The story Geraldine Brooks tells in the second of this issue’s Encounters, about how and why her father became settled in Australia, is exactly the kind of story that cements my long-held belief that the creative nonfiction genre and Australia are inherently in sync—linked by content, style and spirit.
Briefly, Brooks’ father, a Hollywood entertainer on the run after an affair with the wife of a famous producer, flees to Australia and joins a touring band, but the bandleader ditches his fellow musicians and takes off with the money, so her father, broke, is now stranded. A good story, yes— but there’s more. It is 1940. The Nazis invade France. Paris falls. Brooks’ father goes drinking with his Australian buddies, and they all decide to fight the “Nazi bastards.” So they enlist in the Australian Army, including her father, an American citizen. And he never goes home again—at least not to stay.
Now that’s as Australian and creative nonfiction-like as can be—a true story that is so unpredictable you just can’t make it up.
There are so many stories like this in Australia. Nearly every person you meet has a tale to tell. This was evidenced in the nearly 350 essays submitted to us for this issue. There was an inherent theme of restlessness and rebellion in many of the submissions—writers searching for something different, something better, in life. In her essay “Discovery,” winner of The Tashmadada/Writer Conversation/Creative Nonfiction Best Essay Prize, Rachel Friedman compares her own search and rebellion against the expectations of her parents with Captain Cook’s mission to confirm the existence of a southern continent—and his discovery of Sydney Harbor. She excerpts her journal—and his—and there are remarkable similarities. She, too, has discovered another world to explore, beginning in Sydney Harbor. She travels the country and returns often for more adventures.
And Susan Bradley Smith, winner of the Tashmadada/Writer Conversation/Creative Nonfiction Emerging Writer Prize, for “Writing an Obituary in a Hot Climate: Seven Things,” tells stories ranging from her mother’s flight from her family, to Bradley Smith’s fascination with Frieda Hughes, to the reproductive habits of nurse sharks. The other essays cover equally distinctive and fascinating subjects—from biscuits, to murder, to unending grief, to massive flooding, to living underground in a dugout in Coober Pedy, surrounded by rare and valuable opals. As I said, you can’t make this stuff up.
In many ways, Australia still has a strong pioneer spirit, and this is another way in which it syncs well with creative nonfiction, which, as a relatively young genre, is always exploring new frontiers and forging new paths. Creative nonfiction is often referred to as “the fourth genre” because it became established and acknowledged in the literary and publishing communities long after poetry, fiction and drama. It is a new frontier for writers and readers, and we folks in the forefront of the creative nonfiction movement have had to fight for a place in the literary and publishing worlds, which, in many ways, is what Australian writers have had to do to earn rightful acknowledgement for their unforgettable—but often unheralded—stories.
It is not just amazing stories that bring creative nonfiction and Oz so much into sync. It is also the telling of those stories. Creative nonfiction is the liberated genre. We are encouraged to employ the literary techniques of the fiction writer to capture the excitement and vivid reality of the people, places and situations about which we are writing. Sometimes, that application of techniques works in reverse: Geraldine Brooks, for example, now known mostly as a novelist whose works are often inspired by true events and people, began her career as a reporter and writer of nonfiction.
Robert Dessaix, the object of the first Encounter in this issue, also moves effortlessly from fiction to nonfiction in his work, all of which is believable, erudite and so overwhelmingly engaging it hardly matters whether it is fiction or nonfiction. Whether you are learning about Russian literature, Dessaix’s travels in India or his life in Tasmania, you are captivated by his approach to writing—which he compares to “gossip.”
In fact, there seems to be less concern about the line between fiction and nonfiction in Australia than in the U.S.—a more cavalier approach to blending genres. Thomas Keneally, who is among the writers Lee Kofman discusses in her “Required Reading” column, is, of course, famous worldwide for many of his books that massage nonfiction into fiction, such as “Schindler’s List,” which was originally published in Australia under the title “Schindler’s Ark.” Such an approach requires the skill of taking important and vital information and making it palatable and compelling to the largest audience possible, a skill also demonstrated over a remarkable 40-year career by science writer and radio personality Robyn Williams, whose work is also featured in this issue.
But here I am comparing Australia with creative nonfiction while my colleague and co-editor, Leah Kaminsky, has written a fantastic column for this issue comparing creative nonfiction with the work of a family doctor—the general practice practitioner. This is something she should know a lot about since she is, in fact, an MD, a creative nonfiction writer, a novelist, an editor and a science writer—all in one package.
I met Leah Kaminsky on the radio, in a way. I was talking about “Becoming a Doctor,” an anthology of stories by physicians, which I had edited. I was being interviewed by Ramona Koval, who I am told no longer has “The Book Show,” which is unfortunate because she was doing terrific work. I talked with Ramona for 20 minutes, and soon after I got off the air, an email popped up in my in-box from Leah, introducing herself. She had listened to the program and was wondering if I was going to get to Melbourne, where she lives, on my tour and was offering to arrange an event for me—a reading and conversation. That email was the beginning—the germ—of the idea that we at Creative Nonfiction, along with Leah, the co-editor of this collection, could do an issue featuring Australian writers. As it happened, I was on my way to Melbourne to see the sights and to meet some long-lost cousins, but I had nothing planned from a literary/professional point of view. I had no idea Leah knew so many people and could make things happen so quickly.
We met with Deborah Leiser-Moore, an actor and founder of Tashmadada, a contemporary performance company committed to bringing together arts practitioners and providing a forum for discussion about the arts. Despite the fact she had just suffered the death of a close family member, Deborah, working with Leah, was able to arrange a public conversation between Peter Bishop and me. And that’s how all of the people intimately involved with making this issue came together at the right place and time.
Peter Bishop was then the founding creative director of Varuna, Australia’s national residential writers’ house, and we discussed the possibility of doing some work together there, but a few months later, Peter left Varuna and established the Writer Conversation, an independent writers’ community. It took a year and a half, a couple of meetings with Leah in New York, many dozens of emails and Skype conversations, but plans for the issue came together, then the promotion and advertising, the screening and judging. The key contribution was from Peter Bishop and his Writer Conversation community, which funded the two generous prizes.
Part of the vision we shared was a big event—a Creative Nonfiction Day at the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival, for which Deborah and Leah were responsible, presenting the concept to Steve Grimwade, conference director, and making it all happen. The event is quite significant because it demonstrates, beyond a doubt, that creative nonfiction has arrived in Australia and that it is as significant and influential as fiction, poetry or drama—perhaps even more so. For the 20 years in which we have been publishing Creative Nonfiction as a magazine, we have devoted an entire issue to a country and its writers—a “Mexican Voices” issue, published in 2004—only one other time, and that issue included mainly translations of previously published pieces. With the exception of Robert Dessaix’s brilliant essay about the essay, which starts off this issue, everything in this issue is new work.