Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal's Journey from Down Under to All Overby Geraldine Brooks
As a young girl in a working-class neighborhood of Sydney, Australia, Geraldine Brooks longed to discover the places where history happens and culture comes from, so she enlisted pen pals who offered her a window on adolescence in the Middle East, Europe, and America. Twenty years later Brooks, an award-winning foreign correspondent, embarked on a human treasure hunt to find her pen friends. She found men and women whose lives had been shaped by war and hatred, by fame and notoriety, and by the ravages of mental illness. Intimate, moving, and often humorous, Foreign Correspondence speaks to the unquiet heart of every girl who has ever yearned to become a woman of the world.
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Read an Excerpt
It is a hot spring day and I am in the basement of my parents' house in Sydney, sorting through tea chests. Pine floorboards creak above my head as my mother steps beside my father's bed, checking his breathing mask. The old floor is thin and while I can't make out her words I recognize the tone, its veneer of cheerfulness layered on anxiety.
From my father, propped up on pillows, I hear nothing. He barely speaks anymore. His voice--the beautiful voice that once made his living--is silenced by the simple effort of breathing. He is staring toward a picture window that frames a view of ocean through a fluttering fringe of gum leaves. But he can't see it. His eyes, almost sightless now, are the whitened blue of faded cornflowers.
When my father moved to this beach house just after his retirement, he should have had the leisure to sort his old sheet music, to work on his half-composed tunes, read his cricket books, enjoy his correspondence. Instead, he became ill that year and never found the energy even to unpack. So I have come down here to do it, because I don't think I will have the heart to face these things once he is dead.
The dirt floor of the unfinished basement is cool against my bare legs, and I take my time. Twelve years of dust has filtered through the flimsy lids. Spiders scurry away, indignant, as I disturb them.
My father squirreled away everything. There are yellowed news clippings about his career as a big-band singer in Hollywood and Hawaii in the 1930s, before he came to Australia. There are dozens of dog-eared photographs of musicians with frangipani leis lying incongruously against their tuxedos; even more of Australian army mates in slouch hats at the Pyramids, in Jerusalem's Old City, among the huge-leaved trees of New Guinea.
And there are letters, piles of them. Replies to every piece of correspondence my father ever wrote. He wrote, I realize as I unfold the brittle pages of fifty-year-old letters, to everyone. From 1931, there is a two-line note from Albert Einstein, in verse, responding to a request for permission to perform a ditty about him that my father had composed. Einstein writes: "Though somewhat silly, I don't mind--there's no objection I can find!" There is White House stationery--a 1969 reply from the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers thanking my father for his "good letter" on interest rates. There is a 1974 response from the office of Rupert Murdoch answering my father's complaint about the creasing in his broadsheet newspapers. And a letter from an acoustical expert thanking my father for his suggestions about raising the height of a concert-hall floor to improve the way sound carries.
Each letter is a small piece of the mosaic of my father's restless mind, its strange mingling of global interests and nit-picking obsessions. Some of the replies raise questions: Why did he write to the Israeli Minister of Defense in 1976? Where is the poem he wrote about Winston Churchill that the Australian Prime Minister thanks him for in a 1958 letter? My father is beyond answering such questions now. I have left it too late to ask.
Near the bottom of a tea chest is a thick pile of airmail letters that raises an altogether different set of questions. Held by a withered rubber band, they are addressed, in various childish handwritings, to me. As I pull them out and blow the dust off, I recognize them as letters from my pen pals--from the Middle East, Europe, the United States.
I stare at them, puzzled. It was my mother who saved our school report cards, our drawings and poems, old toys and memorabilia. While I have never doubted that my father loved my sister and me, he rarely involved himself in the day-to-day business of our lives. Yet here, among his things, is more than a decade of my correspondence, from 1966, when I discovered pen pals, to 1979, when my parents moved to this house.
When I wrote to these pen pals, in the late 1960s and 1970s, my family inhabited a very small world. We had no car, had never set foot on an airplane and, despite my father's American relatives, never thought of making an international telephone call.
In the evenings, families in our neighborhood would gather on the front verandas of their houses and wait for the "southerly buster"--the big thunderstorm that would break the heat, lay the dust and leave the air cool enough to allow sleep.
I was waiting, too. Waiting for something to happen, and wishing that I lived in a place where something did. Except for relentless coverage of the British royal family, Australian newspapers paid little attention to foreign places. The nightly TV news was more likely to lead with the coliform bacteria count at Bondi Beach than the body count in Vietnam. Yet, at school, our history books were filled with tales of elsewhere. The Great Men--and they were all men, in those days--were British, American, German, French. I was aware from religion class that a few women had made it to greatness via sainthood, but they came from even more distant-sounding places--St. Theresa of Avila, Bernadette of Lourdes. A St. Margaret of Melbourne or a Diane of Dubbo was clearly out of the question.
My father's escape was the yellow-painted metal mailbox on a post by the privet hedge. Almost every day it contained a letter for him from somewhere else--flimsy aerograms or heavy bond paper with official-looking seals. At the age of ten I learned that it was possible for me, too, to write to strangers and have them write back to me. Suddenly, I could see a way to widen my world by writing away to all the places where I imagined history happened and culture came from. When the letters came back from Vaucluse in France or Maplewood in New Jersey, I studied the foreign images on the stamps and dreamed myself into the lives of the writers.
And now I have their letters again in my hands. I sit in the basement, reading, as the light slowly fades and the surf thuds on the nearby beach. Oldest of all, nibbled around the edges by silverfish, are the letters from my very first pen pal, a twelve-year-old girl nicknamed Nell who lived just across town, and in a different world.
Better preserved are the more recent letters from my American correspondent Joannie, to whom I wrote for more than fifteen years. She became my distant, teenage soulmate and taught me how evanescent, and how enduring, such a friendship can be. Her letters give me glimpses of my girlish self. "Do you know what the control mice died of?" she asks, reminding me of my grandiose and doomed attempt, at the age of fourteen, to alleviate world hunger by proving the edibility of garden weeds. I'd forgotten that I once knew how to write the words "Live Long and Prosper" in the original Vulcan. And did I once call myself by the hideous nickname "Gez"?
The geography of this childhood correspondence has become the road map of the adult life I have lived. Joannie's letters became a magnet drawing me toward the United States. In 1982, I wrote to tell her I had won a graduate scholarship to the Columbia School of Journalism in New York.
The address of my pen pal in a little village in southern France is only a hundred miles from the other little French village, on the stony, sunlit hillside, where I married in 1984.
In my teens, I wrote to an Arab and a Jew in the Middle East. Twenty-five years later, I arrived in Cairo on a hot autumn night to spend six years covering the Middle East as a reporter. From foreign correspondent to Foreign Correspondent: I have become the envelope full of words flying around the world.
But I know so little about these people who shaped my vision of the world. How has the reality of their lives matched the fantasies I projected on them from the safe harbor of my Sydney girlhood? I begin to wonder if it's possible to track down forty-year-old adults using only the childish letters they wrote half a lifetime ago. Gently gathering the fragile correspondence with its faded addresses, I decide that one day soon I will try to find out.
Meet the Author
Geraldine Brooks is also the author of Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women and a former foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, where she reported on wars and famines in the Middle East, Bosnia, and Africa. A native of Australia and a graduate of Sydney University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she currently lives in Virginia with her husband and young son.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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