HOME TRUTH - published July 2010 Fourth Estate - Essays by ten Australian writers on the idea of 'home'
INTRODUCTION by Carmel Bird
‘He was alone, three million light-years from home.’ So concludes
the first chapter of the novel of the film E.T. Packed between
‘alone’ and ‘home’, those three million light-years express the vast
and tender emotions carried by the concept of home, the place of
origin, the place of belonging, of comfort, of relationship, the
haven. Home is the place each human being (and each extraterrestrial)
seeks with the heart. In 1982 Steven Spielberg gave the
world the imperative ‘E.T. phone home.’ This unlikely little clump
of words went straight to the core of the matter. Connection with
home is the genesis of hope.
In this collection of essays ten writers have taken ten personal
approaches to the meaning of ‘home’. They sometimes locate their
home in the country of origin, in the town, in the house, but almost
all move into some examination of relationships with others, and
also into the nature of the self. ‘Home’ it seems is bound up with
identity. Exploration of identity frequently takes the writers into
recollections of their early selves, and ‘home’ sometimes lies very
close to the places and relationships of childhood. Contemplation
of home leads back to the mother and forward to the grave, such a
trajectory bringing writers inevitably again to an examination of
All the essayists are established Australian writers, writers
who have had a great deal of time and experience on which to
reflect. The details are different for each one, but then each in
some way or other ultimately comes up against the sense of the
self. Australia is a continent to which Europeans came in the
eighteenth century partly for the purpose of establishing European
culture, in an attempt to convert a land they experienced as foreign
and hostile into a land they could ultimately consider to be home.
The terrible violence and tragedy of this exercise whereby
powerful invaders overtook the homeland of the indigenous
peoples will forever mark this country. And the invaders carried
with them their own tragic underclass, people who were forced
into exile from their homelands. The idea of home is horribly
scored and burned into the story of this country.
In 1997 a government report on the lives of thousands of
indigenous Australians who had been taken from their families was
published. It was called Bringing Them Home. This is a most
striking example of the powerful use of the word ‘home’, a word
which is used so frequently in speech and writing without
necessarily very much reflection. All the emotion of the stories
contained in the report is packed into the word. Home. The report
contained personal accounts by indigenous people of their
childhood experience of being removed from their families and
homes and relocated. I edited and published a collection of these
stories in 1998 in The Stolen Children – Their Stories.
That is all a long time ago now, and it may seem odd to say so,
but as a result of seeing the word ‘home’ in the title of the report, I
have been contemplating the word ever since, wondering what it
means to people, how writers might explore it and describe it. This
present collection is the result of my contemplation. The writers
here are all people of principally European heritage, all originating
from migrations at various times up to the middle of last century.
A collection of ten essays implies a small selection, and I have
confined this selection particularly to writers who work with
images. I believe it is images that can give the writers the power to
carry their understanding of the word ‘home’ into the hearts and
minds of readers. For the word itself is an abstraction, and requires
the solidity of the image in order to come to life.
In February 2009 bushfires in rural Victoria killed 173 people.
Pictures of burnt-out houses are the graphic symbols of those lost
lives. These houses were homes, they were repositories of
possessions, hopes and dreams. They were the fragile havens, the
places of supposed safety and nurture, the locations where the
people placed their identities. The word ‘homeless’ has a terrible,
terrible ring. When you are homeless, where is your identity?
Since 1788 Australia has been a place of migrations, from the
people who came here in search of a new home in the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries, to those who still today make their way
here in the hope of a better life, a hope that is sometimes frustrated
and dashed. Home, they are all looking for their home. The place
they once called home has in many cases become a place of danger
and fear, rendering it no longer truly ‘home’.
The essays in this collection address in various ways the
question of what ‘home’ might mean. It is my hope and
expectation that readers will take the essays as inspiration for
further contemplation on the meaning of the term.
I am sometimes visited by the memory of a dusty pink rose
that bloomed in my garden some years ago. In the hollow centre of
the rose lived a bright green praying mantis that seemed very much
at home. In the end, the rose lost its petals and died. I always
wonder where the insect went. And a most moving and potent uses
of the word ‘home’ can be seen on the First World War memorial
in the Sydney Botanical Gardens. The reference is to the horses
that were, at the conclusion of the war, shot by the soldiers who
loved them. Rather than see these faithful animals fall into the
unloving hands of local traders, the men destroyed them. On the
memorial is the statement: ‘They did not come home.’