When I first came to Britain, it was on a working holiday. I had purchased a one-way ticket, but I didn’t believe I was coming here to live. I’d spent my whole life on the east coast of Australia — two decades in a rural town and then seven years in a city, at university. I needed a change, and I wanted to put myself in a completely different environment to see what might happen. Because my mother was born in England I was able to live and work in the UK for as long as I wanted. It felt like a gift. I got off the plane and I joined the queue with all the other foreigners. But when I presented my passport the official looked up and smiled. ‘You should have come through that gate,’ he said, pointing at the fast-moving line across the forecourt: ‘British Nationals’ the sign read, or something like that. ‘You’re one of us,’ he added. I smiled back at him, but I thought, What on earth do you mean, ‘one of us’? I’ve never been here in my life.
It was strangely apt though, and it’s my abiding memory of entering this country for the first time. I knew I wasn’t British. But my sense of my ‘Australianness’ was complicated. Although my mother could not remember England – she was just two years old when she emigrated – she kept a picture of the boat her family had arrived on as ‘ten-pound Poms’ in the late 1950s. Her older siblings had retained the clipped edges and tapered vowels of their accents. In addition, it seemed, at least in the farming town of my childhood, that what felt natural to me – reading, going to the library – had no currency in the playground or on the streets of the Housing Commission estate where I lived.
Writers often identify themselves as outsiders. But in my own case, this feeling initially prevented me from writing. As a girl I tried to keep a diary but always tore out the pages, hating my words. Stories were worse. What was a story anyway? I didn’t even know how to ask the question. My characters were flat. My narratives fizzled out. It was no wonder. I wasn’t actually sure what I could write about. So why did I keep trying?
In her recent memoir, Rosie: scenes from a vanished life, Rose Tremain describes an epiphany that, in her words, ‘confirmed in me the certainty that writing was the only thing I wanted to do, and that my life would be somehow half lived […] if I couldn’t establish this at the centre of my world’. Finding herself alone at age fourteen or so after a game of tennis, the afternoon warm and freshly cut hay scenting the air, Tremain describes a kind of visionary experience. I recognised her desire to capture the moment and make it into something lasting. When such moments happened to me, my attempts to respond by writing felt clumsy. I had no idea what I was doing.
Partly, the problem was that writing seemed frivolous. It was not what the people around me did. My father, when he was employed, worked in a mill. My mother left school early with no qualifications at all. We lived in social housing. We didn’t discuss books or films and we didn’t talk about authors or directors or artists. What relevance did they have to the business of making a living, paying the rent, buying the groceries?
Kit de Waal, in her recent work on writing and class, asserts that publishing is the least socially diverse of all the UK’s creative industries, with only ten percent of UK writers coming from backgrounds ‘with parents in routine or manual labour’. In this context I think my early attitude is probably typical. Even in Australia, away from the more rigid class distinctions that seem to linger in Britain, my social class meant that I lived in a different world from that of most writers and artists. Although I borrowed books from the library every week and read constantly as a child, I never thought about the people who had written them.
But that feeling I had, that sense that something was missing, it was more than simply a need to respond to events or feelings, more even than wanting to make something of them. There was, in addition, a desire to produce work that would have meaning for someone else. I wanted not just to respond but to communicate my response, to connect with whoever might listen. Kazuo Ishiguro, in his Nobel acceptance speech, says that stories are about ‘one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?’ I understand now that what I was seeking was a writerly way of being.
Going to university was pivotal to this because once there I learned how to ask questions. It was like being taken from a dimly lit basement to the big window of an upstairs room. The ceiling was higher, the glass wider, the view visible in a new way, allowing me to see more angles, more details, and how everything fitted together. Now that I was in this room there was no way I was leaving. But the working-class girl I’d been was not gone, nor did I wish to banish her. Only, every time I tried to write fiction, it was as if she’d followed me upstairs and sat herself on a chair in the back corner of that upstairs room. She couldn’t see out the window, but she could laugh loudly enough at what I was trying to say. Who do you think you are, gibbering on with all that rubbish? I heard her constantly. Was I supposed to be speaking for someone, I wondered? For something? I still couldn’t find a voice.
I needed to find a way to work with these conflicting selves, to give myself permission to be authorial. Retrospectively that moment at Immigration – my moment of arrival – was significant because I knew that although I could be a card-carrying Brit (I would become a citizen after having my first child, just a few years later), I was always going to be half of two things. When I began to write seriously, I found that this outsider status could be beneficial. It afforded me a certain flexibility and according to Hilary Mantel this is essential to writing fiction: ‘You have got to be absolutely fluid,’ she says. ‘You have to become everything your material demands of you. You have to be mutable. You have to be constantly ready to change shape.’ For me, the necessary shapeshifting began with allowing, and then accessing, the divided parts of my various identities. So the girl I had once been, who continued to reside in a forgotten corner of my mind, could help me. I didn’t want to tell her story, I didn’t even want to speak with her voice. But thinking about how she perceived the world was an exercise in seeing things from inside and outside at the same time.
When I look back to that first journey to Britain, I like to think I was coming here to be a writer. I didn’t know it, and it certainly didn’t happen right away. But I think I needed to be quite explicitly out of context; the fact that even this was ambiguous (‘you’re one of us’) was good for me. It helped me to see things more clearly, to accept the ambiguities, and to reconsider things I’d taken for granted. I wouldn’t say the words flowed — producing almost anything was, and remains for me, a laborious process. But it was a way of permitting myself to put pen to paper and do the thing that was waiting for me.