Catching up with Poem Forest poet Helena Fox

Article | May 2023

HELENA FOX is a novelist, poet and writing mentor who received much acclaim for her awarding winning debut novel How It Feels to Float. Helena is also a commissioned poet for Red Room Poetry’s POEM FOREST Prize, a youth nature writing competition where every poem plants a tree. Good Reading for Young Adults caught up with her to discuss her commissioned poem Elegy for a Living Sea and her latest novel, The Quiet and the Loud which is a heartbreaking novel about love and friendship.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

the-quiet-and-the-loud-helena-foxA novel about the contours of friendship, family, forgiveness, trauma and love that explores the stories we suppress and the stories we speak – and the healing that comes when we voice the things we’ve kept quiet for so long.

George’s life is loud. On the water, though, with everything hushed above and below, she is steady, silent. Then her estranged dad says he needs to talk, and George’s past begins to wake up, looping around her ankles, trying to drag her under.

Everything is a blaring, blazing mess. Could Calliope, the girl who has just cartwheeled into George’s world and shot it through with brilliant, dazzling colour, be her calm among the chaos?

 

 

MEET HELENA FOX

What inspired your foray into writing?

I’ve been passionate about words for as long as I can remember. I learned English at the age of five, mostly by diving into books, books, books. My love for reading led naturally to an interest in writing my own stories, and I began my first ‘novel’ at eight years old. I quietly dreamed of becoming a writer my whole childhood and young adulthood, but I was too scared of failure to say the dream out loud. Finally in mid-twenties, I decided to speak, then chase, the dream. Years of practice and ‘failures’ later, I’ve learned how to say the things I want to say. And now, I am the published, award-winning author of two novels. Dreams come true.

 

Your debut novel How it Feels to Float was critically acclaimed. Did you feel any pressure while writing your novel The Quiet and the Loud?

Oh my goodness, YES. I’ve spoken to many writers about the dreaded ‘Book Two nerves’! My sense of everyone’s expectation was huge: from readers waiting for the next book, to my (very patient) editors (who were waiting for my manuscript to start working haha), to myself, who acted as my harshest critic. The nerves got very loud at times, and I spent many moments fretting and thinking, ‘Oh no. Everyone is going to be so disappointed!’ I have to add that I was dealing with enormous personal and mental health challenges while writing this book, as well as making my way (as we all were) through first the bushfires, then Covid, from 2019 to 2022. So yes, there was a lot of noise surrounding the writing of this book, both from inside and outside. I’m relieved and grateful that I finished, and can now hold dear Book Two in my hands.

 

What was the inspiration behind The Quiet and the Loud?

The idea came in a series of glimpses – images, feelings, colours and sounds – that eventually coalesced into the idea of a people-pleasing, quiet young woman, surrounded by a cluttered, noisy life and intrusive memories of her past, always seeking out peace and calm. Early on, I decided the best way to describe the book was to say I was writing a ‘quiet book about loud things.’ That was my guide through the writing of draft after draft. I grew up with a fair bit of chaos around me, and I live with Complex PTSD symptoms from both childhood and long-term adult trauma, and I wanted to create a sensory experience for the reader of how that might feel – to be immersed in noise and chaos and feel no real control or agency in your life. I also wanted to create a path in this story towards hope and steadiness, by showing my main character begin to practice self care, create healthy boundaries, and learn how to speak, then claim, her worth. So I suppose the inspiration began with glimpses, then my own life, then a desire to communicate how it feels to survive trauma, and find your own, vital voice.

 

The novel deals with themes such as mental health, trauma, and sexuality. What was your approach to tackling these complex themes?

I approached themes of mental health and trauma as I do in my own life: with kindness, gentleness and compassion. There is still a great deal of misunderstanding about the ways trauma and mental illness can manifest, and that can lead to unnecessary judgement by society and shame for the person living with these issues. For example, trauma and mental illness can lead to behaviours that can appear ‘difficult’ to others, such as withdrawing and being distant, avoiding certain activities, forgetting to finish tasks, being extremely sensitive to certain triggers, or being overly controlling, demanding and/or self-sacrificing. While living with trauma and mental health issues is never an excuse for hurting others, knowing what someone is dealing with can offer up a context for their behaviour, and thus be a starting point for conversation, compassion, self-care, and healthy change. We don’t always know what someone else is carrying, and so we must make it safer to talk about the things we carry. This book is an effort to do that – to talk about trauma and mental health issues openly and without judgement, and show ways we can take better care of each other and ourselves.

On the theme of sexuality, I also approached that as I do in my own life, in that I see all sexuality as utterly normal. Human sexuality exists on an incredibly broad spectrum, and we are all on that spectrum; we are all in this together. I don’t believe that having a queer identity should be any kind of obstacle or challenge to tackle, and so I chose to write it into this book as a non-issue. George is who she is. The people in her life are who they are. Everyone loves who they love, without critique. I don’t believe anyone should be ‘othered’, judged, persecuted, or reduced simply for who they are attracted to or for who they love. We are all … simply … who we are  – all deserving of kindness and care.

Having said that, I am also very glad to have written a book with such strong LGBTQ+ representation. This book offers a home to so many, including myself and beloved members of my family and community, and I am very proud of that.

 

The novel is set in Sydney, Australia. What was the significance of the setting to this story?

The setting was a key element of the novel, in many different ways. George, the main character, lives with her family in an unrenovated cottage by the water, on a peninsula in Sydney Harbour (modelled after the Balmain peninsula). I wanted George to live close to the water so she could slip into her kayak anytime she needed to escape the clatter of her family, her demanding friends, and the tumult of her past waking up. The calm of Sydney Harbour and Parramatta River, as well as the wildness of the ocean at both Manly beach and the Gap at South Head, were important settings for me, to contrast both the quiet George yearns for and the loudness in her life.

I also needed the book to be set in a prosperous, busy city at the time it is surrounded by choking bushfire smoke. I wanted to address the way so many people are protected by shine and comfort in their lives, and often don’t have to face the reality of the climate crisis. As for the bushfires themselves, I wanted to convey the aching chaos and tragedy of those fires in a palpable way, so that we could all gain a sense of what was faced and lost.

In all these settings, I hope the reader can feel the physically of them, then perhaps grow in their sense of their own surroundings, and then speak, in their own way, to protect this vulnerable, hurting earth.

 

You are also a poet – what was your inspiration for your POEM FOREST poem ‘Elegy for a living sea’?

I have loved the ocean all my life. I have lived close to it, here on Dharawal Country, for over 20 years. I also lived on the Polynesian island of Samoa as a child, and beside the sea when I lived in the US in my 20s, so I have a very deep, emotional connection to the ocean, both in my present and my past. I think of the ocean as a living thing – something that moves, pulses and thrums with energy. I also think of it as something that can be damaged, clogged, and flatlined, like a heartbeat. When I was starting to think about this poem, I was sitting by the sea in a café (as I often am!). The line ‘The ocean is a heartbeat’ came into my head, and I followed it.

 

How can young people make their voices and concerns about the climate heard?

They should do anything and everything they can to speak about their concerns. If they feel able to be loud, they can organise or attend protests and marches, or actively do something to disrupt our complacent system. If that feels overwhelming, I suggest they use the skills they have. Make art, write, create music, or use skills in information technology, science, or education, for example, to communicate their concern.

Most importantly, I would say to every young person: Don’t ever feel like your voice doesn’t matter. It matters, so much. Speak, shout, sing, dance, paint, write – if you can say something, say it. If you can do something, do it. We need every voice, quiet or loud. We must not be silent.

 

Which writers or books do you greatly admire?

I admire so many! I love books with some kind of oddness to them, or that use any unusual techniques. I love books that feel like poems, and books that feel clean and spare – with absolutely no excess. I adore books that express compassion for others, a sense of hope and interconnectedness – both to other humans but also to our infinitely complex, natural world. And I love books with immense heart, even if they break yours as you read them. For a taste of many of these things, I’d go to the high-wire act that is Max Porter’s writing, the lyrical, tender world of Margo Lanagan’s books, and the truth and enduring kindness inside all the work of Karen Foxlee.

 

POEM FOREST

In celebration of World Poetry Day and the International Day of Forests, the youth nature-writing competition POEM FOREST has returned and is open from 21 March until close  22 September. For more information head HERE.

Young poets will be inspired by POEM FOREST commissioned poets who have written their own nature poems in response to the prize. See author Helena Fox’s poem below.

 

Elegy for a living sea

Helena Fox

 

‘The ocean is a heartbeat,’ she says,
the two of us by a tide pool –

green moss and molluscs,
fishflit and side-eye crabs,
sleeping anemones and surf
grabbing at the flat rock shelf,
gulls wheeling and keening.

She, nearly ten, starts to cry,
the future for her a rise and rise
of tide and heat, of bottle caps and plastic wrap,
of clag and choke and storm and scraps.

The ocean is a pulse
stuttering, a beat
bleating, a wave fractured and flat                      lining

 

(I know,                   my love,                               I know). 

 

The ocean is a heartbeat

(let us place the ocean to our ear, repenting)

 

The ocean is a heartbeat

(let us lay our hands on the ocean, reviving)

 

The ocean is a heart beat —

 

Discover more about Helena Fox here

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