Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Land Waits

Deborah Biancotti (Guest Blogger)

Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It is already tomorrow in Australia.
~Charles M. Schulz

Deborah Biancotti is an Australian author of urban and dark fantasy. Her first published story won an Aurealis Award and her first collection, A Book of Endings, was shortlisted for the 2010 William L. Crawford Award for Best First Fantasy Book.

Deborah is now working on her first novel, working title Broken. She has new fiction coming out in time for the 2010 WorldCon in Melbourne, including a novella set in contemporary Sydney from Gilgamesh Press. She also has an upcoming essay on “No Country for Old Men” in Twenty-First Century Gothic: Great Gothic Novels since 2000.

She continues to write short stories and refer to herself as a 'tired idealist'.

Where did it begin?

I blame school. All the schools. There were too many of them, for a start. One ordinary day at an ordinary school in an ordinary series of schools, I shut down.

The world is adversarial, that’s what I was learning (age nine, stuck in a giant school assembly, one of only two kids who didn’t have school uniforms yet—the other kid being my little sister). I was learning that the world is not on my side.

The world, if you’re lucky, ignores you. And if you’re unlucky it rains down upon you. That’s the world for you, kid. Welcome aboard.

On to the next school and the next one, pitstops in an unpredictable but oddly conformist landscape. I moved from small schools to large ones, from houses that backed onto sugar cane farms, to increasingly surburban and then inner city urban space. It wasn’t until I left school that I learned to hide. It wasn’t until then I felt safe.

It wasn’t until well past school, way past school, that I admitted publicly something that will never be fashionable.

I hate the Australian landscape.

I know we're meant to find our true expression somehow in the outback and the precious 'land'. I know most Australians dream of escaping to the coast and spend holidays at the beach. And there are the few eccentrics so obsessed with hanging off the edge of the landscape that they build huts on cliffs and dare local authorities to get rid of them. These same few occasionally make the news for their full-body tattoos and their penchant for filing their teeth to look like shark teeth. (Okay, maybe that's all just one guy.)

But the older I got, the less I could play at 'let's pretend'. I stopped pretending I found the landscape anything but creepy and revolting. The sweaty, swollen rainforests that threaten, in my memory, to tip into the thin wedge of playgrounds. The vast brownness of some places, the spindly silver trees, the ungenerous scrub by the sides of roads, wild grasses that whip the edges of beaches. Strange powers control those spaces. Indifferent powers. Wind alone doesn’t describe the movement.

Fear always starts in my sternum, and that’s what the grasses feel like. They feel like fear.

On the subject of hate, I hate—oh! how I hate—that damn poem by Dorothea McKeller. “I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains”. My Country. Man. Has anyone ever written a more banal poem about a more fatal place?

“It’s always been drought here,” one daughter of a farmer told me. “I’ve never not seen drought.”

Drought. We are defined by the absence of things. Of water, for instance. The desert is our greatest definition. The red dirt and damage of the uninhabitable centre of the country.

The landscape is looking to trip you up. The landscape—mad, bad, dangerous, faking emptiness—the landscape encourages you to throw yourself at it. The landscape, though, rarely gives back.

We grow up being taught what to do with the danger of place. What to do if we’re trapped in the desert (don’t leave your car, whateveryoudo), if we’re confronted by a snake (don’t run, whateveryoudo), if we spy strangers on a deserted road (don’t stop, whateveryoudo).

Generations have tried to tame the place, dragging their foreign flora into the country, making pastoral British lawns and Mediterranean vegetable gardens and stunning Balinese-style tropical retreats tucked behind fences and swimming pools. These are inelegant compromises amidst a climate that wants us gone. Cockroaches move into our skyscrapers and dust storms coat every window and street.

Of course, I’ve drifted into talking about the city. My city, Sydney, seen here in the great dust storm of September 23, 2009.

Because of another hate: I hate the notion that to be more authentically Australian, a screenplay or a story or a poem has to be set in the ‘great’ Australian outback. As if the urban experience, being more new, is less real, less great, for chrissake. I’m a climate control kinda grrrrl. I’m a city chick, an urban aficionado. I don’t need desert and rainforest, I don’t need beaches.

Though I do like beaches, but generally I like them more during rainstorms. In fact, I like rainstorms a lot. I love the punch of a sudden Sydney downpour and the kind of drizzling shower that goes on for days.

Once, a teacher told me she’d moved to Australia to be someplace new. Italy was too old. She meant the cities were old, of course. She was looking for a place where the famous Coliseum hasn’t been butchered to supply marble to local homes for hundreds of years, where museums weren’t bloated by centuries of art and thought.

She didn’t mean the land, the stolen land, because the land has been here as long as the world has. Aboriginal habitation of Australia began maybe 40,000 years ago. You get that feel, too, if you spend time in the ‘great’ outback. You get 40,000 years of whispered voices out there, you get the genocidal white history that’s laid thinly and shamefully on top. Especially at night, especially in the remote dark of night. You find yourself wanting to say ‘I’m sorry’ like a litany, hoping that will be enough for the landscape and its burden of horror to leave you the hell alone.

She came to Sydney, the teacher. To that relatively clean and utterly unplanned city, springing up from a series of coincidences and ill-thought-out roadways that disallow expansion, grand ‘old’ (like, a-hundred-and-fifty-years old) homes that squat precariously on what have accidentally become major motorways. The city goes on, unplanned, reacting to new populations and cultures with benevolent indifference. Asian grocers and Indian spice shops spring up, unexpected. Belgian chocolate shops and Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Lebanese restaurants fight for space.

But the landscape still wins. It seeps in. With the humidity of a Sydney summer (100% humidity more than once this year) comes the seething plant life growing through cracks in the windows. Parasites of every kind thrive. The cat’s food has to be protected from ants, slugs, cockroaches, and rats. The human food is susceptible to moths. The sticky moth traps in the pantry are littered with moth dust but no carcasses.

The ants eat them even before they die, wings flapping against the glue of the trap. Spiders the size of my thumb spin webs across the entire expanse of my backyard, webs so strong you need two hands to break them.

The landscape tries to box us in. Cut our spaces up, divide-and-conquer style. There is nothing but wildness out there, waiting to get in.

It’s not a wonder to me, then, that I write so much unsettled (occasionally unsettling) fiction. The wonder is more of us don’t. The world tears people apart. The world doesn’t hate us because we don’t recycle. The world just hates us.

So I write about it. An act of revenge on the world. I write about the world breaking us with its wide spaces or its heavy, untamed wildness in stories like “Number 3 Raw Place” and “The Distance Keeper”: both stories with heroes that are isolated and, ultimately, destroyed by the worlds they fear. I write about the unsustainability of our social structures in “Coming up for Air” and “Watertight Lies”. Both these stories take the latest politics around environmental sustainability and dare the reader to wonder ‘what about the social sustainability?’

Because I suspect and I’m afraid that our attempts to partner up with the world will come to nought. The world is rearing and bucking like a stallion, and it dreams of throwing us off.

And I write about the triumphs—the relative, fragile, fleeting triumphs—of the city. In “Diamond Shell” from Book of Endings, one woman finds a way if not to exist than to succeed.

The world, gentle reader, rains down upon us.

Deborah can be found online at http://deborahb.livejournal.com and http://deborahbiancotti.net.


This cover is a portrait of me by artist Nick Stathopoulos for a Jack Dann book. No, I don't actually write as Jack Dann. He’s a completely different person, but I love the spooky look to this cover.

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The bush is old, it's ancient, and it's waiting for us to leave.
~Robert Hood, Australian speculative fiction writer

8 comments:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Wow! I've never read a more writerly blog post and probably never will. Deborah, you took my breath away--and probably undid the effect of decades of Australian tourism promotion, or would if enough people read Poe's Deadly Daughters. Thanks for being our guest in nice tame cyberspace.

Sheila Connolly said...

Shoot--Liz stole my "wow". This is really powerful stuff, and it makes me want to read more of your work.

Let me ask a question. I think as writers we tap into a shared national or cultural reservoir that provides a kind of jump-start for our readers. For example, Liz says "New York," and people will make certain assumptions. I write about New England, which evokes a different set.

You are writing about Australia, whether you love it or hate it. But (here's the question), are you writing for Australian readers or international readers? Because, as Liz suggests, tourists who know Australia only from tourist promotion are going to react one way, and I would guess that residents would react differently.

I'm always surprised to read British best-seller lists and find so many names that I don't recognize, that don't seem to make it across the Atlantic. Is the same true for Australian writers?

Thanks for being here.

deborahb said...

Elizabeth: woops, I forgot about the tourism! Eeek. Come, visit, it's lovely here. :)

(And thank-you, I'm chuffed you enjoyed the piece!)

Sheila: thought-provoking questions. I get into a lot of trouble for not understanding what it means to be 'an Australian writer' as opposed to 'a writer'. I don't particularly write for an Australian audience & I'm not convinced my influences have been particularly Australian either. I was raised on British & Italian culture, & later American. So I write for the people that wrote for me then & still write for me now. Whoever we are. :)

Ironically, there's something about my relationship to Australia that's probably very Australian, & that is that I have a strong sense of dissociation towards my home country. The landscape isn't the gentle British landscape of the fiction I was raised on. The culture is a mish-mash of multiple cultures trying to get along. And despite the recent advance in issuing an official apology to the native Australian Aboriginees, white shame still undercuts our ability to ever feel relaxed about this stolen place.

I'm rambling.

I suspect if you started looking into Australian writers, you'd be amazed by all the names you don't recognise. We have some wonderful, wonderful horror & dark fantasy writers, & only some of them ever make a name for themselves 'across the pond' (as we call it!). People like Kim Wilkins and Kaaron Warren and Kim Westwood, to name more deadly daughters. And also Terry Dowling and Paul Haines from the boys' team.

I think the internet is making it a heck of a lot easier for us to say, 'Hey, guys! Over here! We've got GREAT WRITING over here!!'

crankynick said...

The landscape isn't the gentle British landscape of the fiction I was raised on.

And even down to the basics, that the seasons are reversed - spring, in WA, is the time that plants begin to turn brown and die...

I like your comment about our disassociation from the bush (for the most part).

How much to you think that the work of Australian writers is informed by that - not by the landscape which surrounds our cities, but by our separation from it?

deborahb said...

Hey Nick!

>How much to you think that the work of Australian writers is informed by that - not by the landscape which surrounds our cities, but by our separation from it?<

It's a good question, & I think plenty of people aren't honest about their/our answers.

I think like the McKeller poem, a lot of writers try to dominate the landscape & make it kinda sappy & quaintly sombre. Sure, it's Vast, and Sweeping! But it's also something which can be summed up in rhyming couplets.

In a way, the Australian landscape is like the 'magical negro' of our experiences in Australia. It is 'the other' & though we recognise it as such, we still try to keep it down. Keep it contained. We keep trying to say (in the kinda tones reserved for bad actors doing Shakespeare): 'See! The land which doth plague us, for She ist the power and the might!'

But I think if we just all said, 'There's a bloody great desert between me & you & when you stop to think about it, that is terrifying!' we'd admit that in Australia, isolation and clannishness are part of our definitions.

And loss. The number of stories about lost tourists, lost bushwalkers, lost babies, lost millionaires .... see, that's Australia to me. Not the distance, exactly, but the loss.

kathy d. said...

This is fascinating and a privilege to read. Will definitely read more by this author.

So glad to see the points about the Mauri existence in Australia for 40,000 years.

I have lately read the Australia Sisters in Crime website and found some women authors there whose books I want to read.

I did read, "Diamond Dove," by Adrian Hyland and liked it. What did you think of it?

And read, "The Broken Shore," by Peter Temple. Although a South African emigre, he does have a good sense of place about Australia and still-existing bigotry against the Mauri people.

Yes, the Internet is so great in bringing us international authors.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm kind of bothered by this. As someone (first generation British immigrant) who has been obsessed with this question...

The landscape - or environment - doesn't "hate" us. It is merely indifferent, as in fact all "nature" is. It is bigger than us and older than us and it makes us feel small. The Romantics called that feeling the Sublime, and looked for it in places like the Swiss Alps (equally deadly) or other wild places that put Man in His place (using pronouns advisedly). Australia has a lot of the sublime.

Translating that into hatred is, well, kind of egocentric. I guess what you're expressing here is white settler guilt, which translates into fear that is then projected out. But it seems kind of shortsighted - we live here, after all. A lot of our best art expresses this European disorientation but also the fruitfulness of a different way of seeing: a lot of it in our poetry (not, not Dorothea Mackellar - try Randolph Stowe or Judith Wright). Or our painters - Fred Williams, Clifford Possum, Tony Tuckson, Ian Fairweather, Rover Thomas... Surely we're past just thinking of Australia as absence?

deborahb said...

Kathy: I haven't read Diamond Dove, but The Broken Shore is a wonderfully evocative book featuring the Australian Landscape!

Alison: yes, you're spot on that nature is only indifferent, not hateful. I used hate to signify the childishness I feel in confrontation with the world, the emotional reaction it evokes. And also to signify respect. The landscape is deadly. It is frightening. It cannot be under-estimated. The 'sublime', as argued about in philosophy, is a good description for it. The landscape invokes awe.

I do think there is a great deal of absence (e.g. the Nullabor or 'null arbor', no trees). But just as white space counts on a page, so does absence in a landscape.

Judith Wright I'm familiar with, but not Randolph Stowe. Thanks for the recommendation. :)