The Writer’s Habitat

With just a few days to go before Sydney Writers Festival, I’ve been busy making my to-do list:

Just on that last point, at the end of my Richard Fidler interview a few weeks ago, I was accosted by an irate audience member for giving an answer he didn’t like when I was asked where home is today (more or less Australia). He preferred China perhaps, or Taiwan. As if one home had to be mutually exclusive from another. As if by nominating one, I was betraying another. Maybe this guy had a vested interest. He was of an age and cultural background that could easily slide into (an unhealthy) paternal projection.

But other interviewers too have pressingly asked the same: where is home now? Well, I can’t say definitively that it’s one place. The idea of ‘home’ as a place where all the facets of my identity feel settled and attached to its geography doesn’t exist. Maybe a nicer way to put it, is it’s fluid.

If we were just going off duration, Australia wins hands down. I’ve spent 26 years of my life here. It’s also the place where my most difficult memories are stored. As with all long term relationships,  my connection with it is complex. We know each other well, perhaps too well. The dance of compromise to stay committed is a familiar one, and still we continually test each other’s patience. We’ve always made awkward dance partners. From the very first steps, the abrasiveness of a too hot sun and flat vowels betraying a cagey guardedness kept me at arm’s length. But the slow imprints we’ve made on each other’s bodies have crystallised into something permanent, the way we’ve moulded in and around and through each other becoming the prism through which all steps filter.

Taiwan is my birthplace, and where my parents were born. But my relationship to it is an abstract one, grounded in only flimsy experiential knowledge. I left at 18 months, and have returned just a few times – and never for more than a fortnight. It has been 25 years since my last visit. When I think of Taiwan, I can dimly recall the architecture of my grandparents’ house. The enormity of a staircase that I could not climb. A red-painted front door with a threshold I had to jump over. The sound of a bell and children laughing in the playground of the school I didn’t know I would not one day attend. Taiwan might have been the country where I took my first breath, but it quite soon receded away like a tide leaving only scraps on the shore.

I had intended London to be my new home but in retrospect, it was more of a hotel. A monolothic, slightly gothic temporary residence. Unless you were born or grew up there, it’s almost impossible not to feel like a visitor in that sprawling metropolis steeped in history, yet at the same time teeming with different nations jostling for attention. Three years of ambitious negotiation gradually deepened into a mutual dialogue. I found a family who I grew to love. I made a lifelong commitment to a UK national and new complex layers of the city revealed itself. What I had mistaken for a subdued grey palette camouflaged  a colourful underground party that taught me how to dance. The inscription of that city resides in my ligaments and joints, honed to obey the fruits of an education and coming of age. London might never be home, but the expanse of the city is a place I can always return to- either in my mind’s eye, the deft execution of a phrase, or the “permanent resident” status stamped in my passport

But it’s Shanghai that’s the real star of my story. The allure of this city stopped me in my tracks in a way that might be described as falling in love. A deep recognition of its inability to stay still coupled with enough opaqueness to keep me in thrall as to what it might do next. Or what it might enable me to do. My Chinese astrological sign is Snake, and the speed and frequency with which this modern, decadent backdrop enabled me to shed my skin (both literally – clothes- and metaphorically -identities) was and still is, powerfully intoxicating. If I was to nominate a spiritual home, it would be this city whose psyche has been shaped by the poison and pleasure of opium, as a historical means of control by West over East. Its constant shape-shifting borne out of the need to survive, subterfuge its only strategy to stay ahead of its foreign oppressors. It is a city where seduction is easy and intimacy hard. It is a place where I am most inclined to forge meaning out of my everyday observations.

I’ll be talking more about these thoughts and more at the Writers’ Habitat this Thursday at Sydney Writers Festival. I hope to see some of you there.