India – my talk given at two conferences: 4th JGU International Literary Conference, O P Jindal Global University, and International Conference Major Writers and Literary Movements: Last Three Decades of Globilisation, Osmania University, Hyderabad
I would like to talk with you about my background, the how and why, I became a writer.
In an earlier time, a boy of nine or ten-years-old, would go to the local branch library in the city of Bradford, a dirty, gritty industrial complex in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire, in northern England. He was returning books for an old woman, and taking out new ones. That responsibility eventually created a privilege.
Because there came a time when he would look at the pile of books the stern librarian had selected for the old woman and say:
“She’s read that one mister.
“An’ that one too.”
Eventually the exasperated librarian allowed the boy into those whispering aisles of the adults-only section, to select the books for the old woman.
So, at an early age the boy had access to not only children’s literature, but adult literature too. He was hooked, a reader for life. There were, “Ripping Yarns for Boys,” sorts of stories, but also tales of intrigue, murder, love, wars and migration.
The boy was me, the old woman was my maternal grandmother, Eleanor Parker. Although she never wrote anything longer than a Christmas card, she was the one who without realising it, made me a writer — long after she had died. She was the person who inadvertently – or maybe not inadvertently – nurtured my curiosity. Through her reading she opened my mind to a world of adventure; distant countries beyond the confines of narrow provincial life, to the wonders of story telling.
(Incidentally, that could not happen now. In the UK, one of the richest countries in the world, libraries are being closed, or are run by volunteers — because the government claims it cannot afford them — while spending 205 billion pounds on Trident submarines.
From those library days on, books marked each milestone of both my literary and terrestrial travels.
My grandmother, along with her Down Syndrome daughter, my aunty Edith, was part of a household which also included my mother and my two sisters, Barbara and Christine, one older, one younger. We lived among William Blake’s “Dark satanic Mills”.
Mill chimneys belched smoke from virtually the end of every street. The once, beautiful yellow sandstone Victorian buildings were black from decades of industrial pollution
My mother, and many of our neighbours, worked in the mills of the dirty old town, for which I still have an affection. I don’t know where my father worked because he abandoned my mother when I was three-years-old. That event was to have a big influence on my writing, and I’ll come back to it later.
Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants were brought to work in those mills – cheap labour for the mill owners, relative prosperity for the immigrants. In the early days they were men without women, men without children. They were crammed into ‘warm bed’ houses, that is, they were shift workers; a man who had worked all day slept in a bed at night which had been occupied during the day by a man who had worked all night. Some of the slum landlords who exploited these vulnerable men were white British, others were their own countrymen. I would see these immigrants walking in single file close to the centre of the city, huddled in long overcoats, woollen balaclavas covering their shiny black hair. Their pyjamas —which they seemed too wear night or day for additional warmth — protruding below the bottoms of their trouser legs. They looked terrible sad and cold. One cinema showed Asian films. Those lonely immigrants went there to ease the pain of homesickness — to keep warm, and hear their stories. Although I always wanted to join them, I never dared.
Those men were my first contact with a diaspora. A word I had never heard at the time.
Now over 30 per cent of the population of the city is of Asian origin. The first Asian mayor was elected in 1986.
Last year, 450 writers took part in the 10 day Bradford Literature Festival, some I hope were descendants of those mill workers.
So, the diaspora changes and shifts from one world to another — the largest diaspora in the world is Indian, with numbers higher than the twenty-five million population of Australia.
We humans are restless beings. We migrate in search of a better life; we are driven by wars, persecution, famine; we are encouraged to move, or prevented from moving, by the economic manipulators of global capitalism.
Our movements feed into the literature of the world, an endless perspective of human response. It creates people like, Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi, Ben Okri, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
That city of mills which did so much to shape me, was only a few miles from sweeping Yorkshire moors. Nearby was the village of Haworth, home of the Bronte sisters, who wrote some of the most enduring and dramatic literature England has produced. Had I lived 150 years ago we would have been neighbours. We might even have been in the same writers group and swapped story ideas over cups of tea at the parsonage. I might have shared a pint of bitter beer with Branwell at the Bull pub.
The moors around Haworth were among the places I roamed as a boy – in a time when children were allowed the freedom, which in the West has been stolen by overprotective parents.
Those moorlands are present in a number of short stories I am currently working on.
The Greatest Ever, involves two boys growing up in the city, Danny and Michael. Michael is running across the moors in training for a school race when he sees, or believes he sees, the legendary Wilson the Wonder Athlete, a fictional character who stepped into my story from The Wizard, a popular comic book of the fifties and sixties. Wilson was over one-hundred-years-old, and ageless. He had never been beaten in any sporting event. He was Michael’s inspiration – and why wouldn’t he be?
I read The Wizard, and other standard fare for working class kids my age, like: Boys Own Paper, Biggles, and a string of comic books that were delivered to the house each week.
I didn’t realise at the time but the comics were heavily infused with governmental propaganda of class, and race, and empire.
The character of Wilson, was created by Gilbert Lawford Dalton, at the behest of the government in the late 1940s as a wartime morale booster for kids like me. I don’t particularly remember feeling a need for a morale boost, either during the war or after, and I doubt if any of us kids did.
Love of the moorlands and nature led me to my first job at fifteen, as an apprentice forester. I had to work away from home. For the first time I experienced homesickness, something I, like most emigrants, had to confront many times. It is a mixture of longing, and guilt for the parents and siblings left behind. It’s an affliction that can only be cured by time, returning home, or writing about it, which I do in The Boxer, and Fruit of the Vine, stories in my book Meridian, which was published in mid 2016 and is available from online booksellers.
I loved the work but the restlessness and curiosity that had been nourished by my reading was still strong. When I was eighteen I emigrated to Canada where I lived for almost two years, first in North Ontario, then on the coast in British Columbia. I read books like Philip H Godsell’s, Arctic Trader, and The Wind and the Caribou, by Erik Munsterhjelm, a tattered copy of which I still have.
I wanted to be a trapper, or a gold prospector, paddling my birch bark canoe across endless lakes and down roaring rapids. I did none of these things, but I did work for the forest service on magnificent Vancouver Island, a place I revisited in 2016.
I returned to England, became restless again and this time went to Australia where I thought the life of a stockman in the outback would be great. It was more romanticism. As a boy, I’d read Robbery Under Arms, by Rolf Baldrewood, Among the Bushrangers by G A Henty, and lots of other bush stories. After a couple of years, I returned to England. I had worked in the bush, but never fulfilled my romantic dream of galloping a horse across, “the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended” (Banjo Paterson).
In England I became a journalist — at last I was writing — I married an Australian. We had two daughters, Niki and Claire, and eventually returned to Australia, settling in Sydney, where we have lived for almost fifty years .
Despite the passion I had for books from the days of that young boy, it was a long time before I started writing fiction.
I have written children’s books and stories, young adult novels, and one play.
Now I write mainly short stories and I’m currently working on a new collection.
Much, but by no means all, of my recent short fiction, involves boys growing up in the Bradford area. As I was writing these I realised eventually that they were about the same characters. The various, individual boys, became two particular boys, the brothers, Danny and Michael. They have become the favourites of my readers — and myself. I also realised that they were, to a greater or lesser degree, my story. I didn’t have a brother but I had an older cousin and we were as close as any brothers. After a while I also realised that at the heart of many of these stories was a question that had unconsciously bothered me all my life: why had my father abandoned his family? How did our mother cope?
When I say the questioned had ‘bothered me’ I don’t mean it was a source of great angst that kept me awake at night, but something that was always lurking in the recesses of my mind without me being aware of it, until Danny and Michael came on the scene.
Of course I’ll never have an answer to the question about my father.
Short story writing has changed the way I work. I used to dislike editing. I wanted to get on with the job: unfold the plot, develop the characters, follow them headlong to their destination.
Now, I love the process. In Australia there is a large, crow-like black bird called a currawong. It has a powerful bill, a wonderful resonant call, and gold-rimmed eyes that look like the spectacles European intellectuals wear. Every spring one comes into our small courtyard garden in Sydney — a currawong, not a European intellectual.
It is selecting nesting materials. It picks up a twig, turns it round and round in its beak. Puts it down. Picks it up, turns it round and round again. Puts its down. Sometimes it flies away with the twig to add to its nest. Sometimes it rejects it.
That is what I am like with editing. Picking up words, putting them down. Picking them up. Until I decide which one is best. Maybe this careful, slow process is something to do with being older.
Apart from that little old lady in Bradford, my grandmother, the writers who influenced me as I grew into my teens and beyond are many. Among the first was Ernest Hemingway. I loved his short stories, particularly those involving Nick Adams. Nick, in the earlier stories was young, free, independent. Hemingway’s crisp, sharp prose, with all that was unnecessary stripped away, appealed to me as did his personal life. He was a writer who was also, I believed, manly. I grew up in a working class, male dominated society and I must have had a perverted belief that to be a writer was somehow Un–manly. Hemingway of course was forever strutting his macho stuff. He could box, he could drink, and “by hell he could write” — and he’d knock down anyone who disagreed.
I now think that his macho posturing was ridiculous but it has not lessened my admiration for his work.
I remember where I was when Hemingway shot himself — I was on an immigrant ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean, heading for Australia.
In later life I have come to love, and be influenced by the short stories of Irish writer Bernard McLaverty. He tells tales of ordinary people, whose lives in that troubled country are at times anything but ordinary. And, like Hemingway, he leaves a lot unstated, room for the reader’s imagination.
Australia has a long tradition of producing great writers, both Indigenous and settler. Those who are Indigenous, write, in one form or another, about the devastation caused by invasion, genocide, dispossession. They come from 60,000 years or more as an oral culture. This has made them wonderful story tellers, whether these stories are oral, literature, film, TV, or dance.
I was proud to have had Indigenous writer, Ruby Langford Ginibi, as a friend until she died in 2011. Her resilience and sense of humour were an inspiration to me. She appears as a character in one of my latest, as yet unpublished stories, The Dog. There are many other Indigenous writers I admire but I can mention only a few in such a short talk – Bruce Pascoe, Kim Scott, and Alexis Wright.
My Australian stories are those of an immigrant, as in Fruit of the Vine, and The Boxer.
I’d like to read an excerpt from my one of my latest, yet to be published stories. It is from the Danny and Michael series and is called, Is it Going to Snow? Unlike the other stories, this is from the mother’s point of view.
Years earlier she and the boys had been abandoned by their father. It is almost Christmas and she has taken the two boys into the centre of the city for some last minute shopping.
After we’ve bought nuts, and dried dates and other last minute Christmas things we go into one of the little cafes for a treat. It’s full and a couple of women with their bags crammed with stuff shuffle along to make room for us and we squeeze into a booth. I’m gonna get a cup’a tea and a ham teacake for me and a glass of pop each for the boys. It’ll only cost a few bob.
Then, I see him. He’s opposite the cafe, buying mandarins at a greengrocers. She’s with him.
He hasn’t changed a bit.
‘is dark hair’s slicked back like it always were. He’s wearing a black overcoat wi a white muffler round his neck. I’d like to choke the bugger wi it. What does he see in her? blonde bloody hair and black bloody roots.
“Mam?” Michael says.
I look up, and the waitress is standing there, pencil in her hand like she’s waiting to harpoon a sandwich.
Mi mind’s gone blank. Then it feels like it’s gonna explode an’ there’ll be bits of mi head all over the walls of the cafe.
“Mam! You alright?”
I can hear Danny’s voice. I turn, he’s sitting on the other side of Michael looking across, frightened.
“You all right love?” one of the women asks.
I get up, an’ accidentally knock her cup of tea over. I push my way out of the cafe and over to the greengrocer. I’ll kill the stinking rotten bugger I’ll choke him to death wi’ his bloody muffler, an’ her.
“Where is he, that one who were ‘ere, just now?” I ask the stall holder.
“Which one, love?
“He had a black coat and a white muffler and he were wi an ugly woman who…”
“Mam! Mam!” Danny says.
“What’s up?” Michael’s pulling at my sleeve.
“It were yer dad! Here. Wi that woman. There’s no money for your presents, no money for me. There is for her. I’ll bloody well kill him if I get my ‘ands on him.”
“Not here you won’t, this is a greengrocers not a butchers,” the owner says. “Why don’t you go out and get a breath of fresh air love?”
“Why don’t you mind your own bloody business?” I tell him.
I run out of the market into the street wi the boys behind me, Michael shouting, “Mam! Mam!”
“Is that ‘im? Wi a white scarf?” Danny points.
It is, on the other side of the road, walking wi her, their arms fulla stuff. I can’t get across because of the cars and busses. Then they’re gone, into the crowd.
I reach out to Michael and pull him into me and do the same with Danny on the other side. But Danny’s not there. He’s dodging through the traffic in the direction his father disappeared, then he’s running along the pavement pushing people out of the way. Suddenly, Michael’s gone too, swerving through the traffic, after his brother.
I”m left, by miself.
One of the pleasures of reading your own stories to an audience is that you can keep the original voice, because it’s something no reader can capture.
So, this leads me to the question, what are we? we writers who have cast up on a shore far from home. I’m a hybrid. I have lived fifty years of my life in Australia and I’m happily Australian. And happily English.
Others need to define their place differently, Bharati Mu-kherjee, who died just one year ago, said in an interview in 1989, “I totally consider myself an American writer, and that has been my big battle: to get to realise that my roots as a writer are no longer, if they ever were, among Indian writers.”
I understand Anita Desai holds similar opinions.
I don’t think one can simply decide where one’s roots are as a writer. It is not a subjective question. What we are and how we write is determined by many factors, primarily where one grew up and where one lives and has lived. We absorb a myriad influences, like the earth absorbs water and nutrients, and like the earth, we produce.
English writer, Janette Winterson, said in her book, Why Be Happy When You can be Normal?, “When you are born – what you are born into, the place, the history of the place, how that history mates with your own — stamps who you are, whatever the pundits of globalisation have to say.”
Peter Carey, Australian-born, lives in the US and writes about Australia. Alex Miller. British-born, lives in Australia and writes about Australia. I live in Australia and I write about both my countries, England and Australia.Emerging Australian writers, like Felicity Castagna, Michael Mohammed Ahmad and George Toseski, are telling stories of the immigrant, working class suburbs of western Sydney.
The Australia government locks up asylum seekers on remote islands in the tropics. Some go mad. Which is good for the government because it deters others. Those asylum seekers who survive will one day tell their stories.
So, what are we, us writers, us immigrants, and emigrants, expats, people of the diaspora?
We are the refugees, the asylum seekers; we’re adventurers, romantics, we are the ones simply seeking a better life.
We write of our new world, and we write of the world we left behind. We have our roots in the new, and we have our roots in the old. We are many things but mainly we are tellers of tales.
We are seekers of the truth; we’re liars; we are chroniclers of human existence, its joy, its suffering, its foolishness and hopes.
We tell our stories, wherever we are, as best we can.