As I write this, Sydney, the city where I’ve set my life and much of my fiction over the past 27 years, is ringed by fire and choked by smoke. A combination fan and air purifier hums in the corner of my study. Seretide and Ventolin inhalers sit within reach on my desk. I’m surrounded by a lifetime’s accumulation of books, including some relatively rare and specialist volumes on China, in English and Chinese. This library might not be precious in monetary terms, but it’s priceless to me and vital to my work. I wonder which books I would save if I had to pack a car quickly and go. The thought of people making those decisions right now, including people I know, twists my gut.
I check the news online and the Fires Near Me app (with watch zones set for friends’ homes) compulsively. Distracted from the book I’m writing, a short history of China, I compose furious, polite, pleading letters to politicians about their failure to declare and act on our climate emergency, and their continuing support for coal. Then I try, with the aid of other apps like Freedom, to remove myself from my digitally-infused physical surroundings so that I can write about place. So that I can write this. The best places for writing are those that fade from consciousness as the landscapes of the imagination take over.
Back in August, on the first day of a visit to Spain, I considered setting the start of this essay in Barcelona. Bit of a cliché, of course, how being in a new place sharpens the powers of observation. But it’s true if you make it so. It’s also a vital habit to cultivate for a novelist and travel writer. Many a beautiful notebook bought with the intention of keeping a daily journal has become a beautiful failure. But put me on a plane, and I’ll fill two pages before we even land. Do you want to know the name of every film I’ve seen on planes? Neither do I. But they’re all there. My travel journals are a continual source of wonder. All those details: who was that brilliant and witty person I seemed so taken with? Others trigger memories that have slipped the loosely-strung fishing net of my mind, which generally retains only the biggest catch, while everything else wriggles back into the sea. Recently, when in conversation, I likened my memory to a sieve, a friend objected: ‘it’s a filter’, he said. Nice thought, but sadly it’s not that deliberate.
That sticky hot August afternoon in Barcelona, I’d just arrived from the airport after a long series of flights from Sydney that included a confusing delay in Heathrow, un-arrived luggage in Barcelona and a talkative driver who exhausted my Spanish vocabulary within minutes of my getting into his taxi, leaving me with just enough language to greet the woman who ran my little hotel in Gracia and misunderstand something she said about the bathroom light (I eventually worked it out for myself). After she left, I threw open the wooden shutters to take in the view – the back of an apartment building.
The fronts of buildings in Barcelona are lovely, with long, shuttered windows and balconies overspilling with flowering plants. The Catalan flag, fluttering off some balconies, proclaim the residents’ politics. The backs of the buildings are more intimate. In one apartment, a couple is rising from a siesta. The woman is putting on her bra. An arm reaches for her and pulls her out of sight for a moment. She reappears, and finishes getting dressed. The novelist in me imagines they are illicit lovers, doing what the French call the cinq à sept but from, let’s see, de la una a las tres in the afternoon. In the flat below, another woman, older, less obviously content, mops the floor, back and forth, back and forth, lost in thought, a lock of hair falling onto her cheek and sticking there. Upstairs, on a clothing rod suspended across the bottom of the window, a woman’s white slip flutters in a gentle breeze next to citrus-coloured sheets and a hot pink pillowslip. In a higher window, too far up for me to see anything else, a bright ceramic plate hangs on the wall.
Somewhere, someone is pan-frying fish. The smell awakens my appetite and I explore the little square nearby with its several bars, choosing the one, as it turns out, with the worst food. So, what can I conclude from all this about the place called Gracia in Barcelona? Fuck all, really. But I could probably spin a short story out of it with a reasonably strong sense of place. Fiction writers are tricksters. We want you to believe our fishing nets retain everything, including the water. That our narratives are the water itself.
Several years after I immigrated to Australia in 1986, my then-husband and I flew to Auckland to visit an old friend. It was my first trip to New Zealand and I was excited. In the airport carpark I exclaimed at the marvellous trees. My husband and our friend looked at me like I was a moron, which I was. I was going to say they were trying not to laugh, but they weren’t. They were definitely laughing. The thing is, those trees were Norfolk pines. But I was so ready to see something exotic, I did.
Our friend was suffering from depression. It rained a lot while we were there. Everything smelled wet, an unsettling combination of fresh and mouldy. The land, from an Australian perspective, was an eye-smarting, hallucinatory green. The trees were covered in grey-green lichen. Auckland felt like a sad place, drenched in tears. Objectively, I understood that not to be true, that we were visiting someone going through bad times, that this had nothing to do with any enduring qualities of the place. We were there, I think, three days. I could easily have spun a short story out of it with a reasonably strong sense of place.
The more time you spend in a place, the harder it is to write about. There used to be a saying about China back in the 70s. It was that those who visited China for a week wrote a book about it; those who stayed for a month wrote a magazine article; and those who stayed for a year found they could write nothing at all. I graduated from university with a degree in Asian History and a vague notion that I wanted to write books, fiction and non-fiction, about China. After two years of studying and working in Taiwan from 1977-79, I made my first visit to mainland China in 1979. Although I worked as a journalist in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China for five years after that, producing a ton of articles, my first non-fiction book about China (The Monkey and the Dragon) didn’t come out until 2001, and I didn’t produce my first novel about the place until 2009 (A Most Immoral Woman), a historical novel. I published one with a contemporary setting in 2014 (The Empress Lover). I’m working on a history of China now, forty years after first thinking about it, for publication later this year.
The Empress Lover has two main settings. They are both based on places I knew intimately. One was an old courtyard home in Beijing where I’ve often stayed. It’s owned by two lovely, quirky older women. One frequently had her old military mates over to drink, eat, and sing revolutionary songs. The other is a small bar that was hidden behind ordinary red doors in a narrow Beijing hutong, in two rooms of another old courtyard house. You’d push open the doors, step over the stone threshold, and enter a special, intimate world of music, whiskey and wine presided over by a Mongolian fellow whose photography decorated the walls and whose collection of books, many on poetry and philosophy, sat on shelves above some of the tables. His cats prowled for pats and back scratches, napped on the most comfortable chairs or leapt like mad things from all the high places in the room to the not-so-high places and back. Every so often a Mongolian or Uyghur singer or musician would do a casual gig – throat-singing, playing a horse-head fiddle, that kind of thing. I’m not much of a drinker, but I loved that bar. Some weeknights, I’d pop in to say hello and the owner would make me a mug of hot water with lemon. If there weren’t many customers, we’d sit together at a table companionably reading books and chatting.
Neither of those places are today as they were. The sisters have someone living with them on a permanent basis, and the Mongolian fellow left Beijing for the southwest. But they are lodged in my memory, and live on – with many fictional flourishes – in my novel. Writing is a type of occupation of place that doesn’t stop anyone else from owning or occupying it at the same time. If my Mongolian friend wrote about his bar, that would be a different story, and his story would be different from that of his brother, who ran it with him, and from the Englishman who drank there most nights and sometimes brought his guitar along to entertain whoever was around. It was a place where parallel universes converged. If the bar is no longer what it was, even back then, it never was, in any absolute sense.
As both physicists and Taoists will tell you, the world is vibration and flow. The writer, of fiction or non-fiction, pretends to isolate a few currents in the flow. She sets her reader on a craft down the stream, hoping the journey is enchanting enough that the reader will not notice any leaks, or unexplored tributaries.
Travel writing is writing about place in the most essential meaning of the phrase, and yet travel writing itself, to use the most overused cliché in travel writing, is a ‘place of contradictions’. The writer may have flown (trekked, shipped, driven or taken a train) somewhere for the first time. She may be jet-lagged, on a strange continent, hearing people speak a language she doesn’t know well or at all. She may have only a few days to experience the place – ideally, as no one has done before. At the very least, she must note everything amazing, interesting, and unique about it and present her observations in a style that’s both entertaining and informative. She must never use the phrase ‘place of contradictions’.
Another phrase to avoid is ‘off the beaten track’. All tracks are beaten, including those tracks off the most beaten one. It is a delusion of grandeur to imagine that as a tourist (or traveller, as those with backpacks and fond self-regard prefer to be called) you have stumbled upon the one place where no outsider has previously set foot, or that you have discovered the last lost tribe, whether that be in the Amazon or a Scottish pub. You’re not Columbus. And even Columbus wasn’t really Columbus, in the sense that he didn’t actually discover anything that other people, with a different skin colour, hadn’t already known about. Every track is beaten. It’s how you walk the track that makes the story. Good travel writing is a kind of Zen koan: you are at the centre of the story but you are not the story.
One of my favourite works of travel writing is Stalin’s Nose (1993). The Canadian travel writer Rory McLean takes a road trip from the Baltic to the Black Sea soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He planned to travel alone. But one thing leads to another and at one point he finds himself ferrying: his two warring aunts, one a communist who’d lived in East Germany during the Cold War and her sister, an anti-Communist, whose pilot husband had been shot down behind the Iron Curtain; the aforesaid husband strapped onto the roof-rack in his coffin; a fast-growing piglet called Winston; and the souvenired nose off a giant statue of Stalin. It is a hilarious and haunting travel book. It communicates an indelible sense of Eastern Europe at a very particular point in time, as Soviet communism crumbles and the new era brings a sense that all things are possible and nothing certain.
And that brings us to the third and fourth worst clichés about place, after ‘land of contradictions’ and ‘off the beaten path’ – ‘timeless’ and ‘authentic’. No place is timeless, which is good, or we’d never be able to meet any deadlines. ‘Authentic’, too, is a concept that tells us more about the desires and cravings of the writer than the place she’s describing. Every landscape has a cultural, political and historical topography as well as hills and flats and streams, or streets and landmarks. Those topographies are changing all the time. Every new normal is also a new authentic. I recall the disappointment voiced by an American tourist I met in Beijing in the early 1980s that young Chinese people were abandoning ‘Mao suits’ (not a thing, but that’s another story) for jeans and mini-skirts. Wouldn’t you? I asked.
When I wrote my first novel, Eat Me (1995), I’d only been living in Sydney for a few years. Say what you like about Sydney. Brash, crass, shallow, ridiculously flamboyant, yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. I lovedit from the start. I wanted to learn everything about my new home. My first novels were exercises in cartography, mapping my new city suburb by suburb, cataloguing the local flora and fauna, noting down their watering holes and patterns of migration.
Eat Me was centred in the cafes of Darlinghurst, with occasional excursions to such exotic locations as Neilsen Park, the parking lot behind the Big Merino in Goulburn and the ruins of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. It’s inhabited by four women friends and their sundry Objects of Desire. (It came out several years before Sex and the City, in case you were wondering.) Rock n Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996) was my love letter to Newtown and the pub rock scene, with a nod to the Sebel Townhouse in Elizabeth Bay, where you could always tell which bands were staying by the t-shirts on the fans clustered on the park bench opposite. Miles Walker You’re Dead (1999) traversed the ‘art belt’ from Paddington galleries through the warehouse studios of Surry Hills and Chippendale, with a little jaunt to Canberra, Parliament House and the prime ministerial offices. The Infernal Optimist (2006) plays out in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in the western suburbs. Its cast of characters include asylum seekers, trafficked women, immigration officials, people who visit asylum seekers, and one very charismatic criminal.
In each novel, narrative and character are inseparable from place, which is also inseparable from time – just imagine, those of you who know Surry Hills, today finding giant warehouse spaces big and cheap enough for young artists to live and work and party.
The Sebel’s long gone, by the way. There’s an apartment block there inhabited, so far as I can tell, by well-groomed rich people with well-groomed dogs. When a penthouse there came up for sale, and there were inspections, I thought I’d have a sticky. The real estate agent wanted to write down my name and phone number. I told him I wasn’t really looking to buy, and he said, ‘I know’. I’m clearly not the only one capable of mapping character to place.
There are places dedicated to writing. One of them is Varuna, the Writer’s House in the Blue Mountains. I’ve written part of nearly every one of my eleven books at Varuna; it has the perfect combination of being beautiful when you look up and invisible when you look down, a kind of ideal version of my study at home. The house belonged to the writer Eleanor Dark, whose family, in an incredible act of generosity, made it into a place where writers can come and work, either by paying or getting one of the various competitive fellowships. A writer’s every need is catered for: silence, for one thing, with phone use in the house banned until 6 pm, no loud conversations and no knocking on other people’s doors. I work offline, my phone on silent and turned over so I don’t even see when I’m missing calls. There are plenty of hiking trails just a ten-minute walk away. The house is stocked with food for breakfast and lunch and a woman called Sheila comes in every evening to cook dinner, when all five residents convene for the social part of the day in the library-dining room. Each Monday, when new people arrive, one of the staff welcomes everyone with a glass of wine, a quick review of the rules and then the writers introduce themselves and the projects they’ll be working on.
In December 2019, I went to Varuna to work on my new novel, one set in Beijing around the time young people were trading ‘Mao suits’ for jeans and mini-skirts. When I left Sydney, the air was orange and smoky. Katoomba’s skies were blue, but fires were burning close by, including one at Ruined Castle just five kilometres away. At the welcome, the staff made sure we had all downloaded the Fires Near Me app and told us to leave notifications on, including at night. The fire at Ruined Castle had just advanced to a yellow ‘watch and act’ level. A member of staff left us her car in case we needed to evacuate overnight. We formed a WhatsApp group. I slept with my computer in my backpack by the door, waking up every so often to check the app.
At first light, the helicopters transporting water to the fires began flying to the fires. When they passed over the house, my computer trembled under my fingers with the vibrations. They came and they went, until last light, the speed with which they delivered their bucket loads telling us the fire was close indeed. If you walked to Echo Point in the evening, you could see the flames, in the morning, yellow smoke. Familiar views of ancient mountains that had always filled me with calm and joy had become strange and ominous. I sat at the desk in my writing nook with its big windows, watching the helicopters, compulsively checking the fire app. When I spoke to my partner he told me it was raining ash in Sydney. It took a huge mental effort to relocate myself mentally to Beijing.
The fires that are burning across Australia are changing this place, quite possibly forever, and with it our natural, social, cultural, and political narratives. The fires are writing new stories into the very rocks and soil of our land, this land that has always had stories engraved in rocks and soil, this always-was-always-will-be Aboriginal land. Our newest story is pyrogenic. Born of fire, it will throw green shoots out from blackness. It must.
We are grateful to the City of Sydney for funding to commission and publish this essay.