The Past Is A Secret Country
Ancient memories, a mysterious past, new beginnings…
Freya Kirby’s battle to regain custody of her children is about to take her back to her past in Australia, to a time of hidden truths – towards a spiritual heritage that manifests itself in her dreams, but which she does not recognise or understand.
Freya has a mysterious, innate gift for healing. She’s going to need this gift, for one day the wounds of the past arrive in the shape of Connie. High-flying Connie is an indigenous Australian with an American accent. As unlike the fair-skinned Freya as it is possible to be…
And when she meets Peggy, who lives in Australia’s heartland, Freya has an unforgettable experience that will at last reveal the truth and reconcile her with the two mysterious strangers in her life.
Passionate about her children, unsure of her future and confused about her earlier life, Freya is certain of only one thing; she must embark on a quest that is at once spiritual, emotional and physical. A journey without expectations, to an unnamed destination.
“The story, which could have reeked of surplus sentiment, is instead handled with subtlety and grace”
(SUNDAY BUSINESS POST)
The author drew on her experience of living on a houseboat near London for this story, as well as the year she spent working on a sheep station near Walgett, NSW.
Extensive research about Aboriginal culture and spirituality helped the author create a moving and insightful portrayal of the lives of Australia’s rightful owners.
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QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
What inspired you to write The Past Is A Secret Country?
It wasn’t a conscious decision to write about three sisters, but in hindsight I can see that it had its roots in my own situation. I have a half-sister, and my half-sister has a half-sister. I never knew them until shortly after my daughter was born. I had also never met my real father. The birth of my daughter threw up all sorts of questions that I felt needed answering. I grew up with a sense of something missing – my father – although I was never obsessed about meeting him, there was a niggly awareness from a young age that my life was different to my peers, who all grew up with a father. I grew up in a house that was all-female, my mother and my grandmother, and visiting aunts and cousins. My mother was a ladies hairdresser and when I visited her salon I was always surrounded by women. My grandmother looked after me while my mother, a single parent, went out to work.
After my daughter’s birth, I wrote to my father. He and his wife replied with a telegram. It said, quite simply: ‘Welcome to the family. We look forward to meeting you.’ A few weeks later I received a letter from my half-sister. Although I couldn’t afford it, I managed to scrape the airfare together to travel to Australia, with my son and daughter, who were very young at the time, to meet them.
That was the underlying inspiration for the book, but I also wanted to explore the themes of identity, the importance of family, sisters, divorce, child custody and adoption, racism and the difficulties we face as humans when all the odds are stacked against us. It’s about facing our problems head-on, with courage, and learning from our experiences, good and bad. It’s also about the healing power of forgiveness and being honest and open about our relationships. Things sometimes happen in the past that affect future generations, so it is also about coming to terms with that and learning from it.
What was it like, meeting your father and half-sister for the first time?
Apart from the birth of my children, it is up there as one of the happiest days of my life. It was quite strange, as he was a total stranger, yet I felt very comfortable with him. He was very ill with Parkinson’s disease. When I arrived in Sydney to meet him he was in hospital. The first thing I did when I got off the plane was find a public phone ( mobiles were uncommon in those days) and call him. But his wife answered my call, and told me I wouldn’t be able to meet him because he was ‘too ill.’ It was a huge blow. Gut-wrenching. When I spoke to my half-sister later I discovered her mother had a serious health problem. I felt very sad for them all, but I was also determined not to go back to the UK without having met my father. I didn’t want to cause any trouble, but I’d flown all that way, and got myself into debt to pay for the trip, and I needed to meet him, so he could see for himself I had forgiven him for abandoning me. If I didn’t meet him it might be too late. He was already in his seventies. Thankfully, a meeting was arranged. First, I travelled by train to meet my half-sister and step-mother. It was a very emotional, exciting day. My sister and I hit it off immediately. We looked alike. I loved her sense of humour. She is a talented singer and actor. I later met her daughter, my niece, and that was also a special moment.
Soon after that we all went together to the hospital to visit my father. It was awkward meeting him for the first time with everyone there. I wanted to speak with him privately. But it was still an uplifting, unforgettable moment. I know now that these experiences have inspired and enriched my novel.
Why did you give your characters an Indigenous background?
I wanted to stretch myself, and my readers. I asked myself the question What if . . . the sisters had a mysterious past? What if . . . they were born black, to white parents? What if . . . their mother had not been unfaithful, as her husband Henry suspects, and the girls’ black roots came from a dormant gene? Would this be even possible? I did some research and discovered that it was indeed possible, and has happened. One case in particular attracted me, that of a young African girl who was born to white parents. What a shock it must have been to that couple, and to the mother in particular. In that case the parents were loving and accepting. But what if they weren’t? Henry is a bigot, so of course he can’t bear to even look at the babies. And so he takes them to the city and has them all adopted.
I’ve always been interested in Australia’s Indigenous people. Where I grew up on Sydney’s northern beaches I spent hours exploring the bush near my home, and often came across beautiful rock drawings of kangaroos, koalas, emus, snakes, and deep caves that had clearly been used at some point as shelters – there was plenty of evidence of people having been there: empty shellfish, stones arranged in patterns around abandoned camp fires and middens. The bones I found in particular fascinated me. Where were these mysterious people now, I wondered? I was very adventurous when I was little, and spent hours exploring the area on my own. My imagination ran riot! But when it came to writing the book I looked back at those days with shame at my ignorance. Although it wasn’t my fault. We simply weren’t taught about Australia’s real Indigenous history at school. The text books listed Aboriginals in the same chapters as fauna and flora. There was nothing written about the annihilation of whole communities. Those who weren’t slaughtered were hunted out of these areas like wild animals. They fled inland, leaving nothing but rock drawings and warm embers behind. Some ended up in Sydney’s inner west. Their ancestors are still there today, still struggling to hold their heads up and show their dignity in the face of degradation and prejudice. I wanted to explore the spirituality of Indigenous culture, the beliefs and laws that make them unique and special. I knew all along it was a risk, writing about something that is not popular. I knew deep down it would not be a best-seller, but I lived in hope. After all, there are many stories about black cultures that have been hugely successful. I wanted to share what I learned with my readers, with the world. So I took the risk. And I’m glad that I did, because what I learned when writing the book opened my eyes to the beauty and resilience of these inspiring people.
It must have been difficult writing a story set in Australia when you were based in the UK. How did you go about your research for the book?
I’ve worked in the outback, for a bigoted farmer who hated blacks. He said they were lazy and went walkabout whenever they felt like it, leaving him in ‘the lurch’ as he put it. I now know that those men had good reasons for going walkabout – they had important business to attend to. Rituals to perform that were vital to their souls and to their community standing. I have also worked with Indigenous children who needed medical attention, and was appalled at the way they were treated by their white peers. The farmer once took great delight in telling me how filthy Aboriginals are, and that they were banned from using the community swimming pool because they were so dirty. At that time blacks were arrested if they ventured into some towns. Segregation was alive and well in Australia right up until the 1970s.
At the time of writing the book I was unable to visit Australia so I had to rely on books for my background material. I read many, but one in particular stood out : The Politics of Ritual in an Aboriginal Settlement, by Francoise Dussart, Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies at the University of Connecticut. Dussart spent ten years studying female ritual leaders at the Yuendumu settlement in Central Australia. Her work shows how these women transcend the inflexible physical divisions that separate them from the men, and how they are able to work side-by-side with the men, yet retain their individuality as women, as Warlpiri and as members of residential kin groups. These women, whose authority depends on complex networks of both male and female relatives, not only sustain the Warlpiri cosmology but also exercise power over such issues as mining disputes, land reclamation, and the production of acrylic paintings. Dussart explains how rituals conceptualized as a form of social currency are imbued with a value-laden sensibility of ‘winning’ while expressing and maintaining social harmony. The complexity of these strong women appealed to me as a woman and a writer. Because there is so little written about the more private aspects of their world, I wanted to try and convey their spiritual beauty and depth through my characters. I am not an authority, far from it. But I hope the story conveys something of their complex culture, in particular how nocturnal dreams are integrated into the Dreaming, and how some women are more spiritual than others.
Why did you choose to write the chapters about Henry, the sisters’ biological father, in the notoriously tricky second person?
I felt it was the perfect medium for his voice, as it is very intimate and powerful. You feel as though what he is thinking are your own thoughts. It’s quite disturbing, and that was the aim, because he’s a bigot. I wanted to get inside his head and show his outlook clearly. It does make people squirm when they read those chapters – it’s quite uncomfortable and challenging, and that was the purpose for choosing it.
The storyline is complex – there’s a lot going on: the two other sisters; Freya’s new love, Sam Jenner; her ex-husband Neill and his new wife; Freya’s children and the custody battle with Neill. Then there are the main challenges that Freya has to face: confronting her adoptive parents in Australia; confronting her biological father, Henry, and meeting her third sister, Peggy, in central Australia. Discovering her true identity as a ‘black’ woman with a deep and complex spirituality, even though her skin is white, is the pivotal moment. Why did you write such a complicated story?
I didn’t plan it that way, it just evolved, in the same way that real life evolves. Life is complex, and puzzling, and often very painful, and nothing is as it seems. I guess as I wrote the story I kept asking myself: What if this happened, or that, and the story just grew from being open as a writer and allowing myself the freedom to explore ideas and different scenarios.
Have you ever thought about writing a purely romantic story, something less serious and literary?
The book I’m writing at the moment is a romantic adventure set in the outback of Australia. Although the main character will venture towards the coast during her travels. So it is also a travelogue. It’s not frivolous, because it will deal with a lot of life issues that ordinary people face: how to find love and be loving, how to attract someone in the first place and hang onto them! It addresses things like good manners and open communication. There will be lots of drama, but it will also have plenty of gentle humour. It is the first of a series I am developing.
Is it hard to write something ‘lighter’ after writing literary fiction?
Yes, I have to admit I’m finding it tough. But my agent is helping me enormously. She keeps reminding me of the importance of showing, not telling, which is especially important in more commercial fiction. To show means to write the story in scenes, to avoid the trap of writing too much narrative, of ‘telling’ the reader what is going to happen next, and why or how. Scenes unfold before the reader’s eyes – through the use of dialogue and action/reaction.
Will you ever write another literary novel?
I have already started one set in Calcutta, India, or Kolkata as it is now called. It is the story of two sisters in a changing world. Unlike the romantic fiction series, this one is flowing out of me quite easily. But I want to wait awhile until I’m able to visit Kolkata and do some research. The basic premise is how progress affects people’s lives. One of the characters works in the concrete industry. His company is knocking down some of the city’s oldest and most beautiful palaces to make way for new buildings. The main character’s mother lives in one of these palaces – but she can’t afford to keep it from crumbling. The city’s damp climate is affecting the plaster. But the main reason she refuses to give it up are the families who live there with her – people who lived in the surrounding shanty towns. When these tin shacks were knocked down to make way for new concrete apartments that they couldn’t afford, she invites some of them to live in her ailing palace. The protagonist has to fight the concrete industry and think of ways to save her mother’s home, and in doing so she falls out with her sister.
Where do you do your writing?
I do most of it at my desk in my study. But I am always writing in my head. People who don’t write really don’t understand that. They can’t imagine what it’s like to have words and sentences and ideas for stories constantly forming in your head. But that’s really how it is for me. It can be frustrating when you can’t put those ideas and words down on paper or your computer. So many things get in the way of getting it all written down – family, friends, housework, the gym, travelling, reading! But of course you have to prioritise. Easier said than done!
It’s important to have a dedicated work area. A haven where you enter the fictional world as soon as you’re there. Visual prompts are helpful. I have a pin-board with photographs and magazine cuttings of the various settings in my books. And pictures of people who resemble my characters. And quotes from other writers on writing. And scraps of paper with ideas I’ve jotted down. For the romantic adventure series I’ve put together a collage on a large sheet of card, with Australian animals, and people that are typical of the places my character will visit, with scenery and other quirky paraphernalia that you might see out there. It’s amazing how it transports me into the story as soon as I see it. I love my work and am grateful I’ve found what I’m best at. I hope my passion might inspire other writers to keep going. Because it’s not an easy profession. It’s hard work. But the rewards are enormous.