Vanessa Berry – Finding Frank
Vanessa Berry


Vanessa Berry – Finding Frank

November 9, 2021

Speaking with Dr Vanessa Berry you enter another world, one where literature, and memory and thoughtfulness collide. The creative life, in its most vibrant and wholehearted form, comes to the fore and speaks to each of us – where we are and where we’ve been – anchoring us in an uncertain world through a sense of place and belonging.

Words: Megan English

While I wait for Dr Vanessa Berry to appear on Zoom, I am transported to another time and place through her holding photo. It was taken in the State Library of New South Wales when she was researching her book Mirror Sydney, and it shows Vanessa in front of a bookshelf of aged, hardback books, resplendent in their rich, earthy colours punctuated by the gold on their spines.

Vanessa, her dark hair tied back loosely, is deeply engaged in a series of slides, the light bringing the photos to life softly illuminating her face. A published author of literary non-fiction, an established zine maker and an academic in creative writing, Vanessa draws links between place and memory, bringing our world into sharper focus, and the image suits her perfectly.

Macquarie University holds a special place for Vanessa, and has for some time. As she explains, ‘My grandfather was retired by the time I was born, but he had been a laboratory technician at Macquarie in the physics department. When I was little, he still repaired watches through the university newsagency and would take me on campus with him.

‘We would go in and pick up the watches then visit Frank the taxidermied Kodiak bear in his glass case in the Biological Sciences building. It’s a lovely memory from my childhood, going to visit this bear, which seemed immense to me as a small girl.

‘Then, much later, after my undergraduate degree in communications at UTS, I worked casually at Macquarie for twelve years, teaching creative writing. At the start of this time, Frank came back into my mind. I thought, I’m going to find Frank again.

It’s these gentle, winding memories and stories that Vanessa has weaved into her latest book, Gentle and fierce. Hand-illustrated by her, it’s loosely a collection of essays about our relationships with animals, but it also follows the ebb and flow of her life, the things she notices, the web of her life.

‘It’s a memoir in the form of a collection of essays,’ says Vanessa, ever the observer. ‘But in the background is an environmental, ecological consciousness, and how that can be activated in our everyday lives through the things we have around us and our daily experiences.

‘The essays centre around particular animals, like Frank, or animal-related objects. There’s one about butterflies because that’s the meaning behind the name Vanessa,’ and she tells me it was a name invented by Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s travels.

He rearranged the syllables in his lover Esther Vanhomrigh’s name into the pet name Vanessa, which was ‘picked up by an entomologist and used as a name for a genus of butterflies,’ she continues.

‘So, in that essay, I reflect upon having a name that’s connected to butterflies, and how that can frame a way of thinking about being in the world, about drifting, and how life circumstances can be shaped by both deliberate choices and chance.’

Vanessa’s entree to Macquarie may well have been by chance, but her decision to undertake a PhD in Media in 2012 was most certainly deliberate. ‘I wanted to work with crime writer and associate professor Peter Doyle,’ she remembers. ‘I greatly admire his work about Sydney across different creative mediums.’

Having started her career and writing as a zine maker in her teens in the mid 90s, where her illustrations intertwined with text, the emphasis on combining different forms of media into one creative work was important, and why she chose the Media program at Macquarie.

‘The project I started with Peter as my supervisor in 2012 ended up being Mirror Sydney, a book of essays about places in Sydney that weren’t represented in mainstream media but were changing, or vanishing.

‘There was a lot of flexibility for me to shape the creative work alongside the more academic/scholarly side of the project,’ says Vanessa. Interestingly, Mirror Sydney also contains a map of Vanessa’s significant childhood places, including Macquarie University, where Frank again features. He seems to loom large in her memory indeed.

As Vanessa explains, ‘A strong thread throughout all my writing is thinking about expressions of memory, how we remember, how we experience connections with things outside of ourselves – places, objects, other people – and how we experience that in terms of our own memory.’

People from Macquarie feature strongly too. ‘Associate professors Peter Doyle and Kate Rossmanith were both so supportive of me and such good mentors. I think about them and their wisdom often; they’ve been strong influences in my life.

‘I learned a lot about writing from them but also about the work of being an academic, which has become my career,’ says Vanessa, who is now a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Sydney. ‘The support I provide for my students is inspired by the support I have received; it’s been so important to me to have people like Peter and Kate on my side.’

She also enjoys the ongoing connection with Macquarie when she encounters her former students. ‘It’s really satisfying to see some of my students go on to have various successes and make their way in the world, becoming writers or working in the creative industries in different ways.’

Carving a creative life certainly isn’t always easy, but together with patience and tenacity, and being involved in the zine and literary community, it’s something Vanessa has not just managed to achieve, but was compelled to bring to fruition.

‘I’m very driven creatively; it’s what I’m here to do and what I feel I’m best at,’ she notes, gently and ever so slightly fiercely. And while it may have been unfortunate her latest book was released in lockdown when bookstores are closed, many readers are still finding it the perfect antidote while the world takes a pause.

Again, chance and the deliberate endeavour converge. ‘One of my intentions as a writer is to encourage the reader to reflect on their own life. I feel I’ve done my job well when it’s been an active relationship between my writing and the reader, when I’ve encouraged them to fold it back into their own lives in some way.’

Perfect timing, after all.

A Sydney writer and artist who works with history, memory and archives, Dr Vanessa Berry obtained a PhD in Media from Macquarie University in 2016. She is the author of four books, including Gentle and Fierce (published by Giramondo in 2021), and Mirror Sydney: an atlas of reflections (Giramondo 2017), as well as the long-running zine series I am a Camera (2000–present). She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Sydney.

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