Exile, my friend
I arrived in Brisbane with my young family twelve years ago already. On a whim, my husband applied for a job setting up a groovy new department at QUT. To our astonishment, they hired him and offered to relocate us to Australia with all of our belongings. At our first social engagement—some sort of university gathering, I think—a fellow guest, learning we came from New York City, raised an eyebrow, shook his head, and with a strong note of irony asked, “What crime did you commit?”
I laughed, but I understood his point: Why would anyone willingly leave New York City for a paler, less cultured life in sleepy Queensland? There must be some mysterious and compelling reason behind our move. A crime. Flight from the mafia. At the very least, insanity.
What he didn’t know and, being a single man who had never lived in a big city, couldn’t know, was that New York is particularly inhospitable towards parents with young children. You try hailing a cab with an infant strapped to your body in a snugly and a toddler in a stroller. Taxi drivers just don’t stop. For some reason they prefer the fare of an agile businessman (late for a meeting and tipping well for a speedy arrival) over a frazzled woman with shrieking children, who needs the boot popped and—don’t forget!—help dismantling the inscrutable stroller. Indeed.
But my new friend also couldn’t know how our move appeared to us. To New Yorkers, the antipodes is a wildly exotic place, where day is night and summer is winter. Australia seemed to us a harsh land filled with strange wildlife, empty landscapes, and golden athletes. When the job offer came, I wondered aloud: Just where is Queensland? What’s the weather like? Will a crocodile eat my children if I let them play outside? My ignorance was remarkable.
So it wasn’t flight from a crime or any sort of delusion that brought me here. It was the lure of something exotic mixed with something practical. We saw moving to Australia as a better solution to the problems of raising children than moving to one of the suburbs around New York (which is what everyone else was doing). How much more interesting to pack up a decade’s worth of possessions along with the babies and bash off to the ends of the earth. We weren’t like anyone else. We were doing something really worth writing home about.
Twelve years on, after much resistance, I’ve realised that Queensland is home. And New York, unchanging and no doubt still unsleeping, is a place I only occasionally visit. Like the man at the university gathering, I have had moments when I considered my life here to be one of exile. And it hasn’t helped that I’ve been constantly bombarded with images of New York, from shows like Seinfeld and Friends and 30 Rock to practically every film made in the US, not to mention a half dozen news items each evening. But I’ve lately come to see a different side of living here, and one that has forged my identity just as powerfully as that decade in New York. Because it’s here I became a writer.
Many times in the years I’ve lived here, I’ve been asked (and asked myself as well), What would you be doing if you had stayed in New York? That’s hard to answer. In New York, while I earned my living by writing, I wasn’t ‘a writer’ in the sense that I am here. Having written two novels and about to begin a third, I think I can say with some degree of certainty that I understand the process. And I can say as well that while I might be working as a writer in New York, I would most likely not be one.
The hustle, the pace, the frantic darting from here to there, the lively distractions, not to mention all the expense just wouldn’t allow for the reflection required for me to be creative. I couldn’t have found there the capacity to remain apart. So inadvertently, our choice to bash off to Australia was a necessary first step. Moving to a house on acreage took the isolation further. Having a third child tipped me over.
Mine is just one of innumerable journeys. There is no set formula. Except that, I believe, some form of exile is required. For me, it’s one of place, but this is only symbolic. Some people find isolation surrounded by crowds. My point is that writing requires separation. Distance from one’s subject, distance from the crowd, distance from the business and ‘busy-ness’ of everyday life.
Virginia Woolf offered it up nicely, saying, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” That wisdom applies equally to men. A writer must have the opportunity to write, to be relatively free from want, to be to some degree liberated from the kind of toil that saps creativity. This is where the money comes in.
But the other part of her argument has to do with space. A writer needs a room, a garden, a shack—or even another country if that’s what it takes—to be free from distractions. A place to remove oneself. A place to go everyday in order to develop discipline and creative practice. Reflection, thought, discipline, even longing, are all required for creative writing, for producing day after day the page or two that in a year becomes a novel.
There is a quote by Nadine Gordimer that I like to remember when I get a little misty and ‘homesick’ for New York. I think it captures nicely the tension a writer must accommodate internally. In the Introduction to Selected Stories,she says: “Powers of observation heightened beyond the normal imply extraordinary disinvolvement: or rather the double process, excessive preoccupation and identification with the lives of others, and at the same time monstrous detachment . . . The tension between standing apart and being fully involved: that is what makes a writer.”
I say, wherever you are, seek out exile and let it work for you. If you happen to live in a big city, you’ll need to find that room of your own and carry the exile within. If you live on acreage in Queensland, space for exile is more readily available. But don’t be disheartened when someone asks, rolling his eyes, what crime you committed for ending up there. Just smile to yourself and know that you have one piece of the puzzle—the chance for solitude. Know too, as Northrup Frye said: “The center of reality is wherever one happens to be and its circumference is whatever one’s imagination can make sense of.”
If that’s true, for writers, exile is an awfully big place.
First published in Arts Hub.