Winner of the 2016 Dorothy Hewett Award for an unpublished manuscript, Drawing Sybylla is a novel about the challenges women writers have faced in pursuing the writing life.
On stage, a woman named Sybil Jones is making a speech. She is talking about the significance of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. Behind her sits a panel of writers, facing their audience, and one writer drawing Sybil’s likeness in a contemplative daze. The Sybil in the writer’s drawing starts to move, like the women behind Gilman’s wallpaper. She shakes. She takes the writer by the hand and leads her down into the paper, into the dark recesses of her mind, and into Australia’s past. Into the real and imagined lives of Australia’s women writers.
Each woman is seemingly trapped, in different ways, by their gender and circumstance. Inspired by the seminal feminist short story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, as well as the works of Virginia Woolf, the interconnected stories are woven together through the poetic figure of a muse.
Drawing Sybylla is a novel inspired by author Odette Kelada’s extensive academic research into the lives of Australian women writers over the past 100 years. It prompts us to consider the challenges women have faced in the pursuit of a creative life, what drives them to keep creating despite the difficulties, and to question how much has changed for women writers today.
“This is a work that wears its significant research very lightly and provides the reader with a tremendously original and imaginative set of pictures about the ideas of creativity and using language to make stories, over and again.” The 2016 Dorothy Hewett Award judges’ report.
“If a man wants to write a book, he goes out and buys a computer, considers relocating to New York. A woman goes out and takes classes, comes to listen to us lot rattle on. A lot of us writers teach more than we write. Got to eat. Got to feed our own babies.”
This insightful quote, from early on in the novel, sums up Drawing Sybylla quite well, to my mind. As women, we are never able to just immerse ourselves in our careers, our hobbies, our dreams. Everything must be balanced, all of the needs of others met first, and then, maybe once all of these other things are done, may we sit down and indulge in our own personal interests, focus on our own personal advancement; a common theme for the women in Drawing Sybylla, who all wrote in the dead of the night or early morning hours, fitting their writing around all of their other obligations, sacrificing their own rest in order to ensure their families were not in any way put out by their indulgence. History that is all too familiar.
Drawing Sybylla is a study of Australian women writers throughout the 20th century, an historical peek at times long past, presented in a very unique and imaginative way. Through the eyes of a writer that has been pulled down into the paper she was doodling on by a muse – Sybylla – we see the challenges that have come hand in hand with being a woman who writes. From being taken seriously and constantly dismissed through to juggling motherhood and a household with writing, Drawing Sybylla examines what it was (and is) to be a woman who writes by choosing five women writers from five periods of Australian history, and giving us a snapshot view of their lives. The powerful imagery and prose within this novel conveys much without needing to be too explicit. As often is the case with fiction based on historical fact, there is much to despair of within these pages but I was also gripped by a fierce sense of admiration for these women. Every direction they turned, society was against their ‘scribblings’. It’s a tragedy to think of all the stories and pieces of writing that are lost on account of them having been written by a woman and therefore not taken seriously enough to preserve.
This is a clever and sophisticated novel. Even Sybylla, the muse, has a history of oppression that is woven into the narrative. Some women have more of a grim situation than others, but there is always a common theme.
“I remember Sybylla saying, once we had entered the wallpaper, the only way out was to peel it off strip by strip, story by story. ‘We have to meet the women who are caught under it or there is no way for them to get out. Or us. That’s what happens when you enter a story. You become it. They are not safe things, stories.’”
The notion that our women writers have been ‘papered over’ throughout history is a powerful one. I did not read a single novel written by an Australian woman throughout high school. They were not offered as a choice through the Queensland curriculum. English women, yes, but sadly, no one Australian. Today, I work at a senior high school, and more than 20 years on, there is not a single title offered to the students to study that has been written by an Australian woman, contemporarily or historically. It’s more than a shame and after reading Drawing Sybylla, it kind of makes me angry.
In her acknowledgements, Odette gives a background to the inspiration behind Drawing Sybylla:
“Drawing Sybylla is a story that emerged from my PhD study, researching the past and conversations with women in the present about courage, suppression and creative freedom. As I began to dig, I realised how many women were missing from the curriculum I was taught. To hear their voices across time was sometimes tough, sad, shocking but always illuminating, passionate and inspiring.”
I was initially going to recommend Drawing Sybylla as the perfect novel for women who write as well as those who love to read historical and literary fiction. But really, I think it’s compulsory reading for all Australians. We learn so much from historical fiction written contemporarily; imagine what we can learn from the words of our forgotten women writers.
Thanks is extended to UWA Publishing for providing me with a copy of Drawing Sybylla for review. It was a privilege to be able to read an early copy and I am most grateful.
Dr Odette Kelada is a Lecturer in Creative Writing in the School of Culture and Communication. She has a PhD in literature researching the lives of Australian women writers. Her writing focuses on marginalised voices, gender and racial literacy, and has appeared in numerous publications including the Australian Cultural History Journal, Outskirts, Postcolonial Studies and the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature.
Drawing Sybylla is book 62 in my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.