Recently I attended a storytelling festival in Aberystwyth and as I sat mesmerized by the unfolding story of Pryderi, the ruler of Dyfed, I realized once again the power of the ancient stories and the oral tradition of storytelling to connect us to history, to each other and to the land. In Women Who Run With The Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote that, ‘telling or hearing stories draws its power from a towering column of humanity joined one to the other across time and space, elaborately dressed in the rags or robes or nakedness of their time.’ Listening to this spine tingling retelling of stories from the Welsh Mabinogion, for a moment I felt myself balanced on this towering column and understood what it must mean for someone to feel rooted to the earth, to grow and develop in a country with stories that feed the soul with the wisdom of mythic times, and a landscape that is steeped in these stories.
While the stories we tell about ourselves form our individual identity, the stories we tell about our country form our national identity and for better or worse, these narratives act as roots to ground us to place, providing a sense of belonging and a definition of nationhood. I don’t pretend to be Welsh but my ancestral roots are closer to Britain than they are to Australia where my ancestors are not the indigenous Aboriginal people whose land was taken from them. It’s not always comfortable being a white Australian. We have no ancient claim to the land and no traditional stories to draw from, except the stories of conquering and overcoming the odds, and the legends of mateship and a ‘fair go’ that came with colonization and a persistent white Australian policy. These are stories that have become mythologized in Australia, forming a national character that often marginalizes the indigenous population and ignores the fact that Australia is now a multi-cultural nation and the majority of its population are or once were, immigrants.
There are a number of contradictions inherent in white Australians’ relationship to the land. Many of us are at once drawn to, and repelled by the outback, awed by its beauty and frightened by its dangers. We carry the guilt of the conqueror, a guilt that often stops us from claiming a real connection to the land. Our legendary heroes are the men who cleared fields of rocks, who dug canals to drain marshy land, who made the harsh land work for them. The Aussie battler has become part of our national character. Yet, despite this reverence for the outback, more than ninety percent of Australians live in urban environments, for the most part clustered around the edges of this continent, turned away from the centre which carries such a mystique. We romanticise the wilderness, but most rarely, if ever, experience it. Yet, deep within us there’s such a longing for wildness, for wilderness and for the sense of real connection with place.
When I began writing my first novel, Gathering Storm, I had no idea how important a role landscape would play in it or how confused I was about my own relationship to the land. The story moves from the snow covered Malvern Hills in England to the harsh heat of the Australian outback, a dramatic contrast in itself, but then there are the contradictions that are deeply embedded in the relationship the characters have with the places in which they live, or once lived, or never lived, but still dream of. These are contradictions which I feel strongly, having grown up in the suburban wilderness of Adelaide, with its manicured lawns, neat fences and garden beds filled with roses and hydrangeas, all cowering under well placed umbrellas to avoid the worst of the baking sun. At school I learned European history in an education system that was still clinging to the comforting notion of a homeland. The only things reminding me that there was more to Australia, were the throaty laugh of the kookaburra, the eucalyptus scent of the gums trees, the fierce summer heat and the frequent dust storms that blew in from ‘out back’, turning the sky orange and clogging our lungs.
The word nostalgia comes from two Greek roots, nostos (returning home) and algos (pain). For most of my life I suffered from this affliction; a yearning to return home but no idea of where that home might be. This sense of alienation I felt goes some way towards explaining why I decided to make my main character English in Gathering Storm. This gave me the freedom to describe Australia through the eyes of a stranger, someone who doesn’t belong. Storm is also part Romany – partly imbued with the blood of a nomadic people, and although her family have lived in England for nearly seventy years, she still doesn’t fully belong there either. Storm belongs nowhere. She is torn between movement and stillness, restless but afraid, wanting to settle, but eager to move. Her sense of self is scattered between the cottage in the Malvern Hills, her boyfriend’s apartment, her art studio and her Kombi van. There there’s her romantic notion of Bohemia, her nostalgia for the Malvern of her childhood and her fearful retracing of her mother’s footsteps in the Australian outback. And finally there’s the cultural legacy of the past that plays havoc with her sense of self. Storm’s childhood is filled with secrets and silences embedded in the spaces between the stories her family reluctantly tell. Speaking of her childhood need for stories, Storm says, ‘I consumed them as if there were a great hollow inside me that needed filling and that once filled, their weight, the weight of my ancestors, would act as an anchor. . .’
For me, a sense of belonging is linked very closely to place and to the stories we tell that connect us to place. I was an adopted child and grew up steeped in a sense of my own illegitimacy. Like Storm, I felt I belonged nowhere, that no place was truly mine. And because this lack of belonging was a strong central theme in my own life, it inevitably demanded to be explored in the stories I told. Woven through both Gathering Storm and Flight, is this sense of dislocation and statelessness that can be felt and experienced personally, but also within a family a culture and a nation. Place gives us identity, a passport to belonging. But time does it too. In a sense, space and time cross when a family or a people have been anchored in one place for generations. Ancestors provide us with roots and so does place. As Storm asks: How long does it take? How many generations? Do we inherit place? Do we earn it? Or is belonging simply a state of mind? Exploring these questions through writing has helped me to resolve issues of belonging and identity within my own life. Like Storm I have begun to suspect that belonging is ultimately something we carry inside of ourselves. It is a realisation that comes when we are on the right path in our lives. Until then nowhere is ours, but when this realisation arrives, the world becomes ours. For as Joseph Campbell wrote, ‘our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life’.
If you’re interested in reading Gathering Storm here’s a link to Amazon. Kindle only at present but the print version is on its way.