my heart has not been in my book group. That is, not until I discovered audible ebooks and this has CHANGED MY LIFE.
The Road from Coorain, however was definitely not an audible ebook, but a good old fashioned plastic covered, paperback waiting for me to find time to sit and be with it. Not so easy in modernity when life is so much about multitasking, and it’s so very hard to actually sit and just be with a book, without any other call on your time. Audible ebooks? I keep company with them while I’m driving, while I’m hanging out the clothes, cooking in the kitchen, putting away the laundry, cleaning the house and even after setting it to ‘Sleep’ for 10 minutes, just before going to sleep myself. My hairstyle doesn’t matter anymore because it can’t be seen below the headphones permanently attached to my ears.
As I left the library with my copy of our new ‘must read’, I checked out the book, turning it over in my hands: it was a Vintage Publication from 1998. Only a couple of hundred pages and nine chapters. Lots of descriptive bits and not much dialogue and it looked a bit old fashioned. Hardly a perceptive appraisal fit for a book group … I was so hooked on the audible books, on the ease with which I could incorporate reading this way into my life I was loathe to have nothing on my IPad, no audible file to tap into, I was resentful and didn’t really feel like reading an actual hard copy, a real book, so I did borrow something audible to keep me going.
But I digress: I decided that if I actually sat down and read about a chapter a day I could finish the book in less than a fortnight, return it to the library on time as it couldn’t be extended, and actually be ready for discussion at my next book group meeting towards the end of the month. That would be a first. I had been treating the book group as a social club after having been told that there were two types of book groups: those that drink and those that read the books. Well, this one did both. Clearly I need to make more of an effort with my social life, but like anything in midlife, there’s such a lot of effort involved, isn’t there?
I opened the book. It instantly flicked open to somewhere in the middle, somewhere in the middle of a chapter called ‘The Nardoo Stones’ [what the hell are Nardoo Stones, I asked myself]? It had flicked open as if destined to by a returning reader who had bookmarked the page. I was not that reader, but I instantly got a glimpse of the someone who might have been. The book had flicked open because inside it were a series of six – not the old traditional four – colour passport-sized photos all in one piece, uncut falling out of the book and on to the seat of the car.
I picked up the photos and looked surprisingly at them. I instantly smiled inwardly to myself, thinking that this was probably a series of photos of the last person who’d borrowed this book from their local library across the other side of the city. I imagined that they, as we all do when we have to be practical had had the photographs taken somewhere, possibly in a photo booth at a local shopping centre, and, when they were ready in order to not damage them had slipped them into something that would protect them, something that was handy, something that would slip open easily and be accessible when they got home, something that had recently also been picked up perhaps, that had a reason to be opened again soon as it had a ‘due date’ attached to it, and was still sitting in a handbag: the book from the library.
The photos were colour and were of good quality, but perhaps not from a photographic studio, who would most likely deliver the photographs to customers affixed to some sort of protective card or board that would also include a logo for the store, as you wouldn’t miss a marketing opportunity if you were in business, would you? Out from the white frames looked a face, scrutinising me with no affective tone at all. Yes, these were definitely passport style or identity photos, but for what purpose?
The face looking out of the photos at me was that of a woman. She was middle-aged, a bit older, judging from the jowly neckline. Her hair was neat, short, and a white grey. It wasn’t particularly styled or coiffured, but neatly combed with a left-sided part. Her skin was creamy and pale and had that soft-looking texture associated with age that contrasts so much with the firmness of younger skin. Her skin, slightly darkened around the eyes, and falling as women of a particular age’s faces do, between the eyes, around the mouth, crashing on the neckline betraying or supplying us with a history of having lived, depending on your perspective.
Her eyes were blue, a dark grey blue, contrasting with the makeup that she wore: some foundation possibly some eyeshadow and bright red lipstick that filled her lips, but inappropriately glossy for a photo such as this. The lipstick matched the little bit of her garments that could be seen, telling the viewer something of the way this woman presented herself to the world, especially on this occasion, an important occasion where identity was being captured in a frame, that would be inserted into documentation, stamped and sealed and kept as a standing record of one’s ‘who-ness’.
In the photo she’s wearing a collarless shirt; it looks like a T-shirt, and somehow far too casual for this sort of photograph. There’s too much skin exposed around the neckline, it’s too summery a shot for such a formal requirement, as if the capture of summer didn’t qualify as a ‘real’ photo of the self. The T-shirt is red, with horizontal white stripes which can just be seen around the top of the shoulder line. This tells me something of the woman, who wouldn’t be fat, because we all know what a mortal enemy horizontal stripes are to the obese. And vertical stripes stretch too…
She looked straight ahead, straight into the lens of the camera, as we’re all instructed to do when taking identity photographs. On the production line and on the authority of asserting, depicting, supplying, confirming and assuring of one’s identity you must NOT SMILE.
One’s identity must be neutral, even if you’re always smiling, laughing and animated in your normal everyday life, or conversely a morose, sad, anxious or angry person, your essential identity for capture in this form must comply with that of a living corpse: eyes open and the one bit of your whole body that communicates so much to be held hostage so that not a bit of feeling animates your face at all, as if a smile or frown would somehow invalidate who you ‘really’ were.
So while she’s not wearing a collar on her shirt, she is wearing ear rings [how come they let those through, you wonder], the style that sit close on your ears and look like clip-ons. I have to squint up close to get a good look at them. They’re gold and look like they’ve got three rows of small dark stones on them, rows that run down vertically angled from the outer part of the earlobe to the inner part. Where are these from? The local jewellery store? Seen and then bought because of a sale brochure for a jewellery chain that was found in the mailbox? Mock ups from the local department store? Or something of beauty, and great cost that the woman couldn’t part with wearing, something that spoke of an essential ‘look’ that she inwardly held about herself and that included the framing and adornment and the signs of wealth that these pieces of jewellery held for her. It’s an attractive look, but one that coupled with the lipstick and makeup seem to sit in contrast with the casual attire she’s wearing.
I try to imagine how she’s standing or sitting while having the photograph taken. Is she worried about her trousers creasing? Is she wearing a skirt with the red and white striped T shirt? Did she, as so many women do, fold her skirt underneath her legs as she sat down? Behind her is the starkness of a white background and I wonder if it’s a wall, or more likely a pull-down screen that shields the subject from any hint of the context of everyday life that might be occurring in the background. Identity is not contextual, that is the clear message that we’re being given and that we give when we have these photos taken and supply them on demand to various authorities that seek them. NO CONTEXT they scream, as if it’s even an affront for people to show anything of adornment or individuality, for photos that are supposed to well, differentiate us from each other through capturing some sense of well, individuality…
It must have been taken on a warm day as her neck was so bare, and there weren’t any cardigans, scarves, jumpers or jackets to be seen anywhere. It’s the end of Winter here in Sydney now, so if the photos had been taken and then put inside the novel, they must have been sitting in the library and on the shelves for at least a season, or perhaps more. Had the woman lost them? Had she – as we often do – had the photos taken and then forgotten about them? Had her plans changed and she no longer needed them, and hadn’t thought about them before the book had had to be returned to the library? Had she turned the house, the car and her handbag upside down, reassuring and convincing herself that she had had the photographs taken, she really had as she searched through her bedside drawer and handbag again for the umpteenth time?
Photos such as these are very stark. Taken as they usually for a specific purpose they exist counter to the nature of photography in the modern era with its spontaneous selfies and unlimited digital imaging. This is reminiscent of finding black and white film undeveloped but still sitting in a box brownie. While ID photos serve to differentiate persons from one another in a quantitative sense, they are not animated in a qualitative sense by the very thing that makes us human: the richness of our expressiveness and our emotional life. Devoid of such, identity photos depict us as products, as citizens of a state machine, to be numbered and differentiated from each other by the barest of markers: our hair and facial features, the ultimate determinants of our modern day personal identity.
Was she going on holiday? Updating her passport photos? Using them for membership of a new organisation? Where are photos required that our current forms of identity do not suffice? Most agencies accept our state driver’s licenses as adequate forms of identity, simply because they too have a photo and your signature, that other means that serves to tell the world that you have certified this to be you.
The woman’s photos now serve as my own bookmark and my reading of ‘The Road from Coorain’ will always be inextricably linked with the face of this woman. I have to think and link the two things together in my own mind now too. Why did she choose this book? Was it foisted on her as it had been on me? Was she indeed an Australian trying to find out something of the white history of the country in which she’d been born? Or was she a traveller, or a migrant who was reading this on the recommendation of someone who thought that the book was a great insight into life on the land? As I’d found the photos part way through the book, I wondered if indeed she’d got past where I’m up to now, and had she finished it? The book had clearly been returned to the library, but the photos hadn’t found their way to their own destiny.
What if something had happened to the woman before she’d used the photos for their purpose? What if she’d become ill, had an accident or suddenly – God forbid – what if she’d died? Who knew? In any of these circumstances the book would have eventually been returned to the library, it would have taken its rightful place on the shelves, been marked as returned and back in the fold of the repository of knowledge administered locally through the care of the local librarians. The book, Jill Kerr Conway, she was taken care of, but what of the woman in the photograph? What had happened to her?
I look at her face and think that like Jill Kerr Conway, this woman too may have been born around the same time. I’m googling ‘Jill Kerr Conway date of birth’ and come up with October 9th, 1934. I closely look at the woman in the photo and don’t think that she’s 80 years old yet. But there are age spots on her neck which might also be on her face, covered and well minimised with an application of foundation as it is. Was she reading a story about a contemporaneous woman her own age? Even her own era? Was this a reading of ‘if only…?” Was she reading to fill in the gaps of history? Was she an avid biography reader? Had she travelled to the places mentioned in the book? Or was she wanting to go there at all?
Now I looked at her and wondered. What happened when the equanimity and Buddha-like serenity we all express in these photos was suddenly broken? How would this woman’s features re arrange themselves on her face? What have her years of living, of sociality, of being in the world and belonging tell us as she returns to animate her features to interact with people? Will she slip into an easy smile? Or is her nature that of the grouch who is always irritable and in a hurry? Is she graceful, elegant and aloof? Or an intellectual critic? Gentle, loving, mean, angry, a victim, a hoarder, an angel, a great neighbour, a grieving widow, a woman of the night, a blogger, a secretary, a CEO, a chef, a beautician, hairdresser or a housewife?
She looks like she’s taken the time to care for herself, to present this face to us, so what then would she sound like? Is she empathic, motherly, even grandmotherly and caring? Is she mean-spirited? Would she laugh about having lost the photos and chide herself for her thoughtlessness and prepare to have the photos redone, or would she berate herself and others for losing them and despise the fact that she had to respend money on something again?
I suddenly realise that I haven’t looked at the back of the photos. This tells me something: the photos are printed upside down on Kodak Xtralife Paper. The paper is thin and as I look at the edge I realise that it looks like it’s been cut unevenly, probably with a pair of scissors. Have the photos been taken and printed up at home? And then taken for their purpose slipped in between the pages of ‘The Road to Coorain’?
I’m weary now of thinking about her, of wondering about this woman in the photo with her red lips, her red and white striped top, her bare neck, what these all indicate; her life and her fate. But both of these are about identity, about a woman’s portrayal of herself through a set of images that determine her identity, while the other too is about the identity of Jill Kerr Conway herself. The Road to Coorain is the first of three books that address her life. In one form we have a stark visual form, a shorthand form for confirmation of oneself while the other presents us with hours of reading forming image and meaning in our mind that deepen as we read.
The woman in the photo fell out of a page of Jill Kerr Conway’s biography, and, while I don’t really think that the photo and the author or the place are intertwined, in postmodernity that doesn’t mean to say that they’re not linked, and thinking about all this has taught me that I won’t ever find out the truth and since that is the case, in my own mind they always will be.