Saradha Koirala

Category: Thoughts

In place

I’m digging beneath trellised nasturtium in the garden of someone new. Planting star jasmine in the sun as a rain cloud approaches, but it’s the other kind I long to breathe in. The kind of jasmine that gushes over fences, escapes rambling front gardens, permeates shared paths. I pick sprigs of it always, carry it until it wilts. It takes me places.

So much has happened and I wanted to tell you. I’m astounded at my capacity to forgive. I’ve opened my heart to the gently damaged people of this world over and over, let them project their hurt onto me. I get it, but I won’t do that anymore. They seek help or not, move back home as I work through, work through, work through. Soil under my fingernails and the smell of almost-rain.

But I wanted to say something about the visits home. The places where family live lives I couldn’t have predicted and I’ve decided to tell the truth now. Stop listening to that voice in my head that nags at me to speak aloud the words and just speak aloud the damn words. I’ve lived long hours in transit, just to reconnect.

It seems everything I’ve ever written has been a metaphor for clouds: looking down on them from planes, watching them roll in darkly from the east, trusting they’ll rain themselves empty or just move on. It’s always been about clouds. The way they look reflected on the water’s surface, distracting me from the reedy depths.

Seasons change and I let anniversaries pass through me like a southerly at first, but even the wind feels warmer when you look back. The red flag of that first betrayal wilts like picked jasmine, fades in the briefly sunlit garden of someone new.

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Passage

Auckland, 1942

The man who will become my Grandad waits by the gangway of the Devonport ferry. Yesterday, he missed his usual trip home and took the later ride. He’s decided now to always be late, deliberately miss the more convenient passage home and wait half an hour for the one ‘the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen’ will be on. He steps into the queue just in time to walk on board with her. Later, at a dance, she throws confetti on him like a prophecy. The woman becomes my Grandma, of course.

Pokhara, 1978

The other man who becomes my Grandad quietly follows his son to the bus stop, where a significant goodbye takes place.  His son stays on board with the woman he loves for as long as he can then watches the bus leave. As it happens, they meet again, become my parents, but now he needs the comforting arm his father predicted. Both men walk home together, tears along the dusty road.

Melbourne, 2017

I’m on a train, swiping left, left, left. Attraction exists not in digital form, a few bad snaps of your weekend shenanigans and a poorly written bio. I look up to see people interacting with the space around them, the way they hold themselves as they stand, their expressions, absorbed in their own distractions – paperbacks and podcasts, a phone conversation. Someone photographs the sunrise. I hear a favourite song tinnily through someone else’s headphones. But I’m just trying to get to work these days.

A Brief History of Seven Killings

That summer I was reading A brief history of seven killings, a weighty hardback issued from the library. Too heavy to lug out to parks or café courtyards, it anchored me into my new home. I lounged on the daybed and when people asked aloud what I’d been doing, the book’s title drew out my kiwi accent almost as thick as the tome itself. A reminder of the recency of my migration.

An odd choice of book, perhaps, but held in place by it I felt the sun pass through the house and, when I needed a break from the intensity, I walked to the supermarket in my new neighbourhood; each day a little taller, feeling more present. Roses bent their heads over picket fences and I learnt to recognise those worth stopping to breathe with. I took in the street names, smiled at locals, became one.

Bio

Mostly it’s easy, the days I mean

text book teaching senior biology

free periods in the staffroom. It’s a good life

I state as fact, not like saying, ‘she’s lovely…’

an epigraph to the gossip I write.

 

Suspicious of superlatives, endlessly

but hard-wired for romance

tell me I’m capable, resourceful, reliable

adore the way I follow through with things I say I’ll do

let my eyes be an after-thought.

 

And I’m probably on the brink again

because what else is there to do with this

flesh-covered universe we call body?

System of lungs and blood and gravity

tugging at us to love.

 

Anyway, turn to p80 that picture of the genome

looking to you like Dante’s hell

long-limbed chromosomes

tumbling headless towards a fiery cell

because you’re still sixteen

and haven’t understood any of this.

 

 

Perpetuating the Patriarchy by Keeping the Peace

Women,

We feel strong and independent, in control because we earn our own money, make decisions for ourselves, take charge, have friendships, maintain good relationships with our families, make time for the things that nourish us, but until we stop indulging and forgiving the following behaviour from men I don’t see how the patriarchy will ever be smashed:

  • The ex who takes liberties with your child’s custody arrangements
  • The younger brother who decides not to pay you rent because you earn more than he does
  • The friend who calls himself a feminist, insists on mutual respect, but also flirts with other women behind his partner’s back, sometimes sleeps with them
  • The friend who doesn’t believe in feminism
  • The man who broke your heart, but you stay friends with because that’s what he wanted
  • The guy who messages you daily, trying to form a connection even though he’s in a relationship with someone else
  • The guy you keep responding to out of politeness
  • The father who never visits, but expects you to want to visit him
  • The partner you tip-toe around because his reaction to your feelings will be worse than your feelings.

I haven’t always done the right thing in some of these situations and I can see how damaging that is for all women and it sends completely the wrong message to the men involved. So smash with me!

  • Hire a lawyer and lay down the law on that ex
  • Insist on a fair contribution, since the younger brother enjoys many other benefits from a society geared towards men
  • Call the friend out on his behaviour
  • Never accept misogyny
  • Cut contact if your heart is still hurting or set your own terms for a friendship
  • Tell him to stop, he has no right and it’s not fair on the other woman
  • Stop. You don’t owe anyone “politeness”
  • Ask him to make the effort this time
  • Make it clear to him that your feelings are valid and if he can’t hear and hold them, he can’t be with you.

It’s easy to listen to the excuses and apologies and slip back into our well-trained ways of putting up with things we’re not comfortable with to keep the peace, but women keeping the peace while men do whatever they want is exactly what needs to change.

“To be alive and to be a ‘writer’ is enough.” (Katherine Mansfield)

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Saradha as Virginia Woolf

It’s been a difficult couple of months. Individually, universally. Hell, it’s been a tough few years if you really want to start scraping back through it all and trying to remember the last time you sat still, looked around at your personal, professional and creative life and thought, Yeah, things are okay. I wish I’d made better note of those moments of contentment, but perhaps that would have shifted them out of the present and it’s being present in those moments that makes one content.

I’ve been counting words – proud of a year spent launching a novel and working on two more. Gathering poems into a third collection and reading everything I can find. But in there somewhere I lost count. Lost track of how to hold onto what was mine, lost count of the number of job applications, inquiries and rejection letters, the social interactions cancelled or rain-checked beyond redemption. I can’t bear to try and count the heartbreaks and moments of self-doubt of the last few years.

I have, however, counted the flights. 21 international flights in the last two years, 10 since moving to Melbourne. There have been adventures and family celebrations and always something good waiting at each end – but counting and losing count has made me exhausted.

My last flight back to Wellington landed 24 hours before the 7.8 quake last month and as lovely as it was to see my family and friends and know they wanted me there so they could check in, hug me and try to settle me after what felt like a complete life-fail, I got the strong sense Wellington was trying to shake me free. Again.

But slowly the after-shocks stopped and things seemed to shuffle into a shape I could make sense of. The feeling that home wasn’t quite home anymore, the outrage or compassion my friends expressed on my behalf at the situation I’d found myself in, the daily routine and purpose my brother provided and the obstacle-ridden journey my mum endured to come and see me, care for me and give me a copy of Sarah Laing’s Mansfield and Me all helped me feel like me again.

There’s something pretty special about Sarah’s book. Reading about her journey juxtaposed with that of our shared literary hero, Katherine Mansfield, reminded me of what I need: To stop counting, stop flying, sit still again and write. To be somewhere that could become home, somewhere bright, open, flat and stable beneath the feet. Somewhere I can keep putting my words down, one after the other and build something, anything, that looks like a life. And sure I need love and connections; to be honest with the people around me, to ask for help and show others I can help them too, but right now I just need to stay alive and to write.

Back in Melbourne and every day I feel slightly different. Last week, when the moment felt right, I cycled round to look at a spare room in a cottage on Mansfield Street. Stained-glass bay window, picket fence. In Thornbury, but it would not be out of place in Thorndon. I thought of Sarah moving to New York and Katherine moving to London and me, now, with all this hope and determination despite what feels like months of disappointment.

So I’ve moved to Mansfield Street, into a room of my own. The wifi’s dodgy and we don’t have a kettle, but my optimism is boundless. It surprises me sometimes.

How does it feel??

Paige and Lily from Lonesome When You Go react to The Dylan News:

 

“Lily! You heard the Bob Dylan news?” I’ve run up behind her and grabbed her by the arm. I must be looking a little panicked. She whitens.

“Oh my god, Paige don’t tell me. Not Dylan. I’m still grieving for Bowie. I can’t…” her bottom lip quivers.

“No! God no! He’s still alive and he just won the damn Nobel Prize for Literature.”

“Oh thank god!” she breathes, “My Dylan life just flashed before my eyes – the first time we listened to Blood on the Tracks all the way through, every time I’ve been feeling low and then heard a Dylan song in a shop or café or from a busker… that road trip… he’s really been there for me.”

“I know.” I give her a hug, before remembering my excitement. “He won the Nobel! Holy shit! A song-writer – a musician!”

“You’re right, this is huge! Wow. I’m going to briefly ignore the fact that it’s yet another white American male being held aloft and also the fact that most of his songs in the last thirty years have been terrible and focus on the musician as celebrated poet part.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“It’s really cool.” she grins.

It’s Friday morning and we’ve just entered the school grounds. I have Like a Rolling Stone running through my head – “how does it feel?” – and whistle the next line of organ melody aloud. Lily stops walking and thrusts an arm out at me.

“Shut up! I was just up to that part in my head too!” Her eyes widen and we stare at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter.

“I guess it’s pretty appropriate,” I say and we start singing it together, loudly and horribly, straining our voices on the lengthened vowels and ignoring the bemused looks from passing juniors. They probably only know Dylan songs from Miley Cyrus covers and references in young adult novels.

Musician as celebrated poet. I walk into class feeling like anything is possible today.

dylanesque-nod-to-the-poets

Saradha’s Dylanesque nod to the poets and poetic nod to the man himself.

The Persistence of Fiction

I’ve been insisting on the non-autobiographical nature of my novel for ages, but now I think I might actually be turning into my character. It’s okay though, she’s pretty cool. Yesterday I bought a second-hand Epiphone Les Paul Standard in sparkly blue and cream and although Paige in Lonesome When You Go is actually a bass player, there are substantial rumours circulating that there’s a sequel in the works in which she makes the switch to lead.

I’ve even found myself being ever-so-slightly more assertive, refusing to put up with histrionics in the staff room and flicking the hair from my eyes pointedly to signal the end of a conversation.

And of course I’ve been a long time plagiariser of Blood on the Tracks lyrics.

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Photo by Richard Wise

Perhaps this is proof that my fiction writing is just one step ahead of my real life desires, or perhaps life really is imitating art. It does happen. People look to literature – as readers and writers – for a better understanding of the world and themselves. I’ve always learnt something about myself through my own writing and, in lieu of safe, trustworthy and compassionate adults to talk to, people – especially young people – often look for emotional support by reading fiction.

I don’t think this means authors bear the burden of providing therapy or a safe and perfect world in their novels to which people can escape. Nor need they ensure their characters are ideal and consistently positive role models, but we do have a responsibility to keep in mind if we truly believe in what we do as writers. Otherwise what’s the point?

When I’m not writing or buying sweet axes, I’m a teacher. I have been for years. It’s given me a broad view of the world and an understanding that not everyone has the benefit of feeling safe all the time.

Sometimes I get to teach analysis of great literature, introduce students to writers and concepts that will hopefully stay with them as they take on the adult world. Often I get the pleasure of encouraging a young person to write something they never knew they were able to write. Other times I just read them books that help put feelings into words, their own emotional vocabularies so limited.

Always I stress the importance of language to our sense of self and well-being, and one day, maybe, I’ll even tell them about my secret life as a teenage rock star; how life is just an imitation of art imitating life.

Yard Duty

I’m teaching again. Students smile at me and say hi as we pass in the corridor. Sometimes they ask how I am. When we’re practising writing they might ask me the name of that feeling like butterflies in your stomach, but not excitement. It’s anxiety I tell them. Oh, anxiousness, they say.

On Monday and Wednesday lunchtimes I’m on yard duty. I have to shoo all the students out of the corridors and I have a walky-talky that I assume works, but have never used, except to pretend to call for back-up when someone’s trying to ask too many questions of me. I hold it near my mouth and make a fake static noise. Kkkkkk. They get the idea and move on.

Today a bird was trapped inside. There was a warm breeze and the sun was out, but that bird was obsessed with the unopenable window at the top of the stairs; wouldn’t move from the windowsill. It fluttered its wings like the butterflies in our stomachs, oblivious to the door we’d opened at the end of the empty corridor.

Advice to My Younger Self

It’s going to be okay. There are many times when it won’t feel like it, but these times will pass. Have faith in your ability to do the right thing and get out of situations when they don’t feel right.

Luck has a lot to do with it all, of course, so never deny how fortunate you are because of the time and place and family you were born into. You are growing up in a paradise. Look around and be grateful.

Stick to your principles. Being a vegetarian in the 90s is hard work and you will endure a lot of salads with the bacon picked out, but in twenty years’ time you can feel proud that your existence has not harmed thousands of other living beings and your highly-developed taste for vegetables will serve you well in The Great Kale Hype of 2016.

Don’t worry about the fruit thing, they’re starting to say it’s not really that good for you anyway.

Be proud and passionate about the bands you like. Music really doesn’t get much better from about 1997 on.

Stay close to your family, they’re a good bunch. Nurture friendships – I still have no idea how these come and go.

Don’t pluck your eyebrows too thin – they will never grow back the same. Fashions change, but authenticity is timeless. Don’t be ashamed of the long genetic history that makes you look and think and be the way you are. It’s amazing, really. You’re part of that.

Read everything. Read poetry and fiction and hard stuff. Care about politics. Your brother was right to argue with you in 1991 when you were ten and said talking about Ruth Richardson’s ‘Mother of all budgets’ was boring you and it didn’t affect you anyway. It all affects you. Be one of the people who realises that. Be informed.

Your childhood is full of announcements about how special you are. You are, but so is every living thing here. Stay humble and remember the world doesn’t owe you a thing.

You don’t owe the world anything either, but try to do as much as you can. You will need time out from it every now and then and that’s okay, because – if I know you – you will always be striving to create, contribute and be part of something greater.

Have adventures, fall in love, listen, and remember to let other people love and care for you too. They’ll like that.