“Most people Sandra’s age can tell you in detail about how they came up, about the excitements and tragedies of being a young adult out in the world for the first time. This isn’t because their brains are any better than Sarah’s or because they did less drugs or drank less or had kinder childhood. It is because they’ve told their stories more often. Because they were consistently surrounded by friends or parents or partners or children who were interested in seeing them as a whole person. This is how true connection occurs…” (‘The Trauma Cleaner’ by Sarah Krasnostein)
BRISBANE – I used author Sarah Krasnostein’s reflections to introduce my contribution to the first of Vanessa Gordon’s ‘Shame and Other Things’ series of panel discussions, which drew a full house in Brisbane recently.
It was an opportunity to demonstrate to the audience how powerful storytelling can be as an aid for deepening understanding of often complex social issues. This has been one of the many skills I have refined through my Paga Hill writer’s fellowship, which is now coming to an end.
During the past six months, to bolster my many fellowship activities, I have purchased books and magazines that would help me along the way and Krasnostein’s ‘The Trauma Cleaner’ was a prize inclusion as I pursued the dedication to individual human rights which is one of the drivers that motivate me in the pursuit of equality, harmony, progress and, of course, a flourishing Papua New Guinea literature.
After four years of research and writing, ‘The Trauma Cleaner’ emerged. It is a biographic portrait of Australian woman, Sandra Pankhurst, who was born Peter.
It is an account of the social exclusion and self-hatred experienced, from childhood into adulthood as Sandra grapples with feelings and questions about gender identity.
In an era obsessed with shaming and rejecting individuals who are outside society’s ‘norms’, in 1980 Sandra was one of the first people in Australia to undergo gender reassignment.
Sandra has led a fascinating life. She has had multiple name changes, relocations, relationships and jobs. ‘The Trauma Cleaner’ details what Sandra had to do to find her place in a world that has been unwelcoming, casual and intentional in its cruelty.
Shunned by family and loved ones, bouts of homelessness and subjected to the depravity of sexual assault have all been part of her life.
This is confronting and heartbreaking stuff and, through the sensitivity in Krasnostein’s writing, it establishes a genuine connection with the reader. In allowing her story to be told, Sandra’s resilience, non-judgemental nature and fortitude is illuminated.
SPEAKING at the Sydney Writer’s Festival in May, Sarah Krasnostein revealed that, as a matter of craft, her own ‘presence’ on the page was crucial in acting as a bannister for the reader. Seated in the audience, I came to admire with a full heart Sandra’s bravery in trusting Krasnostein to put in print her emotional vulnerabilities.
In turn, I appreciated Krasnostein’s approach as a conduit to humanising an issue that people have often viewed judgmentally. Here is writing that encourages reconciliation, compassion and advocacy, which – guided by a skilled author – are fully experienced by the reader.
PREPARING for Vanessa Gordon’s ‘Shame and Other Things’ event, I thought deeply about Krasnostein’s comments, Sandra’s lived experiences and the effect on us when such accounts are recorded through literature.
It caused me to reflect on how, over the past 18 months, I have noticed a steady increase in the number of Papua New Guineans prepared to use social media to openly discuss the ugliness of assault and battery, family violence, misogyny, mental health and child prostitution.
The connection with the vision of Vanessa Gordon’s unfolding series is clear. ‘Shame and Other Things’ provides a safe and respectful forum, where Papua New Guineans and other Pacific Islanders are encouraged to speak about issues often deemed shameful.
By meeting face-to-face, individuals are encouraged to identify and discuss their own gaps and disjoints with others; others who are ready and willing to see one as a whole person. If even for just a few hours, everyone in that room truly connected through their personal stories.
We all look forward to the continuation of Vanessa’s important initiative and the continued growth, unsteady as it may be, of a Papua New Guinean literature which will support and promote its important objectives of recognition, reconciliation and self-respect – and, eventually, reform.
This article was prepared for the My Walk to Equality Writer Fellowship 2018 sponsored by Paga Hill Development Company. The fellowship commenced in mid-March 2018 and will conclude at the end of September 2018. Information and regular updates of activities undertaken by fellowship recipient, Rashmii Bell, may be found here or via Twitter: @amoahfive_oh