Maria Tumarkin is not interested in fluffy, easy-to-consume topics. She does not set out to console, to make you feel as though the world is – underneath all the suffering – a good, kind place.
What she does want to do is explore life’s biggest questions: the difference between life and death; grief; loss; the unalterable passage of time; justice and injustice.
“I like to read and write high stakes non-fiction,” she told me over coffee a few weeks ago.
“I’m not interested in polite little explorations of something on the edges of the human condition. I want to explore something that goes to the heart of the stuff we all grapple with.”
In case you missed it, Tumarkin is a writer, author, essayist and cultural historian. In between all that, she teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne, and cares for her baby son and two other (older) children.
She was also shortlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize, a major literary award celebrating books by Australian women, for her book Axiomatic.
Described by many as a collection of essays (something Tumarkin rejects: “it’s a book with chapters”), Axiomatic is based on pre-conceived axioms – a statement or proposition which is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true – which are dissected, examined and prodded through a mix of Tumarkin’s ever-present curiosity and the stories of others she seeks out or accidentally meets along the way.
When we meet to talk about it, I quickly find out that Tumarkin is a delightful companion. She is warm and engaging, and it’s easy to see that her mind is constantly in a state of whirlwind.
In many ways, I recognise the thought patterns: her ideas are so broad, so big, that when asked a seemingly simple question, Tumarkin wants to answer as truthfully as possible, encapsulating the complexity that lies beneath every concept.
This makes for not only a fascinating conversation, but also a book – and Axiomatic is one hell of a read.
“This is my fourth book, but this is the first time I actually had the concept and the structure [of the book] sorted before [finding] actual lives and stories of people to convey those concepts through,” she said.
“I knew I was going to look at these axioms – suicide, trauma, time etc – as a structural backbone of the book.”
To say the book is merely esoteric is to deny its depth and relevance to all humans.
Starring an omnipresent narrator who hovers above, in between and somehow beyond us, the chapters – from harrowing accounts of suicide, to describing the days of a lawyer who has chosen to help society’s most unfortunate souls – meander through a kaleidoscope of scenarios set in schools, courtrooms, prisons, churches, refugee camps, Soviet Union spaces and more personal inner life, delving into Tumarkin’s life as a Ukrainian migrant and her observations of culture, history and the ways in which they inevitably collide.
It was therefore surprising to hear Tumarkin admit just how serendipitous some of her story lines were.
“In this first chapter, I knew I wanted to write about suicide, but I didn’t know it was going to be through the lens of schools,” she said.
“And I had this axiom in my head when I just happened to talk to a teacher who was kind of a friend of mine… who, when I mentioned suicide, said her school was dealing with this issue.
“So, instantly the fusion of two things took place in my mind, and I knew I had to write about how the aftermath of a suicide might play itself out in high school”.
A similar sentiment underpins chapter four, Give Me a Child Before the Age of Seven and I’ll Give You the Woman, which focuses on the age “seven” as an almost magic marker between adult and childhood consciousness.
“I just read an article in which Vera Wasowski was mentioned, saying she had to do something that no child should have to ever do or contemplate at the age of seven,” Tumarkin recalled.
“Then something went ‘ping’ and I got in touch with her.”
Recently having read Axiomatic in a book club, a former journalist pointed out something interesting: that one of Tumarkin’s chapters, set in a courtroom, presented as a piece of journalism without really abiding by journalistic (and ethical) conventions of objective reporting.
When I put the question to her, Tumarkin welcomed it.
“I always like to hear from people who challenge me and my writing,” she said.
In the chapter, Tumarkin embarks on a defence of a grandmother who was charged with kidnapping her grandson. Like everything in Axiomatic, this is not a black-and-white situation, however, Tumarkin’s sympathy for the grandmother overrides any semblance of objectivity – something that she freely admits.
“There was no other side to the story,” she said.
“To provide the other side would be providing a justification for her story and her relationship with her grandson.
“My relationship with the grandmother and the boy was the most important thing”.
Tumarkin believes the chapter illustrates her experimentation with the written form more than journalistic truth: while her information and characters are well researched, verified and corroborated, she has chosen to only write from one perspective because, to her, that is the best way to explore the axiom of trauma.
“[The chapter] was talking about trauma in an unexpected way; the trauma of her childhood as a smokescreen for the trauma of adulthood,” she said.
Much like Tumarkin herself, the book is a well of contradictory and complex thought that left me winded.
It winded Tumarkin too, who took eight and a half years to write it.
“I just had to walk away from it,” she told me.
“Sometimes I had to take a year off just to do other things. I just couldn’t keep going, I needed to be away from it. And many times, I questioned whether I would be able to finish it at all.”
But finish it she did, and what a feat it is.
It’s not every day you read a book that tackles life’s greatest sorrows and come out unscathed.
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin (published by Brow Books) is out now.