NZF Writers & Readers: Ursula Dubosarsky – Through a Child’s Eyes

Tara Black reviews in pictures, while Sarah Forster reviews in words, Ursula Dubosarsky – Through a Child’s Eyes at NZ Festival Writers & Readers, on Sunday 11 March. 

NWF18 Ursula D

Chair Lydia Wevers noted at the beginning of the session that three months ago, she had never heard of guest Ursula Dubosarsky. She has since rectified this and become increasingly embarrassed not to have read her work previously, noting ‘Ursula is a brilliant, satisfying and haunting writer,’ also noting to her ‘Awards grow on you like mushrooms.’

Lydia began the session with a question about writing – what comes first for Ursula – character or a story. Ursula told us a few stories about how she writes, which as for many writers, is a summation of experiences she has had over her lifetime. In the case of First Book of Samuel, for instance, she’d first heard the name of Elkanah at a kibbutz, describing somebody who was very charismatic and damaging; much later she realised the name was biblical, so this character was born and brought the story with him.

She also told the origin of The Red Shoe, which was from a talkback radio show that saw a caller ring in to talk on the death of the wife of Vladimir Petrov, the caller noting she lived next door from them and the Australian Diplomatic service would give her and her sisters a ride to school each morning.

Ursula says ‘All you need is a hair and some blue solution – something has to stick.’ The intuition is the hair, and this refers to an experiment she did at school where they grew crystals on a hair.

Lydia noted that over her career, Ursula has become more preoccupied with historical realism – at some point there was a shift in focus. The Blue Cat, Ursula says, came out of an editorial her dad wrote during the war for his school magazine (this was a surprise in itself as her father, when asked about school, would state it was ‘brutal, sadistic and cruel.’) The book itself includes several historical documents, including this editorial, and focuses on a Jewish immigrant to Sydney and the friendship a young girl creates with him despite their language barrier.

In Ursula’s books, Lydia says, ‘children are not protected.’ The books are also frequently funny, with a particular strength being interactions between parents & children. This leads, for Ursula, into a discussion of her book Abyssinia. She notes first that when writing picture books, she can see her audience on the mat in front of her – it isn’t like this for novels, but she is always writing for children.

Abyssinia is about a child being left in a home where they seem to have a purpose which isn’t clear. The adults in the book say ‘for every child that is lost, a child must be found,’ then the lead character must go on a journey.  Ursula notes that this particular book is greeted by adults with a kind of fury, while children understand it more readily. It was written while she was working as a typist for Court cases, and was writing one hour every day prior to having her morning coffee and beginning her cases. She thinks perhaps her mind was in a dreamlike state – and the intuition for this book began at a dollhouse museum she had taken her daughter to.

Lydia wondered whether Ursula believed that any content in books ought to be restricted for children. She says, ‘You can write about anything for kids, it just depends how you write it.’ For instance, Golden Day as Lydia perceives it is possibly about rape and murder. But it isn’t explicit. The intuition for this book began during Ursula’s work as a Court typist, where she encountered an awful rape/murder case which involved a ‘good’ seeming person. ‘It is hard for children to recognise bad people and know what to do when they find one. It is hard for adults as well, sometimes.’

It isn’t only children that are confused much of the time in Ursula’s work – the adults aren’t having a good time either. Businesses and marriages fail, there are dramas just out of earshot of the children. It’s real life.

While I enjoyed hearing about these works, I found the session a little frustrating – there was a bit much explanation of books and what they were about, and I was amused at the most passive aggressive question I’ve ever heard being asked at the end. ‘In the programme it says you would talk about the difference in perception between an adult and a child. Can you talk to that please?’

I am looking forward to delving into Ursula’s work however, and I’ve already begun with a few books from the Unity Bookstore stall outside the session.

Reviewed in words by Sarah Forster

The Blue Cat
by Ursula Dubosarsky
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760292294

Brindabella (out 28 March)
by Ursula Dubosarsky
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760112042

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