What is it about identity that continues to fascinate and intrigue authors and readers? In both fiction and non-fiction, authors have repeatedly explored changing concepts of identity through their characters.
Janette Turner Hospital, Lenny Bartulin and Robert Wainwright gathered in the Philharmonia Studio, Walsh Bay, to discuss the elusive nature of identity – and whether it’s possible to escape who we really are – with Jill Eddington, director of literature at the Australia Council for the Arts.
All three have recently published new books, so conversation focused on their main characters and how they “morph according to their past and surrounds”, as Jill Eddington described. These are the so-called “shapeshifters”, the characters who are faced with a drawback, an impact of some sort; they have a burning desire to escape themselves.
The three works are each based on real people and periods, with Robert Wainwright’s book, Sheila, being the only non-fiction, biographical work. Now based in London, he found a small reference to his main character, an Australian named Sheila, within the sanctioned biography of the Queen Mother. After further research, Mr Wainwright established a timeline was established using “shards of information from here and there”.
Sheila travelled to Egypt to nurse her brother during the First World War, where she met a well-placed young gentleman who took her to London as his bride. She soon found the world at her feet, and was welcomed into high society as a friend of Edward, Prince of Wales, and his brother Albert, the future King George VI. After a series of torrid love affairs, she ended her days as Princess Dimitri of Russia.
Lenny Bartulin said themes of mayhem, war and death were common factors appearing in all three books and were crucial in bringing together the stories. His novel, Infamy, is set in the early colonial days of Van Diemen’s Land, in 1830. An area teaming with convicts, the setting provided scope for the creation of a series of characters who were all on the run from the past and constantly changed their identities in this new and unfamiliar environment.
Mr Bartulin said the study of identity is buried in this example of what an extreme environment can make you do; he was fascinated by the moral dilemmas facing convicts and the situations in which they found themselves. “The environment provided lots of scope for individuals to live extraordinary lives,” he says. “Australia and Australian history is full of these so-called shapeshifters.”
Janette Turner Hospital has long been intrigued by issues of crime and identity theft, and questions of truth, life and personal identity are at the heart of her latest book, Claimant. During the writing, she kept in mind the idea that “if you are going to get through this, you can’t be who you were”. With her main characters constantly reinventing and renaming themselves throughout the novel, even she agrees it can be hard to keep track of them.
The characters were shaped to be representative of society’s greatest fears about identity theft, “They create havoc in other people’s lives. They do not feel remorse or are incapable of understanding what they have done to other lives,” she said. “Shapeshifting can add an extra dimension of complexity to the character which nothing else can do.”