Dear Ms. Leading – Benjamin Knight

A review of work performed at the Emerging Writers’ Festival 2017

  Ben Knight and I meet up in the common area on level 2 of Building 9 at RMIT on a Wednesday. Despite the fact that we were supposed to have five hours of classes together that day, he was only there for our interview. His girlfriend sitting next to him, he tells me they’re heading to Asian Beer Café after we’re done talking, because ‘the only real reason to come in to the city is the cheap jugs.’ When the conversation progresses to a debate over whether rollies or pre-made cigarettes are better, I grow to love how much Ben embraces being a cliché Creative Writing student. If he were a character I wrote, I’d be pretty happy with the merging of stereotype and real-life Arts student that is represented in Ben. My experience of Creative Writing students is that they are usually fairly slack in regards to attending class, but they make up for their sometimes strained work ethic when it comes to the act of writing and performing. The apathy they harbour for classroom-based learning is often counteracted by their passion. Ben Knight is a perfect example of this.
  When Ben does come to class, he spends his breaks writing in the Dome Reading Room in The State Library. It was here that he initially conceived of his idea for his stage play, entitled Dear Ms. Leading, which will be performed at the RMIT Horizons Salon, Double Exposure. The event will be run in partnership with the City of Melbourne’s Emerging Writers’ Festival. Beginning his creative process with free association, the first word that popped into the writer’s mind was “frogs”. From there, the idea came to him fully formed.
  Dear Ms. Leading is different and more obscure in form than Knight’s previous work, the stage play still gives itself away as Knight’s writing to those who have read him before. The author’s M.O. is writing about serious themes, made lighter by humour (usually in the form of jokes about masturbation). In his own words, everything he writes starts off as funny, and then gets serious.
 I can only write things that are stupid or depressing,’ says Knight. It’s difficult to tell if he’s annoyed or proud of this fact. While there aren’t any penis references in Dear Ms. Leading, fans of Knight’s work won’t be disappointed with this tale of lies and deception, speckled with sexts between drug addicts and a good dose of truly terrible WordArt.
  Although Knight is adamant that there was no motive behind writing this work, he believes the topics of child and drug abuse – explored in Dear Ms. Leading – are concerns that should be discussed in creative arenas. Knight finds inspiration in his favourite television show, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad (2008), viewing it as a way to represent personal and societal issues (cancer and drug syndicates) within a narrative that enthrals the reader via in-depth characterisation.
 The author is particularly interested in drugs, and the ways in which they can influence a story. Comparing Breaking Bad and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), Knight emphasises the different routes their central characters take as a result of their interaction with narcotics. He is fascinated by the way Breaking Bad’s Walter White becomes a powerful, confident manufacturer of methamphetamine, while the audience sees Requiem’s protagonist, Harry, destroy his life with his use of heroin. Moreover, when it comes to subject matter, Knight’s primary focus is human nature, and the way each person is affected differently by his or her circumstances. This interest has been the concept behind the novel Knight is in the process of writing, in which the central character ingests a drug that makes him able to hear music objectively so he can make an album that he’s been stuck on for five years, but has dire consequences in that he cannot hear emotion in music or voice as a result.
 The process of writing Dear Ms. Leading was something that Knight thought about a lot, due to its contentious subject matter. As this piece was created to be performed in a public sphere, he felt obliged to think about what he is saying about drug and child abuse as an issue that affects people in a global context. While Ben does not have any personal connections to those negatively impacted by these problems, he does find it crucial to emphasise the importance of having a free discussion around these topics.
 ‘In creating a dialogue through creative means,’ iterates Knight, ‘it provides a safe space for those who are suffering from these matters to come forward.’ As the writer of the work, he is slightly offended that the producers of the Double Exposure event have asked him to begin his stage play with a trigger warning. While he understands the value of making the audience aware of the subject matter explored before his performance begins, Knight is also apprehensive as it gives away his storyline. When discussing controversial material and censorship, he becomes passionate in his stance. He stops looking absentmindedly into the distance and his posture straightens.
 ‘Restricting artistic expression is bullshit.’ His voice is louder than before.
 ‘Writers should be able to say whatever they want. And I know I’m not supposed to say this, but you can write it down it you want.’ There’s a slight pause.
 ‘I would never say “nigger” in my real life, but if I want to say it in print, I should be able to, and be able to do it without getting into trouble.’
I’m not sure I’m fully onboard with this notion, so I ask Knight to explain his point further.
 ‘A person should be able to use any means to put forth their ideas. That’s the point of all of this. It should be about the art above all else. You are not your characters.’
When I tell him I agree with him, he’s noticeably more relaxed. Knight is clearly a sufferer of the artist problem of being really headstrong, but also secretly needing someone else to assure him he’s right.
 For months, the artists performing at the Emerging Writers’ Festival have been told that this festival is a celebration of storytellers of all kinds. When I ask Knight if he sees himself as a storyteller, he tries to make the distinction between writers and storytellers. He decides that a writer’s purpose is to construct something cohesive, insightful, and succinct. A storyteller’s aim is to recount a happening in a fun, memorable and almost obnoxious way. A storyteller, Knight thinks, is that person who always needs to be the loudest in the room.
 ‘The main difference between the two is that writers are smart, but you don’t need to be intelligent to be a storyteller.’
I tell Ben he’s avoiding answering my question. He pretends to ponder for a second, then says, ‘Yeah, I guess I’m a storyteller.’ Deep. Considering Dear Ms. Leading contains the line, ‘I want my best friend to be a robot and not a star,’ I’d say he’s hit the nail on the head when it comes to his thoughts on intellect not being a crucial character trait for the storyteller.
 Although the author did not initially intend to create a political work, Ben Knight’s Dear Ms. Leading is a piece that has something meaningful to say about the issues at its core. As is true of all of Knight’s work, frivolity and jest have been employed to mask the insightfulness of the writer, but it is obvious to the audience that this piece will inspire conversation and word-of-mouth acclaim to those who witness or read the stage play. It is a work that Knight one day wants to transform into a longer piece (he is thinking about using the outline of the piece as a springboard for a novel or full-length cinematic script). As the work is soaked with Knight’s characteristic wit, which is coupled with his love of exploring real-life drama, I don’t think Knight will have any trouble drumming up interest or continuing the narrative of Dear Ms. Leading.
 Recently, outside of our interviews and in class breaks, Ben and I have taken to inflicting on ourselves the worst torture known to man: consuming the $1 7/11 coffee. As we venture through the construction zone that is RMIT, we discuss stories from the weekend, what we’re going to do with ourselves when we’re no longer students, and how adorable our teacher looks in her myriad of cat-themed jumpers. The coffee at 7/11 is granulated, watery sludge. I suggest that maybe we should go to Starbucks instead. Their coffee is no roasted blend made by orphans in Peru made solely for a singular coffee cart in Degraves Street with an unpronounceable name, but it’s certainly a step up from our Old Faithful. I’ve read enough of Ben’s writing to predict what his response will be before he says it, but I listen anyway:
 ‘Fuck that! If you’ve got $6 to spend on a flat white, be my guest!’
We walk back to class, and as I scrunch my face up after each sip of the $1 boiling vomit liquid in my hand, I’m grateful to Ben for the conversation that makes it bearable.

Review: Helen Garner’s This House of Grief

In 1995, Helen Garner published The First Stone, a non-fiction novel based on a sexual harassment case that occurred at The University of Melbourne’s Ormond College. The novel attracted negative attention for the way in which the author examined the events in question (Gallagher n. d.). Critics condemned Garner, arguing that her prose “undermined the (feminist) cause by seeking out the point of view of a male defendant” (Giles 1997). Garner’s latest release, This House of Grief (2014), sees the former journalist falling into the same familiar habit of empathising with the perpetrator. The new non-fiction account is concerned with the case of Robert Farquharson, the man convicted for the drowning deaths of his three sons on Father’s Day 2005, when the car he was driving flew into a dam in Winchelsea, near Geelong, Victoria. One of the most notorious cases in Australian history, it is safe to assume that almost every media consumer in the country believes with unwavering certainty in either Farquharson’s guilt, or his innocence. Helen Garner, it seems, is the exception to this rule. Writing as an observer of the court case involving trails and appeals that spanned seven years, Garner has provided the Australian public with the inside information behind this tragedy. Her audience is not only comprised of those affected and citizens who are still horrified by the events years after they occurred. The novel reveals itself to be a form of published catharsis. In her meticulous research and self-confessed obsession, This House of Grief has been written equally to answer the reader’s questions, as much as the questions Garner ponders, herself.
    Reading the novel, I became so immersed in the murder case proceedings that I could not prevent myself from discussing the content with those around me. A quick mention of the Farquharson name solicited a leap into the conversation, each person busting to put forth his or her opinion. This phenomenon was an outcome of the publicity the case received, coupled with the familiarity of Garner’s name in the writing community of Australia. As Kerryn Goldsworthy contends, “Her name and its meanings have become part of Australian public culture” (Goldsworthy 1996). A former journalist for Australian newspapers and literary magazines, Garner has the fact-finding skills of a reporter, and the observational talents of a novelist, utilising both competencies in her exploration of the Farquharson case. True crime and non-fiction have become Garner’s signature forms of writing, as evidenced in contemporary novels The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law (2004). These works substantiate Cathy Alexander’s claim that Garner has “made a career out of forensic crime writing” (2012). In The Whites of Their Eyes, David Leser quotes Garner’s long-time publisher, Diana Gribble, stating, “She (Garner) is constantly exploring concepts of honourable behaviour, and how it is possible to live with honour. That’s how I think she stands apart from the rank and file of Australian writing” (Leser 1999). Garner stands out as an Australian commentator and critic of true events, which complements her interest in this case that has become an indelible aspect of our nation’s history. It was the story’s rural setting that engaged the public, shattering illusions of sleepy small towns and a carefree Australian way of life. Winchelsea, says Garner in This House of Grief, is a place so small that “everyone would know your business.” It was with this imagery of a picturesque town that the media recognised an emotive angle, sensationalising Robert Farquharson as a monster who disrupted the peace. What Helen Garner’s impartiality gives back to the audience is the power to see the characters in the tragedy for what they are.
    Describing the landscape in the opening pages, Garner says of Geelong, “We were familiar with its melancholy beauty, the grand smooth sweeps of its terrain.” This connection to the landscape, which is treated as the crime scene in the murder trial, is just one of many emotional resonances that ignited Garner’s curiosity. As she grew up in regional Geelong, the author recalled the sight of the Winchelsea dam in which the children drowned when she heard about the case for the first time. In a subtle reference, the author speaks of her experience with terminated marriages by introducing her companion, saying, “Each of us had found it in herself to endure – but also to inflict – the pain and humiliation of divorce.” Following on from this confessional technique, Garner makes a point to include cameo appearances of her young grandsons in the novel, prompting the audience to compare the boys to the Farquharson brothers. This literary tactic inspires the reader to register the traits that her grandsons share with the drowned victims. In mentioning her grandchildren and her divorce, Garner proves to her audience that she can empathise with the mother of the Farquharson boys, Cindy Gambino, and has a right to tell the family’s story. As a result of former criticism that has suggested Garner has been guilty of “emotional crimes” (Legge 2008), she is careful to make her sympathy known for those affected throughout the trial. Taking a different approach, another book was released in 2013 about the Farquharson case by Megan Norris, entitled, On Father’s Day. Having interviewed and formed a relationship with Cindy Gambino, Norris tells the grieving mother’s story, insisting on Farquharson’s guilt. Garner instead opts for what Delys Bird has labelled “insistent personalisation” – her prose is centred on her own contemplation of the court proceedings, asking questions rather than laying blame.
    As seen in Garner’s constant insertion of her grandsons into her personal reflection, the author continues the child symbolism when discussing Robert Farquharson as he appears in the dock. Garner compares the man to a child in a great number of instances, creating an image of Farquharson that is reminiscent of a scared little boy – “He stood in the box, facing the Crown’s Ms. Forrester with the stooped, appeasing posture of a kid expecting to be told off.” Carefully avoiding branding Farquharson as innocent or guilty, she makes excuses for Farquharson’s actions by repeatedly referring to him as emotionally underdeveloped or of below average intelligence, asking the question, “what had happened to him, or failed to happen to him, that kept him stuck in childhood?” While Garner remains an impartial observer for the majority of the prose, she makes strong efforts to undo the media’s portrayal of Farquharson as a monster. In discussing Farquharson as a common person – “I didn’t know what I was expecting, but he was ordinary. A man” – Garner argues that even if this man has indeed committed an unforgivable act, he remains a real human being. This humanising continues in Garner’s descriptions of the defence lawyer who represented Farquharson throughout his trials, Peter Morrissey, SC. The barrister’s personality and charm fills Garner’s prose, documenting his exchanges – “Again and again he had to be pulled up by the judge for referring to his client as ‘Rob’ instead of ‘Mr. Farquharson’. It embarrassed him but he could not seem to help it.” Much the same as her treatment of the defendant in The First Stone, Garner reveals her nepotism in favour of the underdog, displaying skills of swaying the audience to sympathise with traditionally unlikable characters, while continuing to highlight negative and positive aspects of each party.
    While readers may not agree with Garner’s tactics when discussing the case of Robert Farquharson, it would be difficult to claim that the background information she brings to the case is not effective in influencing the reader. In This House of Grief the facts surrounding the tragedy that occurred on September 4, 2005, are laid bare, giving the Australian public an impartial account of events that was never available in the media’s biased portrayal of circumstances. With Helen Garner as the reader’s neutral guiding light, the antics of the courtroom become interesting, making a narrative consolidated by dense, heavy subject matter an enjoyable read, while still maintaining the severity of the case. Maybe the most prominent matter of discussion throughout Helen Garner’s text is an indirect examination of the Australian legal system, and they way in which emotions can influence judgement. The final passage of This House of Grief speaks of Jai, Tyler and Bailey Farquharson, stating, “Every stranger grieves for them. Every stranger’s heart is broken. The children’s fate is our legitimate concern. They are ours to mourn. They belong to all of us now.” The magnitude of this case leaves all Australians with a sense of ownership over the children and the story, so it is important that information is given to the public that represents both sides equally. I am still unsure as to where I stand in regards to Farquharson’s guilt or innocence, but as a result of Helen Garner’s labouring, I feel as though I have finally been given adequate information to determine that decision for myself.

References:

Alexander, C 2012, ‘Helen Garner cheats death – unlike some of her subjects’, Crikey, November 23, 2012, .

Bird, D 1996, ‘More Questions About Sex and Power and The First Stone’, Overland 142: 48 – 51.

Gallagher, R n. d., ‘Helen Garner’s The First Stone’, weblog post, rhiannagallagher.com, viewed October 11, 2015, .

Garner, H 2014, This House of Grief, Text Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria.

Garner, H 1995, The First Stone, Picador Pan Macmillan, Sydney, New South Wales.

Garner, H 2004, Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law, Picador Pan Macmillan, Sydney, New South Wales.

Giles, F 1997, Bodyjamming edited by Jenna Mead, reviewed in the Australian Humanities Review (November 1997).

Goldsworthy, K 1996, Australian Writers: Helen Garner, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria.

Legge, K 2008, ‘Truly Helen’, The Australian, March 29, 2008,
.

Leser, D 1999, The Whites in Their Eyes, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, New South Wales.

Norris, M 2013, On Father’s Day, Five Mile Press, Scoresby, Victoria.