Truth, tenderness and discomfort in the human experience

By Caitlin Cassidy | 22 Aug 18



Maria Tumarkin

Brow Books



The launch of Maria Tumarkin’s latest work of nonfiction, Axiomatic, was not what one would call orthodox. Deep in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy this June, the cozy cocktail and tapas bar, Longplay, was heaving from start to finish, with crowds spilling onto the sidewalk outside the venue. There was no way all attendees would fit into a cramped 20-seater cinema space. So, undeterred by the winter weather that had begun to cast its pall over Melbourne’s streets, the executive decision was made to move the launch a few metres down the street to St George’s Roads basketball courts.

The sun began to set as Tumarkin and acclaimed writer Tony Birch discussed the book with huddled bodies underneath a basketball ring, as she emphatically begged the crowd to hug each other through the cold.

This sense of care, of consideration for those who had joined Tumarkin and Birch in celebrating Axiomatic reflects the manner in which the book was crafted. Constantly, Tumarkin second guessed herself and how to approach the complex relation between ‘the interviewer’ writing on behalf of the ‘interviewee’, instead choosing to expand and reflect upon the conversations and budding relationships she formed with those she approached for their stories.

Her reflections and storytelling on childhood, on suffering in innocence through generational trauma, hit most potently. These stories stretch across school rooms, prisons, in child survivors of unspeakable atrocities, migration and the inability for home or escape, to be dispossessed.

The end result of Tumarkin’s years of agonising work is hard to synthesise into a couple of punchy sentences. Tumarkin herself could not adequately define at the launch what Axiomatic was precisely about. Jokingly, and searchingly, she tested Birch, “If you know, please, enlighten me”.

At the beginning of each chapter, Tumarkin begins with an axiom, or familiar truism, that is then broken down, explored and questioned through her own contemplation, extensive interviews, storytelling and reportage:

‘Time Heals All Wounds,’ ‘History Repeats Itself…’ ‘Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Repeat It’ ‘Give Me a Child Before the Age of Seven and I’ll Give You the (Wo)man’ and ‘You Can’t Enter the Same River Twice.’

All are shown to be inadequate, not yet full enough to explain in a single brush stroke the complexity of the different shapes and forms life takes.

At its core, Axiomatic speaks to the failure of institutions to protect us – through trauma, through grief, through circumstances that put us outside of our control. When a teenager takes their own life in high school, how can their teachers be equipped to deal with the consequences? Of what was missed, or of what could have been altered? How do official systems manage to leave so many of us behind?

More expansively, the book is an interrogation into the past, how it “imbues, infuses,” inalienably, the present, how the two remain wrapped up in each other for the self, the family, in our broader culture. Rather than merely affecting the present, Tumarkin shows how the past lives with us, and reveals itself constantly in working society.

Her reflections and storytelling on childhood, on suffering in innocence through generational trauma, hit most potently. These stories stretch across school rooms, prisons, in child survivors of unspeakable atrocities, migration and the inability for home or escape, to be dispossessed.

Yet there are heroes in Axiomatic too. Like Vanda, who tirelessly represents in court those whose lives have been pushed on the streets, into addiction or enslaved by mental health issues, or Vera, who lived through the Holocaust and her father’s suicide yet refuses to live a life of unhappiness.

All are imbued with love.

Axiomatic took Tumarkin seven years to write, and she is self-referential of this fact throughout the book. “I was working on this book and a year passed, then two, and two more…” Yet it can be understood why. This is not a book you write quickly and forget about. Nor, for Tumarkin, is it one that could have been brought into the world without second guessing, without lamentation over the very existence of the book, the written word, her ability and authority to give dignity and fullness to her interviewees, to whom she develops a clear closeness.

The mulitplicity of her reflections is reflected macabrely in the classic story of the casserole brought to friends or family upon the death of a loved one. “Everyone knows about casseroles,” she writes. “A person dies and people – close, dear people and virtual strangers, some signed up to a special roster – converge on the dead person’s house bearing casseroles.”

Tumarkin is skeptical of the casserole, how can a well-meaning baked dish have any real effect on the enormity of grief and grieving? Yet then she speaks to Frances, a woman who was on the receiving end of casseroles after the death of her sister to suicide, who, when asked about the “casserole period,” reveals that she had wished it could continue. “I wish we had the casserole period now.”

Tumarkin finds herself thrown by her own presumptions. Once again, we return to the axioms, there are no absolute truths for anyone because we are all affected differently, by our past, by our experiences, in the way that we grieve.

What Tumarkin has produced is unlike any work of non-fiction I have read to date. To call it experimental or poetic does not cover the breadth and originality of her work. Not only in style, but in content, in the way she draws out the human experience and lays bare something fundamentally true, honest and almost unbearably tender. There is power in this, and strength. Tumarkin does not shy away from the uncomfortable, from the too-hard-to-be-written-or-even-contemplated, but faces it head on, with dignity, and with knowledge of her own fallibility.