Portrait

A seat at the desk of academic, poet and author Debra Adelaide. By Sarah Price.

Author Debra Adelaide

Debra Adelaide is quick to tell me she isn’t a poet. She does love poetry though, she says, because in a very short amount of time it can take people into another space. It is highly political and very effective and not compromised in terms of its art. “Poetry is like the guerilla warfare of literature. It can just run in there really quickly, lob in a hand grenade and run out again. Stories and novels take longer to get into your system.”

We’re in Adelaide’s office at the University of Technology Sydney, where she teaches creative writing. In the room is an old green Olympia typewriter, green flowers, an empty green gin bottle. On the wall are posters advertising her novels, predominately in green. Around her neck and fingers, and through her ears, Adelaide wears green jewellery. I wonder if the colour reflects her almost ethereal presence: she sits lightly in the swivel chair, poised and still. Framed by a wavy spray of silver hair, her face is reposed and open, her eyes bright.

Adelaide is the author or editor of more than 14 books, including The Women’s Pages and The Household Guide to Dying, published internationally and translated into several languages. The thing for which she is most proud, though, is “Letter to George Clooney”, the title short story of her 2013 collection. She wrote the story in a two-week burst. The idea came in a random and arbitrary way, she says, which is the way most ideas for stories come. “For me and a story, it is always a ‘What if?’ ”

What if? Standing beside the magazines at a supermarket checkout, Adelaide began to think about celebrity life. She wondered about George Clooney. In a recent interview he had stated that his involvement in Darfur was the greatest failure of his life. What does it mean, she thought, when someone as powerful and influential as George Clooney feels he can’t make a dent? What if someone wrote to George Clooney, telling him that he didn’t fail? What if that someone was a refugee? “By the time I was through the checkout and loading my bags into my car, I was chafing at the bit to get home and start writing the story. All the details of the story had no life then. It was just a: ‘What if?’ What if one person had benefited from Clooney’s attempts to intervene? What would that kind of character be? What would her experience be? I had to do a lot of reading on the Sudan and Darfur. Some of the details in the story are based on articles I read which were really quite harrowing.”

The story didn’t start from any political position, she says. To think that through your fiction you will convert people, or get them on side, is the kiss of death for a writer. “I believe that if you set out to write a story or a novel or a poem with a political purpose, it is dead before it has even started. I’ve never thought: ‘I’ll write a story about this and it will expose that, or it will educate people.’ I consciously don’t think that.”

What Adelaide does try to do, she explains, is to find out things for herself, to solve or satisfy her own questions. “They might only be emotional challenges, or they might be tricky complex political questions. What is the role of the celebrity activist? What do we make of that as readers of popular magazines, and as people who go to the movies and participate in all of that? How is that situated within who we are? How do we deal with the fact that people as influential as George Clooney are unable to change the world?”

“I am always very conscious that I often read stories or poems that do open up a window for me in terms of political awareness or understanding. To me, as the writer, that is not the object, but it can be the happy byproduct. But I do think that stories, creative work, can really speak to people. They can press your emotional buttons and that’s what’s important – not the facts, not the arguments – just that emotional connection. I believe you should just write the thing that grips you. But it has to grip you in all the right places: in the heart, by the throat, in your head, in your stomach.”

Earlier this year, with support from UTS, Adelaide launched the Empathy Poems, a project designed to raise awareness about refugees and asylum seekers. The online site asks people to show their support by offering a personal creative response. The brief is simple: choose any poem you have an affinity with – then reimagine, rewrite or respond to it in any way – but with the broad themes of refuge and seeking asylum. Established writers Benjamin Law and Linda Jaivin, and cartoonist Phil Somerville, have written poems for the project, but, says Adelaide, anyone can contribute. “You don’t need to be poet or a writer; you only need to be supportive of the idea. I want to expand the project, to try to help organisations supporting refugees and asylum seekers. It would be awesome if I was flooded with poems.”

Poetry is the perfect form for the project, she says. Through songs and nursery rhymes, poetry was most people’s introduction to literature. It has a long tradition of political purpose and speaks across generations, cultures and religions. Poetry, Adelaide says, can quickly inspire empathy among readers. Before leaving her office, I ask Adelaide how she managed to work and write, while raising three children on her own. At one stage, she tells me, she felt that, after her youngest child had recovered from leukaemia, she might never write again. “I remember being fuelled by desperation, thinking: ‘I’ve got three young kids and a full-time job.’ I had the sense that time was really limited.” She wrote in fits and starts, “snatching time here and there” to fit her creative life in around everything else that was required of her. Laughing, she recounts the “6 o’clock horror hour”, when she would be answering the phone, folding washing and cooking dinner, while helping the children with their homework.

When her children were very young, she says, she would often read them Edward Lear’s poem, “The Owl and the Pussycat”. Last year, that same poem became the inspiration for Adelaide’s own contribution to the Empathy Poems project:

 

They sailed away for a week and a day

To a land that was young and free

But in parliament house a government stood

With its rules, its locks and its keys.

 

Dear Aussies, are you willing to grant for one

shilling

Asylum? Said the MPs ‘No way’.

And they sent them away to be jailed the next day

By the Turnkey who lived on an isle.

 

They dined on bread and watery mince

Which they ate with plastic spoons.

And hand in hand on the edge of that land

They cried at the sight of the moon, the moon

They cried at the sight of the moon.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 27, 2018 as "Rhymes with a reason". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.