When I thought of all the writer heroes I might like to ask to launch the eBook of Greylands, there were quite a few. But in the end I found I could not imagine anyone coming up with words that would launch this special edition better than the words that launched the book when it was first published, uttered by Nadia Wheatley.
Her speech was so beautiful and powerful, it brought tears to people’s eyes, mine included. I didn’t know Nadia so well back then, but I date the beginning of our real friendship from her saying to me that I had guts, asking her, because the book covered a subject that mattered terribly to her. I had not known that her words scared the hell out of me, as you can imagine. But then I calmed down because the subject mattered terribly to me, too, and I truly felt then (and now) that it was one of the best things I had ever written. When she gave her launch speech, what touched me so profoundly was how much she Got It. It was a fantastic launch and a wonderful speech. The trouble was, where in the million boxes of paper in the shed was the copy of it she had given me on the day. Without much hope, I asked Nadia if she still had a copy of the speech. Incredibly, being an organized kind of soul, she did. I was elated, and I asked if I could use it on this site to relaunch the eBook. She agreed and so after a few tweaks, because things written to be said aloud are never written quite the same way as things written to be read, she sent it to me.
Here is the original launch speech, reprised and brought back to life, like the book, with a few tweaks.
If you were there, you will not have forgotten the power of Nadia’s launch speech, but like me, you will probably forgotten the details. If so, then I am sure you will enjoy revisiting the past, with me. If you were not there when the book was launched in its print form, welcome, to its second life.
It gives me the most immense pleasure to welcome you, and to introduce the incomparable Nadia Wheatley.
I want to begin by asking you to visualise a scene:
First you see a border post, with armed guards and bovine bureaucrats. From here, the camera leads your eye down a narrow corridor of land, fenced with high razor wire and flooded with a cold blue light. (Do I need to tell you that it is night-time?) And now, as the camera takes in the other end of this strip of no-man’s-land, you see another border post with more armed guards and more bovine bureaucrats…
You probably think that I have just been describing to you a scene from a vintage spy movie of the Cold War era. However, this frontier with its heavily-guarded gates is how I see the barrier that divides youth literature from adult literature.
Although I have never met anyone who is able to define the literary difference between these two parts of the publishing industry, almost everyone agrees that they are completely different countries. Further, it seems to be regarded as necessary for there to be a border between them, and this border is strictly patrolled in case a book should manage to cross over from one side to the other.
A few decades ago — at the time of my own childhood — it seemed as if the border existed for the safety of the audience on the children’s literature side of the wall. Nowadays, however, the police mentality appears to have become tougher on the other side.
In the unlikely event that a children’s book makes the crossing successfully, then its origins are denied. ‘It’s not really a children’s book,’ say the critics from adult-literature world. Or — and I’ve heard this, on more than one occasion — ‘Of course, it’s too good for children. It would be wasted on them.’
Another tactic is to assign the book a kind of dual citizenship, but to proclaim that its true identity belongs on the adult side. Thus it is stated that on one level — a literal level — the book can be read as a simple adventure, and this is the story that children read. Yet, it is added, this same book has a deeper and more important level — a symbolic or metaphorical or allegorical level —and this is the story that adults read. Usually this sort of book is called a fable.
Well, today it is my job and my joy to launch into the world a book that should be allowed to move freely from the country of children’s literature to the country of adult literature, without border guards or bureaucrats impeding its progress.
This subversive text is, of course, Greylands.
If this is a book that crosses age barriers, it is also a book that moves back and forth between what would probably be called the genre of realism and the genre of fantasy. Some people might find this confronting, but for me one of the strengths of Greylands is the way that its continual genre-crossing manages to challenge whatever meaning such genres and categories might have.
I don’t propose to tell you what Greylands is about — because you need to buy a copy and read it for yourself — but I will tell you a little bit about my reading of this book.
I have to confess that a few months ago, when Isobelle asked me to launch her new book and sent me a proof-copy of the text, I found all my alarm bells ringing after reading the first few pages. It is perhaps easiest to explain this by way of an excerpt from a letter that I wrote to her a day or so later:
I don’t know if you knew how deeply the book would connect with me — or potentially disconnect with me. In fact, asking me to launch it was quite a gamble, on your part. My least-favourite genre of literature is what I call Books About Dead Mothers. Having been a nine-year-old orphan, I find that virtually all books about childhood grief are absolute insults to the depth and complexity of emotion that children can feel.
From this you have no doubt gathered that Greylands tells the story of a child or children whose mother has died. Indeed, for Jack (who is perhaps twelve or thirteen), and his little sister Ellen (who is maybe six years old) this death is so recent that they are still trying to take it in. Although these two young orphans have a father, he is so consumed by his own grief that he pays no attention to their needs, and is effectively absent from their lives. The family live in a place that could be suburban Australia, but it could be somewhere else; this sense of fuzziness about the story’s location is central to the story’s meaning, as Jack moves in and out of a real world of home and school and a surreal world that he calls ‘the Greylands’.
Coming back for a moment to the way in which this story explores the young characters’ grief, I went on to write to Isobelle:
I think what I felt as an orphan-child — and what you have captured so well — is the way in which death seems simultaneously to be both unbearably appalling and quite literally impossible. Thus — in my own experience of such grief — while I cried myself to sleep every night for years, I also expected to see my mother walk around the corner to meet me and greet me every afternoon as I came home from school, to take my hat off my head and my suitcase from my hand, and to ask me what sort of day I’d had. It was always a surprise when she wasn’t there.
Well, that is what I said to Isobelle just after I had read her new book, and even though it is a very personal memory I am saying it now to you, because this is the only way I have of discussing how this story manages to cross back and forth between what is supposedly real and what is supposedly unreal.
Now, in my letter to Isobelle I did not happen to mention that my second-least-favourite genre is what I call Books About People Who Go To Strange Lands And Come Back Again And Go To Strange Lands And Come Back Again And Go To Strange Lands And Come Back Again…
I vividly remember the absolute terror I felt as a child of seven when I read Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. I still regard that as the most frightening book I have ever read. Somewhat more recently, I was left quivering by Space Demons, by the renowned Australian author Gillian Rubinstein. I should perhaps explain that I don’t mind books in which the characters go to a strange land and stay there for most of the story — such as the Narnia books or Elidor or Alice. It is the going and coming back and going and coming back that awakens my innate separation-anxiety.
Having said that, you can understand why there may have been a problem for me with Greylands, in which the protagonist Jack moves back and forth twenty or more times between the ‘here’ of his mundane world and the ‘there’ of the Greylands. However it is (paradoxically) not despite this but because of this that this book works so brilliantly for me.
In this story, the displacement is more than a structural device that enables an adventure to happen in another place. Rather, it is a vital part of the meaning. I believe that in times of loss and grief and separation, it is normal for human beings to enter a kind of fey state, in which the membrane between the real and the unreal is frequently breeched. In times of grief, the world can take on a hallucinatory appearance, in which normal things seem abnormal, and abnormal things seem normal. This, of course, makes sense if you are in the crazy world of grief: after all, your mother being dead is abnormal, if you are accustomed to her being alive. You wake, forgetting the loss has happened — and for a moment it hasn’t… and then it has again. But which is more real?
That is some of the territory that Isobelle Carmody is exploring in Greylands. I know of no other book — whether for children or adults — that expresses so cogently the sorrow and guilt and separation-anxiety and feyness and incredulity and anger and emptiness and heaviness that I associate with childhood grief.
Now at this point I want to add that, while I have been talking about pain, Greylands is not what is often called ‘a problem novel’: that is, one of those Young Adult books that begins with the notion of some sort of issue or ‘problem’, out of which the author extrapolates characters and plot. Quite the opposite, indeed.
In the central section of the book, Jack’s little sister Ellen complains that the text Jack has written so far ‘is not about Mama dying and Daddy’s heart being lost’.
Jack replies: ‘What happened after Mama died is not something you can tell by just talking about real things. It’s an inside story.’ Jack also explains how some things are symbols for other things.
Greylands is certainly an inside story, a symbolic story. And yet — bearing in mind what I said earlier —I am not at all comfortable with calling it a fable.
Let’s go back for a moment to that idea of dual citizenship to which I referred at the beginning: the notion that certain texts (commonly called fables) have a literal meaning that is appropriate for children, and also an allegorical meaning, which is the text that adults read.
While Greylands is as much a book for adults as it is a book for children, the structure is far more complex – and more holistic — than that. Greylands is not comprised of different layers or levels of meaning — like a club sandwich — but it has a single meaning combined of the twisting strands of inside/outside, real/surreal, symbol and thing-symbolised. If you want a pictorial metaphor of the story’s shape, I guess the twisting strands of the DNA double helix might do.
If this book defies categorisation, so (increasingly) does its writer. I have said that Jack and his family come from a place that could be suburban Australia — but could be elsewhere — and the same is true of their creator. I know of no other author currently publishing in Australia who is so European. By this, I mean that if someone who had never read Isobelle Carmody asked me: ‘Who is she like?’ I would reply: ‘She is maybe a bit like Izak Dinesen or Angela Carter.’ At the same time, no one who is here today could ever doubt the extent to which Isobelle is a girl from Geelong.
Yet even this naming of names reminds me of one of the warnings given in the text of Greylands.
In one part of the story Jack has just met someone for the first time, and — as most of us would do — he asks this girl:
‘What’s your name?’
‘Names!’ she sniffed, rolling her eyes. ‘People always want names, don’t they? They’re mad about naming. I will let the moment name me.’
‘You want me to name you?’ he asked.
‘People from the other side are very dull,’ she sighed. ‘Give yourself a name for me. I don’t need naming for myself, do I?’
In conclusion, then, the thing I find most worthy of celebration in Greylands, and in Isobelle Carmody’s writing, is what I might describe as this business of name-defying. Neither this text nor its author fits neatly into any categories or definitions. Both have slipped through the border posts — past the guards, past the bureaucrats. It is not that they have changed allegiance, or moved to another country, but rather that they are in a continual state of crossing.
Today let us celebrate this book, and its journeying.