Essay

Beyond exile

She, poor lady, hath by sad experience learnt how good a thing it is never to quit one's native land.

– Euripides

Exiles feed on hope.

– Aeschylus

MY GRANDFATHER CAME to Australia because he was sick of eating polenta and cheese, Zio Tony told me. My mother tells me he argued with his father. My brother tells me he was opposed to Mussolini. Whatever his motivation, my grandfather never set eyes on Veneto again.

Nonno came to Far North Queensland to cut sugar cane. My grand­mother, Antonietta, followed from Venice with their little girl, Speranza, and my father, Graziano, was born two years later in Ingham. Nonna couldn't get used to the tropical heat, so my grandfather got in a car with a compatriot and drove for days until he found a place whose epic granite sculpture and benign climate reminded him of home. I can imagine him: long trousers and rolled-up shirt sleeves, an elegant tilt to his felt hat. He is standing beside the overheated car, smoking a cigarette, and thinking to himself, "Yes, we will make a life here." He opened a bakery in Poziers, near Stanthorpe, and gave some land to the Church where a little tongue-and-groove chapel now stands. Italians belong by building. Through work and prayer, he dedicated himself to his new home.

Zio Tony followed, then Zio Edoardo. They went where the work took them, south to the Snowy River hydro scheme. The family grew. They worked on the land. They planted orchards and vineyards. Their hands thick­ened with their labour and their eyes creased with the white glare of the Australian sun. My father's sister married a man from Treviso and lived in a large house attached to another where her husband's brother and his wife lived. There was coffee brewing on the stove, the radio on the fridge tuned to light popular music. Minnie Ripperton crooned as Aunty Sperry made brodo con tortellini. My other aunt also married a man from Veneto. Only my father "married out": my mother, from five generations of Queensland graziers.

One uncle went south to work on the building sites in Canberra's CBD. "Your uncle nearly wore a hole in Civic," my aunt told me, he was so amazed by concrete. He liked to dress in his best suit and hat and walk apassagiata around the city centre. Zio Eddie poured concrete and made mosaics as he went. My aunt tells me they are still there, beautiful tile patterns laid into the foundations of our nation's capital.

It was not always an easy life. Zio Bruno was shot in the hand during a hold-up of the family winery. Nonno had stones thrown at his door during wartime. Credit extended at the bakery was deliberately left unpaid. They suffered illness from backbreaking work and isolation. They bore their hard­ships with dignity, for they had chosen this life in Australia.

When I went to Venice for the first time, pieces fell into my family puzzle that I didn't even realise were missing. I went to the church in Treviso where my grandmother and grandfather were married. I was given a fur coat, and a cultural context for it by my great-aunt. When we met, she held my hands in hers for a long time and her blue eyes shone with tears. She had not seen her brother since his temper, his politics, and his stomach drove him to Far North Queensland so many years before. My great-aunt looked uncannily like my sister: her expression, an indefinable gesture. Click, click, the puzzle came together. So that's why Aunty Sperry makes coffee that way. Oh yes, brodo. Yes, squid-ink pasta. Italian names that start with Z are from Veneto. Marino Zorzi was a doge of Venice. I visited the Palazzo Zorzi. Another Zorzi was spiritual adviser to Henry VIII. "He can't have done a very good job," my mother said with a smile.

I visited aunts and uncles in Musano. This branch of the family had moved to Australia to work on the hydro scheme and returned 15 years later when the project was complete. In Australia, my family uses words of the Venetian dialect no longer common in Venice. In Musano, my family has kan­garoo skins and speaks Australian-accented English.

Zia Maria and I spent every day together for a month. She embraced me with her routine as if I had always been sleeping in the bed with the aqua cotton coverlet. She missed the freedom of Australia. "In Italy, you have to dress up just to go to market." She resented the constraints of Italian society and remembered as the best days of her life raising her two boys in the beauty and freedom of Canberra. A light snow fell outside as my uncle Alfredo talked of how he used to fish for barramundi in the Mary River. On the bank, in the hot Maryborough sun, you tie a freshly trapped hare to an overhanging bough. A day or two later, barramundi arrive in abundance. "You can just walk in and pick them up," he told me.

The puzzle was coming together, the secrets of the émigré unfolding on two continents. Stories of place and displacement. The little things spoken of daily. It took me many years to get a sense of their lives. One day, while teach­ing me the timeless skill of hand washing (the water must not be too hot or too soapy), Zia Maria told me, "It's a curse to have two homelands. You'll never belong to either."

Nothing is more sweet than country and parents, even when far away one lives in a fertile place

– Homer, Odyssey, Book IX

 

I HAVE LIVED in the States for nine years now. I came here because it was time to leave Cape York. I wasn't ready to go home to Brisbane. Mel­bourne and Sydney seemed oddly compromised: neither metropolis nor village, and certainly not home. If I was going to move to a big, terrifying city, why not go to the biggest, most terrifying city I could imagine? The most mythologised city in the modern world – as Medea said of Corinth, "the prophetic centre of the earth". From one jungle to another. From Cape York to New York.

Gotham is the fictional Everycity. Yet it takes only half an hour to traverse one edge of the tiny island to the other. Entire lives are lived out in a five-block radius. You can hear five languages in those five blocks. The humid, stormy summers remind me of home. From my window, I can see the blue-black clouds roll in from the west and the lightening crack over New York Harbour.

I look out to Ellis Island, the historic point of entry for immigrants. Whether a fifth-generation Irish cop who remembers when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, or a Haitian cab driver, you are a New Yorker by simply saying so. "I Heart New York" is all it takes to win the keys to the city. With an Aus­tralian accent? All the better.

I love the un-mediocrity of it. There is no duplicity in its ruthlessness. No complacency, no secret agenda. It's just there before you, like a big wave, and the urge to ride it is irresistible. This city will give you a thrashing. But there is no better day than a good day in New York City. The street life. The music. I love the scale of the place. Its bedrock, which allows the buildings to go so high. A single quirk of nature made this city possible. You must keep your wits about you. You must make a choice every time you are confronted by a panhandler in the street. What am I going to do about it? Mindfulness. To live in New York is to be awake, conscious of the dangers and joys and possibili­ties and sadnesses of each day.

Although my long stay here represents another fracturing of my family's connection to place, coming to New York was, as Venice, the completion of a circle. From my breakfast table, I look out to the Verrasano Narrows Bridge that my parents crossed, my mother heavily pregnant, 30 or more years ago. Living here now, I understand at last why mum makes French toast the way she does, the "Raggedy Anne" pattern on our childhood sheet set, her respect for Jewish culture, the future we might have had, had my father lived. Click. Another piece falls into place.

To get to New York, I had to pay my dues. On arrival in Boston for grad­uate school, I found it ugly and abrasive. The architecture, the motorways, the brittle cold winters. I was all complaints and grumbles and "America bashing" and I made a solemn vow: as soon as this dumb course is over, I'm going back to Queensland.

It's heart-wrenching to uproot yourself from the people and place you love. For years, I could hardly speak about my mother and sister without chin tremors. I had physical aches. I cried an entire weekend because I missed my best friend's wedding. Another wedding? Batten down the hatches for a tsunami of tears. Even I was bored by this carry-on. It was well into the next day before I recovered from the previous night's evening news. In what kind of country do these horrors happen? I America-bashed as a frustrated child might punch her pillow. I vented to cope. To spend the day with people who speak the same language, supposedly to have no language barrier, and yet to feel like no one could understand a word you say. As though my mouth was open but no sound was coming out. To suffer that dire illness; irony-deficiency, a malaise suffered by many English-speakers in America. Friends were perplexed at how I could be so acutely home and heartsick and yet not haul anchor and move back. I checked the internet for houses in Cairns almost daily, just to see photos of familiar streets and trees. It's hard. It's really hard, to be away from the people and the land you love.

America was strange. I clung to my friend from Brisbane who'd arrived shortly before me. We'd get together and try to make sense of our experience. "Do you think hip-hoppers like gold so much because of the Italian influence in New York?" I asked my friend. "No," he said, with the kind, entertained look of a parent enjoying his child's malapropism. "That'll be the African influence in New York." Duh, as they say in America. I was ignorant, I was confused. I could not read the situations in which I found myself. Unlike my grandparents, I was ungracious. I wanted to go home.

And then it started. The gentle gust of wind under your wings: conversa­tions, resources, green lights, encouragement of ideas and an assumption of capability. I was not required to prove I could do it. I was cheered on to do it. Everywhere I had heard "no" in Australia, there was "yes" in America. A weight was being lifted off my shoulders that I did not even realise was there. I didn't grow to love "America" per se, but I began to love what America let me do. That freedom thing they always talk about? It's real.

Other lessons were more difficult. My Uncle John, now 74, lived his life on Yilgangandi Station, in south west Queensland and, I'm quite sure, remem­bers the name of nearly everyone he's ever met. People count in Queensland, for their own sake. In the "city without pity" I learned, the hard way, about the utility of instrumental relationships. Ask not only what you do for a living, but what you can do for me. I watched myself lose the openness that urban life exacts as its price. Sometimes you need to leave to know where you've been. I had to go to New York to figure out what it meant to be quin­tessentially from Queensland.

And then the terror warnings started. Just last week, I attended a (euphemistically titled) "fire" drill in my workplace and was introduced to a strange New York dialect with no uncertain provenance. We were schooled in "invacuation" (moving to the centre of a building instead of outside in the event of a dirty bomb) and "refuge in place". We were each equipped with light sticks that would last for eight hours after being snapped: the kind you wear around your neck at nightclubs. Transistors, escape plans. The most fan­tastic fantasies of Armageddon are now unexceptional. Everyone knows who they'll call and what their escape route will be in scenarios A, B and C. I keep copies of my Brisbane friends' passports. These are the realities of the dystopia that is now New York City.

We face dangers unimagined three years ago. And yet, we accept these risks rather than go home. Some have gone, certainly. But in the face of home­sickness and terror warnings, what is it that keeps the rest of us here? The lived experience in New York is altogether different from American foreign policy or popular media. All of the bad things about America are obvious. All the good things about Australia are obvious. The converse is true of both. The good in America creeps up on you.

So here I am, nine years later, having done what, by now, might seem to be a family tradition, perhaps even the curse of which my aunt spoke. I am living far from home, and dreaming daily of it. Bruised by homesickness but in thrall to the challenge of this new life. My grandparents sacrificed so much to get us to Australia and here I am, uprooting us again. You would have to be mad, or a criminal on the run, to do this to yourself. But once the fabric of connection to place has been rent, it can't just be patched back together but must be sewn into something new. My family was uprooted. What is the nature of my rela­tionship to land now? Is Australia the motherland? The step-motherland?

The Hobson's Choice is that part of me thrives in New York City, but part of me will never be truly, unreservedly, child-at-the-beach happy unless I am in Queensland. My heart is in the land I knew as a kid, its mangroves, its lignum. I was hard wired by rainforest and the crackling-dry spinifex during a drought, by river water as cool and tarry as day-old tea. My move to New York has been a victory of the will and an injury to the soul. I could well be home by Christmas. Or not. Either way, I'd like to figure this out. To get to the root of uprootedness.

It is therefore ordered and adjudged by this Court, that you be transported upon the seas, beyond the seas, to such place as His Majesty, by the advice of His Privy Council, shall think fit to direct and appoint, for the term of your natural life.

 

THE HISTORY OF expatriation begins with exile. From Adam and Eve to our own Christopher Skase. Ovid was banished from Rome in AD 8 for writing poetry considered an incitement to adultery. He lived out his days in what is now Constanta, one of Eastern Europe's most famous seaside resorts. Banishment to the beach can't have been all bad, but Ovid never stopped complaining of homesickness for Rome.

Some exiles are not forced to leave, but run. They run from love-gone-wrong, or the law, or tragedy, or tyranny, or poverty, or boredom, or simply heed the call of the open road. The Prodigal Son, of substantial means in his home town, left for no reason other than the challenge of striking out on his own. Some run to opportunity. Thousands of Irish, exhausted by the oppres­sive poverty of the potato famine, boarded boats for America. The motives and circumstance of the exile, enforced or voluntary, are as limited only as the human condition itself.

Willing exile is exile nonetheless. Its privations are not felt only by those who are forced out: a daily absence, a liminal state that Victor Hugo referred to as "a long dream of home".

Entire cultures have suffered the tragedy of banishment. The word "dias­pora" first appeared in a Greek translation of the book of Deuteronomy to describe the dispersal of the Jews. A foundation of the Australian nation is exile. Exile is the human story, but ours in particular. The banishment of petty criminals and political dissidents to the furthest reaches of the British Empire and the removal of Aboriginal people from their homelands are the sine qua non of the modern Australian nation. Later, emigrants fled poverty, political or religious hardship in China, Western Europe, South-East Asia and the Middle East to be part of a "New World". All Australians, except Aborigines who still live on their traditional land, have dislocation in common. Australia is a country built on displacement, and the corollary of unbelonging; learn­ing to belong in a new way.

A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place
Or also living in different places.
That covers my case, says Joe.

– James Joyce, Ulysses

 

IT IS INEVITABLE that those scattered will seek out their kind. Transient, or more enduring, networks form. The history of immigrant clusters is as old as diaspora itself.

A rush of family weddings exposed me to my first experience of what might loosely be called a diaspora organisation. All of my family's wedding receptions were held at the Italian Club in Stanthorpe, later named, in the tradition of Italian inclusiveness, the International Club. Zio Bruno made salami. Zio Gino provided the wine. Norma and Speranza made everything else. Mattresses were laid down at the back of the hall where we kids, after standing for a toast to the Queen and being whirled around by tall uncles on the dance floor or sliding in our white embroi­dered socks, would crash in delirious exhaustion, a little pile of patent-leather Mary-janes and lace-up dress shoes beside us. When I visited relatives in Veneto, it was comforting to be taken to a place as famil­iar as home – the Italo-Australian Club in Musano. It was New Year's Eve. Sure enough, the children slept at the back of the hall with music and con­versation all around them. Long tables were set with white linen, homemade wine flowed and a band played while adults danced the Pride of Erin. The diaspora network is a third country, the native land of expats, repats and visitors from abroad. Here is a new hybrid culture, born of shared experience and imagination.

Diaspora organisations are proliferating now in New York, like any idea whose time has truly come. Jamaicans, Indians are incorporating, getting wired and creating pathways to and from home. It would be futile to try to avoid the Australian network in London, so thick are we on the ground, and so connected. In my experience, New York was different. It is harder to get here, harder to stay. It was a strange experience to arrive and not to meet another Australian for months. It struck me that Australians made terrible immigrants. No self-respecting Burman or Irishman would arrive in a new country, open a bank account and disappear into the street the way Aus­tralians did. Without seeking the company of compatriots or extending a hand to those who would follow. This, too, has changed in New York as a crit­ical mass of Australians is coming together in formal and informal networks. The Australian diaspora (for want of a more historically and politically appropriate word) is getting organised the world over.

It is difficult to know whether to characterise the experience of the Aus­tralian abroad as that of a gypsy, exile, expat or simply someone on an extended working vacation. My friend Chris Aitken, during one of many ani­mated discussions about the nature of the new Australian expatriation, coined the phrase "rolling diaspora". We are scattered across the globe, but we are home for Christmas. We might stay home for the rest of our lives. We might up again to Hong Kong for three years, or be based in New York but come home to collaborate on a public-policy project.

The reality of the Australian "rolling diaspora" echoes what Noel Pearson has envisioned as necessary for the future of Cape York: the idea of "orbit". Pearson speaks of the imperative for Aboriginal people of the Cape to acquire bicultural competence, to accommodate a nuanced understanding of Western culture while retaining fluency in their own. To launch out from a firm base to which you return. To invest in relationships, skills and resources in the wider world while building something enduring at home. The Cape York village is a microcosm of Australia in the world. We need to engage on a global scale and must find a way to do so without losing our identity, con­nection and the reciprocal obligations of citizenship.

Our country is that spot to which our heart is bound.

– Voltaire

 

A KEY ASPECT of the globalisation of the past decade has been shifting patterns of immigration and emigration. The movement of people internationally has changed both in nature and scale. Australian patterns of migration continue to evolve. Members of my family emigrated and repatriated, returning to Italy fundamentally changed by their decades in Australia. There are more people from Musano in Australia than there are left in Musano. The repatriation of Greek Australians from Melbourne is one of the most prevalent trends in contemporary Australian migration. But to call it emigration or repatriation connotes one-way movement that does not accurately depict what is happening now. For the first time in history, significant numbers of people are belonging to two places at once.

One particular development has altered forever the nature of displace­ment, emigration, and diaspora organisation. The simple physical fact that one can only be in one place at a time has to some extent been defied by tech­nology. Email, digital media and other miracles of the internet mean that my mother, on a farm near Dayboro, and I, while visiting my brother who lives in London, can now discuss a renovation to the Brooklyn Museum while looking at The New York Times slide show, or discuss a family photo as if there were an album on our laps between us.

Milan Kundera said: "The very notion of homeland, with all its emotional power, is bound up with the relative brevity of our life, which allows us too little time to become attached to some other country, to other countries, or to other languages." Technology ameliorates exile on two frontiers: it shifts time as well as place.

The great good fortune of my generation of homesick Australians has been the rolling out of the information highway just as we were reaching out to connect from so far away. The greatest tool in service of this irrational bifurcated life has been the burgeoning communications technology of the past decade.

No amount of technology, however, can get you to a wedding in New Farm when money or time is short. Australians are defined by the tyranny of distance. So, too, the Australian abroad is defined and confined by the brute reality of geography. Place is unequivocal. But virtual communities and dias­pora organizations suggest that you don't always need to be somewhere to be a part of something. You can check the surf report, vote, play scrabble, watch the evening news, buy a car or be connected to country from the other side of the world. This new reality reflects an age-old truth: that home is where the heart is. It offers a new kind of citizenship. One we're defining as we go.

Who decides where the borders of the homeland run? ...on every side there are doors to a wider place, a covert geography under sleep where all the waters meet.

– Janette Turner Hospital

 

EXILE IS A relationship to people and place. It's a two-way street. Each culture responds in its own way to those who leave the fold. I was sur­prised on my visit to Italy to learn how easy it would be for me to gain Italian citizenship. They seemed delighted that I might want to identify as Italian. In contrast, Japan does not forgive her prodigal children. During the Olympics some years ago, an American-born skier of Japanese descent had her name "Yamaguchi" spelled out, in a deliberate slight, in katakana – the alphabet used for foreign words, rather than the kanji reserved for "truly Japanese" names. America, a land of immigrants whose mosaic plurality accommo­dates the complexity of its history, is wholly neutral to its expatriates. They can come and go as they like.

One might imagine Australians would have a particular understanding of what it means to be far from home. But historically, perhaps because of our isolation, the Australian who leaves is gone and all but forgotten. The revenant is considered interesting for about a minute. Australia has, until now, had a strained relationship with her expatriates.

Ironically, as a country principally peopled by immigrants, Australia has not looked kindly on people who leave and is, at best, indifferent to the repa­triated. The Australian artist David Rankin (now resident in New York) commented at a gathering: "There are only two countries which consider you a traitor if you don't go home: Israel and Australia."

Art critic Robert Hughes, on returning to Australia, drove on the wrong side of a country road, had a terrible accident and was badly injured. He reacted defensively and was roundly vilified by the press. Could there be a more poignant metaphor for the disorientation of the repatriate, and the resentment of those who never left home?

The first generation, and some of the best known of our expats, including writers such as Hughes and Germaine Greer, judged Australian society harshly when they left and in turn were very harshly judged. Like the painful end to a love affair, separation was marked by passions and recrimination on both sides.

They bemoaned the confines of Australian culture, as much as they cele­brated the opportunities of their adopted homelands. They took issue with our sports-mad national character, our cultural cringe and ethnocentrism, perhaps in the hope of change. Like early activists in a social movement, they used sharp tools and harsh words to cut a swathe through complacency and shine some clarity on the morass of emotion and circumstance around the "cultural refugee" and their relationship to home. In the process of pointing out the flaws in the Australian national character that drove them away, they became somewhat alienated.

We come after this first generation of expatriates. They named names and now we have a conceptual vocabulary to use more quietly at the negotiating table. Our generation, like latter-day feminists who have returned to a rein­vented institution of marriage as well as the six-centimetre stiletto, can embrace a more complex relationship with home. As the benefactors of their bravery and belligerence, we can see what hurtful parting words should not be said for the risk of regret. Their pioneering has left us with the gift of hind­sight and a valuable opportunity to keep the patriotism in the expatriate.

Having said that, we should still have the courage to talk candidly about why we went away. The pull of New York is well known. The push from Aus­tralia is less openly discussed. Cultural cringe is an issue on the wane, I think. Our food, literature and design flourish at the highest levels of artistry and industry. But, for many women (and some men) I know, the push from Aus­tralia still has much to do with gender. Australia – our gulag in paradise – remains in some respects an English prison culture where men cling together in their exile and women are neither familiar nor welcome. This is by no means the universal experience of Queensland women. But I would live in Brisbane right now if it had not been mine.

Come, come, return; return, thou wandering lord:
Charles and the rest will take thee in their arms.

– Shakespeare

 

HISTORICALLY, EXILE ENDS with the return home. Dorothy clicks her heels and is reunited with a teary Aunty Em. The prodigal son returns to the fattened calf. The challenge for my generation of Australians, whether the scattered among us return home, orbit or stay away, is to put an end to exile no matter where we might be. To fracture the connection – so fundamental to Australia's history– between geography and exclusion. If not physically reunited, Australia and her departed citizens must at least be reconciled. The clock should not start on your Australian-ness the moment your foot leaves Australian soil. Something more than technology is needed.

Having your feet in Oz and your heart in Kansas; to be an Australian in New York requires feats of illogic, leaps of faith and a healthy dose of poetry. To maintain cultural identity and loyalty while embracing a new place and people is not an easy challenge. It is a parallel universe, a pluralist life. It will take resources, resolve and imagination to carry it off. Let's hope we can find solutions to the tyranny of distance that will open Australia to the world, and the world to Australia, through her own people. That will allow a new con­ception of citizenship, one that is connected and responsible, bonded to place but not wholly contingent on domicile.

The journey of my grandfather was at once a painful and permanent wrenching away. He left Veneto – and his sister – never to see them again. He could not afford the luxury of looking back and so Italy remained an unspo­ken sadness his entire life. The next generation of my family came and went in fifteen-year cycles, moving linearly from one country to the other. Mine is the first generation with the opportunity to transcend the constraints of national borders. For all but the exceedingly wealthy, the idea of bi-continentalism was unimaginable until very recently. But my cohorts and I can imagine, and are working to realise, a life where we are citizens of the City State of New York and the Country of Australia. The relationship between Australia and her people abroad is in flux and it is only if we keep talking to each other that we can ensure it gets stronger as it gets more complex.

It is a huge leap to envisage oneself not as merely adrift, but as a fully formed bi-continental Australian. We need, and are trying to build, a matrix of technologies, resources, networks, states of mind and habits of being that will allow us to be wholly Australian, firmly rooted in Australian soil, regard­less of where we live. We are reading, observing, thinking, talking, dreaming and organising, investing a large portion of our resources and energy trying to reimagine our character and obligations as Australians in orbit. We are busting a boiler to stay connected. Now all we need is word from home.

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