When writing a short story about a family in Australia during the Great Depression, I recently found myself referencing, almost subconsciously, books I’d read in early childhood. Beatrix Potter, author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and May Gibbs, author of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie both came to mind as I related the differences between a childhood set against an English landscape to that of an Australian childhood spent in the bush. Thinking about those influences a little harder, I realised many of those early experiences of storytelling are still informing my writing now.
I didn’t notice these were female writers at the time; that came later, and when these classics were published, many females wrote under male pseudonyms, even when writing specifically about and for girls. But women write differently to men and though I read many books by male writers too, the ones who really reached me were the female voices.
Intertextuality has been an aspect of writing and reading I really enjoy, so when I was describing in Place of Many Birds, a scene at Sandringham beach, in which two children find a seahorse, May Gibbs’ imagery leapt into the picture as if conjured from another sphere.
“We look at the big belly of the sea horse in the palm of my hand, turning it over and over and holding it to the sun to see inside. The sea horse’s body, yellowish and leathery beneath my fingertips, is dry and hard, blending a thick neck and curving tail encased in bony rings. At the end of its horse-like tubular snout, the dead eye of the sea horse stares back at us. I think of the dead seahorse, ridden by a sea fairy, floating gracefully through the waves. Reins made of seaweed hang from its mouth. The fairy escapes just in time from the mouth of a giant fish.” Place of Many Birds
Even that fish has its roots in the Gibbs’ stories. The giant fish, John Dory, puts Snugglepot’s head in his mouth. Those vivid images, whether of terrifying Banksia Men or sweet little Ragged Blossom in her fraying blossom skirt, are imprinted so deeply, they are still able to appear unannounced. Rather than lighting a spark, they ignited a love of literature that continues to burn. Can anyone walk past eucalypts drooping with pink blossom at this time of year, without recalling Gibbs.