01 Dec Return to the Source
My Writer’s Voice Linked to A Childhood Spent in the NSW Clarence Valley
The following historical photograph of my hometown, with the Clarence River and Susan Island across the water, bring me back to long-forgotten memories of childhood evenings underneath a balmy star-spangled sky in South Grafton next to the water’s edge. I wonder now whether this is the source of my writer’s voice: the places and storytellers from childhood that I carry within till this day? And for me, nature played—and still plays—a large part.
Is it the past that gives birth to the special voice within all of us, the one that reappears when narrating stories in written form? This throws up other questions for me, to do with the the relationship of voice to person, character and narration, and how “written voice” touches vicariously on an assumed reader and an assumed listener.
We were an unruly composite of uncles, aunts, siblings and neighbours, as a dark-skinned man that we kids knew as “Uncle Sammy” kept us spell-bound with tales from the Arabian Nights. His deep voice wove magic on us, retouching millenia-old yarns with an Aussie flavour that pulled us into the caves of Ancient Syria, whilst sitting on manicured lawn on the banks of the Clarence River in Grafton.
Other story-tellers from childhood were on the Irish side of my family: my mother and her mother, Grandma Walker; the Walker uncles, especially Uncle Bargy (pronounced /bah-ghee/), who was a stutterer. When Bargy told a story, his stutter magically disappeared during the telling of the tale.
And of course there were my teachers, many of whom were experts or naturals when it came to telling a good story. I remember the fairy stories that filled me with dread or longing in kindergarten, “Hansel and Gretel” and “Cinderella”, and later on, the stories of explorers, such as Burke and Wills, who perished in the desert. Then there was the teacher who recited “The Forsaken Merman”, reducing me to tears for the family of mer people abandoned forever by the human wife and mother.
And then, in Year Nine in high school, there was an occasion when I was reduced to a weeping mess as the teacher read out a long narrative poem, “Sohrab and Rustum“, by Matthew Arnold, about a father and son on opposite sides in battle, the father killing the son, who dies in his arms on the battlefield.
And so I realise now that it is to these story-tellers, the flesh-and-blood ones, that I owe a debt of gratitude for opening me up to the power of narrative. With a short story, it is important to know who is telling the story—the narrator behind the words— in mastering the concept of voice. Within a novel it can be more complex, as several “voices” might be used in retelling. However, many agree that each author has a particular “voice”, which distinguishes her from others.
Voice and person are closely connected. The choice of a certain person—first versus third—will greatly affect voice, just as the choice of a certain character will assume a certain voice distinct from other characters in the story. This is what writers mean, when they say that the characters took over and pulled the narrative along. I believe the voice we choose when we write creatively is linked to the stories—the voices—we heard when we were little. And to the smells, sounds, images and feelings arising from the environment we found ourselves in.
My sense memories will forever be imbibed with the minty fragrance from eucalyptus trees and stories on the riverbank.