My new short story collection Dreams They Forgot has been described as ‘a mix of history and imagination’, but not all these twenty-three stories are set in earlier times. Several use the past as an echo reverberating into the present day.
I’ve always been interested in the kind of people who don’t make it into the history books, so I was thrilled when I landed a research assistant job in the early 2000s. My task was to scout for women’s voices, through the lens of gender, cultural background, and class and gather material for two Australian gardening history books and another about women and empire.
I must have spooled through miles of dizzying microfilm and yellowing newspapers. Some days I’d unfold a beautiful map of a grand European-style garden adorned with fountains, follies, with paths wide enough to accommodate women’s crinolines. Other times I’d find letters to the editor haranguing ‘indolent’ labourers and their ‘slattern wives’ for not ‘improving themselves’ by gardening at night in their ‘spare time’. Or complaints about industrious ‘cottagers’ growing turnips on their front window sills instead of more polite daffodils. These glimpses of people’s concerns, predicaments, and aspirations formed pictures and questions in my mind. Who were they? Why did they chop down a neighbour’s prized walnut tree? Or spread pernicious rumours about their rivals – who happened to be Chinese market gardeners?
Sometimes I wept as I read letters reporting deaths to loved ones ‘beyond the seas’. I’d catch my breath at the cryptic reference to an Irish maid-servant ‘extinguishing herself in the Yarra’. I slowly turned the pages of stained diaries scrawled by a woman trying to run a farm on her own while her husband was away droving or securing their potential fortunes (or losses) at the diggings.
Some days the pickings were slim. Women historians know that when they enter the archive, the shelves are often bare.
But then I’d spy a racy tale about a ‘harridan’ working under multiple-aliases to avoid the police, advertising herself as a ‘mesmerist’ and ‘famed palm reader’ and once again I’d be lead down another beguiling library corridor by a mercurical woman with quick eyes and peacock feathers winking in her chestnut hair.
I drew on some of these finds in Dreams They Forgot. All of the stories as a mixture of memory, imagination, experience, with a hefty dose ‘what if.’ The brevity of the short story form means they can only open a small intense aperture into characters’ lives – like an eye pressed to the crack in a wall.
In ‘Nightfall’ an Irish immigrant finds a love in an Australian 1860s music hall, only to be caught up in sinister dealings with her physician employer. The protagonist in ‘Portrait or Landscape’ is a backpacker wandering Europe in the 1980s, plotting her exit from her dank London squat for a job in an art school in the South of France. In ‘The Second Wave’ two sisters await the ‘tidal wave’ which was predicted to wipe out Adelaide in 1974, after homosexuality was decriminalized in South Australia.
In the contemporary story ‘Silent Partner’, I play with the notion of literally writing the forgotten or excluded into history. The unnamed protagonist has just inherited an unusual antique gold ring from an unknown ancestor. After a long day at the office, she receives an invitation to visit her stuffy uncle and aunt in a leafier suburb of Sydney. She’s managed to avoid her extended family for years, but feels the old pull between doing her duty and saying no. Once at her relatives’ house, it’s not the aunt and uncle who unsettle her. It’s their eldest son, who’s revamped the family tree and wants to show it off. When the protagonist studies his fancy calligraphy all she can see is the gaps.
In ‘The Historic Present’ a researcher orders boxes of 19th century documents into the reading room of State Library of Victoria. Time sheds its boundaries as she immerses herself in their lucky-dip contents. She is particularly moved by a report of the dying being abandoned on a hospital’s steps. When the library closes, she steps out into the neon crush of Swanston Street with its trams bells, honking taxis, the evening rush of commuters talking into their glowing phones. Her head is still full of voices and visions of the past, and she can’t quite adjust to this same-but-different modern world.
All of the stories in Dreams They Forgot are grounded in fact, but they are fictions. I wanted them to open out to wider stories that roam about in time and place, to let the freedom of imagination conjure those who live brightly, defiantly, courageously in the shadows – a little further from the tree.
Dreams They Forgot
Emma Ashmere’s stories explore illusion, deception and acts of quiet rebellion. Diverse characters travel high and low roads through time and place – from a grand 1860s Adelaide music hall to a dilapidated London squat, from a modern Melbourne hospital to the 1950s Maralinga test site, to collecting moths in Canberra, to hunting for family secrets in the 1990s diamond mines of Borneo.
Undercut with longing and unbelonging, absurdity and tragedy, thwarted plans and fortuitous serendipity, each story offers glimpses into the dreams, limitations, gains and losses of fragmented families, loners and lovers, survivors and misfits, as they piece together a place for themselves in the imperfect mosaic of the natural and unnatural world.
Published by Wakefield Press Sept 2020
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About Emma Ashmere
Emma Ashmere was born in Adelaide, South Australia. Her short stories have been widely published including in the Age, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Etchings, Spineless Wonders, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. The short stories in her collection Dreams They Forgot have been variously shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition. She has recently been longlisted for the 2020 Heroines Anthology, and the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Floating Garden, was shortlisted for the Most Underrated Book Award 2016.