There would be no literature if there was no violence, Korean writer Han Yujoo says. Han’s novel, The Impossible Fairy Tale, involves the brutality of childhood, and turns on a violent act by a Nameless Child.
I’m at the 2017 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, at a session called ‘The Magic Touch’, on myths, the fantastic, and magic realism as ways of interpreting the world. ‘Stories unbound by reality,’ as it is written in the program.
I perch with my notepad on the balcony of the Indus restaurant, as far back as possible, trying to catch any breeze floating up from the valley behind me. It is my first time in Asia and I am still adjusting to the sticky heat, to the abundance of insouciant dogs, to scooters that swarm like ants.
‘Her father was the sky king and she tried hard to please him.’ American writer Leza Lowitz reads a translation of a Japanese myth. ‘The bridge is gone, she said. There is no bridge across the river where my father taught me to swim.’
I remember my father teaching me to bodysurf, one of my handful of happy memories of him. I can’t remember the place, but I can recall the sensation of the waves lifting me and carrying me forward.
On stage, Han Yujoo goes on to say she would sacrifice literature, her great love, if that was the price to live in a world of peace.
Conflict drives stories, I understand this; but is that the same as violence? The push and pull of people with their own histories and desires and wounds clashing against each other, creating tension, creating a need for resolution. And death is a kind of violence, in a way, but also a kind of peace. Where would that fit?
The session has abounded with stories of ghosts and monsters and magical creatures, and I imagine a jinn floating out from the currently quiet Mount Agung, flying across the dense greenery to whisper an offer into my ear: Art or Peace? Choose now; choose wisely.
Conflict drives stories, I understand this; but is that the same as violence?
At the moment my partner Michael and I entered the outskirts of Ubud, I received the phone call from my sister telling me that my father had died. I was cocooned in the cool of an air-conditioned car, in a traffic jam so intractable that even our patient driver was becoming frustrated; a solid bank of vans and taxis going nowhere while scooters zipped in and out along both sides of the road. ‘Kuta always like this,’ the driver muttered. ‘Ubud never like this.’
My sister said that Dad had gone quietly, just after a visit from my brother and his family. I was calm. I had left my father in his palliative care bed in hospital, said my goodbyes. There was never going to be any miraculous regeneration of his alcohol-damaged liver and kidneys. I had granted forgiveness, understood I would most likely not see him again. He would never countenance the idea of a nursing home, and so the only thing left to hope was that the end was quick; it seemed he had managed that.
This holiday had been booked and planned for months, and my brother and sister had insisted that I did not cancel. ‘You must go,’ they said, taking the responsibility for the decision and accepting the consequences for themselves. ‘You need this. Both of you.’ Angels glowing in the fluorescent light of a hospital room.
Death is always a shock, however prepared you think you are. In the taxi, I said goodbye to my sister, handed the phone back to Michael, just as we arrived at our fancy resort. A young man in traditional dress opened the door, smiling; a young woman ushered us into a welcoming ceremony, guiding us to ornate chairs like golden thrones. In my bewildered state a woman dressed in rich fabrics sprinkled water on me, touched rice to my forehead, tied a bracelet around my wrist.
All right, I thought. I will take any ritual at this point.
Death is always a shock, however prepared you think you are.
It was a welcome to something, after all – perhaps to my new fatherless state. She gently tucked a frangipani flower behind my ear.
When we were finally alone in our sumptuous room – four poster bed, free standing bath – Michael hugged me and said, ‘What would you like to do?’
‘Order a bottle of wine from room service,’ I replied. ‘I am my father’s daughter after all.’ A standing joke, dark humour being the way we have learned to talk about him, my siblings and in-laws. We clink glasses, toast him. Another ritual, of a kind.
Dad was charming to the end. To us, though, he had been absent, mostly, and when he was at home he was brooding, critical, moody. We children learned to creep around his silences. He left us when I was sixteen, the age my youngest daughter is now. We, his children, got on with it. Becoming adults, becoming parents, finding ourselves, with some surprise, at middle age. Dad dipped in and out of our worlds, occasionally, intermittently; at our instigation, never his. He couldn’t have named his grandchildren, or said how many there were. (Ten, Dad! Ten!) Only at the end of his life had our contact ramped up again. Someone had to deal with the breaking down of an aged body. Hospital staff and social workers raised eyebrows at the state he was brought in, insensible after too many casks. ‘How long has he been like this?’
‘He was estranged. We were estranged,’ I said, feeling guilty, like it was an excuse, like it was a choice. The word was a lie, somehow, but at least it was efficient. The nurses and social workers didn’t have time to be sat down and told the story: Listen, here is our childhood.
Dad dipped in and out of our worlds, occasionally, intermittently; at our instigation, never his.
Dad had been bright, in his own way, that last afternoon I saw him. Meandering, but attempting to crack jokes. ‘She’s a helluva lot prettier than he is,’ he said. ‘You think so?’ I said, having no idea what he was talking about. ‘I know so,’ he said. His tone winked.
He’s confused, my sister said. But I had worked out that some of it, at least, was more a delay, a lag, ideas moving slowly through him, like an aged servant rifling through his memory piece by piece, blowing the dust off a response, shuffling back down the synapses to deliver it, tepid and too late. I made a comment about Dad’s old neighbour, but he did not reply, fell asleep. About twenty minutes later, he woke from his doze and said, ‘I lived next door to him for five years. If he won Tattslotto, he was going to divorce his wife.’
In a session the following day, ‘One Thousand and One Writes,’ Shokoofeh Azar, a refugee writer from Iran who now lives in Perth, discusses her book The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. She was in the session on magic as well, her book is full of ghosts and politics, jinn and war, mermaids and torture. After the panel I buy it and read it. The fantastical keeps the violence just this side of bearable; I am reminded there are far worse losses, far worse fates in the world than to be the daughter of an absent father who has passed away peacefully with all the benefits of Western medicine.
But when Sanaz Fotouhi, another Iranian writer, speaks about how much she owed to her father, how much she misses him still, grief hits me again; not grief at his death but the same grief that has sideswiped me at regular intervals through my life. At the way some daughters and fathers are, the way things might have been.
He had a lot of potential, my dad. He was handsome, intelligent, a good runner. He played football for Port Melbourne. But he was poor. And, as the tired working class story goes, he got my mother pregnant when they were young. They were married and, rapidly and without preparation, became parents at barely twenty.
I am reminded there are far worse losses, far worse fates in the world than to be the daughter of an absent father who has passed away peacefully.
I imagine him marrying later. Getting an education, being happier, more settled. Having access to diagnosis, to therapy. Able to be a father that stayed, someone I could have adored and talked with, about literature and politics. Mourned with less confusion. And I in turn would have been different, more successful, more confident. Better. Except, of course, in that version of the story he would most likely have married someone else, or at least produced different children, and I would be a ghost, a non-existent creature pressing my face against the shadows of the real.
My mythical father and I can’t inhabit the same world.
There is a lot of discussion in this session about the past, about holding onto it, having to let it go. Half the speakers have lost their homelands.
Sholeh Wolpe recounts a long fable about how our life is a journey to the sea. How the point of the journey is to achieve purity, so we can arrive as a drop of water to merge with the ocean. If you hold onto your past, onto your pain, you arrive at the ocean as a pebble. The sea will accept you, but you will sink to the bottom, and always know yourself as separate.
It is a story about spirituality, I suppose. The beauty of the image stays with me.
Metaphors are a way of holding two worlds together, and I find myself here in this unfamiliar space, at this particular time, caught between what is true and what is now impossible.
I attend other discussions. Simon Armitage tells us how poetry stakes out a position on a page, playing with the white space of what is left out. In a session on writing memoir I lean forward, my pen sweat-slippery in my fingers, as writers talk of battling with issues of truth and responsibility, about writing through pain. The session ends, we applaud. Announcements about book signings, the next session, tonight’s entertainment. I snap my notebook closed and go in search of cool water.
I find myself here in this unfamiliar space, at this particular time, caught between what is true and what is now impossible.
I eat organic tempeh in the day and drink mango daiquiris at night.
I have a fine time.
We don’t stay, though, for the final party. I am not in the mood to dance. We take a night at Sanur, at the beach, before going home. In the morning we get up early to see the sunrise. It is gentle, a minimal increase of light, a tinge of pink in the thin long clouds. The air already warm. Michael wanders off to take photos and I am alone.
Flying creatures flutter above me. They don’t stay still long enough for me to see them properly in the half-dark; they swoop in erratic flight paths and disappear into the bamboo roofs of the beach shelters. Birds, maybe, or tiny bats; magical creatures to me, but only because I am ignorant. To themselves they are ordinary, getting on with their lives, eating and sleeping.
I wade into water like warm soup. It seems wrong, I want the chill assertive ocean of my childhood beaches. It is shallow, too, I walk and walk searching for depth, thinking about what it is we do when we put words on a page.
I remember good things about Dad. Moments from those holidays when he was happy. But then he would return again to silence once the trip was over. Depressed. Possibly bipolar. Self medicating with alcohol. I am wise and educated, now, I can type factual phrases to explain the bewildered experience of the child. But it will never be quite enough.
At the hospital that last day, Dad reached for my hand. At least I think that’s what he was doing when he glanced sideways and moved his purple-red fingers towards mine. In any case, I closed my hand over his.
The sun is up, the flying creatures have disappeared with the light. The water is deep enough at last for me to lie back, spread my arms, lift my legs up. I neither merge, nor sink, but float. Because that’s what happens to humans, in the ocean, in this world.