When I was six, my backyard was the most wide-open, imposing space I knew. There, in a flat plain filled with drought-licked grass, lay my universe.
Then, one day, we moved house. My world quaked. Everything took on a different light.
I was six and somehow, privy to a secret: I had discovered the allure of place. I wanted desperately to keep moving.
But I learned quickly, a six-year-old can’t just get up and leave.
So, it was reading that ushered in different landscapes. Words took me beyond a few square feet of gaunt, ochre grass, into Lemony Snicket’s opiate world, unfurled Roald Dahl’s rainbows, Cormac McCarthy’s ruthless tundra, the vague Japanese dreamscapes of Haruki Murakami. I became infatuated with the writer’s mind, ready to go wherever they wanted to take me.
The stories I crave the most are buried in the memories of my grandparents. They lived through the kind of history you find in textbooks, with grandiose names like the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, events like the Tiananmen Square massacre and figures like Chairman Mao. But their stories were muted by a refusal to revisit old traumas.
Still, the few things I heard I held onto: concentration camps, purges, public shamings, long swims in the cold sea.
Unexpectedly, it was a book that filled these gaps in my imagination. When I read Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, suddenly, my family’s history had colour. The edges became a little less blurred.
The book begins in Vancouver, where a girl is brought again and again to images of her dead father, a Chinese concert pianist. Whether it is through music or language or an aunt that shows up on a Greyhound bus, she is reminded of her father through connections to Shanghai, a place she never really knew. The novel charts generations throughout the Cultural Revolution, a cast of characters tied to her father in different ways. At the outset, life revolves around the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where music is the lifeblood of her father and his friends. It is also central to the story, both in plot and in form. Thien ties together personal histories that unravel, layer and weave, in echoes of Bach’s polyphonies. But the Cultural Revolution slowly, excruciatingly strips them of the very thing they hold dear. The regime forbids their music, destroys their instruments, and uses their artistry to degrade them. Do Not Say We Have Nothing captures a brutal disembowelling of art, and in turn humanity, forced by a merciless political climate.
I began to understand the suffering behind my grandparents’ silence. Thien writes, ‘Sometimes, I think, you can look at a person and know they are full of words.’ My grandparents were. But their words have since been lost to time and will stay there, floating in a room above the clouds. The stories of others are my only selfish solace.
After Shanghai, I followed Teju Cole from New York to a breathing, modulating Lagos in Everyday is for the Thief. The narrator revisits Nigeria for the first time in 15 years having moved to New York, and finds a city, and consequently a self, changed by time and place.
Disembodied images of the city give rise to questions of belonging and cultural identity. The Lagos of his past grates against the Lagos of the present. It is a land of contradiction: there are Nigerian ‘princes’ in internet cafes, violent home invasions, and public burnings. But there is also a young woman reading Michael Ondaatje, a Molière play, and a jazz shop.
Through the liminal space between Lagos and New York, Cole claws at the heart of a paradox many first-generation immigrant children struggle to understand: a completely unfamiliar place you are inextricably, implausibly tied to. Home is ‘so simple a word, and so hard to pin its meaning.’
Often, I find myself meditating on this: being both absent and present, caught between places, never really quite belonging to any.
There are no landscapes more alluring than the ones in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I read it for the first time this year on a flight to Tokyo, and then again, twice, on the flight back.
A conversation between explorer Marco Polo and the great Kublai Khan takes the reader to cities with fantastical names like Euphemia and Hypatia. The chapters read like short poems. Calvino seduces you with dripping spires and magnolia gardens and gods in black lakes.
At one point Marco Polo tells the Khan, ‘You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.’ Indeed, it was in Thien’s Shanghai where I found fragments of a family history. It was in Cole’s Lagos where I had to grapple with my own cultural ties.
All cities—whether threaded with fantasy like Calvino’s, displacement like Cole’s, or suffering like Thien’s—are a reflection of the self. Places are sculpted by the human mind. Everything I see outside is bound to something within. So, when I am away from familiarity, I am forced to confront myself.
Calvino’s cities are infinite, limited only by the imagination. In the same vein, moving from Melbourne to Shanghai to Lagos to anywhere else is in the world is a trek with no conceivable end.
When you leave somewhere, you may return richer, your thoughts rearranged in different colours. Every place I know is anchored to tufts of skeletal grass behind my childhood home—an initial frame of reference to vastness. But with each book, the cardboard fences shift beyond the peripheries of my vision, extending further, and still further. The backyard reworks itself into subterranean corridors and canals and castles, carving my imagination in the most hypnotic ways.
Whitney Chen is an emerging writer from Melbourne. Her first short story, ‘Typhoon Season’, was published in Voiceworks. She has a Bachelor of Communications from RMIT University and an Associate Diploma of Music. She works in events and marketing. She is on the verge of moving to New York City to find out what all the fuss is about. www.whitneychn.com