In this post, Lauren examines how we can use memory and contrast in our writing to gain greater insight into landscape and ourselves. The piece of prose we will use as inspiration to develop these skills today is Luisa Manea’s ‘Where is home?’ submitted to Mona all the way from Far North Queensland.
There has been a submission recently that really got me thinking about all the different ways our relationships with landscapes are products of contrast: home and away, negative and positive associations, remembered and forgotten. In ‘Where is home?’ Luisa writes about the way she felt torn when she last travelled back to Perth to see her 90-year-old parents before COVID closed borders.
She had previously felt her loyalties divided between two landscapes, one that has such warm associations with family and homeliness, and the other that offers so many opportunities for newness and rebirth, but this visit provided her with some clarity around her connection to her newer landscape: ‘Every year, holidaying in Gero, hanging with my parents is always stress-free and uncomplicated. Every Christmas, we brought in the sad-looking 5 foot, potted tree dad kept on the back veranda; mum got an old newspaper to put it on, so it didn’t mark the tiles; I wiped off the dust along with the skinny spider and their webs and threw a few old tatty decorations on it which we’d got for free at the local Target when they were doing a cleanout…Dad would watch the 6 am Latin Mass on the TV from Rome (his old home country), mum would watch and sing along with the 11 am church choir, and the rest of us would cook.’
During this trip, she realised that, whilst Western Australia has been a constant in her life for so long, her 6 years in the regional tropical paradisiacal landscape of Cairns have imprinted themselves upon her heart and her vision of her future:
‘Never before have I felt that it’s now possible I may never call Geraldton home and have a reason to visit. It’s family, not place, that is a reason to visit… This period reflected the possibilities of new beginnings and saying goodbye to old holiday customs.’ In fact, it is during this time, and this period of reflection, that Luisa realises that she considers herself ‘from’ Cairns, and somewhat alien in the landscape of the Western Australia aridity and vast blue.
Images left to right: Luisa in Cairns; Luisa in Geraldton. Images copyright Luisa Manea.
Where is home? By Luisa Manea
It's strange being on this side of the country.
It’s the exact opposite of where we call home.
Not a cloud in the vast translucent sky.
There are crystal clear blue and turquoise seas and days spent swimming with schools of tiny pearlescent white baitfish.
Beach sand the colour and texture of soft white talc, creating a filter on my face.
Tasting salt in the air.
Windy, arid, hot, and dry.
The light is brittle and sharp.
Windy swept hair is stripped of style, colour and shine.
Dead leaves and stripped-by-cockatoo trees are everywhere
Layers of bronze dust and brown lawns as far as the eye can see.
Sunburnt mangos and ant-covered beans, everyone’s desperate for a feed.
Waters on timers.
Drives that take miles.
The abundant natural-looking plastic plants are the only green, found indoors at the local café.
The coffee is piping hot, just like the surrounding environment.
The people are distant and wrinkled.
I am looking forward to stepping back into a kaleidoscope of colour.
Where the air is a stifling hug to my lungs.
Lychees from heaven smelling of exquisite perfume.
Explosions of Fuchsia Crepe Myrtle greet me at my front door.
Carpets of mangos dropping from laden trees; free food, if you know where to look.
Electric blue Ulysses butterflies, flapping around in a continual circuit.
Until they die.
I carefully collect their brittle bodies to join my butterfly graveyard, a biscuit tin.
The prolific sprouting of real waxy flowers from my ginger plants.
They are the perfect moulds manufactured by nature, not by machines.
The coffee is easy to drink and always decorative.
The sea, sand and horizon have no beginning or end; it’s a molten metallic colour of silver, iron, pink, magenta, and lilac.
Swimming is an afterthought and never carefree.
Where hair frizzes, skin glows with a sheen of sweat, and cheeks are always flushed…
Creativity comes in the size of the surrounding, bountiful mountains.
There’s always chatter and lots of cultures.
Where is home?
The first exercise is a challenge to answer Luisa’s question: Where is home? Are you, too, conflicted and torn between multiple places? Are you even torn between a dream of a landscape you would like to live? Is there nostalgia that comes from a past landscape? Is there a landscape frozen in time that you’d like to return to? Are you trapped in a current place that you call home for reasons other than those you’d like to?
Write what comes to mind without thinking too carefully about techniques. Write about specific parts of the landscape that capture your thinking when you’re considering the concept of home. It may be parts of place associated with comfort, with familiarity, with challenge, with adversity, with acceptance. Remember that people are part of place, but try to focus your descriptions on aspects of the landscape or built environment itself. If you are someone who has ties to a multitude of landscapes, aim for a paragraph about each one. Use the following exercises to focus on some of the more technical aspects of writing to improve a couple of your paragraphs.
Often we will read descriptions of childhood landscapes, shrouded in nostalgia, they are usually holiday-related or connected with important people in their lives, such as a grandparent’s farm. The reason so many of us are drawn to writing about childhood landscapes is because they are often highly emotive memories. The way human memory is organised means that the more emotionally charged an event or time, the more likely we are to be able to capture the details using our senses, which is gold for writing. This lens also means it could be a place or time we think about often, meaning we’ve processed the meaning of this time or place in our life and can be reflective in our writing as we understand its importance, which is of course extremely important in life writing and memoir.
This exercise requires you to consider a specific place about which you have a memory from childhood. Is it a positive or negative memory? Make a list of adjectives that could potentially be used to describe elements of the landscape and that have the right tone (positive or negative to match the memory). Match these to specific nouns from the landscape that use the 5 senses (see Sensory Landscapes – Part One for more on this), e.g. breath, salt, haze.
Can you now transform that landscape by remembering elements of the opposite tone within it, perhaps remembering the landscape in a different season, or at a different time in your life? Repeat the steps above to complete the contrasting description.
When we are trying to write using contrast, we tend to have all or nothing filters in play, which make us vulnerable to writing in clichés.
For this exercise, try to avoid obvious differences and focus on subtleties and nuances. Note in Luisa’s piece she focuses on aspects of the climate like the way the air affects her face, the difference in the abundance of mangos versus the scarcity of food for animals in a drought-affected landscape.
It might help to start by describing:
a place that you have a particularly strong aversion to, paired with a place that embodies its opposites
a place you haven’t been yet and desire to go to escape (this could be as simple as a holiday, a move away from the city, etc), and the place you’re wanting to escape from
a place that makes you feel torn. This is contrast in another sense, because it requires you to see the contrast in the place itself, perhaps there is an understanding that being in the places impacts you negatively, but it draws you in, or there is a place that you feel trapped in but it does benefit you in some way.
Author profile: Luisa Manea
We arrived in Cairns 6 years ago from Perth for better health care for our son, who has a rare genetic disorder, and a new opportunity for my husband’s employment.
They were thriving, but I found myself without employment and lacking self-worth; living in a regional area can be limiting. Sometimes in life, you must hit rock bottom to let go of the past and try something new, and that’s where I found art or art found me.
Responding to a call out for volunteers at a local gallery opened up a new career for me to try. The art scene in Cairns is very supportive and something I would not have pursued in Perth. Local galleries and the Cairns Council provide many opportunities if you can invest hours in creating new work and finding a unique style. I find art very therapeutic, calming and reflective, which often evolves into writing expressively, especially when submitting blurbs to explain why, where and when a piece of art was created.