Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers in Saving Mr Banks.
A few days ago I took my inner child to go see Saving Mr Banks, the story of how Walt Disney convinced Australian-born author P.L.Travers to let him turn the Mary Poppins story into a film. Even in the midst of my undignified sobbing over the emotional closing scenes, I was reminded of the power of storytelling to transform us.
The film leads us to believe that the character of Mr Banks was inspired by Travers' father, a charismatic, devoted man who was nonetheless plagued by alcoholism, and died when Travers was just eight years old. Through imagining the character of Mr Banks, Travers creates a world where the fictional father is not weighed down by the pressures of his job and is in fact ''saved'' by Mary Poppins and is finally able to enjoy a loving relationship with his children - the one that Travers was robbed of.
It was Aristotle who first wrote of the power of catharsis, the notion of the story's ability to satisfy and provide emotional release. More recently, a post-structuralist view of writing theorises that the writer herself experiences a form of catharsis - in storytelling we tell and retell our stories until we arrive at a version that satisfies us. That is, the stories we tell about ourselves and about events contribute to the person that we become. It isn't just the written product, it's the process of writing that gives us power over making sense of the world around us.
Although Travers' life has been neatened for the purpose of the film, it is accepted to be reasonably accurate. The real-life Travers did effectively write herself (and I use the term ''write'' liberally here) a new identity. She changed her birth name and her accent and scorned her Australian identity.
Although on the one hand this seems a bit extreme, on the other hand it is merely another all-too familiar example of the Australian cultural cringe. Australian artists in just about any field often still find that they must move overseas in order to pursue their careers and find success.
It is possible to interpret Saving Mr Banks not just as an entertaining family film, or as a woman's psychological journey to make peace with her father's death, but also as an insight into Australia's literary history: one that looks to the mother country for inspiration and a sense of worth. In this sense, the stories told by Australian authors contribute to how we view ourselves as Australians, and the value we place on our artistic practices.
As a secondary English teacher, I am part of a wider community that is educating the future authors and artists of this country. As part of their literacy education, one of the powers we give our students is the ability to write their own worlds and identities. It is not just for personal benefit, but social, community benefit as well. Not all of them are going to become Authors (with a capital ''A''), but the ones that do are going to shape our culture's future. This is one of my great hopes as a teacher of writing, that we are contributing towards building a culture that embraces Australian art on its own terms, with artists who are willing and able to produce art in our own country.
One only needs to walk around an exhibition such as the National Gallery of Victoria's Melbourne Now to realise both how much talent there already is in our artistic community and how readily the public will embrace it if they have the chance. These sorts of initiatives ensure the right environment for the next generation of artists, and the growth of our cultural capital.
Emily Frawley is a Melbourne-based secondary English teacher undertaking a PhD on writing in education.