Monday, 28 May 2012

Because they don’t have chimneys!

A friend of a friend has just won the Henry Lawson Short Story Competition. Her name is Kerri Harris. Kerri’s winning story is online, which means that you can read it here, and I’m recommending that you do so.

I don’t know Kerri, but since reading Why Don’t Elephants Smoke I feel as if I do. 

I thought, what an interesting title. It conjures up all sorts of images. (In my case they mostly featured elephants - lol - probably because I’m originally from Africa.) The story reads like memoir and opens with “When I was a girl, my father smoked Marlboro Reds”. This is clever. Immediately we have credibility.  And theme. And in that same first paragraph we're given an explanation for the story’s name. An awful lot of information is in that paragraph and yet at no time does it feel heavy-handed or verbose. What threw me right at the end of that para is the nerve of this kid. She admits to stealing Dad’s Marlboros and puffing away in the garage. Immediately I was in awe – I never did anything as gutsy as that – and then she ups the ante in the next paragraph by admitting she was 11. Hooley dooley. I think I was still playing with Barbie dolls at age 11.

There’s a lot to like about Why Don’t Elephants Smoke. Something that resonated with me is the mention of ashtrays. There was a time when there was an ashtray in every home whether it had smokers or not. Ours was made of marble and it was heavy. My sister once threw it at my head. She missed of course or I wouldn’t be here, well, not as you know me. I also enjoyed the reference to the ashtray where “you’d press the button at the top and it would whir and swallow the butt whole.”  As a child I was fascinated by this. I would wonder where the butt had gone and how I could find it again. It got me into trouble. “Get your fingers out of that filthy thing!” 

Another bit I liked is the grandfather. Lovely description. My grandfather also died of emphysema, but my memories of him are very different from the writer's memories of her grandpa. As a POW in WWI he was gassed, and he would sit in a chair in the dining room -  where he could watch the comings and goings of the household - and wheeze. Occasionally he would reach with a shaky hand for his puffer and inhale with rasping breaths. It scared me. If I had to pass him, I would run. I can't imagine how he must have felt. I regret that now, and I’ve attempted to make amends by visiting Flanders and the poppy fields and by reading his letters home, trying to get an idea of the man I never knew. 

My Grandfather

Memoir like Why Don't Elephants Smoke illustrates that very often when we think we have nothing to say about our lives, we do. It’s how we say it that makes the difference, and this is where this writer succeeds. I’m hoping this is not the only bit of memoir we’re going to get from Kerri Harris.


  1. Thank you, Kathy, for your kind words about my short story. I should point out that 'Why Don't Elephants Smoke?' is semi-autobiographical in that my mother really did say "a pink marble ashtray doesn't make smoking glamorous", however, I am pleased to report, she is in fine health!
    On writing about people in our lives, brilliant travel writer Pico Iyer, once said "people will always be able to identify themselves in writing, no matter how we try to change their names and their identity -- sometimes with disastrous results". He went on to say though, our intent is what is important. I would never wish to offend anyone, and I must say, it's been my experience through this story that the relatives I write of, know exactly who they are! So far, they have been pleased with the result.
    I also had the recent pleasure of meeting Dr Hilarie Lindsay, successful writer, former President of the Fellowship of Australian Writers and Patron of the Grenfell Henry Lawson Festival. She told me the way we uniquely see a scene is valid and no-one should tell us how to write about what we see. She feels the same goes for historical fiction -- something I should bear in mind as I need to fill in the blanks in an historical project I'm working on about my great, great, greats. Although I know, research and more research will be my guide.
    Thanks, Kathy, for all your help and support in setting up my blog "A rabble of butterflies". It will be most handy for my friends, followers and family to trace my writing career through this dedicated writing blog, rather than having to put up with endless "crowing" on Facebook.
    Kerri Harris

  2. Thank you, Kerri, for filling us in on the background of your short story. The story behind the story, sometimes more interesting than the story! Also loved the quote from Dr Hilarie Lindsay - "...the way we uniquely see a scene is valid and no-one should tell us how to write about what we see." Well said.
    It was my pleasure to help you with your blog, although maybe we should redefine the meaning of "help" here. Lol.