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Clearing out the skeletons: Secrets and memoir

Having read Lily Chan’s Toyo and Kristina Olsson’s Boy, Lost back to back, session chair Jill Eddington was struck by the similarities between the two.

While telling two very different stories, each of the books is part memoir, part novel. Each tells the story of a family, and both are driven by a family secret. Focusing on the lives of other people, the authors relied heavily on family anecdote and research.

Olsson’s book deals with the theft of her mother’s first child, a boy she never knew existed until he arrived on her mother’s doorstep at age 40.

“The story lay in my family for a long time. My mother’s life was not to be spoken of and we had no idea why she was so sad,” said Olsson.

“We spend out childhoods trying, if not to make her happy than at the least to not make her any sadder.”

When the lost boy, Peter was found it wasn’t a great shock to her, she said.

“All of a sudden, all that sadness made sense. There was something in us that almost expected it,” said Olsson.

Writing the book Boy, Lost was a way of honouring her mother’s story. Olsson could see that the festering of the secret had caused an inter-generational grief and over-protectiveness and fear where children were concerned.

“There had been so much damage done by the secrecy of this story. I wanted the damage to stop. I thought maybe through the story being told, being unpacked it might prevent that waterfall of grief from overflowing into my children and their children,” said Olsson.

Focusing on the life of her grandmother, Toyo, Chan’s book was a way of capturing her incredible life so that even in the fog of Alzheimer’s, it would never be lost.

“She has an intriguing personality. She was like an empress in our house. She’s a natural story teller and her background was full of secrets,” said Chan.

Toyo’s illegitimate birth had been a family secret for generations, one which her parents would have preferred she kept quiet.

“It was a point of contention when I disseminated the draft to my family,” said Chan. “But they are accepting of it now.” said Chan.

Chan said that while it is her family’s story, it is also hers. Our roots are found within our family narratives, she said.

“In a way, it was transgressive, yes,” said Chan, “but it’s also true.”

Emily Handley is a Southern Cross University Student

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