Cover of Gifts & Sorrows
Gifts & Sorrows
Raphaëlle Pomian

vividly brought to life
a sensitive and honest depiction of some of the more painful experiences of childhood
Barbara Oakman, Australian Book Review
well-crafted, realistic and sometimes heart-wrenching
With sympathy and considerable insight Pomian explores the perennial need for love
Veronica Sen, The Canberra Times
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Book Description

She 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 Pomian’s Gifts & Sorrows [Don et Miseres] 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 adolescents.

Gifts & Sorrows, translated by the author and Graham Henderson, was written during the author’s stay in Australia. She describes that exile and the making of the collection in an Afterword written especially for this edition.

Gifts & Sorrows has compassion and perfect formal architecture, like Katherine Mansfield’s stories.
Graham Henderson

Cover painting Nude (1960) by Charles Blackman
ISBN 1876044047
Published 1996
93 pgs
Gifts & Sorrows book sample

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Gifts & Sorrows
Gloria B. Yates
Social Alternatives, Vol. 17, No.3, July 1998

These six short stories really are 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 girl 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 clearly that 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 budge.

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 - isn’t 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 their strength. The translation is very good too.

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Barbara Oakman
Australian Book Review, No. 188, February/March 1997

School life, parental rules, younger siblings, jealousies and insecurities are all parts of childhood that author Raphaëlle Pomian has vividly brought to life in this collection of six short stories.

Gifts & Sorrows has for 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 waits for 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 & Sorrows 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 is a sensitive and honest depiction of some of the more painful experiences of childhood.

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Veronica Sen
The Canberra Times, 8 December 1996

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 had always the need to obey’.

Though not startlingly original, her straightforward stories are well-crafted, realistic and sometimes heart-wrenching.

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You probably want to know about the genesis of Gifts & Sorrows.

The stories were written in a row over two to three seasons in 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 often felt 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 within an 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 particularly hard 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 ruthless I 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 Graham’s part these translations have been, and what generosity of spirits he displayed. And also, because I like to keep the records straight, I suppose.

I am not very proud of the hardship I inflicted onto others in my search for purity. I hope I have changed, that I confine my ruthlessness to myself and don’t let my dearest ones taste its burning iciness any more. Can only hope.

In any case, one thing has changed. In the last two to three years 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 language barrier.

In 1982 I finished my first novel The Disenchantress. Between 1983 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 place in cafés, in an English soundscape. I often had to interrupt my work to 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 refused 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 see, (and 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 couldn’t. In 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 familiar as 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 might never know the way I had been helped and saved.

Throughout my childhood I felt I was a bit odd and bizarre and very ashamed of what my parents referred to as my ‘weirdness,’ which didn’t help me feel any more normal of course. I tried to hide my ‘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 became 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 could 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 for school based on an excerpt from Simon de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter in 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 wasn’t 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 nothing to 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 Beauvoir had 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 rebirth 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 experienced then.

The French word for Recognition (Reconnaisance) means ‘to get knowledge again’ (Re-connaissance), and Knowledge (Connaissance) comes 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 genius, so 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, and 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 but would 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 have tried to convey?

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 initiated’ and ‘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 ‘Hélène’ shows 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 unless it is coupled with a voice, it is of no great use, no relevance.

Now this voice, I found it in Australia and could never have found 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 was only 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 asking to 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 listened 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 able to 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 tempted to 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 suppose.

Australia offered me the anonymity I pursued in order to dare 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 years later (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 family 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 Australia, 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 dark 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.

29 July 1995

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