For someone who acknowledges feeling uncomfortable meeting people at cocktail parties, author Jill Ker Conway seemed remarkably at ease in front of approximately 400 new friends at Monmouth College earlier this week.
Conway was on campus to deliver the Samuel M. Thompson Lecture, as well as a convocation lecture to the freshman Introduction to Liberal Arts (ILA) students whose reading list included her 1989 autobiography, “The Road from Coorain.”
The book, which chronicles Conway’s childhood in the isolated Australian outback and her boarding school experiences in Sydney, was assigned in order for all ILA students to share a “common experience,” according to one of the program’s coordinators, faculty member Mark Willhardt.
The book has been the common ILA text for four years and, said Willhardt, “student reactions to the book have been vastly different. What’s been common is that, by encountering another person’s ideas and values, our students have in turn thought about their own ideas and values – their lives have therefore been changed.”
Conway told the students, “I’ve never met 400 people who’ve read my book before,” then spent the next 15 minutes explaining her reasons for writing it. Chief among them, she said, was to bring to light a different perspective of Australia than the “male myths” that were depicted in the popular 1986 movie, “Crocodile Dundee.”
“I decided, ‘I’m going to write a book about a female heroine, my mother, told by a female speaker,’” she said.
In addition to writing three installments of her memoirs – “True North” and “A Woman’s Education” followed “The Road from Coorain” – Conway has done extensive studies of women’s autobiographies and has edited three such anthologies.
“What I discovered from reading about women reformers who grew to prominence in the late 1800s and early 1900s – tough, ambitious women who were driven to achieve – was that when they sat down to write about their lives, they wrote them as a romance, which made them seem very fake. They didn’t represent themselves the same way in their memoirs as they did in their correspondence with friends, or in their diaries.”
Conway, who became the first woman president of the all-female Smith College in 1975, noted that at Smith, “we would bring in women of great achievement to speak to our students. They would say things like, ‘I’ve been very lucky.’ Women were getting a lousy message, and I wanted to break that myth.”
She continued, “In my book, I wanted to acknowledge ambition as well as bad character aspects. I wanted to make it clear that even though I lived on an isolated sheep station, I had big dreams.”
Conway also wanted to avoid perpetuating a particular stereotype of the era.
“In the 1980s, the feminist movement was very hostile and angry to men, and I didn’t want to continue that depiction of men,” she said, adding that even though the book is “a coming-of-age story for a young woman, it’s been equally read, used and evaluated by men.”
She said she used the first chapter of her book to paint a clearer picture of the outback than previous narratives.
“The land was a character in the book,” she said.
Included in that opening chapter is the following description:
“Nut-flavored green grass puts up the thinnest of green spears. Wild grains appear, grains which develop bleached gold ears as they ripen. Purple desert peas weave through the green and gold, and bright yellow bachelor’s buttons cover acres at a time, like fields planted with mustard.”
Following her opening remarks, Conway opened the floor for questions from Monmouth students, who were eager to learn more about their “common experience.”
Nuggets gleaned from the Q&A included:
• Conway’s disdain for the movie version of her book. “I wouldn’t look at it … the producers said they were going to consult for the movie, then they didn’t.”
• Her view on the isolation she experienced, which included not interacting with another girl her age until she was 7: “I was alone a lot. A number of books have been written about the value of solitude. The ability to be alone is important.”
• Her unique family relationships included anger at her surviving sibling: “I was mad at my brother for not helping take care of my mother. Much later in life, he helped me with her.” Regarding her mother, she said, “She was not able to be close to her daughter, who had grown up.” Of her brother, who died when she was 14: “I lived for him, as well as for myself. That helped make me more courageous. It was almost as though I could keep him alive through my experiences.”
Her willingness to share with the students led faculty member Craig Vivian to say, “It was one of the best convocations I’ve seen here.”
“One thing that made it good was how so many of our students stepped up and asked questions,” added another faculty member, Steve Buban. “I’d say it was unprecedented.”
Titled “Thinking About Women,” Conway’s Thompson Lecture was also well-received, as was a meeting following her convocation talk.
“A select group of students had lunch with her, and she asked them about their dreams and plans and how they were figuring out what they want to do with their lives,” said faculty member Hannah Schell. “It was a great discussion.”
After graduating from the University of Sydney, Conway earned her Ph.D. in history at Harvard in 1969. There, she met her husband, the late John J. Conway, a Canadian war hero and professor of British history.
Conway, who holds 38 honorary degrees from North American and Australian colleges and universities, has served the past 25 years as a visiting scholar and professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s program in Science, Technology and Society. She told the students that she lives in a isolated setting there, too, “replicating the silence” of her upbringing.
Four hundred Monmouth students now have a much greater appreciation for the important of that “silence,” as well as for the other messages Conway was trying to convey in “The Road from Coorain.”