Comic charm in Russian dreams, tutus, fake forests

Author Sacha Jones, with her just-published memoir

Creative writing papers at Massey University helped Sacha Jones realise the numerous notebooks she had filled with stories of her improbable Sydney childhood, might become a book for publication.

The Grass Was Always Browner (Finch Publishing, Australia) – published in May – is a colourful, comic memoir about growing up in the seventies, the middle of three close-together children with two impractical, over-the-hill parents in northern Sydney.

Overcoming various challenges, including chronic asthma and being the wrong build for ballet, Jones goes on to become something of a ballet star, winning a host of scholarships and competitions to become a principal dancer in the Sydney City Ballet. She even dances the lead in Giselle at the Sydney Opera House. All the while her father disapproves, describing ballet as; “a selfish, frivolous pursuit, too focused on appearances.” He, by contrast, is trying to save the Third World by writing a book in economic theory.

Drama and comedy weave a lively family farce centred on an unusual, exuberant girl, who nearly drowns and chokes to death on separate occasions. Then there’s the social death of ostracisation when she is misclassified at high school as a member of the Toughies – as opposed to the Brains, the Dags or the Freaks – not to mention a hair-raising incident of the arrival, and almost instant disappearance, of her sister’s horse from the back yard.

Her entertaining musings on life’s incongruities and the unlikely meanings of names and places are hilariously astute. She calls her exotic-sounding home suburb of Frenchs Forest a “fake forest” – nothing but the bush, “brash, brittle and brown.”

Jones’ writing has already been highly praised and endorsed by award-winning New Zealand novelist Stephanie Johnson who describes the memoir as “boundlessly optimistic.” Jones delivers her story in a refreshingly upbeat tone, laughing loudly at herself with equal insight and humour, and refusing to sink into self-pity even as she describes the often-cruel rigours of the ballet world she is so desperate to succeed in – all on a breakfast-only diet (plus cake and laxatives on Saturdays).

The author at age 11

Sally to Sacha

From the get-go everything is up for comic grabs. Jones’ boring name (Sally), which she suspects was inspired by the neighbourhood dog (also Sally), opens the book with comic mockery as Jones laments not being Russian.

Aged eight, she tries to establish a more Russian-sounding name, Marinka, but it doesn’t stick. ‘Sacha,’ which in Russian means ‘brave defender of mankind’, is finally the name she picks. The Jones is from her great-great grandfather, David Jones, the original owner of Sydney’s iconic department store David Jones. She admits to ditching “that boring name” when she married, but has gone back to it in recent years.

Today she lives in Auckland with her Kiwi husband and three children and has left dance behind – almost. She teaches an adult women’s dance class at night. Until recently she was focused more on politics. She has a PhD thesis from the University of Auckland in political theory, partly inspired by her father who spent his life writing a treatise in development economic theory.

But the need to tell her story creatively became increasingly urgent. “The minute I’d submitted my doctoral thesis I enrolled in a creative writing course,” she says.

She began with a Life Writing course at Massey’s Auckland campus with Dr Jack Ross, a senior lecturer in Creative Writing, after a recommendation by a writer friend. Jones says she “thrived and wanted more”, enrolling in a second course after winning a years’ membership to the New Zealand Society of Authors for her course portfolio.

Dr Ross encouraged her to keep writing and gave her the belief in herself that she needed to turn her notes into a memoir, as well as the discipline to do so.

Cover of The Grass Was Always Greener

One memory unravels another

Creative writing is “a passion I’d had as a child but set aside, without really knowing it, first for dancing then for political research, which seemed the most challenging and contrasting things I could do – and were”, she says. Academic writing is different to creative writing, she says, because it is; “about truth-telling directly, whereas creative writing reveals and hides and experiments with the truth, which is a whole lot more fun.”

Whenever she regaled her friends with tales of growing up in suburban Sydney in an oddball family, they encouraged her to write about it. The Grass Was Always Browner is the first of a planned three-volume childhood memoir spanning twenty-two years.

Jones says once she began to write and reflect in earnest, the memories came thick and fast. She surprised herself by how much detail she remembered. “One memory unravels another,” she says. “The closer you look at a memory, it becomes like a Russian doll – there is another layer to it. And memories piggyback on each other, as if joined by the time they shared.”

The Grass Was Always Browner will be launched at the Devonport Library, 6.30-8pm, Tuesday 3 May.

Read Sacha Jones’ blog: OWW: One Woman’s World here.


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