The Happiest Refugee

I decided to bring forward all the material that would prove to them I was just an Aussie kid.  So I did a number of jokes about bull terriers and Datsuns and housing commission estates, and slowly I was getting a few chuckles.  Then I moved on to footy jokes, farming jokes and kiwi jokes.

Anh Do, The Happiest Refugee

For about a year I worked at the Sakai-Higashi branch of NOVA teaching English in Japan.  There were twelve teachers.  11 Australians and me.  The Australians were curiously relentless with their jokes about New Zealanders having sex with sheep.  To be polite I joked along for a while initially assuming that they would stop eventually.  They didn’t.  I tried being cross, then totally ignoring them, and then finally settled on treating a joke about my birthplace and bestiality as a sort of joke on Australians.  They said something about kiwis and sheep, and I would nod cheerily and wonder what was the matter with them.  I concluded that there was some deep-seated need in the Aussie male to talk about having sex with sheep; impossible to fathom and difficult to sympathise with.

You can see Anh Do’s train of thought in the order of jokes above.  First: establish that he is a real working class Aussie (this gets us to footy jokes), then move seamlessly from making fun of farmers, to sheep, to Kiwis.

Dick.

That’s all I’ve got though.  Anh Do is a cool guy and highly likeable.  His Mum and Dad are cool, and his brother and sister are cool.  The story he tells is interesting.  He’s done some fairly impressive things: made a few films, came second on Dancing With the Stars, won the $200,000 on Deal or no Deal, been a successful stand-up comic.  His brother was named Australian of the Year.  You can see from this list that there are some good things, and some publicity generating who-really-cares things.  He can now add writing the 2011 Australian Book of the Year to his list.  I think he’s about 34.

I don’t read feel-good biographies so reading this was a stretch for me.  There is a lot of hardship in this story but like a Hollywood movie of a certain type you know that everything will work out ok.  I am in no way diminishing the hardship.  Escaping Vietnam in the late 70s and very nearly dying as boat people a few times is not something you can make light of.  The problem is that I always want to know a bit more.  Seems like Anh’s family were Roman Catholics.  I imagine this made life pretty interesting during the later stages of the Vietnam War.

But that would be why he has written a successful book and (one of the reasons) I haven’t.  He tells a good story, and I get bogged down in details very (very) few people are actually interested in.

The good news we can take from this book  is that Australia isn’t really racist, and that pitbulls, footy and kiwi jokes are the ties that bind.

Still, I really know next to nothing about Australia, and most of what I do know came from working with Australians in Japan.  When I went to Japan I assumed that Australian Europeans and New Zealand Pakehas were the same.  When I came back from Japan I knew that they weren’t.  Related sure, but different.  New Zealanders tend to be quieter, gloomier, deadpan, and generally less inclined to sneer at the indigenous culture of their country.  Of course any generalisation leads to trouble, but that seems about right if you’re painting with big strokes and not worrying about individuals.

Unusually for a New Zealander I have only been to Australia once (twice if you count Sydney Airport).  On the way home from Japan for a holiday Cathy and I stopped off at Brisbane Airport for about eight hours.  We landed, rented a car, drove to Burleigh Heads, had lunch with Cathy’s grandparents, drove back to the airport and flew to New Zealand.

Even in eight hours I could tell that the Australian landscape was nothing like New Zealand’s and that this would probably create peoples with different outlooks on life.  Brisbane Airport seemed to be surrounded by endless stretches of dense, green bush that looked tropical, and the road to Burleigh Heads was a stretch of blacktop surrounded by red earth and lush green.  The road sings listed destinations with impossible distances of over 1000 kilometres.  It absolutely poured for about half an hour; sheets of water falling in torrents as our windscreen wipers beat feeble moments of clarity for me to glimpse the road ahead.  And then it cleared, and the road took us out to the coast where hotel skyscrapers rose up next to long white beaches, and a clear, blue sea.

In 1998, when Cathy and I left New Zealand to start our adventure in Japan, our first stop was at Sydney Airport which seemed impossibly big, with rows and rows of planes waiting on tarmac that apparently stretched to the horizon.  It made me feel like a small town boy, and rather tiny.  A country cousin in fact.  Which explains that train of thought in the Australian comedian’s mind: from footy, to farms and Kiwis.  We must seem like the outback country cousin at times as we make our way in droves across the Tasman and onto the streets of Sydney.  Perhaps that’s why we’re lost in an endless sheep joke.

Last year I discovered The Magic Pudding, and Seven Little Australians, which are wonderful books for kids, and My Brother Jack, which is just a wonderful book.  The Happiest Refugee didn’t do a lot for me, but I hope to get back to Australia’s books and its red earth one day soon.

Rereading dreams

Failure

  1. Writing an adventure story
  2. My seventh form art folio
  3. Being a rock star
  4. Looking cool
  5. Being a poet
  6. Being a playwright
  7. Being an academic
  8. Writing a novel
  9. Having a wildly successful blog

I spent a long time writing a novel called The Hazey Days.  I started writing it in 1994 as part of a writing group that some friends and I set up for the summer holidays.  Over the years I had different goes at revising this novel, and each time it got bigger and worse.  By the time I did a final draft in 2004 it was three times longer and (at least) three times worse than the original which was really a long short story.  It had also turned into a depressing nightmare representing my failure to amount to anything instead of what it had started off as in 1994; a seeming foreshadowing of my brilliant career as a novelist (I imagined).

***

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured.  “You can’t repeat the past.”

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously.  “Why of course you can!”

He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

The Great Gatsby

On the first page of my old copy of The Great Gatsby I see that I wrote my name and then the date: December 30, 1993.  Last month I quite suddenly decided to reread it for the first time since I first picked it up seventeen years ago.  Seventeen years ago I read a lot of Fitzgerald and Hemingway all in one go.  I also was writing quite regularly, because – as I said – this was the time when I was writing what I believed would be my first published novel The Hazey Days.  Rereading it now I can see that there is quite a lot of Fitzgerald and Hemingway in it. 

For some reason at the time it seemed important to me to decide who was the better of the two authors.  In 1994 in the case of Fitzgerald v Hemingway I came out on the side of Hemingway.  Rereading The Great Gatsby and Fiesta I can’t for the life of me understand why.

***

Rereading Fiesta I feel like I am reading a screenplay for a melodrama.  Something that is by turns funny:

“Oh go to hell.”

He stood up from the table his face white, and stood there white and angry behind the little plate of hors-d’oeuvres.

“Sit down,” I said.  “Don’t be a fool.”

“You’ve got to take that back.”

“Sure. Anything. I never heard of Brett Ashley.  How’s that?”

“No. Not that. About me going to hell.”

“Oh, don’t go to hell,” I said. “Stick around.  We’re just starting lunch.”

And painful.

“Joke people and you make enemies.  That’s what I always say.”

“You’re right,” Brett said.  “You’re terribly right.  I always joke people and I haven’t a friend in the world.  Except Jake here.”

“You don’t joke him.”

“That’s it.”

“Do you now?” asked the count.  “Do you joke him?”

Brett looked up at me and wrinkled the corners of her eyes.

“No,” she said. “I wouldn’t joke him.”

“See, “said the count.  “You don’t joke him.”

“This is a hell of a dull talk.”

No shit.

But of course she jokes him more than anyone, because she flirts with him and says she loves him but he had his man bits blown off in the war, and I suspect Hemingway thinks Platonic love is for woofters.  He’s like that.  A manly man.

Hemingway likes to pare things down to their simplest form, and sometimes this becomes simplistic.  In dialogue it is people saying the same thing back to each other over and over which indicates they are really saying something else, and for characters it is telling us bluntly their race or ethnicity which is saying that whatever you do or however you dress yourself up you can’t get away from your type.  Robert Cohn is Jewish and a punch improved his nose, the drummer in a band is black and all “teeth and lips” and funny talking.

Rereading Fiesta was dull.  Hemingway leaves a lot out of his books which can be good, but rereading him I found a join the dots experience where I already knew what the picture was, and couldn’t be bothered picking up the pencil again.

***

I feel that the strongest connection between Hemingway and Fitzgerald is their shared romanticism, and their undercutting pessimism.  Hemingway might seem like a tough guy because his writing is clipped, but I suspect him of being an even bigger romantic than Fitzgerald.  Which is saying something, because Fitzgerald is addicted to dreams.

About dreams, however, Fitzgerald is not optimistic, although the beauty of the original dream lingers on in the pessimistic, post-dream reality. 

Here is Gatsby even at the moment he attained his dream as a young man,

He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.  So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star.  Then he kissed her.

Or when he finally is reunited with Daisy after five years, and realises she is no longer a dream but a reality,

His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.

If attaining your dream is fraught, losing it is worse.

He must have felt that he had lost the warm old world, paid a high price for living so long with a single dream.  He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.

What’s best then is the split second before your dream is attained; when the tuning fork is struck on the star.  But that’s no way to live a life.  Or create a nation, Fitzgerald seems to suggest, as the book ends with this, America’s fleeting moment of perfection and potential,

For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity to wonder.

This is a bigger dream: a country’s dream of itself.  A probably useful thing for a country to have, but impossible to fulfil, and possibly a rod for its own back.

Which is what dreams can be.

Who has not transformed one of their dreams from a light glowing on a distant shore at night, to a lash for their own backs?  Sometimes the euphoria comes not in the attainment of the dream after all, but in giving it up, and consigning it to the scrap heap.

Which is what I did in the end with The Hazey Days.  I think it was 2005 that I finally realised that my novel was simply a folly that I could put aside and never pick up again.  That was the problem: I was always picking it up again.  I think I kept doing this because it had originally represented to me the key that I believed would unlock the door to a wonderful career, never realising that it was the wrong key and that there were many, many doors.

I will never throw away that first draft though.  It may now metaphorically be a dusty blackened bulb in a box in my wardrobe, but it was once a green light.

Oh, how it burned!