Author Kate Walker reviews the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation’s new anthology of HIV positive authors.

In March 2018, thirteen nervous people walked into a Surry Hills room, all signed up for a creative writing workshop organised by the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation.

What’s so scary about putting pen to paper and scribbling a few words? Well, first off you might not be any good at it. Worse still, you might be the only person in the room who isn’t, while everyone else dazzles and shines.

Also, you might be asked to revisit old pains. Or asked to weigh up moments of life you’ve kept under wraps, and done so purposely for the very reason you don’t want to analyse them again.

Then there are the buried secrets you may be expected to expose. Feelings and ways of thinking you don’t want to share. Because that’s what writers do, the very best ones anyway. They go with eyes wide open and hearts unshielded into places angels wouldn’t tread.

The thirteen nervous writers, however, took a deep breath and collectively jumped, and the result is Phoenix Ink. It’s an 88-page volume of stories, poems and reminiscences; the output from the BGF Creative Writing Workshops for people living with HIV. It’s a collection of all those things the writers might have initially feared: feelings exposed, life analysed and secrets shared.

The collection opens with the vignette, A Single Drop, in which the author, Josh, relives the heart-stopping moment of receiving that diagnosis. With unsettling clarity, he records the feelings, such as it was like seafoam going over my head, and the progression of thoughts from the desperate denial, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” to the stark simplicity of, “No, I’m not okay.”

As life-changing as that diagnosis has to be, it does not define the writers in this otherwise diverse group. They each have their distinctive voice and stories to tell. They continue to laugh and love, and wonder at the world around them: at the beauty, the people and the inevitable ironies of life.

They remember their dogs. Don’t we all? Though few of us would have had a dog like the one-off hero of William’s reminiscence of Buster. This beloved Boxer sat upright in the driver’s seat of his 1957 Prefect, sans wheels, sans engine, but going places nonetheless. Ambrosius, alas, is reminiscent of a dog too many of us will recall for ourselves. Don’t read Tom’s story of Ambrosius, the big, playful Newfoundlander, until you have a box of tissues on hand.

Family figures crop up in these stories and, as we know, not all family members are created equal. Nanna in Fletcher’s story of The Chocolate Passport had her own, individual way of eliciting ‘love’, one that made her visits the rival of the weekly horror film. How unlike is she from Jonathon’s Mum, in Four Beige and Lego. In this layered recreation of childhood, Mum comes and goes, the central figure in a kaleidoscope of memories: of merging carpet, of baking bread, of building blocks.

There was a fourteenth person in that Surry Hills room the day the creative writing workshops convened, and that was Gavin Austin, the tutor. Years before Austin had taken the same uncertain path himself. He’d rocked up to a creative writing class, doubtless as nervous and as unsure of his skills. Since that day, Austin has become a prize-winning writer whose stories and poems have been published and commended by reviewers around the world.

The guiding hand of this accomplished writer is evident throughout Phoenix Ink in the skills of the professional writer that he’s imparted to his students. For example, in Francine’s short prose piece, Sunken Shadows. Here the writer, in a series of beautifully observed images, lulls the reader into an expectation of fine romance. That expectation is shattered in a line at the end, and we know what that fatal blow was though it’s never actually named.

The same sharp observation of images brings to life the mirrored images of the sex worker and his tentative, first-time client in Keith’s two-in-one story, Crown of Thorns. The whole tenor of the meeting between client and sex worker, yet to take place, is captured in just the moments of the preliminary phone call.

With Gavin Austin being a poet, it’s not surprising the participants tried their hands at various forms of poetry, including haiku, cinquain and longer free-form works. Tim’s blithely conversational poem, Adelaide Is, paints a deceptively understated picture of a sleepy town… a town with secrets.

In prose form, but with the same succinctness of poems, are I Think About You by Hudson and A Thousand Trees by James. Both pieces deal with the loss of a loved one. Hudson vividly evokes the world of nature and, via touch with its inanimate objects, reconnects with the one lost, with both tears and happiness. James, on the other hand, revisits the lost one in memory, along with the funeral from which he was excluded. As a result, he leaves the reader with a poignant sense of a unique, out-of-the-ordinary relationship, the loss being greater for that.

Via Austin’s mentoring, the workshop participants tackled the short story form, grasping its central elements of character development, character’s emotions, and drama. In Robert’s story, The Big Loser, a compulsive gambler rides a roller-coaster of fortunes, from an unwise choice upon waking, to the heights of manic excitement, and the inevitable and literal plunge into despair.

A Walk in the Park is the ironic title of Elizabeth’s story which traces a particular day in the life of a confident, emergency ward doctor. Except, what should have been routine turns into an emergency, one created not by the patient. In consequence, we are ushered into a physician’s darkest night of the soul.

A gem among the collection is Martin’s story, simply entitled Hair. The reader is swept along on a short, compelling walk in a young man’s ill-fated shoes. In just two brief paragraphs, this narrative recreates an assault that took place in Bondi one night, a real-life crime for which no one has ever paid.

These are just a sample of the stories, vignettes and poems in Phoenix Ink, and should spoilers now abound, don’t be put off by that. It’s the actual writing that makes these works a worthwhile read. Hopefully, this collection from first-time authors will be the first of many published as a result of the Creative Writing Workshops run by the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation.

Author of Peter and other titles, Kate Walker is an Australian author residing in the Blue Mountains, NSW. Find out more at www.katewalkeraustralia.com.

Phoenix Ink is currently available at The Bookshop Darlinghurst or from the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation’s office on Level 3/111-117 Devonshire St, Surry Hills.

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