Melbourne Writers Festival is passionate about fostering the next generation of readers through our Schools’ Program, with workshops and opportunities for students to meet Australian and international authors, artists, journalists and more. We also support teachers to share the wonderful world of reading with their students. In partnership with Reading Australia and the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, MWF presents a series of essays by Australian writers about the wonderful work of Australian writers they admire. These essays are teaching resources that complement the vast array of resources that are freely available through Reading Australia.
In this essay, Amy Gray takes a deeper look at Cate Kennedy’s collection of short stories, Dark Roots. Find more teaching resources on this book here.
Dark Roots and Short Story Writing
Short stories are often the unsung virtuosos of literature. Gone is the luxury of 80,000 words to leisurely unfurl a character, or build complex narratives to flesh out themes. No, short stories are our sprinters – they know every second counts and waste no time crossing large distances, they even make their phenomenal speed look easy.
With a short story you can fully capture a reader’s attention from start to finish in a single read, a rarity when it comes to literature. This opens a tantalising opportunity for the writer: what do they have to say, what feeling do they want to inject into their readers? The results can be a masterstroke of precision. It takes exceptional skill to balance both story and expression and transfer emotion to readers, forcing them to consider the shadowy recesses of their mind.
Australian literature is rich in short stories. Though it has been argued Australian writers were fixated on making sense of white colonial Australian identity in the shadow of European culture (think David Malouf’s Antipodes or the collected works of Henry Lawson), it has moved past this parochialism to explore other themes. They are unafraid to tackle big issues like gender (Peter Carey’s ‘Peeling’), multiculturalism (Janette Turner Hospital’s Dislocations) or oppression (Thea Astley’s It’s Raining in Mango).
Elizabeth Bowen argues that, freed from novels’ insistence on giving an ending, short stories instead often focus on aesthetic and moral truth. Again this turns our attention back to the reader, who Bowen says is uniquely affected by short stories’ use of moral truth and style because it places them alone on a ‘stage which, inwardly, every man is conscious of occupying alone’.
With a limited amount of time to capture and fill a reader’s attention, writers aim for impact over narrative information. This means their stories can have a single focus, that combines the real with the surreal (Peter Carey’s short story collection exploring consumerism, The Fat Man in History) and are designed to stir emotions or create a reaction.
This was the case in 1948, when Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’ was published in The New Yorker. Jackson drops us right into the story, with no exposition, only action and dialogue to give us slight hints about what would happen but never why it happened. The story, if you can imagine a proto–Hunger Games tale told with puritan restraint, so provoked readers that Jackson received hate mail for the rest of her life.
In many ways, Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots is reminiscent of Jackson’s work. Both pair sparse writing with evocative descriptions, dropping the reader in with nary an introduction to the story. Both writers are interested in seeing what people take as normal and what they fight against.
Collected from Kennedy’s impressive archive of published and unpublished award-winning short stories, Dark Roots takes the maxim that stories need conflict and piles it high, only to twist it. Story after story shows people responding to the darkness that surrounds them and the often surprising choices they can make.
It shouldn’t be surprising to find such deft expertise from a writer who has won as many awards for her short stories as Cate Kennedy. Winning The Age Short Story Competition twice in 2000 and 2001, she has also won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for her poetry and short stories and her novel The World Beneath won the People’s Choice Award in the 2010 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
Her familiarity across format and genre is on show with Dark Roots, where she switches from almost frugal writing to rich sentences that are thickly evocative. Kennedy knows where to expand and breathe and where to make it count.
Dark Roots immediately generated wild praise from critics and readers alike, as much for the thrill of her characters and their predicaments as there was in the pure precision of her writing.
However, there are always detractors, with a smug review in The New York Times decrying Kennedy’s writing: ‘the measured precision of her storytelling gives the writing a muted quality, as though it has been benumbed by the characters’ despair’. I mention this not because it is a valid critique, but to point out to you that sometimes smart people don’t always appreciate smart things, even with a wealth of objective critical theory behind them – a writer’s voice is personal, intimate, and we can’t help but respond in a personal and intimate way.
This is reflected in the reviews that celebrate Kennedy’s keen observations, especially around relationships. A writer’s personal observations – whether mined from her life or the keen magpie gathering a writer does of other’s lives – will personally resonate with readers, who may have had similar experiences and felt that spark of recognition.
Use of Characterisation in Dark Roots
When we see ourselves in Dark Roots, whether in a relationship, a character, an experience or even a line of dialogue, it’s a profoundly personal moment for the reader – the writer sees us and our dark secrets.
This skill is called characterisation – how characters are brought to life – and can shape the story. Plot will tell you what a person has done; characterisation tells you how they have done it.
Consider the use of language in ‘Cold Snap’, ‘Angel’ and ‘The Correct Names of Things’: Kennedy’s use of language changes between all three so we can understand how they see the world and why the make the choices they do.
Dark Roots shows a fundamental obsession with this and creates characters that are recognisable to readers, finding huge depth and potential in the everyday as a means to explore universal issues. With Kennedy, there is beauty and bounty to be found in the ordinary, where people expose their frailties and limits.
Kennedy admits as much in interviews, telling Helen Garner in a conversation for Readings that ‘ordinary people at times of powerlessness are endlessly fascinating to me. I think they deserve more of our attention.’
She went on, ‘I don’t want characters who are larger than life. I live in a very ordinary place, a farm on a river. I listen to other people and I hear what they’re saying. The gift is the ordinariness – things that are well-used, unexpressed, taken for granted. I love to look at those things in a fresh way.’
This gets expanded on in an interview with the Griffith Review:
One of the powerful things about writing from ordinary life is the elements you select from it are immediately recognisable to people. So you can hide things in plain sight, in a way, or subvert expectation. I like the idea that I could make you, the reader, pay better attention to something by showing it to you and suggesting there’s something more, under the surface. So that thing could suddenly seem funny, or poignant, or even frightening, just when you were taking it for granted and not expecting a twist or added dimension. Observational comedy does this all the time – making us laugh at what seems obvious once it’s pointed out to us but until that moment has been invisible. Psychological suspense seems to work in the same way to me: the stories I always find most terrifying, for instance, are the ones that are set in completely banal and familiar places, so I thought I would play with that idea a bit.
This is a deliberate craft that takes time, often originating from observation and instinct before succumbing to the drafting process – the labour of writing isn’t coming up with an idea but bringing an idea to life in an understandable and evocative way. ‘It has to tumble around in there for a long, long time before I can do anything with it’, Kennedy told Garner. ‘I’ve learnt to trust that the tumbling is part of the process.’
Ultimately, characterisation is the delicious breadcrumb trail Kennedy uses to help us digest Dark Roots’s central themes and ideas.
It’s always tempting to give a complex, intricate map of answers when we discuss fiction, as though our complexity shows sophistication. This is the literary equivalent of a conspiracy theorist tying together disparate events to show some malevolence at play, all bound together with red string.
But the true delight of Dark Roots and Cate Kennedy is that both eschew such grandiosity. There is complexity in the careful structure and characterisation, drawn from dark recesses, instinct and reading, but they are all marshaled to present a relatively simple theme: power.
Dark Roots’s central preoccupation is how power overrides people in their most trying moments. A chef is prevented from nurturing her partner with soup, a husband believes his braying testosterone-fuelled lying mates instead of his wife, a mocking tree-changer seeks to destroy Billy’s beloved countryside. These could all be categorised respectively as bureaucracy overriding nurturing, sexism and classism but they all trace back to one thing: power.
Power isn’t always about those big dramatic moments, like a crafty murder or exposing a corporate polluter. While these are recognisable as big dramatic events, Kennedy is more intrigued by the smaller moments. A man jogs at night, wondering how to talk with his wife; partners fidget with their wedding rings before making up; another woman suffers in isolation on a farm.
These are the moments when power asserts itself – do we have power or are we subject to its destructive ways? Do we have any choice in the matter? Will we always fall victim to power’s inevitable crush and clamour? Because Cate Kennedy is clear: power seeks to change us, rather than let us change the odds.
The Power of Resistance
Just as each story uses vulnerability and oppression in a march towards the realisation of how power wreaks havoc in our lives based on our identity and circumstances, Dark Roots is also preoccupied with a natural response to power’s misuse: resistance.
Sometimes that resistance is personal and on a small scale, like the almost-40-year-old woman coming to terms with her age and her relationship with a younger man. Or it might become a little larger, as with the wife pickling potency-sapping pickles before leaving to avenge her broken marriage. Perhaps it’s fatal, as suffered by the deadbeat father-to-be in ‘Flotsam’ or the crooked husband in ‘Sea Burial’. It could even be a community boon, such as the polluters in ‘Direct Action’, or, arguably, even saving the community from snidely superior gentrification as done in ‘Cold Snap’.
Resistance is a spectrum: we’re able to achieve it in myriad ways with varying impact and satisfaction, bringing good for others or even just ourselves. It shows how personal action can ripple out to save or condemn others. The conscious decision here is on action, with resistance its most powerful form.
Cate Kennedy says as such in conversation with Helen Garner:
Yes […] I’m interested in the way people behave when power has been stripped from them. The way they put themselves back together again. Not so much what they’re feeling or thinking, but what they do. We’re revealed by our actions. I want people in my stories to act, even if what they’re doing seems distorted or deformed by the damage that’s been done to them. That’s what keeps me watching them.
Perhaps, Kennedy suggests, we do have a choice in life. How do we behave when we lose power? Do we lash out, or do we rebuild or protect or do we do nothing at all?
Consider those who don’t resist. They are the ones who suffer under power, often in excruciating self-imposed silence. The father in ‘A Pitch Too High for the Human Ear’, who doesn’t realise until it’s too late that he had the power to change and choose how he responded to the people (and dogs) he loved. Instead, he sat inactive and silent, only to see others resist him.
Or in ‘Kill or Cure’, where the new farmer’s wife straight from the city stifles and suffers from the isolation. Her inability to communicate her suffering, acclimatise to the new environment and resist how the farm absorbs her energy, emotions and work is a failure to resist. She does not comprehend that she is like Jake the dog, chained in the demolished chicken coop, undergoing the kill or cure training for life on the farm.
There’s a message in Dark Roots: resist power or you will resist your personal power, a power to make choices about your life. ‘We are reveled by our actions’, Kennedy says, so what are yours?
Dark Roots shows that, in our deepest hearts, we are capable of amazing acts of power and belief, whether in ourselves or those we love, to resist forces that aren’t as inevitable as life would have us believe.
Amy Gray is a Melbourne-based writer who focuses on feminism, politics, culture and memoir. Her work has been published widely, including in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, ABC, SBS and The Lifted Brow.
This project is supported by Copyright Agency Cultural Fund