Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The View from an Elevator: a Rumination on Accents and Landscape


In the elevator at the university where I teach in New York City, I collided (literally) with another Australian. Since moving to the USA five years ago I have—once—accidentally pegged a New Zealander as an Aussie, and since then exercised extreme caution when sounding out a potential fellow Antipodean. She laughed as we dusted ourselves down, asked me if I knew where the Advising Office was, and thankfully without any further embarrassment we soon established that we shared the same home city of Melbourne. She congratulated me on keeping my accent fairly intact; although her parting comment, offered with a grin, was “although I can tell you’ve been here a while now, there are a couple of things …” and then the doors closed between us. What things? I played back our brief conversation. Were my “r”s too strong after three initial years in Georgia? Did I habitually end my sentences at a higher, questioning pitch like the artsy New Yorkers I know, or did I still sonically perform a nosedive, as we do Down Under. What did this woman mean? Had I developed my own, new accent? It is strange, I thought suddenly, how voices shift when we, their owners, also move. I wonder what is it exactly that we carry with us when we leave our own country and build an(other) home in a different one; what changes, what stays solid at the centre of our being—and how do the sounds we make come to reflect (or resist) these migrations? 

And had moving countries changed not only my accent, but my writing? 

I completed my novel Shadows and Wings—set largely in Australia—over many years, and the final few of them were here in North America. The biggest manuscript revision actually happened in the midst of a Winter farmhouse in rural Maine with a blizzard hissing and howling outside and burying the landscape (and the car) in mounds of feathery white; very un-Australian, even considering the wild High Country, which when I hiked and skied it, still did not look like the winter I heard and witnessed on the other side of the storm windows. Had this landscape, perhaps, changed my written accent? I have since read over my work, and looked at my more recent poetry and short stories with a closer eye (and ear). Images from my country seem sharper, more intentionally noted, as with something foregrounded in a photograph. It matters to me now that I name grasses, trees and animals, that I ponder the exact shade of the sky, that somehow I pin down the feel of the light. I sense the atmosphere of there more keenly here and have—through distance—worked hard to discover the right words to create it on the page.

Aussies travel more than anyone else, but they always seem to return home. So to write and publish as an Australian who is not, for the foreseeable future at least, coming home, makes me note my country with a greater keenness that oscillates somewhere between grief and relief—my memories of Australia are by no means all happy ones, and there are a couple of bridges probably still smoking. But the land won’t let me go. My current manuscript is also set in Australia, on the edge of the Strzelecki Desert, where a man deluded and maybe inspired builds an enormous boat for the flood he believes will come. And when I write the land, I feel the sand under my fingernails in a way I might not have while in Australia; I inhale the dust, I hear the ghost of the sharp wind from across the desert, or Bass Strait, or from the Victorian High Country, depending on which part of the land you inhabit. 

Because I still inhabit that land. In elevators, streets and subways in New York City, the iron grass scratches my legs, my skin echoes that tight sunburn summer feeling, that bright sky leans over me even as I close my eyes. Being from Melbourne I still can’t shake the feeling of a huge bay of water to the side of me, and it took a year before I could navigate Manhattan with its water banding me on all sides. In my heart, you see, there’s one bay, and one brown sluggish Yarra.

I also hear my accent differently, more positively. What I once thought was just nasal and tight, is now an accent of sky-reaching, of horizon-bending. It speaks of squinting your eyes as they cross vast landscapes; I realize my accent has space in it, the space that allows diphthongs to move and turn. My country—and I was not aware of this until now, in the Northern Hemisphere—has given me room to slide and stretch my vowels around, room for my cadences to dance. 

I have come to see that Australia has followed me here, has distracted me, flaunts itself side by side and inside the red dirt of Georgia where I lived for the first three years Stateside, the blue haze of the Catskills and the wild Atlantic coastline once you head up Route 1 into Maine. I’m right here, it keeps whispering and calling, even in a winter blizzard. Even on 6th Avenue. Even in a New School elevator. And it now inhabits and forges my work, where it never did before. Mark Tredinnick has it right, I think, when he says in his Editor’s Note to his anthology A Place on Earth, that “you will know that the same language is spoken in those two places; and you will hear how that language resonates in each place with different inflections and rhythms, timbres and dynamics—qualities to do with the nature of the two landscapes in which that common language plays, with which it converses and to do with the kind of relationship each of our cultures has made with the continent that houses and shapes it.” 

I began this piece as an author blog post, but I realized that I actually have to write this specifically as an Australian author. Because that’s what I am, even if I never physically return Down Under, even though my home is now here in New York. Because maybe—as I realized in the elevator—Aussies actually always do find a way to come home.

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