Confronting the Past with Robyn Davidson

Article | Dec 2023

ROBYN DAVIDSON is an explorer and author of the international bestseller Tracks which documented her solo expedition across the Australian desert with a dog and four camels. Her memoir, Unfinished Woman, is an introspective look at early loss, love, and freedom. AKINA HANSEN writes.

 

 

Australian explorer and writer Robyn Davidson was born on a cattle station in rural Queensland. She remembers her time in the country was wild, playful and free and she recalls a home that was buzzing with music and all the usual sounds of life. And yet, as is often the case with memory, it can be selective.

Robyn was only 11 years old when she lost her mother, Gwen, to suicide. And it wasn’t until she reached her 40s that she began to truly think about her again. The decades that followed saw Robyn gradually confront a past that she so carefully kept buried. The result is her latest memoir Unfinished Woman.

‘I’d been very uninterested in the past all my life. Almost pathologically uninterested because I just covered it over in cement basically and headed for the future. And I think that’s not a bad strategy. People do what they need to do to survive and build a life,’ she says.

Mark & Gwen wedding day (Robyn’s parents)

As an adult, looking back at her childhood, Robyn now realises just how isolating and lonely her mother’s time was in the country. Alienated from her family, overwhelmed with domestic duties, and with little to no financial freedom, Gwen was one of countless women suffering under the patriarchy.

But when Robyn was finally ready to write and learn more about her mother’s past, she discovered that Gwen’s belongings had been thrown away and that there were no longer any relatives to shed light on her history. Even in death, Gwen’s voice was subdued and ultimately erased.

‘I had to then come to the realisation that I could not retrieve my mother, my mother had been obliterated, she’d been made utterly invisible. So really, all that was left of her was what remained in me, and how her decisions, her innermost thoughts, how they transferred themselves into me and into my fate.’

Ultimately, this was a turning point for Robyn. The focus of her book became less about the woman her mother was, and it instead became an investigation of time and memory.

Like one’s memory, Robyn’s memoir Unfinished Woman zigs and zags between time and place to slowly unravel how the loss of her mother left a deep chasm in her world.

From a young age, Robyn’s relentless need to understand herself and the world around her, saw her pursue experiences that others would shy away from.

In 1968 at the age of 18, Robyn had begun university and was living in a share house. But her rural upbringing and bubble meant conversations and ideas she so desperately wanted to engage with were just out of her grasp. And so, to understand the world better, she made the daring decision to hitch a ride to Sydney. For Robyn this meant isolating herself in the city to take in as much of her surroundings as possible. She lived rough, sleeping in parks and an abandoned house in pursuit of freedom and knowledge. ‘I needed to learn everything.

I needed to learn how the world worked, I needed to learn how people thought, I needed to learn how systems functioned, I needed to learn what I was capable of and not capable of. I had to learn what a city was, how a city worked.’

This yearning to understand would only grow. And in 1977, aged 27, Robyn set off from Alice Springs to walk across the Australian desert to the sea with her dog, Diggity, and four camels. This would prove to be a life-changing decision.

‘I think the trip for me was sort of self-proving in that I didn’t see myself as competent or able to focus and accomplish things. And I found out that I could do those things and actually do them very well. So, it kind of pulled me together as a person.’

Robyn on her desert journey with Eddie

In an article for the National Geographic and later her bestselling novel, Tracks (which was later adapted into a 2013 film), Robyn details a perilous journey in which she covered 1700 miles of arid and sweltering hot desert.

Her expedition took nine months with most of it undertaken alone. Towards the end of her trek, however, a Pitjantjatjara man, Eddie, joined her from Docker River to Warburton (WA) to guide her to water.

Through this Aboriginal man, Robyn gained new insights into a way of thinking and a way of being in the world.

‘And that really got me very interested in the whole idea of “nomadism”, by that I mean, people who move around a lot and therefore tend to accumulate knowledge rather than goods.’

Indeed, Robyn’s trek left her with a deep respect and curiosity to find out more about nomadic life. And in 1990 she travelled to India to write about migrating sheep herders, joining a Rabari family for a year. She would go on to document her experiences in her 1996 book, Desert Places.

While the journey was gruelling, in Unfinished Woman she describes how it confirmed her belief in the value of nomadic life.

‘I can’t tell you how hard their lives were. And everything was against them. And yet, they looked after me with such affection. No matter how difficult the day had been, when they met up together at night, they’d laugh and laugh and laugh. They were kind, generous, funny. I’d also say they were cosmopolitan, if that’s the right word, in the sense that they had to constantly deal with different sorts of people. They had to constantly deal with aggression and antagonism, so they were diplomatic,’ Robyn shares.

Much of Robyn’s life has been in constant flux, travelling from place to place. At one point she even moved back and forth between London and a house in the Himalayan mountains where she lived with her partner, Narendra, a Rajasthani lord.

‘I need solitude. I’ve always understood its value. But I also understand that it comes with a fairly heavy price sometimes.’

And while her travels have been filled with bold and risky adventures, they’ve also included an element of solitude. From growing up in a rural area, walking across Australia, migrating with the Rabari in India, through to living in an isolated home in the Himalayan mountains, Robyn’s relationship to solitude has persisted.

‘I need solitude. I’ve always understood its value. But I also understand that it comes with a fairly heavy price sometimes.’

According to Robyn, whether or not her mother’s death acted as a catalyst for these solitary pursuits is unanswerable.

‘It’s an illusion to think that one thing leads in a straightforward manner to something else. So for example, in the film Tracks, in order to give the girl a reason, they decided to include the mother’s death, as if the mother’s death led inevitably to doing something crazy. Whereas from my point of view, that trip across the desert was entirely positive. There was nothing punitive. It was as if a woman doing something like that couldn’t be allowed to be adventurous, she had to be troubled.’

And while the chains of causation may never be fully known, the early death of her mother has undoubtedly had a profound impact on Robyn. Unfinished Woman is a moving memoir about grief, love, and memory. Robyn’s interrogation of her past and, in turn, herself, has finally given a voice back to her mother.

‘She as a person is lost forever, there’s simply nothing left. So I feel that I have given her something of a voice. Not a lot, but something.’

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robyn Davidson was born on a cattle property in Queensland. She moved to Sydney in the late Sixties, then returned to study in Brisbane before going to Alice Springs to prepare for her journey across the Australian desert.

Davidson’s first book Tracks, her account of this crossing, was an international sensation, and was adapted for a film starring Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver. She has travelled extensively, and has lived in London, New York and India.

In the early 1990s Davidson migrated with and wrote about nomads in north-west India. She is now based in regional Victoria, but spends some time each year in India.

Author: Robyn Davidson

Category: Biography & True Stories

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Bloomsbury

ISBN: 9781408837160

RRP: $34.99

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