So I finally got a small stack of the famed old Scripsi (quod scripsi scripsi), a balanced selection of, and it made me very sad. It made me sad, I suppose, because after all the talk of ‘the best literary journal Australia ever had’, also ‘punching above its weight’ and ‘world-class’, it had grown in my imagination. I had a vague idea of something that was, put simply, not just an ordinary literary journal, of the kind that I’ve read tons of, with mild interest, when I was in high school, the kinds every literary department at every university tries to produce as a vanity project. It is alright; it is good; it is miles ahead of the dross that we see published around town these days, featuring writers from the local pub, rubbing together same old sticks of ‘how is Australia faring today?, oh but let’s not compare it in absolute or international terms, because then we would be harsh, mean and Eurocentric’; it does not feature articles about the importance of Twitter on poetry written by the token eighteen-year-old – these are all good things. But, by being good in such an ordinary way – as opposed to stratospherically extraordinary – it made me sad. Suddenly it put in perspective the fact that a literary magazine in Australia right now seems to be an impossible feat to accomplish; that writings by very young people, semi-literate and bloggy and always topical (how young people think that Facebook will solve climate change), or middle-class, middle-aged, male and pretentious in that small-minded, colonial, my-Shakespeare-is-bigger-than-yours way (why Umberto Eco is too encyclopedic to really enjoy, except by pretentious academics – this was an actual review from Scripsi), are the best we want to do here. Even worse, that someone somewhere has managed to convince us all that no literary magazine can be unless at least one person in it writes about Harry Potter fanfiction, but from the insider’s perspective. The smallness, insularity, and above all lack of ambition of this country’s culture, which I had somehow not quite grasped until this point, too busy having literate lunches and playing haute scrabble with friends, feeling inadequate for not having read E. M. Forster and whatnot, opened its double doors to me and said a very loud hello.
Australians of a certain sort exhibit a morbid sort of joy over criticism of this kind, but I wonder if they – if you, rather, readers – understand what a gesture of defeat it is. I have been in this country for a long time now, I belong to it a little bit, in education, passport, friends I’ve made, time and energy I’ve invested, experiences I’ve had, opportunities I have made for myself here and forfeited somewhere else. I wanted to believe it a good place. I have a great deal of interest vested here, a different kind of interest than someone born and bred Australian, but an interest nonetheless, because I could have stayed at home, I could have had a different couple of years, but instead I chose to come here hoping it would make things better for me. A little bit better it was always going to be, in the immediate and relative sense, but there’s a great happiness in finding out that a place is better than expected, that one is enjoying it even more than expected, that it is opening life up.
The other thing that is often lost in translation is what a limited choice this is. I encountered this notion of choice for the first time when I was in Italy – still blogging. Someone somewhere found it pertinent to admonish me for my criticism of Italy, and that was the first time in my life I was told that if I don’t like it here, I can go back where I’ve come from. At that moment, I couldn’t go back where I had come from – my home in Croatia had disappeared for reasons that were beyond my control, and I had to stay in Italy and be unhappy. And when I came to Australia and wasn’t happy, I couldn’t go home to Croatia either, for reasons beyond my control. This silly image of a shopping migrant, weighing up one place against another, is not how it works – not even for those with lots of money and not a care in the world. We come to places for complex reasons, and we are sometimes genuinely disappointed; our decisions sometimes hurt us, our choices turn out to be wrong.
I’m not in Italy anymore – I left for a number of reasons, all related to those initial dislikes – and now it strikes me particularly incongruent that someone would honestly think that those flaws of Italy would somehow be neutralized by the fact of my living there; or that I shouldn’t complain. There is a bullying logic to it, according to which, analogically, no woman should consider her violent husband a problem while she stays with him – disregarding the complicated reasons for which we sometimes have to do things we don’t like, stay where we don’t want to be. But how is a woman to make the decision to leave, if she cannot reach the conclusion that the violence is a problem first? Perhaps this all sounds pop and simplistic, but I think about it a lot, because I have often been miserable in places and often been told that I may not be miserable – that my liking of this (or that) place is a duty, a responsibility, a courtesy or a sign of maturity, whichever.
But then, let me show you the paradox: for me there was no choice. This or that place, however terrible, was not necessarily worse than home. Home was, potentially, the worst of all, but there was always a certain heavy equivalence between shit here and shit there, the foreign and the familiar. And let’s imagine home now, in whatever facet you prefer: widespread corruption?, endemic violence (war, but also domestic)?, a reasonable assumption that I would not get anywhere without a few bribes or connections or, connections missing due to my family’s poor networking, sucking cock. Which one of you would now say: if you’re staying there, you have no right to complain? Sucking cock and all that, would it be fine if I was still there?
It takes time, money and energy to leave. It breaks your heart – it occurred to me that there is really no pay-off, ever, for leaving hometown and old friends; no money or fame or recognition can patch the hole that it leaves in you. Between leaving, and getting to a comfortable situation where one can write a balanced blog about one’s migrating experiences, is a wide gap consisting of years of loneliness, poverty, stress, illness, soul-searching, limited space for manouvring either forward or back, everything being fifteen times harder than strictly necessary, a great strain on one’s body and psyche – even if you come from money and choice, but particularly if you don’t.
I don’t know that I have the energy for another round of that. The reason why we can’t just leave if we don’t like it in places is that it takes a lot to even arrive. One can’t shop between places without getting all chipped and scarred in the process; and, as I said, being here means not being somewhere else, it means forfeiting other lives. I have been ill, fatigued and so sad that at times I almost expected my heart to break like a toy – and so, when I say that Scripsi would have had to be twenty times more extraordinary than it is, I hope you see that I’m not saying it out of arrogance, but because such an extraordinary Scripsi, even if now defunct, would have given some sense to those years. We all hate failed investments. This is why we say, at the end, “I wouldn’t change a thing about my life”.
…and? I agree that Scripsi is patchy, and I had my own very severe differences with the Scripsi crew at the time. It’s Melbourne University, after all… But it’s a magazine from the 1980s, when things here where much more insular than they are now, and was the only mag of its kind: maybe I remember the poetry more than anything else. It’s where I first read a number of important poets, Paul Celan for instance, or Christopher Logue’s amazing translation of the Iliad, in my early 20s. A justification for being in Australia? Maybe not. Can any magazine justify that?
Hmm, I hope you’re not referring to me in the above paragraph! I don’t know why I felt compelled to defend Italy that time, given that I don’t particularly like my country (and in fact I’ve joined the brain drain and I’ve been living in France since 2007 and I feel no desire to come back). It was partly some sort of weird gut reaction, partly that I thought some things you complained about were specific of Venice and a certain closed northern Italy mentality and would not have been true, say, in Tuscany.
Anyway I’m really interested in what you’re saying about finding balance after migrating. I’m really struggling with it myself and trying to come up with some sort of thread to connect my past to the present, to make sense of it all. It’s easier of course in my situation because I’m close enough to be able to consistently go back for a few days once every two months or so – which mostly gives me a strange feeling like watching a movie in fast forward – and furthermore we emigrated as a couple, so I can at least declare that “home is where my significant other is”. But still I feel this disconnect, like I’ve lost myself. I don’t know which part of it is simply getting older (seeing that friends from my hometown, who never moved, stopped seeing each other anyway and lost contact with their former selves) and which part is workplace alienation and chronic lack of time.
By the way, I miss your personal journal… I’m not cultured enough to understand the obscure references in this one 😛
Dear Meiko, it’s not you at all – I was thinking about a real-life person 🙂 And I miss my personal journal too. I haven’t quite decided what to do about it, since Facebook has creepy privacy issues, but so does the rest of the internet these days. On the other hand, it’s like a part of me is dead now. Again, how much of it is being in another country, I don’t know. But I miss being able to easily keep in touch with people like you – it was the closest to normal human interaction that internet ever offered. I thought, at least.
And you were right about Venice at the time – it’s just that it didn’t matter. I couldn’t be in Florence, I had to be in Venice, and I’m not in either place now. Here has its own problems, but they are so light that you barely notice them, you just wonder why you’re not entirely happy. A very good friend of mine is moving to Paris soon; do you like it there?
Just catching up (and it’s funny to read this piece *after* the one about getting and iPhone), and commenting mostly to say thanks for writing this – as a recent emigrant myself, I’ve been noticing that it’s having an odd effect on how I feel I can talk about “the old country”. Mercifully, my living in Germany is still so new, and my German is still so dreadful, that Germany isn’t bugging me at all yet. I’m sure it will. I think I already know the things about it that I’m eventually going to passionately rail against, but for the time being I’m still so grateful for so much that *isn’t* British that I’m not going yo start grumbling.
But it’s really good to read stuff about the emigrant perspective – and from a friendly source 🙂
Gah. Hardly insightful comment. Apols. 🙂
Hello Andrew – I’ve decided to try to treat this blog a little less seriously, and write as I did when I had a semi-personal web-journal. I remember people liked it. I also remember it kept me sane. And every so often I wrote something that I thought could only make people angry, but instead I would, out of the blue, receive a comment like yours or Meiko’s. And that, I must say, has never happened with a review 🙂
You are moving to Germany for good? As I’ve told you already, it seems like a very reasonable decision at the moment. And, you know, Germany and the UK are very close together, and flights are cheap. For me, at the moment, moving to Germany (which I would like to accomplish in some near future) would be almost like moving back home, so close these European countries are to each other when compared to the ridiculous distance of Australia.