Graham Lang is an artist and writer who has published three novels: Clouds Like Black Dogs (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2003), Place of Birth (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2006) and Lettah’s Gift (UQP, 2011). His novella ‘A Fulcrum of Infinities’, published in Griffith Review 54: Earthly Delights, bears the same name as his most recent body of visual work. In this interview, Lang discusses the 'thrilling potential of both written and visual work, and reveals how the novella was profoundly informed by his own brush with death.
Both this novella and your latest body of visual art go by the same name – A Fulcrum of Infinities. How are these works linked?
I decided to give the recent exhibition at Despard Gallery the same title as my novella because there were several conceptual overlaps between the two. In the novella, the terminally ill Saul states: ‘We are, each of us, the very centre of existence. A fulcrum of infinities.’ By this he implies that there exists in everything an internal physical infinity as endless as that existing externally. By this paradoxical notion – that we’re all pivots of interlocking eternities – he alludes not just to the precariousness of life and to what might be annihilated in death, but also to our purpose perhaps residing simply in having perpetuated this inexplicable continuum. These thoughts seem to have spilled over into some of the paintings I was doing while writing ‘A Fulcrum of Infinities’ – in particular, a series of tilting landscapes balanced on a hair, and several works inspired by Colm Tóibín’s haunting description of Lazarus in The Testament of Mary (Scribner, 2012).
I read that you see endless possibilities within art. Do you feel the same way about written works? How do the possibilities of written work differ from that of visual art?
In saying the possibilities are endless with art, I was referring mainly to my intuitive approach and to the way process dictates form. My oil-painting technique is immediate and spontaneous – from the moment of application, the paint seems to lead me rather than me it. The practice is the path. This is not to say that all is arbitrary; there’s always a concept in mind, but I’ve come to rely on process to deliver the innovations and unexpected revelations that make an image special. In this, I don’t see too much of a difference to how I approach writing. I’ve never been good at figuring out stories beforehand – they almost always evolve in the process. Once characters come alive they go their own way. Compared with painting, writing is certainly harder for me, requiring more discipline, time and solitude. But essentially the same thrilling potential awaits in the doing, whether I’m in the studio or at my writing desk.
Clouds Like Black Dogs (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2003), Place of Birth (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2006) and Lettah’s Gift (UQP, 2011) consider postcolonial issues in Zimbabwe and South Africa, where you grew up and have spent a great deal of time. How has your experience of these places and their history influenced your fiction writing?
The experience of living in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and South Africa in the twilight years of colonial/apartheid rule undoubtedly shaped my political conscience. Looking back, it was an enormously complicated time in which the realities of a morally untenable system gradually intruded on protected innocence. My real political awakening came at Rhodes University in Grahamstown in the mid-1980s. South Africa was in a state of emergency and Grahamstown was a hotbed of violent political unrest. My creative energies at the time were confined to sculpture and painting – writing was very much a secondary interest. Though I rather earnestly attempted to reflect the terrible spiral around me, there were moments where I thought that both art and writing seemed a preposterous indulgence in a time of such convulsive hatred and cruelty. Thankfully, South Africa’s many fine writers, especially JM Coetzee, reminded me that art could make sense of the senseless and insane. It took distance for me to seriously look to writing as a means to address that time. My first novel was published thirteen years after I arrived in Australia – so if I can call myself a writer, I have Australia to thank for that.
In contrast to your earlier three works, ‘A Fulcrum of Infinities’ is your first published piece of fiction set entirely in Australia. How has your experience of Australia influenced your novella? How does this influence compare to the impact of your experience of Zimbabwe and South Africa upon your novels?
I think there’s something about growing up in a place that confers authority. Despite having lived here for twenty-seven years, I’m yet to feel I have the full authority to write as an Australian. I’ve engaged with our culture as an academic and artist and have acquired an abiding love of the landscape, particularly the outback deserts. My present home in Tasmania is more home to me than anywhere else I’ve lived. And yet, still, writing a book entirely ‘here’ has proved elusive. Not for lack of trying. Two novels and a satirical work set in Australia now gather dust on the shelf, never having quite reached their destinations. However, the last chapters of one of those novels, depicting a Waiting for Godot-esque encounter between two men in the desert, appeared to offer a breakthrough. This simple confrontation between a terminally ill Indigenous man who wishes to die on the land of his ancestors, and a farmer who owns the land seemed to have something special, something that implied much more than it stated. As I reworked those chapters into a novella, it occurred to me there was much in this archetypal story about land and belonging that harked back to the central concerns of my African novels, and therefore offered a way forward for me here.
All of your written works are marked in some way by death and a sense of homecoming, but perhaps none more so than ‘A Fulcrum of Infinities’. In your explanation of your visual A Flucrum of Infinities you mention that the underlying force behind the exhibition grew ‘after a near fatal illness’, and I wondered as I read your novella whether Saul’s journey as a terminally ill man to find and then die on the land of his ancestors was in any way influenced by this experience?
Yes, the story contains my first attempt to articulate the imagery and searching that came during and after complications with cancer surgery that left me critically ill and in an induced coma for three weeks. Apparently, I ‘died’ a couple of times. The koan implicit in the novella’s title, the notion of a man waiting to die in the desert, the moment of ‘letting go’ and of the world disappearing, all emanate from that experience.
You describe the ‘limbo between existence and extinction’ in your exhibition, and I see a similar limbo in Saul’s experience of dying in the novella. Sitting in the sand and stones under that tree, Saul seems to me to exist in the space between life and death. How do you see Saul’s experience?
Yes, he exists in the limbo between life and death. Saul himself describes it as ‘The breathing limbo beyond a spent life not yet ended.’ This limbo can embody many things, as suggested by Saul’s visions, and including the space across which Saul’s and Bob’s hands reach, but never join.