The first sentence

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‘Trying to write before you’re ready is like trying to squeeze toothpaste out of an empty tube,’ I wrote in exasperation after I allowed yet another day to pass without making a start on Sabah and Lamia‘s story.

There is so much pressure to write that amazing first line that will get one publisher to publish the book, and then at least one thousand people to buy it. Who can write such a magic sentence? Certainly not I.

But then, ‘A Writing Life’ by Annie Dillard became available as an audio book through my local library and I heard these words: When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.

And so Dillard enables me to start and I start with this very ordinary sentence: I first met Lamia when she came to my English class at TAFE.

And from that humble beginning I wrote the first four hundred words. Four hundred words that I might eventually erase, but at least I have started, and can continue writing the next sentence, and the next, and see where it leads me.

Concentrate on the words on the page, says Dillard. When you chop wood, aim not at the wood, but at the chopping block, so concentrate on the words in that sentence on that page, not on the grand vision. The grand vision will change as I write, and the finished product will probably be vastly different to what I had in mind at the beginning, but that’s OK. After all, I am only a curious scribbler, not a clever scribe, and I’ll go where the story leads.

Teleporting

I raided my local library and met Australian reporter Lynne O’Donnell.

That is, I read her book.

‘High Tea in Mosul’ is the result of O’Donnell’s encounter with two Englishwomen in Mosul shortly after the  Americans invaded Iraq in 2003. O’Donnell writes: ‘The landscape is breathtaking – mountains of untouched ancient forests; deep valleys sliced with rivers painted blue by the peerless sky; lush and sweeping plains that fatten sheep through winter and are burnished throughout the searing summers with the yellow and gold of wheat and oilseed rape.’

I read this and thought: She was there.

How am I ever going to write like that?

George Orwell. Photo Vera-Broadbent
George Orwell.Sketch by Vera-Broadbent

In ‘Finding George Orwell in Burma’, Emma Larkin (a pseudonym), comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter if Orwell had visited a particular place, because Orwell himself said that a writer’s skill lies in the ability to imagine what a place was like, or how someone else felt, or how events unfolded – imagine, imagine, imagine. (I am paraphrasing from memory, because I also borrowed that book from the library. I hope to get my hands on it again, and will post a quote here, or confess that I’ve misquoted as the case may be.)

I am interviewing displaced people who have settled here in Adelaide for my book Place of Refuge. In order capture the essence of their stories, I try to see people and places through their eyes and to do this, I need to cultivate a rich and varied landscape within me, a landscape of places far distant, places I have never visited before.

From the hard earth

Autumn Crocus
Autumn Crocus

In my garden, there is a patch of brown dirt that is unremarkable. My irrigation line doesn’t extend here so the earth starts to dry out in summer. By February fissures appear like cracks on a chocolate cake when it’s almost done. Visitors walk past it without a glance.

But sometime in March, a small, white tip pokes through the soil. From the hard earth, more delicate spears emerge and, after a few days, blossom into six-petalled blooms that transform the dirt patch into a carpet of purple autumn crocuses.

This patch is just outside my study, where I’m trying to cajole Sabah and Lamia‘s story into a work of creative non-fiction. To help me is Mark Tredinnick‘s Little Red Writing Book. On Creative Writing, he advises, ‘Write most quietly when the politics are shrill. That’s when quietness and calm and inconsequential beauty are most exquisitely needed.’

Back to my writing I turn. As I write Place of Refuge, I keep, at the back of my mind, a picture of the delicate spears, surprising in their strength, finding a way through rain-starved soil, catching visitors by surprise with colour and beauty where once was only nondescript brown dirt.

Unfinished business

“You’ll send me a copy, won’t you?” said Mr Malcolm Fraser to me as we stood at the door of his office, high above Collins Street in Melbourne. I cannot remember my exact words but I said that I would work on the book – did I say work, or did I say work quickly? – and promised to send him a copy.

The book in question was Place of Refuge. I interviewed him for one hour on the 24th of September, 2014, on the topic of asylum seekers for Chapter One of the book. Yesterday, on the morning of the 20th of March, 2015, as I was completing an Arts SA grant application for the book, I learnt of his passing.

Tears streamed down my face. I was so sorry that I had not sent Mr Fraser a copy of the book; I had not finished writing it. It was a topic that was very close to his heart. In that interview, he said to me, ‘You either believe people are equal or you do not.’

Mr Fraser did not merely mouth those words; he worked resolutely on behalf the disadvantaged. He vigorously opposed apartheid in South Africa and was the Founding Chair of CARE Australia, an international humanitarian aid organisation. Throughout his life, he spoke out on topics he felt strongly about. I believe that it was his concern for asylum seekers that caused him to respond to my request for his input into the book.

I am deeply saddened by the passing of a great statesman but I realise that the best thing I can do now is to work hard on this book, drawing on all resources available to me, making it the best piece of literature possible.

The phrase ‘place of refuge’ has an impermanent sense to it. People take refuge until the storm has passed, or the war has been fought, then they return home. Farewell, Mr Fraser. I wish you peace and rest.

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Ancient civilisations meet

Lamia with pizza - Iraqi style
Lamia with pizza – Iraqi style

When I drove across Adelaide for my first interview with Sabah and Lamia from Iraq, I had fanciful ideas about 5000 years of Chinese civilisation meeting 5000 years of Mesopotamian culture. You might remember Sabah from my previous post as the playwright, who discovered, taught, and fell in love with his leading lady, Lamia.

I took off my shoes at the door, as Chinese people do (and probably Iraqi people too judging by their bare feet) and exchanged greetings, and saw that Lamia had laid out a feast on the coffee table – a three-tiered plate of nuts and Ferrero Rocher chocolates, a six pack of coke with Italian crystal glasses to drink from, three kinds of cake and a platter overflowing with fruit.

At the end of the first interview, the family invited me for a biryani lunch the following week before the second interview. I foolishly declined. I was thinking of all the cooking that Lamia would have to do. You see, I used to teach Lamia English and she used to come into class tired from all the cooking and cleaning she had done in the weekend, and I wanted to spare her that. But as I drove away, I realised what an opportunity I had squandered.

I turned up mid-afternoon instead for the second interview. This time I met their grandson, playing on an iPad. Lamia gave me a tour of their home, I saw their fruit trees, the pergola they built, and she showed me a newspaper cuttings of their youngest son who does gymnastics and Parkour. Their younger daughter, Ranin, joined us mid-way through the interview, munching on a cucumber, and I found out that she has her own personal fitness business. Some of the before and after photos she showed me were spectacular and I wondered if I should sign up. I reflected on the many similarities between our families – chess, gymnastics, guitar strumming, picky eaters – and just by observation, I thought that both Lamia and I, as mothers, spend a lot of time shopping, cooking, and serving food.

The second interview was much more relaxed than the first. In fact, we were just chatting towards the end and Sabah said, ‘We’re going off topic.’ But it was in the chatting that I dropped my writer’s hat and simply became someone making new friends. And it was in that moment that I think I got closer to understanding what it cost them to flee Iraq, and what life is like for them now.

I’ll be spending the next few weeks writing up their amazing story for the book, Place of Refuge – a collection of creative non-fiction stories of displaced people who have made their home in Adelaide.

Sabah has kindly supplied the photos below.

Lamia Alkhad on the stage
Lamia Alnashi on stage.
Chess is a favorite game in my family
Chess –  a favourite game of the family
My family in Morialta 2015
The family at Morialta, 2015

Button Boy

A child working at a sewing machine making seats for cars and vans. Photo by Zoriah.
Child labour. Photo by Zoriah

Students come and go, but some of them leave a mark on you. As my last day of teaching in an organisation draws near, I think back and remember.

I remember the young man, the son of very highly educated parents, who wanted to be an engineer but couldn’t add comfortably beyond 100 because he spent his growing years sewing buttons in a refugee camp instead of going to school. He made me think of the cost of displacement.

I remember the young woman who couldn’t concentrate in class because she was worried sick about her mother who was stuck in a refugee camp halfway around the world. She made me think of the hope of reconciliation.

‘The cost of displacement and the hope of reconciliation’ were the seed ideas for ‘Place of Refuge’, a collection of creative non-fiction stories of those who have found a place of refuge in Adelaide over the past 40 years (1975 – 2015).

It is in order to interview and write the stories of those who have found, or are trying to find, a place of refuge in Adelaide, that’s why I’m saying goodbye to my class very soon.

Place of Refuge

During the summer break, I spent two weeks in Malaysia and Singapore. Going back home tends to make time lose meaning for me – no school drop offs, no rush hour – just long, lazy conversations, catching up on a whole year’s worth of family news and gossip, but each time I went onto Facebook or turned on the TV, I was inundated with news of the terrorist attacks in France.

Violence seemed to be spreading globally, not just in war zones, but also in unpredictable pockets such as cities – London, Paris, Sydney – once thought to be safe places, lending weight to the argument for stricter border controls. But it’s not just who you let into your city that changes its face, it is also how you relate to one another, within the city.

This belief, coupled with my fascination with the stories of people who have fled wars, made arduous journeys and rebuilt their lives in the face of huge challenges, has led me to begin writing a book titled Place of Refuge. This book will be a collection stories of those who have found a place of refuge in here Adelaide over the past 40 years (1975 – 2015) and I’ll be posting updates on the project here.

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 Feel free to leave a comment about your place of refuge.