TJW: Every now and then, perhaps every few weeks, I end up asking how you feel about time. It baffles you, this strange question—it baffles me too. Perhaps that’s why I keep asking you—maybe it’s not that I’m searching for an answer that I cannot find, it’s that I don’t want to be alone in my confusion. It feels as if the past decade, but particularly this year, time has receded in a tide, never to break back on land. I don’t know where I’ve been.
BB: I understand the confusion. I think my understanding of time has changed, I don’t know why that happened or how. Does that relate to my experience as a man who was imprisoned for six years or does that relate to my experience as a man who migrated to another part of the world? Sometimes I think when you move from a place to another place that it impacts on your understanding of time, it seems time goes faster when you’ve moved elsewhere.
TJW: I understand what it’s like to move to a foreign country, to be made mute in a foreign language. Even the feeling of being illegal, as you know I was here in France for the first four years. But I can never understand how time was like this for you while incarcerated. I’m listening though.
BB: I think there’s a general idea from those who have not experienced incarceration that time in prison goes very slowly but that is wrong, time seems to go fast for prisoners. You have nothing to do in prison and it may seem at the moment that time goes very slowly, yet when you get freedom and look at the past it is shocking when you realise how those years went very quickly. It’s as if I closed my eyes and opened them. I think the understanding of time is very related to place.
TJW: I agree about time being related to place. I feel like I lost so many years while living here. I feel like I’m not even here in many ways—that I’m still in Australia—yet when I do visit the country of my birth, everything has changed: my family, my friends, my home town, the way people interact, the way society functions. I feel out of step of where I am physically, here in Europe, and where I seem to be in my mind, so far away.
BB: Time changes under the circumstances of the place. I know that feeling firsthand.
TJW: I wonder when we look back at this year in particular, the last twelve months of your freedom, and the global isolation during the pandemic, will we remember everything we have undergone? I wonder if we have learnt about the malleability of time during this experience—what I mean is that it seemed as if all the things the world willed itself to forget became so overwhelmingly in focus. It was a year that the phrase ‘the past is not dead, it never even passed’ really became true.
BB: I do think we cannot forget the experience of this year, that we have realised that all of us on this earth are related to each other. When police kill a black man in America, it matters and should be our concern, when Australia keeps Aboriginal children in custody it matters and when a dictatorship collapses in the Middle East, it should matter. Just as a virus travels on the wind, and we have truly realised that we share the same breath.
TJW: I think you’re right, that overwhelmingly, we will remember, that if there is anything to really retain from this shared history it is to hold on to the truth that rose like oil on water. I think we’re all existing at the moment in this dreaming state of time—where the past and the future and the present all exist in the now. But having said that, I can’t imagine a future, not even the next week in a way. We were thrust into that plane of time of not being able to control our fates. I think as I couldn’t and haven’t been able to lay feasible plans for the future, I kept being drawn into the past.
BB: When we talk about time, we are talking about imagining or recalling where we have been. It’s hard to talk about because time still goes very fast for me, and I feel I am already in the future now. I feel that I am projecting into the future so fast and cannot imagine a future that is something far away. To be honest, I’m having the same feeling as you, I’ve become so concerned about the place where I was born—Ilam, one of four Kurdish provinces in the west of Iran.
TJW: We have been writing those stories of our childhoods again and again, haven’t we? I wonder why. I don’t think it’s because we are trying to create a portrait of ourselves as a way of explanation for who we are—born in the same year, a world away—you during war, and me in peace. But I think also we are trying to inspect the reaction we both had to a situation that was politically, socially around us, this unspoken air in our childhood lungs, in the mountains and the ocean. Do you think we are focusing on those pure elements of childhood fear and confusion, and joy and understanding, in order to figure out what we want now? What means so much to our characters that we are writing too?
BB: I think we are looking at the points in our history where time was a camera. A frozen mirage. I was born there during a great war between Iran and Iraq and after that war I was witness to how people lost their culture, everything had changed in that province. I was witnessing how a language died and people had to choose another language, and how they changed their clothes and even the way they kissed each other had changed. History was caught in a camera then, and now again also—we are facing a different reality there, a war against the people, the young people. Even among a new generation who’ve assimilated into Farsi culture. I am afraid of the future, some distance, when I return and see people who are not the same people as I left them. People who have lost culture, when the old generation begin to die and leave us. When it happens simultaneously it means the land is losing its identity more and more and if this reality continues in this way, we will lose our collective identity completely. It is a disaster that Ilam province is not only losing its culture but losing its geography at the edge of the desert.
TJW: I felt the same way looking at how the Australian government really demonised peaceful protest in the face of police brutality and judicial injustice in relation to our First Nations people. Then to see the 46,000-year-old cave blown up in the Juukan Gorge, for iron ore, to see what mining and deforestation continue to do to our land, the general degradation of country, the impact of climate change, the bushfire season that is approaching again and then white noise—this great disturbing quiet around Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous fire knowledge, care for the land, it’s strange, this collective dismissal of our First Nations people and their knowledge. This amnesia and disregard for nature, when we so often measure time by the natural world—all my childhood memories are in some way attached to the earth, I think. We spent our early lives in the sand, under moon and tide and immersed in that continual lap of water. I have that first memory of being lifted into the air. The momentary freedom from gravity. The nostalgia is thick around me, in my mind I’m knee deep in the state of innocence when we are discovering that altar of the sea and the forest and the birds and animals. Taking cues from our family on how to tread softly. Where did all that care go, I wonder?
BB: I wanted to write a letter to you but like so often I don’t know what I’m going to write about. These days I feel my mind is full of many beautiful flowers, I even feel as if flowers have come out from my ears and eyes and I imagine white flowers have nested in my hair, and that if I have a nosebleed—that some red petals will emerge and fall in my hands. I feel as if my whole body is decorated with flowers. We are getting ready to say goodbye to winter and the sunshine is the main element of these days, the sky is blue, although nights are still very cold. I can see some of the trees are changing their colour, the flowers are being born again, everywhere. The Kurdish elders say that winter always has a last attack, which means that during the beginning of winter some days are warm, it means we should expect that final attack from winter and only then we will have spring. What was it you said about nostalgia? What is it that we are to do with it, as we continue on?
TJW: You remember I said that we must try to stay in the cave? Because if we cannot shelter enough to think, to remember the past, to remember now, then we will have no future. We will not write another thing. This year I’m feeling cynical, which is as detrimental I think to a writer as feeling optimistic. One must have both knees bent into every experience of time, of before, and now and tomorrow—of reality, of memory—small memory that’s ours, and then wider, as if we are one fish in a net of many. I remember the ocean more than anything else. It was so central to my world that the ocean even came to me in the night. A wall of seawater that rose at the end of Lighthouse Drive, East Woonona on Dharawal country—not my father’s ancestral land, a different place.
In the dream I was riding my bike towards the tidal wave, I never, ever turned around in the dream, and the wave grew higher and blocked out the sky and I rode until I willed myself awake. Then, there were those dreams that I could never wake from, walking on the loose sand below the dunes, fumbling past the spinifex gum spindles, the veins, this tender vine with purple flowers that I’ve forgotten the name of right now. I can just hear the sound of footsteps behind me. It’s a man following me on the beach, out of sight, on and on, stomping in the sand.
It was years later as an adult that the dream returned and I found the reason, lying against the pillow, the trudging in the loose sand had only been my pulse in my ear. If I go to bed tonight I’ll hear the dream exactly as I heard it, exactly as it terrified me. But in the day I wasn’t afraid of the ocean. When I go back to childhood, when I wander on foot, or bicycle, my entire mind fills with nature—with the birds, the jacaranda tree in bloom, trying to empty my lungs of air in the ocean and touch the ocean floor with my belly. The feeling of the fire against my shins’ skin. I’m a kid outside in the elements and I’m listening to everything everyone is saying. That’s what I remember—the murmurs outdoors. Everything is strange. It’s as if I don’t belong there, but that is my entry point as the fish in the net—suppose that everyone feels they don’t belong there either.
BB: We walk from somewhere to reach somewhere else, then walk from there to reach the first place, the place we have come from. From childhood to now I think I’m struggling to turn back, to look all the way back, to look and bring the images back to write down on paper. Now I’ve forgotten my childhood, those days when I was smart, I knew that I was smart, even if I was poor. I only remember this feeling and nothing else. Those days that are far away, those days when I used to go to school, the rainy days and hard winters that I remember in my bones, I can see myself shaking in the cold. Now that I’m writing this I can walk, I can go to that day I was sitting on a big stone and looking at my brother as he walked to school, and I can remember the feeling when I could not go with him. I was counting the days to be old enough to join the children who played in the schoolyard.
Another day arrives when everyone escaped from the village, escaped from the war that arrived like a storm cloud. I remember I drank tea on a picnic day, after people had forgotten why they escaped, on a day when no battle planes attacked. I even remember the glass that I drank my tea out of, the smell of the soil. I was only four years old. I remember the first image of my life, the first thing that I remember in this world. I think I was three, I’m sure I was three. I asked my mother and she’s confirmed it. I’m with her in a cemetery, some women in black dresses are crying. It was a different village, a cemetery in a different village. I began to cry when I saw the women were crying and then my mother gave me an orange. I remember the smell of that orange and the smell of my mother’s dress. It was my mother’s uncle who had died and that is what had brought all the crying women together in front of me.
I’m thinking about this and why the first image of my life should be in a cemetery and how I remember even the smell and colour of the day. Life is strange and the mind of a small child is stranger. I feel as if my life started from that day and it has been a long journey from the cemetery. Since then life has been a journey that has altered and collected so many other stories that are part of me. I think we carry them in a way that only writers are able to, a continual accumulation of luggage, and at those intervals of rest we must put them down. I always imagine writers as those who are carrying heavy wares and become lighter as we write. Now, I feel as if I have so many stories but I cannot put them down. I feel heavy, my shoulders cannot carry them anymore and that’s why I keep escaping alone into the streets and nature in New Zealand.
Perhaps I know there are so many stories when I return to my home, that when I am away from the house I try not to gather any more. Some stories I’ve forgotten. You know, I always thought I lost my stories in the ocean when I was almost drowning, those days struggling in the waves. Stories disappeared there and I felt I remembered nothing, even my parents and the smell and colour of the village that I left when I was 18. Yes, I think I did forget them in the ocean. I wonder, might reading poetry take my hands, and take me into the unconscious part of my mind. I feel as if I’m a kid sitting in front of a river and scared to dive into the water. I feel naked and scared.
TJW: Remember that quote, ‘By walking I found out where I was going’—once we start to write the letter (or the chapter) then we discover in a moment of rhythm that we are heading to a point, a fork in the forest. I think that our nostalgia is so poignant because it is a solid thing, it doesn’t move, we can walk towards it in our minds. Then, as we age and enter new stages of life we can walk around the memory, inspect it with clearer or more weighted eyes. But it remains a fixed point and when we are feeling adrift and uncertain there is comfort to find in that certainty of the past. I wonder though if I’m spending too much time in nostalgia, walking unending roads. I’m not moving forward in the novel I’m writing, my characters are stuck in a hotel waiting for the dinner service to begin, but it never arrives. I need them to walk into the mountain air, I think. I think if they are walking I’ll arrive with them to work my way out of this idle scene.
I keep staring at the sticky notes that are taped under the window’s edge, ‘A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper’—And it is ideal, isn’t it? The shuttering of doors and windows, the essential work to be done, the world in retreat. Aren’t these supposed to be the ideal conditions? And yet. I find the most trivial ways not to get to the heart of the writing. I was telling you all this time how to stay in the cave, to work on your fiction, not to look at the news too much, to get off Twitter. But I’ve been looking at the news too, it’s hard to ignore. But we’re powerless in the middle of a book, aren’t we? You’re also in a moment of ideal conditions in which to work—without having to hide your phone, stable internet, a safe and private home, a little money, a stretch of time. But writing is difficult work, it is scary, you are right. No-one is there beside the river, not really. Swim a little, what else do you remember?
BB: Home. Ilam is a land surrounded by oak tree forests in the Zagros Mountains chain. We call it the ‘Bride of Zagros’ because it is a land with four distinct seasons and it’s so beautiful. The bride is vulnerable to climate change. According to scientists if that continues in the near future, all of the trees will die and the forest will be destroyed, just as many birds and animals have disappeared. Just as the language and culture I was born and grew up with are disappearing. It is a tragedy to witness all the things you loved and grew up with begin to die in front of you and you cannot prevent it. I imagine the day I go home as terrifying, to hear everyone speaking Farsi and not Kurdish, and that the old people who once spoke Kurdish would be dead too. If the forest died too, it means I am dead, and I doubt if I would ever go back.
I remember the last day I was in Ilam. The day I left Iran I was sitting on a bench in a park, I saw a group of Kurdish children who were playing there and all of them were speaking Farsi and I felt completely powerless to change anything. I wanted to find their parents and shout at them, demand to know why their children were speaking Farsi. Why don’t you respect the culture and language we’ve inherited? But I was sure that none of this would convince them, not anger—we were already in the middle point of the tragedy. I remember that I visited Kermashan city, which is the largest Kurdish city in Iran, yet I only stayed at the bus station. I was too afraid to venture into the city and to speak with people who were speaking Farsi and not Kurdish. People lost everything with their tongue. I left Iran with these images, as a journalist, a journalist struggling to educate people about how important Kurdish music is, how the language is central to us, how Kurdish culture is a part of global civilisation and that we should keep it alive and respect it.
I left Iran because I was losing in the struggle against that tragedy and then I found myself in another colony, in another country. Now, when I imagine a future I cannot separate it from my experience as a Kurdish writer who wanted to save the language. Perhaps people cannot understand why I am concerned about my small land and community rather than this planet, this Earth? Of course I am concerned about our world, but I cannot separate it from my experience. If we could all be concerned about this small society and land and try to protect them, we could have a future, we are a chain and we relate to each other. Losing a language and a landscape in another part of the world in a place called Ilam should matter for everyone. When we reach that point when people around the world care about places like Ilam, like their home, we might be able to be optimistic about the future.
TJW: I understand about the tragedy of the colonial language dominating the original language that is so intimately attached to the landscape. I guess that is where our stories cross, I think we are trying, however small, to ask readers’ stories to cross in the same way. When we feel dislocated from a place we cannot feel the empathy to save it, I don’t think. The land becomes a foreign thing, a thing to use and ignore, or have a cosmetic relation to. When we can speak the language of the kangaroo grasses or the oak trees, then we can have a conversation with the land, with nature—we are bound together through the throat this way. I see a sort of pain in Australia in places where there is no connection to country, to the language of a place, no story, no history that penetrates time, that stitches the human and animal and plant connectivity together. Language is that portal to having been understood and to understand.
We decolonise our tongues in learning the first languages, but we also decolonise our spirit and the way we interact with nature. I honestly see the world in turmoil that is innately connected to nature, and finding a way that humans can truly coexist with the world, with indigenous peoples, with language that is not just an ancient communication tool but also a map of the land, a handbook on how to live in harmony. I write these sentiments to you, but I know that you already understand them. I suppose we are merely reminding ourselves to go home in our minds, to return to the source, the unshakeable beliefs we have in order to write them for the reader?
BB: I read your letter and wanted to write about how it led to a different story with my family, and then to a different world today. How literature is a way into the different and the same world. I started reading a letter from my cousin Farhad also, he is a great writer and writes very poetically. He wrote to me about the autumn season and those things that I tried to describe to you. His words are deeper though, they move with an imagination that is so nostalgic, he brought me back to childhood again and the time in nature. Farhad knows the smells and the animals and birds. He described a bird called Motacilla. He described how he missed the bird that now does not exist because of modern agriculture and the pesticides that the farmers used. When I read his words I immediately pictured the bird perched on a rock and then it took off in flight. I am sure it is a true memory from childhood. All day I’ve thought about this image, it even drove me from my house and on a walk through the park and past the river.
When I was returning home I saw a similar bird in the park near my home and I smiled at her exactly in a way a small boy smiles. Can you imagine what it is like to become a child again while you are an adult? It is a miracle that is so rare. I wish I could write about it fully, about how you began the letter, and my reply and the letter to Farhad and his reply with this word motacilla. It is a connective tissue that takes us to this union of the world. I’m remembering my childhood home, at the edge of the village, in the forest. I still miss the smell of the trees and soil, the seasons, but particularly autumn. It was the season that began with the sheep and goats. The most beautiful thing I remember is being a child, sitting up on a rock and waiting for the shepherds who took the cattle to the mountains in the morning and brought them back at sunset. We did not own sheep but many goats that we knew by nicknames. At the end of the days many shepherds with ancient songs and the sounds of the goat bells were coming towards the village and I was looking out onto the road to see my father.
I was not really waiting to see my father but to discover which goat had given birth that day. Many of the shepherds kept the pregnant goats at home but often they couldn’t recognise they were carrying and the goats would be born on the mountains and the shepherd would carry them home in their arms. It was the most exciting moment, seeing my father carrying a baby goat home. I would run to my father and insist on carrying the kid home myself. I don’t know how to describe the smell of the mountain air, the soil, the earth, the new life. We tended to the babies for some weeks and after a different smell would descend on our home. It was the smell of oak fruit that my father would gather himself. Perhaps it was the smell of my father himself, perhaps I only know my father’s smell through that particular moment.
Later it was the time of the Kalmas flower, a rare pink flower that grew at the time of my childhood when there was no grass or flowers on the ground. It was a time when nature was grey, yet the Kalmas was able to grow in the dark dry soil. The flowers arrived for only a short time and then disappeared until the following year. When we found the Kalmas flower we used to have a small celebration and place stones around the flower to protect it. We believed that anyone who touched or hurt the flower would see his father’s fortune burn, that way we were careful. After the Kalmas retreated then Pallah started—the first rain of the year. Not any rain, but the first heavy rain, the signs that winter would soon come. I could tell you about the smell then, and how it too was different, about the wings in the sky at that time. I am remembering all the things that I thought I had forgotten in this era of Twitter and the screens.
TJW: My father returned to his country, ngurambang, some years ago now. He belongs there again, everyone left that edge of ocean and went home proper in a way. He has a fire outside most nights and sits on a stump, it’s different. When we were kids we’d sit on the dirt right beside it, feeding it and letting the air work its way between the logs and kindle. We’ve got a fire pit here in the garden in France. I encourage my child to get close to the flames, to breathe into it, to control it and not be afraid. We really pay attention to the forest on our walks with the dog. I am trying to find a home here too, trying to know the seasons and belong. I was pointing out the grains in the wood today, a bitter autumn day, I was talking about how the light-coloured rings are the growth during the spring and summer when the tree grows fast and the wood is soft, and then the dark-coloured rings where the tree grows slowly and hard during these next months. I just wanted to show that even when it seems that everything turns grey and dead, there is still growth. Without that slow and hard growth the wood wouldn’t be as strong either. I have a compulsion to retreat from this nostalgia, but let’s keep writing, we are getting somewhere.
BB: I will write more about these Kurdish seasons, about the house on the edge of the forest, about my cousins and brothers, and that we were too many boys, 12 teenagers together, laughing and teasing and telling stories and experiencing this world together. About the rains, how I thought that it rained everywhere, how I remember my father looking at the sky and cursing it, waiting for rain, and then the rains would come, and he’d curse again, worried about flooding. He was happy, though, for the rain to come. We looked up. I feel as if the reason I love the rain more than any other natural phenomena is because it made my father happy, happy on the land. New Zealand is green and fertile, there are many plants growing beside my house, but I have not seen so much rain since I arrived here. Yet this morning I opened the window where below, the flowers have erupted in spring, and it was raining.
Tara June Winch is a Wiradjuri writer based in France. Her most recent novel The Yield won the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award.
Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish writer based in New Zealand. His book No Friend but the Mountains won the Victorian Prize for Literature and has been translated into fifteen languages.