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.
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?”
“Could you recommend a good place to eat?”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.