Tuesday, June 29, 2010

HOME TRUTH - published July 2010 Fourth Estate - Essays by ten Australian writers on the idea of 'home'


‘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

the self.

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.’

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