Friday, October 3, 2014

A Sense of Place

The most sought after facet of a good story: whether fictional, an attempt at an allusion to something, or as reportage, is unarguably a sense of place. In the visual medium the conventional tropes are: the city skyline, a body of water and a detail of an architectural/ natural element or an easily recognisable icon meant to trigger the recognition of the target audience by an assumed common knowledge of the geographical region in question. In writing, it has been the weather and many many other things, including in references to a part of the anatomy of an individual who is representative of a group of people known to belong to a certain place, and not necessarily in a derogatory way. Sometimes the reference is a combination of the physical attributes of the populace and their engagement in a past-time that is commonly associated with them in the fevered imagination of the removed observer... such as a friend's online photo album, descriptively titled, 'Cycling Girls of Copenhagen'. (Sadly, the link to that album is lost.)
For someone like myself, disclosing herein to a certain proclivity for day/week/month/quarterly/half-yearly/annual-tripping in times past to regions of the world where I was as bemused as anyone else at having found myself, I used to think it was the smells. More recently however, I recognise that those olfactory associations are less accurate in hindsight, referring to moments with friends and family in happier and sadder times, and reflective of other compulsions of a notoriously unreliable and sentiment-driven memory.
What drives it all is, I think, the very human need to belong, however temporarily, to the place one is travelling through or from or towards. For the migrant, the need is less clearly articulated. Is one trying desperately to base oneself in, all other factors notwithstanding, a place that he/she has to justify having chosen as home for the rest of one's life? The troubling corollary to this is the less than incidental interactions I have had with people at work and other places who have made the same decision to relocate as I have and unequivocally reject the sense of place, whether in their desperate retaining of prejudice, their consumptive choices, or their home economics. To mitigate this disorientation, I have taken recourse in local literature and it has been enlightening so far because the writers reflect a diaspora as dislocated as I find myself today, and their collective sense of distress at not belonging yet, or belonging so much that they find themselves stuck, is palpable through the page, comforting in the shared befuddlement of a messy discombobulation.

The list so far, and all very very good:

- The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. 1940
- My Brother Jack by George Johnston. 1964
- The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally. 1972
- The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe. 1983
- The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. 1987
- Dirt Music by Tim Winton. 2001
- The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. 2005

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