The language of astonishment: on being bilingual

I’m republishing here today a meditative essay of mine looking at how the experience of being bilingual, as well as my family history, has influenced my work.

(This essay was first published in Explorations, A Journal of French-Australian Connections, Number 50, June 2011, and subsequently republished at http://languageofastonishment.pressbooks.com/ )

 

Towards the end of Russian-French writer Andrei Makine’s hauntingly beautiful novel of childhood, memory and divided loyalties, Le testament français(1995), the narrator Alyosha, who all his young life has been shuttling between the visceral reality of his Russian Siberian childhood and his French grandmother’s poetic evocations of her past and her old country, has a sudden slip of the tongue which for a moment puts him in a disorienting position: that of being literally between two languages, between French and Russian, and understood by neither. But it is that very moment which transforms his life and his understanding of himself and his literary ambitions. The gap between the two languages which as a dreamy child he simply accepted and as a rebellious teenager he reacted against, is not what he once thought it was—a frustrating barrier to understanding or a comforting bulwark against reality, depending on his mood at the time. No, it is something far stranger and much more exhilerating: a prism through which everything can be seen and felt even more clearly, sensually and intensely, and not only because with two languages at your disposal, you have even more opportunity to ‘nail’ the world, as it were. It is because that between-two-languages phenomenon common to all bilingual people is actually a striking metaphor for the gap that exists between language per se and lived, sensual reality for all human beings. And it is in that gap that literature itself is born: literature, which in Makine’s beautiful words is un étonnement permanent devant cette coulée verbale dans laquelle fondait le monde: a never-ending astonishment in the face of the flow of words in which the world dissolved. (Le testament français, Mercure de France 1995, page 244.) And it is that very ‘in-between’ that universal ‘language of astonishment’ which will turn Alyosha into a writer, and by extension Makine himself, who included many autobiographical elements in the novel.

When I first read Le testament français, in the year in which it first appeared, and the language in which it was written—French–(the English translation, with the same title, appeared in 1997) I had already been published in Australia for five years, with several novels already in print. I was already aware subconsciously of many of the things Makine writes about. But I was immediately and viscerally struck by Le testament français. Makine had put his finger unerringly on the pulse of the bilingual writer; he had expressed perfectly something most of us knew and struggled with but I for one had never expressed quite so clearly, though I knew that my background and divided loyalties informed practically everything I had written, even those works which had nothing whatever to do with bilingualism in content, style or theme.

I write very differently to Makine, and in a very different field to his adult literary fiction. Though I have written three adult novels, the vast majority of my work is fiction for young people: children and adolescents. It is an area I much prefer, for all kinds of reasons, but principally because it is the area in which I can most express myself, in which I feel most free, whose very constraints in terms of what may or may not be permissible due to readers’ ages mysteriously allows my imagination a great deal more latitude, invention, freshness and subtlety than would be the case in adult fiction. Within young people’s fiction, I have written in all kinds of genres, from mystery novels to fantasy novels, family sagas to ghost stories, thrillers to love stories, historical novels to graphic novels. But the element of the fantastic, in one way or another, has been an abiding feature of my work. And now, after reading that book and thinking deeply about what it raised,  I began to see that my own abiding interest in the fantastical, ever since my earliest childhood: in fairytales, legends, myth, as well as modern fantasy, was in itself  not only a personal choice, because I was that way inclined and always had been. But also because the journey between worlds, the sojourn in strange places, and the sudden irruption of a different, disturbing reality into the everyday which is at the heart of fantasy was actually also at the heart of my own lived experience.

 

I was born into a long, tumultuous family history. A history which at least on my father’s side we knew very well, stretching back through the centuries, from the peasant villages of western France to emigration to Quebec as some of the first people to settle in ‘New France’, through centuries of Quebec life to the spectacular return to France in the early twentieth century as very rich and reckless dual nationals of the haute bourgeoisie. It was a history that was a mixture of grand tragedy, thrilling romance, Grand Guignol horror and high farce, and it was  always more than a bit player in all of our lives. The dead jostled the living, in our understanding of the world; the mad, the bad, the sad, the brave, the good, the cruel, the powerful, the poor wore our features, and answered to our names. Passionate love and murder and suicide and treachery and madness and  acts of courage and of cunning were all common currency in this history of ours, which crossed over often into the history of the countries my various ancestors lived in. And throughout the twentieth century (and beyond!)it has continued to unfold in instalments action-packed, terrifying, ridiculous, disturbing and exciting by turns.

We were always in the midst of drama, some a direct result of the past, others new episodes that would in turn generate their own echoes. People to whom I’ve told even a fraction of the extraordinary stories engendered by my family have said to me that one day, I must write them  down. They’re thrilled by it all; they say, No wonder you became a writer! But what often people fail to understand is that , for a child, and especially a child who tends to be more of an observer, such as young writers en herbe tend to be, such tumult can be fatal to peace of mind and even to the growing of separate identity. It can actually paralyse your faculties of observation and clarity, which you need in order to transform powerful emotions into good writing. In order to escape, to protect yourself,  you can only retreat, at the risk of being labelled a selfish dreamer, an emotionless blank, a weird changeling in the warm human world…

Perhaps I was just such a changeling. Perhaps my own destiny, as a child born to carry straight on with the quarrels and loves of a self-absorbed French family was irrevocably changed when first, I was born on the other side of the world, in Indonesia, where my parents were working; then, second, because of ill health, I was left as a baby with my paternal grandmother in France for four years, and did not see my parents or sisters in all that time. My grandmother, a great beauty with a turbulent past, was from a world that to me seems as mythically poetic as the past of Alyosha’s grandmother Charlotte Lemonnier seems to him. She had a fund of stories of that world, suitably glossed for a child’s ears, and one of my greatest delights was to listen to her or my aunts, her daughters, tell stories about the glamorous people in the elegant photo albums that filled one of the family heirloom cabinets in her bedroom. The Toulouse apartment where they lived, filled with the gracious and gorgeous relics of the past, its wardrobes crammed with evening dresses and furs and hat-boxes, was like a memory capsule of the vanished family fortune and long-ago histories of its more celebrated members, a place where a child could dream and dress up and imagine fairytale destinies. But it was also a space where I was the only and very cossetted and petted child in the house, the embodiment of the future, and with my grandmother, one of the twin centres of this very feminine world.

My grandfather was still on and off a part of my grandmother’s life; but their differences and a difficult history had made them drift apart so that he was away for long periods in his other world, one I never knew and still know of now only in very small hints. A world where he did not have to live up to the protocols and constraints of the gilded class into which he had been born, where his own troubled past could be forgotten, a world in which he felt more himself, though he was not the kind of man who would ever have put it like that. Elegant, impulsive and with a not-so-hidden streak of violence, he was not an analytical type, and was also no worshipper of the past; indeed, quite the contrary. On his infrequent visits back to the apartment, he brought a disturbing breath of masculine havoc with him, and a reminder that the past had also contained much darker things than the golden memories evoked by my grandmother in her stories. I was afraid of him; and also fascinated by him. I’d been so young when I left Indonesia that I didn’t remember my father at all, but I knew, from looking at photographs, that he looked very like his father, my grandfather, though I also knew that they didn’t get on.

All this vanished almost overnight when my parents came back from Indonesia, and the next stage of my border-crossing, changeling existence began. Suddenly I was no longer the only child, but the third of four children; suddenly I had to adapt to the rediscovery of my father and mother. We were not together long in France though; my father had been offered a new contract to work overseas again, this time in Australia. And this time, I would go along with them, with my second older sister Beatrice and my little sister Camille, while my oldest sister Dominique, who was on the cusp of high school, would take my place in my grandmother’s and aunts’ lives as the young centre of their lives.

I knew no English at all when we arrived in Sydney. I was five, ready to start school, and with Beatrice, who did know English, I dutifully trotted off. I don’t remember much at all about that first year in Australia. And I don’t think it’s because I was traumatised—from what my mother tells me, though she was worried I’d be upset, in fact I took to school very happily and babbled away in French and broken English to anyone who would listen, seemingly unconcerned with the strangeness of it all, and soon had several friends. Rather, I don’t remember that time because I didn’t have the words in which to ‘dissolve the world’ and fix my memories. Memory itself is dependent on language, and it is why we do not remember, as a general rule, our pre-verbal babyhood.

But I do very clearly remember that first English-language book I read by myself, as I mentioned; the Little Golden Book which recreated for me, in this new language, fairy stories I’d already heard and read, in my own mother tongue. For me, it was like a version of the feelings Alyosha has when he realises that the stories his grandmother tells him could be told in French, or in Russian, equally, because they are at the junction of the two, told in that ‘language of astonishment.’ And the fantastic is par excellence the discovery of astonishment, of surprise, of the strange, dislocating everyday reality in an unexpected way. Little wonder then that it was that element that spoke so deeply to me, why I took so to the whole idea of fairyland, of the otherworld in my reading. And the discovery of the extraordinary range of fantastical children’s fiction in English was one I made by myself; for as my parents had come to English as adults, they were not familiar with English-language children’s books. We had many books at home in French: rows of Tintin and Asterix and Babar and Bibliothèque Rose editions of the Comtesse de Ségur and Bibiliothèque Verte editions of Paul Berna and lots of 19th century adventure novels, like those of Dumas, Féval, Gautier, Hugo. I read them all, some of them many times over; but the English-language books I found for myself in the public library or the school library were very special to me because I came across them by myself. I was always attracted to titles that breathed of magical possibilities. The world beyond the wardrobe, in the cracks of the floor,  through a river, across the sea, in the hollow tree, through the looking-glass: it beckoned me. It offered space and time. Possibility. More than that, it offered the chance of transformation, so that one could re-emerge into the everyday world re-invigorated, newly ready to cope, understand, and overcome.

My parents never intended to stay more than two or three years in Australia; Dad always had it in his mind to get a job back home. But that didn’t happen; the contracts kept being signed, and we settled into a shuttle of Australia for the two or three year period of each contract, with a stay of several months back in France at the end of each. It became our way of life, this moving between countries, continents, and languages; and though Beatrice soon rejoined Dominique back in France for high school, the rest of us(including the three youngest born in Australia, Louis-Xavier, Gabrielle and Bertrand)stayed here. English-speaking at school, we were not supposed to use it at home, and didn’t, with our parents; but soon evolved, between siblings, a kind of private language, a franglais, or rather frangarou, as I’ve coined it now to evoke Australian English: an in-between patois that twisted and melded and that no-one else would understand. That too now I see fed into my apprehension of the world as a multi-dimensional thing, a reality that could be disturbed, whose known layers could be peeled back to reveal something else, something unexpected, familiar and foreign all at once. The languages coined by fantasy writers are no more strange than the weird mixtures spoken between children who are growing up with more than one language deeply embedded in them..

I was soon writing as well as reading stories. Head down in a book, or nose up in the air, dreaming; or bottom up, scribbling interminably: for me, stories were literally indispensable, as absolutely necessary as breathing. Away with the fairies, I could hold and control and understand and know. Outside it, I was just a child, at the mercy of forces, both personal and impersonal, which swept me into constant, yet unpredictable turmoil. But right from the start, the stories weren’t just private, not just written for myself; I had an audience in mind, the audience of my siblings. We younger five especially were very close; our parents’ fears about the cultural difference of Australia, and their own difficult war childhoods, meant that they did not allow us to do the kinds of things our Australian school friends could do as a matter of course. I’ve often read in the reminiscences of fellow Australian writers that they had a freedom in their childhoods that children today lack, hovered over as they are by anxious ‘helicopter’ parents. Well, in our case, we had more that ‘hovered-over’ experience; not for us bike rides down the creek or jaunts by yourself into the city. During the week, we trod familiar paths to school and back again; after school and on weekends,  we stayed generally within the—quite extensive–confines of the garden and the house. However, our parents did not attempt to program our days. We were thrown very much on our own resources, especially as there was no TV allowed in the house. And entertaining yourself often meant having to entertain the bored younger ones as well; you couldn’t just bookworm all day or you’d run the risk of armed revolt, both from siblings and parents. Telling stories—or rather writing them—was a good compromise. I’d be doing what I wanted, and still escape into other worlds; but also keep the family peace. More exciting, I could actually take other travellers into those strange and magical worlds of the imagination.

Sometimes, we children would sit under a big table in the living-room that we’d covered with a large dark pink velvet curtain that hung all the way down, making the space beneath like a kind of dimly-lit tent. In this space my younger brothers and sisters sat while I played Scheherazade, spinning as many stories as I could. Though I didn’t know it, I was learning not only the storyteller’s vocation, but also the craft of the writer, because there were times when my stories fell flat and I had to quickly change them, and build up suspense and a sense of style. I couldn’t just go, And then this happened and then this.. because the audience would rapidly get bored and one brother would start pinching one sister or vice versa and the resulting brawl would make our parents come running.

Sometimes, though, it wasn’t a shared experience. One of my ways of coping with boring or uncomfortable situations was to imagine myself elsewhere. I could look at a stone, or a piece of wood, or anything really, focus on it till I felt as if I could crack its essence, and emerge into that parallel reality I’d grown to love deeply. It was an actual physical reaction, this sensation of being in another world: a kind of dreamy dissolving of the limbs, a swimming of the head, and yet a great clarity of mind, and a delight that was piercingly sweet.

This was possible anywhere; but even more so when on holidays we were back at our house in the rural south-west of France, west of Toulouse. The house, that had been renamed by our father La Nouvelle Terrebonne, after the original Terrebonne, the long-lost family mansion in Montreal, was a centuries-old place that with its nooks and crannies and secret places seemed to me to hide many different passages to the otherworld.  In that enchanted Narnia-like space, everything was extraordinary. It was a house my parents were happy in and relaxed, and from where we children could roam into the countryside, free of the anxious worrying which  in Australia kept us to our immediate surroundings. It was a good-fairy kind of house, the sort that is deeply loved by all who live in it, but that nevertheless had many strange, mysterious and even frightening stories associated with it. Stories of the haunted red room, where a young man had hung himself, a hundred years before; of the well, where a witch had been thrown, centuries ago; of the enormous elm tree outside my parents’ bedroom window, planted by one of Louis XIV’s ministers. The stairs creaked, the attic was spooky, the cellar dim and creepy; there were storage antechambers to every room. Each of these storage rooms had its own strange cargo: a huge oak wardrobe full of old fur coats, including my great-grandmother’s Canadian wolf-skin coat; pottery jars full of goose and duck confit in the winter; an old wicker doll’s pram with my aunt’s doll in it, sporting a wig made of her own, blond childhood hair; and in another, the baskets brought back by my parents from Indonesia, full of red and gold and green and gold costumes, filigree jewellery, and two sinuous plaits of black hair, wigs made, so my mother told us in a thrillingly bloodcurdling tone, by cutting off the hair of corpses.

In Australia, I’d scribbled and told stories of fairies and knights and monsters. But  in La Nouvelle Terrebonne, and the rural world beyond it, we discovered the actual homes of those fairies and knights and monsters. We headed out on our bikes to neighbouring villages, past deep rustling woods, fountains and castles and ancient churches; we went to school in the little village school across the road where they still had ink bottles and slates; we found eighteenth-century books on the rubbish tip and picked cherries and apricots and greengages and figs in our own parkland. Looking back on it, and now that the house has long been sold on, there is a golden Le Grand Meaulnes nostalgia about it, an enchanted space which stayed forever not only in my own heart, but those of all of my family. We sometimes visit the village just to look at the house; and my mother told me recently, that of all the many houses she’d lived in in her life, all over the world, La Nouvelle Terrebonne was the only one she ever had dreams about.

Of course, for a budding writer, an enchanted space like that is very important. Stories don’t need to be looked for; they are thick on the ground, in the air. But if that space is only chronologically a small part of your childhood, then you must also find stories wherever you are. And that’s how a writer’s mind works—you see stories everywhere. Back in Sydney, we might be more restricted than in the village, but there were still lots of magical stories to be found, even in our small radius. Coming home from school, we passed a house on the corner that was covered in vines and creepers, its garden full of roses. A couple of elderly sisters owned it, and often in the afternoons they were out in the garden in flowery flowing dresses and girlish hats. One had dyed her hair lilac, the other pale blue; to me they looked just like the good fairies in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty film, and we used to call their place the ‘Sleeping Beauty house’. Or there was the old lady who lived in the block of flats next to our house. Her late husband had been something important in India and her beautiful apartment was crammed with such things as a jewelled sword and a whole family of carved ivory elephants, arranged in a row from the large to the tiny. Once she took us for a ride in her ancient, magnificent Rolls Royce which scarcely ever poked its nose out of the garage. Though she was a tiny woman, she navigated the roads with great aplomb, sitting on a cushion at the wheel of the vast car that to me felt like a royal carriage in a picturebook.

I was always doing that as a child—transforming the world with the ‘language of astonishment.’ It didn’t even need to be as glamorous as a Rolls Royce or a fairytale garden to be turned into something magical. That technique I’d learned, about abstracting myself into imagination, came in very handy indeed-in maths lessons, long sermons, school assemblies, on unwilling bushwalks at the Blue Mountains block my parents bought; and just hanging around at home on a rainy day. My sister Camille said to me once that what she most remembers of her childhood is being bored; and that amazed me. Because boredom was something that I don’t associate in the least with my childhood; many other emotions, yes. But boredom, never. I was on journeys all the time, in my mind; whether in books written by other people, my own stories, or daydreams. Always escaping into other worlds…

As a child, though, the fact that even in reality I lived in two worlds—a French one at home, an Australian one at school—did not strike me as unusual, intriguing, or weird. It was just what life was like. I spoke in French to my parents, frangarou to my siblings and my diary, and English to my classmates and the exercise book I kept for my stories. I didn’t wonder at it, back then. I just switched effortlessly without thinking about it, just like the child Alyosha in Le testament francais. Yes, there were certain things I didn’t like, about times when the worlds collided, like the fact our sandwiches were different to our classmates’ or the truly cringe-making experience of the teacher picking me out of the class, saying to the rest of them, ‘Sophie’s native language isn’t even English and she writes it better than any of you!’ Yes, I might dream of having blond hair as well as magic powers(one of the characters I created as a child, Princess Alicia, had both!) But mostly, the differences didn’t worry me. I was simply hardly even aware I was different. Was I French? Was I Australian? I didn’t know and didn’t care. At home, my parents were always enjoining us never to forget we were French; at school we were always having it reinforced that this was Australia. At home, my parents sometimes talked about ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in disparaging terms; outside of home you sometimes heard disparaging—or conversely—adoring– remarks on the French, both of which surprised and confused me. But it didn’t really cause any conflict in me, as a child, it just seemed like one of those boring things that adults thought about but I didn’t. My mother would sometimes say, ‘Why are you always writing make-believe stuff? Why not write about what you know?’ but I had no interest at all in writing about my actual experiences, which to me were much too humdrum. Even if I was writing about the ‘real’ world it was always set in places I’d read about. Never places where I’d actually lived.

That all changed in my teens. I still loved fantasy but went from wanting to write dashing adventurous tales to dreamy meditations and mystical poetry which tried to express everything I felt about the mysteries of life. But I also became intensely self-conscious about the two worlds I lived in every day. Became aware that it wasn’t ‘usual’. I started questioning. Rebelling. And that meant challenging my parents, because it was the school culture—the cool Aussie teen culture I really wanted to belong to in those years. Like Alyosha in Le testament français, I really wanted to ‘expiate my marginality’ in the merciless ‘mini-society’ of adolescence. So I read mostly in English, at least where I could be seen, and my diary and my stories were always written in English, though I didn’t quite dare speak to my parents in anything other than French. When we went back to France on holidays, I took to calling myself ‘Australian’, to the sardonic jokes of my relatives who took all this teenage hoity-toitying much less seriously than my parents did.

And I laboured incessantly to keep my worlds strictly apart, impermeable to each other, an effort constantly frustrated by my father’s mischievous antics: for instance, I remember mortifying expeditions to the beach in the early morning—avoiding the very hot sun–and Dad, wearing on his head a clean but very shabby handkerchief knotted at the corners,  speaking loudly to us in front of the surfies I’d hoped to impress, and who would then, I just knew, dismiss us as a bunch of ridiculous wogs.  And neither of my parents always refused to bow to our pressures to hide, or reinvent themselves as Australians, New or otherwise. Stiff-necked in their pride, and determined to teach us a lesson in identity, they made us, instead, toe the line, and refused to change.

But at school it wasn’t always plain sailing either. Occasionally my wish to belong ran up smack bang against visceral feelings, such as in the mid-70’s when there was one of those periodic anti-French-nuclear-testing episodes which pepper the memories of many French Australians. Just as in the 90’s, the whole issue was personalised in a quite inappropriate way, with local French people targetted with things such as mail bans, and rude comments in the papers that appeared to make no distinction between an attack on French Government policy and the French themselves. My parents were up in arms: and though I shared my school friends’ anti-nuclear stand, it stuck sharply in my throat that we should be targetted in this way, and that even people I liked thought it OK to make sweeping generalisations about French people. But that was a rare if uncomfortable episode. Mostly, it wasn’t the fact of being French that caused me any angst; it was more a case of not being ‘mainstream’. Being a ‘frog’ was rather better than being a ‘wog’–there were many more romantic cliches attached to it–but most people outside those who knew us personally thought we were ‘wogs’ anyway, because of our olive skin and dark hair; so that made no difference.

But though I tried so hard to be a real Aussie, I began to see after a while that there were advantages in my unusual situation. Adolescence is often the time when budding writers, bilingual or not,  first learn that the storyteller has a special place, even amongst the cool groups, even amongst the scary types. And the skills they learn in the jungle of adolescent society not only help them to survive it, but can be carried right through into adult life and the honing of the writer’s craft. And so I soon realised that quite a lot of my schoolmates were actually interested in France, and Frenchness. To them, it was a glamorous other world, and they never tired of hearing stories about it and our periodic disappearances there. I began by recounting fairly straightforward stories of our holidays, of people we knew, of the family; and then expanded, embroidered, taking in stories I’d read, and ‘remembering all kinds of things that hadn’t happened,’ as my husband calls it. I wrote a good deal of it down, too. And as it does for Alyosha, France became for me material for storytelling, and gave me an unexpected cachet amongst my peers, especially in the last two or three years of high school, when peer-group pressure is towards individualism and not melting into the mass as it is in early adolescence.

But it also led me on to write not only about France, but about my life in Australia too. And not only focussed on me, either. I started keeping voluminous notebooks of observations of people I knew or had briefly come across or seen from the windows of the train on my way to school. I imagined how their lives might proceed in the future. I wrote down columns of descriptions of places and objects, for the sensual world, which I’d observed so closely in childhood through a fantastical prism, became ever more sharply important to me as a teenager. Going on several holidays to northern NSW—my first real contact with rural Australia outside of the books I’d read set there—I was utterly fascinated by its village life. At sixteen, I wrote an impressionistic short story called ‘Sketches’, about the lives of people in one small timber-milling village. To me, that place was as exotic as something I’d read about in John Steinbeck’s novels or Chekhov’s plays; but it also had an odd familiarity, not only because it was Australia but also because of its occasional, unexpected similarities with rural France and the village we’d known. Yet there wasn’t a single mention of France in this story, and I didn’t bring in my own experience at all. It was rich material for the ‘language of astonishment’, and it’s one of the things I wrote at that age which still remains with me. Indeed, Sketches eventually morphed into my very first novel, The House in the Rainforest. (UQP 1990).

Was I French? Was I Australian? I still wasn’t entirely sure, despite my efforts to fit in. But I wouldn’t have answered at that point as I might have done in childhood, ‘Who cares?’ I did care. Part of me wanted to reject France, to pretend I could only speak English. But another part refused point-blank. It was all part of the painful chrysalis process of adolescence. Every teenager asks ‘who am I?’  In my case, like that of so many others, it was complicated by the fact of those two worlds, that’s all. And as I wrote my way through mystical Celtic-flavoured poetry and Steinbeckian realism and French fancies and Russian-inspired sagas, I was also making my way through those questions without even knowing it. When I left home soon after leaving school—the strains between my two worlds had become too much—I took the big step of becoming an Australian citizen, something that my parents, who never came as migrants but on work contracts, had never encouraged. It caused a stir in the family. I was deemed to have chosen, to have turned my back on France(though I still had my French citizenship.) I knew they’d see it that way, though consciously I’d never intended it. But unconsciously? I don’t know. It was confusing, and all mixed up with the fights I’d had with my parents, or more particularly, my father, over our very different expectations about my post-school life. But leaving home actually meant moving in with my eldest sister Dominique who had come to Australia after she’d finished university. And she was much more French than I was, because she had spent her entire adolescence and early adulthood in France. Living with her, I couldn’t have escaped from the French side of me even if I’d tried! Not only that but I’d become very interested in languages generally—not only did I enrol in French at university, but also a range of ‘English literature’ subjects which in fact weren’t English at all—Middle Welsh, Old Norse sagas, and Anglo-Saxon. All, as you note, fodder for the ‘fantasy’ side of me, the side that also sent me to weekly Irish classes at the Gaelic Club in Surry Hills. But also fodder for that ‘language of astonishment’–the writing voice I was groping towards.

So I went to uni, patchily, and to work, patchily too, and wrote and wrote, very assiduously. At school, I’d never really tried to send anything out. Now I began blizzarding magazines and newspapers with ideas, outlines, finished pieces. I pestered my sister and her friends to read my work and offer advice. I borrowed umpteen books on how to get published and sent my verse to poets whom I’d read at school and admired—AD Hope, Judith Wright, and later, Les Murray. I will always be grateful for the generosity with which they responded to the naïve young enthusiast with her palimpset poetry modelled on ancient forms. AD Hope in particular went way beyond the call of duty, critiquing lines and giving advice, not just once, but three times. That was an important experience—my first exposure to the idea of a community of writers, and of the continuity of literature, too, as older, more experienced and sophisticated writers pass on hints and encouragement to a new generation. It’s something I’ve been mindful of myself, passing on those things, as my status has changed over the decades from ’emerging’ to ‘established’, and I get letters—or rather, emails, these days!–from naïve newbies myself.

But it took years, many more years than I’d have cared to imagine, as an impatient eighteen year old, to go from the occasional short piece in a student newspaper or the occasional poem in a local magazine, through short stories accepted for magazines, newspapers and anthologies, and through many rejections of the first two novels I wrote, to that magic moment when I got the letter which told me that an editor actually wanted my book. Lightning struck twice for me that year; for only a few months after getting that letter, I got another, from a different publisher, accepting another novel of mine. Both were published the same year, in 1990.

The first was The House in the Rainforest, that very realistic Australian drama with not a skerrick of Frenchness  in it; the other was Fire in the Sky, my first children’s novel which combined my love of the fantastic, of history, and which from the start melded France and Australia, past and present, as a modern French-Australian family is confronted through a time-slip with events in medieval south-west France. Domi and Tad in that novel have elements of myself at their respective ages—pre-pubertal, enthusiastic Domi, who doesn’t think or care about questions of belonging; and surly, frustrated teenage Tad, who’s uneasy in his own skin. But Kate in the first novel, though her background is nothing like mine, does carry elements of  my life, especially that after leaving home. By the time I wrote those books, in my late 20’s, I had still not answered that abiding question: Was I French? Was I Australian? But it no longer preoccupied me as it had done in adolescence. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, as it had been the case back in childhood. It was just that I’d decided it was a lesser question than the ones that had become much more important to me: was I really a writer? Did I really have an original voice that people would want to listen to? Or was I just kidding myself and day-dreaming again?

Being published, especially with two such different books in the very first year, settled those questions very satisfactorily indeed! But some of the reaction to those first books also re-opened those old questions of identity. My background was mentioned in reviews, and as time went on and more of my books for young people were published, they started appearing on lists of multicultural children’s literature. I was asked to speak at conferences on ‘writing from another culture’ and asked questions about what it was like to write in a language that wasn’t your mother tongue. And I found myself both welcoming and resenting these things. Just as in those long-ago primary school classrooms, I hated to be hauled out in front of everyone as some kind of demonstrative specimen. I squirmed at awards ceremonies focussing on ‘multiculturalism’, feeling I was getting stuck in a ghetto. But equally I didn’t want to pretend that it didn’t matter at all, that I’d come to this country without any English. Meanwhile, going back to France periodically, as I continued to do as an adult, meant that I could not clothe that part of my identity in either a rosy glow or a black veil, but had to deal with its reality.

Slowly, I came to grips with the idea that I was simply a hybrid. The answer to the question, was I French, was I Australian? was: both. And neither. I was in an in-between stage, unlike my parents,or my children. And I probably always would be. My parents never thought of being Australian; my children were, naturally. Though they acknowledged their heritage, it did not trouble them at all. It still did trouble me, a little. I was glad of my acceptance in Australia—as time went on and my books grew ever more varied in scope and genre, the ‘multicultural’ tag was no longer automatically attached to them—but I longed for my books to be published in French, in France. But that did not happen for many, many years: it appeared that though French publishers were mildly interested in Australian fiction, it was only of the kind that was ‘exotic’, i.e recognisably Aussie. An author with a French name writing in English about frangarous like Domi and Tad, or even true blues like Kate in The House in the Rainforest, was clearly not high on the agenda. Perhaps it was confusing. Perhaps it was deemed not exotic enough. In any case it wasn’t until 2010 that a book of mine appeared in French. And even then it was one I’d written under the pseudonym of Isabelle Merlin! But by then things had changed for me, and instead of being troubled by this as I might once have been, I found it amusing, for the last trace of that self-consciousness has quite gone.

For it’s one thing to feel you’ve answered a question. It’s quite another to feel comfortable with the answer. When I first read Le testament français, back in 1995, I had already accepted the fact of my hybridity, but I still wanted somehow to pin it down, analyse it, worry at it. Makine’s novel, with its extraordinary evocation of the essence of bilingualism and how it affects a budding writer, struck deep echoes in me. Because it linked those questions—the bilingual identity, the writer’s identity—and answered them with great simplicity and yet great depth. At the very end of the novel, in a spine-tingling and pitch-perfect twist, Aloysha discovers something about his mother which will not only show the past in a new light, but also propel him into the real discovery and mastery of the ‘language of astonishment’ by exploring that past and making it live again. The novel ends with the words: Seuls me manquaient encore les mots qui pouvaient le dire (Le testament français, page 309): Only the words with which I could express it were missing… And as the young man, on the cusp of becoming a writer, walked out of the pages and into this reader’s memory, I knew that was precisely what had happened to me, as a young writer. I had gone looking for those words; and I had found them. And ever since then, that knowledge has been with me. I don’t need to labour those questions of identity any more. The language of astonishment has become my native tongue.

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Artichoke Fields–a memoir piece

Following on from last week’s family history piece, The Crystal Necklace, here’s another republished and slightly revised memoir piece, Artichoke Fields, coming from certain episodes in childhood, when I was around 12-13.

Around the time this piece is set: my father with me(at back, next to him) and four of my siblings, Camille, Gabrielle, Louis and Bertrand. Photo taken by my mother.

Artichoke Fields

It is a hot day in the seventies, and we kids are fighting quietly in the back of the car. Maman occasionally shoots glares at us in the rear-vision mirror, silently warning us to behave. Meanwhile Dad drives steadily, carefully, as if he is anticipating all kinds of possible dangers, as if years and years of driving have not cushioned him against the myriad possibilities of danger and catastrophe. When I am older, it comes to me that this is how he has lived his whole life, on the brink, never taking it for granted, trying to keep control of it yet jumpily aware of the knife-edge of life, of the unpredictable way in which, in a second, things can change forever. But at the time, his careful driving is merely another of the mix of traits, the shorthand of experience, which, together, make up “Dad”—this person who you accept naturally, as you accept your mother, or your brothers and sisters. As a child, you rely on signs, on the known, and somehow accommodate contradictions and complexities without really thinking about them.

But here we are, driving. The vinyl of the seats sticks to our flesh, so the too-close warmth of a brotherly or sisterly leg in the backseat of the Holden leads to under-the-breath quarrels about the most ridiculous things possible. It’s summer, and we are driving from our northern suburb into the semi-rural west of Sydney, near Blacktown. As we approach, Dad sits up more in his seat. Even though–or maybe because–he is city born and bred, he loves the country with a fervour born of happy memories of his great-grandparents’ place in the Aveyron. When he was a small child, he would go there for holidays, and he has told us many stories of it, his eyes misting with a regret which I didn’t quite understand at the time. Later, I see it is not only nostalgia, but something more powerful–a need to hold on to a good, simple thing within a wartime childhood booby-trapped with painful memories.

The good memories connected with this kind of place have transformed Dad, at the moment. He does not look anxious, or harried; his even, smoothly pale olive skin is unmarked by frowns. He says, “It’s astonishing, isn’t it, to see how hard these people work, ” and his tone is gentle,  wondering,  filled with the pleasure of contemplating the simplicity of work on the land. It is traditional for him to say this, here; yet always Maman nods, patiently, always we hear him without wondering at its repetition.

We stop in front of the house. It is a very simple fibro construction and we have only been further than the kitchen once or twice. But the house is unimportant. What is important is beyond it, in the flat fertile acres that surround the house, making it an island out of time, its plain Australianess an incongruity in the lavish Europeaness of cultivated fields. For here are not acres of wheat, or of the other large, full-scale crops we associate with this vast land; but the smaller, denser patches of hand-grown vegetables, in different seasons: lettuce and spinach in serried rows, tomatoes and capsicums and eggplants ripening in sunrise colours, and especially,  most especially,  the artichoke fields. There the artichokes stand, tall and fierce in their greens and purples, acres of them, their tightly-packed heads swaying on their strong stems. Some of them are already going to flower; and their perfume–a strong, sweet smell, like wild honey–fills the air. They are extraordinary, beautiful and wild as a Van Gogh painting. The sight of them always catches at my throat, so that even now,  years later,  I can see them,  smell them,  and wonder at the selectiveness of memory that will keep such pictures and not others. And, like a Van Gogh painting, if you don’t simply stand on the sidelines, admiring, but venture inside them,  the artichoke fields will reveal all kinds of unexpected things.

Here, in that childhood time, the farmers come to greet us, their sun-brown, wrinkled faces split by their smiles into a hundred tiny rivulets. I never learnt their names, and to me, at that age, they look agelessly ancient, like peasants in an old picture. They are small, both of them, both dressed in black: but he is lean and wiry, with crew-cut greying brown hair and sharp pale eyes, while she is round as she is high, her breasts like soft pillows under her shabby dress, her silver-and-black hair done up in a floppy bun, her eyes like lively brown birds in their nest of wrinkles. She is Maltese, he is Yugoslav. Dad, accustomed, at the building sites he supervises, to working with Balkan men insisting on their Croatianess,  or Serbianess,  or Bosnianness,  wonders at the farmer’s calm avowal of being ‘Yugoslav’–what does this show about his politics?–but does not press the point. But on the way home, he will say, “Hmm, say what you like, I’ve always found Yugoslavs difficult people to fathom. It’s really the extremity of Europe, you know. .” And I wonder at the need of adults, too,  for shorthand,  for second hand wisdoms.

But he finds the female farmer, the Maltese, very sympathetic. “Eh, paysan!” she says (‘Hey, countryman!’), or that’s what it sounds like to my delighted father. Her voice, high, distinctive and confident, is ageless, too; we have heard, on a record at home, Portuguese peasant girls singing in exactly the same kind of shrill yet in-key voices. Dad is immensely proud of it, preening under the accolade which she shrewdly–but not insincerely–gives him. Maman is rather more circumspect; not only is she a more detached observer of people, but she is also closer–only one generation removed–from peasant origins, and she has few illusions about it. “She’s a good saleswoman, ” is all she will say, later, when Dad, talking nineteen to the dozen about these wonderful salt-of-the-earth people, drives us back to our somnolent, rich suburb where the quiet he both craves and resists attacks his restless spirit like a physical pain.

Dad addresses the farmers in a mixture of languages: a bit of English, mixed with a little French, fragments of Italian he’s learned on building sites, and even a bit of patois, the Occitan-derived dialect of the Toulouse area, where he comes from. The farmers answer back in a linguistic mosaic too, and Dad is always particularly thrilled if they appear to understand some of the patois; he sees a connection between all kinds of European languages and to hear this confirmed, especially here, the homely patois under the alien sky, is a source of joy.

We walk with the farmers down the paths that lead away from the incongruous Australian house (where their only child, a daughter, sits eating biscuits in front of the television) and into the European preserves of the farm. Here, before you reach the hand-cultivated fields of vegetables, are neatly-arranged poultry runs, with chickens running about, and rows of hutches, where blink fat rabbits. There are no pets or superfluous things; in this setting, away from the house which diminishes them, the farmers are tough, witty, their tenacity written in their faces, with none of the irritated bewilderment which must surely seize them sometimes. I think of their daughter and how it must be for them all when they have to come up to the school. I think of it because it’s how I feel. When my parents come to my school, I am in shameful agony, hoping they won’t say the ‘wrong’ thing in the ‘wrong’ sort of accent. There are other people we know, Sicilians from rural backgrounds, whose attitude towards their educated children is humble, frighteningly so in fact. My parents aren’t like that, at all, they are better educated than I am and would soon cut me down if I tried to patronise them; yet still I cannot help fearing that they’ll say the wrong thing. So I wonder how these two, these farmers, and their daughter, must feel like, when they have to leave the artichoke fields and go to the school, or the supermarket,  or the myriad things one must do in this society. It makes me squirm, this thought, and so I turn away from it, and towards the fields. It never occurs to me back then, of course, that maybe it did not touch them, that the shame may only be in the minds of self-conscious children.

At first, we look in the hutches, say,  “Isn’t that one sweet?” and the farmer grins at us, showing crooked teeth,  and says,  in her strongly-accented English,  “Good eating,  that one!” We are at the age, in the place and time where such statements appear callous; so we are silent, and ignore Dad’s I-told-you-so-smirk. He has often said we are becoming too soft, sentimental, Australian; Europeans are tough people who look reality in the face. You like lapin a la moutarde? Right, well then you must be ready to first catch your rabbit and kill it. Or to plunge your hands without disgust into the freshly-killed carcase of a chicken and make it into a dish. We are tenderhearted; but our feelings never extend to the nicely trussed, carefully jointed roast that appears on the table. . .

Now the farmer is walking in the artichoke fields, talking shrilly,  a mixture of salty comment on current events,  and wild praise of her vegetables. Her husband is silent (“Taciturn,  like all Yugoslavs, ” Dad is delighted to say) . But he smiles quite a bit, and touches the plants, gently,  as if he is greeting each. That, surely, is only my fancy. He and his wife are unsentimental, without frills or falsity, honest, as the French saying has it,  as ‘du bon pain’, good bread. But that,  surely,  is a sentimentality,  too; for I have heard Maman saying that these two never lose ‘le nord’,  always stick to what they know they want,  and are not above using cajoling or even a judiciously-placed marketing ploy to sell their vegetables. They are not doing this for fun, for ‘du folklore’: that is the mistake of urban people, throughout the ages. Simplicity is in the eye of the beholder.

Every so often, the farmer stops. She throws an arm out to her husband: yes, this one. He stoops, cuts the stem, throws the vegetable into the basket he is carrying. Dad keeps pace, asking the woman all kinds of questions. She answers with aplomb and humour, in her shrill voice, while her husband fills the basket and smiles what my mother would call a ‘corner’ smile; amused but enigmatic. We children follow behind with Maman, the smell of the big vegetables filling our nostrils with a heady odour.

We all love artichokes; some Sunday nights, that’s all we’ve eaten, an enormous tureen filled to the top with the boiled vegetables, served with vinaigrette on each person’s plate. The table would fill up with mountains of discarded leaves, plundered for their bit of sweet flesh, then put aside for the next one. There is something addictively wonderful about artichokes; the more and more frenetic peeling-back of leaves, till you get to the ‘straw’ inside, and peel that off as cleanly as a bandage, to reveal the succulent flesh of the heart. We ate the stems, too; the Blacktown farmers always sold us young, fresh artichokes, so that their stems were as tender as asparagus. Occasionally, we’d eat them with butter and garlic, or tomatoes. But the simple one, the boiled-and-vinaigrette ones was what we preferred.

We always lingered in those fields, dodging prickles, and in areas where the purple flowers were really out, the bees as well, maddened, as we were, by the heavy smell of the artichokes. Once, I remember, the farmer picked one of the flowers and gave it to me. The unexpectedness of the gesture surprised me, and for the rest of our time there, I couldn’t resist putting my nose as close as possible to the flower. I’ve always been sensitive to smells, finding them powerful evokers of emotion and place, and now, I try to think what it was that made this smell so heady. Roses smelt sweeter, muskier; vanilla smelt more homely and tender; the rich dark smell of roasting meat made me feel hungrier. This was a smell of almost-wildness, of something only just tamed, and only dimly understood, something whose discovery was concealed under layers of half-meanings. It was not the smell of careful, cultivated Europe, neatly arranged,  tamed and civilised,  the Europe of the mythologisers or the nostalgic. Rather, it was the smell of the Europe whose inheritance was mine, which seeped into me like instinct. A Europe–a France– not only of the mind or of the comfortable senses; but also one of the blood’s leap, of the pain of rejection. The France my father felt in exile from, the France my mother followed him from, despite her own rather less ambivalent feelings. A corner of Europe forever elusive, never quite pinned down, half-wild, half-tame, of heady,  unforgotten smell,  uncomfortable at times,  maybe never to be fully understood.

 

 

The Crystal Necklace–a family history piece

A few years ago, I wrote this piece about my paternal great-grandmother, Irma Mazars, starting with a meditation about the lovely rock crystal necklace, which along with a beautiful ebony cicada brooch, is something I inherited from her. I thought it might be interesting to revisit it here, slightly revised. And this time, with photographs..

Du côté de chez Irma ; or, The Crystal Necklace

The rock crystal necklace best shows its sheen and beauty on the skin, glittering in the hollows of the neck like raindrops lace the grass. A hundred years ago when it was new, there were little shards of bright bronze set in between the crystal stones, but these have long since dropped off, leaving patches of moss-green verdigris so subtly worked in that they look as if they were always meant to be there. When I take the necklace off at night, the skin-warmed stones run through my fingers, cooling as they splash into my palm: the lucent streamings of memory.

Once, the necklace had lain against the violet-scented, rice-paper neck of my great-grandmother, Irma Mazars, and I loved it much more than the diamonds she wore on her fingers. She had been given the necklace by my great-grandfather Louis Bos, long ago when she was young and he was her older, married lover. There was something rarer, more precious about the string of crystal than the harshly-sparkling rings: I called it “le collier de pluie”, to myself– “the necklace of rain.”  Unlike the banal diamonds, which had no imprint of time, it seemed to speak of its vanished age, the shining age spoken of so longingly by my haunted father; Irma’s world, the world known as la Belle Époque.

Irma as a young woman

La Belle Époque: the words themselves, in their nostalgic closure, made of that period an era beyond history, somehow: the last beautiful, stifling gasp of the nineteenth century before the dark twentieth had yet made its presence really felt. A luminous bubble, we imagined it as; a time when we could dream that neither national nor personal hatreds marred the steady harmony of people’s lives.

There was never any fighting at Irma’s place, nor any reheating of the high-smelling old quarrels which for several generations had made of my father’s paternal family history a space of both tragedy and comedy. Irma’s family, her space, seemed to me different: neither comedy nor tragedy, but something solid, well-planted, yet not smug or even respectable. There was peace and a kind of predictability, but of the kind that exists in enchanted places. It did not matter if we arrived early or late at her apartment; always, waiting for us on her nests of little tables would be pastel paper-lace boxes of sugared violets, candied roses, tiny icing-gilt cakes and syrupy sweet marrons glacés, crystallised chestnuts; and tin cups for us children, standing by slender-throated bottles filled with grass-green Sirop de Menthe and scarlet Grenadine cordials. For my parents and Irma herself, there would be the indulgences of eternal tipsy summer: either a potently home-made cherry Ratafia, a peach Rinquinquin or her favourite, Confiture de Vieux Garçon, Old Boy’s(or Bachelor’s) Jam: a layered confection so sugar-heavy with summer fruit and fiery brandy that the adults moved like stunned bumblebees after just a whiff of it. But always, something lovely for us: she was wonderful with children–kind but never patronising, full of indulgence but tough when she needed to be. She adored my father, her favourite grandchild, who had lived with her for a couple of years during the war; but she also loved his sisters, and she loved having us visit her. (And as I lived in early childhood with my grandmother, her daughter Zou, she had been quite a presence in my early life too) .

Her Toulouse apartment, bought with her own money and shrewd business sense, was full as a Fabergé egg: deep gold and scarlet curtains, comfortable furniture upholstered in fabric that seemed both old-fashioned and curiously modern; paintings of voluptuous deities and dark pictures of unknown harbours; lampstands shaped like flower-slim dancers,  varnished mahogany beds with naked cupids carved into the bedheads, and naked nymphs of all sizes on every available surface .In fact, there was more nakedness in her apartment than I’d ever seen anywhere, even in the museum: blandly beautiful limbs sculpted in the fine-grained white material Irma called ‘biscuit’. It rang like baked glass when you rapped a knuckle against a bare white thigh or surreptitiously slapped a smooth cold bottom. Our father would frown at us if he saw us lack in such respect; but Irma would smile, and tap his punitive hand with a bejewelled finger: “Georges, they’re children, after all!”

Irma pin-up!

There were more nymphs in the attic, packed away in boxes. Ah, the attic! Home not only of nymphs but troves of vanished splendour: camphor-and-lavender-scented chests full of hobble-skirted muslin dresses and rustling evening gowns, pale pink high-heeled kid shoes, silk stockings and cartwheel hats in round boxes, and we stared and laughed with excited joy as we rummaged through them and tried them all on. They might just as well have been relics from the age of Louis XIV, for all their exotic, strange magnificence; we simply could put no imaginative boundaries to a period when such fancydress was commonplace. In the chests were also menus and dance lists and old letters, done up in bundles with fine lacy ribbons tying them; the others ignored them, finding them dusty and dull, beside the rutilant rivers of rags, but I pored over them, imagining I would find an old ticket for the Titanic’s maiden voyage, or a secret letter from a lovesick prince. Once, we found Louis’ elegant sepia recipes for prize-winning cordials and tonics and punches: his family had made their solid fortune from the making and selling of drinks of all kinds, and in one corner, shrouded in dust, was a collection of engraved soft-drink bottles from the Bos factory. In another chest was a collection of old L’Illustration magazines: the first ones from 1900, the last just before the First World War. I savoured them all: the fashion parades, the travel notes from far flung colonies, the reports of train crashes and automobile shows and aeroplane trials, the excited reports on cinema and phonographs and electric light and forensic detection. L’Illustration was sure that progress was inevitable; it also showed me why Irma loved technology and gadgets, devoured articles on the space race and watched television devotedly.

On old photographs, Irma has a polished glamour: melting gaze, heavy hair, figurehead bosom under sculpted blouses, shapely body under her draped skirts.  Though the photos aren’t in colour, her eyes were blue, her hair as a young woman a rich, deep gold. There are no photos of her childhood; her

Louis Bos, successful businessman

parents, Aveyron dairy farmers, never took to photography, although she was their cherished only child. They had ambitions for her that went well beyond the farm; they ‘bled their four veins’ as the French saying has it, to buy her off-the-peg versions of Illustration models and braved chilly teachers to get her elocution classes. But she still grew up knowing how to milk cows and stuff geese and sell and buy land as well as powdering her face and decorating pretty hats and showing a trim ankle and speaking in a flutingly vulnerable voice. Much later, she was to slightly shock us children by her sharp irony and her readiness to return to peasant skills: I can see her with her soft white arms deep inside the cavity of a chicken, fingers deftly working away, releasing fugitive rumours of violet and lavender fragrance as she moved to and fro between the table and the sink, her rings and jingling bracelets in a glittering pile on the dresser. She never lost ‘le nord’, did Irma; she had no sentimentality and few illusions.

Irma was an eighteen year old apprentice milliner when she met Louis. He was nearly thirty years older than her, very much married, very much a paterfamilias. His social standing was very high, much higher than hers: not only was he a prominent member of a long-established wealthy business family in Decazeville but its Mayor for a while, then regional councillor and aspiring national politician (though he never made it to the national stage in the end, most likely because of his scandalous love life).

On Irma’s wall hung some old tinted photographs of Louis, in large, ornate Second Empire frames, like paintings: as a child, in a velvet suit, by his rocking-horse, his stare imperiously blue, his hair brushed painfully down; and Monsieur Bos, very much the respectable nineteenth century businessman in neat beard and smart suit, but still with that imperious blue gaze. Fashionably freethinking, a member of the Radical Party (which despite its fire-breathing name was more what people might call centre left, these days), he was also agnostic and a Freemason—at least until his deathbed. As well, though, Louis indulged the sentimental Catholicism and highly burnished respectability within his family.

Irma with her and Louis’ daughter, Marie-Louise

For him, Irma must have been both a breath of heady new century’s air–and the continuation of a well-upholstered tradition. He had soon safely installed her as his mistress in a smart new apartment in faraway Toulouse and bought her the lease on a millinery shop so that she could hold her head high and have no-one gossip about her as a ‘kept’ woman.

We may imagine that single motherhood was a heavy cross to bear in such a time; but Irma never showed any bitterness or regrets, and there was certainly nothing of the victim or the statistic about her. Her history was no shameful secret but was openly talked about. And she accepted it with humour and practicality; indeed, she took my mother aside, just before she and my father were married, and said to her(much to Maman’s sardonic indignation), “My dear Gisele, you must remember the nature of men, and not see too much!”

Irma’s and Louis’ only child, my grandmother Marie-Louise, familiarly known as Zou (and Mamizou to us children, later), grew up as the enchantingly pretty blond only child of a union that despite time and Louis’ incorrigibly-roving eye, never faded away. Louis visited his second family frequently, and idolised his pretty daughter. Every time he came, he brought the child and her mother boxes of pretty dresses and jewellery and flowers and comfits, and paid for many expensive studio photographs of Zou at every conceivable age, sometimes alone, sometimes with her mother, exquisite yet robust decorations that he kept with him. He was rewarded with Zou’s letters, written in unsteady curly writing on scented pale paper, which always began: Mon cher petit Papa. . . But all that time, Irma and Louis stayed unmarried to each other; Monsieur Bos had a respectable family and business life to maintain. In fact, some years after Zou’s birth, Louis’ seventh legitimate child was born! It was not until after Zou’s marriage to the glamorous and wealthy Robert-Rene Masson, my grandfather, that Louis’ long-suffering wife finally tired of his doings, threw him out and divorced him, and he was finally forced into dissolving his double life. So finally he became Irma’s lawfully wedded husband.

Louis in old age.

Louis died long before his daughter’s brilliant marriage shattered into a thousand wounding pieces after the traumas of World War Two. The last years of his life were spent held in the sweet protection of Irma. He no longer had any money of his own. So he was dependent on the tidy income Irma had made first from the millinery shop, then, when that was sold, from the cunning real estate investments she made. Louis was proud of Irma, as he was proud of Zou; perhaps he recognised in both of them the sound business sense he lacked himself. But he also considered himself tamed, not broken; and Irma’s final years with him were full of the comfortable irritation of his attempts at further gallant adventures. But he was also a devoted father and grandfather; my father speaks of him very fondly.

Irma’s parents had been heartbroken at first by their daughter’s state of sin. This was not what they had intended for their golden girl. But they were peasants, not vaporously respectable bourgeois; continuity, whether legitimate or not, was the important thing. So they welcomed first Zou, then Zou’s children. My father, escaping from the painful ambiguities of his parents’ later history, for ever after saw the holidays he had spent on the little Aveyron farm as not only his personal golden age, but a glimpse into a vanished national golden age. They were representatives of the true France, for him, eternally patient, enduring France. But Irma herself never spoke of them; she did not contradict her beloved grandson Georges when he waxed lyrical about the feeling of fresh pump water on his head in the morning, and the warm smell of milking cows, but tilted her head just like in the photos, that look I had thought of as showing the peasant toughness under the sculpted polish.

Now, I wonder if it was not that; but a kind of crystalline tenderness that lived à fleur de peau in my great-grandmother: just under the hollows where her raindrop necklace lay.

 

Postscript: Some years ago, after I wrote this piece, my father was contacted by an unexpected family member, whom he had never met before: a cousin on the Bos side who was the grand-daughter of Louis and his first wife! Curious about her grandfather’s double life, Françoise had done some research and found my father–and so he, and we, began to know something about Louis’ ‘other’ family.  As did she, in her turn. Old wounds had healed, and now it was time for the two sides of the family to get to know each other. 

Interview with Therese Walsh, editor of Author in Progress

12803300_10207051919154843_5638323324479667397_nSome years ago–I think it was back in 2008–I was invited to become a regular contributor to the international writing blog, Writer Unboxed, founded by US writers Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton two years previously. Their idea was to create a community of writers who would find guidance, support and encouragement in WU, as well as great advice and tips. That’s certainly proven to be the case, and Writer Unboxed is one of the most popular and respected writing blogs in the world today, garnering several awards as well as an ever-increasing list of followers, a very active Facebook and Twitter presence, and the hosting of a unique conference–or Unconference, as it’s titled!

And now comes the next step: a book which gathers together a great deal of individual and collective wisdom and advice from Writer Unboxed contributors and community. Author in Progress: A No-Holds Guide to What it Really Takes to Get Published (Writers’ Digest Books), is being released today, November 1 and will be available from online booksellers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc, as well as the Writers’ Digest shop. Edited by Therese Walsh, and with an introduction by respected author James Scott Bell, it features over 50 essays from novelists, editors, agents and contributors from the WU community. The book goes well beyond the usual run of how-to-get-published books: from discussing reasons why people want to write right up to post-publication issues, and much more in between. I’m delighted to say by the way that I have an essay in the book, which is called ‘Writer as Phoenix’, and is in the final section of the book.

And today, I’m delighted to celebrate the publication day of Author in Progress by featuring an interview with its initiator: writer and editor extraordinaire, Therese Walsh.

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Welcome to my blog, Therese! How did the idea for Author in Progress come about? What was your vision for the book, and how did that evolve as time went on?

Thanks for having me, Sophie, and for the opportunity to talk about Author in Progress.

The book came about after I met with Phil Sexton at the Writer’s Digest conference last summer (2015). He mentioned the idea of doing a book with them, and that took root with me over a month or so. I had a follow-up phone call with Phil, and he mentioned the freedom we’d have to do the type of book we wanted to do. After that, the idea for Author in Progress fell into place rather quickly, as I considered what I knew to be true about writing a book – because there are some things I always say when someone who is not yet published asks, ‘How did you get published? What did you do?’

The book is broken into parts, following the stages a writer will likely go through on the road to publication: Pre-writing considerations, the writing itself, critique-related topics, educational considerations, rewriting, perseverance, and releasing the project once you’ve served the work.

Author in Progress is a very different kind of how-to writing book, as it doesn’t assume that the journey ends when your book is published. And it offers the advice and experience of many different contributors. How did you go about gathering and editing contributions from so many people?

Assigning essays was much easier than it might have been, in part because Writer Unboxed contributors are exceptional to work with (I’m not at all biased!). I think the other reason it was relatively easy was because of the adaptability of the contributors, in that many could write to several stages of the book. That said, there was a certain magic to the match-ups and I’m particularly pleased with how that went; everyone delivered something about an issue that resonated with them personally.

In terms of gathering and editing, I created a deadline for essayists to turn in their work and that deadline was met almost without exception. I then read over each essay, and suggested revisions when I thought they might make the book stronger. I then did a final edit for clarity—adding headers—and correcting for typos. This is what was then submitted to Writer’s Digest and our in-house editor there, who took everything to the next level in terms of polish and readiness for publication.

Author in Progress is aimed not only at aspiring authors, but also authors who have already been published. What do you think authors at different stages of their careers could get from this book?

One of the things authors will be able to see is that the stages of story creation are cyclical, repeating with every book. Sure, you learn things early on that you apply to each book thereafter, but that doesn’t mean you don’t hit each stage in some way. We’ve included some articles under a header called ‘Eye on the Prize,’ which addresses how a topic (e.g. critique) becomes important in a different way when you’re a published author (e.g. accepting notes from an agent, editor, even readers). We also have boxes throughout the book marked as ‘Pro Tips,’ which, again, help to root the reader in the reality of why something is important if you’re to make a career of writing.

All that said, I think the larger reason published novelists might want a copy of Author in Progress is because when we’re in the middle of a project—or at the start of one—we sometimes forget that all of this is normal. The anxiety, the doubt, the block, the research pitfalls, the need to go deep with character (and how to do that), the need to continue to learn and grow (and what steps you might take to push to the next level). I think even published authors need to remember that we’re not alone, and that the angst is part of the process, too.

Is there any particular tip or bit of advice that you would offer an author starting out on the journey–and those a bit further along?

I would tell that author starting out and an author a bit further along something similar. Writing a book is tough at times. Many of us might say, ‘If I knew how long it would take, what it would ask of me, maybe I wouldn’t have finished… But I’m glad that I did.” Perseverance is one of the key ingredients for any author in progress, and so I’d tell both of those writers to keep going, and remind them that they are not on that road alone. Truly, they are not.

The book is closely associated with Writer Unboxed, the writing blog you founded some years ago with Kathleen Bolton, which has become prominent and respected in both the author community and the publishing industry. Can you tell us about the blog, and about the insights into authorship it has given you?

Writer Unboxed  is my writing family, and it’s my hope that we are other writers’ online family as well. We are dedicated to producing content daily about the craft and business of fiction on our website, but it goes beyond that with our Facebook community (5,000+ writers strong in a promo-free zone) and our Twitter feed (@WriterUnboxed). Our ultimate goal is to provide positive and empowering support for writers of any genre.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount about writing simply by being present for the day-to-day business of the site, but I think the most crucial lesson is that it is truly a cyclical process. You envision. You create. You revise. You learn the lessons the book is there to teach you. You serve the work. You release. Repeat. As someone who hasn’t always had an easy road myself, there’s a lot of power for me personally in seeing that this process is what it is. It’s the job of being an author. It’s not always easy. In fact, it can be grueling and draining and crazy making at times. But it is a wonderful and gratifying thing to be able to do this job—build stories, reach readers. Writer Unboxed has helped me persevere to do just that.

Thank you again, Sophie. Write on!

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Harry Ashton-Wolfe, true-crime writer of ‘the Golden Age’

ashton-wolfe-3For a bit of fun today I’m republishing a piece of mine that was first published some years ago, about Harry Ashton-Wolfe, an absolutely wonderful–and unintentionally hilarious!–true-crime writer of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the detective craze, in the 1920’s and 30’s. He inspired one of my own characters in The Case of the Diamond Shadow-and to all crime writers out there, he’s really worth rediscovering!

So here’s the article, below. Enjoy!

Harry Ashton-Wolfe

Some of my favourite book finds have come into my hands not by word of mouth or reviews or prior knowledge but by sheer chance: the eccentric jewel suddenly spotted amongst the lucky-dip gimcrack of  junk shop and school fete, car boot sale and charity shop shelf. And these days, very often in that virtual combination of all those venues, the Internet.

It was thus I made the serendiptous discovery of the priceless but sadly forgotten works of celebrity criminologist and true-crime writer of the 1920’s and early ’30’s, Harry Ashton-Wolfe. Browsing on the Net one day, looking up Conan Doyle sites with the vague notion of Sherlock Holmes appearing in a detective novel for young readers I was planning, I stumbled across a casual reference to a H.Ashton-Wolfe, writer of true-crime adventure bestsellers, who claimed to know not only Holmes’ creator, as well as the leading lights of the French Surete and Scotland Yard, but also just about every famous criminal and outlaw of the day!

Several hurried orders from second-hand bookshops later, I had built up a mini-library of Ashton-Wolfe’s books, with their gorgeously pulpy titles, such as Crimes of Love and Hate, The Thrill of Evil, Outlaws of Modern Days, and The Forgotten Clue. And I plunged into the addictive joys not only of the melodramatic and exotic cases recounted in racy prose, but the vain and boastful character of Ashton-Wolfe himself, which infused the stories with unintentional hilarity. So immediately engaging was this combination that I immediately dropped Sherlock in favour of a certain Philip Woodley-Foxe, whose adventures are legendary, not least to himself. No prizes for guessing who he was based on!

A marvellous combination of Action Man, cheerleader for ‘modern’ scientific detection, adventurous ashton-wolfemaster of disguise and shameless name-dropper, Harry Ashton-Wolfe doesn’t just recount the cases, he inhabits them. He’s an important part of investigating teams in Paris tracking down fiendishly cunning criminals, such as the Eurasian Hanoi Shan; he gets locked up and threatened with death by vicious gangsters; he is at the elbow of the greatest forensic scientists of the day, such as Edmond Locard of the Surete, and earlier, the legendary Alphonse Bertillon; he is allowed to peruse the ”secret archives” of the Paris Prefecture; by chance, he recognises a famous anarchist bandit, Jules Bonnot, as having once been his chauffeur; he dons disguises such as that of a Parisian apache or a Corsican bandit to infiltrate criminal rings(delightfully, his books sometimes include photographs of him in disguise, complete with picturesque hats and moustaches!)

Airily, he recognises that ‘It is rather strange, when I look back, to think how often I have found myself involved in events that later passed into history,’ (The Underworld—a Series of Reminiscences and Adventures in Many Lands), but he doesn’t let that slight improbability deter him in the least. Time after time, he’s in at the kill—helping to nail a vicious poisoner or uncovering a sensational tranvestite murder or catching a crook who’s passing off fake diamonds. He describes the most sensational murder methods—such as kittens whose claws have been tipped with deadly tetanus baccili; centipedes used as murder weapons; and in an echo of Edgar Allan Poe, an ape trained to kill! Rather scathing about most detective fiction—aside from Conan Doyle’s, to whom he dedicated Outlaws of Modern Days—he nevertheless uses every trick of sensational fiction, including catchy titles, breathless first-person narration, cheesy dialogue and moralising asides. He offers titillating portraits of famous murderers, gangsters and outlaws, and lovingly sketched examples of criminal wickedness. But there’s always a moral: not only are these bad people bad, but they will inevitably be brought to book by the superior methods of modern scientific crime-fighting. His touching faith in these methods—which he describes in detail in The Forgotten Clue– is such that he is convinced they will shortly put ashton-wolfe-2an end to all crime.

Mostly, he writes about modern cases(at least, from the 1890’s onwards) but in Tales of Terror—True Stories of Immortal Crimes, he looks at older real-life mysteries fictionalised by writers such as Alexandre Dumas: the Man in the Iron Mask, the Count of Monte-Cristo, the Affair of the Diamond Necklace…You get the distinct impression that he thinks modern scientific methods would surely have made short work of elucidating them!

So who was H.Ashton-Wolfe, this tireless go-getter chronicler of crime? In The Underworld he offers something of an  autobiography, and colourful it is too (sample chapter titles: The Episode of the Clairvoyant Countess’, ‘La Glu—Apache and Gentleman’; ‘The Motor Bandits’; The Blue Anchor Mystery’). He was born in 1881, of a Scottish father who had emigrated to New Mexico and who as a US soldier had participated in the historic final stand of the Sioux under Sitting Bull. His mother was an American, of half-Scottish, half-Spanish blood(Ashton-Wolfe makes much of this ”gipsy strain” which made him a ”wanderer, restless and ever seeking after excitement and novelty.”) Young Harry was born in London whilst his parents were on a visit there but he spent his childhood on the ‘prairies of Arizona and Colorado’—in The Forgotten Clue he also writes about how he was taught to ride and shoot there by “the red-skinned Sioux warriors, who, strangely enough, enjoyed showing a white boy their tricks”–then sent to school in Denver till the age of 14. He was then packed off to a boarding-school in Cannes, and thence to university in Heidelberg—giving him, as he points out, an unrivalled facility in three languages, and the love of travel, not to speak of European glamour to add to American derring-do.

But it’s a youthful holiday in Monte-Carlo that introduces him to his future career when, on nightly visits to the Casino, he befriends a ”dapper little Frenchman” , Monsieur Blanchard, who enlists his help in watching another gambler—an American named Big Jim Cowley. Of course, M. Blanchard turns out to be from the Surete, Big Jim is soon unmasked as a crook of the first order, and the adventure not only whets Ashton-Wolfe’s appetite for more excitement, but sees him eventually accepted as assistant to Dr Alphonse Bertillon, in Paris, working with him on many extraordinary cases. In this capacity, he also collaborates on occasion with detectives from Scotland Yard and the US. Later, due to his familiarity with foreign languages, he acts as ”interpreter to the civil and criminal courts” in Britain–in which capacity he appears to have written many of his books.

Perhaps he might have been able to retire though, for his books were best-sellers in the genre, going through many editions worldwide, and garnering glowing reviews: ‘Out-thrilling the thrillers’–‘Exciting studies in international crime’–‘Unsurpassed as a narrator of authentic crime stories’. The public’s appetite for true as well as fictional crime in the Golden Age of the detective novel was huge, and as well as his books, Ashton-Wolfe wrote articles for magazines such as The Strand as well as the true-crime magazines which flourished in the Golden Age of the detective novel. And his stories influenced other contemporary writers. For instance, ‘Sapper’, the creator of the Bulldog Drummond adventure series, was inspired by two of Ashton-Wolfe’s cases: the diabolical Hanoi Shan, and the anarchist bandits Jules Bonnot and Octave Garnier, for his 1929 novel,  The Temple Tower(as well as basing a character, Victor Matthews, on Ashton-Wolfe himself). And in a nice touch, Conan Doyle himself used a story recounted in Crimes of Love and Hate, about an Italian swindler who claimed to have created a death ray, as the basis for one of his Professor Challenger stories, The Disintegration Machine.

Ashton-Wolfe’s work was also the basis for a popular pot-boiler film, Secrets of the French Police(1932), where he is credited as writer. Other films may have been planned; but questions as to the authenticity of his recitals began to surface, and no others were produced. As well, with his style beginning to seem old-fashioned, his books started to fall out of favour, and eventually were forgotten so completely that not a single one remains in print.

Just how much—or how little–of his biography, let alone his claimed exploits, is authentic, I have no idea. Much of it, I suspect, needs to be taken with a fairly large grain of salt. Trying to find information that isn’t part of the persona Ashton-Wolfe built for himself is like trying to write on water. But it doesn’t really matter. For the books are truly wonderful period pieces, some of which  deserve to be reprinted in their full glory, cheesy photographs and all.

Speaking in Tongues: a guest post by Sophie Constable

Sophie Constable greyThe pleasure and challenge of not being restricted to just one language is a subject dear to my heart (and close to my experience!) so today I am delighted to publish on my blog a wonderful article by writer Sophie Constable about the situation for multilingualism in Australia.

Sophie Constable has worked as an Antarctic researcher and veterinarian, been an expat trophy wife in the Middle East and did her PhD on health education with remote Australian Indigenous communities.  Throughout, writing has remained her passion.

Speaking in tongues

by Sophie Constable

Exploring Australia’s language skills crisis

Rejoice!  Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff has just been published in English for the first time in over 100 years.  I loved this book and I love that new generations of English speakers are getting the chance to follow the fabulously intrepid Mikhail through the Wild West of Russia’s Far East.

But the fact remains that translation of foreign language books – be they new masterpieces or old classics – is a tiny proportion of the English literary scene, as Strogoff’s translator Stephanie Smee has discussed.  And globally, native English speakers are rarely able to enjoy literary works in the original language.  Nowhere is this more true than Australia, where multilingualism, already the minority, is in steady decline.

If language, at its heart, is about humanity, as author Elizabeth Little writes, then Australians are losing their ability to understand the world.

Being bilingual, I sometimes forget multilingualism, the norm for much of the globe, isn’t the experience of most Australians.  Though we’re a multicultural nation, most people consider English to be enough for our needs and even within bilingual families, bilingualism is declining across the generations.

Are Australians just not interested in languages?  Is it too hard in a geographically isolated, monolingual society?  What’s the point in learning languages anyway, apart from an exponential increase in the to-read pile?

Imogen Weafer, a retail assistant in Darwin’s Casuarina Square shopping centre who uses Japanese in her work, certainly wasn’t interested in languages when she younger, despite her grandmother and mother being bilingual in Latvian and English.

‘My grandma taught my mother, but I wasn’t interested.  I regret that now,’ she says.

Miss Weafer considered that she grew up in a society that didn’t value foreign languages.

‘I lived among generation after generation of farmers who all speak English and nothing else, and think Sydney is overseas,’ she said.

She didn’t consider learning another language until going to Japan after year 11.  She chose to stay in Japan rather than study Japanese at school:  ‘In school, my Japanese teacher was a French teacher,’ she said, unimpressed.  It’s a common problem: more than 100 schools discontinued their languages program between 2003 and 2006, specifically due to a lack of qualified staff.

But English isn’t Australia’s only local language.  Growing up on the edge of the Barossa Valley, Ingkerreke Commercial project manager Daryl Thompson didn’t consider German a foreign language.  He grew up with it, going to a high school where many students had German heritage.  Though all students had to learn to German, by the end of high school he’d learnt more from his classmates than from the teacher.

‘I could swear at people’ he said, ‘and they can understand.’

Darryl Thompson

Darryl Thompson

Despite only speaking English at home and never having taken a language course, Mr. Thompson has since learnt parts of nine other languages.  He learned these on building sites around Australia by talking with co-workers.  ‘The Australian construction industry is a multinational industry,’ he says.  ‘Italians and Greeks do concrete, Vietnamese do the tiling, Croats and Russians do the gyprocking.  Knowing a bit of their languages shows that you are interested in them as a person; they are more amenable to do what you want them to do.  People that don’t make an effort won’t get as far.’

Sure, many find the idea of learning a language confronting.  CSC Adult Night Classes Japanese teacher Mikiko Kawano explains, ‘just like losing weight, you have to do it for a long time to see a result.’ This largely explains why those who beginning learning at a young age become more proficient.  However the idea that it’s too hard to learn other languages doesn’t hold with Mr. Thompson.  ‘That’s just excuses,’ he says.  ‘In today’s era of technology, of internet, easily purchasable online media, audio and video, there’s no reason why people can’t learn.’  CDU Indonesian lecturer Nathan Franklin agrees, finding that the opportunities to learn languages are all around us.  ‘They are walking past us in the streets,’ Dr. Franklin says, ‘they are working in the shops.’

The latest census counted almost 400 languages spoken in Australia, including over a hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.  Most of Australia’s language skills come from recent immigrants: 87% of Australian secondary school students will have dropped out of language courses after two years or less.  For those who are studying languages, Australian students spend less time learning than any other OECD country.

I don’t come from a bilingual family.  Nor did I learn my second language overseas.  The reason I speak French is that my school went against the trend.  Telopea Park Public School in the A.C.T. has an agreement with the French government to import French national teachers to teach in a bilingual system from primary school onwards.  And it is one of the only schools in Australia producing entire classes of fluently bilingual students every year.

O.K., so maintaining the bi-national relationship was difficult at times.  I’ll never forget the expression on my French teacher’s face when a quarter of the secondary student body protested the testing of nuclear weapons at Mururoa atoll by refusing to stand for the French national anthem during assembly.  We experienced first-hand the impact of international relations at the personal level.  But isn’t that, after all, what language learning is all about?

Against the trend of declining bilingualism elsewhere, my new home in the Northern Territory has the highest proportion of multilinguists in Australia, and it’s rising.  I’ve come to the right place, then!

Eva McRae Williams

Eva McRae Williams

Eva McRae-Williams, Senior Researcher with Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, finds exposure motivates others.  She says, ‘In Darwin you hear five different languages in the supermarket.  Warlpiri, French, Thai, Yolngu, Sudanese.’   These languages are economically important as tourism and remote community work are some of the biggest employers in the Territory.

Motivation is notoriously lacking in native English-speakers.  In French there is a saying: a man who speaks three languages is trilingual, a man who speaks two languages is bilingual, a man who speaks only one language is English.  Though English is the language which unites us, it’s also isolating us, Dr Franklin finds, because it reduces the compulsion to learn other languages.  ‘The Western mentality is that everyone needs to learn English, as English is the lingua franca of the world,’ Dr Franklin states.  Whereas ‘[English-speakers] don’t need to learn another language to get a job’, here, as well as overseas, ‘students and business-owners know they need to speak English and they learn out of necessity’.

However, in a global market place, sharing a language can markedly increase bilateral trade and reduces tariffs, according to research.  While historically this has been a boon for trade with the UK and the US, seven of the Australia’s top ten two-way trading partners are now countries where English is a second language, including China and Japan, as well as the vast majority of our fastest growing markets, including Indonesia and India.  That can put English monolinguals at a disadvantage at the negotiating table.  The rise of Asia may threaten English’s dominant economic position – and that’s a problem for many Australian businesses.

For Dr. Chie Adachi, speaking as Linguistics Lecturer at the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Education, the value of language learning is broader than its purely economic context.   ‘If you aren’t learning a language because you don’t see a purpose in it, you are missing the point,’ she says.  ‘It’s about changing the way you think.’

New research by a team at the Stanford University is finding more evidence supporting the idea that languages affect how we think.  Lera Boroditsky’s team has found that which language you use affects concepts as varied as colour differentiation, spatial orientation, direction of time and causality.  Dr. Boroditsky’s findings make sense for Jack Wang, a Chinese-born administrative assistant.  ‘Being able to speak another language gives you a different perspective on the world around you,’ he said.   Growing up in censorship-rich China, that was ‘mind-blowing’.   Dr. Adachi agrees, ‘it allows you to think more broadly and in different ways, which can be a rare experience.’

Ms. McRae-Williams found being a minority English speaker in spaces shaped by Aboriginal languages a transformative experience, saying ‘it opened up another world for me.’ Like 80% of

 

Australians, Ms. McRae-Williams spoke only English at home before going to Ngukurr in the Northern Territory, where Ngukurr Kriol  is the local language.  ‘Kriol seems to have a smaller vocabulary of words but there are important subtleties when you use those words and who to,’ she says.  ‘Even though there are many English sounding words, they can be used differently, with different

Pitjantjatjara country

Pitjantjatjara country

connotations and meanings.  English speakers might think they are understanding what the Kriol speaker is saying but they are not understanding them, really.’  For example, she found  ‘that unlike English language it is rare for people speaking in Kriol to use the word “I” or “myself”, rather “mela” is used which means “we” or “us”. Her experience of how cultural perspectives and knowledge are embedded in language gave her a new insight into centuries of intercultural misunderstanding.

The misunderstandings over land are a prime example.  In Pitjanjatjara, you don’t say ‘what is that place?’ but rather ‘who is that place?’  Land is related to people like a grandfather or aunty is: land is a “person” in the Pitjanjatara world view.  The idea of “owning” your grandfather becomes nonsensical; the idea of abandoning it, impossible.

Given the historic and ongoing lack of understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and the national and international consequences of wider intercultural misunderstanding, the question ought not be why learn a language, but why not?

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Hunting Papa in the Hills, by Alan Wilson, Pitjantjatjara elder

The power of fairy tales: an interview with Katherine Langrish

katherine langrishToday I have the pleasure of interviewing Katherine Langrish, author of a number of wonderful fantasy novels for older children, who has just released her new book–a collection of essays on fairy tale.

Your new book, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, has just been published by Greystones Press, and unlike your other books, it’s a work of non-fiction: but like your other books, it shares a common element–a fascination with fairy tale and folklore. Why are you so interested in them?

Quite simply, I’ve loved fairy tales and folklore ever since I was a child.  I’ve never understood why some people feel it’s a taste adults ought to grow out of, unless perhaps the only fairy tales they’ve encountered have been the simplest versions retold for very little children.  Fairy tales can be profound and as inexplicable as poetry. As I discuss in the book, a story like the Grimms’ tale ‘The Juniper Tree’ deals with enormous themes – murder, jealousy and abuse as well as birth, resurrection, and joyful communion with the natural world.  It will ‘mean’ something slightly different to everyone who reads or hears it, because it elicits from each person their own emotional and spiritual response.  In fact, this story was probably rewritten by a German romantic poet, but that’s the other fascination of fairy tales.  They don’t ‘belong’ to anyone, they’re anonymous, so they adapt to the voice of whoever’s telling the story. And they’re so old!  People have been telling stories like these for centuries.

It’s such a large topic–did you try to pursue a particular line of inquiry or reflection in the book, or is it more organic? And what challenges and pleasures did you find in putting together the collection?

Many of the essays in the book began life on my blog (see below), although for this collection they were massively rewritten and extended. I did not think I had chosen any specific line of enquiry, but to my own fascination I found as I went through the rewrites that a theme was in fact emerging: that of ‘authenticity’. What does, what can that mean in terms of traditional tales?  Is the ‘earliest’ version of a Seven Miles of Steel Thistlesparticular tale ‘more authentic’ than a later one?  My conclusion was, repeatedly, that while it can be fascinating to trace the history and analogues of a tale, it renews itself on the lips of the latest storyteller.

Did any particular fairy tale or folklore scholars influence you in terms of interpretation and reflection?

There are so many wonderful fairy tale and folklore scholars, an embarrassment of riches, but I have to mention the great Katherine Briggs, whose four volume ‘Dictionary of British Folk-Tales’ is a Bible in the field, and whose other books of fairy lore I love – such as ‘The Anatomy of Puck’ and ‘The Vanishing People’. I like her insistence on the primacy of narrative.  I also love Max Lüthi’s ‘The European Folk Tale’ which so clearly illuminates the form and content of the classic European fairy tale.  Most of the interpretations and reflections in ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’ are my own, however – if only because I read the stories long before I read any of the scholars.

You’ve maintained a blog with the same name as the book, over several years. It’s a wonderful title. Where does it come from, and was the blog a bit of a testing-ground for the book?

The title of both the book and the blog comes from an old Irish fairy tale, ‘The King Who Had Twelve Sons’. In it, the hero has to ride ‘over seven miles of hill on fire, and seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea’.  I love it as a metaphor for overcoming life’s difficulties, including the sometimes endless-seeming struggle to write well.  I suppose the blog has become a testing-ground for the book, though I never expected a book to come of it. I began the blog simply as a place where I could write about the things I love – children’s literature, fantasy, fairy tales and folk-lore – and where I could talk with others who love them too.  Does it sound too fey a comparison, if I say that the blog turned into a fairy garden and the book has grown up out of it like a tree?

Do you have particular favourites in terms of fairy tales? If so, which–and why?

I do – and I’ve written about some of them in the book.  I’ve already mentioned ‘The Juniper Tree’, and I also love ‘Briar Rose’ and ‘Jorinda and Joringel’.  But the story I love best to tell aloud is the English fairy tale ‘Mr Fox’, a very old version of Bluebeard with a far more intelligent and courageous heroine.

What are your favourite folkloric creatures?

My absolute favourites are the household fairies – the brownies, nisses, tomtes and domovoys which live with human beings and help (and sometimes hinder) them. I’ve written about then in several of my books for children: they’re an independent, mischievous, yet devoted race. They offer their services freely and will stay for so long as they are treated with respect and a dish of cream or oatmeal is left out for them on the hearth.  I love the way stories about them mingle Otherness with domesticity.  And I think they’re very, very old – as old as the story of Rachel in Genesis, who steals the household gods from her father Laban.

Your novels and short stories borrow from several different cultural traditions–can you tell us a little about that?

I began with Scandinavian folk-tales about trolls.  I’d been trying to write a story about a young Viking boy which involved him encountering some of the Norse gods. The story just went completely dead on me – I couldn’t find the way forward at all.  If a god befriends your character, why shouldn’t everything go smoothly for him or her? It seemed to me I was having to find complicated explanations for my hero’s predicaments. Then I began reading folk tales about trolls, and realised the book ought to be about them.  I got rid of the gods entirely as an unwanted extra supernatural level, and the book – ‘Troll Fell’ – worked much better as a fairy tale rather than a fantasy.troll fell

When I came to write the third book in the trilogy, I wanted to take my characters over the sea to ‘Vinland’ – North America – something we know Norse men, and probably Norse women too, actually did.  And there my characters would inevitably encounter Native American people, just as the Greenlanders’ Saga describes. It seemed to me legitimate to introduce Native American characters into the book: it was that or pretend North America was unpopulated, a clear impossibility. What may not have been so legitimate – yet it seemed to me important – was to introduce, as players on the North American scene, creatures in some way parallel to the trolls my Norse characters cohabited with. I thought long and hard about it and spent months of research, trying my best to respect and faithfully represent the culture I described. Whether or not I succeeded is not for me to say. The one thing I was sure about was that there would be no ‘white saviour’ in the book.  My Norse hero owes his life to the Native American characters he meets, not the other way around.  I wrote at length about this issue in an essay called ‘Cultural Appropriation and the White Saviour’, and though the discussion has moved on over the last few years, I still cautiously hold to what I said there.  Here’s the link:

http://steelthistles.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/cultural-appropriation-and-white.html

In books such as Dark Angels and the Troll trilogy you explore the worlds of what might be called ‘the hidden people’ and their interactions with humans. The idea of a ‘hidden people’ with a wide range of magical powers (from large to small) and alien intelligence but with many similarities to humans and who appear to be drawn to us–if only to exploit us at times–is part of the traditional folklore and stories of many cultures right across the world. Why do you think this is such a universal notion?

Wow, that’s a huge question… and yet maybe it’s a small one too.  Haven’t we all had the experience of laying something down and then minutes later not being able to find it?  It’s so, so frustrating: ‘It has to be there! I know perfectly well I put it there, just before the phone rang!  And now I’ve looked everywhere – and it’s gone!’  The temptation is to blame borrowers, or gremlins, which we know is a joke – but it still makes us feel better to be able to focus the frustration on some invisible, tricksy thing that’s sitting there laughing at us. Maybe it’s a human trait to imagine the universe as personal rather than impersonal. We can deal with the personal, we can understand it and negotiate with it – we humans are very good at that.  Such feelings must have been far, far stronger in the past, before science began coming up with ‘rational’ explanations for everything.dark angels

Incidentally, just where have I put my keys?

You have been a storyteller as well as a writer. How does that influence your fiction?

I began story-telling years ago when I lived in France and our children were small.  I joined a a weekly English-language story session at the Bibliotheque de Fontainebleau for children aged three years and up. It can be quite hard to keep the attention of a group of fifteen to twenty little ones when reading from a picture book: you’re facing them, and you have to keep stopping and turning the book around so they can see the pictures, and that interrupts the flow.  An inspirational friend suggested that we all tried telling stories ‘from the heart’ instead of reading aloud. I loved it. I found you could keep the children’s attention better and they make the pictures in their heads. I continued to tell stories to older groups of children for many years, and learned a lot about pacing a story, about narrative structure, and about the kinds of things children enjoyed – what got them excited, what made them laugh. So yes, I think it really did help my writing, which loosened up and at the same time became more confident. I just – love telling stories.