Award-winning playwright, poet and novelist Stephanie Johnson says of The Grass Was Always Browner, 'Nineteen seventies suburban Sydney comes winningly alive in Sacha's light-hearted girlhood memoir of boundless optimism, pink milk, tutus, triumph at the Eisteddfod and a horse in the back garden."
The Grass Was Always Browner by Sacha Jones is the story of a strong-willed, smart yet often less than sensible, curious and questioning girl growing up as the middle-child of three children. Her parents are old, and old-fashioned, deeply impractical, idealistic and naive, not best suited to negotiating the rough and rugged terrain of suburban Sydney in the 1970s-80s.
Sacha is not only the middle child, but she is stuck in the middle of the muddle and mess of her family's situation. She sees and suffers more than her siblings do – or so she feels. However, one advantage of her position is that she is sent to study ballet to treat her asthma, and through ballet she finds a way out of her predicament.
Sacha's determination to escape her humdrum existence and -become Russian' saw her push through and succeed against the odds (wrong-shaped head, wrong feet, overall wrong build) and a father who is strongly against her becoming a ballet dancer. He describes ballet as -a frivolous and selfish pursuit, too focused on appearances.' His own dreams are focused on a desire to save the Third World. However, in their very different ways, Sacha and her father are more alike than either would care to admit.
In becoming a dancing star, Sacha surprises no-one more than her legendary dance teacher – an actual Russian – Mrs P, Tanya Pearson. However, her father was right about ballet.
Although it gives Sacha the escape she desires, there is a heavy price to pay. And when she sets off for London to further her dance career, it is in part because the Australian dance scene betrayed her trust.
The Grass Was Always Browner is a laugh-out-loud memoir and a cautionary reminder that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence, even in Australia.
Sacha Jones has a PhD in Political Theory from the University of Auckland and has variously taught politics, preschool and dancing. She lives with her family on the outskirts of a proper forest (in Auckland, New Zealand) and returns as often as it will have her to the land of fake forests and improbable fruits where she grew up (Frenchs Forest, Sydney). She blogs at OWW: One Woman's World (http://onewomanswo.blogspot.com.au).
The Grass Was Always Browner
Author: Sacha Jones
Question: What inspired you to write The Grass Was Always Browner?
Sacha Jones: Inspiration comes in many forms. For memoir, life itself is the first inspiration, especially if it's a loud and unlikely life, as my childhood was. Early readers have already identified this theme in their reviews, with -bizarre', -definitely different' and -very unique' being some of the adjectives used to describe my childhood memoir, which gives some indication of the challenges I faced growing up – being the comparatively sane one as I was, grappling to make sense of all that bizarre uniqueness. And although my mother reading this will be sure to say: -You can't qualify unique', not with -very' or anything else, unique is unique; I personally think unique on its own doesn't quite cover it.
And when your backstory is that unique, over time it asserts itself on your consciousness and nervous system with increasing insistence until you've no choice but to try and release some of the pressure by telling your story to anyone who will listen – including your counsellor. If you have a bizarre and very unique upbringing, ten to one you'll find yourself in the company of a counsellor sooner or later. It was sooner for me.
And unless your counsellor is Sigmund Freud himself, he, or she, will not know what to make of you and will suggest you write about your life by way of passing the buck for fixing the problem back onto you. When that happens, memoir is the only course left.
Still, not everyone listens to their counsellor. And so it took me roughly twenty years from that first suggestion that I write about my childhood by way of making sense of it and taking a load off, to pick up the pen and point it at my childhood.
In the intervening years, other people (including other counsellors) told me I really must write about my childhood without delay, while other memoirists – Clive James, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frank McCourt, Miles Franklin, Janet Frame – inspired me with their tales of childhoods of the definitely different, very unique, and often highly hilarious variety. Then a couple of key people in the writing business told me not only that I should write but that I could write, which finally removed the self-doubt that had undermined all those counsellors' best efforts to get me to write about my life instead of whinging about it.
I don't know if that sufficiently answers your question about what inspired me to write this book, but having devoted a good few years to the task, there's no money left to pay counsellors to tell me if what I'm doing is right or wrong; that job now falls to you – the reader. The cheque's in the femail.
Question: What did you find most difficult when writing The Grass Was Always Browner?
Sacha Jones: Well apart from the self-doubt just mentioned, which never goes away entirely, I am assured by other more experienced writers than I, coming home from New Zealand where I now live (don't tell anyone), to find that the grass in my old neighbourhood in Sydney was as green as a golf course, was difficult, as by that stage there was no turning back from the title and woe-was-me-growing-up-in-a-hot-dry-land theme. But, I got around that to a degree with an epilogue attributing the change of colour to global warming, so that was that difficulty sorted – even if it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
More practically speaking, the main difficulty with writing any book-length project, or so I learnt writing this book, is the rewriting. It's getting to the end and feeling very pleased with yourself, thinking you've nailed it, only to go back to the beginning and realise instead you've nailed yourself to a potentially endless cycle of rewriting; of getting to the end only to discover that the beginning no longer fits.
At one point in this cycle my frustrated fingers formed a fist and punched my laptop keyboard so hard that for some time afterwards, until I figured out I'd actually killed the keyboard, at random and regular intervals the complaining keyboard would do this ………………………………… daring me to punch it again. That was a considerable difficulty for approximately two months of the rewriting process. Technology and me are not, and never will be, like this (crosses fingers).
Question: What do you want readers to take away from The Grass Was Always Browner?
Sacha Jones: Readers might feel reassuringly normal by comparison after reading my book. Unless it turns out that we are all varying degrees of abnormal – especially we Australians – all of us falling somewhere on the unique to very, to extremely-unique scale, proving my (English) mother wrong; you can qualify unique, indeed you must, in Australia. If this is the case, readers might find some comfort in knowing they're not alone in their difference.
Beyond this, my memoir is something of a cautionary tale of the be-careful-what-you-wish-for variety. The grass is not actually greener on the other side of the fence, folks, although there's no telling how global warming is going to affect this truism. It might turn the grass blue or pink, for all I know. Indeed if you want to know more about global warming, I suggest you don't read my book. If you want to know less about global warming, it could be quite useful.
Indeed light relief for those who are worried about global warming or anything else, you might just find in my book, and with it the ultimate feel-good message that it's better to laugh than cry, even if the destruction of the planet is at stake.
On a final note to all the girls, women and Femail readers of my book specifically, I'd like to think my tale of a spirited, strong-willed girl fighting against the odds of the wrong physique and a traditionalist father who doesn't approve, to do things her way and to dance or die, sends a message that whatever else happens, whether you're successful or not – and I was both, in the end – don't give up the fight. It's our turn.
Question: What did you learn about yourself writing The Grass Was Always Browner?
Sacha Jones: Writing a memoir is certainly a journey of self-discovery like no other, and writing about your childhood from the vantage point of middle-age and motherhood, can be particularly enlightening indeed.
In looking back to my childhood in such detail, I realised that many of my problems growing up were at least in part of my own making, and that my father was not entirely wrong when he told me, usually in a rage, that I was too clever for my own good, a charge that back then I found particularly annoying and difficult to fix. But as a parent I now know that a six year old who always wants the last word and won't take no for an answer, can drive a parent to drink. I'm not sure I was entirely responsible for my father's alcoholism during my childhood, but I don't think I helped.
Going back as a grown-up I saw my parents' perspective more than I had ever done before, which made me realise that I was no picnic as a child. And so I feel more gratitude for both my parents today, more gratitude and less blame. It's all too easy to blame the parents.
That said, my brother, who always had a lot to say for himself growing up, was never charged with the curiously cryptic crime of being too clever for his own good. But perhaps what he had to say was not quite so clever.
Writing my childhood memoir also took me back to the country of my birth and upbringing that I had been so quick and keen to leave behind, first as a teenage ballet dancer in pursuit of world fame, and then again a few years later after I got married (to a Kiwi). This journey back home made me realise I am more Australian than I had been ready to believe. Annual trips home with my own children for many a year had not produced this same identification and nostalgia, though one reviewer has praised my book for not sinking into sentimentality and nostalgia.
Perhaps I did not quite sink into nostalgia, but I did find myself remembering the upside of being Australian: the exotic wild life, the dramatic, never-a-dull-moment setting, and especially the dry grass humour that makes the best of it.
Re-immersed in this Aussie aesthetic and vibe that is so well encapsulated in the local lingo of the bottle-o, the Subbo and the grog, etc., I found I was inclined to take myself less seriously, and from that adjustment, to adopt a more self-deprecating, Muriel's Wedding-type attitude to my past, the deeper I delved into it.
Having only recently finished my PhD on a very serious subject indeed, before embarking on the memoir, I was particularly in need of this reality-check adjustment.
So yes, it was a very unique life, one that could only happen in Australia, and realising this as I wrote my memoir, was cause for a rethink of my identity as an estranged Australian.
In fact I had wanted to subtitle my memoir: -Confessions of a strange estranged Australian' but the idea was emphatically vetoed by the publisher. This was probably just as well, as I no longer feel estranged from my home country. The strange still fits though, but perhaps that goes without saying – for an Australian memoir.
Question: How did you come up with the title?
Sacha Jones: The Grass Was Always Browner was not my first choice of title. My first choice was Dancing with Dingoes, but I'd gotten over that potentially insensitive title by the time I submitted it to publishers.
Still, I submitted the completed draft under the title Don't Laugh: My Unlikely Life I (I because I pitched it as the first volume of a trilogy), but the publishers got rid of that in the first edit. The Grass Was Always Browner was at that point the title of my prologue.
Various other titles were mooted by myself and the publishers but we kept coming back to this one and once we'd decided on it, it seemed silly we had taken any time at all to make the decision, as it really is the right title for this book.
How I came up with The Grass Was Always Browner in the first place, was partly because of my green eyes and perceived need growing up as a middle child squeezed between two close-in-age siblings to compete for my parents' attention and affection, as well as the often vicious competition for trophies and ribbons in the world of ballet.
-Green eyes are going to want to see green more than other colour eyes,' I maintain in the opening paragraph of my memoir, in jest of course, but there is truth in all good jests and some truth in this. Shakespeare, who first wrote of the -green-eyed monster' of jealousy, was not often wrong.
Interview by Brooke Hunter