Monday, August 4, 2008

A mad housewife’s daughter

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke is 50 today. She’s a native American writer and poet, and a literary performer of some power it seems. Interestingly, though, in the midst of the most terrible childhood, aged only 11, she wrote a diary - Diary of a Mad Housewife’s Daughter - and tells a very affecting story about it in her memoir Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer.

Hedge Coke was born in Texas, on 4 August 1958, with cerebral palsy and temporal lobe epilepsy; and her childhood was dominated by one serious illness after another, by one kind of abuse after another, and by having a chronic schizophrenic for a mother. As a teenager and young adult, she lived outside for periods, and moved around, sharecropping tobacco, breaking horses, waiting tables, working in construction and commercial fishing. The Pen American Center website gives details of her colourful but disturbing biography.

However, for many years, Hedge Coke has been a celebrated writer with various books to her name. The Pen article says she has been called ‘a passionately unique and compelling writer’, and a Wikipedia articles suggests that ‘if William Blake were a twenty-first-century American Indian woman, he would be Hedge Coke’. Like Blake declaiming against soul-destroying ‘dark Satanic mills’, the article explains, ‘Hedge Coke calls for us to recognise the sanctity of ancestral land and to protect it, for ‘no human should dismantle prayer’. ’

In 2004, University of Nebraska Press published a memoir by Hedge Coke - Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer, subtitled A Story of Survival - which looked back over her early life. ‘A name creates life patterns,’ Hedge Coke says, ‘which form and shape a life; my life, like my name, must have been formed many times over then handed to me to realise.’ Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer is Hedge Coke’s narrative of that realisation, the publisher explains. In it the author describes the horrors of her early life: ‘her schizophrenic mother and the abuse that often overshadowed her childhood; the torments visited upon her, the rape and physical violence; and those she inflicted on herself, the alcohol and drug abuse’. Nevertheless, the publisher adds, Hedge Coke ‘managed to survive with her dreams and her will, her sense of wonder and promise undiminished’.

In Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer, Hedge Coke provides a small (but I think very interesting) anecdote about a diary. Aged 11, she was inspired by an English teacher to write stories. So, she wrote one, with the title, Diary of a Mad Housewife’s Daughter taken from the title of a film she’d never seen (Diary of a Mad Housewife). She explains in the memoir how she worked diligently in her father’s toolshed, compiling the book from diary notes. Her teacher, not realising that Allison was, as she says of herself, ‘living the diary’, praised it as fiction, called her ‘unusually talented’, and suggested she meet some people involved in writing.

‘A stinger lodged deep in my spine and I panicked’, she writes in the memoir, ‘my English teacher intended to share this book with other adults. People who didn’t already know my mother would find out about her mental illness. Grabbing the pages, I ran from the classroom and raced home. . .’ Once there, she burnt the manuscript in an old stove. ‘Pages curled toward my face, paper blackening around the words, flames taking hold of the stories . . . I carried the ashes to the garden, hoping something could grow of it. Staying inside almost all night, I prayed my teacher wouldn’t tell anyone my story. I never mourned this book, but sometimes I wonder about the lost contents: hazardous, unaffordable.’

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