“Writing in the first person is writing that admits that experience is always truncated,” writes Ellena Savage. The Melbourne-bred, Athens-based writer is powerfully self-aware in her debut essay collection, which marries cultural criticism with personal experience to both inhabit and deconstruct the memoir form.
Some essays have been published before – the excoriating “Yellow City” was released as a chapbook by The Atlas Review in 2019, and an early version of “Turning Thirty” appeared in The Lifted Brow. “Holidays with Men” encapsulates Savage’s idiosyncratic style – in two columns, it features a piece Savage wrote during university about her romantic experiences alongside present-day commentary, sharing the knowledge she’s gleaned over time about gender relations.
Other essays similarly have Savage in dialogue with herself, questioning the veracity of memory and the limitations of the written word. She is a playful, daring writer with a flagrant disregard for convention – sentences run into each other, tenses fluctuate, pieces move from poetry to prose and back again. Like the American writer Jia Tolentino, Savage gives equal weight to both “high” and “low” culture and concepts, discussing cultural theorists as well as cheesy ’90s films. Though her academic language may isolate some, there is little feeling of snobbery here – simply a curious mind at constant work.
Privilege is an overarching theme, particularly in the excellent title essay, which explores the class problem in the arts. Savage delicately walks the line between knowledge of the self and knowledge of power systems, acknowledging her fortune in being able to attend a “very expensive writers’ workshop” in the United States while also recognising the performativity of progressive politics in these spaces. In “Houses” she muses on the 22 places she has called home, and the transience that marks the millennial condition.
Much of the book revolves around writing as work. This can often be tiresome to those outside the profession, but here it’s compelling, challenging reading. Savage makes it feel like a hall of mirrors – reflective yet distorted; hyperreal – and, for her, writing seems to be an act of evolution and constant learning.
Defying categorisation, Blueberries is unlike much else in Australian writing at the moment, and heralds Savage as a major new voice in experimental nonfiction.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
Text, 256pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2020 as "Ellena Savage, Blueberries".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.