Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dave Freer on moving home and Writing

Dave Freer has recently relocated to Australia. Originally from South Africa, he writes here about the transplanting of person and culture from a writers perspective.
Take it away, Dave ...

It’s a long, long way from there to here... Kind of trite really. But reality often is, and where I am now both as a writer and in physical geography, is a long way from my origins. Once I was an Ichthyologist and lived in South Africa. Now I am a writer and pleased to be a very new Australian settler, living on a remote island in the Bass strait. ( )

What do you mean, you thought they put boat-people on Christmas Island? I’ll have you know that somehow the Australian authorities decided I was a desirable migrant. I chose to go and live on Flinders Island. Really. Would I lie to you?

Heh, seriously, it’s a good place to write (well, there are a lot of distractions like a beautiful sea, which I have to catch our tea in) but it’s quiet and friendly, and comfortingly safe, far from the realities and restless ghosts of the lost dream. I came here to find peace in which to write... I’ve written (or co-authored as the principle writer with Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey) some 12 sf/fantasy novels and a shed-full of shorts so far. They are quietly and subtly flavoured with the dust of Africa and it’s going to be interesting to see how a transplanted seedling writer does in a new and very different soil. Probably like African boxthorn - (you know, irrepressible and good for nothing) although at the moment it’s still unfamiliar soil and a different landscape, inwardly and outwardly.

That inner landscape -- the hidden shared background that makes it possible to write something which carries a great deal more than just the words -- and the private corners which writers reveal that we readers guiltily enjoy a voyeuristic peek at, is, for an outsider, a lot more tricky to navigate than for born-and-bred Australians. It’s also something that as an incomer I am aware of, that locals may not be: the undertones, the not-quite-spoken attitudes, the subtleties of meaning derived from understanding that background. Hell, even the pronunciation of innocent words can lead a poor foreigner into all sorts of trouble. I’m a rock-climber, and, once-upon-a-time, opened a whole lot of new climbing routes, mostly fingerlocking up vertical cracks. Did you know that South Africans pronounced route = root?

I leave the results of this slight difference to your fevered imagination, because it allowed me to sneak an example of how that shared linguistic landscape shapes things: "once-upon-a-time" told the Western English-speaking reader a great deal more than just the direct meaning of the words. It carries a history - baggage if you like. A simple direct translation into Zulu would not. Likewise that background allows words to carry many more things than just a simple meaning: mood, allusions, implications, sometimes back-history. Some of this is widespread among first language English speakers. I used a lot of this in PYRAMID SCHEME and PYRAMID POWER where I extensively used the common of classical Western mythology we have -even if only via Marvel comics. You all know the baggage of Loki or Thor.

Of course each country has its own. It is something I am working hard at learning here. "It’ll be the Eureka Stockade all over again" means something to most Australians, "It’ll be Blood River all over again" doesn’t. But it’s very important (to me as a writer anyway) to understand that inner landscape. One of my primary goals as a writer is remain accessible and easy to read. Unfortunately, I seem to blunder into writing about some fairly complex subjects. I could either fail at accessibility... or I could let the readers fill in the gaps by using that shared background. So it becomes very important to me know not just what ‘a squatter’ or ‘a bogan’ is but what implications there are in calling a character one. Knowing the baggage carried by a word and using that baggage can subtly make you a much more powerful and effective writer. It’s a difficulty I faced as a South African writing principally for an American market. It doesn’t help that I don’t live there, and that the culture -- while sharing more than most of us are prepared to admit -- has its own shared inner landscape. The reality for those of us who want sell to the international English-speaking market is that one has to at least get a handle on the crude geography of it. The US is the biggest market - and that market (just like anywhere else) is a complicated mixture of xenophilia and xenophobia.

I suppose you could say you just want their money and stuff their background and culture. We all love Americans, or Chinese or Poms or South Africans who do that, don’t we?

Rowena, here. Interesting points, Dave. I read 'Brasyl' which had a strong South American flavour. As readers, have you discovered writers who give their books exotic flavours? Middle East, India, South Africa? I loved the movie, 'District 9'!


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Running away to write sounds like a wonderful idea, Dave!

Rhonda Roberts said...

Hi Dave

Welcome to South-east Gondwana! May your journey here bring you all you need and much, much more.

What a great post! I love the thoughtful issues you raised... The necessity of writing from a developed inner landscape and yet how difficult it is to make that essence accessible especially when writing for foreign markets.

Important on going questions for us all I think...

As a scientist who seems deeply connected to his environment have you found your new habitat has changed your sense of place yet...? Has it crept into your writing in some way? Or in how you work?

kindest regards

Rhonda Roberts said...

Hi Rowena,

Haven't seen District 9 yet but want to! Is it good?

The first book I read (as a kid) that gave me that sense of the exotic was Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals. Still want to go to Corfu because of it!


Flinthart said...

Rhonda -- to a non- South African, District 9 was really excellent. But as Dave observes, your background knowledge can completely alter your experience of a thing. I, too, would like to know what someone from that part of the world thought of the movie.

Chris said...

Hi Dave,

I'm an Aussie living in Botswana and know a lot of South Africans moving to Oz. Sad for SA but it will benefit Oz enormously.

As a reader I find being limited by the American sensibility incredibly frustrating. There's so much other cultures have to contrubite, to all genres. But as you point out, there is that little detail - cash.

On District 9, I can't comment because even though Botwsana shares a sgnificant border with South Africa and is a properous country, hardly anyone goes to the movies here. I live in the country's second largest city and we don't have a even have a cinena. So though the film might have been shown widely in SA (I don't know), it's unlikely anyone else in Africa even know's it's been made.

Anyway Dave, hope your new home is lekker and you find what you're looking for.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


District 9 was a very dark comedy. If you like that sort of thing, then you'd like it.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Hi Chris,

I didn't know you were from Botswana. Are there many writers and readers of Speculative Fiction where you live?

Dave Freer said...

:-) As far as a lot of people are concerned, I just ran away, Rowena (there is a huge amount of social pressure from certain segments of SA's pop to regard migrants as cowards and weaklings. Deciding to leave and jumping through the hoops was one of the hardest things I've ever done. And being in a strange place without any support network is tough.

Dave Freer said...

Rhonda - it's a balancing act. Foreign readers are as I said that mixture between xenophobes and xenophiles (yes in the same reader, but in different propoportions). You're never going to please all of them, but most enjoy at least some touch of exoticism. Other than a small section of masochists who love to hate and despise their own culture but wouldn't dream of leaving its comforts or lifestyle, actively 'dissing' them (which for instance I have frequently heard Brits, South Africans, Australians do about America - to the point where the subtle disdain creeps in to any mention) is probably a poor idea. And there are cultural red lines. Ameriacans for eg don't do scatological humour. Jokes about the dunny are not funny.

I am sure that Australia - and this island and its people in particular will creep deeply into my writing. But it's not quite 3 months...

Dave Freer said...

Rhonda - on Gerald Durrel and My Family and other Animals. I wonder if the tourism authorities (or those custodians of a country's image ever realise just how enormously and long-lastingly influential books are? More so than movies IMO, because although typically movies get seen by more people they engage the punter for far less time (I read fast but for many people, they'll 'live' in that book's world for days or even weeks). They engage in far more depth than any movie can (look at the length of a movie script) and finally books societal retention time dwarfs movies. Movies (even with rentals on DVD and re-runs) unless they are spectacular are gone in 6 months. A book, because it is a solid purchased object, hangs in there. It's still circulating and influencing 20 years on. The Durrells are at the root of a million pax a year tourism business on Corfu - and a surprisingly large number go on tours to see Larry and Gerry's places, still. The impact of fiction set in a country are equally immense (Shute for eg. made a vast contribution to Australia. It would take a multi-billion ad campaign to equal his contribution to the image of Australia - whether you liked it or not). Yet the powers that be worry about the movie industry, and virtually ignore writing.

Dave Freer said...

Chris it is frustrating to have everything through an American lens. But that's actually because they dominate the writing field, IMO. It is possible to write so that it passes their sensibilities, and yet so that any South African would know instantly it was written by a South African. It's difficult to live up to their preconceptions of 'exotic' sometimes. PYRAMID SCHEME as a classic eg. - I got an outraged critique from a reader - Liz De Beer reads like an American. Hadn't the writers done any homework?

Dave Freer said...

On District 9 - I haven't seen it yet. For a start life has been... busy. For a second thing I watch a movie at least once a year, whether I need to or not ;-). I would probably not have chosen to see this particular one, as although it had a South African director, it still had to pass hollywood's filters. Hollywood can't even do a reasonable portayal of America most of the time.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


District 9 was very black humour, but under it, at its core was a sweetness. The main character really did love his wife. Ad the ultimate irony was that his story was a tragedy of Love lost.

Rhonda Roberts said...

Good luck to you Dave!

It's sad to hear you had to leave under such difficult circumstances but I hope the new year and the new decade brings the fresh start you want.

best wishes

Chris said...

Hi Rowena,

Most writers in Botswana write about Botswana and not much else.

There's a bookstore in the captital Gaborone (4 hours drive) but if you want anything non-mainstream you need to get down to Johannesburg.

Chris said...

I sympathise with Dave's difficulties in getting into Oz. Most of us don't realise how hard the government makes it for people to get into our country.

Even people who have skills on the 'scarce skills' list have to wait over a year to find out if they qualify. Not to mention the tests...And the South African government has recently made it difficult for those leaving to transfer their savings out of the country...

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