Is the difference between a hoarder and an eccentric collector a matter of relative affluence and class? This question is one of many the Miles Franklin Literary Award finalist, Emily Maguire, is keen to find answers to as the latest recipient of the Charles Perkins Centre Writer in Residence Fellowship at the University of Sydney.
The Sydney-based author receives $100,000 and access to the universitys library and medical research institute which examines some of the biggest public health scourges of modern times – obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease – looking at these illnesses beyond mere biology.
For her next book, a novel addressing hoarding, consumerism and illness, Maguire will be sitting down with the centre's researchers, educators and clinicians to see the role that family, social class and economic status play in it all.
Maguire was chosen for the year-long residency from a shortlist of notable writers including Stella prize winner Heather Rose, (The Museum of Modern Love), Gabriel Carey, co-writer of Puberty Blues, Ceridwen Dovey (Only the Animals) and Kate Cole-Adams (Anaesthesia). Inaugural winner, Charlotte Wood, is expecting to complete her book written on women and ageing this year.
Maguire's An Isolated Incident, shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and the Stella Prize, looked at a woman's murder event as a media event. In this next novel she says it is about a woman called a hoarder and what happens after shes injured by an avalanche of stuff in her over-crowded home.
''Theres a few different things Im trying to tease out through this story,'' Maguire says. ''One is the portrayal of hoarding behaviour itself.
''When people who compulsively hoard are portrayed in mainstream culture its usually as objects of disgust, mockery or pity for instance the TV shows Hoarders, The Hoarder Next Door and Hoarding: Buried Alive, all of which are designed to provoke revulsion and judgment in their audience.
''In reality, hoarding behaviour can and does cause or complicate serious health problems, can be indicative of mental illness and can also be a serious public health concern.
''So there are clearly reasons for health and welfare workers and other authorities to understand this behaviour and find ways to intervene, but I want to write about this complex situation from the point of view of someone who others see as a problem to be fixed, but who sees herself as nothing of the sort.''
The much-coveted residency will buy Maguire a year ''without having to hustle for casual and freelance work; a year without weekly panic attacks about keeping a roof over my head or keeping the electricity on''.
Charles Perkins Centre academic director Professor Stephen Simpson said the participating writers challenge the centre's scientists to think about new ways of communicating their work.
Maguire said she wanted to understand if there was a neurological basis for hoarding. ''There are studies which show some hoarders have problems with information processing, particularly categorisation. They therefore value objects others see as rubbish.
''If we could remove the material harms of hoarding, might this ability to see value where others see none be a positive trait in a world where rubbish dumps overflow with perfectly usable clothes and appliances?'' Maguire said.
''Another thing Im interested in unpicking at the Charles Perkins Centre is how responses – in the media, but also in the health and welfare spaces – to people with hoarding behaviour change depending on class both in terms of economic resources and social capital, as well as physical and mental health.
''Is someone with enough space to store all their stuff and enough money to pay someone to keep it clean a hoarder or an eccentric collector?''
Linda Morris is an arts and books writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.
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