Misfits and Me by award winning writer Mandy Sayer is a collection of adroit essays produced across the past twenty years. This kaleidoscope of stories from the country to the city still sings with the joy of life and an exhilarating honesty that is as pertinent today as it was two decades ago.
The essays are organized under the headings life, love, literature and art. Each essay was prudently selected to explore the lives, locations and circumstances of the misfits Mandy Sayer has encountered throughout her life.
‘I find myself drawn to misfits because I have felt like an outsider for most of my life. By the age of fourteen, I’d endured severe domestic violence, homelessness, sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher and my stepfather, and had attended twelve public schools throughout three states.’
These themes are echoed in the first section of essays about life.
Misfits come in many guises and some are brutally rebellious while others maintain an unconventionality that embraces kindness and at times leaves them socially isolated.
The vile torments and vicious attacks in Tweed Heads of residents and local property by child gangs, misfits, against the vulnerable create devastating consequences and is a disturbing community problem.
Alcohol and drug abuse is rampant as is a total disdain for authority amid these perpetrators. The cycle of violence is a pattern of extreme concern not just in Tweed Heads but across the world.
Alarmingly gang formations are not gender specific; girl gangs are growing at a distressing rate. Dangerous and law breaking gang activities are cemented in violence, theft and destruction. The desperation and rebellion is relentless amid these young girls and is often the outcome of childhood abuse, sexual assault and neglect.
Sadly abuse not only comes from gangs but persons supposedly of trust. Stories of repeated and extensive domestic violence and the related traumatic devastation are gut wrenching. The feelings of abandonment and despair are excruciatingly painful for the victims and their children.
Sayer’s personal narrative about sheltering in Elsie Women’s Refuge in 1976 and returning forty years later is a tribute to women’s tenacity, stoicism and courage. Sayer writes with the authority of a victim and the responsibility of a writer.
Her discerning words offer hope and ‘a possibility that some abused mother or child will happen to read these words, pick up the phone, and find the courage to make that life-changing call.’
In the essays on love, Sayer invites the reader into the relationship and traces the story of her love and marriage to writer Louis Nowra, ‘her favourite misfit.’
The diagnosis of her father’s failing health and impending death is beautifully juxtaposed. The bittersweet notion of blossoming romantic love with the love of a dying father is fraught with ambiguity.
Mandy Sayer writes with generosity, compassion and a heartfelt sense of humour. She understands the ups and downs, the give and take, the exhilaration and sadness of love. The potent emotion of grief and the nostalgia of precious memories are adroitly woven in her writing.
Her words are lined with perception and explode with energy. Her wisdom is never dogmatic but emerges through the thoughts, actions and relationships that spill lovingly across the pages and linger with an enriching optimism and an enduring empathy.
Literature and art is the final section of this very astute publication from 2018. Sayer is a great enthusiast of Thea Astley’s writing and curious about her defiance amid male domination and bias especially in the literary world of her younger years. Sayer marvels at their commonalities including favourite authors and music.
They are comfortable in discussing their writing, the frustrations, the discipline and determination required. Sayer is always open to learning and ‘what I have inherited from Astley is the quiet knowledge that a significant work of art and a meaningful life are not made quickly or easily.’
It is exciting to read how a writer goes about the process of writing, the pitfalls, delights and discoveries made on the way. The staggering accountability and obligation a writer has to themselves, individuals and society is explored with honesty and accuracy.
Sayer’s passion for the work of Hemingway is evident in the meticulous and exacting analysis of his ‘aesthetic and thematic concerns’ and ‘objective’ style. These characteristics of his literary works are compellingly illustrated in two of Hemingway’s distinguished and celebrated short stories Hills Like White Elephants and A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.
She offers insights into her own writing style, techniques and habits, and through her interviews with authors provides further information relevant not only about author’s professional writing but also understandings and awareness of their personal lives.
Her final essay Shaun Prescott: Modern Misfit is a very valuable and inspiring interview about his debut novel The Town, his writing practices and his family life in the Blue Mountains.
Mandy Sayer was a tap dancer on the streets of New York then New Orleans performing with her jazz drummer father and the patterns of dance and the accents of music imbue this non-fiction writing with a rich rhythm. Her memoir Dreamtime Alice published in 1998 and winner of the National Biography Award offers a more detailed account of this part of her life.
She breathes a quirky harmony, tenderness and hopefulness into her essays about misfits through her gift of storytelling and her distinctive contagious sense of humour. The conflict within her essays is lovingly documented because she genuinely cares about the people she writes about.
Sayer discerningly writes about her misfits, the circumstances and the situations they confront or find themselves in. She is finely tuned to their feelings and conveys her knowledge and emotional response with veracity.
This approach is highly successful because she connects strongly with her own misfit identity and those she has associated and affiliated with in her personal and professional life.
‘I fell in love with my first misfit at the age of three.’ Her own life mirrors her stories of other misfits because they ‘have intrigued me ever since.’
Her literary style is crafted with authenticity and a methodical focus on words that resonate with the truth and reality of the harshness, persecution and violence within our society.
Contrasted with this spectrum is the creativity, compassion and uniqueness of outsiders and the intrinsic goodness within the misfit composition.
The cadence of her writer’s voice is anchored in a joyous generosity that quivers with buoyant charm and tender eccentricities. The warmth of her words cushions the explosive and often black hues of her stories.
A delicate mix of misfortune, abuse, artistic endeavour, humour and the magic of Mandy Sayer‘s pen crafted with the flow of an acrobatic rhythm, results in literary finesse and a significant Australian non-fiction work.
Rose Niland, NSW Correspondent, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018