DAVID CARLIN The Abyssinian Contortionist: Hope, friendship and other circus acts. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
A biography like no other, this is an unfalteringly clever work of creative non-fiction.
Throughout The Abyssinian Contortionist, David Carlin’s biography of circus performer Sosina Wogayehu, Carlin describes Wogayehu juggling as many as eight balls at a time, bouncing them on the floor rather than throwing them into the air.
Carlin also describes his own, somewhat less impressive juggling skills:
… It has variations: the basic pattern, the outside-in, the upside down, the snazzy – where you throw one of the balls especially high in the air and pause or do a twirl – and the joke pattern, in which one hand juggles two balls while the other moves the third ball up and down alongside, doing no juggling at all. If you do the joke pattern well, the audience falls for the illusion, even if only for a moment, before they see the trick, and before they realise that you are happy for them to see the trick.
Carlin is a better juggler than he realises. In The Abyssinian Contortionist he deftly manages to keep cultural issues, mythologies, history and politics always in motion, whizzing through the air in a manner that would surely make Sosina proud.
The Abyssinian Contortionist begins with eight-year-old Sosina selling cigarettes on the streets of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to pay for gymnastics lessons. Every Friday at 7pm she watches a German variety show on television, pushing the family’s furniture aside to bend and twist her tiny body on the lounge-room floor, imitating the circus performers she sees on the small screen.
After years of gymnastics training, Sosina joins Circus Ethiopia. Under the management of charismatic Canadian Marc LaChance, the troupe embarks on a grand international tour. In Australia, tensions in the group become unbearable and many of the male performers leave amid claims that LaChance has not only been taking their earnings for himself but also sexually abusing young boys. Though being in the circus has been her dream for so long, Sosina, now 17, decides to join the others and all 15 circus runaways claim asylum in Australia. After many years and almost as many rejections, their applications are finally approved.
Performing at Circus Oz, where she started as a work-experience kid, Sosina meets writer David Carlin, and the two become friends.
Describing The Abyssinian Contortionist in the book’s first chapter, Carlin calls this his ‘not me’ book. His first book, Our Father Who Wasn’t There, published in 2010, is a memoir in which Carlin searches for meaning in the lingering wake of his father’s suicide when Carlin was a child. It’s a loss he shares in common with Wogayehu, whose brother killed himself while she was in Australia and powerless to intervene.
For Carlin, grief is not only the intersection between his story and Wogayehu’s, it also represents the meeting point between two cultures. Later, after a death in Sosina’s family, Carlin travels to Addis Ababa with her as an observer, fascinated by the way Ethiopians express grief, but also as a supportive friend.
Although he describes this as his ‘not me’ book, Carlin realises the impossibility of writing a book in which he isn’t present, admitting ‘it would also feel wrong to pretend that I wasn’t involved, to pretend that telling, making and sharing stories across cultures isn’t complicated’.
There’s often a certain kind of awkwardness about creative non-fiction, in particular when a white, middle-class, first-world author writes about the third world, but in reading The Abyssinian Contortionist, this strangeness vanishes. Carlin tells Sosina’s story in the only way he can, placing himself into the narrative and telling a few stories of his own. Like his juggling ‘joke pattern’, Carlin’s presence in the book isn’t something we’re able to see at first, but eventually he slips into the first person, making us aware that he’s been there the whole time. It’s a trick he’s happy for us to see and, like any circus professional, he makes it look effortless.
Carlin isn’t out to steal the show, but his self-effacing humour is one of the best things about this book. His transitions between the present and the past, between his own thoughts and Sosina’s recollections, flow so smoothly the reader barely notices where one ends and the other begins. We’re even shown the makings of the book itself, with Carlin describing Sosina’s reactions as she reads his work in progress:
She highlighted all the bits in the draft I’d written that she thought we needed to discuss. I loved that, working through methodically … ‘This bit’s fine, that bit’s fine.’ Every now and then she’ll say, ‘I like that part!’ I always put a mark against those sections, a double tick, possibly three ticks if I think she’s really keen.
A biography like no other, The Abyssinian Contortionist is an unfalteringly clever work of creative non-fiction in which the author serves not only as the narrator, but also as a welcome guest. It’s a sensitively-written attempt to explore the vast gap that not only separates fiction from non-fiction, but the space between two cultures – and two very different people. More than that, this is the story of an amazing life; the history of a friendship that will leave you awed and inspired.
David Carlin The Abyssinian Contortionist: Hope, friendship and other circus acts, UWA Publishing 2015 PB 280pp $29.99 (all author proceeds go towards supporting the Gamo Circus School of Ethiopia)
Michelle McLaren is a Melbourne-based writer who blogs about books at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au)
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