Tag Archives: memory

Looking both ways

So we’ve crossed the threshold into another New Year.  Now what?

To the ancient Romans a doorway (or gateway) had such importance, both practical and symbolic, that it warranted a special deity to preside over it: Janus, the god of portals and transitions, beginnings and departures. January takes its liminal name from him. Images traditionally show him (and the year’s hinge-point) as two-faced, looking both back and forward, both inward and outward.

Wooden sculpture by Annette Seeman

I like to think of Janus as a suitable patron for writers and readers. Why? Read on…

Having no predecessor in the Greek pantheon, Janus is usually regarded as a Roman invention. But comparable images recur in the art and mythology of several other cultures. The one illustrated here is from a series of large wooden sculptures by Perth artist Annette Seeman called “Stories from the Indies,” which draw on her family links with Indonesian culture. This double-headed forked-tongue figure has belonged in my household for nearly 30 years, and to me it has the significance of a literary totem, among other things.

Looking both ways is what serious writing mostly tries to do, because it combines memory with imagination. On the spectrum connecting the past to the future, those two faculties apparently face in opposite directions: memory is retrospective, summoning up what used to be, while imagination is prospective, envisaging what might be. On the spectrum connecting oneself with others, memory and imagination again may seem to represent contrasting tendencies: the former generally looks inward, while the latter is potentially more outward-turning and wide-ranging. Yet memory and imagination are inseparable in the act of writing, just as the two faces of Janus belong to a single body.

Evidence from neuropsychology indicates that the mental processes of remembering and imagining are intimately linked. This shouldn’t surprise anyone with literary interests. Remembering (like writing) actively reshapes the material it works on. And as the White Queen remarks to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” As we recall details from past situations, we can recombine and adapt them into new imaginary scenarios.

Commenting on the title character in her recently released film Claire Darling (itself adapted from a novel), director Julie Bertuccelli says “Claire is forgetting things she prefers to let go of, and summoning up in her imagination some unfinished business from the past.” Isn’t this often also true of autobiographical writing, and of characters in novels or short stories? I’ll have more to say on that subject in a couple of public talks I’m giving in March at the Glyde-In Community Centre: see the Events page of my website.

Looking both ways is a distinctively human capability. In my novel That Untravelled World, young Harry Hopewell has a conversation with his girlfriend at the Perth Zoo. She asks him what he thinks the main difference is between humans and beasts, and he replies:

‘To my mind, it’s summed up in a saying that my mother likes to repeat. A little quotation from some poet – don’t know who: “We look before and after, and pine for what is not.” More than anything else, that’s what separates people from other animals.’

She wrinkled her forehead. ‘I’m not sure I understand. What does it mean to you, that saying?’

‘Just that we humans don’t live fully in the present, the way a lion or a pig does. A lot of the time we’re preoccupied with what used to be, and what might yet happen. With remembering and imagining. That’s not true of creatures in cages. I hope not, anyway – terrible for them if they have regretful or wistful feelings.’

“We look before and after…” — those lines are from Shelley’s To a Skylark, written two centuries ago but still resonant. The bird addressed in the poem sings beautifully, but for a human listener its song is tinged with the sadness that accompanies our sense of what’s beyond the present moment. Janus is always at our shoulder, and writers whose work has durable appeal are especially good at evoking this dual consciousness.

As readers, too, we’re often looking both ways. While there can be great pleasure in the feeling of being immersed in an act of reading, this is seldom separable (for narrative in particular) from what we anticipate and recollect as we proceed through the text.

And sometimes we stand back from a finished book to reflect on the general patterns of our reading, on our specific library or bookshop choices. I find myself doing this annually in early January, casting an eye over a record of what I’ve read during the previous year. (I’ve kept these lists for many years.) It’s interesting to see what assortment of genres my reading has covered: how much fiction, how much poetry, how much non-fiction of various kinds… Other aspects of a year’s list also strike me: how many recently issued books, how many older publications, how many re-readings of what I’ve read previously, how many by Australians, how many by men and women respectively, how many multiple titles by this or that author, and so on.

None of these categories have determined my choices, and similarly I won’t set myself any fixed program of reading for the year ahead. I don’t need a “challenge” list to motivate myself to keep frequent company with books. Some such sign-ups (the annual Australian Women Writers Challenge, for instance) are too narrowly political for my liking. I enjoy the freedom to select what I read without being constrained — whether by the writer’s national affiliation or by gender identity or genre or period or anything else.

Still, the New Year seems an apt occasion for calling to mind a few titles and authors I’d like to spend time with in the future. Memo to self: when choosing, look both ways.


Empathy, memory, writing

IMG_3949Storytelling nurtures empathy. I’ve considered the link between them in a previous post, and during last weekend’s Perth Writers Festival it was a recurrent theme, especially in the Human Library sessions organised by the UK-based Empathy Museum.

I took part in one of these as a “living book,” the arrangement being that several people, one at a time, sat down with me for a few minutes each in the calm open-air setting of a tiered sunken garden and listened to a brief tale that I told informally about myself. Then they asked questions, made comments, and we talked on until my interlocutor’s allotted time expired and it was someone else’s turn to borrow me from the bookshelf (so to speak).

The general topic for the session in which I participated was “Age.” I talked about this with particular reference to the role of memory in my writing life. Narrating something orally, face-to-face with a listener, can quickly establish an empathetic relationship, but the medium of print makes this more complicated.

Although I’ve been a full-time writer for only a few years, the practice of shaping words creatively into stories, poems, and other literary forms has been a large part of my life since childhood. What I wrote when I was 8, 9, 10, had no connection with anything I’d experienced myself. There were stories about expeditions to distant planets and to Borneo jungles; about encounters with smugglers and with castle ghosts; about the adventures of highwaymen and pirates. And there were poems describing landscapes drawn dreamily from books, not from observation. Nothing wrong with any of that; in the early stages of learning to deploy language imaginatively, the content didn’t matter much.


But with the passage of years my writing has turned away from the merely fanciful towards empathetic realism, and in the process it has become inseparable from my remembering – the retrieval not only of personal memories that are uniquely mine but also of cultural memories that are a shared resource.

One reason why I attach increasing importance to memory is that some significant patterns in my experience have only become legible in retrospect. Looking back, I see things I didn’t see at the time. Another reason is that people and places once influential in my life are gradually disappearing. Some friends and family members have dropped away into darkness, beyond reach except in memory. Even some of the physical environments in which I grew up are now in ruins. As earthquakes have pulverised Christchurch, where I spent my most formative years,  the landmarks of childhood and youth survive only in my head and heart.

So my memories are increasingly valuable to me. Fragments from my past life occasionally find their way, transmuted, into what I write, infused with “emotion recollected in tranquility” (in Wordsworth’s phrase). And in a more extensive way I draw on memories that are not specifically my own but belong to bygone times. In recent years the focus of most of my writing has been on historical fiction. Why set my novels in the past? Because I want to retrieve certain historical realities that our contemporary culture has largely lost or repressed. I want to resuscitate the dead. I want to reveal things (often unpleasant things) that contributed to the contours of our own society, and keep them alive in cultural remembrance.

At its best, imaginary time travel through historical fiction is not an escapist withdrawal from pressing questions that confront us in our own world. Rather, it can show aspects of the present in a new light. For example, emotionally fraught migration stories dominate news reports, and it’s hard for us to step away from the headlines and images that dramatise the current plight of refugees, so that we can think about displacement as a recurrent and necessary feature of human history; but historical fiction can help us to understand this with a different kind of empathy. My first novel, The End of Longing, evokes the era when steamship and rail were rapidly opening up the world to ordinary travellers, and my third, The Mind’s Own Place, tells the linked stories of mid-19th-century migrants to Western Australia. Cross-national journeying takes many forms, with different meanings for those who undertake it voluntarily or involuntarily.

I’ve tried to show in my fiction that many such episodes are worth salvaging from oblivion because they provide not only cautionary tales and corrective reminders but also things to commemorate and cherish. I feel the same way about retrieving memories from the early decades of my own life and times.