It’s a profoundly strange experience to interview Janine Mikosza immediately after reading her debut, Homesickness.
The book is a meditation on the nature of memory, truth and reckoning with past trauma – and it’s presented as one long conversation in which she interrogates herself.
“I didn’t want to write a memoir,” shrugs Mikosza, who lives in Melbourne. “I didn’t want the exposure. I didn’t want to make public my suffering. And I struggled with the use of ‘I’. It’s just too personal.”
At heart and by background, Mikosza is a visual artist. In part inspired by the work of French conceptualist Sophie Calle, and in spite of her reluctance as a deeply private person, she kept being drawn to the idea of “turning a personal problem into an artistic problem and making something that … I can live with. As Calle put it, finding a ‘place for my suffering’.”
Cringing at the thought of first person, Mikosza pushed through everything she found personally excruciating about the form to write her memoir as a dialogue between two people: herself (Janine, the memoirist) and herself (Jin, the subject).
“In memoir, there’s that split anyway: the present self, looking back at the past self. So this is a literal split.” Besides, she’s been talking to herself for years: “I talked to somebody else out loud all the time when I was growing up. It was a survivor strategy. Almost like an imaginary friend, but it’s me, a version of me … I still do it, sitting in the backyard.”
In the book, Janine and Jin criss-cross the country by car to revisit the 14 houses Mikosza lived in before she turned 18. It’s a bid to explore the long-held childhood trauma she experienced in some of them, which lives on in her mind and body.
Included is a series of floorplans that Jin draws of each house, in advance of her return. Mikosza herself was excavating memories in real time as she wrote. “It was a test to see what I remembered … to map it all down. It also proved the fallibility of memory.”
And so some rooms have been distorted – or blacked out – in her mind, by the memory of what went on inside them. Dark hallways loom large, a hidden chimney disappears and reappears, bathrooms are recoiled from.
At times Jin’s suffering can be hard to read. She scoffs at the concept of writing trauma as therapeutic, quoting Sontag – writing is “like punching somebody” – and Ferrante – “twisting the knife in the wound”. But at other times the book is a gentle, almost teasing conversation between two women about the shifting nature of memory, the chaotic nature of pinning down trauma and the very long road to self-acceptance – or, in Jin’s case, trusting her own mind.
Mikosza spent decades circling around her past in other ways, before finally committing to a book in 2013. Mikosza weaves this prior work – first as an artist, then as a researcher with a PhD in sociology – into her memoir, even pasting images of it in, where they join the floor plans almost like a scrapbook.
There are photographs of a performance series she presented at aged 20, for instance, in which she blew up pictures of herself as a child, cut herself out of the life-sized prints and stepped through the holes. “It was like a scream then,” says Mikosza of her trauma. “It was very visceral and very raw. None of [it] was processed …
“Now, with all the work I’ve done on myself – years of cycling through terrible therapists until finally hitting on a decent one, but also studying sociology – I was far more self-aware when writing this.”
In conversation, Mikosza is searingly intelligent and well-read, referencing Roland Barthes, Maggie Nelson and Brian Castro off the cuff. But she’s also funny and self-deprecating (referring to her constant drafting process as returning to her own vomit) and all too cognisant of the fact that trauma is, well, so hot right now. As Jin contemplates in the book:
I’d add to the literature on family violence piling up like dead bodies in bookstores. I’d return to my everyday struggle with the added burden of being called a memoirist. My life, not my work will be judged and reviewed.
Not only was Mikosza wary of how her memoir could be potentially packaged, she was acutely aware of the memoirist’s potential to inflict hurt.
“Some memoirists just crash through, or some write to seek revenge … But I wanted to approach it with kindness. I don’t want revenge on any of the people in the book. That’s why it took so long. I kept thinking, ‘How do I write this book without having any other people in it?’”
In the book, Jin not only worries about hurting people from her past; she is also concerned about inflicting her story on strangers, even apologising to her therapist. “I was trying to turn it outwards again. I was interested in vicarious trauma. I interviewed therapists, and county court workers, and people who worked on the royal commissions [into family violence and the institutional responses to child sexual abuse]. I’m a researcher, that’s what I do, I interview people.”
Included in the book is an unflinching portrayal of Jin’s affair with “writer-man”. And yet Mikosza’s partner who she cheated on, the co-parent to her son, is the only person in the book to have their real name used. “Brett sat with it for a week. And he came back and he said, ‘No, print it all. I’m fine with it. It happened. I know it’s true. And I’m proud to be your partner.’”
Mikosza’s questioning nature means she’s never quite ready to say “full stop here”. She wanted to leave uncertainty. “And the fact is it’s not over, it will never be over. I didn’t want a redemptive kind of repair arc. That’s not how trauma works – you carry it with you for a long time.
“But despite all that, it feels finished. It is finished. I think I’ve achieved my objective: of having an object that is a place for my suffering.”