Where Do I Come From?
A talk given at Melbourne Writers Festival, August 2004
think as writers we all carry our own imaginative landscapes around in
our heads, into which we then let loose our characters and ideas. It’s
what helps differentiate us as writers, both these imaginative
landscapes themselves and the degree to which they look-or don’t
look-like real landscapes (existing or remembered) in the world.
own imaginative landscape is, I’ll admit, on the surface at least, a
particularly unprepossessing one: it took me some time to accept that
the world in which my characters and ideas moved was not in fact, nor
ever would be, the Left Bank of Paris, but the outer suburbs of
Melbourne. That’s where I’m from, the edge of the known universe, the
place where the new houses and big furniture showrooms fall over into
dead paddocks and scrub. It took me a long while to understand that
that’s the landscape my head most often went walking in, and that from
there I would come back with my most resonant ideas and imagery.
say ‘my head walking in’ because that’s very much-for me anyway-what
happens. The landscape of your first independent experiences-the first
time you really start thinking for yourself-becomes the imaginative
landscape into which you then, as a writer, go rambling.
long walks home from a friend’s house through the deathly quiet
streets, those long train rides back from the city looking out through
the window into the dark and watching the houses thin. This outer
suburban landscape formed me as a writer because it gave me too much
time to think. The wide streets, the big sky, the long journey to the
shops and back: out there on the fringe there is simply too much
physical and metaphysical space. And just as Nature abhors a vacuum so
too does the human brain not like too much Nothingness: it wants to
fill up those blank spaces with thoughts, ideas, speculations,
And so this physical, existent landscape, the
landscape of low-rise brick veneer houses and concrete footpaths, of
nature strips and driveways, of Saturday lawnmowers and Sunday
televisions, a landscape of stretched distance and warped time, became
the stage scenery on which I could play out my inventions. It became
for me an allegorical place-allegorical in the sense that I was
probably trying to make it mean much more than it actually did. I found
myself, as a writer, walking a recognisable landscape but at the same
time wandering in the realm of possibility. I was neither realist nor
fabulist but something else, something weird, in between.
is precisely this in-between-ness, this conjunction (in my mind at
least) between the spread landscape of the outer suburbs and the
concept of possibility that seemed to offer so many unexpected riches
for me as a writer. Because it is precisely that state of
in-between-ness, that strange marginality, that neither rural nor quite
yet urban landscape, a place of hope, dream, possibility, that became
in my mind a metaphor for who we actually are, we fucked-up white
settler Australians with our Lucky Country baggage trying to make a
home faraway in the arsehole of the world: tame the landscape, fence it
up: dream home, dream wife, dream kids, dream life.
many before me and many I’m sure who will come after, I don’t really
like where I come from, I always wanted to come from somewhere else, a
place perhaps of cobbled streets, ivy-covered walls, village squares,
smoky cafes, old men drinking; not this place of wide bitumen, clean
concrete, pale brick, shopping malls, food courts, women eating
donuts-but in the end you’ve got to work with what you’re given.
who knows - who knows? - maybe Joyce for example in fact dreamt of a
car-park at Southland; Beckett of a furniture showroom in Epping;
Dostoevsky of a 711 in Canterbury Road; Kafka of a green tin garden
shed in the backyard of a mock-Georgian in Melton…? They dreamed these
things, but in the end they had to settle for the less exotic, more
quotidian landscapes of Dublin, Paris, St Petersburg, Prague.