The Writing Life

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The bookshelves of my Australian childhood were garrisoned by foreign troops, filled with stories by faraway English people who wrote of things I couldn’t see or touch or know: A.A. Milne, Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis; The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, The Snow Goose. These were good books, but they came between me and my country. Australia had been an independent nation since 1901, but in the 1960s, my imagination was still a British colony.

The characters in my childhood books built their tree houses in reddening rowan trees; they did not scramble up scribbly gums. I read names of flowers I had never seen, but I didn’t know what to call the tiny chrome-yellow blooms that flecked the bushland around my grandmother’s house. My mind lived in a cold, Anglican place while my body lived in a hot, Roman Catholic one. Once, at an aunt’s burial, I remember shifting my weight from foot to foot as the burning red clay melted the soles of my shoes, and being struck by the massive irrelevance to Australian experience of an expression like “cold as the grave.”

The real world of my 1960s Sydney childhood—the sweaty, salt-tanged summer days when the smell of distant bush fires mingled with the car exhaust of suburban Sydney—was not set down between any hard covers, at least none that made it to my bedtime-story hour. None of my tartan-skirted heroines played, as I did, amid the rich stink of Parramatta River mangroves. As I felt the warm, silky mud rising between my toes, I somehow knew that those girls, in their lisle stockings and patent-leather shoes, would have been disgusted.

Because I did not read of my own world, it took me a very long time to learn how much I loved it. There was, in post-World War II Australia, a lingering sense of inferiority, fed by the man who led the country, an Anglophile prime minister, Robert Menzies, who lived for his trips to Buckingham Palace and wrote in his journal on the way home that “a sick feeling of repugnance grows in me as I near Australia.”

When I went to college, it was to the Gothic-towered University of Sydney, an institution that signaled its aim of aping Oxford and Cambridge with a Latin motto that roughly translated as “Same Place, Different Skies”; its English department didn’t establish a chair of Australian literature until the 1960s. When I studied the novels of our Nobel Prize winner, Patrick White, I closed his books dismayed by his patrician contempt for ordinary, suburban Australians.

For most Australians of my generation, a long adventure overseas was a rite of passage. Most of my friends had gone to England, but I was tired of feeling like a colonial, and so I chose the United States instead. I got a job with the Wall Street Journal, and way led on to way, until I found myself in a tiny village in Virginia, with a child who asks for “candy” and “cookies” instead of lollies and biscuits. I read to him about Hiawatha and Natty Bumppo. But I also read him the English classics of my childhood, for the risk here is that he will grow up believing that A A Milne’s most British of bears speaks with a Disneyfied American accent. His shelves also contain a raft of Australian children’s books. For Australia changed dramatically in the 1970s, when the election of reformist, arts-oriented government led to a surge in national pride and creativity. Nowadays there are plenty of books whose roots delve deep into Australia’s dry red soil.

Not long after my son was born, I sat down to try to write my first novel. It was to have been set in Tasmania, amid the wild temperate rain forests of Australia’s southernmost state. Instead, I found myself writing about Derbyshire. The fictional voices in my head were English voices, and they kept shouting the Australians down. There was a story that had intrigued me for years, of a village that voluntarily quarantined itself to stop the spread of bubonic plague. It was this tale, rather than the Australian one, that most wanted to be told. When I gave in to the impulse and started to write, it came to me so much more readily than the Tasmanian story. The bright shards of Dryden and Pepys, the vast swathes of Shakespeare lodged in my memory, made it easy to hear the cadences, the rhythms, to know the meanings of archaic words without even looking them up.

The history, the noises of revolution, Civil War and Restoration —I knew that, too, much better than I knew the details of my own country’s past. And as the book took shape under my hands, I was, like a sufferer from literary Stockholm syndrome, suddenly and profoundly grateful to my cultural captors.

One day, I hope to write an Australian novel. But I now know I will have to work for it. Many years ago, I spent a week rafting Tasmania’s Franklin River, which runs wild and swift from its mountain source until it joins the wide Gordon for a brief run to the sea. We were striking camp near the end of the journey when one of our guides came out of the dark rain forest with a half-dozen leaves in his hand. “I thought you might like to know what’s growing here,” he said, turning over the glossy spear of native laurel, a fern-like frond of Huon pine, the serrated leaf of celery top, the fragrant leatherwood. After that, the trees weren’t just “bush” any more—I knew each as an individual and so could see it clearly. The guide, Geoffrey Lea, seemed as magical as Adam to me that day, naming creation. He and I had grown up differently: he had grown up as an Australian.

I still have the leaves that Geoff picked long ago by the Franklin, sere and sapless now, pressed in the pages of my dictionary. I keep them there so that I will see them almost every day. They remind me that if I ever want to write of my own country, I will have to learn it, like a foreigner, like a migrant, leaf by leaf, from seed to blossom to bough.

Geraldine Brooks

The Washington Post

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