Kristina Olsson’s family memoir Boy, Lost details the story of her half-brother, Peter, who was taken from their mother’s arms in infancy and not reunited with his maternal family for decades. Boy, Lost has been shortlisted for the 2014 Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing. Olsson spoke with KYD’s Veronica Sullivan about Boy, Lost, writing through trauma, and why the Stella Prize is unique.
In Boy, Lost you share your family’s story of separation, loss and guilt. You also connect this very personal story with many mothers unjustly separated from their babies last century. How do you feel your story, with its threads of collective experience, connects with history’s wronged mothers?
As I researched the social/political context of the time when Peter was taken, I came to see that during that period — the late 1940s–early1950s — the notions of childhood and maternity were almost euphemistic. The bond between mother and child, the profound impact of separation, was not understood or worse, was ignored. Children were taken from their mothers because they were indigenous, because they were poor, because they were born outside marriage. A punishment, as the theft of Peter was for my mother. The effects of this cascaded down through generations, and in each generation they were long-lasting.
How did you manage your own grief when telling the story of your mother and your lost brother, Peter? Was it a challenge to balance your emotions with the facts of their lives as you knew them?
I think now that, in the early days of the writing and research, I was in an odd kind of denial. I’d decided to write the story as the journalist I was, in the third person, trying to be objective. I didn’t see then that it was my story too. As I learned more about my mother’s life, and Peter’s, and looked honestly and clearly at their suffering and how and why it had occurred, I allowed myself for the first time to confront its traumatic impact on us all. I had to grieve a different mother to the one I’d thought I had known.
Did you follow the Stella Prize last year, in its inaugural year? How do you feel about being shortlisted for it this year?
Yes, of course! What an enormous achievement to get the Stella up and running; I’m sure everyone was watching. From the very outset this prize has felt special, and Carrie Tiffany’s extraordinary gesture in sharing her prize money gave it an indelible stamp: reality, warmth, generosity.
Does the Stella hold a different meaning to other prizes which are not gender-specific? Do you think we need women-only writing prizes?
The board and judges and all those behind the prize have ensured it has an aura of authenticity and prestige and celebration. I love the joyous feel it has; the way it has been embraced all over the country. And yes, I do believe we’re at a point in history where we still need women-only prizes here. There are still vexing questions about gender relations in Australia, as evidenced by the recent and spirited debates around misogyny, and these questions are also relevant to the world of Australian literature.
Which female Australian writers inspire you?
All my fellow shortlistees, to start with. And the elders: Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead, Jessica Anderson, Thea Astley and Charmian Clift, for instance, along with Drusilla Modjeska, Helen Garner, Gail Jones… the list is long.
What are you working on next?
Unusually for me, I have two new projects on the go: a novel, and a piece of long-form non-fiction. The novel looks at the idea of neutrality, both political and personal; the main character is a young Swedish glassmaker who has come to Australia in the mid-1960s to work on the Opera House. The other is a kind of biography of the block of land I grew up on in New Farm in Brisbane, taking it back to the glaciers and the rocks beneath, and then up through the layers of human settlement to the present. I’m interested in how deeply we are influenced by geography, both the real and the imaginary, and how our identities are tied to both.
Join the Kill Your Darlings Stella Prize Shortlist Book Club Monday evenings on Twitter from 8–9pm AEST using the hashtag #stella2014. The winner of The Stella Prize will be announced next Tuesday 29 April.