(Guest post from Shabnam Nadiya)
Such yearning in the heart, lips that care so much
Still he must go back, must go back
You call this going back? This isn't a pleasure jaunt
The road ends there
Whoever returns to a strange land? You can go. But return?
(Excerpted from The Artist Returns: by Sunil Gangopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha)
I discovered the Nil-Lohit books at a perfect age: I was about thirteen and had received his book Koishore as a birthday gift. Koishore translates as Adolescence, although the clinical English sorely lacks the poetry drenching the Bangla word. I remember the book still, smaller in size than the usual offerings from Ananda Publishers, barely a hundred pages, a laminated white cover with a window painted in vivid colors. I had no idea who the writer Nil-Lohit was, and the book languished on my desk for months before I picked it up one afternoon. I was utterly transformed as only a teenager in love with words and sorrow can be. Sadness like that: isn’t that what adolescence is for?
The rest of the afternoon I spent by the calm, green waters of the lake near my house, sitting behind the wide trunk of a Flame Tree. Those Flame Trees had hidden much in those days, and they hid my tears that afternoon as well.
I cannot say why I wept, why the story of a young girl so unlike me called up tears. But I do remember feeling that if only I could meet Nil-Lohit he would surely understand all that I could not put in words. It was a few more weeks before I realized from the back-cover bio that Nil-Lohit was Sunil Gangopadhyay’s pseudonym. Sunil, whose poetry collections and novels took up a half a shelf’s worth of space in my library. The love that had started years ago when I began reading his YA novels on the adventures of Kaka-Babu (uncle) and Shontu, that was cemented as I grew into an avid reader of poetry, transformed into a personal triumph with the discovery of the Nil-Lohit novels, stories narrated by a bohemian soul who flaneured his way through life.
It was as if this was a shared secret between the poet I would never meet and me; a space no one else could share. For after all, I was his one, true reader, I was the one who understood. All his poetry was mine too—I was the reader whose eyes he sought when he crafted those lines. Love like that: isn’t that what adolescence is for?
Sunil Gangopadhyay is a towering figure in Bangla literature, straddling both sides of the border in his life and words. Born in Faridpur, a district in present day Bangladesh, he grew up in Kolkata, India. In 1953, he founded a quarterly little magazine called Krittibas, which went on to shape Bangla poetry for decades to come. That same year a poem of his was anthologized in the seminal collection Love Poems of 25 Years. His first poetry collection was published in 1958. In 1966, he published his first novel Atmaprakash (Self-Revelation) which drew inspiration from Kerouac’s On the Road, but was wholly Bangali in spirit.
Although poetry forever remained his primary love, he was also a prolific novelist, short story writer, memoirist, travel-writer, with over a hundred books published. Among the many awards he won was the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1985 for his seminal Shei Shomoy (Those Times), a two-volume novel set against the tumultuous and vast backdrop of the 19th century Bengal Renaissance.
He was invited twice to Iowa City’s International Writing Program ; once in the early years of the IWP, later in 1981. He wrote a book called Chobir Deshe, Kobitar Deshe (In the Land of Images, In the Land of Poetry) where he recounted his time in France and America.
Chobir Deshe, Kobitar Deshe was and remains one of his more popular non-fiction books on our side of the border. Part memoir, part travelogue, the American chapters cover his time at the IWP and his friendship with Allen Ginsberg.
I remember reading the book as a teenager, and being enamored of the idea of an institution like the IWP, of such nurturing of poets. Of being enamored of the vivid descriptions of Ginsberg. I remember hunting through the shelves of my literature professor father, looking for something by Ginsberg. If Sunil thought him a good poet, surely he must be worth seeking. And I remember becoming mind-blown upon reading September on Jessore Road and Howl, the latter in a boring looking Norton anthology. Through such connections are our lives made large.
Sunil wrote of his discovery of the French Impressionists, the creative give and take with the Beat Poets and how all of this enriched his world. And thus he enriched ours. He was one of those people who opened up the world for us, who looked upon the world in its varied and diverse beauty and ugliness and sought to show us the same. “At times I think, there’s no use living anymore/At times I think/I’ll see the world to its end!/At times I rage at people/Yet love has to be given to someone.”
[An earlier version of this piece appeared in Bangla at bdnews.com]
Shabnam Nadiya is a writer and translator, who grew up in Jahangirnagar, a small college campus in Bangladesh. She is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; and is currently working on a collection of linked stories called Pariah Dog and Other Stories.
By Tim Shipe, Arts & Literature Bibliographer, UI Libraries
Earlier this year I was in the Balkans, traveling on behalf of the University of Iowa Libraries; the trip was made possible by funds generously provided by International Programs for this purpose. The main goals of the trip were to establish mutually beneficial relationships with booksellers, cultural institutions, and individual writers in the region, and to acquire books for the University Libraries through purchase and donation. The chief focus was on authors who had participated in the International Writing Program throughout its history; a secondary focus was material pertaining to Dada and related avant-garde movements. The countries I visited were Albania, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia, with a final stop in Vienna to ship books back to Iowa City. On my first stop in Tirana, Albania, my chief contact was , the most recent Albanian writer to take part in the IWP, in 2006. Gent was immensely helpful in orienting me to the city and to the publishing and bookselling situation in Albania. He also donated a number of his own works to the library. Virtually all of my purchases were from Tirana’s only antiquarian bookstore, Epër7shme [sic], whose owner Arlind Novi is also a publisher, and is extremely knowledgeable about the history of Albanian literature and publishing. Arlind was able to find over fifty volumes by former IWP participants, including nearly complete runs of three journals edited by those writers. When he learned of the connection of Kurt Vonnegut with Iowa, he donated a copy of one of his own publications, an Albanian translation of Slaughterhouse Five.
I met several times with Elvis Plaku, owner of the book-vending service and bookshop Shtepia e Librit. We made arrangements for his company to supply new publications by the Albanian writers with connections to Iowa; he will also work with Arlind to locate additional out of print publications of interest. Most fortunately, Elvis was able to ship the books I had purchased in Tirana. Having carried hundreds of books on trains across Romania on trains in 2008, I was very grateful for this service. A brief tour of the National Library of Albania provided an opportunity to donate several publications of Iowa’s International Dada Archive.
Air fares to Belgrade being prohibitively expensive, my first weekend was devoted to the three-day overland journey via Montenegro to Serbia. The only notable incident on this journey was a thumb injury received on the notoriously decrepit train from Tirana to Shkodra (fare: $1.45); eventually, however, this mishap led, by a circuitous route, to one of the most important contacts on my trip. In Belgrade I visited about ten bookstores, including three antiquarian dealers, and purchased some fifty books by authors connected with the IWP, as well as an English translation series of Serbian fiction that, strangely, is marketed only in Serbia. The novelist Branko Dimitrijević (IWP ’85) donated copies of all of his books, and was most helpful in helping me to identify promising bookstores.
A flare-up of my thumb injury led me to seek medical assistance. Not only did the doctor arranged by my hotel make house calls; upon learning that I am a librarian, he insisted on setting up p a tour of the National Library of Serbia. There I eventually also met with Ivana Nikolić, head of the Acquisitions Department. It was Ms. Nikolić who introduced me to Bojan Vukmirica, the manager of Bookbridge, a book vendor little known in North America, but providing excellent, economical service. We are already working with Bookbridge to obtain titles that we would have otherwise been unable to acquire. Furthermore, Bojan helped to ship the books I had already purchased in Belgrade back to Iowa at cost, again saving considerable money, not to mention the effort of carrying an extra suitcase of books on the final legs of my journey.
Zagreb, up next, was the best city on my itinerary for bookstores, having about ten antiquarian dealers. I was able to fill many of the gaps in our collection of works by Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian authors connected with the IWP, and found one dealer, Jesinski i Turk, which will be able to search and ship additional titles in the future. I met extensively with Miloš Ɖurdević, the most recent of the Croatians in the IWP; through him, I also met the ingoing and outgoing presidents of the Croatian Writers’ Society, who expressed interest in establishing relationships with the University of Iowa and its literary programs.
I also met with several individuals involved in the book arts and the visual arts in Croatia. Darko Simičić, former archivist of the Museum of Contemporary Art, arranged a tour of that museum’s library, where I met several curators and the head of the Documentation and Information Department, Jadranka Vinterhalter. The museum staff was familiar with, and enthusiastic about our International Dada Archive and our Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts collection; we exchanged publications and discussed possible collaborations, especially with regard to digitization. As it happened, on my last evening in Zagreb I was able to attend the opening of an exhibition at the museum on digitization and contemporary art in Central Europe; I met several of the exhibited artists who considered Iowa’s holdings of their works to be extremely significant; they mentioned the possibility of sending additional work for our collection. In addition, I met Dražen Dabić, a publisher of fine press books and a collector and dealer specializing in ex-Yugoslav avant-garde publications. He donated one of his illustrated poetry editions.
From 18 through 21 April I was in Ljubljana. This coincided with a book festival during which virtually all of Slovenia’s publishers were offering their current editions at a considerable discount. This allowed me to obtain practically all in-print publications by Slovenian IWP participants at a discount ranging from 20 to 50 percent—a considerable saving in a Eurozone country with quite high book prices.
I met several times with Tomaž Šalamun, one of l Europe’s most prominent poets and a 1971/72 IWP participant (with whom, as it happened, I had shared an office in EPB during my first year in Iowa). He assisted me in finding a large number of his published volumes, several of which he donated. Another significant batch of donated books was waiting for me upon arrival at my hotel; these were kindly left by the Macedonian poet Lidija Dimkovska, now living in Ljubljana, just before she left for a reading in Graz.
The antiquarian book situation was less favorable than in the other cities; the four stores held very few of the items I was seeking. The bookstore of the Gallery of Modern Art, on the other hand, provided a number of important publications on Dada and the interwar avant-garde that were quite relevant to Iowa’s programs. Since there were no reasonable options in Zagreb or Ljubljana for shipping, I carried the 100 books acquired in those two cities to Vienna by train.
This was the third major trip I have been able to take on behalf of the library using the funds provided by International Programs (including Hungary, Romania, and Moldova in 2008 and Poland in 2009), in addition to a two-day side trip to Slovakia in 2011. In every case, the relationships established have continued to benefit the libraries and the University at large, and the books acquired during these trips have significantly enhanced our support of Iowa’s various international programs.
We're so very pleased! The 2012 Best Translated Book Award for poetry, given annually by the indispensable journal and site Three Percent has just been announced at the PEN New Voices festival, and it goes to a title featuring not one but two IWP alumni: Spectacle and Pigsty is a selection from two decades of work of the Japanese avant-gardist Kiwao Nomura (IWP '05) selected, edited and co-translated by Kyoko Yoshida (IWP '05), with Forrest Gander.
In fact, Nomura and Yoshida first met and began collaborating while in residency at the IWP, in the fall of 2005, so it was a triple pleasure to be able to welcome them back to Iowa City on their reading tour last fall. In addition to a fantastic, and packed, bilingual reading at Prairie Lights Books Kiwao and Kyoko also visited their old stomping grounds, the second-floor library of the Shambaugh House, to teach an hour-long seminar on their translation process. With Kiwao at her side Kyoko, herself virtually bilingual, a writer, and a professor of English and American literature at Keyo U in Tokyo walked the seminar through a close reading, and older stranslation (by Angus Turvill) and then the several drafts of the opening poem as shuffled between her and her colleague Forrest Gander, unpacking some of its literary antecedents (say, the tanka) , the philosophical landscape of abjection (by way, especially, of Pasolini’s Accattone ) and the performative/acoustic/phonic work the original poem was doing, and needed to do again, in English. To say that the publisher of the collection, Omnidawn, took a risk on work this far from the going poetic parameters (especially in print—when read out loud the poems' incantatory quality has an energy all its own) would be an easy understatement. Good for Omnidawn, thank you Three Percent, and congratulations Nomura-san, Yoshida-san and Forrest-san.
On Going Home is the name we've given to a short series of essays by our 2011 fall residents. We commissioned the pieces because we wanted to keep in touch and because we were curious to know what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly three months in the U.S. writing, researching, travelling, and interacting with Americans. We also asked the authors to send us a photograph that somehow represented "home" in some fundamental way. This latest installment comes from Jeremy Tiang, who has been travelling so extensively and over such a number of years that the term "home" doesn't hold quite the same meaning as it might for others.
My father is a Jaffna Tamil from Sri Lanka – although he was born in Singapore, and prefers not to acknowledge the existence of Sri Lanka (he refers to himself as “Ceylonese”). On my mother’s side, we were wealthy landowners in China until my great-great-uncle gambled away the family money (nice going, Unc!). Then my great-great-grandmother got religion and came to Malaysia as a bible-woman to spread the word of God, bringing my grandfather with her. She died out here, and he ended up in an orphanage. My mother was born in Malaysia after the war, and moved to Singapore in the fifties.
Given all this, it’s not surprising I’ve turned out pretty nomadic too. I left Singapore at nineteen to go to university in England, and since then have been wandering. A little while back in Singapore as a high school teacher, and then a few years in London as a moderately unsuccessful actor (my IMDB page is a graveyard of straight-to-video films). When I started writing, I realized I could do my job anywhere in the world, like the littlest hobo. So I gave away my cello, my bicycle and ninety per cent of my books, and packed my bags.
Since then, I have written a lot about the spaces between cultures, and the sense of dislocation we experience when we move into an unfamiliar space with new rules to be discovered. The things we think of as “normal” are often conditional, an idea that is difficult to grasp until you travel to a place where the norms are different. At the moment, I am working on a short story collection to be titled – if my agent will allow it – “Schwellenangst,” the German word for the fear of crossing boundaries.
When I was invited to Iowa in 2011, it seemed par for the course – I’d just finished travelling round Malaysia and Thailand speaking to survivors of the Malayan Emergency, in preparation for writing a novel about the region’s communist past. I’d been to North America several times before, but only the big cities. Here was my chance to experience the mid-west! The real America! I’d read Richard Ford, I thought I knew the score.
It turned out that America was far more complex than I’d ever imagined, an impression subsequently reinforced by the Republican primaries. I’m still reeling from, on one hand, the tremendous energy, intelligence and generosity I experienced and, on the other, seeing grade schools with anti-abortion displays in their front yards. (Even as I type these words, they sound so incredible I can’t help wondering if I’ve made this up – but no, the image is pretty well seared into my memory). All in all, an unforgettable experience, and one that I will always be grateful for.
The problem came when I was contacted, asking if I’d be interested in writing a piece for the IWP blog. Of course I would! It’s the least I could do after all that camaraderie over Pabst Blue Ribbon. Yet the topic gave me pause – “On Going Home.” All well and good for people with homes. But where did I fit in? My family is still in Singapore, and I put my parents’ address on forms because it’s the only permanent one I have, even though I haven’t lived there for sixteen years. So where is home?
After Iowa, I spent a month in a flophouse in the Bronx. Literally, a flophouse. It was like being in an O. Henry story. I spent Christmas in Singapore, then headed to Beijing, where I worked with the novelist Zhang Yueran to translate her novel The Promise Bird into English. (We met in Iowa – thanks again, IWP!) Next, a couple of months on the Baltic Coast of Germany, attending another residency in the seaside town of Kühlungsborn. After a flying visit to the London Book Fair, I'm preparing to head back home to Singapore - though it's anyone's guess how long I'll stay there. To quote Roxie Hart in Chicago: "I'm on my toes/ 'cause heaven knows/ a movin' target's hard to hit."
So, yes, home? My home at the moment is a series of hotel rooms, which quickly become personalized because I use hundreds of post-it notes to remind myself where I am in the story I’m currently writing. The cleaners probably think I’m a serial killer. It’s very liberating to be this mobile. Literally everything I own in the world fits into my suitcase. I’ve become very good at not acquiring stuff, and giving books away as soon as I’ve finished them. Drunken eBay shopping is a thing of the past – the question I ask myself now is not “Do I need X?” or “Can I afford X?” but “Do I really want to carry X across three continents?” It’s also shaped my reading habits. Most of Jonathan Franzen is out, for instance, because his books weigh so damn much.
Before you start: yes, thank you, I am aware that kindles exist. But (i) most Chinese books aren’t available in e-book format, and (ii) thanks to the murky world of copyright restrictions, amazon can’t really deal with you unless you’re permanently based in one country. And I prefer physical books, although that love is challenged when I find myself in a hotel with no elevator. Just me, three flights of stairs, and a suitcase full of paperbacks.
Don’t get me wrong. I would, one day, like to live in a proper house again. Somewhere with furniture and cats and neighbors who’ll stay long enough for me to learn their names. I’d like to be normal and have backyard barbecues and go to IKEA on weekends. Not to mention the lure of owning actual bookshelves! Maybe one day soon. At the moment, though, there’s such a lot of world to see, and I’m lucky enough to be in an eminently portable profession, one that allows me to see it.
Included are recordings of some of our alumni and friends: Khet Mar (IWP '07), Meena Kandasamy (IWP '09), Soheil Najm (IWP '09), Hind Shoufani (IWP '11), Terrance Hayes (one of four poets commissioned for the IWP's Book Wings performance), and Cornelius Eady, who will be travelling with the IWP to Brazil next month.
On Going Home is the name we've given to a short series of essays by our 2011 fall residents. We commissioned the pieces because we wanted to keep in touch and because we were curious to know what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly three months in the U.S. writing, researching, travelling, and interacting with Americans. We also asked the authors to send us a photograph that somehow represented "home" in some fundamental way. This installment of the series comes from Zoë Strachan, a fiction writer who lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and the photograph is the view from the front window of the author's flat.
Outside the train window, England sweeps by. I am returning from a speaking engagement at a university in the West Midlands. One landscape looks as flat as Iowa, but when I narrow my eyes I can just make out hills in the distance. The fields are green and there is a haze of buds on the trees. A whippet figure-eights through a field of ponies and chickens. The train rounds a corner and lurking in a valley is a derelict textile mill, enormous and uncanny. Calves give way to lambs as the hills grow more emphatic. Soon the fields are smaller and bound by dry stane dykes, as we call them in Scotland. This does not feel like another country. Will it still be home if we gain independence?
Washing flaps outside houses that would match a child’s drawing; solid, stone built like the dykes, windows twinkling, door smiling. Houses built for resilience, now bought for roses round the door, Sunday lunches and chaotic siblings. I imagine a writing room with plain plaster walls, a jug of wild flowers on the wooden desk. Bees making lazy circuits through the open window. When a sentence doesn’t come I’ll go outside and squeeze the cotton of the sheets on the line.
In Iowa City I wrote by an open window with a view of a church spire. Flannery O’Connor went there, someone told me, but I am not a churchgoer, nor do I idolise Flannery O’Connor. Still, it was pretty in the autumn sun, the clock a pleasing intimation of mortality. I don’t really get homesick when I’m away, if I’m writing, though one afternoon I sat on a bench in the Ped Mall and listened to a man shouting and swearing into his cellphone. It broke the gentility of the Midwest, reminded me of Glasgow. When I’m writing, I forget things. Not people but possessions, places. It is easy to feel landlocked so far from the sea, or so I’ve found, but the rippling corn fields of Iowa seemed ocean enough.
In Glasgow I live in the attic flat of a house conversion on a rundown square near the motorway that rips through the centre of the city. There are bees in the Victorian central garden but no cicadas. A gap site where a home for wayward girls burned down – fifty years ago, more - has been turned into a community garden. Nearby someone once carved a huge penis in the still-wet concrete of the pavement. My local bar does not have the Zombies on its jukebox and I have never seen a Filipino poet writing in one of the booths, or a Pakistani author dancing round the pool table. There is no pool table; dominoes is the game. At home I write in a narrow room at the back of the house that I think might once have been the toilet. (My partner disagrees.)
When I left Iowa City I knew I was going back to a period of not writing. I was teaching, travelling to Toronto and Berlin, catching up. While I wasn’t writing, memories of Iowa tided me over. I thought of friends and fellow writers, of sitting in a rocking chair on Barbara’s porch and reading, of walking under the shade of the trees that line those wide, sleepy streets. The editorial meetings I had with Louise over rough wine and hot nuts in George’s. But then I took another job, got ill, and the not-writing kept on. The memories retreated, although I could still picture myself sitting by the open window in that attic conversion on Jefferson, looking out at the church spire and then down at the pages in front of me.
My stay in Iowa City was too short. I would have liked to see the seasons change, and my novel gain a couple more chapters. With a few extra weeks maybe I’d have grown sick enough of people to ease the farewells. Residencies like this are an idyll, and then you go back to the everyday. Perhaps in time you stop pretending that you will see your friends from Korea or India again.
It is five and a half months since I packed up my notebooks and manuscripts and had one last late night drink in the Foxhead. The journey has taken longer than I imagined but now, on this train hurtling towards Glasgow and my little room at the back of the house, I am picking up my pen and coming home.
It is high time for a Shambaugh House Roundup, in which we share news our associates, friends, and alumni, as well as a few choice bits from within the wall of Shambaugh House, home of the International Writing Program. As always, if you have news to share, send it our way and we'll include it in an upcoming post.
First up: huge congratulations are in order for Leopoldo Brizuela (IWP '03, Argentina) who has been awarded the Alfaguara Novel Prize for his work Una misma noche. Here's a link to a great article from El Dia that includes an interview with the author.
Kevin Bloom (IWP '11, South Africa) remembers David Foster Wallace, who would've turned 50 this year, in a piece published in the Daily Maverick.
Bina Shah (IWP '11, Pakistan) has been busy: She's featured in a short documentary about writers in Karachi; has written about her experience at the IWP for Dawn; and, most recently, has penned an op-ed for the International Herald Tribune decrying domestic violence.
Jordan Stempleman is a poet and a former RA and employee of the IWP. His newest collection is No, Not Today, and filmmaker Ryan MacDonald has created a series of great book trailers for the publication. This one features a volcano and a silulacrum of a volcano.
Two Alumni have recently published pieces in The Hindu. Vijay Nair (IWP '07, India) chimes in on the state and fate of brick-and-mortar bookstores while Sukrita Paul Kumar (IWP '02, India) reports on the Asia Pacific Poetry Festival in Vietnam.
A great piece in Haaretz examining Dory Manor's (IWP '11, Israel) translations of Mallarme.
Kaled Khalifa (IWP '07, Syria) is featured in this CNN piece examining freedom of expression amid the crisis in Syria.
Desmond Hogan (IWP '81, Ireland) is featured in the new editino of Best European Short Stories, edited by Aleksandar Hemon, who recently championed European literature and works in translation at a reading in Brooklyn.
Here's a fascinating discussion of the viability and merit of flash fiction that centers on the work of alumnus Etgar Keret (IWP '01, Israel).
Ghada Abdel Aal (IWP '10, Egypt) writing for NZZ (German-language) about Egypt's Arab Spring, one year later.
We've got some great news from inside the Shambaugh House: IWP Director Christopher Merrill has been appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council on the Humanities.
As ever, if you have news or information you'd like to share, please send it along to: nathanael-brown[at]uiowa.edu.
On Going Home is the name we've given to a short series of essays by our 2011 fall residents. We commissioned the pieces because we wanted to keep in touch and because we were curious to know what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly three months in the U.S. writing, researching, travelling, and interacting with Americans. We also asked the authors to send us a photograph that somehow represented "home" in some fundamental way. The third installment of the series comes from Josephine Rowe, a fiction writer from Melbourne, Australia, seen here in her study drinking her “millionth cup of tea” alongside her cat, Molly.
On Going Home
(or Sacroiliitis, The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker, and Other Things I Came Home To)
Whatever made my fingernails hard
(the water, we suspected) is wearing
off. Now they’re always ragged, always
snagging on something.
I’m travelling light, I joked once
(though I was) and there were
things I didn’t carry home, things
I can’t find names for, even now.
When people ask me how Iowa was, I become the girl from Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?”—She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.
I’ve tried several times to adequately summarise those three months in the Midwest: my Israeli friends’ wedding, dinner with a Nobel Laureate, the incredible authors that were breezing through town almost nightly, three dollar Tanqueray martinis at happy hour, the jukebox at the Foxhead, recurring commiserations about the death of narrative in American poetry, late night Youtube marathons, the Gatorade and other provisions left at my hotel door when I was too sick to stand up, the colour of the sky the night Bruegger’s Bagels burnt down. There, that should do. But it doesn’t do, and no matter how much of it I tell, some of it gets lost. Most of it gets lost, and beneath all the talk, there is the sedimentary layer of guilt that forms every time I leave a foreign country—I should have done more, seen more, experienced more. Gotten to know people better. Simultaneously written more and spent less time at my desk. Been some better, more eloquent, more capable version of myself.
I came home to spring, pollen on the air, an overgrown garden, plastic bank notes that seemed too colourful, too bright, like play money. I came home to a wedding (my own), a manuscript deadline and a diagnosis of Sacroiliitis, which until then had the less specific and thus more friendly name of lumbago. After the wedding, where my determination to dance had left my back in a worse state than before, I doubled my Celebrex intake and wrote around the edges of things: travel, Christmas, settling back in. Or more likely the other way around—Christmas and travel and settling back in happened around the edges of writing, and I finished my manuscript in cafes and airports, on country trains, from the dining room table and at the makeshift desk of a borrowed studio in Perth. The studio was on the second floor of a cavernous federation building with eighteen foot ceilings—a huge room cluttered with photography paraphernalia and packages of new pyjamas. I was alone there most of the time, and it was difficult to procrastinate, though I spent part of Christmas eve lifting up the conspicuously loose floorboards, trying to see what was underneath, and avoiding the temptation to tear open a set of pyjamas and make myself at home.
In Melbourne the dining-room table was still crowded with wedding gifts; Wedgwood limestone, bottles of single malt whisky and fine glassware, the pristine Royal DeLuxe typewriter a friend’s grandfather had learnt to type on, The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker. But I favoured the dining table over my own desk, as my own desk (not so much a desk as an antique sewing table) measured seventeen by twenty-nine inches and there was not enough room to spread out all the notebooks, loose sheets of paper, scrawled-over envelopes and other book-related chaos that had accumulated over the past year.
Amidst this chaos were the notebooks I’d filled in Iowa—first drafts, editing notes and descriptive fragments about road trips to rural New South Wales, the smell of bluegum, the HMAS Otway surfacing in Sydney Harbour, a dilapidated apartment block in a post-bohemian inner-Melbourne suburb, a shirtless man leaning back against a Malley’s esky.
Away from Melbourne, in my IH hotel room, I’d stared out at the Iowa River and wrote almost exclusively about home. Where previously I’d taken great care to construct settings that were familiar yet placeless, the foundations of these stories were unequivocally Australian.
Do you think the Australian landscape influences your writing? A student asked following a talk I gave to the U of I International Literature Today class.
Do you feel isolated in Australia? Do you feel far away?
These were simple questions, but they were also something of a revelation. When I visit the U.S. I’m often met with an idea of Australia that does not in any way resemble my idea of Australia, at least as far as left-leaning literary Melbourne is concerned. We’re all reading The Atlantic over here, dissecting Caitlin Flanagan’s alternately vicious and possessive article about Joan Didion. We’re listening to podcasts of This American Life and lining up at the Athenaeum to see Ira Glass in person. We’re cringing when Mitt Romney’s face appears in the papers. Three years ago we were throwing Obama inauguration parties. We’re all watching Boardwalk Empire, and The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker is sitting in the middle of my table. I don’t even get New Yorker cartoons—does anybody?—but there they are.
Geographically speaking, yes, America is far away. But the distance seems to differ depending on which continent you’re standing on. Culturally, commercially, politically, the U.S. is embedded in Australian lifestyle. By comparison, I did feel removed from Australia while living in Iowa City, and perhaps this is why most of what I wrote during the fall was so determinedly Australian. I missed home. I felt far away.
It is January, post-wedding, post-deadline, post-travel, etc., and without those various sources of momentum I’ve hit something of a lull. Fortunately, Melbourne itself is in something of a lull, something a friend of mine used to call empty January, where nothing much gets done. Maybe there’s a Midwestern equivalent around July. January in Melbourne is all cider and bare limbs and tennis and music festivals. Weekends are a drowsy haze of barbeques and lawn games. This year, both bocce and lawn bowls have been forsaken for Kubb, a Swedish game that no-one really understands the rules of, and which mainly involves throwing bits of wood at other bits of wood, thus culminating in the bruising of many a shin.
After one such incident I sit out of the final few rounds of a game, my left leg wrapped in a sarong full of ice. A friend digs around in the esky and passes me a consolatory beer, then sits beside me on the grass.
So, I haven’t asked yet, he says. Iowa. Was Iowa amazing?
It was, yes, thank you.