Alumni Feature June 2017


The Solace of Shared Stories

By Features Editor Diana Jenkins

Diana Jenkins Surely one of the great joys of any writers’ festival is discovering new authors to adore. This year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival was no exception, as readers from Sydney to the Blue Mountains were once again moved, challenged and delighted by writers from around Australia and the world. Refuge was the theme of this year’s festival – the first for Artistic Director Michaela McGuire – and god only knows we all need a bit of that from time to time.

Or do we?

By the time the festival rolled around, I didn’t need refuge so much as a revolving door of retail pharmaceuticals. A stubborn chest infection severely curtailed my festival plans and put Varuna’s events sadly beyond my reach (concentrated as it was on industrial supplies of Kleenex and Codral), so I’ll leave it to our new Creative Director Amy Sambrooke (yay!) to share her highlights with you.

I, meanwhile, took three consecutive rounds of antibiotics and abandoned the refuge of my sick bed (who am I kidding? I have two young sons, the smallest being just 2 – there was no sick bed, just the usual chaos, feeling all the while like a consumptive minor character in a nineteenth century novel) just long enough to declare Brit Bennett my favourite festival find of the year. One of three guests to deliver the SWF’s new split Opening Address, she shared the stage with American short story legend and novelist George Saunders as well as Anne Enright, the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction. Bennett, the debut author of The Mothers, was the week’s very first speaker, and she made a wonderfully articulate, at times surprising case for rejecting the whole concept of refuge.

Brit Bennett Bennett’s deep suspicion of refuge, with its intimations of safety, was both persuasive and perceptive. The line she drew connecting refuge to nostalgia was particularly illuminating, suggesting that the past is often invoked as a safer, better place, even as she dissected with great intelligence and humour Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign slogan. She pointed out that it’s very common and really quite dangerous to seek refuge in the familiar as well as in an imagined, romanticised history. As an African-American female, Bennett drew appreciative laughter and applause when she pointed out there’s simply never been a better time to be her than right now, nostalgia be damned. In the real rather than imagined past, her mother picked cotton and her grandmother was illiterate.

Bennett’s probing misgivings about the concept of refuge made me wonder later about the precise nature of the comfort we find in fiction. I’ve always sought and found refuge in libraries, bookstores and books. I suspect you’re the same or you probably wouldn’t be reading this, but novels specifically aren’t safe or familiar: we read novels to escape what and whom we know for things and people we do not. And yet the promise of refuge is there. Comfort is there. It’s something of a contradiction: how and why do we find such sustained emotional rescue in the non-existent, unknown and unknowable?

I would argue that the unique sense of peace and sanctuary reading affords isn’t compromised by the nature of the stories we read. As harrowing as certain fictions may be (we discussed Exhibit A right here not long ago: A Little Life), they still deliver that crucial balm to the soul, and perhaps it’s due to what Saunders focused on during his own section of the Opening Address. Saunders recounted a frankly terrifying emergency landing in Chicago, and the personal transformation that resulted in those too-long-yet-horribly-sped-up minutes. The plane he was travelling in collided with a flock of migrating geese; something in the engine blew on impact and the plane started going down.

George Saunders (Saunders must never repeat this story to English author Mark Haddon, whose fear of flying became the stuff of legend after this 5x15 appearance in London.)

Few existential crises are quite so vivid. There was Saunders onstage at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, standing before us in one piece, safely delivered from this terrible event – more potential than actual in the end – and my palms still erupted in sweat on his behalf.

Saunders’ memory of his internal monologue during much of his ordeal is very funny and instantly relatable – “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no…” – but the real epiphany came when he had the shock realisation that he was not in fact a lead actor playing the role of a lifetime. If the plane crashed and he perished, the show – what do you mean it’s not his show?! – would of course blithely go on without him. Is there a more inconceivable moment of reckoning than the one in which we know ourselves to be nothing but insignificant extras in the infinite drama of the universe? As Saunders was grappling with this new and colossally reduced sense of himself in the world, a voice intruded (not God’s, you’ll be relieved to know): the boy seated next to him said, “Mister, is this supposed to be happening?”

And just like that, Saunders was thrust out of himself, just in time to find refuge in others just as that poor frightened child was intuitively seeking refuge in him. In Saunders’ recollection – admittedly hazy – he, the boy and the woman seated on his other side all held hands as the plane made its unsteady way back to the tarmac at O’Hare.

A shared fate: perhaps unsurprisingly, this was one of the underlying themes of Enright’s piece too, a piece of fiction she wrote for the occasion, set somewhat coincidentally in another airport, this time unnamed. Enright took the concept of refuge and neatly turned it into an exercise of exposure, like the hide of an animal turned inside out as it’s skinned. A disoriented female business traveller click-clacks her wheelie suitcase through the exit doors at the closed terminal, only to discover there is no safety, no shelter, no escape and certainly no blessed hotel waiting for her, only an endless line of reeking, exhausted would-be refugees.

SWF audience It was clever, and uncomfortable: we were the cosy ones gathered in the packed theatre, chuckling at first at this all too familiar image of the weary world traveller, an everywoman of global citizenry who might have been any one of us. And that’s how Enright caught us out, because we were sat there safe in our privilege, not huddled together in rank desperation, grouped against the cold like penguins in the Antarctic winter. No. We were cosy, and complicit.

Well. I’m sure that’s how we looked from the stage. But appearances can be deceiving. Perhaps Bennett’s right: sometimes I do almost believe in the past more than the present, but only because it’s always so hard to believe my luck. I’m not nostalgic about the past; I’m fearful of it, as though it were a gnarling beast, capable of dragging me back through the years, devouring me after all, tearing me limb from limb long after I thought I was clear.

When I was 10, my teacher stepfather was transferred from Dover Heights Boys’ High when it closed to a school on the Central Coast, and we were temporarily housed in Wyong by the Department of Education. Inexplicably, my mother and he chose to remain in Wyong after that, even though it meant a tedious daily commute to his school and ours, some distance away. Affordability is the sole explanation I can find, for Wyong, certainly at that time, was utterly devoid of charm. I loathed everything about the place – mystifyingly, there was no actual coast on the Central Coast, so far as I could see – and wanted only to return to civilisation. Between the ages of 10 and 12 years, I fled back to Sydney on the train every chance I got, walking the streets revelling in the temporary restoration of my anonymity and freedom: an incurable city girl.

Outside the first school I attended on the Central Coast, and the friends I made there, whose names I still recall with affection, I have almost no fond memories of these two and a bit years. My stepfather was a hateful bully whose seething dislike of me really found form during this period; my mother proved incapable of leaving him (until, at 12, I left, belatedly shocking her into action); my siblings were deep into their own survival tactics – somewhat less effective than mine, because I made good my escape – and always there was Wyong, to my mind a barren wasteland of dysfunction and disappointment. God I hated that place. With one critical exception: Wyong Library. Oh, my refuge.

book fort Curiously, I can find no evidence online of this library’s existence today. I’ve emailed Wyong Shire Council to ask when it closed, because the building I remember visiting was located in Wyong itself. I could walk there, but none of the five district libraries currently listed on the council’s site fit the bill. Imagining my life in Wyong without that library is almost unbearably grim. Where else could I have gone, at my age, with no money or transport, to get away from him?

I’m reminded very forcefully of my depth of gratitude to all writers, because at a universal level their labours without question shaped and saved my life. The refuge I found in stories back then didn’t only shelter, it fortified. I wasn’t simply safe at that library; surrounded by books, I was remade, drawing strength – real emotional and intellectual strength – from their example.

My course was set.

It’s as true now as it was then – I shall always rely on fiction and non-fiction for fuel. I need to read stories both real and imagined in order to operate properly. And in this troubled, broken world, the sharing of stories seems to me more vital than ever. Stories throw light; they do not extinguish it. Is it any wonder Varuna holds such importance to so many Australian writers? It is the ultimate safe house. A haven built of books: long may we all find our refuge there.

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  • Dear Di,
    What a great feature. It's great to have insight, through your eyes, into the Sydney Writers Festival; especially important for those of us who couldn't be there. And your reflections on childhood is a precious gift. Thank you.

    Elizabeth Smyth Wednesday, 14 June 2017 08:12 Comment Link
  • Oh, what a lovely comment! Thanks, Elizabeth. Great to hear from you. Hope the writing progresses well in the far north.

    Diana Jenkins Thursday, 15 June 2017 12:39 Comment Link
  • An insightful, fascinating commentary from Diana Jenkins - as always.

    Suzanne Leal Friday, 23 June 2017 18:46 Comment Link
  • Well, thank you most kindly, Suzanne Leal. I so appreciate your loyal reading and ready comments - I can't properly describe the extent.

    Diana Jenkins Tuesday, 04 July 2017 23:11 Comment Link

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