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Wednesday 14 April 2010

Farewell, Australia's Sappho: Dorothy Porter, 1954-2008

Posted in: Books
By Craig Young - 15th December 2008

Dorothy Porter, 1954-2008
It's always painful to write an obituary for someone so gifted, whose work I deeply admired and respected, especially when one dies so relatively young. Thus it is with Dorothy Porter, who died of breast cancer last weekend, aged only 54.

Born in Sydney, Porter was an arts graduate from the University of Sydney. Although this versatile creative wunderkind wrote libretti, young adult fiction and musical lyrics during her extraordinary career, it is the verse novel format that she made her own.

Akhenaten (1991) was her first, and dealt with the life of the Eighteenth Dynasty bisexual monotheist pharoah. It's a rich confection of incest, bisexuality, heresy, gender bending and the transience of even ancient celebrity. However, she really hit her stride with The Monkey's Mask (1994).

The Monkey's Mask was her masterpiece, and the one that brought her to public and international attention. It's a capable, multivalent fusion of lesbian eroticism, detective fiction and intrigue and rivalry within Sydney's verse community, following the murder of young Mickey. Private Investigator Julie Fitzgerald must also deal with the seductive Diana Maitland, Mickey's former poetry lecturer. This tour de force won her the National Book Council's Poetry Prize (1995) and was filmed in 2001.

What a Piece of Work (1999) dealt with a shady psychiatric institution, and the secrets that it held. Wild Surmise (2003) was a rhapsody to the heavens, as a lesbian astronomer comes out, prepares to leave her husband, and reflects on Jupiter's oceanic satellite, Europa. Both titles were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. El Dorado (2007) is her fifth and final verse novel, dealing with a lesbian police investigator, her straight male childhood friend and sidekick, and a serial killer who preys on children, killing them gently. The two of them are horrified when the eventual culprit is unmasked.

Dorothy Porter wrote so much more. She moved to Sydney to be near her lover and widow, Andrea Goldsmith. For the last five years, she valiantly battled breast cancer, but took a turn for the worse a month or so ago. On 10 December 2008, she died in Melbourne.

Craig Young - 15th December 2008

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