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Sydney Writers’ Festival – Sarah Krasnostein: The Trauma Cleaner

Content warning: trauma, abuse, LGBTIQ issues, death, suicide

My second event for the Sydney Writers’ Festival was Sarah Krasnostein: The Trauma Cleaner. I was really excited for this event because I just recently finished Krasnostein’s book (review pending) which won two categories in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award – the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Prize for Non-Fiction.

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The event was held in a huge auditorium at Carriageworks and we arrived just as it had started. Krasnostein’s book is a biography on a trans woman called Sandra Pankhurst who is a trauma cleaner. The book flits back and fourth between Sandra’s traumatic childhood and early history to Krasnostein’s own experiences accompanying Sandra on cleaning jobs. Krasnostein was interviewed by Australian novelist Ashley Hay.

Hay asked Krasnostein about Sandra’s clients, and Krasnostein said that she went to see three times the number of clients that made it into the book. Krasnostein reflected on the enormity of the mess in the houses caused by bodies left unfound, suicides, hoarding and animal hoarding. She said, “You need an industrial cleaner for those environments”.

Krasnostein read a passage from the book about her difficulties in establishing when exactly events in Sandra’s life took place. Throughout the book, Sandra struggles to remember exactly when her parents kicked her out of the house as a young boy, or when she began to transition, or when she started working as a sex worker. Hay asked Krasnostein about the gaps in Sandra’s memories, and how she coped with the knowledge that she was never going to get a clear timeline. Krasnostein said initially she was frustrated that nothing would align but eventually she realised that the disjuncts “weren’t screwing up the story, those disjuncts were the story”.

Hay asked her about her own role in the story and Krasnostein explained that sometimes the writer has to become a character, and that putting herself in the story as the railing or the banister was guiding the reader through the story.

Hay then asked about how her background in law, forensics and justice came into play in researching and writing the book. Krasnostein said “context is everything”. Law taught her how to go about fact-finding and the difference between discernment and judgment. She said that her background taught her when to rely on her intuition. Krasnostein wryly said that as much as she wanted to include 20 pages of endnotes, she was discouraged. She said that apparently other people don’t enjoy reading footnotes as much as she does (though I certainly do!).

Hay asked Krasnostein about whether this book might be considered voyeuristic. Krasnostein cheerfully responded by saying “Come for the voyeurism, stay for the lesson”. She said that one thing she learned while writing this book was empathy, and that the clients of Sandra’s she met were no different from us at all. She said that when life threw them that phone call that we’re all just two seconds away from, they didn’t have the support they needed and now they are literally buried under decades of pain.

Hay brought up Marie Kondo’s bestseller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and asked how that might apply to some of Sandra’s clients who were struggling with hoarding. Krasnostein said that in her opinion, it was less about whether a sweater brings you joy, and more about letting go of the past. She talked about the excruciating vulnerability of making connections with other people. Although she doesn’t have the experience of growing up trans in Melbourne in the 1960s and 1970s, she has felt shame and pain and that helped her make a connection with Sandra while writing the book.

Sandra gave Krasnostein a huge lesson about the nature of resilience, and also showed her how hugely important it is to sustain those human connections around us. Krasnostein said that we love imperfectly. You have to get over the stuff that doesn’t matter because that closeness and vulnerability is what will save you.

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