by Felicity Castagna
The writer John Gardner famously said that there are only two plots in fiction—a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. What he’s essentially pointing to here is that all stories are about place. Place is at once both an incredibly abstract and generic term but also a word that points to something that is very specific; a local space with its own unique and tangible identity, something that is intimate and unique and felt in different ways by those who inhabit it. When we ask a person, ‘Where do you come from?’ We are often really asking ‘Who are you?’ How do you fit into the order of things? These are the same questions that the writer asks of their characters when they put them into specific places.
I’ve been thinking about these ideas a lot since I published my last novel The Incredible Here and Now (Giramondo,2013). The book has been praised for its intimate portrayal of Parramatta and its surrounding neighbourhoods in western Sydney, a place that is often depicted in negative terms or even worse, not at all. There is much to be said about the fundamental political, cultural and social importance of having such places explored in our literature but I’m not going to go there in this blog post. I’ve already spoken about this at length in several interviews and besides I think Luke Carman has covered that topic better than I ever could in his previous posts for Southerly, as has Geordie Williamson in The Australian and Matt McGuire in The Conversation.
What I really want to talk about here is the But lurking behind the praise, as in, it’s a great depiction of Parramatta but who would want to read it outside of that place? But how will people who’ve never been there understand it? But can’t you just generalise the place a bit more so that it will have wider appeal? But can’t you just reset it in Detroit so that an American publisher might pick it up? The answer to all those questions is that I can’t understand why anyone would ask them. I just don’t know how to write a book that isn’t set in a specific place. I can’t imagine what a ‘generalised place’ would look like and I have no idea why my characters would want to hang out there. If I picked my characters up and plopped them down in Detroit they would become different people with a different story to tell.
If there’s anything that can be gleaned from those ‘How To’ books on writing it’s that specificity is what drives good fiction. Specificity becomes even more important when we are talking about the role that place has in literature. Take for example a book that is set primarily in Detroit, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. It is a book that most famously explores gender confusion, identity and the intersex movement but it is only able to do this so successfully by using place as a metaphor for these themes. Almost every scene begins by zeroing in on a very small but real landscape; a couple of blocks in the centre of Detroit, a swimming pool in the neighbourhood just outside it. The history and conditionality of these spaces prescribe what will happen and the tone and the changes in character that are to come, so that the shifts in Detroit’s landscape caused by such events as the collapse of the motor industry or the burning of the city during race riots, metaphorically mirrors the changes in the protagonist, Cal’s body. Cal’s condition is even reflected in the place where he narrates his Detroit childhood from, Berlin, a city which he points out was formerly of ‘two halves or sexes’ (East and West).
Just because Middlesex intimately explores a very specific place like Detroit doesn’t mean that it isn’t also a novel about the nation itself. Cal and his family’s aspirations are, after all, to live the ‘American Dream,’ to make their way from being nobodies to people of great significance. In Australia too, it is literature set in our most local, most specific places, that allows us to tell stories of national significance. In the 1890s Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson sparked one of our most famous debates about national culture when they each published poems in Australia’s leading newspaper of the time, The Bulletin. In his poems Paterson romanticised the bush, while Lawson disparaged those harsh landscapes in favour of the city. What they provoked through their poetry was a widespread and vocal debate about what specific places define us as a nation. What Patterson and Lawson proved is that the local is the lens through which we can begin to understand the nation in more complex ways. Those specific places we identify with are an expression of how we imagine our country and its relationship to the rest of the world.
In this frenetically mobile and ever more globalizing world, we are especially in need of literature that is grounded in the more stable and coherent spaces of those small but significant places from which we can work out who we are and where we are going. It is the specificity of place which produces writing that is both original and unique but also what makes it most universal. There are, of course, other issues such as class and gender that leave their indelible and significant mark on us but the only thing that everyone in the world has in common is that we all come from a particular somewhere, we all consider some place (or places) ‘home.’ If we write fiction set in ‘generalised’ space then we risk creating literature that is more homogenous and therefore less able to speak to what it means to be a human being in a world where national and cultural boundaries are increasingly dissolving.
In Questions of Travel, Michelle de Kretser created just such a work of both national and universal significance through her intimate portrayals of such specific spaces as Saint-Jean-de-Luz in France, Naples in Italy, North Sydney and the outlying areas of Colombo in Sri Lanka. The novel was described by A.S Byatt in The Guardian as being ‘about uprootedness and travel, about tourism and flight from terror, about the trivial and the terrible.’ A novel that is so wide in its breadth, that has so much to say about how we live in the world today, inevitably had to do so through mapping the intimate tangible and specific places it’s two very different main characters pass though.
There is this great joke in Hamlet. Asked the grounds of Hamlet’s madness, the gravedigger replies, ‘Why, here in Denmark.’ The seat of government in Denmark where the gravedigger is standing, is both place and reason for Hamlet’s madness. It is those places we pass through, however briefly that leave their lasting mark on us, which say so much about who we are now and who we could be in the future. That’s why the power of the specific place is one of the most important things we have in literature. That’s why I can’t give it up so easily.
Photo credit: Felicity Castagna 2015