Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The French Connection: Writing about the exotic in Australia in What is left over, after

by Natasha Lester

The French connection did not begin deliberately. It was a gift from my unconscious. Before I really had the idea for the novel in my head I started to write a scene about a person returning to their childhood home after a number of years away. That childhood home, as I wrote, decided to locate itself in France. As soon as I’d finished the scene I saw how well it fitted with the still fledgling character of Gaelle.

Gaelle is a foreigner in What is left over, after, both literally and metaphorically. Of course, she didn’t have to come from France – I could have chosen any country as her birthplace – but with that initial scene and then the discovery of wonder tales and their origins in France, it became clear that she couldn’t come from anywhere else.

And so the French connection flowed from there. I chose the Loire Valley because I knew the area well. That led to goats cheese. And Mémé and Pépé. I’d already had an idea that Gaelle would be a beauty editor and I knew, from working in it myself, just how many French people were employed in the beauty industry in Australia. And so it went, click-click, like a jigsaw. Everything began to fit. Of course the idea of going to France for research may have played a small part in the decision!

All of the countries in which Gaelle spends her childhood are described sketchily; the reader knows she is in London or San Francisco but they aren’t given a feel for her home, her street, her neighbourhood.

I wanted this lack of detail to mimic the fact that Gaelle doesn’t belong in any of these places; she’s always the outsider, the one who doesn’t fit in. Even as an adult she’s still too exotic; she’s a beauty editor from the make-believe land of make-up, she’s consciously French with her Hermès scarves and complicated cassoulets. She has a baby – but no one talks to her about her baby. No one seems to think of her as a mother. She is an ‘other’ kind of mother with a story nobody wants to hear, and even if they did, how does she talk about something that seems so unspeakable?

Until she comes to Siesta Park. Siesta Park is, I hope, vividly imagined and described in the novel. This is where Gaelle, even though she’s far from home, begins to feel at home.

It’s not any one thing that makes her feel that way. It’s the sea. It’s Selena. It’s photography. It’s storytelling. Even Simmo’s icecream might have something to do with it. Because it’s an ordinary, everyday experience. Like jumping on a trampoline. Like riding a bike into town. These things seem too good to be true to Gaelle; in her words such moments are part of ‘an idyllic holiday pastoral.’ But that’s because there’s no room for the exotic at Siesta Park. It’s a place where stories flow like the sea, rescuing what seems unspeakable from its drowned space. It’s a place where Gaelle-the-mother is rescued from the drowned spaces inside our ideas of motherhood.

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