Autobiography is an impossible genre. Memoir is easier – the writer is allowed to present an aspect of their life, to create a story out of one of its strands or seasons. Autobiography has to try to include them all. The desire to remember and record names, dates, and places is in the tension with the need to craft a narrative. And different phases of life require quite different types of writing which might not go together. The problems of autobiography are on show in Justina Williams’ Anger and Love (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993), but it’s an important, fascinating text.
Western Australian Joan Williams (1914-2008), who wrote as Justina, was a communist, a journalist, and a writer whose dedicated activism spanned from the 1930s to the 1990s. I was drawn to her autobiography because she was a friend of Katharine Susannah Prichard, yet it was the opening chapters of the book detailing her childhood which I found most compelling. I think the first chapters of autobiography are often the best, perhaps because of the dream-like quality of childhood memories; perhaps because writers are more conscious of their prose at the beginning of the manuscript. Williams’ childhood was spent at Kendenup near Albany in the 1920s, as the charming and eccentric CJ de Garis coaxed many families to buy into a scheme to grow, dehydrate, and can vegetables. Williams conveys poignantly the shifts in perception over time as she, her family, and the other residents come to realise that the egotistical saviour figure they have all trusted is a charlatan.
The rest of the book is set largely in Perth as Williams moves to the city to pursue a career as a cadet journalist, radicalises in her politics, and puts herself at the forefront of activist struggles across the decades, from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam. I loved the portrait of Perth in the mid-century, her conveying of intrigue and drama in suburbs I know. Who would’ve thought there had been an active communist branch in affluent Nedlands?
Williams is more honest than many, and records experiences that would usually have been covered over and lost to history, including sex and abortion. Yet even though she’s honest, she’s not particularly perceptive about herself. Perhaps it’s the lack of ambivalence or doubt which makes me uneasy, but then I see those things as the most honest responses to much of life. Often certainty – anger, as the title suggests – is much more effective at driving action, and Williams seems a person of action. The narrative stops quite suddenly at the end of the Vietnam War protests, as if she was running out of energy or pages. There is no proper reckoning with the shadow of Stalin and the Soviet Union. ‘As a communist, I’ve made my mistakes and no doubt will make many more,’ she concludes, ‘and so will communist parties in any part of the world. But I am sustained by the belief that the scientific theory of Marxism holds the key to a just social system.’
Justina Williams’ second marriage, to Victor Williams (1914-2011), was a happy and productive partnership. They lived in Willagee for decades, just a few kilometres from where I was living with my grandparents of the same generation when I moved to Perth in 1999. In Vic’s obituary, I learned of him ‘locking arms with young comrades during the 2001 M1 blockade of the stock exchange’. I was there that day; it was a formative experience in my twenties and the inciting incident for my failed second novel, The Zealot. I wish I’d known about Vic so I could have witnessed his presence and remembered it – but I’m also just grateful to learn of this point of connection to Vic and Joan.
Justina Williams Anger & Love Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993, 247pp, ISBN: 9781863680417.
-Saturday 10am post #1