lay down on the cold tiled floor, listening with one ear. Is there
anyone? Is there anyone there? Her ear grew bigger and bigger. She was
only a giant ear curled up on the icy floor, listening and searching
for signs of human presence on the floor below.
French author Raphaëlle
is a delightful and slightly anguished collection about
girls. Each story has as its title the name of its young hero. They are
arranged in ascending order of age, so we gain the subtle impression of
watching the general growth of a girl in France in the late 1960s.
These bittersweet stories bring to life both school and home life,
particularly the troubled relationships between the girls and their
mothers and siblings. They are poignant tales to appeal to adults and
Gifts & Sorrows,
translated by the author and Graham
was written during the
author’s stay in Australia. She describes that exile and the
the collection in an Afterword written especially for this edition.
Sorrows has compassion
formal architecture, like
Katherine Mansfield’s stories.
Gloria B. Yates Social Alternatives,
No.3, July 1998
These six short stories
everything the blurb says, and more. Though each story is named for a
different girl, it is obvious that most share the same history, as
Graham Henderson admits -
‘We gain the general impression of watching the growth of a
in France in the late 1960s... These bittersweet tales of childhood
bring to life the troubled relationships between the girls and their
mothers and siblings.’
The stories are powerful and poignant, especially the central and
longest, ‘Fabienne’ and the shortest and last,
‘Helene’. These are stories which demonstrate
children can be made bitterly unhappy by quarrelling parents, the
arrival of a baby brother, or by nothing much at all - a train
whistling in the distance.
But for me it was hard work reading this book. There is no balance, no
gleam of humour. Although the book is called ‘Gifts and
Sorrows’ there are far more sorrows than gifts. These stories
gain nothing from being put together in one book with no relief from
the besieged world of an unhappy childhood. It is as if a modern video
camera with the very finest lens has been focused on a girl, but from
exactly the same angle every time, and the photographer refuses to
The book is well worth reading, but in tandem with something really
funny to break up the sadness and despair. In my case the despair is
caused by the fact that Raphaelle Pomian deals with truth -
it bad enough that children are starving, abused, exploited, enslaved
all over the planet - what can we say when a girl hates soup and the
skim on heated milk and is made to eat it, what kind of tragedy is
this? Yet I know very well from my own sisters that forcing a child to
eat what she loathes can warp a life, even when this is not a parental
policy but inflicted by an outsider for a matter of three weeks. So I
don’t dispute the mastery of Pomian’s stories or
strength. The translation is very good too.
Back to top shorts
Barbara Oakman Australian Book Review,
188, February/March 1997
School life, parental
siblings, jealousies and insecurities are all parts of childhood that
author Raphaëlle Pomian has vividly brought to life in this
of six short stories.
Gifts & Sorrows
every story a different young girl as protagonist, each a bit older
than the last. Each story is a slice of life, concentrating on a
particular moment of aday: Valérie
her mother to come home from work; Odile agonises over whether her
mother will have a baby boy or girl; Fabienne tries in vain to keep her
parents from fighting yet again.
From amidst the ordinariness of these scenes, several disquieting
themes emerge: the troubled home lives, the disturbing relationships
between parent and child, the childhood struggle for identity.
Violence, confusion and a sense of anguish are apparent in all the
stories, yet Gifts
is not a depressing read; each of the young heroes deal with their
situations with honesty and resilience, and there are many instances
of childish humour and imagination that give the book balance.
Gifts & Sorrows
sensitive and honest depiction of some of the more painful experiences
Back to top Paperbacks
Veronica Sen The Canberra Times,
On a much smaller scale [than Giovanni Verga’s The Defeated] is
Raphaëlle Romian’s Gifts &
Sorrows: sensitive stories, translated
from French, about young girls confronting life.
With sympathy and considerable insight Pomian explores the perennial
need for love, sometimes denied even by parents; the fear of
separation; the predicament of children caught in the middle of
parental arguments and violence; and the frequent unreasonableness of
adults who ‘have the right to do anything, whereas children
the need to obey’.
Though not startlingly original, her straightforward stories are
well-crafted, realistic and sometimes heart-wrenching.
You probably want to
the genesis of Gifts
The stories were written in a row over two to three
1982/3. I was 26 at the time. Fairly soon after the collection was
completed, Graham and I sat at our kitchen table and started
translating them into English.
It was a labour of love - of his
love and respect for me, for he suffered from seeing me suffer because
of my exile. Because of the language barrier, it was an exile within an
exile, as I couldn’t even share my work with my peers. So, I
that my work - and my life, my self, as there was a confusion of the
three at the time - I often felt that my writing, my existence had no
meaning, no purpose etc. etc.. I was in great pain, and, looking back,
a great pain. Graham decided to topple over this language barrier,
solve my existential torment in a pragmatic, simple fashion, and
started work on the translation.
However, no matter my sense of remoteness in this exile
exile, no matter how much of a shadow of a shadow I felt or my constant
battle to believe in the meaningfulness of my life and work, when we
labored together over these pages, when he sweated over a
passage to translate which he
was the only one able to overcome, if he asked me to make him a cuppa -
a fairly benign request really - I remember that I would sometimes
refuse to comply. ‘Work is work, let’s not confuse
the issues’ I would
tell him, assuming that he wanted me to reward him for his help by
playing a traditional woman’s role - a compromise there was
no way I
could accept, not only with him but with myself.
I am mentioning this to you so you know how dementedly
was. When work is concerned, I have always sought to make my inner and
outer realities coincide, thinking such attitude stemmed from
truthfulness - and my exile being thankless, so was I. I am mentioning
this to you so you know what a labour of love and devotion on
part these translations have been, and what generosity of spirits he
displayed. And also, because I like to keep the records straight, I
I am not very proud of the hardship I inflicted onto
search for purity. I hope I have changed, that I confine my
ruthlessness to myself and don’t let my dearest ones taste
iciness any more. Can only hope.
In any case, one thing has changed. In the last two to
of my fourteen and a half year long stay in Australia, I learnt to draw
a great sense of serenity and wholeness from this previously damning
In 1982 I finished my first novel The Disenchantress.
and 1989 I started a number of second novels, wrote huge chunks of them
- up to 300 pages sometimes - and always abandoned them. In 1989 I
decided to retype this first novel and actually rewrote it entirely.
Now, the writing of this new first novel mostly took
cafés, in an English soundscape. I often had to interrupt my
greet friends, engage conversations with them - all this in English of
course. Then I would return to work, revert back to the French
language. I remember how much I relished these interruptions, loved the
fracture they created. I felt elated by them. I felt very safe. It was
the same elation I experienced the first and only time I took
hallucinogenic drugs when I blissfully tripped back and forth between
the two languages, between a French set-up and an English one.
What had happened? Well you see, during all these years I
to speak French. Some people who tried to practice their French on me
misread it as a sign of arrogance. Arrogance it wasn’t. You
here, be sure I intend absolutely no
objective assessment of the 2 languages) French had become my sacred,
my dream language and English the vernacular one. But the sacred is
secret in every culture, is magical and it is blasphemy and dangerous
to misuse it, to use it for profane common dealings. So I
order to pick up the messages passed on to me in the inner secret
language, I had to train my inner ear and obey the law of silence. To
facilitate this training so there was no confusion, and sharper
perception, I had to make a clear distinction between the language my
physical outer ear heard and the language my inner ear heard. That is
what happened. French inside, English outside. That way, I could give
my world some harmony, hence the feeling of safety.
I suppose also that by that time exile had become so
to be another homeland - and departure therefore was not far to come,
and it happened when I was actually released from the law of silence
and able to speak French again and hear it be spoken around me. My
apprenticeship as a writer was over. My inner ear was fully functioning.
What did I have in mind when I wrote these stories?
I wanted to help. To help and save someone I
didn’t know and
never know the way I had been helped and saved.
Throughout my childhood I felt I was a bit odd and
very ashamed of what my parents referred to as my
didn’t help me feel any more normal of course. I tried to
‘otherness’ and got involved in such mind games
that my behaviour
obviously proved the point I so desperately tried to refute.
As a teenager I was then condemned for my silence and I
aware that this silence of mine was the blatant manifestation of my
oddness. My monstrosity had crystallized in my silence for all and
everyone to see and witness. Tough luck!
Given my background - or my own twistedness - being other
only be equated to being a monster, all the more fearsome and repulsive
as it kept quiet, with its face shamefully hidden from sight, revealing
only its hideous back and giving off this foul, all-pervading stench
that betrayed its evilness. I was an evil freak. This was pure agony.
Then one day (I was about sixteen) I had to write a paper
school based on an excerpt from Simon de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
which she actually spoke about her silence as a teenager. The essence
of what she had to say on the matter, I couldn’t repeat to
you now, but
what I remember is the immense relief which overwhelmed me. I
the only one! Someone else had felt exactly what I felt and had had the
courage to make it all public. And, what’s more, there was
be ashamed of! A true coming-out story.
There and then I somehow understood my
‘otherness’ could be
everybody’s if I penetrated deep enough into it the way de
done, gradually peeling off the multiple layers of shamefulness which
screened and clouded a primordial, untouched state every human being
shares. In a nutshell, the more other I would be, the more universal
too. It was a revelation to me.
My life is strewn with such epiphanic moments of death
and this was probably the first major one. For it felt truly like
magic, like having been held all these years in the tightening claws of
death and suddenly released into life. That is why the word Recognition
might be more appropriate than Revelation to describe what I
The French word for Recognition (Reconnaisance) means
knowledge again’ (Re-connaissance), and Knowledge
from the Latin and means ‘to be born again with’
(Con-naissance). So I
was born again with de Beauvoir.
The paper I wrote was brilliant, the work of a little
the teacher thought - and that is how it all started - to give voice to
the silence, the writer’s job.
A decade later I hadn’t forgotten the gift I
had been given,
when I set out to write about childhood experiences and perception of
the world, I very much had in mind to pass on this gift I had received,
dreaming that somebody, some day, somewhere, could also be born again
with/through me. I felt an immense love for this person.
While I have been writing to you I have become aware of
connections between the stories and the whys and hows of their writing
and me as a writer, connections I was totally unaware of at the time I
wrote them - thank God!, for they wouldn’t have felt organic
have been illustrations, abstract intellectual constructions -
everything I dislike in literature.
For instance, the last image in
‘Valérie’ is that of this child
curled up on the floor, listening so intently to the sound of presences
on the floor below that she feels herself becoming like a huge ear
listening to silence. Isn’t this image that of the writer I
Indeed, silence and listening are quite recurrent themes
throughout the collection. This is not really surprising since long,
long before I could make sense of my exile and have perspective on how
things naturally fell into place - such as the differentiating between
the two languages I was trying to describe to you before - I used to
refer to them as ‘stories of initiation.’ In
ancient cultures, all
initiations linking separated worlds, the worlds above and the world
below, take place in silence and the initiated pledges to respect the
law of silence. In fact, the Greek words for ‘being
‘keeping silent’ or ‘keeping your mouth
close’ come from the same root:
Mu, which is still found in such words as Murmur, Mutism, Mystery.
On the archetypal, symbolical level, the last story
the separation of the two worlds - the world of matter/mother and its
multiplicity of forms and the world of unity and merging of all forms.
A story on the loss of innocence, in a Biblical sense.
Anyway, listening, and hearing, is all very well, but
coupled with a voice, it is of no great use, no relevance.
Now this voice, I found it in Australia and could never
it in France nor anywhere else in the world, besides Greenland, or
Siberia, or the Sahara desert.
For you see, I have been telling about my silence but it
a surface silence. Inside - mamma mia! - it was like a football ground
on a Grand Final day; you couldn’t hear yourself think,
literally - I
couldn’t. Voices thundering from all sides all at once, calls
be answered, ordering me to dash here and there, in every direction at
the same time, making me spin around like a weathercock caught in a
tornado. It was madness. I had to get away from it all.
There was only one call to be answered, one voice to be
to, one way to go. For that to eventuate, I needed peace and quiet,
solitude, space. And by Jove! all this I got, and more than I had
bargained for! as I was saying earlier on when I felt the voices inside
had started to quieten down and I was able to speak with my own voice,
but then, there was no-one around to listen to it. By the way, the
French words for Voice and Path (Voix and Voie) are homophones.
So Australia provided me with the silence I needed to be
hear my own voice. I needed an unmapped emptiness to find my own path,
needed to be dropped in the middle of nowhere so that in order to
journey on this earth I would have to turn to the sky, learn its laws
and let myself be guided by its dictates. The alternative would have
been for me to lay still and let myself die. I was too afraid to do so,
although sometimes I was very tired and surrendered. But the panic at
being completely lost and without direction would send me in such
unbearable mental sufferings that out of cowardice more than courage I
had to keep moving on, deciphering the patterns in the skies and try to
retrace them on the earth I walked. I needed to be at the furthest
point from my point of departure so that I wouldn’t be
escape again and roam the world like a lost soul. Had the temptation
come, had I yielded to it, I would have doomed myself.
So Australia was my long journey through the night, I
Australia offered me the anonymity I pursued in order to
be other. It enabled me to be more than an outsider. Being an outsider
feels to me very much like being a suburbanite, is the epitomy of
self-delusion and bad faith. France is inhabited by outsiders, people I
despised twenty years ago because they were incapable of matching their
words and their actions and still haven’t changed twenty
(and neither have my feelings for them for that matter). But being an
exile, like all writers feel they are, and living it was not only a
moral question of matching words and actions but also a way to awake in
me a sense of connection with every human being.
So what am I doing in France? Underneath a number of
necessities, the picture is still unclear. One thing is sure, however;
I needed to reconnect with the language in its living form. To have
French as a dream, silent tongue served my writing but to keep it that
way would have made it a dead language, and my writing dead and
stilted. As a matter of fact, the novel I am finishing is virtually
like a play. The ‘plot’ moves along through
dialogues; even the
narrator(s) speak to his/their characters. Lack of dialogues - which I
intended, especially in the second novel - put French publishers off
apparently. No such criticism this time around!
There is a lot more I could tell about my experience in
a country for which I can only feel the most profound gratitude (but
don’t worry, I am not so starry-eyed as to be unaware of its
aspects which I have also had close encounters with...). Prompted by
political reasons (the French nuclear testing decision) I have been
using my Australian passport instead of my French one for
identification proof. This is of course more than a futile political
gesture. It is my little insignificant but genuine tribute to Australia.