Press Room contributor Bridget Lutherborrow reviews Saturday evening’s panel, It’s All in the Family, with Zoya Patel, Giselle Nguyen, Roz Bellamy, and Lachlan Brown. (Photo by Bri Lee)
It can be difficult for any kind of writer to juggle the content of their work with the expectations of their nearest and dearest. Sometimes the person on the page – even if you’re not writing about yourself – is not the person you want certain people to see. But fiction writers have imagination to hide behind. It can be a lot more confronting when you’re straight up writing about your family, which is what this panel’s all about.
Zoya Patel completely nails her hosting role. The other panellists are fantastic too, but it’s her focus and tenacity as a moderator that helps them shine. The conversation is so incredibly even, not just in terms of speaking time, but in terms of perspective and contribution – every single one of them has something unique and interesting to add to the discussion. It helps that the panel is diverse, with families from a range of backgrounds. A lot of discussion centres around race, cultural differences between parents and children. Diversity improves this panel so visibly, without explicitly being its focus.
The panel face varying degrees of acceptance from their families. Zoya Patel has suffered some estrangement from her family, and although they speak to her now, they’re very much unsupportive of her writing. In Indian culture, she says, people don’t share their difficulties and short-fallings. On the flip side poet Lachlan Brown – who is currently writing about his grandmother’s hoarding – shares how his mother enjoys his writing, finding it therapeutic. He admits that it’s difficult to write about his family and be respectful of each individual, because everyone is seeing everyone else in different ways, everyone is hanging shit on everyone else in different ways – the goal is just to represent that complexity.
When the panel are asked if all memoir comes back to family, Giselle Nguyen admits that, at least for her, it does. “I was raised the way I was raised, because they were raised the way they were raised,” she notes. And this is a defining part of how she moves through the world. Giselle says she writes about her family because sometimes she struggles to connect the difficult times her family faced when making a new life in Australian – which was before she came along, but still impacted her upbringing. Writing helps her connect to that.
Roz Bellamy found it beneficial to let some time pass before writing about the tough times with her family and her partner’s. Now that things have improved she can put something out into the world with more confidence that her relationships are strong enough to survive it. On the flip side, both Roz and Zoya agree, writing about family tension can be a huge block when things are good.
The panel discuss the ethics of telling stories about family members they might not want to have told. Someone from the audience asks if it’s the relationships the panellists want to preserve or if it’s a matter of respect – “Would it matter if they were dead?” Giselle notes that her father is a celebrity within his community and so any fallout goes further than her own relationships, while Zoya is very much about maintaining some semblance of peace. “These thing happened to me, so surely I have a right to tell them,” she says. Wrapping up, someone asks if it’s worth it. There’s so much trauma and fraughtness in writing about family, are there any positives? Lachlan’s answer is obvious – fidelity to his mother, representing her story in a way she was never able to, is so valuable. But Giselle sums it up best by turning attention to the reader. These fraught family narratives might help someone else through who is feeling alienated from their family or they might show society something relevant about acceptance. We need these stories, she says, even if they are hard to tell.