Memoir

Fantastic nationality

'In dreams foreignness is absolutely pure, and this is the best thing for writing.
Foreignness becomes a fantastic nationality.'
– Hélène Cixous

MADLY IN LOVE with the city of Rome, I was certain I wouldn't be able to stay away from it for long. It was my city of beginnings: my parents met and married there, presumably it's where I was conceived; twenty-eight years later I wrote the manuscript of my first book there. Another twenty-eight years later a short touristic return was part of 'one last look at Europe', but I soon found myself vowing to live there again and by the next year I had left my last home in Australia on a one-way ticket. A yoga conference in the US, five months at the Binger Film Lab in Amsterdam, then to the six-month residency in Rome.

I would not have left Rome if I could have stayed, or so I said then, even if that meant never ever leaving, but of course you can say these extravagant things when that choice is not really yours to make.

In Rome I set about obtaining my parents' marriage certificate and the correct stamps that could, I thought, commence my application for a second passport. In effect, then, my latest travels in Europe would end with my claiming a part-European identity, the new passport an objective correlative for an answer to an implied question – and there I would have a meaning, a conclusion, a sense of consequence, proof that underlying the travels in European cities was a quest with an outcome, bestowing a shapely meaning to all that went before.

During my 'one last look at Europe' trip in 2006, visiting or meeting friends in several cities, I found myself not unpleasantly bedevilled by the persistent question: could I live here? I would return to spend longer in Amsterdam and Berlin but it was Rome that most beguiled and promised.

 

ACQUIRING THOSE DOCUMENTS in Rome did not, however, lead to my stepping into a new way of life, dividing my time neatly between Rome and Australia. I've never gone any further in trying to get that European passport, not yet anyway. I don't know what choice any of us have about anything. Who does, really? I read of research into consciousness, the mind and how decisions are made that could terminate our sense of free will. And yet it is necessary to presume we act freely, make choices. Choices have consequences that are not chosen: where is the line between choice and consequence?

In the four years since, I still haven't lived in any one place for as long as the six months in Rome.

From there I went to spend three weeks in the south of France staying with friends, eating summer's nectarines and peaches, making excursions to Mediterranean beaches and graceful towns with Roman ruins and medieval cathedrals. I kept up a writing practice that got sidelined into a fruitless film project for too long; then it was three weeks in a writers' retreat with four other writers in Switzerland in a lavish chateau, picturesque, elegant, historical; via a few days in a friend's place in Paris to the US: first for six weeks in a rural writers' retreat in upstate New York, with a sculpture park in its grounds and the surrounding hills displaying glorious autumnal colours, where I got a lot of work done; a month in Miami in the colourful chaos of another friend's beachside apartment where we watched the election result that saw Obama become president; then to India: a film market in Goa and a transitory sense that one of my screenplays was soon to be produced, some weeks in Chennai seeing old friends, a few months based in Pondicherry writing something else for a while, living first in an apartment in a Muslim area then on a rooftop in the French quarter: all these places redolent with stories of friends, meetings, conversations, observations, days measured in their own daily practices.

On I went to seven weeks in the Himalayan foothills for a yoga school and a few days back in Delhi; my wish to return to Europe was granted by an out-of-the-blue opportunity to live in a tiny writers' flat for two and a half months in Antwerp, where the writing I thought had gone well now looked to have gone badly (possibly vice versa also); from there to the international writers' and translators' house in Ventspils, Latvia, for a revelatory month experiencing the Baltic shore by a river mouth; another month in France in a gorgeous apartment with its view of snow-capped Alpine peaks in St-Gervais-les-Bains, where I abandoned memoir for a new story, then the three and a half months in Berlin where I was immersed in writing fiction again, this time in screenplay format; a fleeting repatriation to Australia turned out to be only a stop on my way back to India for another six months, this time in Goa, adapting the screenplay into a novel, and I came back to Australia with a sense I ought to find or make a new home, an anchor, a base. Here! After all, I would live here!

 

THAT, IT TURNED out, was not going to happen. I lived in nine places over thirteen months in Melbourne; a new city for a new life was the big idea. At first I was on the search for an apartment to rent, a lease to sign, a place to make a home in, to once more accumulate furniture and household goods.

What was I thinking? You need a regular income to win a lease, no-one was going to give an unemployed, property-free, single woman a lease; I had to get a Good Job. Still, when I failed to get a full-time academic position, I heard angels sing, my whole being suffused with relief. Ratbag life called again. Should I call my memoir Ratbag Life? To an Australian the slang term ratbag communicates refusenik, oddball, illegitimate connotations. Why this sudden lightheartedness?

By now I had learnt that this city was not where I was to end up. I had felt false and inadequate trying to fit in; not that I'd really faced how long that could take; now, as another transition zone, another short-term location, the city became captivatingly attractive; the things I liked about it – its architecture, its trams, its lively, diverse, arty city centre – were more appealing to explore as an outsider in a place of new friendships with other newcomers, itinerants and immigrants, as well as those rooted in local communities. My main project turned out to be a major sorting out: redefining the work that felt imperative, the options that were available, the restrictions I could not overcome, while some attachments I thought were part of me ripped themselves out of my life. Where I thought there was dependable mutual love and loyalty I found that my 'reckless' life was despised and I was dumped. The stuff I had stored for over three years was mostly destroyed in a fire. A cosmic joke, right? All that stuff stuff stuff I wished I had culled even further, that was done for me. What remained was delivered covered in greasy soot, and in a suburban sub-let it was the dirty lonely sick-making work of many weeks to sort it out, repack what had been saved into fresh clean boxes, throw out even more.

I heard many people's stories about their stuff, their accumulating and hoard-ing, how hard it was to get rid of things, the conflicting feelings we have about material things: they take on a life of their own, they allow themselves to be covered in dust, to be overlooked in dark corners and unused spaces, but try to throw them out and they will insist on their right to exist, their unassailable presence in your universe. For every thing you want to throw out some other thing will come. The conversations about stuff seem to be a part of our age or our times.

Material things assert their value for their stories, their associations, the fact they were made; they assert a right to exist by occupying space; they are a burden, a trap, a metaphor for the junk and inertia and encumbrance of existence. It's their place full of material stuff that anchors people; it was partly as a place to put my stuff, set out all my books on shelves, hang my pictures, use my plates, store my boxes of photographs and letters and notebooks, to recline upon my own cushions and hang up all my clothes that I wanted a home for, yes, and a place to invite people, cook for them and make up a bed in a guest room. Cosmic Joke had actually saved many of my most personally precious things – the boxes of photos and notebooks – while useful things – bed, bedclothes, furniture – were destroyed and the many boxes of books were so suffused with soot and smoke they had to be thrown out. Pause a moment over the end of a long-time book collection.

 

WHAT ANCHORS A person? This is apparently an easier question for most people, for it is normal to have a partner, a stable home, a geographically located community, long-term neighbours, strong family ties, a regular workplace, colleagues and associates, a permanent address.

But I find I do have an answer: I am anchored, I say, not in a particular place but in habits, in practices or a way of life. One's daily habits carried out everywhere: to read, drink coffee, do yoga; the quiet writing practice in the mornings, the walk at the end of the day. There are different, particular things you do only when living in a certain place. If you don't have a permanent home you must be at home in your own skin and with a suitcase of outfits you wear very often. You read the books that happen to be on hand when you don't have access to a library in your language: you find things you had been meaning to read, things you had never heard of, things you'd not normally read, classics you finally reread.

In Goa a new friend ran weekly screenings of world movies at an arts centre and loaned me a greater array of quality films on DVD from many cultures and eras than I have had available to me anywhere else. And now I could be immediately looking up all kinds of things about what I was watching. And I am more likely to be doing that than going out every night wherever I am, more likely now to watch favourite nightclub scenes on YouTube than be near a nightclub when it's open. I have spent more time alone than most and in more places, but in recent years with email, Skype and increasingly fabulous content available on the web, I'm reading the same journals, listening to the same radio programs, putting in the same searches, watching the same videos in one place like another.

Is that true? Largely. Okay, I tend to follow more closely the local stories – politics, arts, freaky events – of the country I'm in, to some extent. I take a peek at Facebook now and then as it's the only way I'll get news of some friends who in an earlier time would have had me on a list for group email news.

 

WHAT ABOUT SECURITY? Would I even ask myself this if I were not asked by others? I don't seem to need it in quite the way I am meant to. Or perhaps, knowing security is not mine to have, I don't let myself need it. I like to have a private, pleasant place to sleep in and write in for long enough to get something done. That much is necessary. Not everybody needs to own real estate and save a weighty, anxious fund for their retirement. I won't ever retire, and I hope that I might depart this life before the day I can't sit upright and produce some words on a page.

Hélène Cixous called foreignness 'a fantastic nationality': there it is at last, the truest sense of my nationality, as something in fantasy, a place that is not quite a real place, a belonging for the unbelonging. Or as something chancy and provisional.

Years ago I planted some trees on an island in the Torres Strait and thought: these trees have roots that will reach ever further into the ground, these trees can have roots for me, I can go from here and know somewhere there are some roots I put down. The trees were not natives but might become so when enough time has passed.

It's become a cliché that my kind put up aerials rather than put down roots. We'd rather have a WiFi connection than running hot water. Our allegiances are not so much to specific places; they are to people and ideas.

When I was still in my twenties and went to Morocco, the local boys I hung out with (we all liked hanging out in cafés, smoking kif and talking about how the world works) asked me, the one from far away who had been to many places, to tell them, the younger ones who were attracted to travellers and had not yet been far from home, to confirm what they were finding: 'Is it true, there are good people and bad people everywhere, everywhere the same?' I remember how keenly they listened to my affirmations, repeating it with satisfaction to each other. We assumed certain things about what good and bad meant. Finding things out for yourself was good. I was not, presumably, good according to a lot of what they had been taught but what we had in common was our own sense of goodness, what could that have been? Something that included a sense of trust, curiosity, consideration, and pleasure in others' existence.

 

FROM THE TIME I first began to travel I noted that affinities were found not necessarily in people having the same nationhood or citizenship but in values and tastes held in common. This has always been true and these days truer, more evident, more possible. I don't necessarily have much in common with another Australian simply because they are Australian, though a fellow-feeling might fleetingly spark in a foreign airline queue or bar; this hardly compares to the chime of connection with people anywhere who read the same books and are moved by the same art, are attracted to the same ideas and causes and practices, share your laughter or indignation. It hardly seems a point worth making until you find it has to be made.

I hear popular Australian writers speak of being 'proud' to be Australian and asserting their 'nationalism'; apparently these avowals must be made for one to be considered seriously in my country of citizenship. Always I have held cosmopolitanism to be a value: to be familiar with and at ease with many places, customs and societies. The idea of a homeland could feel distasteful, as well as impossible. From an early age I moved among various classes and types of people, was acutely aware of this, always curious about differences in accent and attitude.

I am asked to reflect on these things by an academic researcher who is writing on what she callstranscultural literature. Why, I have found my people! We are the dispatriates, the neo-nomads, the transnationalists. We have plural, flexible identities; we must have chameleon-like aspects: some essential being even while always adapting, always becoming. It seems that people who live in fixed places and profess nationalism feel they have become what they are. My people are always becoming someone else. We live in a world that has no more ends and no more centre.

Like an animal making a nest in a new part of the forest, I take a day or two to settle into a new space for writing. I'm writing this while spending some weeks in Far North Queensland, near Cairns, first seen when I landed here after my year in Papua New Guinea; I did not know then that I was not on my way back to living in Sydney, to resuming my former life. Something about this tropic suited me, and back here I feel that again as my skin swells with the warmth and humidity, as I go about in flip-flops, my limbs bare, inhaling the breath of aromatic plants and warm sea, cheerfully reconnecting with the friends I made here. I'm getting ready to take a long journey far away, to stay in a new city for a long time. I walk along the shore where once I walked every day, through a creek onto white sand. I swim in the warm water that once was my local beach, and when I am done, I turn back, going home.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review