How writing connects us across cultures and borders

Sydney Harbour Bridge by Annee LawrenceIn today’s guest post, Annee Lawrence, the author of The Colour of Things Unseen, examines the power of fiction to transcend borders and offer insights into communities and landscapes other than our own, with positive outcomes.

Map for Pakdhe Daliman and Uncle John 2012 acrylic on canvas 150x180cm by Ida Lawrence

Map for Pakdhe Daliman and Uncle John by Ida Lawrence

In this painting, the Australian-Indonesian artist Ida Lawrence uses maps and constructed letters to two uncles, one in Australia and the other in Indonesia. One letter is inviting her Uncle John to travel from his village in south-western New South Wales to meet and visit her Indonesian family in their village in Central Java. The other is addressed in Indonesian to her Javanese uncle, Pakde Daliman, inviting him to visit her Uncle John.

Different forms of address are used in the letters which give directions in Indonesian or English on how to get from their respective villages, onto the plane, through customs, what to expect to see along the way, how to get to the other’s village when they arrive at the airport. The tone of the letter to Uncle John is colloquial and even cheeky, while the letter to Pakde Daliman begins with enquiries about her uncle’s health, her aunt, the rice crops, and other family members.

A further painting will offer cross-cultural tips to her uncles and, in a corner of this painting, there is a story about a time in 1921 when the female ancestors on both sides of her family met up in Broome with their respective women’s groups for afternoon tea and swapped recipes and handicrafts made in their respective villages. Ida Lawrence is my daughter.

Volcanoes above the clouds over Java. By Annee Lawrence

Volcanoes above the clouds over Java by Annee Lawrence

Use fiction to encourage understanding

Prior to writing the novel The Colour of Things Unseen (Aurora Metro Books, UK 2019), I wondered why Australians in particular have such little knowledge or even curiosity about Indonesia – the largest of its close neighbours –– and its remarkable history, peoples, cultures, and art; or about the ways in which their respective histories overlap and interconnect.

There are not many Australian novels set in Indonesia, and some poetry, but when I began looking at the novels I found that, even in those that were well written, the Indonesian characters were often portrayed as devious, unknowable and shadowy. They had little or no agency.

The plots seemed to always involve an Australian journalist, tourist or business person arriving in Indonesia and, by degrees, being damaged in some way. They rarely spoke Indonesian, or any of the other local languages, and their cross-cultural understanding remained limited as they were plunged into culture shock.

This led me to consider the way literature – like the media, and perhaps also like the way histories are presented and studied – contributes to and reinforces the demonisation of certain others. Could a different kind of literature contribute to a more respectful engagement between people and countries, and within countries?

View from Borobodur by Annee Lawrence

View from Borobodur by Annee Lawrence

Contribute to ideas of engagement

In my case this questioning is certainly linked to my daughter’s father and his extended family being Javanese, and to having family and friends in Indonesia and in the Australian-Indonesian community in Sydney.

THE COLOUR OF THINGS UNSEEN coverIn The Colour of Things Unseen, my protagonist Adi leaves his family and small village in Central Java to travel to Australia to study art at a Sydney art school. He arrives in early 1997 and later that year Indonesia is hit by economic crisis and collapse. Then, in May 1998, the seemingly entrenched thirty-two year old Suharto dictatorship, in whose shadow he has grown up, collapses and is replaced by a democracy.

Adi comes of age in Australia. As a student he has a foot in both places, but when he marries and becomes a permanent resident his ties to family and village seem to loosen. Fifteen years later he returns, and he finds the place both familiar and strange, but also connected in diverse and surprising ways with art and artists of the region and the world.

The question that arises is what difference this will have on him as an artist living in the present time. And what of his relationship to place as he begins to respond to the shadows and concerns of what was hidden from view in the nation’s history that was fabricated and taught to him at school.

Sydney Harbour Bridge2 by Annee Lawrence

Sydney Harbour Bridge by Annee Lawrence

Make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange

When I came to write this novel I had in mind readers who were Indonesian and non-Indonesian and my aim was to make what was strange familiar and what was familiar strange (to the reader). Above all, though, I was interested in the questions: What is an artist? What can art do? Why does it matter? Can it expose us to new ways of connecting with the unfamiliar and the strange, and with the parts of our respective histories that remain hidden or disguise our links to the histories of others?

I also wondered whether there is a role for all kinds of artists including writers – in a world of disruption, displacement, and the politics of borders, wall building, exclusion and suspicion – to shed light on an imaginative blurring of national borders and boundaries that can show us a plurality of being and cross-cultural connectedness that we have yet to learn to fully recognise and peaceably live alongside.

Annee Lawrence, authorAbout the author

Annee Lawrence’s debut novel, The Colour of Things Unseen, is published by Aurora Metro Books (UK, 2019). Annee has worked as a tutor, writer, editor and community development worker in women’s health, disability rights and a range of social justice issues. Her research interests include the way identity shape-shifts in an unfamiliar place and culture; ethics, aesthetics, alterity and form in the cross-cultural novel; and Australian-Indonesian cross-cultural connection. She completed a PhD in creative writing in 2015 at the Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney.

Annee lives in Sydney and has published in Griffith Review, New Writing, Hecate and Cultural Studies Review. In 2018 Annee was awarded the inaugural Asialink Tulis Australian-Indonesian Writing Exchange which was funded by the Australia-Indonesia Institute and hosted by Komunitas Salihara in Jakarta and Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Ubud.

All photography in this post is by Annee Lawrence.

Read other writing masterclasses in the SkyLightRain Writing Tools series.

Biography – finding a new angle

Richmond bridge postcardIn today’s guest post, biographer Peter Fullagar discusses the value in finding a fresh focus when writing about a well-known figure.

Virginia Woolf is an icon. There can be no doubt about it. She fits into a variety of iconic categories; writer, feminist, mental health sufferer, sexual abuse survivor, LGBTQ supporter – the list is seemingly endless. So how does one attempt to look at Virginia, or rather RE:View her, from a different standpoint when there have been such outstanding biographies and commentaries on her life already?

Virginia Woolf.MS Thr 559 (21), Houghton Library, Harvard UniversityFind a minor point and turn it major

When I was asked by Aurora Metro Books to write a book about Virginia and her life in Richmond, I was thrilled. Having studied much of her work and read her diaries, it was going to be fascinating to delve into her life again. The book accompanies Aurora Metro’s Virginia Woolf Statue campaign to erect the first life-size bronze statue of Virginia in the UK. At the time of writing, there is only a blue plaque to state that Virginia had any connection to Richmond. Even the biographies demonstrate a cursory nod to Richmond and its influence.

In contrast, Virginia is almost synonymous with the Bloomsbury area of London and for being a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a collection of writers, artists and intellectuals. To Woolf fans, it’s no secret that she loved living in the city of London and lived there for most of her life, with fifteen years of it spent at Tavistock Square. However, a quote from the film The Hours had always bothered me:

If it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death.

I wondered if this was really the reason why Virginia was not apparently celebrated in the town.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Do your research

During the hours of research in her letters and diaries, I could find no reference to the quote from The Hours, so I contacted the writer of the book it was adapted from, Michael Cunningham and also the screenwriter, Sir David Hare.

Sir David’s agent confirmed that the station scene, from which the quote comes from, was largely invented for the screen and in fact, Virginia had never uttered these words. This, then, was the angle which the book should explore. Richmond was integral to Virginia’s life and yet a lot of people didn’t even know that she had lived there. From 1915 to 1924, Virginia and her husband, Leonard, lived in the town, and it was here, I believe, where she truly found her career taking off and the foundation of the Hogarth Press and her short story Kew Gardens were instrumental to her success.

Find the evidence

Looking at somebody’s life from a different angle is nothing without the evidence to support your claims. Luckily for me, Virginia had been kind enough to detail the majority of her life through her diaries and letters, and, although it took a long time and a lot of post-it notes, I gradually found the evidence that she actually did like living in Richmond, contrary to the fictitious quote and popular belief. I think that one of the key things about my research is that Leonard Woolf had written volumes of autobiography, and here I was able to corroborate the evidence from what he had written.

Hogarth House B&W

Hogarth House, Richmond

Broaden your scope

It wasn’t going to be enough just to find a few quotes that basically said ‘I like living in Richmond’, I had to fully explore her life in the town, from demonstrating her feelings with what she did (such as helping to run the local Women’s Co-operative Guild), to her family and servants and the people who came to visit her. Thus, thirteen chapters were borne out of the research and a book was made.

Clinch your conclusion

Ultimately, there was one vital entry in Virginia’s diary that sealed the conclusion. On 9th January 1924, as Virginia and Leonard were preparing to leave Richmond, she wrote:

So I ought to be grateful to Richmond and Hogarth, and indeed, whether it’s my invincible optimism or not, I am grateful.

Peter FullagarAbout the author

Peter Fullagar is a former English teacher turned writer and editor. As well as Virginia Woolf in Richmond, he has a short story published in Tempest: An Anthology from Patrician Press, published March 2019 and two English language exam books with Express Publishing. He enjoys playing the piano, taking photographs and spending time with cats. He lives in Berkshire with his partner. Find Peter at www.peterjfullagar.co.uk and www.twitter.com/peterjfullagar

About the book

Drawing from Virginia Woolf’s diaries, letters and other source material, Virginia Woolf in Richmond offers a glimpse of the author and her deep affection for Richmond, as well as the early days of the Hogarth Press, named after the Woolfs’ home in Richmond, and the many influences on Virginia’s mental health and literary output.

The biography recently had a second print run. The hardback version is available from www.aurorametro.com, with ebook versions available from various online stores.

The Virginia Woolf Statue Project continues to raise money after securing planning permission.

All photos in this post were supplied by Peter Fullagar.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to JudyDarley(at)iCloud.com.

Book review The Dragonfly by Kate Dunn

The Dragonfly by Kate DunnA father incarcerated for killing his wife. A grandfather ousted from solitude into the care of his granddaughter. An angry nine-year-old, a toy monkey and a boat slicing through the waterways of France.

Got that?

Kate Dunn’s set-up seems as much a surprise to her characters as to readers, seeking a genre to hook her book onto. As we meet Colin, an English man who has buried his loneliness in boatbuilding, there’s a curious comfort in not quite knowing where we’re going.

Colin holds himself separate to us so that it takes a while to get a sense of him and the great, multiple heartbreaks that separated him from his son years before. This aloofness is no error in judgement from Dunn, however, as the pages drift by and you find yourself warming to Colin and his awkwardness.

The story really comes to life when Delphine, the afore-mentioned angry nine-year-old, and her precious soft toy Amandine. Fizzing into the plot, Delphine is full of a barely contained rage that seems only appropriate given the death of her mother Charlotte and subsequent imprisonment of her father Michael. Continue reading

Book review – Shambala Junction by Dipika Mukherjee

shambala-junction-coverThis vividly written, courageous book begins with a train journey that’s unexpectedly aborted long before its destination. An American with Indian parents, Iris alights from her carriage at Shambala Junction at 2am, drawn by the sight of a doll-sellers stall. Left behind when the train resumes its route, she’s plunged into a terrifying situation. With little Hindi language at her disposal and only a small amount of cash, her only option is to trust the strangers who surround her.

Spending a night in a slum was never on Iris’ ‘to-do’ list – through her eyes we experience the shock of poverty, and the discomfort of shamelessly leering eyes. More crucially, however, we enter into the crisis of the people next door, a couple with a missing baby Iris may be able to help recover.

Alone without backup for the first time in her life, Iris reveals a vein of inner strength that she’s never suspected existed. For the first time in her life, without her father or fiancé by her side, she’s forced to draw on her own resources.

Continue reading