Portrait

What Catherine Deveny realises she was really wrong about. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Catherine Deveny’s comedic weals take time to heal

Catherine Deveny and I are social media “friends”, in that Facebook-recommends-you-befriend-someone-so-you-click-the-button way. It’s a six-degrees-of-cyberspace camaraderie: sometimes we click “like” on each other’s thoughts or activities. Today, though, Catherine’s put up pictures of her favourite way-back-when kids’ books. One features a minstrelesque black boy: all glowing eye-whites and smiling watermelon-lips. Immediately: I. See. Red. 

I comment that it’s irresponsible to post this book as a “favourite” without acknowledging the racist caricaturing within. Deveny’s friends turn up. Some point out that the book wasn’t considered racist back then. A few agree with me. Deveny weighs in. None of the black cunts I know think it’s racist. My blood pressure rises. My neck muscles tighten. Deveny’s flipped the conversation on its head. Her comedy does that. If you know Catherine – if you’ve seen her retracing an asylum seeker’s journey as part of SBS television’s heartbreaking documentary series Go Back to Where You Came From; if you’re an avid reader of her journalism – you’ll know that in the fight against racism she is by no means Public Enemy Number One. Nevertheless the words carry trauma – even in irony – even as they’re used to dispel the very thing they convey. 

Other people of colour start commenting. I call Deveny a racist, type some other deliberately hurtful things in a blind clickbaited fury. Deveny’s supporters hold strong. She’s a comedian… Comedy tackles the uncomfortable… Anyone who knows Catherine knows she’s not racist…

Out of nowhere, some 60 frantic comments in, Deveny apologises – says she never meant to cause offence, and figured anyone interacting with her online would know her comedy, know what she’s fundamentally about. The thumping troll party disperses into the Facebook forest as quickly as it appeared, leaving a comment clearing strewn with outrage and passive aggression.

Weeks later, I’m having coffee with an acquaintance, lamenting the difficulty of securing an author endorsement for my first fiction book. 

“You know what would be great? Someone everyone’ll know. You know who I reckon would love your book? Oh my God. I can’t believe I didn’t think of her before.”

“Who?”

“Catherine Deveny!” She waits for my reaction.

“Oh.”

“Have you met her before?”

“No. I mean… I might have… spoken to her… online… once.”

“What does that mean?”

Spoken to means trolled, and once means a few weeks ago.”

“Show me.” She reads through the exchange, groaning intermittently. “You know what, though? I actually don’t think she’ll give two hoots about this. If you tell her about the book and she thinks it’s interesting she’ll read it. And I bet if she reads it, she’ll give you a quote.”

I wincingly draft a Facebook message. Hit send. Deveny replies within a few hours. The book sounds fantastic. She’d love to read the manuscript. She sends me her home address.

Eighteen months later

On a sunny autumn day, 18 months after our online exchange, Deveny’s quote now sitting on the inside jacket of my book, she whirls into the Carlton eatery where I’m waiting. She’s dressed head to toe in black, cobalt-blue-meets-jade-green cotton cardigan shrugged over shoulders, dark hair roughly pulled into two shoulder-length pigtails. Red enamel cherries adorn her neck. Are-they-or-aren’t-they pearls bead each earlobe.

Deveny tells me about her first time performing comedy, at the age of about 23, the afterwards feeling: “You know, like when you give birth or take a massive shit.” She grabs hold of one of the rings on the middle finger of her left hand, loosens it, slides it off. It’s a simple, silver slice of a thing. A not-very-expensive-thing-that-means-everything. “I got paid 50 bucks for that first set,” she says. “There was so much I could have done with that money. Put it into bills. Gone drinking… I’d been paid to do something that was so much fun, that I loved. I didn’t know if I’d ever get to do it again. I wanted something to remind me of it.” As hard work would have it, she’d go on to make a life – and a living – from her words. Words would feed her three boys, pay the mortgage.

“Just say yes to everything,” Deveny advises, when I ask about raising a family on art alone. “Say yes, and muddle through the logistics later.” She talks about her weeks away on tour or teaching her beloved Gunnas Writing Masterclass – the revolving cast of family, friends and neighbours who pitch in with school dropoffs and dinnertimes. The smile in Deveny’s eyes disappears for a moment when she explains what a profound impact coaxing out people’s stories has had on her. “I don’t want people to die with their music still inside of them,” she says. A moment of stillness cuts through the gestural overdrive.

Deveny says part of getting on stage that very first time was about finding some way of showing herself off. “I was the fat, noisy girl from [Melbourne’s] Reservoir whose thighs rubbed together when she walked.” In reality there’s something disarming – mesmerising even – about Deveny. The sharp, unnerving eyes: so piercingly dark it’s difficult to tell where iris ends and pupil begins. The lopsided, devilish grin. The sheer tell-it-like-it-is openness and don’t-give-a-fuckness radiating from her. The razor-sharp wit; envelope-pushing observations. It’s confronting, inspiring, exhilarating to be in the presence of a person who is so much herself. 

Indeed, though, what draws some people to Catherine Deveny is the very thing that annoys others. In 2010, Deveny was sacked by The Age newspaper, where she’d worked as a columnist for 10 years, for piss-taking local celebrities in her personal Twitter Logie commentary. “They were probably looking for a reason to get rid of me,” she muses. In 2012, when then Queensland premier Campbell Newman slashed funding to the arts, Deveny unleashed on Twitter. You want I kill him? she offered. Victoria Police, at the request of the Queensland police force, visited Deveny’s home.

“I’ve had so many death threats online. People have said they’re going to come to my home and rape me. You name it. And bloody Campbell Newman sends the cops to my house.”

Does she have any regrets? Is there anything she was truly wrong about, would go back and do differently? 

Deveny’s eyes wander around the cafe. “I was wrong about Costco,” she says finally. “I railed against them when they first opened, but now I actually think they’re great.”

When Deveny departs, three hours after arriving at the table and late for a podiatrist appointment, she leaves behind a stoked-to-blazing artistic fire, an expensive gift-wrapped bottle of French champagne, and an exquisite handmade card emblazoned with the words: You can’t fake passion.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 6, 2015 as "Catherine weals". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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