I've been paying special attention to memoirs lately, and I just read Mary Karr's superb Art of the Memoir, in which she opines that writers are constitutionally suited for fiction or memoir, but almost never both. I think Foreign Correspondence may be proof positive that Geraldine Brooks is an exception to this rule. Brooks is very gifted with historical fiction if March, her novel about the absent father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, off fighting in the US Civil War, is anything to go by, and this memoir is superb.
In Foreign Correspondence, Brooks recalls her 1960s childhood in Sydney, which she found stultifying, wishing to be somewhere, anywhere more exciting. She formed long-standing penpal friendships with kids in faraway places -- Joannie in the United States, Mishal in Israel and others. In her middle age, she decided to track down and meet in person those who were still alive. I loved the premise and structure of the book, and I think she pulled it off brilliantly. I especially loved the early pages, on which her images of that Australian childhood are all but palpable. I felt nostalgia for her childhood creeping over me.
On Sundays, our neighborhood quieted as if someone had thrown a blanket over it. It was a stillness different in kind from the weekday lull of the lonely afternoons. This was a peopled silence, like the self-conscious hush of a crowd in a library. Sunday's sounds were the sputtering fat of the lamb leg roasting in the oven, the thud of my mother's knife on the chopping board as she prepared a mountain of vegetables, and the rustle of the thick Sunday papers as my father turned the pages. In the street outside, the neighbors passed by on their way to Mass, their Sunday high heels clip-clipping on the concrete footpath.As a girl, she shared my love for the distant, the romantic, the exotic -- anything but the local and mundane. She also shares William F. Buckley's dismay with the changes that Vatican II wrought on the Catholic Mass. He groused about the new "Catholic calisthenics", which had parishioners standing, sitting and kneeling as if for aerobic exercise, and they both decried the change from Latin to the vernacular.
But within this idolaters' extravaganza the service itself had become as banal as the bingo games held in the adjacent church hall. I could just remember the Latin Mass of my early childhood; the murmured words, the priest with his back turned, doing his sacred work at the altar, the bells, the incense, the atmosphere of a divine mystery from which ordinary people were excluded. Words like mea culpa and agnus dei and spiritus sanctus had sounded like a magician's chant; hocus-pocus, abracadabra. There was no such magic in the lawyerly English liturgy, muttered with the sigh of weary housewives and restless children longing to be outdoors. The Lord be with you. AND ALSO WITH YOU. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. IT IS RIGHT AND FITTING TO DO SO.I learned more about Australian culture in the past few decades from this book than from anything else I've read. Brooks writes pointedly about Australia's national inferiority complex.
When a visiting Noel Coward remarked, "I like Australia and I love those wonderful oysters." Campbell took him to task. "Though he meant it kindly," Campbell wrote, "Mr. Coward lined himself up with many other visitors who have bestowed praise on the animals here rather than the people. No people have played second fiddle to their own fauna so much as Australians." It was bad enough, wrote Campbell, to be upstaged by koalas and kangaroos, but by oysters! "After all, when we go to other countries we take an interest in the people. We don't say: 'I liked Scotland. It has such wonderful cows.'"There was an eight-year age gap between Geraldine Brooks and her older sister, Darleen, whom she portrays as the more elegant girl, having been a child model. The dynamic between them will never change -- it was set when they were small, and even when they're elderly, she suggests, she'll still be the klutz. In a metaphor that I love, she says they are "trapped in the aspic of our age gap."
American media and television began to invade Oz as it had the rest of the world.
Most Australians saw nothing wrong with the new influences. We called Americans "Septics" -- in rhyming slang, septic tank equals Yank. But there was no malice in the name. Americans, in most Australians' view, were a bit like golden retriever puppies -- well-intentioned, good-humored, but a little thick.Brooks mentions the sexism in 1950s and 60s Oz, citing Jill Ker Conway as one of the country's first feminists to suggest that women might be good for something besides being wives and mothers. Her description of the blatant racism also stunned me, though perhaps it shouldn't have. (Why did I think it was an American phenomenon?)
I was too young to give the changes much thought. But to people of Edna's generation the sudden diversity was shocking in a country built on racist exclusion. Migrants were supposed to be British, or Europeans who could pass for British. Australia feared Jews, blacks and especially the "Yellow Peril" from nearby Asia. For years, the nation's best weekly magazine, the Bulletin, had carried the slogan "Australia for the White Man" under its masthead. The atmosphere had been so racist that the immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, could summarize his opposition to Asian migrants with quips such as "Two Wongs don't make a white." . . .
But by wartime there weren't enough British or Irish migrants to satisfy the labor needs of the growing country, and so a few more exotic people began to slip through the net. Immigration officers were told to select those who were "sixty percent European in appearance and outlook" -- whatever that meant. We called these first non-Anglo-Celtic migrants "Balts" no matter where in northern or eastern Europe they actually came from. Blond, blue-eyed, they were easy enough to get used to, once one got over the annoyance of their funny accents. The "Eye-Ties" -- the large wave of Italians, Greeks and other southern European immigrants that followed the Balts -- were more conspicuous with their dark complexions and pungent foods, and were met with more racism. It wasn't until 1965 that the "White Australia" policy was abandoned. Most Australians came to accept, sometimes grudgingly, that diversity was actually making the place more interesting. Now, racism expresses itself in debates over the number of immigrants wanted, rather than what color they should be.One of young Geraldine's pen pals visited London and raves about the ethic diversity and the current craze for "great floppy felt hats" in Piccadilly Circus before asking about the latest fashion in Australia.
"What's up in Australia?" What was up, for me, was a pair of black faux-satin flared pants that I'd asked the Greek seamstress who lived across the road to make up for me. The pants were so wide around the ankles that the excess fabric flapped in the breeze like a deflated spinnaker. The top half of the outfit consisted of a serape my mother had helped me make out of a square of upholstery brocade with a piece of fringe sewn all around. When I put my head through the hole in the center, I looked like I'd been throttled by a sofa.Her American penpal, a girl of the same age, struggles with mental illness and nervous disorders, especially in her later high school years, when college application time is approaching. Geraldine struggles with Joannie's accounts of her various treatments and hospitalisations -- in Australia, she feels, people would find Joannie self-indulgent or weak and would tell her to simply pull herself together. Still, she does her best to sympathise.
And I was having a hard time reading this outpouring of painful emotion. Until now, Joannie had written to me after she had climbed out of her depressions. As a result, I hadn't felt the full force of her despair. I'd let myself believe that Joannie was going through a bad phase that would eventually pass. It had seemed impossible to me that her intelligence wouldn't somehow lead her out of the emotional thicket in which she was temporarily lost.Years later, Geraldine goes to the United States to pursue a Masters at Columbia University, and she looks forward to meeting Joannie in person for the first time. A week or two before she leaves Sydney, she hears from Joannie's mother that Joannie is dead. After years of battling debilitating anorexia nervosa, she finally suffered heart failure. Geraldine declines her friend's mother's invitation to come visit anyway (at least initially) and goes instead straight to NYC, where she soon discovers that Joannie's problems were not malingering.
That autumn at Columbia University, I began to glimpse for the first time the sources of Joannie's despair. Growing up had been so easy in Sydney, where childhood passed at its own leisurely pace, with no rush into adulthood. At Columbia, I came to see the different way achievement was measured for my American classmates. For them, graduate school wasn't the surprising and luxurious blessing it was for me. Instead, it was just another hurdle on a track determined for them at birth. And for many of them, the bar was always set just a hair beyond the point that they could comfortably reach. I'd been spared the pressure that my American contemporaries felt, some of them since preschool. For me, with parents who'd never had a chance to go to college, any academic achievement was treated as a small miracle. If my grade in a subject was a credit or a distinction, that was great and we celebrated. No one asked me why I hadn't got a high distinction.As a child, Brooks had been enamored of Judaism and so sought an Israeli penpal, who she promptly idealised. When she meets Mishal in person years later, she finds not a heroic rebel or an iconoclast, but a middle-aged man who wants to go to work, support his family and come home again. It's as if she, now a professional journalist -- a foreign correspondent -- suddenly sees the value of the mundane.
Reporters look for the quotable people, the articulate. Unsurprisingly, those people turn out to be the hotheads, the passionately committed. Meanwhile, real life is happening elsewhere, in the middle, among the Mishals and the Cohens, who care more about their families and jobs than ideology. These people are elusive to journalists precisely because they aren't out wielding a placard or writing an op-ed or even all that ready with a fully formed opinion if stopped on a street corner.I think part of being a romantic is that happiness is the carrot that remains at the end of the stick. The grass is always greener, more nutritious, more interesting, more enticing on the other side of the immigration check-point. I thank Geraldine Brooks for reminding me of the fallacy in this world-view.
Scientists have discovered that all human beings have a "happiness set point” -- that just as our bodies have a preset weight to which they will tend to return after diet or binge, our minds are preprogrammed at a certain level of contentment. Thus, the mood-altering effects of winning a Pulitzer or losing a spouse will rarely endure. Within a year, most people are again either the happy or morose persons they always were. Therefore, the researchers suggest, the pursuit of happiness may be more successful if we give up hoping for triumphs and instead sprinkle our lives with whatever small gratification -- working in the garden, eating a favorite food -- give us day-to-day pleasure. A writer named Steven Lewis puts this eloquently in his book Zen and the Art of Fatherhood. It is, he writes, between the bread and the butter that the great moments of life are lived. Lewis also observes that children are naturally Zenlike in their games, living entirely in the here and now. But I was not a Zenlike child. My games were never of here, always of elsewhere. My pen pals were extensions of those childhood games.