Chagall’s Curse

Two years ago I pitched a short memoir to a notable Australian literary magazine. It was a story from my childhood about how I helped my parents, then dissidents in the Soviet Union, to hide forbidden literature during a KGB raid on our home. The editor, without reading my memoir, rejected it, saying they were interested in publishing writing about Australia only.

The rejection was no surprise. On several occasions I had been told by publishers interested in my work that they only want writing set in Australia. Still, this particular rejection deflated me somewhat. Nowadays, sadly, one expects the commercial publishing industry to take less risks, as they court large audiences. Historically though, and in some cases still today, certain publishing houses have been driven more by art than business. And so are all literary magazines I know of; they aren’t in this game to make a profit and are usually more adventurous in their interests. I hoped, at least as far as that reputable magazine went, my work would be judged on the merit of the writing rather than its geographical orientation.

It seems the reluctance to publish those of my works set elsewhere I keep encountering isn’t just about commercial considerations, but also has something to do with the current notions about what Australian writing should be. But must Australian writing be delineated solely by the parameters of the local rhythms of winds and surf, the bush with its kangaroos and eucalypts, the poetry of spacious suburban brick houses or the rough and tumble of Redfern? If so, then we should claim D.H. Lawrence, one of the better known troubadours of Australian outback, as our own. And, increasingly, Australian reality is becoming layered with other-land experiences. Strangers who plant their roots here bring along remote tales and, in this era of easy travel, so do locally born people. Can we then expand the definition of Australian writing to reflect these changes? Shall we add pirozhki to the literary menu of pie and vegemite? But then some publishers might, with some justification, worry about the possible loss of a specific Australian sensibility in the globalised muddle. It is difficult to have a proper conversation about the nature, and the future, of Australian writing within the space of this small article. Still, I’ll return to this issue later. First, though, let me tell you about my own motives – why I keep making my writerly life here much harder than it might otherwise be if I focused solely on local themes.

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My greatest literary misfortune is that to some extent I’m afflicted with what I’ve come to think of as Chagall’s curse. A Russian-born Jew like myself, the artist Mark Chagall spent almost two-thirds of his life outside of his birthplace after fleeing the Soviet revolution for France. And yet Chagall’s art had always been haunted by Vitebsk, the city where he spent his formative years. Its warm chaos of cows and roosters, violinists and rabbis, weddings processions and crooked, gaudy houses clutters Chagall’s made-in-France canvasses. Not once was he criticised by his contemporaries for this persistent preoccupation with his past, but, as he wrote in his autobiography, he simply couldn’t help himself.

I can’t help myself either, as I am a writer embedded in place, or rather – being non-monogamous by constitution – in places. Geography is never a mere background in my stories. My characters, whether fictional or real, are shaped by the places they dwell in, and my places are characters in their own right too, with distinct personalities. They are also integral to the emotional atmosphere of my works. I am particularly attracted to discovering the specifics of cities.

Perhaps places matter so much to me because geography in my life has been permanently impermanent, with my two bouts of migration – from Russia to Israel, then from Israel to Australia – and with numerous moves within each of these countries. That known proposition that once you leave a place important to you it is likely to turn into your personal myth, holds true for me. But then, most of the places I left behind were already mythical to begin with. Like Chagall, who came of age in a volatile atmosphere of pogroms and communist uprisings, I, too, spent my first twenty-six years in intense places, dominated by Russian and Middle Eastern dramas.

My husband and I on a visit to Tzfat, Israel

My husband and I on a visit to Tzfat, Israel

Personal mythology is one of the most powerful drivers in writing that I know. It can be both a blessing and a curse for an artist. Up until thirteen years ago, when I decided to stop writing in Hebrew and began publishing work in Australia, I saw this as a blessing. I was never short of writing material. But what do I do now? What if Sartre was right when he declared that an émigré writer has no subject matter?

It’s not that Australia doesn’t inspire me. The first book I published here, The Dangerous Bride, is sub-titled A memoir of love, gods and geography. It is a book about romantic love, but it is also my love song for Melbourne. I’ve written about Perth, Sydney and the countryside too. Yet, there are other not-yet-sung-enough places inside me – Siberian towns choked with coal and snow; Odessa in spring smouldering with lilac and roasted chestnuts; Ashdod’s beaches littered with joint butts and Bob Marley; and the heavily made-up, deeply cleavaged nocturnal Tel Aviv. I am done and undone by these mighty cities which, to my mind, surely possess some universal appeal too. Yet Australian publishers tell me my geography isn’t of interest to local readers.

I wrote ‘my geography’ automatically and now I think – perhaps this is the key. What if the reason behind all those rejections of mine isn’t the stated one – a desire for locally set writing, but one publishers might be reluctant to voice: the rejection of the places that obsess me? After all, Australian writing – whether the editor of the aforementioned literary magazine is aware of this or not – has long now sprawled far beyond Australia. Every year books set in foreign places are released here, also by the heavy players in the publishing industry. Michelle de Kretser’s wonderful novel The Hamilton Case, set in Sri Lanka, enjoyed critical and commercial success as did Maxine Beneba Clark’s Foreign Soil the stories of which traverse Australia but also Africa, America and Europe. Burial Rites, Hannah Kent’s historical novel about Iceland, is an international bestseller.

I, as a grumpy Soviet child

I, as a grumpy Soviet child

So if it is Russia and Israel that turn publishers off, then why? Perhaps it is because Australians travel there less, or hardly ever meet local Russians and Israelis, both tiny minorities in this country. A friend with whom I discussed my Chagallian affliction told me she did an Internet search on stories about Russia and Israel in the Australian media and only stuff about political conflicts came up; there were no stories of human interest. This state of affairs must also have some, even subconscious, impact on publishers when they consider my work. There may be other reasons which I am unaware of. Whatever the case, books about these places (beyond the classics that is) are difficult to find in Australian bookshops. Yet such works, whether by local or translated authors, often do well in many other countries. Think about the successes of Vasily Aksyonov, Shani Boianjiu, Ayelet Tsabari, Dmitry Bykov, Amos Oz, Etgar Keret or Svetlana Alexievich, the past winner of Nobel Prize for literature, to name a few.

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Since The Dangerous Bride was released two years ago, I’ve had a lot of feedback from its readers. A frequent theme running through their responses has been the enjoyment people get from the passages discussing my Russian and Israeli days, often along the lines of ‘I didn’t know much about Israel, but now I’d like to find out more.’ So is it possible that there is some hunger for my places out there after all?

The picture I have painted here might be sinning in its black-and-whiteness. Not all Australian publishers shun my ‘foreign’ works. That memoir about the KGB raid was picked up by another Australian magazine, The Lifted Brow. Griffith Review has always been receptive to my works, regardless of their locations. And a short story of mine, also set in the Soviet Union, was selected last year for Big Issue’s annual fiction edition. But before its happy ending, that story also struggled for some years to find a home here. I’ve never had as much trouble placing my locally set works (as long as they were of literary merit, of course).

This article is not intended as a personal complaint, however. Rather, my wish is to use my story to come back to, and expand on, my initial question – what should Australian writing be? I find it difficult to think that Australian audiences aren’t interested in certain countries, cities, seas, that they don’t want to know about what is happening in those turbulent places beyond their, usually depressing, news items. Personally, as much as I love reading about the geography that already belongs to me, I also love books that transport me to locations I know little about. Then, a well-told story can unfold even in Bentleigh as far as I am concerned. I want to believe there are enough readers here who feel similarly, who seek both the familiar and the strange.

Waiting Room Cover

In the last few years, two novels set in ‘my’ places have been released in Australia by major publishers, and to much acclaim: Katherine Brabon’s Vogel-winning The Memory Artist describing post-Soviet Russia (Allen & Unwin) and Leah Kaminsky’s Waiting Room about Israel (Random). ‘The universality of the book is deeply affecting,’ wrote an SMH reviewer about The Memory Artist. Is the appearance of these works a harbinger of changing attitudes, or will they remain solitary exceptions? Whatever the case, I’ve been cursed, and curses, fairytales tell us, are difficult to dispel. Sometimes it takes a hundred years. I’ll be waiting. I mean, writing.

 

This post first appeared on Australian Women Writers Challenge website

Comments

  1. Jan Bruce says

    Thank you for raising this issue. My first manuscript is a work of fiction primarily set in the UK and I have major concerns that it will not attract a publisher here.A friend of mine submitted his manuscript (a work of fiction set in the UK in the 1980s) to five agents and was told by several of them that the location and the time period would not appeal to an Australian audience.

    • says

      Dear Jan, thank you, I’m so glad my post spoke to you. I hope you’ll fare better than me or the friend you mentioned. His story made me think of an internationally acclaimed and popular (sales-wise) book The Line of Beauty which set same place/time. Hope he’ll find home for that work and prove the agents wrong…

  2. says

    There is such an aversion to exploring difference in this country and perhaps elsewhere in the world despite overt token gestures towards diversity within the literary world. I sometimes think there is a sense when something, or place, or person is deemed ‘popular’, then their work is of interest almost irrespective of the quality of said work. and when something doesn’t seem so, pity there’s no place for it. I think of this as the MacDonald’s approach to literature and sadly it exists particularly in the commercial publishing world but I’m sure you’ll find more homes for your writing, Lee, as wonderful as it is. Still it hurts to be rejected on commercial grounds or some subjective view of what’s popular and what’s not.

    • says

      Lis, thank you for your support and understanding. Yes, it does hurt being rejected in this way, particularly because it makes me think – will I ever be able to express myself creatively the way I need to? So giving voice to those certain passions? Yes, you said it all so well…

  3. Emma says

    Hi Lee, personally l find novels or non fiction set in other countries very appealing, and I cannot imagine other Australians not thinking the same. I know Australia inside and out, so it can be mundane to read about culturally, so l seek to learn about different places and cultures, especially places with mystery, darkness and intrigue like Russia. Please write more about Russia, in book form! Inform us. I saw Masha Gessen, an American Russian writer, on Q&A on the ABC this year and have added her books about Russia to my to-read list. I cannot wait to delve into them! Those publishers must have rocks in their heads to reject your piece.

    • says

      Emma, thank you very much! I’m so glad to hear about your reading interests. I feel similarly about Israel – I already know so much about the country I have less interest reading about it, and want to read about other places. Masha Gessen is great indeed. I’m hoping to write about Russia in the next few years, once I’m done with my current 2 books. And I love your ‘in book form! Inform…’ 🙂

  4. Cas Austin says

    Hi Lee, terrific piece. Do you have an agent? Perhaps you should try to publish overseas first?
    Cas

    • says

      Cas, thank you! No, I don’t have an agent, but yes, seeking overseas publication is a good suggestion. I’ll think about it. Hope your own writing is going well.

  5. Peter Veenhuizen says

    Lee, this is a great essay and is very pertinent to my project, the first half of which is set in Holland – a land that I fear is of little interest to most Australians. I have no experience with the publishing industry (yet!), but I share your despair that it seems to be following rather than leading. Sales are important – one had to keep the ship afloat. But I suspect that an interesting book is an interesting book and if well promoted should do at least moderately well. The difficulty is, in part and generally speaking, that we are dumbed down, and would rather read simple error than complex truth.

    • says

      Peter, thank you for your kind and wise words. I’m actually more optimistic for you. I think Holland carries its charm; Europe seems to be of interest to Australians. But whether I’m right or wrong, I do strongly believe that, as you say, an ‘interesting book’ once accepted for publication should do well or at least well enough. Happy writing 🙂

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