Albury is a town right on the border of New South Wales, more than 500km from Sydney. The last time I stopped there was on a road trip to Melbourne over ten years ago, so when my friend Mel asked me if I wanted to help with her storytelling night at the LibraryMuseum in Albury, as part of Write Around the Murray Festival, I jumped at the chance to revisit it. Now Hear This is always a great experience and a good opportunity for us to hang out somewhere different.
Spending most of the past year travelling overseas has made me realise just how much I’d like to see closer to home, and Albury turned out to be a great start to the next chapter of my travels, because it triggered an unexpected epiphany. It was the New World antithesis to so much of what I saw in Europe, but there were plenty of echoes of what I’d recently seen abroad.
While strolling through Albury’s Botanic Gardens inaugurated in 1877, I recalled my visit to the world’s oldest botanic garden in Padua, the town in Italy I lived in for three months. Padua’s Orto Botanico dates back to 1545, hundreds of years before Australia was even founded as a British penal colony in the late 18th century. There also seemed to be another European touch in the community wood-fired oven, perhaps a nod to Italy where such ovens are common enough (where I recently made my first ever wood-fired pizza).
Having only 24 hours in Albury was hardly enough time to form more than the faintest of impressions, but I went on a long walk on my second morning to admire the many beautiful buildings from a bygone era. The Albury of today is probably a world away from what it was a few decades ago. Commercially, it now has the same kind of cafes, artisan bakeries and high-street fashion stores in any of Australia’s cities. I guess nowadays it’s difficult for towns to retain a distinct character, though on the plus side, it means that residents are now far less isolated from mainstream culture. Albury did, however, feel different in one obvious way, and that’s the lack of visible multiculturalism. I can’t help but feel a bit self-conscious in the parts of Australia where so few people from Asian backgrounds end up. I already often feel a bit different to those around me, and being in a place where the difference is even more stark tends to intensify those feelings.
Now Hear This went really well, an engaging mix of stories from some of the invited writers and locals. I always find these storytelling nights so moving and surprising because of what people choose to reveal. It’s also interesting to discover people co-existing side by side when they hold totally different values. When I interviewed writer Geraldine Brooks many years ago, she said that living in a small town in America was what really taught her about true tolerance, and I recalled her thoughts during my stay. During the storytelling workshop that Mel held before the main event, we met a young man who said that he found a sense of community through a local church — and he was sitting right next to a much older physician who was spearheading a campaign to ban right-to-life protesters from a local church being able to protest outside a local abortion clinic.
One of the highlights of the trip was a fabulous bookstore called The Book Grocer, where every book is only $10. They had so many beautiful books on sale imported from America, and the collection was well curated. Among the stack of books I bought, I nabbed a stunning hardback edition of Hamlet, as well as a graphic novel called Vietnamerica by a Vietnamese-American artist.
Some hours later, during our event, we ended up talking to writer Nick Earls, one of our storytellers. He reminded us that such cheap bookstores undercut Australian publishing and book selling because they bought books by the palet from overseas. So yes, that old chestnut, and I felt guilty that I don’t support local bookstores enough these days — and not just that, I hardly ever buy Australian books anyway. With people like me consuming, how can we compete in a globalised English language market so dominated by America? In that same interview I conducted with Geraldine Brooks, I remember her saying that Australians paid way too much for books, and back in 2003 I had no idea what she was even talking about because I’d never been to America, never bought a book online and Australia was still a relatively protected market. Clearly so much has changed since 2003 in the publishing world.
Just before I was due to leave Albury, I ended up having another long conversation with Nick Earls after his session, and admitted that I was a terrible reader of Australian writing. There have been so many times in my life where I felt like an outsider and I guess that feeling had fed into my emotional distance with so much of Australia’s cultural output. But I was inspired by my conversation with him, taking heart from how he had persevered with his own writing in what had been quite an under-developed contemporary writing culture in Brisbane. He’d migrated with his family from Northern Ireland as a child so he’d also had to learn the ropes in a new culture, eventually taking the leap into writing after being a doctor for some years. At various levels, I related to different parts of what he said. I knew a little about his work and his style of writing even though I hadn’t yet read any of it, and I think there’s something important for me to discover in his work. But in any case I’m not quite ready to take the same leap, still retaining one foot in the writing world and the other foot in some other world, which changes periodically. At the moment it’s a PhD in bioethics, one of my many interests.
Over the last day I’ve had the distinct feeling that I might have turned some sort of corner in Albury. I have a stronger resolve now to spend a bit more time travelling around Australia, and I’ve been reminded that I need to spend a bit more time discovering its literary culture too. If I want to read the kind of work that reflects the country that I know, maybe I really do need to be one of its creators. And in the meantime I will get to know it a bit better, following on from other recent recommendations of Australian books. So for the moment I’ve put aside Virginia Woolf and started reading Zigzag Street instead.