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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
My father was an airline pilot, a profession premised on a longing to be elsewhere. He was forever moving from one place to another with no particular goal in mind, just a restless urge to maintain his momentum. Before I finished school we’d moved a dozen times. I had no sense that the resulting instability was abnormal. I assumed everyone moved around, that the whole populace was in a constant state of upheaval the way I was.
Our way of life had its pleasures. There is a definite thrill to be had from leaving places behind. I don’t recall ever being sad at going away. I think my mother must have made a point of always looking ahead to the new place and talking up its merits, rather than regretting the move. She was unlike my father in almost every way, but they did share a basic optimism about life, and a common faith in movement as a means of escape.
As a child I relied on my parents’ superior wisdom about the world. If they were dissatisfied with a place for one reason or another, I assumed they were right to be leaving for somewhere better. I learned their relentless mobility the way a duckling learns to swim. There was never a moment when I felt afraid or inadequate to the task. This was true right up until my teens, when I started to revise my ideas about pretty much everything, including my mother and father.
It was no coincidence that around that time my parents started talking about a separation—shouting actually, whole weekends lost to slanging matches. They were fairly one-sided affairs. My father had a list of grievances as long as your arm where my mother was concerned. He liked to recite them in an evangelist’s wrathful bellow, loud enough for our neighbours to hear. He might have been declaiming the deadly sins to a particularly dense lost sheep.
My mother did her best to defend herself, answering his attacks with cool reasonableness. She wasn’t a natural combatant. According to my father this was one of her problems. A better woman would take him on, give him a run for his money, instead of which my mother just sat there taking it all on the chin.
At least she did for a time.
It was my mother who proposed a separation. They’d had a brilliant run, she said, but now there seemed no point in dragging out the endgame. After his initial shock and confusion my father embraced the idea as if it were his own. He would leave, he said, in exchange for an agreed sum.
My mother arranged a loan and hired a lawyer, and when all the formalities were completed to my father’s satisfaction he moved out of home. We were living in Canberra, a town my father professed to loathe. And yet he opted to stay on after the separation, leasing a room in a public servants’ hostel on the north side of the city. I visited him there periodically because my mother said I should.
My father’s room was another country. It had its own climate and its own peculiar customs. I never went there without feeling that I was crossing a border into foreign territory. My father had taken very few possessions with him when he left, just what he could squeeze into a couple of suitcases and an army style duffle bag. The room came furnished with a single bed, a desk, an armchair and a wardrobe, all sturdy institutional items that reflected nothing of an individual’s taste or preoccupations. My father had nailed a few framed photographs of aircraft on the wall above his bed and lined his books up on the bedhead, but his efforts at homemaking only emphasized the miserliness of the place.
The bathrooms were communal, as was the dining room. I sometimes joined my father for lunch there. He showed me how to line up at the refectory with my plastic tray and order my meal. There was a heavy emphasis on roast meats. The entire building reeked of burning animal fat, an unappetizing stench that caused me to dread entering its byzantine corridors. My father’s country was drear and gloomy. It seemed to exist in a perennial winter. I’ve seen movies set in former Eastern Bloc countries that take me straight back to Sundays in Downer visiting dad.
Mum’s house was my true homeland, a neat three bedroom bungalow on the low side of Fishburn Street, a block away from the grassy paddocks of Red Hill. The house had seasons, mellow in autumn, sunlit in winter, breezy in spring and summer. It was painted an earthy yellow and seemed to entice one to enter. The approach was down a curling driveway under trees and shrubs my mother had positioned to soften the landscape and minimize the mowing. Inside she had filled the house with her eclectic collection of furniture, whatever she’d managed to hang on to through all her years of packing up and moving on.
A story attached to every chair or lamp or china plate. The provenance of her possessions accounted for their charm. There was no intrinsic value in them, only an overall sense that they embodied our history as a family, a chronicle of all our triumphs and mishaps. My father’s country was stripped of its history while my mother’s was heaving with associations.
It strikes me that a pattern of thought was established back then, a deep sense of inner division that has shaped the whole of my adult life. I was relieved when my parents decided to live apart because they were no good for each other. I felt particularly happy for my mother, whom I considered to be the sane one of the two. But this didn’t prevent me from grieving for a mythical lost world in which we all lived contentedly together in a state of perpetual motion. My visits to my father had a quality of melancholy that I now believe entered my teenage soul and set up within it an expectation of loss, if not an actual appetite for it. More than all of the traveling I’d done as a girl these bicycle trips from one side of Canberra to the other unsettled me. Whose child was I really? I wondered. To which of my parents did I owe my deepest loyalty? There were no answers to these questions of course, but that didn’t prevent me from asking them. I still wonder the same thing today.
A few weeks ago I became a citizen of Arita, a town of around twenty thousand souls, nestled in an area of forested hills and picturesque streams in the prefecture of Saga, on the Japanese island of Kyushu. I’m not Japanese and I don’t have citizenship of Japan, but through marriage I am a chomin, a registered permanent resident of Arita-cho, a status of which I am oddly proud, while at the same time remaining resistant to the notion that permanence has anything to do with it.
I think it is the Japanese themselves who say that in the winter we long for the summer and in the summer we long for the winter. In this sense the feeling of inner dividedness I felt growing up is unexceptional. In another sense however my history is one of extraordinary rootlessness, initiated by my parents, then exacerbated over an extended period by my innate inability to settle down in one place and be satisfied.
I am a resident of Arita in name only. I have a house here, I have friends, I’m eligible for health insurance and my passport says I must come back at least once a year if I want to keep my resident status. But that doesn’t mean I belong here in any sense of the word. I don’t look right for a start. Small boys stare at me when I pass them in the street, old ladies laugh when my husband explains that he and I are locals now. He’s from Gunma prefecture near Tokyo, and I’m from Australia. People like us can never be local. He might as well be suggesting that cats can give birth to dogs.
To belong here means to possess a family history going back generations, an unbroken line of Arita habitation, and an association, in one capacity or another, with the porcelain business. For hundreds of years Arita has been a porcelain town. The main street is a handsome row of porcelain merchant’s showrooms, a study in Japanese architectural morphology dating from the pre-modern through to the post-bubble. There have been booms and busts in the porcelain trade just as in any other, but Arita retains a living tradition of high end fine china production, examples of which spill out of every shop front. And while there is a diminished demand from hotels and restaurants, there is still an appreciation for exquisite tableware amongst ordinary Japanese. During the ceramic fair held the last week of April every year about a million visitors descend on Arita in the space of a week to do their annual china shopping.
For the rest of the year Arita sleeps. A walk down the main street is dreamlike. One can sometimes be entirely alone there with just the sound of the river nosing its way around the narrow paths and laneways behind the shop-fronts. This is where the workers live, the people who actually make the porcelain; potters, mold-makers, slip-casters, painters, all in the employ of the kama or kilns. It is hard to estimate how many kilns remain out of the hundreds that have existed at one time or another. The overblown eighties was the last boom that anyone remembers. Since then there has been a steady decline in the porcelain trade as the nation as a whole languishes in a recession without end.
A friend runs a factory that used to employ two hundred. He is now down to seventeen, many of whom are part-time. While he hangs on by his fingernails, other factories go under. The town is littered with abandoned kilns and padlocked warehouses. Everybody knows someone who has called it a day and walked away. It is well known that the suicide rate in the town is especially high in the cohort of men in their fifties and sixties, ex-bosses who’ve had to wind up the family business, and endure the resulting shame. Nobody seems to blame the ones who fail to make the adjustment to ordinary life. It must be a peculiarly exquisite kind of humiliation to be constantly encountering craftsmen and women who were once in your employ, but who now work as taxi drivers or cashiers in the local supermarket.
Like most Arita citizens my friend’s roots in the town go deep. He is the fifth generation of his family to run his kiln. His loyalty to the craft and to the town is fathomless, and yet he ponders the future with trepidation and grief. To me the town looks charming in its decline. To him it must seem as if a deathlike darkness is descending, a presage to the end of the world. He proposes transforming his factory into an arts hub for Saga prefecture as a way of turning its fortunes around. The main building was constructed in the fifties out of the timbers from a nearby Meiji period primary school and is the size of a football stadium. About eighty percent of the space is now unoccupied, so he imagines opening it up to artists, musicians, poets, anybody with a fresh idea for how to make the place flourish again. If his plan fails he’ll have no choice, he says, but to shut the factory down and seek alternative employment.
The problem in Arita is that there is no alternative employment. It’s a one industry town in a prefecture dominated by farming. It’s hard to see what an educated man like him, with two young children to raise, could turn his talents to if the worst happens. An added complication is that he is a first-born son and therefore responsible for his parents in their old age, so moving away from Arita is not an option he cares to consider. In this he appears to be typical of the nation in general. A firm attachment to one’s hometown seems to be a given in Japan. Pity the poor unfortunate who feels no such loyalty, who roams around the world unburdened by the past. Pity the likes of my father and me.
I was introduced at dinner the other night to a newly elected town councilor for Arita, a broad-shouldered beefcake with a rugby player’s countenance. His wife is a pint-sized, bubbly type from downtown Tokyo. She might be an outsider but the councilor himself is the quintessential Arita man, related to Li San Pei, the celebrated ‘father’ of Arita porcelain—in fact an unlucky Korean potter captured by the Nabeshima clan back in the early 1600’s. Li is buried not far from my house. Fourteen generations on I am sitting in the same room as his descendants.
The conversation turns, as it always seems to in my presence, to the topic of internationalization. We need to go global, they say. Privately I doubt that anyone actually knows what this means, beyond the odd sympathetic foreigner turning up now and again to add a little spice to the proceedings. What they certainly don’t want is the tourist horde to descend on the town from neighbouring China or Korea. I also doubt that Arita has the means to attract too many foreign artists to come to the town at any one time, given that so few locals speak basic English, or are willing to learn. It’s an aging population, and a declining one. It’s hard to imagine a sudden stirring of interest in learning a difficult foreign language so late in the day.
Belonging to Arita has its drawbacks it would seem, chief amongst which is a limited ability to imagine life as it is lived anywhere else. If travel is credited with broadening the mind, staying firmly rooted to the spot must surely give rise to an opposite tendency. In Arita, the foreign begins in neighbouring Hasami, a ten minute drive away. Hasami is in Nagasaki prefecture. I’m assured they do things differently there.
Even in the main street of Arita there are border crossings. The entirety of the street is known as Uchiyama but every couple of hundred metres the name of the street changes. We’ve just bought a house on a section called Koubira, or Happy Flats. The next two hundred metre section of the road is called Akaya, or Red Painting. The names apparently refer to one’s territorial allegiance during festivals but they also have a range of everyday applications.
For example we are permitted to put our household rubbish only in the Koubira collection area, with our name written clearly on the officially sanctioned Arita-cho bags. Any rubbish incorrectly bagged or mis-identified will not be collected. We learned this lesson the hard way, when our orphaned bag remained long after the rubbish truck had done its rounds. A day or two later we were summoned by the head of the Happy Flats han, a group of ten or so households with rights to the Koubira rubbish cage. The head of the han is a barber. We duly went to his barbershop and sat on his vinyl lounge while he explained the rules. We apologized for our ignorance. My husband paid a small fee to the han and made the customary gift of ten rolls of rubbish bags, one for each household. After that we thought we were fine, until a second summons arrived. We went around to the barbershop again and apologised a second time for our inexperience. We were apparently required to write our name not only on our rubbish but also on the list if han members that is attached to the top of the cage. In this way we assist the garbage man to make the distinction between garbage that belongs to Happy Flats and garbage that is foreign.
Our exchanges with the barber were friendly enough, but I had the discomforting feeling I was embroiled in a system of benign surveillance and control best suited to places where the state fears its own citizenry. I had a similarly prickly sensation when we bought a car. It wasn’t as simple as paying for the car and driving it home the same day. There was an intricate procedure to be followed, eventually stretching to three weeks between the date of purchase and the date of delivery.
At the heart of the matter was the question of where we intended to park the car once it was in our possession. The house we’re currently renting has no garage. The day after we bought our car I followed my husband around our immediate neighbourhood in search of a covered car park. The car is a convertible so we thought it best to keep it out of the weather. About thirty metres from home we found a vacant space with a roof and duly called the owner’s number to arrange a lease. The owner, as it turned out, lived right next door to his parking lot so we were able to meet him face to face and arrange terms on the spot—five thousand yen a month—payable in cash.
The next step was to supply the owner with the standard police form we’d been handed by the Mini Cooper dealership in Fukuoka. The owner of the car park was required to fill in this form as proof that we now had formal arrangements for parking. In order to certify exactly what these arrangements were the form had a blank section on the second page where the owner of the car park was requested to draw a map of the car park’s location. The map was to include the distance from our house to the car park, the width of the access roads to the car park, and the site and dimensions of the actual car space under discussion.
As soon as the form was completed we collected it from the owner of the car park and mailed it express to Fukuoka along with a wad of other essential paperwork. Ten days passed. My husband called Fukuoka to check on progress. Everything was moving along fine apparently, although there was still the outstanding matter of the car park inspection. It seemed the form alone was not to be trusted. An added requirement was for its contents to be checked in person by an officer of the police bureau in the prefectural capital of Saga City. At this point I felt as if we’d entered a Pythonesque world of malign obfuscation, funny at the same time as it was exasperating. It’s commonly observed that Japan remains feudal at its heart, reigned over by an incestuous administration of Mandarin bureaucrats devoted to self-preservation. How else to explain the level of bureaucratic oversight required in the case of our car? I had to wonder how much Saga police work is devoted to inspecting parking applications, and how much to the detection of crime.
Not that there’s a lot of crime in Saga. I suppose it could be said that a high level of social order is the upside of heavy regulation on a street-by-street level. As my husband keeps telling me, it would be hard to do anything bad where we live. He’s fishing for a laugh, but a part of me wants to scream. After all, it was he who insisted on buying an open car. He doesn’t drive, but he had visions of me chauffeuring us around the countryside with the roof down and the wind in our hair. It’s the standard driving delusion—the car as an instrument of untrammelled freedom and mobility. Can’t he see the deep incompatibility there is between his imaginings and the dull reality? Who is he trying to kid anyway? The speed limit around Arita is forty kilometres an hour, fifty once you hit the highway. The driving experience is profoundly safe, the drivers well-mannered and patient. One feels constrained to be on one’s best behaviour at all times.
My father was in his early fifties when he left my mother. For the first time in twenty-five years he was free to go wherever he liked without squaring his plans with her. But at the very moment he was unburdened and unattached, he froze, overcome with despair. I could smell it on him. I could hear it in everything he said. It was like he’d lost his impetus to move and found nothing to replace it except remorse for all the time and energy he’d squandered upping stakes and leaving. He eventually took a job in the Manuka Mail Centre as a sorter and stuck with it until he retired at sixty-five. It was the longest period he’d spent in any one employment in the whole of his working life.
I can’t explain this turnaround in my father’s affairs, but I can say it struck me as a betrayal of his lifelong ideal. He’d always championed the virtues of traveling light. He was fond of giving me advice to that end. Make sure your footwork is good he would tell me. I think of him every time I watch Robert de Niro enact Neil McCauley’s downfall in Heat. McCauley falls in love, breaks the golden rule regarding attachments. Happiness slows his reactions. Dad was no master criminal but he did raise me to be always on the alert in case I became too comfortable, too settled in my ways. And then he repented and reinvented himself as a regular working man, union rep for the sorters, everyone’s favourite uncle. It made me question what all of the disruption I’d experienced growing up had been for.
I can only conclude that some of us, some of the time, are taken by an irresistible urge to be gone, while others are happy to stay at home. I am put in mind of this divide every time I watch coverage on Japanese television of the ongoing tragedy in northeastern Japan. The second anniversary of the Fukushima earthquake passed six months ago. All that week on television there were stories about towns in the area still struggling to make sense of the devastation. Despite the ongoing threat of radiation and regardless of the region’s demonstrated instability most of the people featured in these stories express a fierce desire to return to their towns and start the long travail of rebuilding. Furusato is the word on everyone’s lips—hometown—a term which I never hear without a queasy feeling of coercion. Surely, I want to say, one’s hometown is an accident of birth and not a destination.
But then I’m a creature of another world, a country of immigrants, a place where the claim to belong can sound tinny if you’re white and well traveled like I am. I’m a child of the jet age after all. My biggest thrill as a girl was crossing the tarmac at Kingsford Smith Airport to board a PanAm flight to Fiji where my father had decided we were going to live next. This was in 1965. Planes were silver back then, and bullet-shaped. You sensed danger as soon as you smelled their gasoline stink, along with an indescribable joy that such machines existed. All you had to do was climb the silver staircase and take your seat. After that the familiar would fall away, and a whole new world would start to reveal itself to you, in all of its astonishing dissimilitude. If you never came home again what matter, for there was no end to traveling. You could do it for the rest of your life and never be sorry.
Cory Taylor is an award-winning screenwriter who has also published short fiction and children’s books. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Me and Mr Booker is her first novel.