I wish to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting, the Ngunnawal people, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present.
Some of you may have registered for this conference in the expectation that you would be listening to Robyn Davidson talk about the Landscape of the Mind, drawing from her 2000 kilometre trip by camel through the Australian desert in 1977, and her travels since, over time and across the fertile ground of the mind.
It’s a great pity we’ve missed the privilege of hearing Robyn speak, but in a session that questions ‘What happens when we travel into unfamiliar or unknown territory?’, a detour from the planned course is almost inevitable. In Robyn’s absence, I’m delighted to be the deviation. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk to you about my literal and figurative journey through the writing of my debut novel, Lightning. And rest assured, like Robyn, I also offer parched places of struggle, survival and transcendence, and even the occasional camel. I must, however, confess up front that my mode of transport as I researched Lightning from Canberra through to Alice Springs, was not a dromedary but rather a prosaic rented Toyota Kluger, courtesy of an ACT Government arts grant.
But my journey began much earlier than when I travelled in the wheel tracks of my protagonists, Persia and Ahmed, from Canberra to central Australia in January 2009. And it had begun well before I had committed the first word of my novel to hard drive and screen in 2007. I suspect the seeds for Lightning were planted many years before I even considered writing a novel, writing anything for that matter.
When I was seven, my parents, both of whom were English teachers and writers, took a year-long sabbatical. They packed up our family, locked the door to our home in Melbourne and launched us into twelve months of chugging around Europe in a Bedford campervan, occasionally visiting schools to substantiate the ‘sabbatical’ claim.
So was my appetite whet for travel, for the vagaries of adventure, the story-studded road and the capriciousness of destination.
Eleven years later, heeding the siren song echoes of that first overseas trip, I left Australia again for nine months. I had an English literature major and a handful of my own short stories and poems under my belt, a half-completed law degree pitched as my tethering post on the horizon, and all of Asia spreading before my itchy feet. A friend gave me James Michener’s book, The Source, as a farewell gift with the inscription, “If we are the product of all we meet, I look forward to talking to you on your return.”
At one level, I consider Lightning to be that conversation. Although the people and stories populating my novel bear little resemblance to those I’ve encountered during numerous trips overseas, they invoke the mystery and magic of the experiences I’ve navigated. I see Lightning as an odyssey across continents and centuries, that harvests from the allure of my travels through Siberia by rail at the age of seven, a brief Bollywood acting career at nineteen, a stint volunteering in a Kolkata home for dying destitutes, my dining with Proust’s ghost in Paris’s Ladurée tearooms, a visit to a refugee camp in Peshawar and trekking the Thar and Gobi deserts by camel.
My professional life, too, working as a diplomat in Bangladesh and Laos, and, currently, as adviser to Australia’s Global Ambassador for Women and Girls, has provided a springboard into the exploration of self when far from home, and a useful vantage point from which to view Australia’s complex national identity.
For while Lighting is a journey to the dead heart of Australia, viewed in part through the lens of a recent arrival, it is also a journey far from Australia as a series of fable-like stories within stories. These tales replicate and reinforce each other’s themes – of loss and recovery – in much the way that a set of Russian Matryoshka dolls nest neatly within each other, one mirroring the next when taken apart.
The interweaving of the Australian narrative and the tales which, like the wind, travel indiscriminately across countries such as Egypt, France, Italy, Germany and Russia, serves to underscore that all our stories are connected. So, in the fragile web of living to which we each belong, Lightning reminds us that is necessary that we move gently and with compassion for one another. At times we are each outsiders in a strange land, and sometimes even strangers in the apparent familiarity of our own lives. My protagonist, Persia, suffers from that second state of being a stranger to herself. To quote from Lightning (page 179):
“The road travelled alongside the interstate border which bathed in the Dumaresq River. On one side of the water was New South Wales, on the other Queensland. There was nothing to distinguish them. This is how we journey, thought Persia bitterly, always in the uncertain territory between two places, anchored to air, at the whim of the arbitrary.
She asked Ahmed to pull over so she could move to the back seat of the car, to stretch out, to rest. She laid her head on her baby’s suitcase. The angle was uncomfortable and she knew she would wake with a sore neck. Do we create our decisions or do they create us? she wondered. She contemplated the taint she had felt gestating in herself since she began her affair with Johan. Have I become ugly because I made an ugly decision, or do I have some genetic ugliness which had as its destiny an ugly choosing? The last signpost she saw before she drifted off to sleep declared Holdfast Crossing. Sound advice, thought Persia drowsily.”
Conversely, my other central character, Ahmed, is a stranger in a strange land (page 105-108).
“In the three years that Ahmed had lived in Australia —seven months, six days and nine hours in a detention centre, seven hours travelling by bus from Sydney to Grafton and the rest in Grafton itself, employed for a couple of years at the local abattoir and then as an orderly at the community hospital — he had only once had occasion to thread catgut through human skin. And that was his own.
An act of clumsiness while cleaning a bandsaw blade at the end of an abattoir shift resulted in a laceration almost the width of his left palm. It was not so deep as to cause permanent damage, but it bled dramatically into the towel he wrapped around it while an Afghan colleague, a devout young man by the name of Hashmat, went off to find the first-aid kit.
Disinclined to alert abattoir management to an industrial accident so early in his career as a meatworker, Ahmed sat on a plastic chair in a corner of the empty staff change room with the well-stocked first-aid kit beside him. His palm smiled at him. He wondered whether the simultaneous severing of life, love and health lines augured poorly for times ahead. Hashmat, even paler and quieter than usual, pinched the two lips of the wound together while Ahmed stitched a seam across his palm. One-handed, it was nevertheless a neat result; the skin puckered resentfully at first but soon acquiesced to its former contours.
‘I was lucky,’ said Ahmed to his workmate. ‘The blade was so sharp it’s a very clean cut. You can’t sew a moonbeam to a fart.’ Even that didn’t draw a grin and when the job was done, Hashmat disappeared into a toilet cubicle to retch, an act that surprised Ahmed more than the irreverent slicing of the metal blade through his skin. It was not as if the boy had never seen blood.
Of the thirty-two Afghan refugees employed at the meatworks, twenty-seven were Hazara Shiites and five were anti-Taliban Pashtuns......If the immigration authorities offered at best an ambivalent reception to the Afghan asylum seekers, they were unabashedly hostile towards applicants from Pakistan, who were presumed economic rather than political refugees. So Ahmed counted himself among the Afghan Pashtuns for purposes of his immigration paperwork. But his origins — ethnic, political and religious — were less clear to his supposed compatriots. He was the last of the group to arrive and, at forty-five, one of the oldest. He was urged in the direction of Grafton by the immigration official who discharged him from his detention centre because she thought he would be best off among his own kind.
He’d thought of Ruth and Naomi when the woman said this. Old Testament Ruth and Naomi. The Moabite and the Israelite. The widowed daughter-in-law leaving her own tribe behind to accompany the widowed mother-in-law back to her land. How home is a person, not bricks and mortar; not tribe, nor custom, nor bloodline, but a person. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.
His Sunday school in Chitral. Eggshell-blue plaster peeling off the walls where the damp was forever rising. The teacher in his grey shalwar kameez with a burgundy wool scarf wrapped about his neck. A plate of dried apricots and almonds passed around the desks at the end of the class. (Ahmed saved a handful of these for his younger sister. He took them home in his kurta pocket, not because such treats weren’t already on offer at their table but for reasons of love.) Cold Sunday evening air drifting in through a grille across the sole window into the schoolroom. Sometimes a gang of young Muslim boys from the local madrasa hurled rocks and insults through this. The teacher, in the line of fire, moved backwards or forwards to avoid the assault but never faltered. Ahmed understood well why the daughter-in-law chose to go with Naomi and join another tribe...
...Early on, the Afghans picked him over in the gentle way that, before Ahmed became practised at his new art, he would approach a fresh carcass, wondering where to begin, where to insert his knife to turn the warm beast inside out, to open the thing and start its spilling. Unlike the bodies on the hooks before him, Ahmed was unyielding. The desire to be known faltered before his fear of being discovered. And his silence was golden where lies would not have been. He got himself off the hook by keeping his tongue still. His herd presumed he had suffered some great and terrible loss, so, having sniffed and licked him, they left him alone. Which in fact was true; he had. But that was not what had stitched his lips closed in much the way he later drew his palm, and all its foretelling of his future, back together.”
I have been asked during recent media interviews, “What is your novel about?” The simple response is, of course, if I could describe my book in a couple of sentences, I wouldn’t have had to write a novel.
Lightning is the tale of two people – Persia, a bereaved mother trying to stay ahead of her grief, and Ahmed, a refugee fleeing his past in Pakistan. Both have suffered extraordinary losses and they discover in each other the healing of shared tenderness. More broadly, the book travels across place and time to explore mourning, identity, connection and faith. It’s a road trip novel, tracking from the eastern seaboard through to central Australia, a love story of sorts, and a meditation on finding hope in the rubble of our lives. It’s a study in the influence of the classical elements – air, water, earth and fire – on our living. It’s a story about the importance of names and being named, about names shaping our destinies and anchoring us in the fluid landscapes of our circumstances.
I’ve long been an admirer of that great Australian novel of exploration, Voss by Patrick White. I like to think that Lightning also pursues similar themes, depicting the challenge of our journeys through dry and unforgiving landscapes, and examining the possibility that it is not until we are humbled, almost to the point of total destruction, that we can realise ourselves. In this way, Lightning is also a celebration of the possibility of redemption and rebirth even in these most arid places of our living.
Finally, Lightning isa salute to the restorative properties of imagination and a reminder that, like Scheherazade and her Arabian Nights tales, it is our stories and their telling that keep us alive. Ahmed himself says to Persia as they drive the seemingly endless miles of the Oodnadatta Track (page 344):
“I used to ask my sister, my Saima, to tell me stories to put me to sleep when I was a child. Now I need stories to keep me awake. This is the difference between the child state and the adult.”
And certainly, that was my experience too during the writing, when multiple griefs inhabited my own life, including the unexpected death of my father and the breakdown of my family life when my partner and I separated.
Yet, for all that I can retrospectively describe my now-published novel, and the intersection between fiction and fact, I knew very little of what would occupy Lightning when I wrote its first words and I didn’t consciously understand the import of the book’s beginning, or the slowly emerging symmetry of its themes and symbols, until I had reached its end. And this, to answer the umbrella question posed by this session, is what happens when we travel across the continent into unknown or unfamiliar territory. We discover a place where revelation is possible. In the peculiar miracle which is the desert, space and silence amplify the hidden self. When we are most parched we rediscover the sustaining promise of subterranean waters. When most lost, it is in the clarity of a desert sky that the guiding star shines brightest and we find our way to a place that holds meaning.
In reflecting on this element of my writing journey through Lightning, I am reminded of T S Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding, from The Four Quartets. In it, Eliot writes, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
At the launch of Lightning here in the National Library roughly one month ago, I observed that, for me, the creative process was like buying one of those packets of flower seeds titled “Accent on Blue” or “Accent on Yellow” from the Yates stand in the garden centre. You open the sleeve and cast the seeds on the soil not knowing what specifically you’re planting but simply trusting in the palette of what will sprout and eventually blossom, given sufficient light, water, warmth and, in my case, a lot of time.
One of those seeds was sown on January the 18th 2003, when from our family home in the heights of the southern Canberra suburb of Kambah, with a three year old and an eighteen month old at my feet, and with their father on the roof filling the gutters with water, I watched fire sweep in across the Brindabellas and the sky darken as if it was night.
Some years later that seed, those fires, ignited by lightning, became the starting point for my novel, as well as its end. At the outset of my book, lightning brings destruction, death; at its conclusion, lightning is a trigger for rebirth, and a promise of new beginnings. Indeed, all our exploring involves a return to the point of embarkation, with a fresh knowledge of what exists at that place.
The Eliot quote – to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time – is both a particularly lyrical formulation of the explorative process of writing Lightning, and it also echoes my general disposition as someone who has led a peripatetic life, never quite understanding what I’ve left behind until I’ve journeyed far from it. Perhaps I am a little like my protagonist, Persia. Sitting with Ahmed, atop Camel’s Hump Lookout in Hawker, overlooking the Flinders Ranges, Persia contemplates the landscape in front of her (page 343):
“Below them, close to the road, was the roofless carcass of an old homestead. Some short distance from it was a chimney, a tumble of bricks. The chimney appeared to have grown too far from its follicle in the earth and been shed. The ground was scouring itself, exfoliating, pushing its inhabitants out and expunging them.
Beyond the abandoned farmhouse were a dam and a flock of sheep quenching their thirst in its shallow, muddy water. Persia wondered who owned them, where was their new homestead. She wondered how the site for the new farm had been chosen. Close to a reliable water source, she supposed, to trees. She thought how little she knew about survival, how little she knew of fundamental things; how even the points on a compass, the basics of direction, had stumped her as a child and sometimes still did, requiring the resurrection of a mnemonic: naughty elephants squirt water, or never eat soggy waffles. Was it such a surprise that she had wandered off track, relying as she did on an injunction like never enter stinky washrooms to chart her course?”
My own wandering off track, my journeys, as a person, as a writer, into unknown and unfamiliar territory – both physical and metaphysical – have provided valuable perspectives without which Lightning would be a very different book, or perhaps would not have been written at all. So I am left concluding that while we may occasionally stray from the track, we never really leave it; because all our exploring becomes an opportunity to return to our origins and, as Eliot observed, to finally understand those places properly.