The Bluebell Club: a memoir-story

Today I’m republishing a story based on memories of a literary episode in primary school.

The Bluebell Club

by Sophie Masson

Towards the end of my Enid Blyton phase, in late primary school, I founded a wrhiting club, which I called the Bluebell Club, and managed to inveigle some of my friends into it. My younger sister Camille also hung around it sometimes. The name of the club came straight out of Enid Blyton, of course. And I was the President, also of course!

We would sit, we the Bluebell Club, under the trees at the end of the playground, ignoring the bands of boys who sometimes marched past us, arms linked, chanting, ‘We hate girls! We hate girls!’ We knew they were just craving attention, and were jealous of us as we sat there, telling each other calmly the stories we had made up, which was the ritual of the Club. Each member had to bring a story to the week’s meeting; we read them, admired them, and then it was my job to say which was best, and which would be entered in the exercise book that served as the Club’s record.

I loved the Club. It was the perfect venue for recounting the adventures of my favourite creation, Princess Alicia of the rippling blond hair, the wise mind, clever tongue and magic finger. Alicia featured in dozens of adventures I wrote, each profusely illustrated with curly pictures. The Club members listened to the Alicia stories with respect, but then seemed to want to tell their own and to vote for others, not just Alicia. Secretely, I thought that Alicia should win every week, but not even being President could save me from the fate of knowing what would happen, then.

All the other girls, except for my younger sister Camille of course, were real Aussies—they had vegemite, not salami, sandwiches at lunchtime and glamorous parties for their birthdays, with fairy bread and pink cakes and balloons. I never had a party. I wanted one, so badly–and yet I feared that Maman would probably not know the right ‘form’-she’d make a pâté, and real lemonade with lemons, and her cake would be iced just with melted chocolate, not with ‘proper’ icing. I was not yet at the teenage shamed stage–yet I knew, somehow that those things I loved within the four walls of my home would be misunderstood outside them. The Bluebell Club was my way of integrating, of showing that I knew about what I imagined marked out the ‘mainstream’, knowing, despite the lack of a TV in our house, and the fact Maman never bought processed food, about TV programmes and frozen chips. In my stories Alicia always watched Bewitched and Dr Who, and loved frozen chips and green GI cordial.

I talked to Maman about the Bluebell Club, and was amazed when she suggested that we run a proper competition. She would donate a prize for it, she said. My joy at this unexpected offer was tinged with suspicion–would she know what was the right thing to do? I kept dropping hints, saying, well I think a good prize would be a book, hoping that she wouldn’t get it into her head to bake a cake which would look home-made, with dense, delicious yellow flesh and pockmarked brown skin.

She did buy a book–done up in blue tissue, it sat in my bag, innocent and weighty. She hadn’t told me what it was–couldn’t remember, she said, mischievously. But a book was safe. Sure. I took it to school in anticipation, having last week announced the competition. I’d written a story, Alicia’s latest adventure, in which, sheathed in gold brocade and silk hair nets, our heroic princess went to do battle with an alien. I’d had trouble drawing the alien–it looked rather like Maman’s vacuum cleaner. But the story was good drama. I’d rehearsed it to myself, last night in bed.

One of the other girls’ mother had kindly baked a cake for us, as celebration, and we ate it as a preliminary. There it sat, neat as a house on its plate, its walls straight and pale, its roof prettily frosted with white icing, dusted with multi-coloured sprinkles. It looked like a proper shop cake, and I was awed by its beauty. ‘Mum always buys the good packet mixes,’ the girl said, and I gasped with longing. I’d seen those packets in the supermarket—they had names like Snow Vanilla; Royal Chocolate; Pink Marble. Cakes for a Princess Alicia, to eat off golden plates.

When the cake was cut, it proved to have white flesh inside. It must have been a Snow Vanilla. I couldn’t get my eyes off that snowy colour; it was like no cake we ever had, at home. There was none of the sweet denseness of the French butter cake known as quatre-quarts which Maman made a lot; instead, you closed your mouth on an airy lightness, as soft as cloud. Privately, I was a little disappointed; it was like barbe à papa (fairy floss or cotton candy) that looked so magically wonderful but disintegrated into a trickle of pink on your tongue. But I was loudest in praise, for you couldn’t admit that pretty words could hide nothing at all. It was the image that was important, the feeling of riches, of magic, of leisure. No hard mixing and stirring and separating here, no messy egg shells, still with yolk adhering, or showers of flour on the floor. Just a packet, a picture, a pretty name, and hey presto–instant cake! It was like a miracle, I thought. And you can’t question miracles.

When the last crumb of Snow Vanilla had gone, I held up a hand for attention. ’And now for the judging of the competition,’ I announced rather pompously. ’I have here a magnificent prize, for the lucky winner.’ The others watched me a little strangely, I thought. Didn’t they want to know the winner? ‘Let’s read all our stories, and then we’ll see.’
I read the latest adventure of Alicia first, my voice rising and falling. I added an episode ad lib, when the Princess feasted on Snow Vanilla. The others listened, then read their stories. Very ordinary, they seemed to me.

‘Now, we’ll decide the winner,’ I began, but then another girl, the cake girl no doubt, stopped me. ’I’ve told my mum about all this,’ she said, ‘And she said it’s not fair, that you get to be the judge. I bet you’d choose your own story!’

‘I’m tired of Princess Alicia, anyway,’ said another girl. ’Why do you always write about her? She’s boring!’

The meeting broke up in disarray. In my bag, still in its blue tissue, was the prize book. I’d had no chance to bring it out, to display it, no chance to choose the winner, no chance to hand the book over, in its secretive blue. I tried to call them back, but the words wouldn’t come. They were off, chattering, their minds on elastics and skipping. They’d had enough of the Club, too. Possibly enough of me. My earnestness frightened them off. Now I was frightened. I’d thought I’d done so well, queening it over them, but now I realised they’d humoured me, for a while, because there was nothing else to do. Camille stayed for a minute, then said, ‘Don’t worry, I like Alicia. You can read it to me, if you like.’
But I didn’t want to read them to my sister. I could do that any day, at home. I wanted to sit under the trees, with the Bluebell Club, being their President, their admired, imitated President. I wanted to fill the exercise book with our work, with our efficient meetings. It felt like real life, quiet, efficient real life, not the chaotic un-Australianness of our home. But I’d just been voted out of office. Permanently. I knew it. And suddenly, Alicia’s curly hair, her huge eyes, filled me with anger. I tore the story across and put it in the bin.

The book stayed in its blue tissue all day. At home, I opened it at last. ‘The members of the Bluebell Club,’ I told Maman, ‘voted my story the best in the competition!’ I could even believe it, as I opened the collection of illustrated poems Maman had bought (it was a lovely book). Yes, I could even hear their clapping as one by one, the members of the Bluebell Club agreed that Princess Alicia and the Aliens was the best story they had ever heard, and deserving of the first prize. I looked across at Camille. But she said nothing. Her mouth was full of cake. Quatre-quarts, not Vanilla Snow.

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Kangaroos: a memoir piece

 

Childhood, Australia. Left to right: younger sister Camille, brother Louis-Xavier, little sister Gabrielle, and myself holding baby brother Bertrand! Older sisters Dominique and Beatrice were in France.

And to follow up on the previous memoir piece I republished earlier this week, here’s another. Titled Kangaroos, it’s about the experience of being a schoolchild suspended between two school cultures, in Australia and France.

Kangaroos

In Sydney, school plodded on, seemingly never-ending. Every day, walking down the hissing shore of the Pacific Highway, we followed the same path, exclaimed over the same landmarks. Down the highway, plod, plod, till you came to our street, then down its eerily quiet and shady length to our house. On the way was a house, covered with creepers and with a magical garden full of beautiful old-fashioned flowers, presided over by two old sisters in cardigans, twinkling spectacles and blue-rinsed hair, whom I thought looked just like the good fairies in my favourite Disney movie, Sleeping Beauty. And there was a creepy bit past which you had to run, before the mythologised figure of evil that might be lurking in it, caught you.

There was the block of flats, next door, filled with rich old people who mostly tried hard to ignore us noisy woggy interlopers in their hushed retirement. (Once, amusingly,  Dad got an anonymous letter, which had been shoved through our letterbox, and which asked ”the Frenchman with the loud voice” to ”kindly desist” from shouting too early in the morning at the kids! He didn’t obey…) There was one notable exception, though, a lively old lady whose late husband had once been an important diplomat. She owned a huge, ancient Rolls Royce that she once took us out in for a ‘spin’–actually a sedate procession– down the street, magnificent as a ship, with her tiny figure behind the wheel. She liked us so we were also invited back to her flat to exclaim over all the quaint souvenirs she’d collected in her long life, over all the continents. I remember particularly a flotilla of beautiful little ivory elephants of different sizes. She’d give us a piece of cake and say to Maman, “Well, you people really have been places, too, haven’t you?” And I’d think, well, but just to Empeaux, really, and Biarritz, and Toulouse–places mostly familiar, a little mysterious, sometimes. But mostly familiar. Not like her, with her exotic list of postings!

Whenever it came time for us to go away on our French holidays, other kids at school would be envious. “It’s not fair!” they’d chorus. It was one of the few times that I was pleased to be different, to have a chaotic, unusual family scattered every which way.”You lucky things!” the kids would moan. “Missing out on school!”

And I’d say, “Yes, but we have to go to school there,” but nobody really believed that. France was a mythical country. There could be no real school there, with teachers and chalk and homework. My friends merely indulged my repeated assurances that indeed there was a school in the village, and that we had to go there, at least some of the time.

But school there was, set just across the road from the driveway at the back of our house. The school consisted of a rendered brick building of two storeys, the first storey being the schoolroom, the top storey being the teacher’s house. There was a courtyard, fenced in with wire and cement, and discreetly to one side, a couple of ghastly, smelly squat toilets. In the schoolroom, there were rows of desks, pegs to hang up your coats and hats, maps, and a large blackboard.

At the beginning of our time there, each desk came equipped with ink bottles. As a small child, you first had to write on slates, with chalk, then progress to the ink. You had to write with pens dipped in the ink. We never used slates in Australia, or ink pens–those had gone out before our time–just pencils and later biros, and I struggled, especially when it came to the ink pens, for my writing wasn’t of the tidiest–eager, yes, but not tidy. In France, you had pieces of pink or blue blotter to work with, as you formed the unfamiliar curly letters in the exercise books whose pages reminded me of check aprons. Even the exercise books were different, with their thick glossy covers and their checked-apron pages. And if you smudged, oh heck! Madame Lafforgue would be behind you, sharp words at the ready, maybe if you were persistently hopeless, a clip around the ear, too.

One of the things that made our friends in Australia suspicious about the existence of the Empeaux school was the fact that no-one wore uniforms. Instead, you had to wear a nylon overall over your ordinary clothes. How I hated those things, which seemed to me the height of dagginess, worse even than school uniforms!

To the other children in the school at Empeaux, we were known as ‘les kangorous’. Barely believable, rather comic figures who suddenly bounced into sight, and just as inexplicably, bounced away again.

In Australia, I was sometimes singled out for cringe-making praise by the teachers(‘See, English is not even her native language, and yet see how well she speaks and writes it!’)In France, Madame Lafforgue often singled us out for special mention, too, so that in both places, we had the sense of being there, and yet not quite there. We could not be the same as the others, here or there. To the children of Empeaux, the very notion of school in Australia was as ridiculous as French school had been to our Australian friends. Those who knew where Australia was–and there were very few of them–imagined something that we couldn’t even begin to picture in our minds, let alone recognise.

The school was full of farmers’ children–Gisele, with her bright red cheeks, her voice which was an uncanny younger imitation of the way the older people spoke, as if they had a mouthful of the rich cake called fougasse in their mouths; Raymond and Alain, two strapping boys who marked time in the last grades of primary school–no way did they want to have to go to the town high school; Veronique, who was really friendly until the day I discovered she was copying all my work. I’d stared at her, rather embarassed, but Madame Lafforgue had noticed. Her withering tongue made poor Veronique cry, so that I felt cold with reflected humiliation, myself. I tried to show her that I didn’t care if she had copied my work, but she wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t talk to me, after that.

And then there were the others. Children as foreign as we were, and yet less. Their parents had come to the village, attracted by the work in the ceramics factory. There were two Portuguese families–Antonio and his two brothers; and Maria and Manuel. And then there were the Algerian boy, Mohammed, and his little sister, Aisha. Antonio and his brothers were as rough as the crewcut hair on their heads, dressed in tattered blue clothes, voices grating and harsh.

Maman, whose father was from Portugal, smiled and said they were from the ‘fin fond du Portugal”, the depths of Portugal, the harsh, distant, backward countryside. They lived in a dilapidated old barn on the outskirts of the village, without electricity or running water. Some of the villagers turned up their noses at them, even though it was barely 20 years since they’d got these self-same conveniences.

But it was no good feeling sorry for Antonio or his brothers. They would hit out wildly in all directions, and were much feared. Antonio protected his little brothers through thick and thin, and his attitude to us was of aggression mixed with fear. Just when he’d sorted out the French, thought he understood, along we came, of the place yet not of it, smelling of privilege and a life he could not even imagine.

So I came home one day with a tooth smashed in by Antonio, violence I hadn’t courted or understood. He’d been in the playground and had brought out his snack, a vanilla pod carefully wrapped in brown paper. I’d said, “What’s that?” And then he’d hit me. I didn’t understand, and the shock and pain of it was almost as frightening as the blood running down my chin.

Papa had waited for Antonio, the next day, after school. “Come here, boy,” he’d called out, in Portuguese, and after one horrified glance at him, Antonio fled. It wasn’t just the threat of retribution that had frightened him, though; he gave the impression of someone well-used to kicks and blows. It was the fact that my father, that stranger, the senior kangaroo, spoke Portuguese! Antonio never bothered me again.

The other Portuguese children, Maria and Manuel, lived in the village, in Monsieur Martin’s old house, when the latter died. They were from Northern Portugal, Maria never tired of explaining to us, waving a deprecating hand towards Antonio and his brothers from the ‘fin fond’. In her descriptions of her life there, their old home was a marvel, a place of marble floors and stone courtyards and fountains. “We were so rich!” she’d sigh, stroking our dolls’ hair. Because she and her brother were quiet and well-behaved, they were allowed to come to our place to play, and Maria would tell us stories of the wonderful places they used to live in. I half-believed her, but wondered why she and her family had come to live in Empeaux. One day, though, she was in full flow, telling us these stories, glancing around her as she spoke, so that her Portuguese palaces took on the atmosphere of our house. Then Maman came in, and said something to her, in Portuguese. Maria flushed scarlet, and stammered something.

I thought then that Maman had made a tart comment; but no, it had merely been to ask her what time their mother was expecting them. Like Antonio, she hadn’t expected my parents to speak Portuguese, and this sudden discovery withered her tall tale-telling. I was sorry; I’d liked her stories, and even though I hadn’t really believed in them, I missed the perfumed gardens and the almonds always in blossom, and the marvellous kinds of sweetmeats done up in silver or gold foil, that she’d told us about…

The Algerian children clung to each other, stepping carefully in the minefield of village society. They were the first of a new wave of settlers, and even the Portuguese children knew, in the instinctive, cruelly defensive way that all children soon learn, that they were at the bottom of the pecking order. Most of the children ignored them, but one or two, like Antonio, were actively vicious.

Mohammed was small and thin, his sister with a great shock of black hair, frightened eyes, and a nose that seemed to be always running. Of course, the children seized on this as a visible sign of difference, a reason as to why it was alright to persecute them, with Antonio as the ringleader. They were careful, of course, not to do it within earshot of Madame Lafforgue, who couldn’t abide bullying, but in the playground away from her eagle eye, it was a different matter.

You couldn’t help seeing it, hearing it, and I wished often that I  could be brave enough to stop it. And then, one day, quite suddenly, it did. I still don’t know what happened, but one morning, there were Mohammed and Antonio in the playground, throwing a ball at each other. At recess, they joined up again, and Mohammed’s little sister followed them. I said to Gisele, “I wonder how they managed to patch it up,” and Gisele, incuriously following my glance, shrugged her shoulders. She never wondered about other people. She couldn’t understand why anyone might do so.

For whom the bell tolls–a memoir piece

Another of my memoir pieces that I’m republishing: this one’s about the house and the village in south-west France where we lived through parts of my childhood.

Back then: La Nouvelle Terrebonne from the back, with the castle and church seen in background

For whom the bell tolls

My childhood and adolescence were spent bouncing between Australia and France as my expatriate French parents never emigrated formally to Australia. My father worked for a big French building firm in Australia, after having worked previously in Indonesia and Africa, and a part of his contract entitlements was a regular paid trip back to France for the whole family. So every two or three years, we’d up Sydney sticks to spend two or three months in our French home, in the tiny village of Empeaux, in the Haute-Garonne departement of south-west France, thirty-five kilometres from Toulouse.

My parents had bought our beautiful eighteenth-century house in Empeaux, La Nouvelle Terrebonne, as a dilapidated shell in 1959 and proceeded to restore it to its former glory as the second finest house in the village(after the castle)through many years of huge builder’s bills.

The village was dominated by the castle, the church and, surprising in such a bucolic setting, the factory. Empeaux had been declining for many years when the new owner of the castle decided to open a ceramics factory. It was built at the far end of the village, right away from its main street, which was lined with thin, tall stone houses on one side, and on the other, our own large house, flanked by two much less imposing houses. Further down was the church with its pleasant, most unghostly little graveyard. Up on the hill at one end of the street, surrounded by a high fence and the barking of what we assumed were ferocious guard dogs, was the castle—not an ancient medieval fortress but a beautiful seventeenth-century building done up in the nineteenth century, all silvery-topped turrets and narrow windows.

The people who lived in the village’s main streets were old-time residents; the new ones who poured into the area, after the ceramics factory work, lived down the hill, away from the centre–Portuguese and North Africans, and young people from other villages.

On one side of our house lived the Vaccaronnes, peasant farmers; on the other, Remi Peres and his dog. Monsieur Vaccaronne had emigrated from Italy many, many years ago, so long ago that he often forgot he ever had. In fact, he was the epitome of the French peasant–canny, suspicious, pale blue eyes full of calculating hospitality, beret jammed tightly on his balding head. He and his wife had two grown up daughters who married quite late, and a great love of the variety singers in spangled suits who proliferated on French television screens. He would ask us into his kitchen, and, proferring a tiny finger of gnole, the fiery bootleg liquor that everyone made in defiance of the authorities, would point proudly at the television, where Claude Francois or Johnny Hallyday crooned or yelled. “Isn’t that beautiful?” he would say to my father.

Papa hated TV. We knew that. We didn’t have one at home, either in France or Australia. But he contented himself with an ambivalent  murmur, while old Monsieur Vaccarone hummed along with the singer on television. Then he turned to us with a wicked smile. “I want to show you something. Come and see!”

In the clean whitewashed wall of his kitchen there was a door, set well into the wall. He opened it. We knew what was beyond it, we’d been there before. But still, each time was a shock, like a passing from one time into another. Here the walls had been left plain, the smells were not of daube or saucisse de Toulouse, as in the kitchen, but a rich full, deep smell, both repellent and warm, the smell of familiar animals.

In one corner were the stalls for the Vaccarones’ two cows, which were driven off to pasture every day by Rose Vaccarone, calling out shrilly to her dog, “Euh! Mizette! Euh! Euh!” We’d walked to the pasture once or twice, and found Rose sitting there with her cows, her feet snuggled into the warm flowery grass.

But the cows weren’t there, this time, and the hens were out, scratching in the main street near the pump, squawking indignantly at birds landing near them. But the pig was there, an enormous, huge, nightmarish sow with evil eyes and an obscenely displayed belly, as several tiny shapes bustled and squealed at her teats.

“Beautiful,” said Monsieur Vaccarone, in the same admiring tone that he’d used for the singers. “She’s a wonder, that one. Always has so many piglets!” He looked at them in silence for a while, while I wrinkled my nose, thinking that it smelt of bacon and sausages in here, a thought that made me feel horrid. There was something disgusting about smelling the food on the living animal.

Monsieur Vaccaronne cackled, unexpectedly. “She’s a bit of a witch, though. I have to watch her. She’s as likely to eat her piglets as not. I’ve come in here sometimes and. . ” But Camille and I didn’t wait to hear any more. We raced outside, into the sunshine near the pump. “Yuck!” Camille said, and made retching noises. “How revolting!”

I could hardly answer. The idea of the cannibal sow eating her babies disgusted and terrified me. It reminded me of Hansel and Gretel, a story I’d always hated. I would see the sow’s small eyes in my dreams, I thought…

 

the Empeaux church today

Instructed by Maman, who wanted some peace, Papa often swept us along in his wake when he went to visit neighbours. To visit, for instance, the public telephone facility which was in Monsieur Martin’s house. Monsieur Martin lived over the street in one of those tall thin houses, and he was paid by the PTT to provide this service for the whole village. The PTT, like postal and telecommunications services the world over, had a probably undeserved reputation for casualness, a certain indolence and indifference to customers’ needs. Disgruntled customers maintained that its acronym stood for ‘Petits Travaux Tranquilles’ (Quiet Little Jobs’), maintaining that they’d once stood in a post office queue for ten minutes while staff discussed what they’d done on the weekend!

Be that as it may, Monsieur Martin was the representative of the PTT in Empeaux, and he took his job seriously. No PTT jokes in his presence!He was extremely well informed on the ins and outs of  everyone’s business in the village, and when we got our own telephone, Papa missed the snippets of gossip at the Martin house. Monsieur Martin, to my eyes, looked just like the other old men in the village, with his big flat beret, and soft speech full of succulent patois words, but he, too, wasn’t the storybook peasant we’d seen in books. He’d been a Communist in his youth, and had stood as a candidate for the Party in local elections, and he wasn’t married to the woman we all knew as Madame Martin, but lived with her in sin! I was amazed that a white-haired woman with a wispy bun and the traditional black floral pinafore of the region could possibly be a source of scandal. Like our other neighbour, Remi Peres, Monsieur Martin had little time for priests. “Oh—those ones!” he would say. “Those ones–like vultures, they are, waiting for you to be dying, so they can pounce, with their nonsense talk of heaven and hell!” I would watch Papa covertly, then, sure he’d be shocked, horrified, for religion means a good deal to him, but he would merely smile, shrug his shoulders. Yet if we’d said that. . .

Neighbours like champion gossip Monsieur Penain, who appeared on the dot, outside his door, every time any vehicle was heard in the village. He always came out with two buckets, as if he’d been just about to go and draw water, or scrub his step. You could see him, his eyes busy with speculation, suspicion, imagination, every time. Especially if it was a vehicle drawing up outside our house! At the time, my two older sisters, Dominique and Beatrice, respectively seven and five years older than me, kept a flock of admirers around them, and every time they came to visit, pop! Out would come Monsieur Penain and his buckets, just like one of those weather houses where the little man comes out if it rains. In fact, we had one of those weather houses, at home, and guess what the little man was called?

And the middle-aged woman who lived down one end of the village, Madame Lascours—she was a witch, from a long line of witches. People went to her for the curing of warts, of small ills, for counsel in love affairs and a spot of fortune-telling..

It seemed strange to me, as an adolescent: the village with its mixture of anticlericalism and piety, its acceptance of television singers and supernatural powers. It wasn’t consistent, I thought. And without consistency, how could you map the world, find your way around it?

You could listen to the stories of old Remi Peres, for instance, whom Papa called Remi but whom we had to call Monsieur Peres. He lived right next to the church, in an ancient, incredibly filthy hovel which looked as if it had survived from the Middle Ages. He’d been married, but his wife had taken off decades ago, with their child, grown-up now but who never came to see him. Now he lived with an old, blind dog, whom he treated alternately with extravagant affection and heedless cruelty. He drove a battered old 2CV, and lived on an army pension. Every week, he would drive to the nearby village of Saint Thomas and drink away a good portion of his pension in the cafe. And talk! How he could talk! Papa would invite him into the house, and he would sit there, firmly grasping a glass of some fiery spirit and talk, in a mixture of sardonic humour and menace. “When the Revolution comes, my dear sir,” he would say, “Ah, when it comes, all this will be ours!”

Papa wouldn’t bristle, his nostrils would stay pink, not pinch with white rage. He would say, softly, looking him in the eyes, “Ah, but then, Remi, I will be ready for you!”
Honour satisfied, Remi would start in on one of his stories. Scandalous stories, all, which he’d recount with a sly twinkle. Maman hated those stories. She would call out to us, curtly, “Come on! I’ve got some work for you to do!” and later, when he’d gone, she’d say to Papa, “Honestly, Georges, I don’t know why you encourage him. He is not a nice man, not a nice man at all. . ”

Most of the time, I saw him as a harmless teller of amazing stories, but we all knew there was another side to him. We’d seen him kicking his dog, and that gleam in his eyes when he talked about the Revolution wasn’t all make-believe. There was a harsh judgment, there, the pitiless resentment of the peasant. Once or twice, too, there had been another thing in his eyes, something as he looked at us, the girls, something creepy. But despite all this, his stories were amazing, evoking a bygone world, a world of folktale where the rich and powerful got their come-uppance, and the poor, but clever tricked them, easily!

Like the stories about the inhabitants of the castle. Remi said that the castle brought ruin and bad luck to whoever lived there–a fitting fate, in his opinion, for anyone who’d have the money to live in a castle. Before the present owners, there’d been an aristocratic young man who’d lived there–a pedale, as Remi called him, using the colloquial word for homosexual. ‘That one, he thought his crap didn’t stink,’ said Remi, ‘he lorded it over everyone. But then, well, you see, ‘ went on the old gossip, with a sly wink, ‘one of his servants, his cook, in fact, was also a pedale and he was in love with his boss and very jealous when the young chatelain would invite his other friends for their..er frolics. So, you see, one day, fed-up of it as he was, he poisoned the young chatelain’s dish, and the young man died, and then it all came out, all of it. . Such a to-do there was! ‘ And Remi would laugh, and we sat there, fascinated yet repelled, not only by the story but that someone should actually find it funny! He had lots of stories about priests, too, and what he said was their hypocrisy and how he himself, Remi Peres, had caught one in flagrante delicto with his housekeeper. It was Papa’s turn to frown at us, then, and say, “Haven’t you lot got something you should be doing?”

Because there were no shops in the village, mobile shops came once a week. There was a baker, an ordinary butcher and a horse butcher, and a grocery van. The vans would draw into the main streets, horns sounding, and people would pour out. All of them–the Vaccarones and the Penains, the Lascours and the Peres, and the other people who lived further down in the village.

But not the inhabitants of the castle. Occasionally, you’d see the son tearing out in his new sports car, doing wheelies down the street, and disappearing in a cloud of dust, but he never stopped to speak to anyone. His father, who owned the ceramics factory, was also a doctor, and Remi’s story of the Castle Curse seemed to be vindicated when several things happened to the castle family. The son, coming home late at night from a party, knocked down and killed a child on a bike. He was arrested, sent to gaol, and his mother declined visibly. And then his father was arrested for fraud and sent to prison himself. .

But that was several years in the future. Now, the village stands around the mobile shops, gossiping, passing traditional compliments and insults with the shopkeeper. “Call that a sausage?”

“Well, madame, that is the best sausage in the region, that’s all!”

“Navel oranges. . hmm. .  foreign, aren’t they?”

“Yes, of course, they’re from California! And look, madame, the best apples. Golden Delicious, no less!”

It seemed that everyone wanted the new, the strange, the foreign. I saw Remi Peres’ raised eyebrow when Maman said to the grocery man, “Golden Delicious? Horrible, floury things! Where are our good, traditional apples, the reinettes?”

She was several years too early, in her desire for the traditional, the old-fashioned, the crafted myriad varieties of apple as against the mass-produced EEC fluff. The others shook their heads.

“You have to move with the times, madame! These are modern times!” And Maman would give an angry, small laugh.

And then there was the glas, sounding out over the village. The glas, the ringing of the bells for the dead, the bells tolling, strange, portentous, somehow chilling. It rang several times when we were there, for the old, reaped by age, the young, felled by accident. Another grave in the cemetery, already filled with carefully-maintained graves and sepulchres. Everyone came to the burials, everyone, even those who hadn’t really known the dead, even those who despised priests and religion–for the burials were always attended by a priest–and for a long time I thought it was to show solidarity, the ancient togetherness of the peasant community. But then, one day, with the glas sounding, tolling, over the village, the procession wending its way down to the graveyard, we heard a conversation between two mourners. Remi Peres and Madame Lascours, or maybe it was someone else he was addressing.

“Who is it that the bell is tolling for?” she said. “Who has died?”

And he looked at her, the sly smile in his eyes. “I have no idea, madame, no idea! But if it is not for me, and it is not for you—why should we care, who it’s for?”

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.