Reaching for the light
Reaching for the light


ALUMNI FOCUS

Reaching for the light

From a Master of Arts Literature student being given sage advice by a newly published Margaret Atwood to nurturing some of Australia’s most exciting writing talent such as Liane Moriarty, Associate Professor, researcher and published poet Marcelle Freiman has spent more than thirty years as a student, academic and lecturer at Macquarie University. Now, as she embraces retirement and life beyond campus, as one door closes, another is most definitely opening.

 

Reaching for the light

Associate Professor of Literature and Creative Writing Marcelle Freiman says, on reflection, Macquarie University has been like a second home to her. It’s not that she needs time to think about her response, it’s more in talking about her time at Macquarie, unravelling one story after the other, it becomes clear what a fundamental role the University has played in her life.

‘Most of my time in Australia since arriving in the early 1980s has been associated with MQ,’ explains Marcelle, who left South Africa in her mid-twenties for London before moving to Australia and settling on Sydney’s north shore. ‘It’s been an incredibly strong connection,’ she says, and one she hopes will continue to evolve.

Listening to Marcelle, her story is almost an oral history of both Creative Writing in the Department of English and the University itself as she recounts her early days studying in the grey concrete of the old library (now the Student Hub), venturing into casual teaching, and then gaining an appointment as a lecturer among nurturing and committed colleagues like Jane Messer, Antonina Harbus and Hsu-Ming Teo, who guided the department to reimagine itself over time.

There have been numerous changes too, of course, many of which Marcelle says have enriched the University. Close to her heart has been the integration of First Nations culture and narratives on campus. ‘I’ve been very moved by that,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t present when I arrived, and it still has a long way to go, but it moves me a lot. There’s a real presence now.’

Often an early adopter, Marcelle notes the great changes in technology, particularly online learning, which unsurprisingly has altered how teaching is delivered and learning occurs. Importantly, there has also been the rise of creative writing as an academic pursuit. ‘It just went boom!’ she remembers, noting the increased student numbers due to the course’s popularity.

‘We’ve had to adapt how we offer the courses over time and how we manage larger classes. It’s different now – not better, not worse, just different,’ she says with the perspective of someone who has seen the University shift and change over time while retaining who it is at its core; inclusive and welcoming.

Marcelle naturally recounts her delight in playing her part as emerging writers have found their voice and achieved success beyond graduation. ‘Liane Moriarty’s talent and ability were obvious,’ she says, but notes many students have made their mark, surprising her in the best possible way.

‘When that spark suddenly starts to show through, it’s very exciting,’ shares Marcelle, who counts Raelee Lancaster, Aileen Westbrook, Jack Stanton and Jeremy Page as standouts. She reflects, ‘They have all used their creativity to bring what they want to say out into the world,’ and there’s a knowing that understanding what you want to say is crucial to saying it well.

Marcelle continues, ‘My initial guiding has always been to allow students to find their own creativity, to use their own perceptions and to notice things. Often students are afraid to write about personal experience or family, especially intergenerational stories, so I like to open up the possibilities for them to do this.’

It’s clear as she speaks that an academic life was always going to be a natural fit for Marcelle, who says she has loved writing since she was young. Indeed, her own spark was first recognised by her grandmother, who kindly admonished her as a teen not to neglect her talent, something that stays with her even now in the choices she makes.

And so it was, while her children were young, in her early forties, Marcelle decided it was time to pursue a Masters and then a PhD in literature. ‘It was a golden time,’ she says, referring as much to the intellectual stimulation as the privilege of studying without debt and being part of a fresh, young university.

Being able to run with her ideas as she wrestled with her own identity and background, Marcelle focused on the novels of fellow South African J M Coetzee. She says, ‘It took me a while to realise I’d chosen his work because, in his earlier work particularly, he deals with what I saw as being a white South African writer.’

It was a theme Marcelle first grappled with while in London, where assumptions were made about her political ideas against the backdrop of apartheid. Migrating to Australia only brought this disconnect into sharper focus, and writing poetry helped her make sense of her world, her homeland and her Jewish–Lithuanian family history.

‘I felt a need to articulate the truths of these experiences so I could understand them – and myself – more,’ says Marcelle in her considered way. ‘Poetry became essential to my sense of self and how I was making sense of my own life.’

As Marcelle speaks, you’re drawn into the world of this thoughtful woman who carefully excavates the past and pieces together memories, writing them into life as poems. ‘Memory is interwoven with everything in my writing,’ she says, citing the opening poem Still from her new collection Spirit Level as an example.

Marcelle2

 

Still

there is a stillness I require

no rain drumming the surfaces of things.

now, there is no quiescent water

rather a dry crackle of grasses, a sunset in Africa

yellow-brown and moving soft as hair.

only the child’s eye can see

a memory like this. a making of time.

here, there is nothing in your eyes

that can take me back there –

though I want those traces of past

where every stone turns for me

as the line grows shorter. the stillness

I seek is not darkness: it is the shimmer

of red at the centre of the throat

of a leather-faced monkey calling across acacias;

a heart-muscle pink as flamingos against

a mirror of russet plains.

the thrum of rain on the roof returns.

times of dislocation – each sense

a feeler reaching for the light

 

From Spirit Level (Puncher & Wattmann, 2021), first published in Westerly 2 (2018).

 

In an uncertain and dislocated world, the beauty and timelessness of Marcelle’s poetry is a balm, and it’s interesting to note that the natural surroundings of Macquarie University have provided solace and inspiration for her in equal measure. ‘In the midst of a difficult day, or after teaching class, I would walk through the green spaces and be restored,’ she says, adding another reason to return to campus in her retirement.

Naturally, many poems have come to life or been reworked and revised amidst the green and built environment of Macquarie, and Marcelle fondly remembers taking groups of students to the Macquarie University Art Gallery, which has been a place of inspiration, too.

In fact, it is where Still first emerged from fragments of memory as Marcelle, as she does, ‘made shapes and forms in poetry, playing with lines and language’ while one of her early classes sat on the floor, absorbed in a free-writing exercise in response to the artworks.

‘I’ll never forget the peaceful feeling of students engrossed in their writing in a teaching space,’ she muses. ‘They’d all be writing at the same time – pens scrawling in notebooks, or keyboards tapping, even on their phones. There was a quiet buzz in the room. Everyone was being creative, playing with words in their own way – it was wonderful.’

As much as Marcelle has inspired many of her students – who, in addition to her wise counsel, often note her office door that featured the book covers of published students – they, in turn, have left an indelible mark on her, too.

‘Teaching has informed my own writing and my research,’ she says. ‘Significantly, my interest in the writing process, cognition and writing, and the making of texts came from the many drafts of student writing I’ve read, marked and provided feedback on.

‘I wanted to explore what was going on in the writing, cognitively, and in the production of narratives, which is how my research into how writing and thinking connect has developed over the past few decades.’

And it’s here we come to understand just how intertwined Marcelle’s teaching, research and writing at the University all are, and why it’s so hard to single out the different strands one from the other. ‘It’s all connected,’ she says, with a smile and gentle lilt that points to how rewarding this interplay between her life’s work and her work life has been to her.

‘I’m exceptionally grateful to have had a full career in my chosen field for the last 20 years,’ she says. Adding sincerely, ‘Macquarie has been embedded in my life. It has given me opportunities and allowed me to grow in the way I needed to – it has been seminal for me in how my life has progressed.’

And now, as she stands on the threshold of retirement, which she hopes is punctuated with more time with family, what she longs for is to step into a period of her life where, unrestrained, she can devote the time and space to her thoughts and memories, writing poetry first and foremost while exploring other genres and completing her academic writing.

‘I want to do things for myself now,’ she says unapologetically. ‘When you reach 70, you realise you don’t have forever, and I want to focus on my writing. I still have much more writing in me,’ she says with a deep understanding of both the privilege and challenge it has been to forge a creative life.

And so, it would seem Margaret Atwood’s early encouragement – that a tentatively offered poem still had much more to say – could equally apply to Marcelle now. As our conversation comes to a close, I have a feeling that with the memory of her grandmother at her side and a room of her own, not only does Marcelle have much more to say, but her insightful voice is one we need to hear.

 

 

Marcelle Freiman was born in South Africa and migrated to Australia in the early 1980s after residing in the UK for four years. She has two sons and five grandchildren and has had a long career at Macquarie University in Sydney, where she was most recently Associate Professor of Literature and Creative Writing. Her poetry has always been a way to negotiate connections between the vividness of emplaced and remembered experience, and the ambiguities of memory and history. Spirit Level is her third volume of poetry following Monkey’s Wedding and White Lines (Vertical). Her poetry also appears in Australian literary journals such as Antipodes, Cordite, Mascara Literary Journal, Meanjin, Southerly, StylusLit, Transnational Literatures and Westerly.

 

 

 


Comments (3)

  1. Cris Hunt

    I was one of Marcelle’s students in Creative Writing. I loved the time I spent in her course. Her feedback was always spot on. She recognised talent and inspired me to continue writing. I was awarded with a prize for poetry, have written screen scripts and training manuals amongst other things. I went on to become a teacher of creative writing, academic English, business communication, media and communications and film making. Thank you Marcelle for inspiring me to become something I never thought possible by opening up opportunities for creativity I didn’t know I possessed.

    Reply
    1. Yue Zhang Post author

      Hi Cris, this is so sweet to hear! We have heard many great things about Marcelle from our alumni including Liane Moriarty. We will pass this information to Marcelle and I’m sure she will be very proud of this. Thank you for sharing your story with us Cris!

      Kind Regards,
      Yue Zhang
      Alumni Relations Coordinator

      Reply
    2. Marcelle Freiman

      Cris, thank you for writing here. It’s so good to hear about your career and how it’s been affected by our work together in the course when you were a student. I’m honored to have been such an influence in your life.
      All the best,
      Marcelle

      Reply

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