Magda Szubanski, the much loved and admired Australian actress and comedian, was one of the headline presenters at the 2016 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia. The spacious Neka Gallery venue was already packed with curious and supportive fans when I arrived just a few minutes after the introductions. It was standing room only but no one complained as we all wanted to hear Magda talk about her memoir, Reckoning.
The line between an autobiography and a memoir has grown fuzzy and the terms are often used interchangeably. While autobiography has become faintly tainted with scholarly nostalgia and a bit old fashioned, memoirs have turned out to be enormously successful over the last 20 years. Several literary critics and historians have attributed the popularity of the memoir craze to the fact that we live in a “confessional age”, that grew out of the psychoanalytic/ therapeutic era followed by pop psychology counseling and the various self -help movements that have been reshaping our understanding of ourselves and others.
The therapeutic model has re-addressed and embraced the human need for confessional release outside the purview of the Catholic Church. It is interesting to consider that St. Augustine’s book Confession’s, written in the fourth century, would today be considered a memoir. Times Book critic Michiko Kakutani has stated that, “For St Augustine “Confessions” was a spiritual journey to redemption, something between him and God. The conversation between one’s self and God has become a conversation with, and about, the whole world.” Today, we cannot watch a contemporary TV drama without some character offering ‘to be there for you, if you ever want to talk’. What used to be private is now public and the norm, part of a modern way of life.
Confession can also be a powerful political tool.
Magda Szubanski is a savvy gay rights activist.
Magda came out in 2012 while campaigning for gay marriage in Australia, appearing on The Project to announce: ‘I am gay, gay, gay, gay gay’. She later described the revelation as ‘the most empowering thing’ she had ever done.
She is well aware of the power a book about her own journey as a lesbian will have on others in the international Gay community. She may have lost a few fans when she came out, but judging from the admiring audience at her presentation at the festival her career and popularity is stronger than ever.
Magda Szubanski memoir opens with the sentence, “ If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant have thought he was an assassin.” I think that understated attention grabbing line deserves to join the ranks of those other best first liners we test each other’s memories over glasses of beer: What novel begins with, “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times…” Or, “Call me Ishmael.” or “Happy marriages are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”?
The voice in the book is much like Magda’s in real life. A straightforward style with an ever so slightly disarming honesty that made me trust her. Her father, Zbigniew Szubanski, came from a good Polish family. At sixteen he signed up to be part of group of Polish underground resisters and assassinated other Poles who were collaborating or providing information to the Nazis about where Jewish families were being hidden. Magda conveys a complicated but convincing reaction to this information.
“He loved tennis, he loved ballet, he loved good conversation. Out there in the Melbourne suburbs—mowing the lawn in his terry-towelling hat and his Bombay Bloomers; in the lounge room doing the samba at cocktail parties; late at night playing his harmonica in the seclusion of the laundry—you would never have guessed that he was capable of killing in cold blood. But he was. Poor bastard. He was born in 1924. He was a boy of fifteen when Hitler invaded his Homeland and the war began, and as soon as he was able he joined the fighting. All through our growing up he would say, ‘I was judge, jury, and executioner.’ And I could never imagine—cannot imagine even now—what it feels like to have that responsibility, that guilt. “To be a little god with a gun, and the power over life and death.” He spent the rest of his life trying to come to terms with what he had done. I grew up in the shadow of that reckoning.”
Magda also conveys her gradual youthful awakening that she likes girls rather than boys. She covers her catholic girlhood, her depressed, rebellious teenage years right into the political feminist period at the university where she met and became involved with an another lesbian and connected with actors.
During her interview session at the writers festival, she was asked about her take on the current gay climate. She said,’ “ Oh, it is much better, not great, but much better. We need to do more to make it even better.”
Magda has been open about her struggle to accept her own sexuality, previously admitting to Marie Claire: ‘When I was younger I used to pray to be straight,’ and saying that she had only grown to accept herself after years of therapy.
“The bottom line is there’s nothing wrong with being gay. I tell you, if there was a tablet you could take to cure it, I wouldn’t take it.”
Society would be much better advised, she said, to “look at the genetic predisposition for prejudice and intolerance, find a pill that will cure that, [and] put it in the water, problem solved”.
In May 2016, Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning: A Memoir won the Australian Book of the Year Award. Readers may buy Szubanski’s book because they know her from TV and films. She has performed in the television comedy programs.The D-Generation, Fast Forward, and the very popular Kath & Kim where she played Sharon Strzelecki. But, they will finish” Reckoning” with a new admiration for Szubanski as a writer.