Books

Lily Hibberd, Bonney Djuric (eds)
Parragirls

Parragirls is an impressive book that serves as both an art publication and a record of social change. As an enduring testament to the experiences of the Parragirls – a collective of former residents of Parramatta Girls Home, where abuse and cruelty were rife – it charts the work of the Parragirls Memory Project across seven years of visual art, performance, events, exhibitions, writing, advocacy and activism.

Many moments in the book drive home the importance of this work. There are the moving firsthand accounts of the Parragirls themselves, who now have voice and visibility after years of silencing and denial. As they work towards reclaiming their identity, narrative, record and life, the Parragirls show remarkable leadership. In the chapter “Righting the Record”, they embark on a printmaking project that sees them trace the marks and words they secretly scratched into the walls and floors of the home so many years ago. They decode these tracings, remaking them, thus challenging the secrecy and judgement of the official welfare record and “[giving] it authentic meaning and purpose”.

In this way, Parragirls expands beyond merely a documentation of the art and memories of former residents. Rather, it provides insight into how Australia can “[give] voice and presence … through the art of remaking memory today”. This project presents a model for the reuse of public spaces such as decommissioned welfare institutions, giving us new and ethical ways to imagine these sites of trauma, whereby we might empower and engage with those who are deeply connected to such places. This model is clearly laid out as each chapter of Parragirls contends with a different aspect of the Parragirls Memory Project, culminating in a call to action: that we should follow the Parragirls’ leadership and ensure that Australia never forgets its historical injustices.

Without the skilful hand of editors Lily Hibberd and Bonney Djuric, this book might have become overwhelming, given its many different elements. However, through steady pacing and a strong structure, alongside easy and open writing, Parragirls is able to deliver something that is at once rigorous in its detailed presentation of a clear model, and accessible through its compelling narrative.

Eugenia Flynn

NewSouth, 248pp, $59.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 9, 2019 as "Lily Hibberd, Bonney Djuric (eds), Parragirls". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Eugenia Flynn