I first met Enza when I was asked to launch a project she and Sue Dodd created, called Inventory, about op shops, a book accompanied by an art exhibition. I was a 26-year-old emerging writer, Enza was a well-known academic at Victoria University, artist, and author. The exhibition was incredibly moving. I met 84-year-old Elsie Seidel-Davis, who had been volunteering at the West Footscray Uniting Church's op shop for 16 years. Enza and her friends agree that people working in such places are never just sales assistants; they become counsellors, social workers, administrators.
The reason I am telling you this story is that Enza is an artist. She wrote the book about op shops, but she and Sue also turned a whole gallery into a walking galaxy of art: using people’s donated goods, they created a room-wide art installation. The whole room was filled with ordinary everyday things, arranged in a way that made sure you had to take notice of them.
Some people would argue that writers are creators, they create art. But we operate in the realm of ideas. Creating concrete, tangible art is different. It makes a person — and their audience — see the world in a different way. When I read The Bridge, I knew that this was a writer who knew what she was talking about, who knew at a deep and visceral level the people and places that not only populate, but fully inhabit the story.
This book is about concrete things. Of course, it’s about the Bridge, a concrete and steel structure, but also about concrete feelings — loss, guilt, acceptance, love — and all the ambivalence in between. Enza’s work is never far removed from the realities of life. That is why the emotions in The Bridge are never overwrought, never overdone, never over-exposed. They are never ever manufactured, even though the whole book is set in the much neglected suburbs where manufacturing occurs.
This brings me to talk about the class element of The Bridge. There is a great danger in writers and publishers romanticising the wild West in Melbourne as well as Sydney — to crank up the dial on its grittiness, poverty, its ethnic make-up, the noble working-class crassness of its men, the long-suffering voicelessness of its migrant women. It’s a place people on the other side of the river generally accessed through Herald Sun reports and discussions about social policy.
On one extreme you have that exploitative reality TV program Struggle Street about the poor in Mount Druitt, NSW; and on the other hand you have nuanced and wonderful tele-series like Sunshine. Both are full of real voices and human characters grappling with weighty problems, but the irony is that most people would see the latter as the non-exploitative series.
How you tell a story is just as important as what is told. The Indian poet Tagore said, ‘Truth in her dress finds facts too tight. In fiction she moves with ease.’
That is not to say this book was an easy one for Enza to write. Enza is an extraordinary woman. She worked as a social worker in the 1980s, is an artist, academic, writer and teacher. But it is her genuine life experience that has shaped this book and given it a heartbeat. Her father was a boilermaker. Her local high school was only a few kilometres from the bridge. On that bridge, she lost a good friend.
In 2014, Enza wrote an article about ‘empathy and emotion in the writing process’ where she discussed how writers have to inhabit characters’ lives, and how this can sometimes take them to very dark places. Of the West Gate Bridge, Enza writes: ‘for those living in the western suburbs, it is impossible to forget that it was one of Victoria’s worst industrial accidents. It carried with it questions about class, power and the inequalities we take for granted.’
She cites some scholars – ‘For Deleuze and Guattari the power of art is in adding these new monuments, these new varieties into the world that make the reader see what was not visible beforehand.’ In The Bridge, Enza makes us see beyond the steel beams and concrete, the ugly industrial west. ‘For me the bridge is surrounded by ghosts… on quiet evenings I hear the echoes of lost lives.’
Enza also writes about ‘contagious feelings’ — how bodies can catch feelings as easily as they catch fire, and how affect leaps from one body to another. Enza fully inhabits her characters’ lives: ‘I lay awake at night thinking of her, her mother, for the family of the dead girl. I have her dreams. I feel the panic that traps her inside her room for days on end. I tap into my history, my past, my griefs and guilts bring to mind everything associated with place and moment.’
Enza’s characters are real characters, not just the stylish assemblage of personality traits that some writers substitute for character these days. Stoicism is an underrated character trait. In our era of authenticity and the need to express our emotions, the only legitimate response to something that doesn’t agree with us (be it a news story, a point of view, a politician) is outrage. In this light, stoicism is seen as repressive, old fashioned, and gendered.
What I love about this book are the voices of Antonello and Jo and Ashleigh, which do not sensationalise anything. These are true western suburbs characters, they understand that shit happens, and shit can happen to them at any time. This is not a passive resignation, because these are not broken people, but people stoically going about their lives.
In a work of great psychological depth and social consequence, I realise that creating sympathetic characters is not enough. It is too easy. Susan Sontag wrote, in her seminal book Regarding the Pain of Others:
‘So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent – if not inappropriate – response.’
There’s another majestic and uncompromising writer in this room, the great Maxine Beneba Clarke, whose books I give out to everyone I know. Often the reaction is ‘Oh, I can’t believe the terrible things she’s experienced, that people are like that in Australia.’ Again, I quote Susan Sontag:
‘Someone who is permanently surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel … even incredulous … when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of … cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.’
The Bridge is a coming of age book, if coming of age is what writer John Marsden defines as understanding that you have to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions. Enza plays no cheap tricks with her reader, she doesn’t rip them off with easy epiphanies. It doesn’t matter if they are blameless hardworking migrant men, or reckless teenage girls — no one gets off scot-free.
The Bridge is one of the best books I have read about the West in a long time. Because it has such a strong heartbeat, its characters haunt me still, long after the first reading.
It is with great pride that I declare The Bridge officially launched.