Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. I’m a bit over seeing my name up the top here, but Sue has asked me to keep going for a little longer, and how could I possibly say no.
This one is from August 2010. My opinions on the topic are quite different from Sue’s, but I’ll save that for Comments.
My original post titled: Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian expat novelists
Australia is the only country I have come across that divides its writers into residents and those who have dared to live elsewhere. Can one imagine Americans writing of Ernest Hemingway, or the Brits of Auden, thus? (Carmen Callil, Australian-born founder of Virago Press)
That answers one of my questions: that is, whether other nations talk about “expats” the way we do. Apparently they don’t. Is it the oft-quoted Australian cultural cringe? Is it envy? Perhaps I’ll just skirt the issue and say that Australians have a bit of a reputation for wanderlust, so I’m not surprised that we have our share of novelists who have gone overseas and stayed. One of those is Kate Jennings whose “fragmented autobiography”, Trouble, I reviewed last week. Kate Jennings went to New York in 1979, and has not returned (except for regular visits). In her book, she includes interviews with three other expat Aussie writers, Sumner Locke Elliott and Ray Mathew (both now deceased), and Shirley Hazzard. I thought it might be interesting to talk a little about some of our still-living novelists who reside in the USA.
But first, Ray Mathew, the least known of Jennings’ three interviewees. I hadn’t heard of him until a few years ago when he was the subject of one of the National Library of Australia’s (NLA) gorgeous little “A Celebration” books, using funds bequeathed in his name by his American friend and patron, Eva Kollsmann. The Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsmann Trust is a significant bequest which funds a number of initiatives at the NLA. One of these is the annual Ray Mathew Lecture which is to be given by “an Australian living abroad”. The first lecture was given in 2009 by Geraldine Brooks, and the second, this year, by Kate Jennings.
For brevity’s sake – and because I’ve read each of these writers – I’ll just focus in this post on five Australian expat novelists based in the USA. Some of them are very well known internationally, moreso than many of our home-based writers. This is not surprising I guess: if you live in the USA and get published there your market potential is far greater than it would be at home. That said, the lure of increased fame and fortune is not the reason these writers moved overseas:
- Geraldine Brooks: moved to New York in 1983 to study, met and married American journalist (Tony Horwitz), and now splits her time between Australia and the USA. Geraldine Brooks titled her Ray Mathew lecture, “The opportunity of distance”. She’s the youngest of these five and, perhaps, has the most uncomplicated view of her relationship with home. She has travelled widely and discussed in that lecture all the benefits that have resulted, but her final point is:
For all its opportunities, distance can still feel like a tyrant, sometimes, when a partner’s work or a kid’s schooling means we must spend more time there than here. The oscillation stalls, the roots start to dry out. It’s like a high stakes game of musical chairs. Round the world you go, and then the music stops and you have to sit down somewhere, but it’s not quite the chair you were aiming for.
- Peter Carey: moved in 1990/91 to New York with his wife to work in their respective careers, and has remained there. Peter Carey, not surprisingly given his status, is often asked about his expat status. Here is what he said in an interview for the Paris Review:
Of course, there is a specially reserved position in Australian culture for the expatriate. The prime expatriates—people like Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes—belong to an earlier generation than mine. When these people return to Australia, they are asked, What do you think of us? How are we doing? The expatriate is occasionally lauded and occasionally fiercely criticized for daring to come back and judge. I try to stay away from that as much as humanly possible. I don’t feel at all like an expatriate….
- Shirley Hazzard (has died since I wrote this post back in 2010): moved to Hong Kong with her parents in 1947 when she was 16 years old, ending up in New York in 1951 where she has been mostly based since, though does spend time regularly in Capri, Italy. A webpage on Shirley Hazzard summarises her expat status in this way:
Hazzard does not reject her designation as an Australian writer but insists her temperament is not national. She only took out United States citizenship twenty-five years after she began living in New York, on the resignation of Richard Nixon. Eschewing nationalistic identifications, she does not consider herself as an expatriate, and emphasized that “to be at home in more than one place” (Gordan and Pasca). However, her novels are full of displaced Anglos in Hong Kong and Italy, or displaced Australians in London and New York.
- Janette Turner Hospital: moved to Boston in the mid 1960s with her husband, and has lived in Canada and the USA. She now splits her time between these two countries and her home state of Queensland. In an early Griffith Review, Hospital commented on the impact of modern technology on being physically displaced, and wrote:
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.
- Kate Jennings: as described above. She bookends Brooks nicely: not only because they gave the first two Ray Mathew lectures but because they both value travel highly but offer almost opposing conclusions. Here is Jennings from her lecture:
I have lived now in New York nearly as long as I lived in Australia. Heretical as it might seem, Australia is neither my country nor my home, as it is for Geraldine. It’s the place I started from, to paraphrase TS Eliot slightly. It shaped me, but so have my 30 years in New York city. I have, as Robert Dixon put it, ‘overlapping allegiances and multiple affiliations’.
Well, that lot provides enough to think about I reckon. I was going to talk a little about these writers’ works but I’ve taken up enough of your time for this Monday. More anon… Meanwhile, if you’ve lived away from “home” for any period of time, what do you think about all this?
Thanks so much Bill for being willing to continue this series until I can get back to some semblance of normal reading and posting. I’m particularly pleased that he chose this one because given he has some different ideas to mine. I look forward to hearing them to seeing whether I agree, given I wrote this post over 10 years ago.
And, of course, we’d be interested to know what you think…