It’s with great joy I welcome Portland Jones back to the attic today. She visited back in 2019 – read that post here – but our friendship goes back to 2014, when we were both shortlisted for the City of Fremantle – TAG Hungerford Award.
Portland has just published her second novel, Only Birds Above, and today she talks about why it’s important to her to write about her family history.
Portland is a writer, lecturer and horse trainer who lives and works in the Swan Valley. She has a PhD in Literature and her first novel, Seeing the Elephant, was shortlisted for the City of Fremantle–TAG Hungerford Award. Only Birds Above is her second novel. She has also co-authored a non-fiction book, Horses Hate Surprise Parties. Portland is currently working on a third novel and another non-fiction book.
Turning Family History into Historical Fiction
My grandfather died slowly in a hospital room that overlooked a car park. Waxed bonnets reflected the sun in thin, hot shards and withered jacaranda trees were collared by bitumen. My grandmother stood by the window, the glare narrowing her eyes, and sighed like there was something someone could do, but wouldn’t. My grandfather’s hands were small and crumpled on the sheet and a vase of cut lilies had left rust-coloured pollen stains on the cotton blanket. As I stood up to leave he waved me closer and said, “Life is a long road, child,” his voice like something heavy being dragged over stones. “But you’ve just got to keep walking.”
I wish now that I could have told my grandfather that one day I would fly to the place where his father died. That I would stand in the swampy long grass of Camp Two on the Pekanbaru death railway, listening to the call to prayer and the sounds of trucks and motorbikes churning up the highway. I wish I could have told him that by a slow moving river choked with weeds I would smell diesel fumes, the leaf mould and salt of marshland, and I would think of him.
But I didn’t of course; I was eighteen, there was beach sand between my toes and the smell of sweat and some boy’s aftershave on my skin. And I didn’t fly to Pekanbaru until my grandfather had been dead for twenty-five years, my great-grandfather for seventy, and the children whose lives I hadn’t yet even imagined were almost grown. Instead I patted his hand, hugged my grandmother’s shoulders and hurried down three flights of piss-smelling concrete stairs into a shadowless summer noon.
For me, writing part of my family history meant hauling a freight of memory. My great-grandfather died long before I was born but, still, he was there in the communal memory of our family. I had photographs of him unsmiling behind a wide teak desk and pith-helmeted between the long-shrubbed rows of a Sumatran coffee plantation. I had my grandmother’s and great-aunt’s stories, teak carvings, rattan chairs and a small brass bell engraved with elephants. And eventually, from the Dutch archives, his death certificate inked with hiragana and translated by my daughter’s Japanese teacher.
History, to me, is the constellation by which we navigate the deeper waters of our lives. Our family histories are the closest stars, the ones we see from our bedroom windows and back verandas. The ones that make sense of the unfamiliar, that we search the sky for when we’re far from home.
Thirty years after my grandfather died I watched my father die in the same hospital. For four days we sat by his bedside and watched him ebb quietly away and I balanced my laptop on my knee and read to him from the half-edited manuscript of Only Birds Above, remembering how at the launch of my first novel he had sat in the front row, his proud, kind face wet with tears.
As I’ve got older, I’ve come to understand that life, as my grandfather said, is indeed a long road. For me, writing historical fiction is like recording some of the steps of someone I’ve never met. Not only as a way of bearing witness to their journey, but as a way of reminding myself that the night sky will always provide enough light by which to navigate.
It’s always a pleasure to offer a book giveaway, and today I’m thrilled to offer a copy of Portland’s book, Only Birds Above.
To enter, simply comment on this blog or any of my social media posts about Portland’s book.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Friday, 11 March, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.