Tag Archives: Tanya Dalziell

Curious journeys

Curiosity is a vital attribute for successful teachers and students, and for writers and readers as well. It can motivate us to learn and to invent: to pose questions, pursue answers, devise alternatives, refine our cognitive skills, and imagine fictional stories that take us beyond the small circle of self-absorption in which we often crouch.

So it was appropriate for the English Teachers Association of Western Australia to choose ‘Curiosity’ as the theme for its recent state conference, and to arrange the final plenary session as a conversation between two writer-educators, Josephine Wilson and myself, about the ‘curious journeys’ that we have undertaken during our careers. Tanya Dalziell skilfully facilitated the session and posed stimulating questions. I won’t presume to summarise the various interesting things Josephine and Tanya said, but what follows is a sketch of a few of my own thoughts on the topic.

We were asked, to begin with, what choices we’ve had to make along the way and where these choices have led. I said that, for my own part, I’ve tried to avoid either/or choices. Having always wanted both to teach literature and to produce it, I’ve done my best to sustain the two kinds of activity simultaneously. There are times when one or the other may take priority; but in general, over the years, I’ve juggled them together as best I can. Making a choice between an involvement in literary creativity and an involvement in teaching (or teaching-related work such as curriculum reform projects) is something I’ve resisted.

Choosing isn’t everything. Important turning points in one’s life sometimes just happen without much considered choice. Looking back, it’s tempting to see them all as purposeful, shaped by bold decisions – even, grandly, as constituting a kind of heroic quest, in the course of which one has bravely surmounted obstacles and survived ordeals, driven onwards by unshakeable belief in the chosen goal of vocational fulfilment.

But my curious journey has actually been less like a quest than a kind of peregrination, a wandering, meandering way of getting along. American writer Denise Levertov has a poem called Overland to the Islands that sums this up perfectly. It begins “Let’s go—much as that dog goes, / intently haphazard.” And it ends with the following lines:

Under his feet
rocks and mud, his imagination, sniffing,
engaged in its perceptions—dancing
edgeways, there’s nothing
the dog disdains on his way,
nevertheless he
keeps moving, changing
pace and approach but
not direction – every step an arrival.

Similarly my own progress (not quite the right word; more apt is Samuel Beckett’s “gress”) has been a medley of step-by-step discoveries, not a series of conscious purposeful career choices. Most of the big changes and commitments were unplanned. They came from other people’s suggestions or popped up as digressive distractions while my canine imagination was fully absorbed in just sniffing around. That kind of “intently haphazard” wayfaring, I believe, has something to recommend it.

Other questions that arose in our conversation were about the specific nature and extent of the curiosity that a writer or teacher should aim to nurture. What exactly do we want our readers and students to be curious about, above all? And should there be ethical constraints on our curiosity?

It may seem obvious that a primary objective ought to be developing curiosity about lives that are different from our own. Certainly that’s important, and has potential ethical value if it fosters empathy. Yet it’s not an end in itself, at least where literary experience is concerned, as I was reminded recently when reading John Banville’s brilliant novel The Untouchable. Its narrator and main character, Victor Maskell, makes this comment on an acquaintance who writes fiction: “He was genuinely curious about people – the sure mark of the second-rate novelist.” At first sight Maskell’s witticism may seem merely to reflect his own sardonic character, but I think it’s worth pondering. For while a keen interest in what makes people tick is part of a good writer’s necessary equipment, it’s not sufficient. Many a person, despite being genuinely and intensely curious about others, will lack what is required to turn that curiosity into patterns of words that are well worth reading. The first-rate writer must above all have a burning curiosity about the medium of language itself – its semantic resources,  its capacity to convey a great range of thoughts and feelings in precise and memorable ways.

Similarly, what the teacher of English needs to develop more than anything else is a love of language in all its varieties, and a deep understanding of how words shape every aspect of our lives – sometimes working negatively to constrain or distort our perceptions but potentially working to enlarge them.

So if I’m conducting a writing workshop (whether in a school classroom or with a mature-age group), I like to focus on details of language – stylistic nuances, subtle connotations, careful selection and sequencing of words. All sorts of things may serve as an initial stimulus – a physical object, a remembered scene, a photograph, etc., and these starting points can generate creatively a long string of productive questions – but my main aim is help students to concentrate their attention on the expressive capacities of their medium: the best words in the best order, as Coleridge put it.

Do we always have the “right” to be curious, or should we recognise ethical limits to curiosity? My view is that, in principle, the boundaries that may need to be respected in some real-life situations (an anthropologist encountering unfamiliar cultural practices, a neighbour itching to intrude on next-door privacy) should not apply to fiction writers, who are, after all, in the business of being transgressively voyeuristic, persistently nosey about how other people see the world. I reject the possessive kind of identity politics that wants to fence off some sections of experience and make them no-go zones for inquisitive writers who don’t belong to the particular group in question but want to imagine (and help readers imagine) what it might be like to do so. Of course it’s a presumptuous enterprise, and fraught with peril.  I wrote more about this in a previous blog post.

But what do you think about these matters, dear reader? I’m curious…

Residues of a year’s reading: instalment 1

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Every December it’s a staple item for the literary pages of newspapers: an array of brief responses by a bevy of writers and critics to the question ‘Which books stood out for you during the last year?’ Many of these respondents have reviewed several publications over the previous months, often in the same publication, so it’s not difficult for them to slap together a couple of paragraphs that draw selectively on verdicts they’ve already delivered.

I do a fair bit of reading, but not since my high school days have I kept a memo list of all the titles, and I no longer write reviews frequently. So if – lacking those aids to memory – I now ask myself which books back there in 2013 made an impact on me, the emphasis of the question shifts slightly because a few months have elapsed: it’s about what still lingers in the mind, what the residue of all that reading is. In some cases a book that may have engrossed my attention at the time when I was holding it in my hand has since begun to fade from recollection, while another book continues to do its invasive work in my head.

Writers hope that their readers will experience both kinds of engagement. I was delighted when someone reviewing my first novel (in Bookseller & Publisher) said she was ‘completely absorbed from the first page to the final scene’; but it was especially satisfying that another reviewer (in The Sydney Morning Herald) said ‘It has stayed with me and has been hard to shake off.’ Lasting impressions, even if they involve mixed feelings, can sometimes be more important than an immediately positive response of ‘liking’ a book.

Most of what I read last year was hot off the press; other titles had been out in the world for longer. Regardless of whether they were newly published, what do I now think about some of those books?

I’ll omit reference to a lot of the non-fiction, because that reading was merely instrumental – it belonged to the research groundwork for a couple of novels I was drafting last year. But a few other non-fiction books have stayed with me, and I’ll discuss them in the rest of this post, leaving the fiction to a sequel instalment.

An unusual ethnographic study that came my way is Icelandic Men and Me by Robert Faulkner, who spent many years as a music teacher in Iceland. He writes about the way in which male identity in Icelandic communities is still shaped by traditional group singing. A specialised book, yes – but its author makes it very readable, not least by bringing candidly into the foreground some fascinating reflections on the shaping of his own masculinity in England. Faulkner’s book also appealed to me because of my own long-standing interest in Icelandic cultural traditions (I learned the language as a student, and analysed a 13th-century mythological tale by Snorri Sturluson in part of my book Narrative Exchanges).

When the shaping of an entirely factual story is exceptionally skilful it can acquire most of the qualities of literary fiction. Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale (whose previous book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was similarly memorable), is a meticulous, compelling account of a sensational mid-19th century divorce case in England and the events leading up to it. I can’t think of any other book that gives such a moving insight into a woman’s experience of marriage and sexuality in that period.

Completely different in its scope and in the kind of reading experience it provides, Simon Schama’s massive work of scholarship Landscape and Memory was heavy going, and at times the weight of detail felt oppressive as I waded through its 650 pages of text and its countless colour plates and other illustrations. Yet I keep recalling portions of it, and I think I’ll be opening the book again from time to time. The extraordinary range of Schama’s research has produced an encyclopaedic compilation of imagery and stories about the relationship of Europeans to their physical environment – forests, waterways, rocks, mountains and the rest of it – over many centuries. It’s a gigantic monument to the process of making meanings from the symmetries and tensions between culture and nature.

Noelene Bloomfield’s Almost a French Australia is a handsomely produced and diligently researched book, full of fine illustrations and fascinating historical details. But for me its most memorable feature turns out to be the recurrent narrative pattern summed up in its title’s plaintive first word: almost. This account of French exploration in the southern oceans relates episode after episode of near-success, disappointment and last-minute disaster. Among the most notable tales of (mis)adventure are those of Saint-Aloüarn, who claimed Australia’s western coast for France in 1772 but died in Mauritius on his journey home, and of Baudin three decades later, who also perished in Mauritius after surveying much of Australia’s shoreline. Between those hapless voyagers came (among others) the brilliant navigator La Pérouse – lost in a shipwreck near New Caledonia after criss-crossing the Pacific from Cape Horn to Russia and from Alaska to Botany Bay – and D’Entrecasteaux, whose search for La Pérouse took him to many places before he too died at sea. Apart from hundreds of French place names dotted around Australia’s coast, there is little to show for all that doomed heroism.

I remember clearly the distinctive qualities of three books of essays read in 2013. Other Colours, by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, gives a colourful picture of what cultural life in Istanbul has been like for someone who education and family background bring east and west into a productive tension. Legal Limits, by Western Australian lawyer-and-writer Nicholas Hasluck, illuminates several aspects of the relationship between law and literature and conveys particular insights into fictional work by Kafka, Orwell, Coetzee, Borges and others – including some of Nick’s own novels. And Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature 1935-2012, impressively edited by Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni, assembles nearly 90 short lively essays by different hands to give a kaleidoscopic account of literary and popular culture in this country during that period.

But most of what I read last year was fiction, and I’ll discuss about 20 titles in my next post…