Reviewed: Root and Branch, Eda Gunaydin, NewSouth Publishing
The first thing that strikes me about Root and Branch, Eda Gunaydin’s debut collection of essays, is her eye: what she sees and how she sees, and the way this is conveyed through exuberant writing that is at turns funny, sarcastic and dark. It’s the details here that matter—such as the machete used to strip meat from the rotisserie in a kebab joint, or the way her mother wears a gold brooch that both draws attention away from and to her chest—that dominate. In ‘Western Medicine’, she and her father are in a car, and the details given not only tell us something about the madness of Sydney real estate prices but also put us right next to her in the scene.
‘Can you believe our house would sell for 2 million now?’ On this last one he takes his eyes off the road, turns to me, gives me a rare open-mouthed smile. It does not last long, because he soon has to shift gears to go up an incline, which requires all his attention and our joint prayers.
The attention to detail in Gunaydin’s essays encapsulates two things: as she documents the texture of life of people and places rarely seen in literature, she communicates an underlying belief that the particular, rather than the abstract, should inform our politics.
Gunaydin is interested in theories, ideas and ideology, but only in the sense that they speak to the everyday realities of life, of her life—here, reality provides the impulse for theory and not the other way around. This is an ethics that underpins all of the essays in Root and Branch, where feelings and relationships don’t exist in a vacuum, but within a wider socio-political context that always shapes them.
Clustered around the theme of inheritance—what we inherit culturally, emotionally, politically—and our often ambivalent relationship to this inheritance, Root and Branch is essentially a book marked by the diasporic condition; that ineffable longing and nostalgia for what always turns out to be a ghost: the homeland. It is the existential condition of continual dislocation: of always living at a distance from something that is inherently a part of us, but which will forever remain strange.
Over several essays, a portrait of Gunaydin’s mother and father and her difficult relationship with them shines through, as well as a picture of what the diaspora carry, particularly as children of first-generation immigrants: the burden of guilt, the blurring of boundaries, questions of agency, luck and fate. It reminds me of Matthew Salesses, who wrote: ‘we live in a context, not a choice.’.
Root and Branch traverses space—from Sydney’s Petersham, Auburn, Parramatta and Darling Point to İzmir and Istanbul in Turkey. But at the heart of the book, at the centre from which all these points radiate out from is Blacktown, the suburb Gunaydin grew up in and where her family still lives. Blacktown Westpoint shopping centre merits a particular mention.
This is perhaps the other astonishing thing about Root and Branch: it is an astute chronicle of Western Sydney and its ever-changing dynamics, with a clarifying contribution on what defines Western Sydney—which to Gunaydin is less a geographical location or stereotyped set of cultural markers, and more about the impact of infrastructure:
Streets, which are less shaded, more poorly lit, and subject to less urban forest cover. Schools, which receive less funding, upkeep, and even less air-conditioning. Roads, whose lanes are narrower, more potholed and more unsafe—you can see and feel the gradient of the asphalt change underneath your wheels if you drive far enough down the M4. Hospitals, which perform worse across several measures.
Gunaydin is writing a Sydney that I know. This focus on the weight of material reality on day-to-day life, on our relationships, and on how we understand ourselves is what is really radical about this book. Class, as well as race and gender, are not abstract ideas for intellectual perusal but are the very stuff of how we love, live and die.
On one level Root and Branch shows us the distinct vantage point that immigrant diasporic writing can give us—but it is also a viewpoint that actually reflects, albeit sometimes in hyper-relief, the things that plague us all as human beings: the need to belong, questions of home, our relationship with our parents, and for the majority of us, the struggle that is life under a capitalist system. This system—and the human condition with all of its grief and losses—hurts most of us.
Gunaydin’s essays seem to say that writing can save us, but also that it doesn’t. She quotes Eve Sedgwick’s theory of reparative reading, where we read to ‘find and organise knowledge differently, responding to it by seeking pleasure and nourishment, as well as amelioration.’ In this way she attempts a reparative reading of her parents and her relationship with them—whether it’s successful or not, whether it saves her or not is uncertain.
In another essay, ‘Second City,’ Gunaydin writes:
I was like a drunk at a bar buying everyone else a round, trying to share my good feeling, convinced that the sublime object which had liberated me—books and literature—could liberate everyone else too.
Writing and reading may not really change anything nor heal us completely; but perhaps in just helping us to see, in making us pay attention, it changes our relationship to the thing itself. It may very well be the details that will save us.