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Posts from the ‘Memory’ Category

Almost Hare Krishna

October 12th, 2017


Here’s a game I play sometimes when I wake up in the early hours and can’t fall back asleep. Imagine you made a different choice at one of the crossroads of your life. For instance: imagine I chose a university based on what I loved (literature) rather than what I thought I loved (wildlife science). Imagine I didn’t spend my late teenage years smoking so much pot. Imagine I stayed in one place rather than moving constantly. Imagine I visited Italy in the summer of 2001 rather than early spring, and never met the Australian I would end up marrying. Imagine my first birth was easy, and I never had postnatal depression. Imagine I never fell pregnant, and never married, and lived alone in the mountains somewhere, with mismatched teacups and rescued shelter dogs.

Perhaps I love this game because it reminds me of what I have learned as a fiction writer: that so much of our lives can turn on a single moment – a strange and random fate.


Here’s me at that time. Note the hemp necklace, handmade dress.

In my university days I was a strict vegetarian, and once a Hare Krishna from a farm in North Carolina came to our animal rights club meeting and spoke to us in his quiet, calm voice about the intentional community he lived on. I was enthralled. I was still figuring out who I was but I knew, at that stage, what I rejected: the consumer culture, the status quo, the production line of matching sorority and fraternity kids with the same hair and sweatshirts and cans of Miller Light. I wanted something different. I wanted to do meaningful work – I just didn’t yet know what that work was.

There was something remarkable in the Hare Krishna’s differentness. He had a shaved head except for a small patch at the back of the crown – a tiny high rattail. He had clear blue eyes, crinkled at the edges from smiling. His skin was tanned from working outdoors, cheeks wind-burned. He spoke with a soft southern twang, asking as many questions as he answered. He wore distinctive saffron robes and was probably the age that I am now. Afterwards we walked out of the meeting together and he invited my friend and I to come and visit his farm. We could stay for the weekend, he said. We would love how beautiful it was: the land, the mountains, the goats.

I nodded. Yes, I would come. We talked more outside in the gathering dusk, it was that time of year where you can wear sleeveless shirts and shorts and marvel at the soft warm air against your skin. If it had been chilly I might have left then, and gone home, but instead we lingered and asked more questions, personal questions about his life.

He was married, he told us, with children. A lot of children, I think it was four or five. He said that in the faith, a man and woman only had sex for the purpose of procreation. His wife’s duty, he said, was to be a mother and wife, the more devoted she was the more likely she would be reborn a man in another life. The husband, on the other hand, should not be too attached. His duty was to Krishna, and if he was too interested in his wife or other women, he might come back in the body of a woman in his next life.

Gosh, and who’d want that? I said, or something similar, and he backtracked. I heard his voice rise and tighten, try to smooth those earlier words. You would be surprised, he said, at the equality with men and women. Both could be priests. Come to the farm and we would see for ourselves the way it worked. The beauty of it all.

We said goodbye, gave him our phone numbers, made loose plans. It was dark when I walked to the dining hall to eat, then to finish my assignments back in my dorm room for the following day.

I remember looking at the plastic dining hall trays and the salad bar of stale croutons and browning iceberg beneath the fluorescent lights. The sallow skin of students who spend too much time indoors, the pimples and pizza grease, the smell of bleach and wasted food where you bus your tray.

I was overcome with desire for a simpler, wholesome life. Not to wake up in a loft bed hungover at 11am on a Sunday, wondering where my weekend had gone. Away from a dorm room scattered with crushed pizza boxes, discarded outfits, paper towel rolls with dryer sheets rubber banded on the end, empty jugs of Carlo Rossi burgundy beside the sink.

But when the phone rang the next day, when the Hare Krishna called in his sweet, serious voice and asked was I coming, I said no. I told him I had an assignment due. These were the years before I knew that truth was easier, because you only had to speak it once. Instead I kept making up lies. He called again and again, for weeks he called, until finally I think he realised what was going on. He stopped trying to convince me to visit the farm.

But I was so close to saying yes for a moment; I teetered on the edge. Had I seen the farm first, before learning about their chaste marriages and chafing patriarchy I would have been easy to convince. Because more than anything then I wanted out. I wanted something or someone to come along to take me as far as imaginable from ordinary life. Fuck what was expected of me, I wanted something strange and wonderful, a totally different path. But it turned out that so many of the countercultures I considered kept to those same screwed up systems I wanted out of.

The wolf was still there – he just wore a different disguise: orange robes, a tie-dyed shirt, yoga pants.

In that early hour – the time before dawn – I like to imagine what would have happened had I gone to the Hare Krishna farm. When I fall back to sleep I dream of goats and physical labour, sun ravaged faces and great big pots of vegetarian food. When I wake up I wonder, how long would I have lasted?

What other lives might you have lived?

Research on the road

December 5th, 2016


Now that it is summer here in Australia I’m reminded of how lucky I was to have two summers this year, and that I have yet to write about the research I did for my novel in the United States in July. I have taught a few seminars about researching for writing and spoken to many writer friends about this over the years, but I haven’t written about how I use different types of research while writing a novel. So here goes.

My initial purpose of travelling to the US was to attend the Tin House Summer Workshop, but once I was well into the draft of this novel I realised how worthwhile it would be to research the gaps in my story as well. I am writing a novel about a war bride from Australia who meets and marries an American GI during World War II and subsequently moves to the US. Through Dr Robyn Arrowsmith, author of the fascinating social history All The Way To The USA: Australian WWII War Brides, I was introduced to several WWII war brides, two of whom I was able to visit with during my trip.

The original taps on the Queen Mary.

The original taps on the Queen Mary.

First I flew into Los Angeles, for the dual purpose of visiting an old friend and to see the Queen Mary,
a retired ocean liner from the Cunard line which was used as a troop ship during WWII and also transported war brides from the UK to the USA after the war was over in 1946. While the Queen Mary was never used to transport Australian war brides, the original art deco interiors were similar to some of the ships which Australian war brides sailed on. The ship is permanently docked in Long Beach now as a hotel and tourist site, and my friend (who was eight months pregnant and had a two-year-old in tow) was kind enough to share me with the ship. We stayed on board (though she had heard it was haunted). We didn’t see ghosts, but I was delighted to see that the cabins were largely unchanged, with original built-ins and taps in the bathroom for seawater or freshwater.

To write a novel I have to inhabit a character, and so much of this means imagining myself in situations they might have been in, placing myself in environments similar to those they experienced. This allows the detail of their life to creep through my imaginings. It’s a kind of talismanic research – where the things around me are what allow me to inhabit them. Just walking around the areas of the ship – the infirmary, the bridge, the engine room, the ballrooms – I was able to get a sense of what three weeks at sea on such a vessel for my character would have been like.

The SS Jeremiah O'Brien

The SS Jeremiah O’Brien

Once I left Long Beach behind I travelled to San Francisco, staying by Fisherman’s Wharf, where the (fictional) war bride I am writing about sailed into in 1946 from Sydney. I walked around the Hyde Pier with its historic ships and then over to the SS Jeremiah O’Brien a WWII Liberty troopship which also carried war brides at one point. The SS O’Brien was such a stark contrast to the Queen Mary – it is a utilitarian ship in every way – purely built for the purposes of war. While in San Francisco I took a tourist ferry on the harbour, simply to get that perspective of what it was like to approach the city from the sea.

Little details like what the Golden Gate Bridge looks like from underneath are important to me. The war brides I have spoken to and those I have read interviews with emphasise how the journey was such an adventure – and how it was like they were seeing the world for the first time.

From San Francisco I took the commuter train to visit my first war bride, Mrs Dorothy Pence Berry in San Jose. Her daughter Beverley picked me up from the station and drove me to Dorothy’s house. When she was 19 Dorothy met American Naval Petty Officer Roy Pence in Brisbane. They married in 1943 and she had already had her daughter Beverley when she got passage on the troop ship SS General Mann to the US in December 1944. The war was still on and she remembers the mines they dodged at sea, and the bunk she shared with her baby. At night the whole ship would be in blackout, and there were no facilities for babies, no baby food, and only 27 war brides and 10 babies on board.

The Golden Gate Bridge from beneath.

The Golden Gate Bridge from beneath.

Beverley prepared a beautiful lunch for us while Dorothy told me about her journey, about her memories of Australia and the difficulties she faced as a new war bride in the US. She showed me photographs and her Australian memorabilia, and it struck me how memories of a place can suspend it in time, so that it is as much that place as that time in your life that you miss.

“Australia will always be home to me,” Dorothy said, showing me her Arnott’s biscuit tins. She has imbued her children with this love, one lives in Australia, another is the president of the US World War II War Brides Association, and another has a travelling exhibition of war bride wedding dresses.

After San Jose I returned to San Francisco to take the train up to Portland for the writing workshop and to meet another war bride. First I was going to catch up with a few friends, and they were curious as to why I insisted on taking the Coast Starlight Amtrak rather than flying – why take a 22-hour train when I could take a (less than) two-hour flight? More research, I insisted, since my character took a train across the US after sailing into San Francisco. It had been many years since I took a long distance train journey and though I know it is different now, I wanted to immerse myself in that pace again – the way the scenery passes and the time takes on a different quality. The sounds, the dining cars and the restrooms and the way strangers talk to one another– no one is rushed and stressed like we are in airports or on freeways.


The view out my window on the Coast Starlight train.

To prove this point, the train was delayed about six hours and no one even seemed to mind (besides my poor friends waiting for me in Portland). There was a band travelling across the US playing music on the train, a Santa Claus impersonator and a woman who was taking her stuffed teddy bear across the US and taking photographs of him in different scenic spots. The Amtrak staff were some of the friendliest I’ve met, and while it’s probably not a good option if you’re in a hurry, I loved my slow journey up the coast.

After visiting with my dear, patient friends and checking in to my dormitory at Reed College, I had one more war bride to meet in Portland. I met Mrs Joann Patterson and three of her five children for brunch at a French restaurant in Portland. She met her American serviceman, Joe Patterson in Melbourne in 1942, when he followed her and her friend out of a restaurant and then waited for her outside of the night school class she was attending. Joann joined the AWAS (Australian Women’s Army Service in the Signal Corps) and Joe was relocated to Townsville. They got to know one another by letter and he would come and find her when he could get leave. They married in 1944 in Brisbane and honeymooned for a week before having to part again. They didn’t see each other again for 16 months, until she sailed into San Francisco aboard the Monterey. He was driving across the country from Ohio to pick up his bride, but his car broke down en route and he was not there when the brides disembarked from the ship. Luckily he was able to call a friend, who drove up from San Jose and picked up Joann the day after the ship had pulled into port. Joe arrived the next day. Joann and her children and grandchildren have travelled to Australia many times, partly because her husband Joe (who was in the US Air Force) went on to become a commercial airline pilot.

Looking out over the deck of the Queen Mary, beneath a lifeboat.

Looking out over the deck of the Queen Mary, beneath a lifeboat.

Joann had me to her house at the end of my week in Portland and cooked dinner for me and three of her children, no small feat for a 92-year-old. While she had her own difficulties as a war bride fitting in to her husband’s Catholic family, she was also keenly aware that her experience was easier than many because she was able to fly back to Australia frequently to visit. Her children all feel closely connected to Australia and have kept in contact with relatives there.

While the main character of my novel is not based on either of the war brides I interviewed or any one particular story I read, I felt as though speaking to these generous and adventurous women gave me so much insight into the story I was writing, the motivations and the challenges, the implications for future generations. I was lucky to have been invited into their homes, to have heard their stories and seen their old photographs and newspaper clippings.

I can read until my eyes are tired, but to hear these women tell their stories given an extra dimension to the book I am writing – this is the kind of research that no library can hold.

Funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and the Copyright Agency Creative Individuals Career Fund allowed me to travel to the USA.

Easy versus hard won

March 17th, 2016


I saw Brooklyn a few days ago and I am still in its thrall. Those neat drab streets of Enniscorthy, the mother and sister at the wharf, the transformation of Eilis (played by the divine Saoirse Ronan) from girl into woman and oh yes, that yellow dress.

Eilis and Jim Farrell, played by Domhnall Gleeson Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

Eilis and Jim Farrell, played by Domhnall Gleeson Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

But it was also the sense of being torn between two places which I thought Brooklyn communicated so beautifully, so viscerally, through Eilis’ character. Colm Tóibín wrote about the filming of the adaptation in the Guardian recently, saying it was about feeling the pull “between the easy familiarity of home and the hard-won familiarity of away”.

I’ve been waiting years for someone to say that so succinctly. Thank you Colm.

And here is my shameful admission: I have not read the novel the film is based on. I tried six or seven years ago and put it down after a few chapters. Why? I can’t even recall. I promise I will try again.

The plot of Brooklyn is an age-old one. Young person leaves home for new opportunities. They return changed, and must decide which path their life will take, pulled in two directions. They are forced to stop being a child and to become a person accountable for their own decisions. Eilis goes to Brooklyn from Ireland to find work, her sister has organised it for her through an Irish priest she knows there. She isn’t certain she wants to go but there are no chances for her at home. Once in Brooklyn, Eilis is brought to her knees by homesickness, but this abates when she meets Italian-American plumber Tony Fiorelli (played by Emory Cohen) at a dance. Called back to Ireland for family reasons, she is torn between whether to stay or return. Between the “easy familiarity of home and the hard-won familiarity of away”.

In other hands, this film could have become trite, I can almost hear the sappy violins crescendo, but luckily the director John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission) and the scriptwriter (Nick Hornsby) allowed the quietness, the focus on Eilis’ internal life and the small visual detail which was nostalgic without being twee.

This film does not have grand messages but small, familiar ones. Eilis is a woman of the 1950s and while she gains independence with her travel, this is ultimately a story about love. She is going to be a wife and mother. She is just not sure with whom.

Ellis working at a department store in NYC. Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

Eilis working at a department store in NYC. Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate

Meanwhile she is disloyal, she keeps secrets, she has a dark moment during which she does not know which way to turn. And when turn she finally does, I realised I had been holding my breath. How close it all was. How real it felt.

Maybe part of my love of Brooklyn is because it mirrors my own struggle with homesickness, being torn between countries, having moved to Australia for love. The America I know is changed now, not least because I have changed too. But still every time I return I feel the pull. That easy familiarity. As simple as driving again on the right side of the road. Creamer in my coffee. Lemon in my tea.

At one point in Brooklyn the priest tells Eilis that homesickness is like any sickness: you get over it more quickly than you anticipate.

I would say it is more like a broken bone, even years after it has healed it will suddenly, without warning, begin to ache.

The blind joke

February 1st, 2016


A man came to my house today to install new blinds on the windows, and I was reminded immediately of a joke that my Grandpa Bob used to tell. I’ve always been a terrible joke-teller – I forget the punch line or some other crucial aspect which makes it funny – but this joke I remember perfectly.

Me, my sister Alma and my Grandpa Bob, circa 1982

Me, my sister Alma and my Grandpa Bob, 1982

My Grandpa Bob died when he was in his seventies and I was about 16. He died of prostate cancer. Before that, he was a lawyer, a cigar smoker, a martini drinker, a motorcycle aficionado and a sharp-witted, gruff, sarcastic man. His nickname for me was Dingbat, because I was a scrawny kid and when he looked up the definition of dingbat it said “object suitable for throwing”. He was not (obviously) the hugging, praising, affectionate sort of grandpa. When the grandchildren came to him freshly bathed and pyjama-clad for a goodnight kiss, he gave goodnight chokes. It sounds strange (maybe I should be telling this to my therapist?) but he’d wrap his leathery, gin-and-tobacco-smelling hands around our skinny little necks and give us the gentlest, barest little squeeze, complete with choking sounds from us and growling sounds from him. It was a superb piece of bedtime theatre and probably served to hype us up rather than calm us down, but it was Grandpa Bob at his finest.

So was this joke. Inappropriate, of course, and not in the slightest bit politically correct, which is probably why I’ve remembered it all these years.

A woman is having a shower when the doorbell rings. She gets out to answer the door but can’t find her towel, so peeks through the blinds. There, standing at the front door is a man wearing sunglasses and a shirt that reads BLIND MAN. “Well,” she thinks, “doesn’t matter about the towel, then,” and she goes to answer the door naked. She opens the front door.

The man says: “Nice tits, lady, I’m here to fix your blinds.”

I still can’t believe that my adolescent self used to recite that joke. I can’t believe I’m telling it to you. I wish I could remember if he told it to me, or if he told it to the other grown-ups and I just overheard it. I almost repeated it to the man who came to install our blinds today, but using my better judgement I decided not to.

I guess you can tell how much I adored my Grandpa Bob. He was never going to conform to anyone else’s expectations, but in his own way, he let you know how much you were loved.


October 21st, 2015


snail-1550752-640x480When I was a girl my sister and I had pet snails.

We were living in Berlin, West Berlin, because the wall still cleaved the city in two. My father was working for the U.S. State Department – he was a Public Safety Advisor and did things like negotiate prisoner trades between East and West. We had a brick house with six bedrooms across the street from the Botanical Gardens. Before moving to Berlin my parents separated, my father had been having an affair, and he moved out of the house. We were going to live without him, just the three of us, my mother, sister and I. We were going to be fine. But then my parents reconciled and we were all moving to Berlin, packing our life, leaving our friends and home and beginning again in a different part of the world.

Next door to our new house lived a white-haired couple in a place resembling a castle – with actual turrets. The woman, whose name I have forgotten, was very kind and had a beautiful garden with ponds and an aviary with parakeets. She grew gooseberries, plump green globules which – if eaten raw – caused the whole face to pucker. In the front of her house she grew lilies of the valley. She showed me how the tiny white flowers clustered and were protected by dark green, shiny leaves. She would bend down to instruct me to smell them, they were sweet but not cloying, a ethereal fragrance.

While gardening this neighbour collected the snails and gave them to us one day in a cracked glass terrarium which her children had once used, long ago. “You might want to cook them, in butter,” she said to my mother, smiling.

My sister and I insisted we would not. We would keep them as our pets. There were at least ten or fifteen snails in that terrarium, some large, some small, all with shells in varying shades of brown. Simply to watch them climb the glass wall was entertaining, the ripple of the muscle in their single foot as it moved, propelling on its own slime.

We took them out one by one, letting them climb us. They left shiny trails of snail mucous along our arms and legs. Snails are curious creatures, once they have figured out you are not a threat they poke out of their shells, tentacles first, then those long stretchy bodies, and explore. Touch a tentacle and it shrinks, but then extends again, seeking what it just repelled from.

We gave them lettuce and let them try different garden plants, watching their reactions, noting their favourite meals. If you are very, very still and quiet you can hear a snail crunching its dinner. There are few more delightful sounds. It is also a pleasure to lie in the grass with a snail slowly climbing your body, imagining yourself a mountain – a slime tracked island of eight-year-old girl. As for snail poo – it’s not even disgusting. Just black odourless pellets to flick away.

Snails make good friends when you have none, as do books, and elderly neighbours. But gradually my sister and I made friends with other children and moved beyond our backyard. I don’t remember what happened to the snails, but fortunately the terrarium had no lid. I imagine them escaping and making a slow trek back to the neighbour’s garden, to her beautifully tended plants and ponds. Our garden was the low-maintenance kind designed by embassy staff – a few thorny rosebushes, a swathe of lawn and hedges with prickly leaves – designed to repel rather than attract.

But I remember those snail bodies rippling against the glass, leaving shiny paths on my skin, showing me my own power, the things we see when we are still.

Now, in Australia, snails find their home in my mailbox, they seem to love the combination of damp, dark and junk mail. They make quick work of Domino’s flyers and coupons for maths tutoring, leaving paper pellet poos in their wake. I can’t bring myself to remove them. I just know that I have to collect the important mail within a day or so if I don’t want to find it riddled with holes, masticated by a ravenous snail mouth.

And I dread coming home, in the dark, and hearing that sickening crunch on the garden path. In the morning, a fragmented shell, a shrivelled body already black with tiny ants.

They always remind me of that time, the upheaval of my small world, the sense that everything can change in the blink of an eye.

Step carefully, they say. Don’t forget the power you hold.

Running away from home

February 11th, 2015


Last night after dinner my seven year old decided that she was going to leave home. She had been arguing with her brother and when I asked her to take a shower it was the last straw.

‘This house is so boring! This family is so boring! You are so boring!’

‘You’d like a new mummy then? A more exciting one?’ I regretted the words as soon as I said them. They sounded petty and childish.

She showered, put on pyjamas, grabbed her blanket and announced that she was running away.

‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ I said, but she stomped outside.

‘I’m going to Melbourne,’ she said. ‘You can see me if you ever come to Melbourne.’ Read more

For my mother on her birthday

December 11th, 2014


Today* is my mother Nancy’s birthday – she is 67 years old. A few years ago she took up Zumba and she’s in great shape, her physical energy matching that of her mind. She reads nearly every word I write in some form or another, and she both encourages and critiques me.

Right now she is proofreading my 340-page doctoral thesis. Luckily for me, she has a PhD in English Literature from UC Berkeley, the title of which I remember after all these years seeing it in her basement, gathering dust: Repudiating the Self-Justifying Fiction.

My mother, centre, with kids, grandkids and her husband Rick.

My mother, in red, in Colorado this year. Surrounded by kids, grandkids, and her husband Rick.

Mom finished her PhD between giving birth to my sister and giving birth to me 18 months later. This was an 18-month period where my father was undergoing radiation therapy as he had been diagnosed with Hodgkins’ Disease. He was cancer-free by the time I was born, and while my mother did teach some English literature classes later she never took to academia. Instead she taught herself computer programming in the early 1980s and began working in information technology.** My father’s job was always the one which determined where we lived, since he was a foreign service officer, but my mother always found work of some sort of another, and combined that with the work of raising my sister and me.*** Read more

The small miracle of travel

August 8th, 2014


I have been away from my desk, visiting dear friends in the United States and taking the children to see their grandma and grandpa in Virginia. I was raised the child of a diplomat, with a suitcase in one hand and a passport in the other. (Figuratively, not literally – I was not trusted to hold my own passport until I left home!) To be en route somewhere else is one of my favourite places to be. What thrills me is to see this excitement in my children as well, they love adventure at five and seven years of age as much as I do at 37. This isn’t to say there weren’t moments of complete exhaustion and tears, and times when they missed the dog and their own beds.

Most of the time, though, they were:securedownload

Jumping off a diving board. Seeing a skunk. Watching their first fireworks on the fourth of July. Sitting in the cockpit of an commercial airplane (pilot and copilot) just after landing.Kissing their 91-year-old great-grandmother on her soft, loose cheek and holding her veiny, swollen hand. Read more

The imprint of a father

November 7th, 2013


I was moved to post this piece that I wrote in 2011 by what I heard on Radio National today. On Life Matters they were talking about tomorrow’s topic of how our expectations and perceptions of fatherhood have changed. I’m definitely going to tune in. This was originally published in Sydney’s Child, and won the 2011 Parenting Media Association Award in the category of “Personal Essay”

Highs and Lows

I can’t help but watch the white-haired man holding my friend’s newborn son in his arms. He is giving the baby a bottle, cradling his tiny head. “Who’s that?” my daughter whispers, following my eyes. “His grandfather,” I say, the noise of the birthday party receding around me. To my daughter it is an unfamiliar word. Something she has never known. Read more

To up and leave for love

July 1st, 2013


photo-11Friends who have read What Was Left have commented on some of the parallels between the novel and my life. There are a few. However, while I might have fantasised about it in darker moments, I’ve never abandoned my children. When I knew the topic which I wanted to write about (a mother who does abandon her infant) I needed to understand this character better in order to get into her head, and one of the ways I did this was by making her an American transplanted to Australia, making her a person who moved here – as I did – for love.

Her story is different from mine, very different, and you’ll have to read the novel if you want to know how. But here’s a fragment of my own story: Read more