News

‘Letter to Ania’ by Clare Strahan

Ania Walwicz_Persons Unknown

‘Letter to Ania’ was written by Clare Strahan on 10 October 2020. Clare also contributed to ‘When someone great is gone: remembering Ania Walwicz’ alongside Jacinda Woodhead and Benjamin Laird, published in Overland on 13 October 2020.

 

 

I wrote a letter to Dr Ania Walwicz last month with quill and ink on paper and sealed with sealing wax. I don’t know if she received it before she died and because it was written with the old technology, I have no copy, and can’t remember exactly what I said but the purpose of the letter was to be ‘newsy’ and tell her that I loved her. That her friends and colleagues at RMIT PWE were thinking of her.

I’m not sure why Ania withdrew so completely in the last months of her life; ignoring phone calls, messages, rebuffing well-meaning visitors and concern. I wonder now if it was because she had lived her life as performance art and knew the theatre was closing at last – lost its funding, borer in the hardwood, no true artistes left at all.

no no too harsh, plenty of art to see, so many interesting things. so many strange things. just not where youre looking

And like the actor who has given their all in the genius of their performance, did not want her audience to see the dusty mothballs of backstage, the props in the corridors, the sweat.

no no not harsh enough! culture is dead, they dont deserve to see – there is no backstage. didnt i teach you anything? you had promise, you did, but wasted it on following the rules – plenty to see, just not where youre looking. how is your mother? youre lucky. and your daughter, how is she?

She –

do you like my shoes? a man came up to me, just came up to me at the traffic lights, in fitzroy you know, and he said, i like your shoes very much. just like that at the traffic lights. he said may i touch them? <laughs> shoe fetish. its true! people have all sorts of fetishes you know

Did you let him touch your shoe?

yes <laughs> no. all this touching. i never want to shake the hands of strangers. but one has to. doesnt want to be rude

In the RMIT office, Ania had quite a bit of trouble figuring out what it took not to be rude. If she had a catastrophic imperative, she would simply stand in the middle of someone else’s conversation and engage one of the speakers, demanding attention. And for the most part, we let her.

something terrible has happened to my computer. its a real problem. nobody knows how these things work. its a very big problem. a disaster. can you come and have a little look at it for me? no no youre looking in the wrong place no thats not. ah. oh. you have saved me

You’re welcome, Ania. You know, if you –

have you done your compliance stuff. that stuff? dreadful. you have to do it. you have to. its all nonsense but you have to do it

Regularly, I’d arrive at the office on my way to or from teaching and at first sight, regardless of whether I’d even taken off my coat or was loaded with books and papers, she’d rush over to ask me to do something on her computer, or lament the storm that had erupted in her teacup. It drove me mad. But I loved her. I loved her enormously.

hows your daughter? your sister? your mum? they’re ruining education. no thinking left. the standards are very low. its very bad. when shall we have coffee? speak to elizabeth. tell her its time we all met for coffee. how is she? do i look well, to you? do i look all right? its very bad, the weather. scary

I didn’t begin my relationship with Ania as her colleague and erstwhile IT support (and to be fair, there were a whole raft of us). We met when she and Arthur Clover interviewed me in the selection process for the Diploma of Arts, Professional Writing and Editing (the former incarnation of the PWE Associate Degree). I was terribly intimidated, which makes me laugh now because it turned out they were the two gentlest souls in the whole university. But I recognised even then that she was an extraordinary woman. Extraordinary voice! Later, when we interviewed together as fellow teachers, she was so kind and patient with every candidate, but capricious too.

no no, its all nonsense but we have to do it

I took Short Story 1 knowing nothing about the great experimental writer, Ania Walwicz, beyond that selection interview (where she was very kind to me) and then Short Story 2 and Poetry class because I had learned that she was essential to my reinvention as a writer. I was deeply immersed in the ruthless craft of novel writing with Dr Olga Lorenzo and the intricacies of editing with Penny Johnson, finding out exactly how much I didn’t know and how hard it was going to be to publish a book and the tenacity it was going to require: I needed Ania’s art-for-art’s-sake permission to keep up my courage. A goodly sprinkling of my dearest friendships from the course were forged in those classes, particularly ‘short story’. Every class was an experience.

do you dream? last night i dreamt elvis came into my room where i was sleeping. he sat on my bed and said, love your work, walwicz <laughs>

We united in awe, and amusement, and deepest respect – or disrespect. Ania polarised her students: they either loved her or she infuriated them. If you were looking for a manual on ‘how to write a short story’ and detailed editorial feedback on your writing, you had come to the wrong place. If you wanted to immerse yourself in the world of short story or poetry or prose-poetics, in the history of the arts and the lives of artists that scaffolded the evolution of the forms up to the end of the twentieth century, and enjoy a teacher’s boundless enthusiasm for your work, then Ania Walwicz was the cat’s pyjamas. My first publication, in Overland Literary Journal, was a short story I wrote for her class.

She was so proud of everyone who published out of her classes. Proud of the short story and poetry chapbooks made in class. Proud of the YouTubes of spoken word. She followed the careers of students with interest and celebrated their success. Art was life, and she lived it in every moment, with every breath.

are you writing? im going to become a copywriter. money in my old age. advertising! thats where the money is. <laughs> i worked with some children. teaching in school. wonderful. so free. imagination. they wrote very good stories. i think i’ll write a childrens book. a little book. about a little horse. it was in lilydale. the school. where i caught the train with elizabeth to visit you. in warburton. hows your daughter? and your little cat

Ania and my beloved fellow-graduate, Fitzroy-dwelling Elizabeth Reichhardt, had indeed caught the train to Lilydale where I picked them up and brought them to my home in Warburton and then we drove across to Healesville for afternoon-tea. Ania ate very little in the company of others and only ever drank tea or sparkling mineral water. She was intensely private about her health, even then. She told me she was going to write a self-help health book about food.

its disgusting all these cooking shows. half the world starving and people everywhere obsessing about food. gluttony. why do they do it?

I remember we walked by the river and it was overcast and prompted by some bizarre byway of the conversation (for not one of the three of us were particularly religious) began singing Amazing Grace and the sun came out and shone on us, like in a biblical movie. We were astonished. Ania was delighted. She adored the unexpectedness – she lived for promptings of the subconscious, the impulses of life, chance, mischance, phenomena, inspiration. And we laughed, a lot. Later, as we wandered around the Healesville second-hand bookshop, she picked out a book with her eyes closed.

i will open this book and the first line i read will announce my destiny

In the hey-day of our friendship the three of us went to Overland launches and parties hosted by beloved ex-students Jacinda Woodhead and Benjamin Laird, attended book launches, poetry recitals, the theatre (she particularly loved Playback theatre with its focus on story and improvisation and was a stalwart champion of everything La Mama) and the occasional movie at her beloved Cinema Nova. But in all that, I never saw anything as extraordinary as Ania Walwicz performing Ania Walwicz as spoken word. Whether it was a public performance at a festival or spoken word event, or an RMIT student event, or the launch of her own work – Palace of Culture at La Mama Courthouse and Horse at RMIT Gallery in Building 94 – she never failed to shock, delight, intrigue and enchant me. Her performance with Person or Persons Unknown at the 2019 Odyssey Literary Festival was one of the highlights of my teacherly life – I blessed her for blowing our minds. She was transgressive, but innocent; searing, but vulnerable; urgent, yet entirely playful and indulgent. Ania broke language, reformed it in her own image, scattered it like wildflower-seeds, used it as a weapon; she drove language and was driven by it. She had no respect for conventions of punctuation or grammar except in her discerning recognition of the excellence of others. She had an abiding love-affair with Kafka, which was charming – and with Freud, which was disturbing.

<laughs>

When I started teaching as a sessional and became an ongoing member of the PWE crew, my relationships with my former teachers transitioned into colleagueship and a different kind of friendship. PWE itself had transmogriphied into the Associate Degree, Short Story become Short Form Fiction. Ania began to explore the digital age as far as literary artists had been able to penetrate it. She was fascinated. Like everything she approached, she had a childlike curiosity, and a firm belief that nothing had existed until the moment she discovered it.

have you seen youtube? incredible

Perhaps culture isn’t dead, after all?

culture is dead. literature did not save us. its very bad now. very bad. the standards are very low. no one can be bothered to read deeply anymore. its not their fault. they havent been taught. part of the great dumbing down of culture. its really dreadful. scary. im always worried i’ll offend now. dont you find it? sometimes i dont bring stories in any more. students have been very angry with me you know. <shakes her head> do i look well to you? do you like my trousers? have you lost weight? i was thinking you were looking rather fat <laughs> i was very fat once. can you believe it?

In the eight years I’ve been teaching with Ania at PWE, the program has become progressively more digital with rapidly and constantly changing IT systems, and ever-more onerous administrative demands placed on teachers. Ania had to change – and yet somehow managed to remain exactly as she always had been. She obstinately resisted and then adapted by charming her colleagues into helping her, and she never gave up. She had no internet or computer at home until 2020 and typed up her PhD in the PWE office in the evenings and on the weekends. Horse (A Psychodramatic Enactment of a Fairy Tale) is testimony to her genius, her brilliance, and I’m so glad it won the Alfred Deakin Medal. Horse is most certainly not the children’s book she once thought perhaps it might be, though it does feature dear little Ania, the child. Child of trauma. Child of Central Europe. Child with a searing genius, a wicked sense of humour, a penchant for mischief, a duty to culture, and an abiding love of art and language.

do you like my shoes? i have red socks to match the lining of my jacket. its new. very reasonable. perhaps its time to marry the rich jewish doctor <laughs>

Or the Polish Ambassador!

no, no. Madame Walwicz <laughs> they ask me to do things. people. a man came to do a little film. i don’t know. its all ridiculous but one has to do it. do ones part for culture. do you like my jacket? do i look quite well, to you?

I believe the pivot to ‘online teaching’ inflicted by COVID-19 was a crushing blow to Ania and a difficult way to end a monumental teaching career. And she was increasingly unwell, though she wouldn’t tell us so.

are you writing? publishing is dead. i still think i’ll write a childrens book. not horse now, no, but still, something perhaps

I still don’t know exactly what went wrong but we knew it was serious when she, literary legend of near thirty years standing at RMIT PWE who had rarely missed a class, stopped answering emails and took a whole semester’s leave. I can’t remember the last time I saw her. It would have been one of the ordinary but uncertain days in the RMIT office in Building 94, somewhere before 17 March when I began teaching from home. Our last phone call was sometime in June, the night before she confirmed she was taking the semester off. She refused to tell me about her health, but we talked about students, and culture, and writing, and we had a laugh.

I did not imagine then that I wouldn’t see you again, dear Ania. I hope I kissed you on the head, that last day in the office, like you sometimes let me do. I hope I wasn’t impatient with you.

no no, thats all in the past <laughs> are you writing? its a scary time

I’m confident that I wrote in my letter that I hoped she was writing. Perhaps there’s a posthumous manuscript awaiting us. Perhaps she wrote that health book, or cracked the corporate code, or created a children’s tale with a happy ending.

im free now. im the stars now. see?

In my dream, my old-fashioned snail-mail was slipped under the door of her backstage dressing room and she picked it up and broke the seal and knew how much she was loved.