Questions of Travel

The Mangroves, Nusa Lembongen, Bali

Where to travel next? Another first world problem. Michelle de Kretser reminded us at the Sydney Writers’ Festival that ‘travel is a privilege. It’s not always the green quilted view.’

De Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Australia at 14. She used to work for Lonely Planet, as an editor, and is the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case, The Lost Dog and recent winner of the prestigious Miles Franklin award 2013 for Questions of Travel.

Questions of Travel is a novel so huge in size it made her panic when it was first published. The Miles Franklin justifies its size. It is a book of ideas and stories that collide; of Laura, an Australian woman, travelling the world as a tourist and Ravi, who had to leave Sri Lanka due to political violence and came to Australia.

The main theme is different types of travel. ‘To travel is to say goodbye, to connect and pass on to another place.’ De Kretser said she doesn’t just present the quilted green idealistic view because in reality not everyone travels. You need the money and the right passport to cross borders. There are over one billion tourists worldwide, but to put this figure into perspective six billion of the world’s population aren’t tourists.

The main character, Ravi dreams about travel but as a Sri Lankan he doesn’t have the means to be a tourist. Sri Lanka attracts an increasing number of tourists yet Sri Lankans can’t visit their visitors’ countries. De Kretser said she’d written the book but had forgotten the difficult reality of travel for Sri Lankans. Applying for a tourist visa in India is a long process but if you’re Sri Lankan there’s an extra layer of complication. To Indians Sri Lankans are suspicious, just like Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.  These themes lie underneath the narrative.

It’s interesting that Ravi arrives as a tourist by plane not as an asylum seeker. Whether Ravi is an authentic refugee depends on his mode of transport. There’s a stereotypical image of a refuge as someone who arrives by boat and lives behind barbed wire. De Kretser wanted to particularise suffering, and convey the individuality of asylum seekers through the portrayal of Ravi.

De Kretser said our sympathy depends on someone’s ability to narrate their story. Current examples of this are the stories of Amanda Knox and Lindy Chamberlain. We depend on story on lots of levels; our legal system is built on narrative. De Kretser said when an assessor reviews asylum seekers’ experience they compare stories of a family. The problem is people often have contradictory memories, can’t remember or, like Ravi, are too traumatised to articulate what happened. The assessor, in her opinion, is not a reliable witness for reviewing asylum seekers’ stories.

Questions of Travel has been described as witty, poignant and possessing great wisdom. De Kretser said she hoped it would ‘make people think about travel in new ways and move them when they are considering the politics around asylum seekers.’

A must read for anyone interested in travel, issues of asylum and Australian society.

Edward Rutherford’s Paris

Edward Rutherford England and Paris 2007 038

Edward Rutherford has written a series of books about different places, London, New York, Dublin. He appeared to talk about his latest historical novel, Paris at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and was the embodiment of a romantic Parisian; in orange jumper and black beret. Edward has been in love with Paris since he was eight years old. His family is English but they have a tremendous connection with France. His father was brought up in France and they have relatives who live in Paris.

Rutherford described Paris as a captivating city; of revolution, seduction and dark secrets. A city that always retains its sensuous grace; where Mediterranean warmth and clear light collide with northerly order. He told a fascinating, humorous and enchanting tale of the history of Paris, his life, and how these play out in Paris.

The novel is a big family multi- generational saga, reminiscent of Ken Follett, with a love of buildings and rich with romance. The families were chosen out of the necessity of history, to portray the diversity of French society, and reflected his own experiences. The strangest stories in the novel are the ones that really happened.

The structure opens in La Belle Époque, traces back through centuries, to the first war, the resistance, 1968 student revolution to modern France; the city of romance, dreams and scholars. Edward would have loved to live in La Belle Époque period of La Folie Bergerè, and brothels, which he assured us he knows only from research. Back then, he told us, the hills surrounding Monmartre were covered with vineyards and gypsum mines, which is where the term ‘plaster of Paris’ originated.

It was the age of impressionists. There was an enormous colony of painters at Giverny, which was featured in Paris with the love story of a girl and her mother who both fall in love with the American painter’s son. This mirrors Rutherford’s own love story at 19 when he fell in love with a 35 year old. The purity of romance in Victorian Paris is embedded in the story; horse chestnuts blossoming at Notre Dame and old-fashioned chivalry.

Rutherford talked about the history of the Eiffel tower, which nobody liked until it was built, and Parisians still love to hate. During the war the French built a fake Paris to fool the Germans at nights. The real Paris was blacked out and the fake Paris, complete with Eiffel Tower, lit up. Hitler wanted to go up Eiffel tower in 1940, Parisians were determined he shouldn’t go so Thomas Gascon, Rutherford’s ex-girlfriend’s brother cut the cables.

The novel reveals how the French treated the Jewish in Paris. Rutherford was concerned with how to handle anti-seminism and he told the story honestly. Most of Europe, he said, were anti-semitic, particularly the upper classes.

French losses were massive in the 1st and 2nd world war. The English think the French didn’t do that much, which is totally untrue. The French mutinied across the entire front including 50 divisions. The French government silenced this news for 50 years. Rutherford still treasures a shell he was given from the trenches, which weaved its way into the novel.

Melding of history and fiction for Edward is tricky. History, he said, gives you amazing plots but it’s also about our ancestry. For this reason, he remained loyal to history. Novels, he claimed, seep insidiously in our minds so authors need to be accurate and responsible. When asked what the virtues and qualities of a historical novelist are, he replied he’s not keen on virtue and he likes vices – how very French!

Paris has seduced me for years and Rutherford fuelled my excitement to planned return in July to the city of romance to celebrate my tenth wedding anniversary. I’m going to savour Rutherford’s Paris to whet my appetite for everything French. And I’m going to take his advice – if in doubt I will appeal to the French’s innate sense of chivalry.

A Character Called Place

Three acclaimed authors discussed three diverse places in their latest books: from Thirroul, NSW (The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay) to Wisconsin, USA (Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth) and The Kimberleys, NT (As the River Runs by Stephen Scourfel).

Ashley Hay, author of six books, the latest is The Railwayman’s Wife. She grew up in Austinmer, South Coast, NSW. She has always loved its dramatic geography; the vast ocean and the Illawarra escarpment that asserts itself between mountains and ocean. Only after she lived in different places then returned and took other people there, did she realise how special it really is.

Amy Espeseth – writer, publisher, academic and author of two novels, was raised in Wisconsin. A harsh, cold, isolated place where it snows for nine months of the year and temperatures plummet to minus 40 degrees C! She described it as a poverty stricken place with religious fundamentalists – where people hunt, fish and love Jesus. Amy escaped to Australia to start a new life but ended up recreating her childhood in Sufficient Grace.

Stephen Scourfel is the author of two novels, a book of novellas and twice awarded Australia’s best travel writer. Originally from rural England, Australia is a learned place for him. He found a sense of place in The Kimberleys whilst mustering on horseback in camps. He uses science and geology to understand the place, the flora, the Indigenous people, a place where the oldest known life forms on earth exist. All this is featured in his latest novel, As the River Runs.

Ashley found it difficult to write about Thirroul. She was too close to it. She found a way of taking imaginative possession of it through moving to Brisbane – there she couldn’t physically see it so she had to remember. Ashley researched extensively to add extra dimension to a place she thought she knew. Amy also wrote a lot from memory. Her personal experience of hunting features a lot in her writing and reflects the life, the place and the people of Wisconsin.

Stephen believes that the character can be a result of the place. By moving place you can give yourself a new persona. In As the River Runs, Dillon is weak and self- righteous in the city, he doesn’t fit in. In The Kimberleys, however, he has strength and earned respect. Stephen observed that people move and behave differently according to the landscape. In Amy’s experience, reflected in Sufficient Grace, people are shaped by the harsh environment. The community, rituals of fishing and hunting, and religion help them together, to survive the harsh winters.

In The Railwayman’s Wife, Ashley wants the characters to learn about the space. The landscape presses in on them in different ways. Frank and Roy make sense of the place coming back from the war. Ani comes to Thirroul and sees the ocean for the very first time. Ashley described the extraordinary moment of revelation that emerges when you first glimpse the ocean from train. You can feel a change in the energy on the train, packed with city commuters, coming home to that magical place.

Stephen talked about the huge responsibility writers have to people they write about. He said there is no greater test for writers than to write about people they’ll see again. People look for themselves and see themselves in your characters. Amy also felt torn between being honest about her experience and protecting her family, church and town. For her it was easier because a lot of her people wouldn’t read a book like this and because she was so far away it gave her freedom.  She did stress however the need to write the truth no matter what: ‘If you can’t be rid of the skeletons at least make them dance.’ And ‘If someone feels embarrassed or ashamed of how they behave or treat you in your book then they should be.’

Ashley borrowed aspects of her father’s life in The Railwayman’s Wife. Her father consented but in hindsight she feels she’s been disingenuous because actually she’d borrowed without permission from many others lives – anecdotes, streetscapes and images from family photos.

Characters and places are intertwined; a place can shape a person’s character, thoughts and behaviour. Place is frequently featured at writers’ festivals and judging by the queues at this event, nobody gets sick of it. Each person and each book bring fresh eyes and a new sensibility about place.


The Power of Landscape

freeimage-3560172-web_Kimberleyssue woolfe melissa lucashenko

Review from The Power of Lanscape at Sydney Writers’ Festival 2013
with Sue Woolfe and Melissa Lucashenko (plus interview with Sue Woolfe)

‘How to belong to this land, this culture, that is not mine. How to tread on a land teeming with tens of thousands of bones, spirits and history.’

 Award winning author, Sue Woolfe pondered this for a year in the Northern Territory, where her latest novel The Oldest Song in the World is set. She discussed the power of landscape with Melissa Lucashenko at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Melissa’s fifth novel, Mullumbimby tells a story from her Indigenous perspective, set in rural northern NSW, about how a person is shaped by their culture and place. Landscape, for Melissa, provides a sense of belonging. However, she prefers the term ‘country’ to ‘landscape’, which is the settlers’ word, derived from the Dutch word ‘landschap’ meaning ‘land state, or region’.

 Sue Woolfe currently lives on the Hawkesbury River and grew up in the Blue Mountains. The landscape has always captivated her. She feels more spiritually connected ‘out bush’ but as a white Australian has always felt a sense of displacement.

An inopportune visit to the Northern Territory compelled her to write about this ancient place, its people and the landscape. She lived there for a year, immersed in a community that welcomed her unreservedly. She learned the language, camped out with the local women, held their babies and experienced their rituals and ceremonies. She began to understand that the people and their immortal souls are grounded in their landscape and the local mythology of the Northern Territory landscape began to make sense. She felt the most powerful sense of belonging and liberation when she heard the earth sing.

Upon returning home to Sydney, she realised the reality of being a westerner meant she would have to be born again into the Aboriginal culture to fully belong. Though the desert draws her she loves bodies of water and couldn’t quell the longing for Mozart and western art.

Being Aboriginal Melissa is astounded by what settlers don’t know about their natural environment. Aboriginal people take for granted the knowledge of how many tides there are in a day and what the mountains around them are called. In Mullumbimby Melissa references Aboriginal ceremonies and rituals, of which many readers would not grasp the religious significance. For example: the circle of the eagle in the sky and its circular shadow on the earth, and the raising of outstretched arms towards the sky. Melissa wanted to portray what ordinary life is like for modern Aboriginal people, without resorting to clichés and commercialized notions.

Supernatural or extrasensory perceptions are every day experiences to Melissa when she is immersed in country. Sue feels she is being brave to talk about the landscape and its spiritual effects. Exalted moments with nature are hard to acknowledge and difficult to write about because the English language is limited. Melissa believes this stems from the convict culture; they were brought in chains to work, not to think or look around them, just to buckle down and survive. Whereas, Melissa explained, talking about these exalted moments for Aboriginals enriches their lives and is ingrained in their culture.

Mindfulness, the Buddhist concept relates to the peace that comes from being spiritually connected to place and country. There is an Aboriginal term for sitting, which translates as ‘sit down, be still and shut up’ – pretty much what mindfulness and meditation are: concentrated awareness and inner stillness. Sue found the way the Aboriginals communed to be deeply meditative. If we immerse ourselves in the landscape – walk in it, worry about it, dig, plant, grow and touch it, we feel a great sense of peace and spaciousness. She believes that’s why gardening is so popular. Whereas for Melissa gardening is more about being a control freak! This underlines their cultural differences; Melissa is from tens of thousands of years of hunter-gatherers whereas Sue is from the agrarian culture of farmers; of growing and possessions.

People, for Melissa are an intrinsic part of country, along with the trees, rocks and animals. She wonders whether city people consider the buildings part of the landscape.  Both believe that most city dwellers are living an impoverished life without nature. Even those living in Sydney’s unique city; surrounded by harbour, waterways, ocean and national parks, mostly aren’t aware of the landscape on a daily basis.

 ‘Immersion in nature paradoxically brings a sense of timelessness and placelessness, which results in peace. If you don’t have this you are turning your back on something we’re wired to need.’ Sue Woolfe

Antarctica Dreaming

Check out the article I wrote on Antarctica Dreaming: an event at Sydney Writers’ Festival 2013. Published on