Six Degrees from the City: Episode 1 – Lachlan Brown
Six Degrees from the City is a podcast about writing in Western Sydney, hosted by the writer and critic Fiona Wright. Each episode features a writer based in or hailing from the western suburbs of Sydney, one of the most diverse – as well as most maligned – areas in Australia, and the site of some of our most interesting and challenging literature and conversations. This first episode features the poet Lachlan Brown, from whose work the podcast takes its name – in his ‘Poem for a Film’, Lachlan writes, ‘To exist within this weatherboard valley/ is to remain always six degrees from the //city.’
Lachlan is the author of two collections of poetry, Limited Cities (Giramondo, 2012) and Lunar Inheritance (Giramondo), published last month. He grew up in Macquarie Fields, and now lives in Wagga Wagga, where he is a lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University.
‘With my grandmother’s hoarding, there’s also this other sense that everything is valued, in strange ways, so that everything seemed to, for my grandma, have equal value. Anything that you could ask her, should we get rid of this, she would say, oh no, that’s my XYZ. I need this chair because of this thing, or I need to give this to someone, and so the value of everything was placed into flux. And I think, part of neo-liberal world is that there is this way of valuing and revaluing things as part of its notions of exchange and capital, which I think was also going on in China when I went there…
‘In China, what they’re doing of course is just wiping away whole sections of cities – hutongs in Beijing, which have a lot of history and culture – are just being swept away, because of modern progress and development and things like that. And so, even though China as a country wants to make a lot of the past and the history…when you look around the cities, when you look around places, just this rapid sweeping away of the past.
‘Song Dong is the other sort of touchstone for this. In his artwork ‘Waste Not’ he took all the hoarded items in his mother’s house in Beijing, and then displayed them as an exhibition, lined them up. And she, at the beginning of the exhibition, curated it. So she was able to tell people why she had all these things. But there was a certain sense of care to that we didn’t see in my grandmother’s house. Nothing was ordered. And all the stories were just made up about things, ad hoc, when you asked.’
Six Degrees from the City is supported by the Crown Packer Foundation, the Sydney Review of Books and the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. Our music is by Phillip Faddoul, a composer from Western Sydney. You can find more of his work here. Special thanks to Ben Denham for production assistance.
Lachlan’s books are available on the Giramondo website.
Fiona Wright: Hello, and welcome to Six Degrees from the City, a podcast about writing and Western Sydney. I’m your host, Fiona Wright, and I’m delighted to be talking in this episode, our first episode, with Lachlan Brown – not in the least because the title of this podcast comes from his ‘Poem for a Film’ which states ‘To exist within this weatherboard valley/ is to remain always six degrees from the //city.’
Lachlan is a poet, and the author of two collections, Limited Cities, which was published in 2012, and Lunar Inheritance, which is published this month by Giramondo. Lachlan grew up in Macquarie Fields, and now lives in Wagga Wagga, where he is a lecturer in English at CSU.
I caught up with Lachlan at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, sitting at the end of a pier in Walsh Bay and overlooking the harbour…
FW: There’s something kind of nice about talking about Western Sydney on the Harbour…
Lachlan Brown: I feel like it’s… not my space in some ways. The sense of intrusion. But also it’s illicit, right? You’re somewhere where you’re not meant to be. Who can afford these views?
FW: …and we talked about inheritance and hoarding, and poetry as a means of accounting for places and the objects within them. Here’s Lachlan reading from his new work.
LB: I’m Lachlan Brown and I’m reading from Lunar Inheritance.
[Lachlan reads four poems: ‘near-sighted’, ‘uncommon denominators’, ‘grandmothercountry’ and ‘sorites and another traveller’s song’]
FW: I’m really glad, actually, that you read those poems, some of my favourites are in there. I love the poem about your grandparents choosing names, and your own name being unpronounceable in Chinese.
LB:I find my name unpronounceable in America and China and other places too! Someone in a bagel shop, when I said my name was Lachlan, my order came back with Lackin, which was great – it shows this kind of deficiency, and I think it’s a great kind of deficiency to have! But yes, my grandmother, her name is Sheila, and that’s what she called herself when she came to Australia, and my grandfather’s name was Allen, he passed away when I was very small. Allen, he names himself after the lollies that he sold in the Mixed Business they had.
FW: My dad’s Alan as well, but he was named after Alan Ladd, the actor who played the cowboy in Shane, who I think my nanna had a bit of a crush on!
LB: That’s iconic! It’s better than naming yourself after a lolly!
FW: I love it though, because there’s a theme that runs through the whole book about misrecognition, and not quite belonging.
LB: Yes, it seems to me that going back to China for the first time, there is this sense of, well, what am I doing here? With no Chinese, with a grandmother who wasn’t that interested in me going back, whose face was kind of turned in a different direction. And so the excavations that you do in those places, without language, mean that you’re constantly out of place. But I think I have the same feeling in Sydney as well, of not being quite there, all there, and not having that same sort of heritage. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s interesting to interrogate, poetically.
FW: I felt like there were two tensions going on there, you have that line about, ‘the climax of deracinated privilege/ means you are just selectively retrieving/ the past, working out what to discard/ or pocket,’ but it also made me think of that line in ‘Urban Sprawl’ in your first book, Limited Cities, where you talk about, ‘I’m somewhere/ in between, I think…’
LB: ‘Like a fallacy.’ Yeah, the fallacy of the extended middle, I think, I was speaking about there! And I think, that line about deracinated privilege, there’s a sense in which the only reason one can do this kind of project is because that journey from China to Australia in ’39 and ’40, or to New Guinea in ’39 and ’42 to Australia was successful. That it has won something for the generations that came. But also, you know, there are complications there. Like my mother not marrying the person she was meant to marry. So the result of me being here as this kind of in-between figure is in a sense, the result of that kind of past, with all its bumps and arguments and difficulties. But when you go back into it you become…for me it was almost like going into the hoarder’s house and saying, well, which bits can I put forward, which bits can I take back, and in that process of selection, I know that a poet will never be quite 100 per cent honest, maybe. The temptation is to withhold and to fashion and so I guess all those things about taking selfies and thinking about the way that Chineseness is represented and that Australian Chineseness is represented, that’s the big criticism of that. That you’re in a position where you’re privileged enough to make those decisions, when there are lots of people who don’t have that privilege.
FW: One of the main themes in the book is this idea of hoarding, which is very much a family story…
LB: Yes, my grandmother would not let anyone into her house for many, many years, until she fell over in Ashfield and broke her hip. And when we finally got into her house, there was just years’ worth of … stuff. And it was indistinguishable; it filled rooms in ways that seemed physically not possible. My parents spent nine months – they’d just recently retired – cleaning this house, and we would help them. Taking skip after skip of rubbish away. But they had to go through everything, because you didn’t know what you might find. Would you find $8000 in old currency, would you find ten McDonald’s cups, used, inside ten plastic bags inside…or would you find some unmentionable sort of…
LB: Horror! Yeah, there were moments of sheer horror! It came about from finding things like my grandfather’s naturalisation certificate, his Sun Yat-Sen medallion, but also bags of… unmentionable bodily material… And meaningless, in the sense of inverted commas, ‘meaningless’ rubbish – like clothes for the children that she was envisaging all her grandchildren having in the future, but they were just kept outside in a passageway, with the rain and the wind, bags and bags of these clothes. So it really came out of that, and also thinking through heritage. And thinking about what China is like now, as a capitalist, consumptive place, where the pace of change is just relentless; and where, when you go there, there’s this sense of industry and the renewal of cities and of discarding the past in certain ways, architecturally. So it was putting those two things together, with these notions of identity, that’s what I was thinking through.
FW: And there is this real sense that there you’ve got this kind of brash, loud capitalism, in the one sense hoarding is almost a natural extension of that.
LB: Yeah, very much so. I mean, aren’t you just, well I guess capitalism means we’re always selling things and valuing things, but hoarding is a really… it’s interesting you say it’s an extension of capitalism, because on the one hand it has this sense of accumulation, that you’re trying to get as much as you can, but with my grandmother’s hoarding, there’s also this other sense that everything is valued, in strange ways, so that everything seemed to, for my grandma, have equal value. Anything that you could ask her, should we get rid of this, she would say, oh no, that’s my XYZ. I need this chair because of this thing, or I need to give this to someone, and so the value of everything was placed into flux. And I think, part of neo-liberal world is that there is this way of valuing and revaluing things as part of its notions of exchange and capital, which I think was going on in China when I went there.
FW: Or the sense that part of capitalism too is discardability of things…there’s a weird tension there, in not discarding things.
LB: So you’re really going against the flow in that sense. And in China, I mean, what they’re doing of course is just wiping away whole sections of cities – hutongs in Beijing, which have a lot of history and culture, are just being swept away, because of modern progress and development and things like that. And so, even though China as a country is very much… they want to make a lot of the past and the history, the great history of China, there’s also, when you look around the cities, when you look around places, just this rapid sweeping away of the past. I mean, Song Dong is the other sort of touchstone for this. His artwork ‘Waste Not’ was…what he did was, took all the hoarded items in his mother’s house in Beijing, and then displayed them as an exhibition, lined them up. And she, at the beginning of the exhibition, curated it. So she was able to tell people why she had all these things. But there was a certain sense of care to that, that we didn’t see in my grandmother’s house. It was just…nothing was ordered. And all the stories were just made up about things, ad hoc, when you asked.
FW: And you talk about that in the poems too, this sense of making up narrative in reverse. You also have a T.S. Eliot quote as well, ‘we can connect nothing/ with nothing, because there isn’t a story for this material.’
LB: Yeah, that’s from The Waste Land, I think, The Waste Land is the poem of disconnection and fragmentation, and it’s about cities of course. And so, that’s why I think poetry might be a good form for this. Because poetry has that sense of fragmentation and image and, you know, few words that connect in strange ways with other words, some of the connections are spelt out, some of them are, as I said in the poem, paratactic, just placed next to each other…
FW: It’s funny, I wanted to ask you about form and about parataxis in particular, I know we’re both big fans of parataxis!
LB: I just mentioned it in the launch speech for Nathaniel O’Reilly’s book!
FW: But it struck me as very much a kind of hoarderly, I want to say a technique, a hoarderly aesthetic, going on, where you’re sort of pulling things together and just leaving them there…
LB: Yeah, I think, I use parataxis in a sense, I guess, it goes back, when you look at Song Dong’s artwork, everything is laid out next to one another, the twenty little sections of soap, for example, are all laid out neatly, so there is a sense in which that is the mode for pulling a house and a life apart, to kind of see how all the parts might play out. But I think on the other hand I’m… I think it’s part of my writerly voice to try out different connections. And I was noticing this as I read through the volume again the other week, one of the things, I mean there’s lots of ways that we connect these things, but one of the things I tend to do is say, X, but Y. So I’ve got all of these voltas, these turns in the poems, that I hadn’t noticed when I’d written the book, but they seemed to me, it was very difficult to unsee them. They were almost symptomatic of something, that I needed to look away, or I needed to think of another perspective, or…so that constant switching I think is part of it…it’s not just a kind of William Carlos Williams-like flattening of everything, but it’s a trying out of perspectives, I think.
FW: And there are moments too, less so in Lunar Inheritance, and more in Limited Cities, where some of the switches are almost anti-meaning, there are lines like, ‘a pretty/ girl wearing […] a face like a pretty girl’, or ‘this industrial area is like an industrial area (sic).’
LB: Yeah, yeah. I guess they’re tautological in a sense. That line about, ‘this industrial area is like Wetherill Park industrial area’, was taken from one of my writing students, one of my students at the University of Sydney, who opened a piece like that! Very unapologetically, and in a non-ironic way, and I just thought! I mean, there’s something about the singularity about that place, that I kind of thought was interesting in that quote. It’s like nowhere else, and like everywhere else at the same time.
FW: I have a poet friend who’s very against the word ‘like’. He says something either is a thing, or it’s not. It’s not like something!
FW: He deliberately strips it out of his poems.
LB: That’s really interesting, I always think of the engine room of so much poetry that I like, that I enjoy, that I admire, is the simile. Is the comparison.
FW: And I think you’re really good at them. You have really surprising connections, especially with people, bodies often becoming part-mechanical, or spaces too, there’s this ability to bring to spaces together. So China and Ashfield sit together side-by-side in this book, and in the previous book you had Paris and Macquarie Fields sitting together in the riot poems.
LB: I think it’s part of that consciousness that one might have, you take the places with you when you’re walking through other spaces…It seems to me when we go to places we take our experiences with us, of course, and so my trips to Paris were… well I went there because I wanted to see these places that were rioting in similar ways and structurally similar ways to the parts of Western Sydney that I was from. And so I did see a lot of connection there. I think there’s amore kind of threading in terms of the China poems, there’s more of a threading of place onto place, that you, what I’m doing is thinking back to my childhood growing up in Macquarie Fields, my grandmother living in Ashfield and other parts of Western Sydney. And how that might interact with whatever experiences one has in China. And so you grasp at those things a little as well.
[Lachlan reads four poems: ‘life-hyphen’, ‘instant vantage’, ‘signa orientalem’ and ‘on Shamian island’]
FW: Can we talk a little bit about Macquarie Fields? Because it is such an important presence in your first book, Limited Cities. In particular, the first poem, ‘Urban Sprawl’, is very much about Macquarie Fields and thinking through representation of spaces. And belonging, I guess. So you grew up in Macquarie Fields…?
LB: Yes, I grew up in Macquarie Fields, I was born in Liverpool Hospital and I lived there until I got married and then moved to Macquarie Fields. From Macquarie Fields! And then I moved one suburb away, and now I live in Wagga Wagga, which is a lot further away, and teach at the university there. But Macquarie Fields, I think, it seemed to me when I started writing to be a place that was so often ignored, or derided. It just didn’t seem to be on the cultural map in any way. And that’s not to say that everyone needs to come and write about Macquarie Fields – I mean, John Birmingham has put it in his Leviathan, you know, he comes and hangs out with Macquarie Fields cops to see the underbelly of Sydney. But I don’t know, there was something about the era, you know that era of lifestyle supplements in the Herald…It seems to me that the West had been ignored. And that’s why it’s ironic that we’re doing this interview here as the boats go past, in the shadow of the harbour bridge! Because there was this sense that real culture happened in the city. It happened at the Writers’ Festival in Walsh Bay, which we’re at, and that these other places, you know… what do they say about Jesus? Nothing good can come from Nazareth! I feel like we’re the Nazareth!
I love Corey Wakeling’s recent review in Cordite Poetry Review of the Puncher and Wattman Contemporary Australian Poetry anthology, in which he says, ‘the suburban is the pre-eminent register of Australian Literature.’ Now, I think it’s a very provocative essay, in many ways, but he does go on to say… he’s very down on the suburbs in certain ways. For example, he says, suburbs have no public sphere, no public spaces or places…Where are the Habermasian coffee shops? Because that’s the kind of thinking! Now I don’t know if that’s quite true. My poetry was an attempt to think about them in terms of, where is the surprise, where is the beauty, where is the difficult aesthetic moments here? And those moments can never be pure, of course, and that’s what makes them even more interesting. They’re overwritten by capitalism, by government policy, by religion. And so that’s what I think was part of what I was trying to do there.
FW: And I think you find those public spaces in public transport more often than not. There are so many train carriages in the book, and people having encounters, both with other people but with these moments of real beauty and stillness.
LB: Yeah. When I went to America and had the students, some students in America were studying my book near Dallas, in Fort Worth, that’s something they remarked on. And they said to their professor, why is this guy always on trains? Because the suburbs in Dallas and Fort Worth is all about the car. And when I caught the train in, or public transport in Fort Worth and Dallas it was not the middle-class white people, it was just a total different section of society, and they’re not the ones who would be going to university at $60000 a year. But in Sydney things are very different of course, and that train for me became a kind of symbol of connection and distance.
FW: Because there are also iPods on your trains, and you have a lot of people sitting in their little bubbles…
LB: In their spaces. And the distance, the length that you travel…I mean it’s a truism about suburbia that it’s defined by the distance between work and home. But that distance, for me, became a conceptual distance, and artistic distance, one that I thought I’d like to try and overcome somehow. Or maybe just…I think there’s a pugilistic sense to this as well, maybe that comes from being involved with the Sweatshop guys and being in writing groups with them, that there is a kind of brio, a bravura, maybe is the right word, about the way you might talk about place and your place.
FW: I was thinking about the trains in particular, because I have a story that I tell all the time about the fact, well, the main reason I was a literature student, or a good literature student, was because I had an hour and a half’s worth of reading time in each direction every day, on my way to uni. I did one course where we were reading a Patrick White novel every fortnight, and I was like, yep, I’ve got this!
LB: Was that Ivor’s course?
LB: I did that course!
FW: I’ve got this down, because I’m spending so long on trains. So to me they’re a really formative part of… my identity as a writer.
LB: Yeah, I think I’m the same. I mean, moving to Wagga has meant that I’ve had to have different modes of creativity and writing, without the trains.
FW: I am curious, does Wagga make you think differently about Western Sydney? Because I do think the counterpointing that we often do is, you know, the West versus the city, but the West versus a rural place seems like a different approach again.
LB: Yeah, there’s west, and there’s West. Henry Lawson has that story, ‘In A Dry Season’, where you can go as far as you can go out west, there’s always someone who’s been further saying, I’ve just come from out bush, or something like that. There’s always someone who’s gone further.
FW: Until you hit Perth, right?
LB: Yeah, you just keep going into the interior! And he’s mocking that, in a sense. But I reckon Wagga is a very different space in lots of ways to Western Sydney, and it is like moving west. It was interesting, I was speaking to a Cultural Officer from Wagga recently, and I was saying, look, it’s strange that all the arts funding is concentrated in a small pocket of eastern Sydney, so that you think of the ballet, the theatre and the opera and the Opera House, and she said, well, it’s strange to me that the western suburbs of Sydney are considered regional! In that the western suburbs have been getting a little bit more funding from the arts, because they are not in those eastern suburbs, but she said, no, we’re the real region, we need support as well as being really isolated!
FW: The one that always makes me giggle is the Regional Art Gallery in Gymea, in The Shire. They do really great work, but just that wording, regional gallery, always gives me pause.
LB: Exactly! I mean conceptually, I don’t feel like I can write about Wagga in the same ways that I could write about Western Sydney. I’ve been very tentative in writing about that, and that could have been one of the reasons that drew me to this project in Lunar Inheritance. It’s not necessarily writing about the place that I was living in at the time.
FW: But it creeps in in small allusions. There’s a moment where you’re thinking about how you broaden your accent in certain places, within the country town in which you now live.
LB: Yes, I do that in Wagga! Or I’ll catch myself doing that in Wagga. On my father’s side, my family came from the Central West, so my father’s family grew up on a farm in Bedgerebong, which was a very small town just outside of Forbes. And so there is that kind of connection to the country, and my parents met at Leeton, where my mother was a French teacher, and my father was working for the Department of Agriculture. So there is this regionality that’s going on in the background there. But I think I am aware of the ways that, you know, we act and we try and fit in in the places we are.
FW: I often wonder if it is just the lot of the writer to not quite fit in in any of the places?
LB: Yeah, that gives you the little bits of distance, doesn’t it? Those toeholds into an artistic piece, I think, that you’re seeing something fresh. I mean, when I went to China, someone said to me, look, you need to write straight away, because now is the time when everything is fresh, when you’re seeing things with new eyes, when you’re not part of wherever you are, that’s the most interesting things are going to come out.
FW: Those moments of strangeness.
LB: Yeah! And that’s what I love about your poetry, that you can, I think, do that in particular places. I think you’ve done it in Wagga, I remember the Back Door Café, and the Gobbagombalin Bridge, your description of driving over the Gobbagombalin Bridge, I think it was like flying over the landscape. You know, I’d driven over that bridge for a coupe of years before you wrote that, but it caused me to see that space in a new way.
FW: That’s my favourite thing that poetry does, in general, to give you connections that you hadn’t made before, or new sets of eyes to see things with.
LB: I think so. And part of that I think is, you know, my favourite quote about the suburbs is Jennifer Maiden’s. I wanted to mention this quote by Jennifer Maiden because it’s one of my favourite quotes about the suburbs, and she says something like, the suburbs are the place, ‘the suburbs show us the gift of the unexpected,’ which I really like, but then she says, ‘nowhere else can the eternal and the eternally reversing dialectic between icon and iconoclasm be so sharply observed,’ or something like that. So it’s really a difficult quote, but I think, I see it all around when I go back to parts of Sydney, that there is this kind of, iconoclasm which I love, that the things that high culture might esteem and that places might tell us are great, that the suburbs will really bring them low. And they will…the objects of worship of course will be the McDonalds sign, will be the…but that’s not just true for those ones, I think. In Luke Carmen’s book, the hidden petrol cap that is found, which I think is a profound moment in his book…the icons are very different. And of course that’s always shimmering and oscillating and reversing and reversible, and I just think that’s what makes the suburbs, or some suburbs so interesting for me.
FW: I think it’s interesting too that that quote speaks to the icons and that sense of worship, because I do think one of the wonderful things that you bring to the suburbs in your poems is this sense of the spiritual and these kind of luminous moments that puncture the everyday. And there’s lot of almost song-like lines in there, like, ‘O to be back in the suburbs at dusk!’
LB: Yes, I’m interested in the ways that poets deal with space in that way. For example, Jill Jones’ ‘Where We Live’ does something similar, it’s this liturgical voice that surrounds what she does when goes out with her partner, who does photographs, and then between the two of them they’re able to encounter this space of abandoned rubber ducks, and towballs, but sing the beauty of that space. And she will deploy the kind of spiritual register, and its intention with the kind of post-modern idea is that we can’t find or make any sense of what we see, so I think what they do is really remarkable. But I guess mine is something similar, but it’s from having a background as someone of faith, someone who would call themselves a Christian, and so that background of seeing…I mean it’s not Hopkins, you know, the world is charged with god’s grandeur, but it’s like, what does Hopkins look like in this fallen place? This place where humans have kind of proliferated and expanded and are doing strange things. So it’s trying to take that lens and put it over this space. But I think, I’m a particular kind of Christian – my heritage is a kind of evangelical heritage, and that raises all kinds of issues and problems because, and interesting affordances, because evangelicalism is often seen as anti-aesthetic and pragmatic, and I think the suburbs are often seen in the same way, as anti-aesthetic and pragmatic. So I think there’s an interesting dialogue that I haven’t worked out yet between that. Because the Evangelical will say, it doesn’t matter if the song is good or if the building is good, it is all about the saving of souls, you know. And so there’s a lovely sense of…you won’t go into the evangelical church necessarily see the beautiful incense and the choirs and the buildings, the doctrine will be the important thing. So I want to bring that in to connection, somehow, with the way I think of suburbia, because I think there’s an overlap there. But I haven’t quite worked out what that is, I’ll just keep doing it, I think.
FW: And you mention rubbish there too, finding beauty in the rubbish. Reading Limited Cities again, after reading Lunar Inheritance, I kept noticing the small accumulations of rubbish and debris that become part of that landscape as well. There’s a train line with prams and blackberry bushes, all these little moments where the rubbish kind of stands in its own spotlight for a second.
LB: I love that poem because it takes me back to a specific moment, of walking through Macquarie Fields from my house to the station, we all get to walk over creeks all around Sydney, but it had been raining, and the creek was just flushed with all this debris, and there was a joy to that. It was a day like today, with beautiful blue skies and sunlight, and maybe my exams had ended…but there is a kind of glory involved, the angels singing, gloria! Even in the rubbish. And this is not to say that we leave the rubbish, I remember our church doing Clean Up Australia Day with some locals, in Macquarie Fields there weren’t many people doing Clean Up Australia Day, it’s like, a Sisyphean task! So we were in the scrub in between James Meehan High School and Macquarie Fields shops and just finding all kinds of things, just bags and bags and bags, and then at the end of the day, you just look and there’s the same amount of rubbish! And we’re doing it with these kids who come to our youth group and had just been expelled from school for threatening to bash their teachers with a baseball bat! But they were lovely! I mean, we got on really well with them! So I think you can’t escape that. Maybe I needed to have that sort of joy with my grandmother’s rubbish, but it was very close and much more difficult and fraught I think.
FW: It’s a personal kind of rubbish in a way…rubbish that doesn’t belong to you is different.
LB: And you have to wade through and push through to find the person. I’ve got a poem in the book where I speak about the rubbish displacing my grandmother. Because the house got so full, we think, she got a shed made in the backyard, and she used to sleep in this corrugated iron shed, because the house was filled with rubbish. Which is just incredible to think about her doing that. So clearing the rubbish is this, on the one hand, attempt to get back a normal sense of life and to find the life of the person who is in there somewhere, but also when you’re doing that, it’s incredibly traumatic for that person, so they abuse you and they are not happy at all.
FW: I think that’s the case with mental illness of any sort, that when the behaviours that keep you safe are threatened, you lose the plot. I’ve done some terrible things…
LB: And so within a certain context, things make perfect sense.
FW: It’s just because your rational brain is switched off, you can’t access it at all.
LB: We all had these moments, each on of us at different times, we would just lose it. You just…the amount of this rubbish is just so intense. I remember one moment where my grandmother was saying to me, you can’t! You can’t take these chairs! They’re really good chairs, they’re…and they were just bits of metal with no seats or anything. And I said, is it still good now! I was standing on the top of skip like Thor, in the middle of the road, and I said, Is it good now? And I just smashed it on the ground, I just dropped it on the ground and it splintered everywhere, and I felt so guilty after that moment. Because I’d lost it. But each one of us at different times would just…have had enough. And I in no way was doing as much as my parents were. That was just after a few days.
FW: The other interaction with your grandma in the book that I really love is the moment when you tell her that you’re going back to Kaiping and Guangzhou, and she says, Why don’t you go to Taiwan, it’s richer?
LB: I mean, I said before that she had no sense of heritage, well it was very difficult to get that from her. And I think, what she is thinking about, even though I was married at the time, is where do you find your husband or wife? She was still in that mode, where do we get the rich partners for our children? We go to Taiwan and find them. And I think she was, it’s part of that getting by. So my little brother has moved to Hong Kong in the last couple of months, but she’s really happy with that, because it’s a rich area. There’s opportunity there. But the fact that you might go back to a village which is no longer there…it was like I was speaking about some other world.
FW: It just really resonated with me, because my grandfather was a soldier in the Second World War, he put his age up to go there. And a few years before he died, my brother, who has always been…he loves Anzac Day and has always been interested in things like that, he decided he was going to do the Kokoda Track, like a lot of young men, especially, let’s face it, suburban young men, do. And he mentioned this to my pop, and my pop just lost it, essentially, and was like, I don’t know why you want to do that, we did that so that our grandkids wouldn’t have to…it was quite remarkable, this moment of, what we imagine as our inheritance…
LB: And paying some kind of tribute or connecting…
FW: And what those who came before us just don’t imagine for us, I guess.
LB: And it’s almost like you’re forcing, by talking about it, them to relive that trauma. So my thought is, part of my thought for my grandma is, well, what is it about this place that she doesn’t want to speak about? And it is the grinding poverty, it is the three years of schooling, if she’s to be believed, and there are probably other things going on as well, other family issues. Particularly, I mean, it’s another theme in the book, these matrilineal relationships between my great-grandmother and my grandmother, and my grandmother and mother, that are never simple. They’re never entirely benevolent either. So my grandmother is very upset that my great-grandmother only allowed her three years of schooling, it’s something she brings up all the time. And in that poem I read, she speaks about, you know, I was so clever, I got to listen through to the next form up above and I learnt this poem, and she recited the poem for me in Cantonese. But then it was just gob-smacking to me that my grandmother would then say to my mother, you can’t go to university, you’ve got to get married. That that would be passed on to the next generation, as it were. Of course, the boys don’t have this issue, just the girls, particularly in a culture in which these things are valued very differently, I think.
FW: Did your mother go to university?
LB: She did. She got a scholarship, she moved out of home. She didn’t marry the person that she was meant to marry, she lived with an old lady from Paddington Church of Christ, and she went to Sydney University and studied Latin and French and teaching.
FW: That’s so good. My mother got a teaching scholarship too, that’s how she left. She was in the country, and wasn’t expecting to go to university, because they were poor. And then suddenly she could. And so I feel that too, the life that we have, her children have, being comfortably middle-class in the suburbs is so different to even the way that she grew up.
LB: Yeah, that sense of something being generationally won, I think. And it’s quite pronounced. I mean, you know that great show on Netflix, Master of None, in Season One there is this wonderful episode of the generational gap between the first- and second- generation immigrants, the Chinese and the Indian. And I think, you know, that’s part of the difficulty in my book, that I can’t really envisage what it meant for that generation to have won what they have won, to get where they are.
FW: At such a cost, too. Well I reckon that’s a good note to end on!
LB: Thanks so much.
FW: No, thank you!