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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 ...
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.
|1 Post Marked||3|
|2 Return Address||8|
|3 Little Nell||28|
|4 Beam Me Up, Joannie||46|
|5 Shalom, Mate||60|
|6 French Letters||73|
|7 Which Side Are You On?||85|
|8 Same Place, Different Skies||98|
|9 She Was Going to Be You||125|
|10 Arab, Jew and Aussie||141|
|11 Cherchez la Femme||173|
|12 Breakfast with the Queen of the Night||187|
|13 Yours, Faithfully||199|
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.
Geraldine Brooks: Oh, it's great to be with you!
Geraldine Brooks: I had thought about the pen pals that I had written to when I was a kid many times over the years, particularly after I became a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, and sometimes my work took me to countries like Israel, where I had had pen pals. But during those years, I thought their letters were lost. I thought I'd thrown them out in some overzealous teenage room cleaning, and I had no way to start to look for them. I couldn't remember their addresses. And it wasn't until I returned home to Sydney, when my father was dying, and started to sort through his paperwork that I found that he had actually saved all the letters that they had written to me. And so then I had the clues in my hand, sort of the end of the string, that could lead me to them. And so I started on a human treasure hunt to find out what had happened to these young people whose lives had so influenced mine. And I guess it was after I made the first contact that I started to think about writing about it.
Geraldine Brooks: It's very difficult to untangle the knot here of whether I became a foreign correspondent because of interests that the pen pals had awakened in me, or whether I got the pen pals because the interests in foreign countries were already hardwired in me. And I've puzzled about that a lot, and I wish I could say I became a Middle East correspondent because I'd been passionately interested in the Middle East when I was a teenager, which was true, but unfortunately, that's not how newspaper careers work. And in some ways, it was entirely serendipitous that I got offered the opportunity to be The Wall Street Journal's Middle East correspondent, mainly because the person who was occupying the job got thrown in jail by the Iranians. But certainly once the job was offered, I jumped at it without a second's hesitation. And when I look back on it now, it's uncanny the way the pen pals that I had as a girl really did lay down a template that my adult life then followed.
Geraldine Brooks: Yes [laughs], every time I get the chance, which is once a year for sure, and then any additional times that I can get somebody else to pay for it, and I've been very lucky that that's been at least two visits a year. And because I haven't lived in Sydney now for more than ten years, I'm planning to go back and live there at the end of next year to see it in the millennium. My husband's agreed to at least a one-year stay, and we'll see....
Geraldine Brooks: Well, thank you very much. From what I've heard about New Orleans, it has the same approach to life as Sydney, and I'm really looking forward to getting there sometime soon.
Geraldine Brooks: I think that starting to write the book so soon after my father died really shaped the book. If you had asked me before I started writing this book which of my parents influenced me, I would have told you without hesitation that I was 100 percent a mummy's girl, because she was the one who was always there encouraging an enthusiasm or directing a curiosity. But as I sat down to write this book, very much in the shadow of my father's death, I felt like he kept coming into the room and sitting down with me, and pointing out all the ways that he'd influenced me that I'd never even noticed. And I think that it was a very different book being written in the year after his death than it would have been being written at any other time. And I'm very glad for that opportunity to have been so close to his memory, and in a way, the book was a bit like saying Kaddish.
Geraldine Brooks: I think it took longer than it might otherwise have done, because I had a baby right in the middle of it, and when I came back to writing after that month of newborn miasma, it was back to basically a half a workday. I write from 9 til 1, which is when I have a sitter in the house, and then again in the afternoon when he naps, and if it doesn't get done in those hours, well, that's too bad, but that also cured my writer's block. When the sitter arrives, I write. I'm lucky that I have one really excellent in-house editor, in my husband, Tony Horwitz. He was working on a book at the same time called CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC, and so we edited each other ruthlessly. I also showed it to Brian Hall, who's a friend and a wonderful writer and novelist, a novelist friend in Australia, and, of course, my excellent editors at Doubleday helped in shaping and directing. And there were many drafts, and the first draft, I think, would be unrecognizable to anyone reading the finished book, which is probably the way it should be. If anything, I wish I had a chance to do one more draft, but that's always the way it is. I can't remember which writer said this, but it's very true "Books are never finished, they're only abandoned."
Geraldine Brooks: I think email has an immediacy that would have appealed to me enormously as a child. But I think that in this country we tend to forget that email is still very much a conversation of the world's elite, and when I think back to my own childhood, I never would have been able to span the distances of first world and third, of wealth and class, that I could with an aerogram or a piece of paper and a stamp. My pen pal in Maplewood, New Jersey, might have had a PC, but there's no way the humble circumstances of my Arab pen pal or my Israeli Jewish pen pal or my French girl from a peasant family in a southern hill town would have afforded such a luxury, and I'm not sure that my family would have been able to have a PC at home either, because there wasn't an overabundance of money there. And I think there's something very special about the waiting and the anticipation that goes on between sending a letter and getting one back across the ocean. I hope my son will have email pen pals all over the world, but I also hope there will still be such a thing as letters with a stamp that you can keep and find in your father's tea chest.
Geraldine Brooks: I think if anything, in some ways, we're walling ourselves off from each other more than we ever have. I'm thinking now of something that's very prevalent in the part of Virginia where I live, which tends a lot towards gated communities and towns like Reston, where the town square is owned by an oil company, and the constitutions writ does not run. I feel myself very much a globalist in some ways, and I love the way my life has given me the opportunity to share the lives of, for example, Eritrean village women in Africa and Muslim mountain women in Yemen, and to realize that our common joys and sorrows as women are much more important than the gulf of faith and circumstance that might otherwise define our lives. On the other hand, being an expatriate Australian living in the United States has also given me a fierce love for the special place that shaped my childhood, for the distinctive humor and the hard light and the way the rocks look. I wish that there was a way to reconcile globalism and nationalism, and somehow do away with the destructiveness of nationalism that gives us wars but keep the attachment to place that so often gives us art.
Geraldine Brooks: I think at different times of my life, I'd answer that question differently. Right now I love being alone in a room and waking up and not having to importune strangers who really would rather not talk to me. So often as a foreign correspondent, your job is to intrude into people's lives, and even to put them at risk, and just right now, I'm very glad to have a bit of a respite from doing that. And while with nonfiction books you still have to go out and do the research and do the reporting, it's not the same as getting that middle-of-the-night call from your foreign editor that means you have to get on a plane to somewhere made newsworthy by its misery. I guess I sound like a bit of a burnout case, and I think I am one. And I can see that one day I'll want to do foreign correspondence again, but right now, it's lovely to be at home watching the sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Geraldine Brooks: I think the most striking thing, to take the last part first, was that the seeds of a kind of Islamic feminism were to be found in Iran, where I certainly didn't expect to find them, and that in my view the worst place for women was Saudi Arabia, which is superficially very westernized in some ways. Writing that book was interesting, firstly because it was my first book, and I had to learn how to write a book, which took a while, especially to learn how to sustain a narrative. When I wrote for The Wall Street Journal, it was hard enough to keep a reader interested for 3,000 words, and then with a book, you're suddenly faced with keeping them interested for a way lot longer than that! But also I think it was challenging to try to write a book that would allow other people to hear the voices of women that we didn't usually hear from the hard-liners, like the women of Hezbollah, who turned out to be extremely accessible and very open to having a dialogue with a westerner. And finding them at home in slit-sided sexy satin nightgowns -- which is the way they can be when it's just women among themselves -- was just one example of how my eyes were opened to things being a lot more complicated than they seem on the surface.
Geraldine Brooks: A couple of times. Once, after the end of the Gulf War when I was in the mountains of Kurdistan and we came under fire from Iraqi helicopter gunships, and again in Somalia, where the situation was just incredibly unstable, and in Nigeria, where I got thrown in the slammer and accused of being a spy. I think the odd thing is that as a journalist, even when you're in very dangerous situations, you're rarely the target, and so it's a kind of randomness to the risk, and it's not to be equated with the kind of risks that the people face that you're writing about.
Geraldine Brooks: I think the days in Kurdistan. Firstly because I had been in Iraq a lot and among the Kurds before the Gulf War, when people were too afraid to speak to you, because speaking to a foreigner led to interrogations by Saddam's secret police. To be back there after the Kurds had risen up and taken control of their own territory, and were finally free to tell their stories, was exhilarating and kind of journalism at its best, what you become a journalist to do. And then when the uprising was crushed, a friend and colleague of mine died in the fighting, and it reminded me again how fragile the whole enterprise is. His name was Gad Gross, and he'd just graduated from Harvard; it was his first assignment as a photographer for Newsweek.
Geraldine Brooks: I think my favorite living author is Annie Dillard. Her prose is like poetry, and her sense of nature inspires me to look more closely at the world. My favorite young novelist is Brian Hall, who wrote THE SASKIAD and THE DREAMERS. For polemical writing, I love Bill McKibben's THE END OF NATURE, and my favorite all-time great is Jane Austen. I just wish she'd written several dozen more books.
Geraldine Brooks: I live in a village of 250 people surrounded by sheep and cattle farms. Occasionally I report, mostly magazine articles, and mostly things that don't require any travel, because I want to be around while my baby is small, as my mother was for me. I'm hoping to get started on another book very soon, and I think it's going to be about a woman adventurer in Australia in the last century, but I'm not sure. [giggles] The thing with books is, they're a bit like a marriage -- you have to spend an awful lot of time with the subject once you've committed to it, so you have to make sure you're really in love.
Geraldine Brooks: Having been really irritated in the past by expatriate Australians who purport to know what they're talking about when they haven't lived in the country for a long time, I'm reluctant to be too authoritative. However, I think Australia has a fabulous mix of enthusiastic people, a great physical environment enriched by an influx of talented migrants from all over the world, and a system of government that so far has resisted the global trend to a sort of "survival of the fittest" mentality. That means that there are still wonderful government schools and a universal health-care system that means the place isn't plagued by stresses between have-everythings and have-nothings, big winners and big losers. So if they can't make an economic boom out of that, there's something very wrong somewhere. [laughs]
Geraldine Brooks: There's something really nice about getting to know one place very well, about seeing people every day. It makes you very careful in your relationships with people in that you can't afford to be brusque or dismissive as you might if you were always moving on or if you live in a huge city, where the faces constantly change. Here, if you meet someone and you don't instantly have a rapport, you can't just dismiss them, because they're going to be in your life every day, and the result is that you tend to find on third or fourth meeting that there is something about that person that you can relate to, that you would have completely missed in those other lives. I'm finding that a real revelation, and I'm also enjoying planting a bulb and being around to see it bloom in the spring.
Geraldine Brooks: Just that I'm glad that this whole new way of relating to readers is available now. It's a very lonely business writing a book, and it's wonderful that when it's finished, you finally go out and read in bookstores and meet people who are actually taking home the words that you wrote. This is a way of getting to towns and cities that I otherwise might never have visited.
1. Discuss Brooks' choice to structure the book in two parts, and not to tell the story in straight chronology. What are the benefits of these choices? Are there any drawbacks?
2. In what ways did the geography of place affect Brooks?
3. Brooks was an outsider, a loner, an observer—as shown by events ranging from her childhood rheumatic fever, which often separated her from schoolmates, to living "down under," to coming of age on the cusp of the feminist movement. Is this feeling of "otherness" essential to a writer? To this writer?
4. Brooks writes, "In every urban family's history, there is a generation that loses its contact with the land." Do you think there is more dissonance between the generations that are on either side of this loss than there is to generations further away from it? Can you pinpoint the time in your family history where your family lost contact with the land? How has it affected your family?
5. Australians have an instinctual need to leave their island and explore the world. Discuss this as a theme in Brooks' memoir.
6. Australian men have a deep and particular relationship with their male friends, their mates, as described by Brooks and others. Compare and contrast this with the idea of women's friendships in the United States, which are often cited as different and deeper than men's friendships.
7. Discuss Brooks' religious upbringing and why you think she converted to Judaism. Did her childhood experiences foreshadow the conversion to come?
8. Brooks comes to a gradual realization that Australia is not so small a place after all. How does this compare or contrast with American myths of exploration and home?
9. In what ways does the Australian "Cultural Cringe" syndrome mirror the more personal cringe that many children, especially teens, feel about their parents and their brothers or sisters?
10. Brooks writes that she "had more years of shared confidences with Joannie than with any of my mates in Sydney." Would their relationship have been less important if they had not developed it through writing only? In what ways? In your experience, does the act of writing letters make a friendship stronger?
11. Do you think e-mail has changed the pen pal experience for kids? In what ways?
12. Assume you have to choose one or the other, which is preferable—to grow up in a restricted environment with no car, with no travel, and with curfews and strict limits? Or to travel widely and experience many different cultures and have more responsibility and opportunity at an earlier age? Talk about the benefits and drawbacks of each.
13. Discuss Brooks' identification with Joannie—her observation that she's living the life Joannie was meant to lead.
14. Does Brooks follow or disregard (personally and professionally) the advice she received from a veteran correspondent, "Never get in the middle. You have to choose your side." How does the author feel about the middle?
15. When Brooks is in the French village of St. Martin, visiting Janine, do you suspect that she will ultimately identify so strongly with her?
16. Brooks confesses that she felt an "inevitability" about leaving Australia. Do you also think it's inevitable that she'll go back and live in Australia with her husband and son?
17. Brooks' father kept secrets from her for a long time. How might she have felt if she learned about her father's other daughter at an earlier age? Do you think he made the right choice in keeping it from her for so long?
18. Talk about the "happiness set point." In what ways do you essentially agree with or question this theory of human behavior?
Posted May 1, 2009
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Even though this title was written over 10 years ago, I am just now discoving the author due to the publication last year of her PEOPLE OF THE BOOK. Ms. Brooks has an engaging writing style and I throughly enjoyed this look into her earlier life. When I find a writer I enjoy, I try to read everything they have written up to this point, which I will also do in this case.
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Posted March 7, 2003
Let me say right off that I believe that Mrs. Brooks would be a wonderful companion to spend hours with talking. Yet this doesn't come across as strong as it could in this work. I found some points interesting but on the whole it was weak in the captivation category. I do how look forward to reading this authoress' Nine parts of desire.
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Posted November 19, 2011
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