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Iconic writer’s early death a sign of how we treat writers and scholars

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Carey co-wrote Puberty Blues, which was then adapted into cinema and television forms

Tributes to writer Gabrielle Carey, who died in early May, are expressing great sadness. As her former mentee, I’m as angry as I am sad.

Most Australians may not heard of Gabrielle Carey, but many Australians have heard of Puberty Blues, the iconic book she co-wrote with Kathy Lette. It was a popular film in 1981 and a TV series in 2012.

My teenage sister and I were captivated by the book and film, because as surfie chicks on the Gold Coast, we related to the chauvinist, shallow, destructive culture of the 1980s surf scene.

I became a journalist and roughly twenty years on, received an Australian Society of Authors mentorship with Gabrielle to work on my manuscript. It was an emerging writer’s dream to be mentored by one of the authors I admired the most.

The days we spent working on my novel at her big dining table in Sydney in the late 90s are etched in my memory. It was early days for computers and we worked energetically with the hard copy, cutting up pages and restructuring the entire story. One day we went for 10 hours without a break. Gabrielle supplied chocolate cake and plunger coffee and a generous amount of her time. Her wit, warmth and flat out technical competence made a difficult process fun.

She was a champion of my manuscript and helped me believe in myself as a creative writer. She never, ever shamed me for my naiveté about creative writing and publishing. Gabrielle also put me in touch with her literary agent, who was an amazing support and together we got the manuscript to a quality where the leading publishing houses in Australia read it. They said it was “fine writing” and passed. One chapter of my novel was published in an anthology of short stories and broadcast on the ABC Short Story program.

I was okay with that outcome for a first novel, though I thought of myself as a failed creative writer until a copyright fee alerted me that a leading university has for years been using that chapter from my novel to teach creative writing.

Gabrielle contacted me on LinkedIn recently to ask how my writing was going, but I missed the message. It was a horrible shock to read she had “died suddenly” and there were “no suspicious circumstances” when all journalists know exactly what that means.

I read the article she wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) last year which gives clues as to why she “died suddenly”. Her article moved me, because in some ways her circumstances were similar to mine.

Gabrielle was not wealthy because she devoted her life to being a writer. The same is true for me. Writing is time consuming and I’ve mostly worked part time and taken the odd year off work to write. Gabrielle was a part time university tutor for many years as was I.

She reflected in her SMH article that when her university employer let her go after 20 years, she felt financially insecure. She was also vulnerable because her father had depression and took his life. Financial insecurity and a hit to his super were factors in his death.

Gabrielle wrote in SMH last year:

All my working life I have believed that what happened to my father could not happen to me. Firstly because I don’t have that much superannuation to lose. I, too, spent years lecturing at universities but being a woman I had always worked part-time, so when I was "voluntarily separated" from my tertiary institution in 2020, I wasn’t left with a lot to be decimated. And yet within two years of retiring, my super had also suffered catastrophic losses.

 

At the age of 63, I realised I would have to sell my house in a falling market. I also realised there was a real danger that my super would run out before the pension kicked in at 67.

Gabrielle says depression “hit hard” and she links it to her financial insecurity:

'The main symptom was regret. Why had I spent my life being a writer, thereby deliberately leaving myself in this perilous financial state? Why, after a lifetime fearing my father’s end, was I now facing the same destiny?'

Like Gabrielle, during the COVID-19 pandemic I was let go by the university where I worked for over 20 years. Unlike Gabrielle, I am not depressed. I am angry.

I am angry that universities recruit staff like Gabrielle and myself, with a body of published work behind us and underpay and undervalue us while using our content, teaching talent and industry experience. They spit us out with almost no super or savings because, we were only employed part-time or casually.

I am angry that successive federal governments reduced investment in literature. I’m angry that the Morrison Government increased tertiary fees for arts degrees (where writers are made and writing teachers are paid). I’m angry that women still do the bulk of childrearing and housework, meaning many can’t work full time and retire with less super than men.

I’m angry that in 2023, being the penniless scholar is a hard biting reality for thousands of members of the Australian intellectual class.

Gabrielle Carey was a member of the Australian intellectual class and a generous supporter of emerging writers. She was not a self-promoter. She toiled for decades on her own and other’s books. She told many important stories about being Australian and added significant cultural benefit to Australia and yet she seems to have died in despair.

This is not okay and as a tribute to her and all those like her, I will continue my personal campaign to keep universities accountable for undervaluing academics like us. I know I probably won’t succeed in such a David and Goliath battle, but if my actions make them clench a bit, it’s worth it.

I call on the Albanese Government to increase investment in literature and support a culture where writers like Gabrielle do not “die suddenly”.

And I will forever keep a little golden place in the cupboard of my soul for Gabrielle Carey, a hardworking champion of creative writing, a fun, witty, gentle and generous soul and an icon of Australian literature who deserved better.

Vivienne Wynter is a freelance journalist and creative writer based in Queensland. This article first appeared on The Pineapple

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Iconic writer’s early death a sign of how we treat writers and scholars

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