Foreign Correspondence and why I am Australian

Spurred on by Kristin’s request for some Australian novels, I’ve recently been re-reading some of the novels on my Australian Reading List (and the additions in the comments). So far I’ve read A Town Like Alice, They’re a Weird Mob, Harland’s Half Acre and The True History of the Kelly Gang (can’t believe I read about Ned Kelly!). What’s particularly struck me is how strange it seems to read stories set in a geographical background that is familiar. Somehow reading “foreign” novels is normal, whereas a story set in my Australian hometown seems quite out of the ordinary. Perhaps more than anything it tells you of the cultural dysjunction with which we have traditionally lived.

The other day I picked up Foreign Correspondence by award-winning author and journalist/foreign correspondent, Geraldine Brooks. Geraldine grew up in Sydney in the 1960s and while there’s about a five year time difference from my own experience, so much of what she talks about is familiar. Her experience of living in Sydney’s western suburbs is so much starker than my own in Brisbane although the tightness of the community and a sense of its potential claustrophobia is similar. Much of Australia’s cultural attitudes of the 1960s come through in her writing, some overtly and other aspects more indirectly. She speaks too of the big events and issues of the era including the Vietnam war and the impact of Gough Whitlam’s election as Prime Minister.

Her health in childhood affected her schooling and how she interacted with others. She speaks very much as one who couldn’t wait to leave Australia and see what the big wide world had to offer and until she reached adulthood, she used pen pals as her gateway to the world. Nearly 30 years later she wonders what happened to those “foreign correspondents”. She traces them in the US, Middle East and France ultimately concluding that in fact her early life was not quite as circumscribed as she thought and that despite her many successes, at the time of writing this story she gained satisfaction from living a life not unlike the village-based life of her former French pen friend.

Her experiences made me reflect on my own experiences. My suburb also had a significant post-war immigration with people from Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Malta….. They were recent immigrants and many of the adults spoke little English. Playing with their children taught me indirectly about different cultural attitudes, tolerance for others and the language challenges. We never really knew of their lives before they came to Australia but their very presence in our daily lives opened the world’s doors: a pivotal influence in my life. Like the author I also had pen friends- three in the USA at different times and one in Holland. Also like her I’ve sometimes wondered where life took them. (Are you out there Patsy Kiwala, Carole Dzurban, Connie Cundiff and Ria Fyn van Draat?)

Warriors at the Highlands Show, Goroka, PNG 1972.

Reading a book like this, which fits closely with one’s own experiences, raises questions about life differences. My first thought was that while I had always desperately wanted to travel, I never expected or wanted to live the life of an expatriate. Only one or two of our friends from university made the sea voyage to England to work, perhaps because many of us met our life partners at uni. It’s a paradox that when thinking of living “overseas” and the life of an expatriate, my focus remains on the UK. This is ironic because for nearly a decade I was an expatriate in Papua New Guinea, a country which was vastly different to anything that would have been experienced in Europe, despite its dominant Australian overlay. London would probably have been less of a shock.

With cheaper and faster flights world-wide it’s now common for our children’s generation to live and work overseas. Many parents (including us) have one or more children living at vast distances from them. Many  Australian young adults make the pilgrimage to live and work around the world. Most of them probably return eventually, but others live elsewhere for the rest of their lives: we are a peripatetic nation.

A centuries-old ghost gum in the East McDonnell Ranges, NT

There is a book by Nikki Gemmell called “Why you are Australian”, written to her children who had been growing up in London until the family made the reverse migration to Australia. Although some of it seems over the top or idealised, she does evoke so much about being Australian.

Why am I Australian? Apart from those five generations of Queenslanders who’ve gone before me, the reasons are based in country almost in the indigenous sense. When you return from overseas, the first thing that hits you is the light. The brightness of the colours almost hurts your eyes after the grey skies of northern countries. Perhaps that’s why the birds are so often colourful too –they have to compete. The sheer expanse of the sky and its vivid blue on its many clear days. The ocean of stars in the sky at night, spanned by the white haze of the Milky Way, more startling in the bush or over the desert. The Southern Cross tracking its way across the night sky spinning on its southerly axis.  The red desert colour, the roar of the ocean waves breaking on long stretches of white sand or the red beachside cliffs of north-western Australia. The starkness of our bush, and what foreigners see as its emptiness and isolation. Storm clouds over the Tropical north in the Wet Season, all sound and drama. The geological patterns stretching from shore to shore, across thousands of kilometres so that the country around Mt Isa will remind you of the Red Centre or parts of Western Australia. The ancient rock formations and the centuries-old ghost gums. For so long we saw ourselves as a young country when in reality we’re as old as time, deceived by the absence of buildings to declare man’s presence yet in caves around the country there’s ancient artgoing back thousands of years.

Floodplains, billabongs and aged melaleucas in the Wet.

I remember once a distant Irish cousin asking me if I was Australian or Irish. It was a genuine question but I confess I was both bewildered and astonished. For me it was a “no brainer”, I’m an Aussie through and through, much as I love visiting my ancestral places. You won’t (usually) find me beating the patriotic drum, flying a flag at every turn sets my teeth on edge, and those stickers saying “if you don’t love it, leave” make me want to scream (do they never criticise someone they love? I doubt it). But yes, I’m an Australian to my core. Funny how a book can make you want to declare your sense of belonging.

I wrote this story a week ago but hadn’t posted it. Last night soon after it was uploaded I was reading recent posts by a young Aussie blogger I follow at A Big Life.  Living in Bavaria she talks about being caught between two countries and the pull of home – the expatriate’s dilemma. Two of her reflective posts are here and here.

You can see other photos of the Top End of Australia on my Tropical Territory blog which shows just how beautiful this part of the country can be. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you’ll have seen some of the magnificent east coast country.