To Perth and Back

On my long flight home from Syd­ney, Aus­tralia, where I’d spent sev­eral days after attend­ing The Perth Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, the cap­tain announced the Japan quake’s occur­rence and mag­ni­tude, and that he had no fur­ther infor­ma­tion. Bold things to broad­cast, I thought—bold omis­sions, really—given all the psy­cho­log­i­cal trade­offs that, for some, go with fly­ing: the faith, first and fore­most, that all sys­tems are go, safety mea­sures cross­checked, the tur­bines free of bird feath­ers, and the wings slosh­ing with enough fuel to make the jour­ney, in this case the hop over the entire Pacific. Not to men­tion the crit­i­cal assump­tion that your con­ti­nent will be there upon land­ing, will not have been sucked down to the bot­tom of the sea like Atlantis; or, as we deplan­ing pas­sen­gers dis­cov­ered blearily pass­ing through cus­toms in Los Ange­les, over­whelmed by tsunami; waves, we saw from the rel­a­tive safety of LAX’s inter­na­tional ter­mi­nal (upon arrival we were under warn­ings our­selves), car­ry­ing boats, cars, and sheared roofs through north­west­ern Japan, a var­ie­gated, ter­ri­fy­ing flot­sam as clot­ted and grey with hulked metal and garbage as the Death Star’s trash com­pactor, black rapids churn­ing through neigh­bor­hoods that had never before seen water; or, in the case of the Sendai air­port, spread­ing inex­orably, shock­ingly, and incon­gru­ously across the tar­mac, a place thought as out of reach of the sea as the beach blan­ket, umbrella, and chair a bather care­fully walks back from shore. These images stopped many of us in our tracks, the i-cameramen heard express­ing amaze­ment and shock in a tone that made trans­la­tion unnec­es­sary and whose videos, min­i­mized to back­ground as cable news repeat­edly offered sim­i­larly lim­ited infor­ma­tion, con­tained images of acci­den­tal ampli­tude: a man calmly walk­ing his bike uphill, away from a canal where unmoored tankers, tug­boats, and Toyotas—the rear wind­shield wiper of one vehi­cle fan­ning back and forth futilely as it sank—raced by to come to rest only God knows where.

We ignore nature at our own peril, runs the oft-quoted phrase, though when it occurred to me in the face of all this tragic destruc­tion, I was struck by the degree to which we sus­pend our dis­be­lief when it comes to nat­ural events, be they tragic or won­drous—awe­some, in the Roman­tic sense of the word—which used to denote fear of reli­gious pro­por­tions, indi­cat­ing noth­ing less than the sub­lime itself, thus enjoin­ing rev­er­ence and respect. This is because so many of us are so busy furi­ously oper­at­ing in our tech­no­log­i­cally dom­i­nated soci­ety, we so com­pletely assume the sync­ing of our sched­ules with its oper­a­tion, that Nature her­self seems almost purely fan­tas­tic when she erupts and reasserts her dom­i­nance. When she does we are amazed; per­haps, most oddly, we seem surprised.

Nature, we often for­get, is not here for us.

Some peo­ple read­ing this will scoff and call these obser­va­tions naïve, trite, or more likely, Amer­i­can. They’ll point out the early-warning sys­tems Japan has in place for earth­quakes, which effec­tively deployed and saved count­less lives, and denote a hard-wired con­scious­ness of Nature’s might. Sim­i­lar sys­tems, most notably the backup diesel cool­ing sys­tems which failed at Fuk­ishima Daichii nuclear plant, are of course part of basic design there, as nec­es­sary to their con­struc­tion as con­crete. Per­haps, then, I’m describ­ing degrees of con­scious­ness (or for­get­ting) trained into var­i­ous cul­tures. Be all of this as it may, what remains true as this hor­ri­fy­ing sit­u­a­tion unfolds is how eas­ily Nature punches through our safety mea­sures and con­trols, so now, in spite of all these pre­cau­tions, we’re wit­ness to a world-historical tragedy. We can never be care­ful or respect­ful enough of Nature’s power.

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Back to the Perth Writ­ers Fes­ti­val. To give the reader some idea of my expe­ri­ences in Aus­tralia these past two weeks, I’ll offer a list of “the lit­tle dif­fer­ences” to quote John Tra­volta in Quentin Taratino’s Pulp Fic­tion. This is a blog post, after all. No time to be systematic.

1. The most oft-repeated phrase I heard in Aus­tralia was “No wor­ries” and may be used after any request or query.

Can I get another gin and tonic?”

No wor­ries.”

Could you rec­om­mend a good place to eat?”

No wor­ries.”

2. Inter­est­ingly, the word “mate” has numer­ous inflec­tions, not all of which are pos­i­tive. “No wor­ries, mate, you go first,” or “You sure you haven’t been drink­ing too much, mate?”

3. Aussies don’t have “take out”; they have “take away.”

3a. If, by chance, you get killed by a shark, you aren’t attacked, you’re “taken.”

4. My favorite Aus­tralian expres­sions are “crack a fat,” “squeeze a darkie,” and “rip­per,” as in, “That book was a rip­per.”  Google the oth­ers if you’re curi­ous about their meaning.

5. In Australia’s pub­lic toi­lets, the sinks and johns are sep­a­rated by a door. You do your busi­ness in one room, clean your­self in another. Rare, also, are indi­vid­ual uri­nals. Aus­tralians are big into long metal­lic troughs (for men, of course).

5a. Aus­tralian pub­lic toi­lets also lack auto-flush tech­nol­ogy. You’re a grown-up, they’re say­ing. Take the time and respon­si­bil­ity to dis­pose of your own waste mat­ter. Oh, and their johns are all low vol­ume tanks. Think about your water usage, mate.

6. I had an incred­i­ble con­ver­sa­tion on the rela­tion­ship between geog­ra­phy and Man­i­fest Des­tiny in Amer­ica and Aus­tralia with the bril­liant Aussie lit­er­ary critic, Geordie Williamson. I para­phrase: In Amer­ica, our whole his­tor­i­cal belief sys­tem is inex­tri­ca­bly inter­twined with the idea of pio­neer­ing and West­ward Expan­sion, and the continent’s seem­ingly bound­less resources, a model which is cur­rently nearly exhausted and will require a painful, per­haps vio­lent par­a­dig­matic shift in con­scious­ness. In Aus­tralia, mean­while, the life of the coun­try exists on its perime­ter. One goes into the bush to expe­ri­ence the Noth­ing that Is Not There and The Noth­ing that Is. Fly across Aus­tralia and within ten min­utes the hori­zon is blot­ted by this Noth­ing, dom­i­nated by it, the land the color of wet sand and bleached bone and dot­ted by the occa­sional, inex­plic­a­ble lake. When you cross the Indian Ocean, you see a gor­geous vacant coast, a cres­cent entirely void of human beings or build­ings, the body of water empty of ships, of even a rip­ple. Australia’s lim­it­less size and inte­rior empti­ness con­fers a sense of lim­its on its people.

7. The birds of this con­ti­nent are var­i­ous and beau­ti­ful; they are also shock­ingly loud. In Perth I saw flocks of Corella Cock­a­toos (they’re remark­able fliers), black-headed Ibis (sev­eral in Sydney’s Dar­ling Har­bor were so used to humans they’d let peo­ple pet them) and pel­i­cans (hulk­ing, land­ing with a splash). For me, this ambi­ent noise was Australia’s strangest char­ac­ter­is­tic, its most for­eign sound. Do Aussie’s come to Amer­ica and think, “It’s so quiet here.”

8.  The pines in Perth and Fre­man­tle have nee­dles as thick as a man’s fingers.

9. My first full day in Perth was spent on the Mag­el­lan, a pri­vate char­ter, with sev­eral other fes­ti­val atten­dees: Miguel Syjuco, Simon Armitage, Jeff Lind­say, and Damon Gal­gat to name a few. We enjoyed a day trip to Carnac Island, near Rot­tnest Island (for Rat’s Nest, which was thusly named because of its indige­nous Quokkas, which were thought to be giant rats). I’d decided not to scuba dive on my trip due to the rash of Great White Shark attacks off the west­ern coast. Carnac, how­ever, is home to sea lions and tiger snakes, the lat­ter being poi­so­nous, and I had a chance to swim with one of the for­mer, a very curi­ous female who copied all our flips under­wa­ter in a state of clear enjoy­ment. Which begs the ques­tion: What sort of idiot afraid of being attacked by a Great White Shark goes swim­ming with Great White Shark food?

10. Beer to Aus­tralians is what fos­sil fuels are to Americans.

11. Bar­ra­mundi is my new “It” fish.

12. Chips are fries and cost $10.50 AUD as a side; fast food por­tions of same are gov­ern­ment reg­u­lated. Per­haps we Amer­i­cans have too much free­dom when it comes to our Free­dom Fries. Per­haps our fries, like our fos­sil fuels, are too cheap.

13. Lev Gross­man is a man sur­rounded by bril­liant, gor­geous women, most notably his wife, writer/professor Sophie Gee and their daugh­ter, Hal­cyon, a beau­ti­ful, bright-eyed child. Good on ye, mate. I started his novel, The Magi­cians. It’s a ripper.

14. Author Miguel Syjuco is pos­sessed of numer­ous tal­ents. He tells a hell of a joke, for one, and is the first writer I’ve ever met who could slip “mos­quito penis” into an open­ing event speech. An incred­i­ble dresser, he is also the recip­i­ent of The Man Asian Lit­er­ary Prize for his debut novel, Ilustrado, so talent-wise, I’m sad to say, he’s meh.

15. Writer Joanne Har­ris, author of the inter­na­tional best­seller Choco­lat, was one of the read­ers dur­ing the Feast of Words event, a remark­able evening I par­tic­i­pated in with Armis­tead Maupin and Simon Armitage. Har­ris read from Choco­lat for the first time in a decade. Her prose is won­drous, supremely pre­cise, and keenly intel­li­gent. She’s also as per­spi­ca­cious and broadly tal­ented a per­son as you’ll ever meet (she’s writ­ten cook­books, mys­ter­ies, and short sto­ries). She’s trav­eled the world exten­sively and as game for any expe­ri­ence as any per­son I’ve ever met. Being around her was hum­bling; also, a gas.

15a. Mean­while, Maupin and Armitage’s read­ings were so hilar­i­ous they imme­di­ately made it to the top of my tee­ter­ing inbox. If you can get a hold of either of audios of either of them, you won’t be disappointed.

16. I was lucky enough to hear speak or appear with the fol­low­ing writ­ers and can­not rec­om­mend their work highly enough: British non-fiction writer Richard Lloyd Parry; Bombay-born nov­el­ist Anjali Joseph; New South Wales biog­ra­pher Suzanne Falkiner; Aussie Rod­ney Hall; and finally, Miguel Syjuco.

17. A dis­cov­ery: check out the Crikey blog Lit­er­ary Minded by author Angela Meyer.

18. Located on the Swan River, the city of Perth is at once hyper-modern and pleas­antly sleepy. There’s a free bus sys­tem and state of the art rail; there are bicy­cle high­ways and jog­ging paths. It feels like north­ern Cal­i­for­nia with trade winds and palm trees whose trunks get fat­ter the higher they climb. If you visit to the port city of Fre­man­tle, 20 km away, 30 min­utes by train, check out the Mar­itime Museum, The Round House, and def­i­nitely grab a bite at Lit­tle Crea­tures Brew­ery. If the beach is your thing, hit Cot­tlesloe, only a few train stops north—a truly spec­tac­u­lar spot.

19. No trip to Aus­tralia is com­plete with­out read­ing Robert Hughes’s remark­able his­tory of that country’s found­ing, The Fatal Shore.

20. The Perth Fes­ti­val was a remark­able expe­ri­ence all around. It was supremely well-organized and the coor­di­na­tors did a great job mak­ing peo­ple who were far from home feel wel­comed. The line-up of writ­ers was fan­tas­tic. The Uni­ver­sity of West­ern Aus­tralia cam­pus was gor­geous. Event to event, how­ever, the high­light was the enthu­si­asm of the atten­dants. I par­tic­i­pated in three events; each was packed to the gills. I hope I’m lucky enough to return.

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In one last bit of Mr. Peanut news, here are the Korean and Pol­ish cov­ers (Korea will pub­lish the novel in two vol­umes). Also, I read this yes­ter­day at the Vishnu exhibit at Nashville’s Frist Art Museum this week­end and thought it was interesting:

What are avatars?

For the wor­ship­pers of Vishnu, called Vaish­navas, Vishnu is omnipresent and omnipo­tent; he has every form and no form. In order to save us from peril, Vishnu descends to earth in a lim­ited, more con­crete body called an avatar. The dif­fer­ent avatars are in fact Vishnu, but they rep­re­sent spe­cific aspects of the god; their strength and intel­li­gence are supe­rior to those of men, but they are usu­ally mor­tal, and in some cases they don’t even know they are divine. They make use­ful focal points for devo­tion because they are eas­ier to relate to and inter­act with than the tran­scen­dent power that is Vishnu. Avatars are Vishnu’s sig­na­ture method of action; because of them he is a god of many faces and personalities.