Jennifer Down on ‘Bodies of Light’
Jennifer Down’s third book Bodies of Light (Text, October) follows protagonist Maggie as she reluctantly revisits a past she’s fought to keep buried. Reviewer Jacqui Davies says ‘despite its bleak subject matter—abuse, grief and mental illness—Down’s writing, as always, simmers with gentle hope’. She speaks to the author.
In Bodies of Light, protagonist Maggie fights to create a meaningful life for herself despite experiencing mental illness, substance abuse and emotional trauma—tragic by-products of an abusive childhood. How important are strong characters when writing about disempowerment and trauma? Do you think it’s possible to escape one’s past?
If by strong we mean ‘believable’, ‘memorable’, ‘compelling’ and so on, it’s probably important, from a narrative perspective, but I also think we should generally resist the idea that trauma survivors need to be resilient, or to fashion their past into something palatable or ‘productive’, or to disclose their experiences at all. When it comes to escaping one’s past, I’m not sure. There’s a line in the novel where Maggie talks about being made to ‘live through this’, and that’s closer to how I feel personally—of course we’re more than our past experiences, but they also inform us in a profound psychic way. They’re like worry beads.
You have written about social justice, class and disempowerment—subjects that seem to remain underrepresented in contemporary literature—in previous books. What is it about these subjects that hold interest for you? What do you hope to achieve by writing about them?
They’re things that matter to me! It’s always struck me as bizarre that in a country like Australia, where we like to consider ourselves comfortable talking about class, the subject can be absent from so many books. Or when a narrative does deal with trauma, it’s often reduced to a plot point or, worse still, approached with this ghoulish, voyeuristic lens. One of the biggest questions I had in writing this novel was: can we bear witness to another’s pain in a way that eschews voyeurism? Can we witness someone’s pain by privileging their testimony? I don’t know, but that’s what I want to do.
In Bodies of Light you capture beautifully the grief, fears and loves of your characters, particularly the ways in which anxiety and trauma can play out in quiet moments between people. Does this power of observation come naturally to you? Are your characters inspired by real people?
Thank you! None of the characters are based on real people, but sometimes I borrow stories or things other people have told me. I also spent a long time researching the history of residential and out-of-home care and read a lot of first-person accounts by ‘care’ leavers—so while the institutions and homes in Bodies of Light are entirely fictional, they’re grounded in real detail.
Despite the book’s darker themes of abuse, death and grief, it also contains moments of quiet joy and maintains a sense of hope. How difficult is it to maintain a sense of balance between dark and light, pain and joy?
I’m glad it feels as though there’s a sense of hope—when I was writing, it was sometimes hard to maintain perspective, or to feel objective about it. I certainly worried that it would be too heavy a story. Ultimately it’s about survivorship, and there’s an inherent measure of hope in that. And no life is devoid of joy or pleasure or dignity. It felt important to honour those parts as well as the cruelties, too.
At over 400 pages, Bodies of Light has been described as an ‘epic’ novel. As well as a previous, shorter novel, you have also published a book of short stories. How long did it take for you to write Bodies of Light? Has your writing process changed from book to book?
Bodies of Light took about 3.5 years to write from start to finish, though a lot of that was research and reading. For ages, I told people ‘I’m a really slow writer’ and felt guilty that I was taking so long to finish the manuscript, but the reality is that I wrote it while working full-time in an unrelated job. These days I am trying to be gentler in how I describe my writing. I think I write in the same way as I always have. I tend to sit with questions or ideas or images for a long time, and then the writing and editing is relatively quick and painless. I have to make sense of ideas before I can put them into sentences in a meaningful way, and sometimes that takes time.
What was the last book you read and loved?
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. Every page is extraordinary. I’ve also been reading Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear—I tend to read poetry in scraps at a time, over a period of weeks or months, so I’m still making my way through it, but it’s incredible.
Read Jacqui Davies’ review of Bodies of Light here.
Image credit: Leah Jing McIntosh