‘Mitchell’s writing is challenging, exhilarating and touched with a deep sense of humanity.’ – Tony Birch
Paul Mitchell is a poet, short story writer, and now a novelist with the release of We. Are. Family. this month. Paul published his short fiction collection Dodging the Bull in 2007, and has also published three volumes of poetry: Minorphysics, Awake Despite the Hour and Standard Variation. He has won two national short story prizes and his writing has appeared regularly in Overland, The Big Issue and Meanjin among many other major journals and publications. He also has performed his poetry and dramatic monologues at The Bowery Poetry Club in New York, Melbourne International Arts Festival and La Mama Poetica. We. Are. Family is his first novel, which interrogates Australian masculinity and the transmission of violence and trauma within families.
Kick the darkness until it bleeds.
Three generations are forced to confront the pervasive violence that hangs over them like a ghost, and the distances to which they have carried their forebears’ pain.
We. Are. Family. is a sensitive and rugged episodic novel which ruminates on the damaging idea of Australian masculinity with tenderness and dry humour. Paul Mitchell unravels the twisting threads that tie us to the past and the trauma that is handed down through families.
Taking cues from Tim Winton’s The Turning, it is a cyclic meditation on the slow grind of life and the interconnectedness of identity and family.
The title of your book in itself seems to exude determination and the willingness of families to stick together during trying times. Do you think connections between family members are the strongest kind of relationship?
They are often our strongest relationships, but the strength of those bonds can have positive and negative affects on us. We. Are. Family. largely explores the strong effects that family violence can have on generations. So the characters are often bonded by experiences they’d rather not have had. Still, despite their wounds, I see these characters hoping for new ways of living. The title is also saying that, as humanity, we are family. If we can treat each other better in our families, the basic building blocks of humanity, then our communities can only be better. And, of course, the novel is episodic – the title is pointing to the fact that each section is part of the family whole that is the book.
Your book explores ‘trauma that is handed down through families’. What kind of trauma can be transferred between relatives?
All kinds. From they way we use words to belittle, embarrass or malign, to the ways we compete with each other and fail to support each other’s endeavours. That’s without considering what so many sociological studies show us: sexual and physical abusers have, in the majority, experienced abuse themselves, often as children. At some point, in all families in which these cycles exist, there has to be a circuit breaker. Only some of the characters in We. Are. Family. are on track to find that circuit breaker. Which, I expect, makes the novel true to life. That is certainly what readers who have experienced similar backgrounds to the characters in the book have told me.
Early on, you write of Ron, ‘… he’s not bloody made of stone. He’s got feelings.’ And yet he is unable to express or communicate these feelings. Is the tendency of men to bottle up emotions something you were keen to explore in We. Are. Family.?
Absolutely. It is one of the key issues I’m exploring. But, as Tony Birch said in his launch speech, men don’t really bottle up emotions. They express them in all kinds of ways, but perhaps not too often in speech. I think that is changing, significantly in Australia, and the men in We. Are. Family. are on various parts of a spectrum when it comes to verbal expression.
Hyper-masculinity is usually a result of deep fear..”
But we do see them expressing their emotions in all kinds of unhealthy ways. In the scene you mention, Ron is saying to himself that he has feelings. He doesn’t speak these words to his wife. I think he is actually scared to say such a thing openly to his wife for fear he won’t be understood. So We. Are. Family. is saying that the way in which men deal with emotion is significantly more complex than perhaps we sometimes give credit.
Would you say Australia is a hyper-masculine country? Is masculinity in itself problematic?
No, I don’t believe masculinity is problematic. But hyper-masculinity is for sure. And, interestingly, hyper-masculinity – whether that is expressed via physicality, political power, financial power, etc. – is usually a result of deep fear within the individual who is expressing it. Their hyper-masculinity is a mask for fears like: I don’t measure up, I don’t know who I am, I am not worthy, and I am an impostor.
How do you explore masculinity through your characters?
The characters are all based on men I know. But, usually, they are composites of at least two, sometimes three people. So I explore it through years of incidental research, and through being willing to expose aspects of my own journey. But, of course, those experiences are hidden in the lives of a number of the characters!
Although there’s quite a large cast of characters knocking about in your book, Ron seems the most recurrent. Can you tell us about him?
Ron is the male character who has experienced a strong level of family violence in the mid-20thcentury at the hands of his war-traumatised father. He has also witnessed horrible acts of violence and felt powerless to do anything to help those upon whom the violence was visited. He ended up an orphan.
…those who experience family violence, especially from parents, sometimes feel a greater sense of existential loneliness than others.”
While that is a literal character reality for him, I’m also pointing to the idea that those who experience family violence, especially from parents, end up what I would call ‘cosmic orphans’. They sometimes feel a greater sense of existential loneliness than others. And that, obviously, doesn’t make for a healthy life. But I actually think that, even though Ron does pass some of his trauma onto his kids, he does a pretty good job in life – given the low emotional base from which he was operating.
Now more than ever, each successive generation is growing up in vastly different circumstances compared to the one that preceded it. How did you go about imagining the perspectives of characters at a range of different ages?
I’m fortunate in that I’m close to people of all generations. I have close relationship with Boomers, Gen X and Y – and whatever generation my seven-year-old represents. So the scope wasn’t difficult to achieve in that sense.
In what ways do your skills as a poet infiltrate and influence the prose of your novel?
I think attention to detail and care for language. I think also a certain comfort with creating situations and prose that is open-ended and therefore open to interpretation. As one reader said, ‘Paul, this all seems simple. But there are incredible depths here not far below the surface.’ He then talked about some symbols and allegories with which I was working. So, in that way, I think there is a strong poetic source from which I’m operating and is now available for readers of We. Are. Family!
What are some standout Aussie books you’ve read recently?
I read mainly American fiction writers to be honest. But I have just finished a work by an Australian author from the past in Morris West and his novel The Shoes of the Fisherman. For me that novel stands comfortably with some of Graeme Greene’s finest work. I also enjoyed the poetry collection Year of the Wasp by Australian poet Joel Deane.
Can you give us a favourite paragraph or teaser sentence from We. Are. Family.?
Wow, I’ve never thought about that. They are all favourites because they are in the book! But here’s one:
Peter walked and swung the empty plastic bucket his father had asked him to carry. He wouldn’t get to watch Disneyland on TV tonight but his father was taking him fishing. His father never took him anywhere. He was always too busy. Peter didn’t care about Disneyland now. What was it, anyway? A few singing mice?
His brothers carried their father’s nylon fishing bag. Simon and Terry were trudging through the grass, but they wore huge grins. This adventure was so big the three boys thought they might never go home again. This might be their lives now and it would be okay.
‘Watch yourselves getting under that fence. There’s barbed wire.’
Peter copped a nick on the arm but didn’t cry out. He didn’t even check to see if there was blood. He picked up his bucket and followed his father, who’d turned into a massive insect. The folding chairs he carried were wings and the rods he held were large feelers. They shook and pointed.
‘This way boys.’