Friday, 7 February 2014

How did I get here? (This is not my beautiful wife)

Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso

I've always been attracted to the author in exile. The 'other' or outsider. Gertrude Stein in Paris, James Joyce in Trieste, David Malouf in Italy. I've always thought that from far away, you can write closer to the essence. Your sense of place will be crystalline because it will not suffer gusts of unrefined normality, your dialogue will not be tampered with by things you overhear, your mission will be clarified and seamless from the outset.

Oh, really ?

Yeah. But what happens when you move country seven times in nineteen years? When each home is a part of you, and a part of you is dissolved in another culture each time. Sure, there is home. There is infancy and childhood and language and the wonderful cradle of family, but when you spend most of your adulthood in another mindset and language your grasp on your original writing material gradually slides. You realise there are disconnected decades where you don't know what was happening in your birth country - what bands were big, who was Prime Minister, which authors were must-read. You knew more about Mitterand than Paul Keating. You knew more about Siad Barre and Jerry Rawlings than John Howard. These days, you know more about Silvio Berlusconi than Tony Abbott.

You've spent years adapting, learning languages, getting the twang out of your accent, being misunderstood... eventually not giving a stuff and dressing like a chic hippie anyway. You accept that you will always be an outsider. Probably that is what you felt in the first place, and are now putting it into practice, living it through and through. Year after year, getting on with it.

In fact, you are so far down the exile road (I hate the word expat, makes me think of fetes and bazaars), that you don't know where to point your telescopic lens and train your exacting vision. Where is home? Where was home? What on earth do I talk about? How did I get here?

You can't write about Australia (although you set short stories there when they come), because it feels a like you are pretending a bit. You can't write about Somalia because the place has overturned since you were living there and it is so dreadfully far from the city you used to walk through with a friend at night. You've written stuff set in Brussels, and Berlin, because stories came into your head from there. But there's a limit to the amount of stuff you can write set in Ghana because you are no longer living there and, well, there are plenty of Ghanaian writers who can take care of that.

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy was the book I wrote when I put aside another novel (set in Ghana!). I never felt equipped to write anything set in Italy, and in this book the main character is also an outsider. In Pelt and Other Stories I tackled much more challenging subject matter and put myself into the hearts of a diverse set of characters, hoping that I could pull it off. Gay blokes from Sydney, a pregnant Ghanaian mistress, a medical student in Brussels... I worried that strings and pulleys might have been visible sometimes, or that I had drifted into places that were over my head.

It is so hard to let go, assume the role, trust your material, scatter doubts, pull through to the end of the story. I'm working on it. Sometimes I feel I will forever be borrowing sets or places, peopling them with dingbats who come into my head, but then I remember the striking words of the great writer Patrick White, who said he always felt like a magpie, snatching up glints here and there, stashing away material. A thief like me (I wish).

This week I am reading Flannery O'Connor whose material is steeped with local characters and sizzling colloquial talk. Apart from pure envy at her language, characters and endings, I wish I had the right to use straight-talkin' vocab like this: 'See theter notice,' Enoch said in a church whisper..He's done murdered somebody, Enoch thought.. (from 'The Heart of the Park, Complete Stories)

But I can't. I'm not Flannery O'Connor and I don't live in the Deep South in the 1950s. I'm a chic wandering hippie with a writing fixation who is going to have to find her own way to knit together truths and words and places, who probably wanted it this way in the first place.

In fact, I know how I got here.

Take it away David.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself
Well - How did I get here?

(Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads)


  1. Love this, absolutely! I'm a New Zealander, have lived in Istanbul 2 years, Belgium 8 years, with regular and much-needed escapes to Genova, Italy. So beautifully written, and captured, that I want to print it off and stick it into my journal.

    1. You're welcome - of course you can print it off! Maybe even sing along to the Talking Heads song!
      It sounds as though you have done a lot of moving around too. I agree it's important to find an escape hatch when home is too far away. But I need an escape hatch from Italy sometimes! (*see my last post from Paree)
      Thanks for dropping by Di.

  2. You have capture the essence so well. Keep knitting!

  3. You hit the nail on the head here,Catherine! All writers,it seems to me, have something of the ventriloquist in their literary armoury - & there's no harm in that...IF it's done well. With your itinerant life, you have the ability to adopt more voices than most of us!...& I would say you pull it off with some aplomb! But you're right not to linger with these voices as if they're your own. Let us hear Catherine McNamara's own voice; I'm sure you have plenty more to say! Looking forward to reading your next egg-clutch of stories!...Cheers!

    1. Have you read Nam Le's The Boat and seen how many voices and styles he manages to pack in there? He's even been criticised in one review I read for being just that - a very talented mimic or ventriloquist - who almost seems to take the p*** out of Tim Winton for example. Interesting argument. How far are we allowed to venture with these 'voices'? And what do you think of Marilyn's voice in DLC???
      Enjoy the next batch xcat

  4. Great post, Catherine.. and too true. I also worry about those 'holes' in a story set in my home country, since I haven't been living there for so long. The travails of a writer abroad... : )

    1. And it doesn't get any easier, does it? Wonder if we will ever set stories in Matera? Bunch of women at a writers' festival... lots of good wine and impractical walking shoes... ??

  5. I get this Cat. All of it. And my main character is an exile as well. I read somewhere recently that Germaine Greer said that exiles make the most interesting characters. So there.

    1. Dontcha love Germaine? Or course she has to sell books too.. Don't we all? I can't wait to read yours Downith. Now where were we with that ending??

  6. You have captured exactly how I feel:
    I cannot shout praises, or even speak
    my mind, my tongue is not complete; my own
    half father’s, half mother’s (theirs cleaved in form
    from others similarly), it is split
    in two, but I can mimic perfectly.

    I think the lacunas we cannot fill make for THE most interesting spaces for readers to inhabit with their own experiences and imaginations.

    Oh, I nominated you for a blog award, I culled the questions down from eleven to five, too, 'cause time's precious!

  7. Lacunae or lacunas? I'm distracted by this choice now!