As an artist, I am interested in writing about everyday life, everyday heroes, and the people and experiences that shape us. We all understand the word hero: it describes a person, not a gender, who meets challenges or obstacles with courage. The idea is often associated with famous, remarkable or mythical people. In my view, this is a mistake because it misses what is amazing, magical and remarkable about everyday life. For me, heroes are people like us: all of us. We are not born heroes but we become heroic as we struggle with the everyday. Importantly, it is not the hero’s survival that makes the hero – we know of many heroes who did not survive – but the courage demonstrated in taking up the struggle. Heroes usually save other people’s lives and in the process, their own; if not physically, then at a metaphysical level.
In my opinion, people, all human beings, are fundamentally similar: we come into the world without choice; we have similar needs; we feel similar emotions: joy and grief and fear, and we live with the knowledge that we all must die. Despite these fundamental similarities, there are differences: we have different personalities; different physical and material conditions, and we have different experiences. Immigration is one of these experiences – only some people have it. Of course, there are others. The fact of immigration in our lives may be positive or negative and is probably a bit of both. In combination with other factors, migration can be really challenging.
I am a migrant. I came to Australia in 1959 on a boat, as a young girl, with my parents and brother. My life has been shaped by my parents’ decision to migrate to Australia. So I am really interested in the topic of migration, but I am also interested in identity, relationships and values, and everyday heroics, of course, and I am interested in exploring these ideas in my writing.
For me, immigration provided enormous opportunities: I was able to study at University and I have been able to achieve everything I have wanted. But it has also had its difficulties. As a child, I often felt isolated because we had none of our close family around us and I really missed having grandparents and aunties and cousins . Like my parents, I experienced racism. I had other experiences linked to being a migrant. For example, like many migrant children, I had to translate and interpret for my parents , which was usually fine – I liked helping my parents . But sometimes it was uncomfortable , like when I had to provide the doctor with intimate details about my mother’s or father’s health. Awkward!!
One of the threads I want to pick up on in my writing is this: for migrants, life has all the same potential delights and challenges as anyone’s, but migration brings an extra dimension, which can make life more complex. This can be the experience that requires a heroic response.
My current novel – the one I’m still writing, snippets of which are in my blog – is called Becoming Beata. It is set in Melbourne in the 1960s and is about the experiences of an Italian migrant woman – Beata. In Italian, Beata means happy or blessed. But the Beata in my novel is none of these things – at least, not for a while. Apart from facing the usual challenges: earning a living while raising children, struggling with English and being understood, she lives with constant anxiety because her husband is unpredictably violent with her and with their children. And she is afraid that something terrible is going to happen.
Family violence is indeed another circumstance experienced only by some; and requires great courage to meet. Even so, there is no guarantee of survival. Too many women in Australia, courageous as they are, do not survive it. As a society, we haven’t been able to eliminate this violence, despite laws and other protections for women and children who experience it. In Beata’s time, in 1960s Australia, there was no systemic support for women, who had to find their own ways to deal with it. And it was even more difficult for migrant women. In this sense, there is a struggle involved in becoming what is implied in her name. Beata has a lot to overcome, not least of which are her beliefs, values and desires: about marriage, about being a woman and what constitutes a good life. Her journey is heroic, in an everyday kind of way…
I won’t pretend that none of this is personal: creating this story is like weaving a magical cape or forging a shield. Like many other Scheherazades before me, I write to save others and myself.