On page 197 of a book I’ve just finished reading is a photograph that blew my mind. In one way, it’s just an everyday happy-snap: a well-groomed mother is standing against a lounge-room curtain and holding up her baby daughter for the camera. The baby girl is dressed in white; perhaps she’s on her way to her christening. The mother – the adoring mother – raises the baby girl high so that she has to look up, so she can admire her creation, her responsibility. The baby girl doesn’t look back at her mother; instead she looks to the camera, though not actually into the camera lens – she sees something off to one side, something that everyone else seems to be ignoring. But what blew my mind is this: the baby girl has her hand to her mother’s chin, as if she’s already pushing her away.
The book is Bite Your Tongue. The baby girl is the book’s author, Francesca Rendle-Short. And the mother is the author’s mother, Dr Angel Rendle-Short, Christian extremist, morals crusader, and book burner.
Recently I spent two hours in the company of Francesca Rendle-Short, and good company she is. She is thoughtful, engaging, and despite her familial background – or because of it – she laughs a lot, at herself, at her mother, who she describes as a ‘colossal character’, her siblings (she’s one of six), at her whole story, how absurd things can be, but how good it is to have reading and writing to make sense of it all. She loves irony so much that if she could turn it into a cup of tea she would.
Rendle-Short has been many things in her life: radio producer, editor, art gallery worker, and mother of two now-adult children. She has a Doctor of Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong. ‘My mother would have been appalled!’ Recently, along with her partner, the cartoonist and writer Judy Horacek, Rendle-Short relocated from Canberra to Melbourne where she is Program Director of Creative Writing at RMIT University. As well as Bite Your Tongue, she is the author of the novel Imago (1996) and the novella Big Sister (1989), and has written for the stage.
Rendle-Short is tall – statuesque is a good word – and many Canberrans will fondly recall her wild shock of pink-grey hair that looks both sculptured and just a bit out of control. She likes to wear clothes that she’s made by hand, even when, as she might freely admit (in the right company), they’re slightly skew-whiff.
Despite her blazingly fierce commitment to writing and language and ideas, Rendle-Short is the kind of woman who describes her students as “so cute!”, and I remember one particularly intense conversation a couple of years ago during which she jotted down notes with a pen attached to what can only be described as a foot-long aerial with a fluffy pink pom-pom on the end, the sort of flourish a film-maker might give to a ditzy, Paris Hilton-like character, someone who is all style but no substance. Except Francesca Rendle-Short is all style and all substance, with a potentially fathomless dose of complexity thrown in for good measure.
Bite Your Tongue mixes fiction and non-fiction as it explores growing up in Queensland in the 1970s with a mother who, driven by an intractable religious faith, developed a ‘death list’ of books to burn, a list that includes The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Lord of the Flies, amongst many others. By all accounts, Angel Rendle-Short was most effective, fronting major public meetings and getting politicians to listen to her and – what’s more – take her seriously.
Through her extensive campaigning to have these books struck off school curricula because, so she believed, they were rotten or pornographic or both, Angel Rendle-Short brought shame and embarrassment and confusion to her children, who simply wanted the space to be, well, children. One of the most harrowing sections of Bite Your Tongue (which the author describes as a story about ‘unbiting’) is when MotherJoy, Rendle-Short’s name for the mother character in the fictional strand of the book, uses a dead pig’s head to explain the female reproductive system.
How would Rendle-Short describe this ‘colossal’ character of her mother?
‘She was a very earthy person. She grew up in a tiny town in northern Ireland. Her mother was very earthy as well and loved to cook and make and sew. My mother was happiest cooking, although she hated cooking for the whole family. I think she hated the imperative of it, though quite liked being in the kitchen, just having fun. She had a make-do attitude. She also had enormous courage, of a conviction that I don’t aspire to or agree with, but she was really able to speak up.’
But what about her mother’s faith – what drove her to attempt to rid Australia of the best part of the literary canon? ‘She had this foundation of the Bible and Christianity as the key set of principles that she was working from. But of course it says in the Bible that women should bow in subjection to their husbands, that they’re not the head of the household, that they should keep silent, they should inhabit the home and not the public sphere. What I found extraordinary about my mother was that she was in so many ways a feminist woman.
‘Maybe I owe her something! Maybe I owe my feminist principles – oh my – to my mother!’ Rendle-Short pauses, as if wanting to re-hear her own words. ‘That’s a gift really, isn’t it,’ she says, amazed at this, her conclusion. ‘My mother had five girls and one boy and she gave us this sense that if you really wanted to do something you could.’
Not only is Bite Your Tongue a book about an ultra-zealous form of Christianity and its ongoing impact on one family, one woman in particular, it is also a quintessentially Queensland story.
Rendle-Short provides a guided tour.
‘Brisbane in the 1960s was a big country town and my mother had trouble understanding the language when she first arrived from England in 1961. It was very unsophisticated and separate from the rest of Australia. When I was growing up I didn’t know that you could cross the border and go to university. I thought all Queensland children had to go to university in Queensland. I really did think that was the rule.
‘While the rest of Australia was marching against the Vietnam War, in Queensland people were trying to protest the right to protest. Joh Bjelke-Petersen was saying that where three people are gathered on the street that’s enough to define a protest and we’ll call in the paddy-wagons. It’s against this background that my mother was able to garner community and political support.’
However, despite Bite Your Tongue being about Queensland in the 1970s, it is actually a book that has come out of Canberra.
‘From a writer’s point of view, Canberra is a wonderful place to write,” says Rendle-Short. “There’s something about the physical space that I love. The landscape itself – being on a limestone plain, with this beautiful sky, the purity of the air – these physical characteristics allow the imagination to soar and breathe.
‘There’s also something about Canberra being the capital of Australia, and that intrigued me, because Bite Your Tongue is a political book, uncovering and giving voice to the right in Australia, which most people dismiss. Being in Canberra while writing this book reminded me again and again about the political landscape. Queensland under Joh was so anti-Canberra. Canberra for him symbolised everything that was wicked and wrong and awful about the south.
‘My mother came to Canberra for a women’s electoral conference in, I think, 1975 and the talk around my family’s dinner table was always about Canberra being that ‘wicked place’. So it’s an irony to have written this book from this ‘wicked place’, and to have such key connections to it. And then the National Library of Australia and the National Archives – I found my mother in both those places.’ Which would, of course, be another irony.
After all the hard work of writing this deeply personal story, does Francesca Rendle-Short feel like she knows her mother any better? ‘No, I don’t! I think she’s unknowable. She’s so large, there’s a grotesqueness about her. She was so doctrinaire, and forceful and extreme, and without regard for other people.’
But you respect your mother, don’t you?
‘I do. And I find that extraordinary. When I started writing this story and wanted to set the record straight, I was really angry – my mother had had her say, now I wanted to have my say. And implicit in that was that I didn’t like what she’d had to say. But through the writing I’ve come to a position of respect for that democratic, humanitarian right that everyone has to express a view, even when you don’t like it, even when it hurts.’
As our interview gently comes to an end, though I would have been happy for it to go on for another two hours at least, I again look at that photograph on page 197, the proud mother holding up the beautiful baby girl. After all these years of pushing her mother away, has Francesca Rendle-Short come to a position of love?
‘Immediately you think, of course I love her. We love our family, don’t we?’ Rendle-Short laughs uncomfortably. She takes a moment to gather her thoughts. Her voice – her strong voice – quietens. ‘I found that the more I wrote this story the more I found that the hard edges have been softened out. So I can talk about softness, but I don’t know whether I can talk about the big L-word.’ But the laughter returns, as if there is a palpable relief in all of this. ‘Or even the little l-word! It’s such a tricky four-letter word, isn’t it!’
First published in The Canberra Times on 24 September 2011. Thanks to Francesca Rendle-Short and Gillian Lord.