CJ Metcalfe’s Inspiring Life

26 April 2024

UQ Master of Philosophy Candidate in Creative Writing Carly-Jay Metcalfe may be the author and subject of Breath, but she’s also an inspiration in her own right. On February 29, Breath launched with the University of Queensland Press.

The plan had been for the event to take place at the Avid Reader bookshop; a perfectly fitting and natural venue. Official launch events for published works are typically understated things, with a small but eager attendance there to take advantage of the canapés as much as to grab a signed copy of the book. First time authors naturally do not have an established readerbase, and memoir is not on its own merits the most electrifying genre. One might have every reason to believe that the memoir of first time author Carly-Jay Metcalfe - CJ to her friends - would not merit an exceptional launch.

Like most things in CJ’s life, this turned out to be more complicated than first expected. By popular demand, the launch shifted venue to The Old Museum, where almost two hundred people gathered to celebrate the launch of Breath. Loving family and devoted friends certainly, and UQP staff who worked with CJ through her writing mentorship; but also a special selection of heroes who had played their challenging and tireless parts in the life described in Breath’s pages.

“There were doctors who had saved my life, there were hospital school teachers that I’d known for forty years; it was amazing. It was one of the best nights of my life. It was just so much emotion and all these hard yards that coalesced into this room of love. It was really beautiful.”

It was a well deserved celebration for all involved, and CJ most of all. Writing a book and getting it published is no small accomplishment; and ironically, it might be one of the least difficult trials of her life. CJ was born with cystic fibrosis - a rare genetic disorder that progressively compromises the lungs and brings a host of additional complications for the pancreas, liver, kidneys, and intestine. Breath is the story of CJ living her life in spite of a disease that should have killed her.

It certainly gave it a red-hot go. CJ’s story presents it all, in raw and commanding detail: struggling to breathe through childhood, an eleventh hour double lung transplant, organ rejection, immunosuppression, and a superhuman resistance to anesthesia. In the shadow of such a colossal feat of survival, there come additional trials - cancer, surgical complication, and the trauma all these things bring along with no shortage of heartbreak and ‘normal’ hardship. Over all these things, she triumphs and lives to tell the tale. In 2018, she began assembling her memoirs from her experiences, journal entries, and the record of events her mother diligently kept in a collection she calls the ‘transplant diaries’. CJ won a scholarship with the University of Queensland to complete her MPhil in Creative Writing, and went on to win the 2022 UQP Writing Mentorship. Breath is the product of UQP’s proud partnership with CJ in bringing her story to the world, as well as the stories of the dozens of friends with cystic fibrosis who did not live to write their own. Her love for them is as pervasively present in her writing, as is the impact they have had on her. Offering this representation is one of CJ’s reasons for taking up the task of putting her story to print.

“I’m one of only a few old school CF’s that are still alive. There’s very few books out there about this journey, and it seems like there’s none at all from Australia. A lot of people don’t know what CF was like in the 80’s. No one really knew what it was. And then I also wanted to share a few stories of my friends to keep them alive in a sense - their legacy. The legacy they have in me.”

Another reason is her commitment to provoking thought and conversation about dying and death; a subject she knows as intimately as anyone alive, and with which she feels Australians have particular difficulty.

“We’re just hopeless at it. And we need to find a way to do death literacy a hell of a lot better than we have been. It’s getting there, but there’s still a long way to go. I think we often mourn in a very cloistered, hidden, harmful way. But there’s so much we can learn from other peoples - from Asia, and Africa, and our own First Nations people. They mourn in a very healthy way. There’s a community way of mourning, and I think we can learn a lot from that.” She continues to live out this conviction by volunteering in hospital chaplaincy and with events and groups that promote death literacy, like the Groundswell Project’s ‘Dying to Know Day’.

CJ hints she has more writing to do. “I’ve got ideas for fiction. I’ve got a novel on the boil. I’ve got some kids’ books in the works - so it’ll be nice to actually get to write something that’s not about me!”

She joins the honoured recipients of UQP’s Writing Mentorship, and the ranks of UQ students and alumni whose works were first introduced to the world by the University’s own publishing press.

“I love editing, and I actually like my work being critiqued. That part was actually really enjoyable because I think everyone wants their book to be the best it can possibly be. And UQP were fantastic to work with.”

Carly-Jay Metcalfe continues to work on her M.Phil in Creative Writing at UQ. Her memoir Breath is available from UQ’s campus bookshop, from UQP’s website, and anywhere good books are sold.

Written by Brendan Cottam