To be emboldened we need to have a vision and a purpose. Boldness is a forward-moving energy. It involves charging ahead bravely.
I’ve been enjoying non-fiction and memoirs lately, and I’d seen Emboldened by Belinda Alexandra – an internationally bestselling author of historical fiction – in a couple of different bookshops. Each time I was drawn to the dramatic, glowing cover – like a design for Russian folkloric embroidery – and the equally dramatic blurb. Yes, you do choose a book by its cover.
The book begins in the middle of an intense and terrifying chapter in the author’s life.
…I can’t tell you exactly what happened to me: only that one cold winter’s night I fled my home in fear for my life, after having gotten my pets and a few sentimental items out the day before. I had only my wallet, my phone and my latest manuscript on a USB stick. I left an entire life behind.
Alexandra was, in her own words, shattered and traumatised. But as a storyteller herself, she was convinced that the power of stories would help her recover. She drew courage from a quartet of women who had formed the inspiration for her own fiction. Virginia Hall was an American who, despite a disability – she had an artificial leg – became an Allied agent behind enemy lines in WWII France. Carmen Amaya, born in poverty, became a renowned flamenco dancer. Edna Walling defied convention and became one of the first landscape designers to celebrate the unique beauty of the Australian bush.
Alexandra also called on her own family history – in particular the Russian strand – and the stories of her grandmother, Alexandra and her mother, Tania, who lived through wars and revolutions and displacement in Europe and Asia in the first half of the 20th century.
Emboldened combines memoir and history and although she says explicitly that she’s not writing a self-help manual, Alexandra does hope that her book will inspire, encourage and embolden. I guess that’s what left me feeling a little unsatisfied. Even uneasy.
I applaud Belinda Alexandra for sharing her experience of Complex Post Traumatic Disorder, her struggles, her recovery. She sounds like a brave, gutsy, creative and determined woman. And anyone who shares their mental health struggles is a hero to me because there’s too much shame around what is simply a part of being human.
But I guess I take issue with the message that no matter how dire the circumstances, how extreme the challenge, a person can rise phoenix-like from the ashes and go on to live what she calls an emboldened life. This seems to imply that it’s basically up to the individual (which is, incidentally, an idea much beloved by conservatives and neo-liberals everywhere so they can avoid thinking about structural inequality) when there are many, many people who face enormous challenges which are not of their making or within their control. People don’t always manage to prevail. You can indeed be a victim of circumstance. Instead of becoming emboldened, you can be knocked flat. All you can do is struggle on. Or sometimes, sadly, give up.
Perhaps I’ve taken Emboldened too seriously. Or perhaps my reaction to the uplifting message was influenced by an encounter at the airport before my flight to Alice Springs. Eating breakfast at Brunetti’s, I started chatting with another traveller. This woman and I talked for about forty minutes, hesitantly at first and then in an eager flood, often laughing and at times nearly crying. Why or how we got onto such intimate concerns as anxiety, depression, menopause, bullying, chronic pain and misogyny and ageism in the health system and the work force, I don’t know. Carol (and that’s not her real name) doesn’t live a glamorous or exciting life. She’s a wife and mother, worker and home-maker from an ordinary suburb who’s slogging away with multiple family problems while recovering from cancer. She struggles and stumbles and falls down and gets up and goes on. There’s no heroic, uplifting narrative here; she’s in the middle of it and she can’t see the ending. She goes on because she has to. And she doesn’t know how much longer she can.
After we farewelled each other, I went back to my Kindle. In the gate lounge and the plane, I kept thinking about Carol while I read about exotic women in exotic places; White Russians in Shanghai, American spies in Vichy France and flamenco dancers in Spain and South America. Much as I enjoyed Emboldened, in the end, it was Carol’s story that stuck with me.