08 January, 2008

'In My Skin' - Kate Holden

Kate Holden writes a fortnightly column for The Age's A2 weekend supplement, in which her perceptiveness, intelligence and alluring grasp of English are always apparent. Her subject matter is observational, whether of Melbourne culture or affairs of the heart, and regularly provides an uplifting start to a Saturday morning. Personally, she is even more inspiring as a graduate of the writing course I'm currently undertaking, the Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing.

In My Skin, her memoir, is an account of her journey from a reserved, innocent University graduate of literature and anthropology, to a heroin addict of five years, who entered into prostitution to support her habit. There are two critical, inescapable elements to the book: its beauty, and its honesty. Her writing style is extraordinarily eloquent. Smells, colours, emotions and people come alive for the reader as she writes about them. For a very large part of the book the people she is writing about are her fellow sex workers and the men paying them. Her honesty in relating stories from the sex industry, as well as the decisions and actions she took to lead her to drug addiction, is confronting and unrelenting.

Significantly, this is not a memoir of regret, seeking pity. Rather it is an explanation, even a vindication, of one woman's choices and how the industry she chose to be a part of should be regarded. I thought of Frank Bascombe, in The Sportswriter, who pondered often about what a $100 hooker would do for his situation. That is how prostitutes are most commonly represented in literature: as a commodity, an ignominious salve for men; an inexcusable career choice for women. Holden, however, is adamant in casting it as a profession, of which the better members will always conduct themselves honourably. It is a paying job, one she takes as seriously as anything conducted in daylight hours, in suits, in offices. The women who choose this role - and this itself is a key point, that not every prostitute is forced into it, for some it is a conscious, informed decision as to a means to earn the money they need - are not to be pitied nor, even worse, vilified. As with any supply and demand business, prostitution cannot exist without custom, and it is the men who go to brothels to treat women deploringly who are to be looked down upon.

The memoir can be graphic and, if sex work is an area the reader is uncomfortable with, it can become suffocating as Holden describes her role. She mentions that she never felt fear as a sex worker and recounts some of her worst customers. It is a demonstration of the hard inner self that this journey allowed her to find that she is able to describe some of the worst clients as just part of her job.

Especially touching in the memoir is the role of her family: not only in their stoicism in remaining in their daughter's life, but also their strength at the times when they had to cut her loose. Their humour and grace as Holden gradually climbs out of her darker self is heartbreakingly commendable.

This memoir is not only brave, it is insightful, proud and beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. To C.A.S.: I haven't posted your comment, as it's Kate Holden you're trying to get in touch with. Perhaps you could try contacting her through 'The Age': she writes a column for them so they might be able to pass on your details. Alternatively the publisher of her book might be able to help you.

    Thanks for your thoughts.