Launch Speech – Hobart and Launceston Launches, July 2014
Good evening, or as they say in France, Bon Jovi.
What do you say at launch your first book? I’ve been to a couple launches and most people say why they wrote the book, ramble on for a while and then thank people. I’ll go with that. But first please indulge me.
I want you to be someone else for two minutes – even close your eyes if you trust the person next to you – and to come with me to mining city of Potosí, close to 5000m above sea level in Bolivia.
Your name is Victor and you recently turned 21. You´ve been working in the mines for ten years now.
You share a small room with your wife Rosa and your two year old daughter, Maria. God has blessed you again and within a month you will have a second child. You hope it´s a boy. You share the house with your mother, five siblings and your sister´s husband and their two children.
It´s six in the morning, you wash yourself with a bucket of cold water while Rosa prepares your breakfast of rice, potatoes and chicken. You eat as much as you can because you won´t eat again for 12 hours. You kiss Rosa and Maria, then walk out the door as you hear the bus labouring up your street.
You climb in and talk to friends and colleagues – steam from your words forms clouds of conversation before dissolving.
Eventually you arrive at the foot of the Mountain. Isidro and Jose are already inside a small mud brick hut twenty metres from the entrance of La Mina Poderosa (The Powerful Mine).
You sit down and talk as you de-vein and place coca leaves in your mouth one by one, until you have a mushy ball of around a hundred in the side of your cheek. They suppress your hunger, thirst, fatigue and the effects of altitude – as essential to you as food and water.
You put your helmet on as you walk from the hut to the entrance and switch on your headlamp. This mine, one of hundreds in Cerro Rico, is over 300 years old. The entrance is a hole on the ground roughly a metre squared.
Careful not to drop your shovel, you climb down the rickety homemade ladder, aware which rung is missing and which ones wobble. The only light you´ll see for the next twelve hours are the conical beams of headlamps that illuminate the lung killing dust as if it were subterranean galaxies.
Yesterday was Friday, the day of Ch´alla. So you gave offerings of coca leaves, cigarettes and alcohol to El Tio, the horned God of the underworld, to thank him for keeping you safe and to ask him to help you find a rich vein.
Today is the sixth day of the working week, your body is tired and your lungs hurt. When you cough you worry about silicosis, it seems to take someone few days. But some men live to 40 and beyond – and you´re confident you´ll be one of them. Tomorrow´s your day off, you will go to mass and pray for a healthy child.
The three of you spend the day shovelling heavy rubble into metal carts before pushing them along broken wooden rails. Then you empty the dirt and rocks into sacks made from old truck tyres before hauling them up to the next level. Despite the cold, after an hour of this you´re soaked with sweat and asking for more oxygen than the high altitude and dusty air will give you.
Andres, one of the drillers, arrives like a ghost, so coated in the fine grey rock dust that he appears as just two red eyes. Gasping for air, he tells you the blasts are ready. You all stop work and walk to a small cavern about two metres wide and one metre high. Huddling together, you turn off your head lamps to save batteries. You spit out the fading mush of coca leaves and begin the process again.
Suddenly, a huge bang hurts your ear drums as the pressure pulsing through the air tries to dissipate through the narrow tunnels. Rock crumbles onto your helmet and your bag of coca leaves shuffles across the ground as the whole earth shudders. Then one after the other there are fifteen more. The air is now poisoned with the fumes of dynamite and dust, but you cover your mouth and nose, squint your eyes, and walk to see the blast. It looks good. Andres points proudly to a glittering vein of zinc. Then you go back to work.
This story helps explain why I write, when I should be doing more enjoyable things.
These men allowed me to share a couple days in their world. For me, some form of enlightenment came from this experience of sweat, fear and companionship in those dark tunnels far away from my lucky life in Hobart. It altered my perception of the world a little. I wanted to share it, wanted others to glimpse it – I wanted it known.
As I thought more about the experience, I wanted to compare and contrast their world with the world of an Australian miner (their world – in which the average life span is 38; where boys have to work in the mines because the mines consumed their fathers; where hard work and danger means fragile survival, not wealth).
In El Salvador – that tiny troubled country – I met refugees, guerrilla fighters, priests and politicians (one man who was all of the above). In the capital, San Salvador – one of most dangerous cities in the world – I met an inspiring young man who aims to be president one day. Speaking of himself, he declared, “If I read and don’t write, I am in debt to the world.” This struck a chord with me. But we don’t just read books – we also attempt to read the world around us and our own minds.
All the stories in this book had an effect on me, or raised questions that needed explored. I think, if we have a profound experience or thought, we should share it. Sharing is caring, as they also apparently say in France.
And although my Prime Minister would no doubt call me a whinger for seeking to probe and question in order to gain understanding or truth, it is about caring, and it is constructive…
In questioning: we recognise something isn’t perfect or perfectly understood; we seek truth; or change. We question, as a child does, not to be a pain in the arse, but to better understand the world, in order to inform our actions and behaviour.
This relates to why I believe in the essay – it is not only because my poetry is awful and I lack the genius required for fiction, but because to me the essay is one of the simplest, most effective, forms of communication. I remember my mum and dad explaining the basics when I was in high school: “You introduce, then layout your argument or story with an appropriate structure, then conclude. Don’t repeat yourself. Once you’ve written it, boil it down, condense it.”
While face to face conversation is surely the ultimate communication, writing and reading, which are essentially acts of solitude, have some advantages. Within solitude, we needn’t compete, win an argument, agree or disagree – we can quietly ponder, in our own world, and no one needs to know how the words made us feel or changed us. Reading is in some ways a conversation with your-self.
In writing, we seek to commune with others – to share joy, to denounce pain – an ancient human need. Writers hope to transmit feelings and understandings that enrich the world of the reader, and perhaps that sometimes, this leads to a better understanding of ourselves, individually and collectively – what we were, what we are, what we could be.
“We are what we do, especially what we do to change what we are.”
Said Eduardo Galeano, in his essay, In Defence of the Word.
And it is inspiring, to look around this room and see so many people who understand this: that the history of the future, is not something we accept, but something we create.
There is something inherent in journalism that seeks to expose truth – just as there is something inherent in conservative politics that seeks to bury it. No doubt this is why the ABC and SBS are so on the nose. Getting closer to the truth should empower and lead to better outcomes. Yet, we have a government, and indeed a political culture, that sees truth as an enemy, that seeks to eliminate questioning, and to suppress our natural tendencies towards empathy.
An ever-more pervasive 24 hour news cycle invites us to become battery hens, force fed untruths – instantly consumable, in ever more mediums. I am not so much referring to the production of made up stories, or promising one thing the night before an election and doing the opposite after it, the bloated lie market is much more sophisticated than that. We have lies of polemics; lies of omission; lies of emphasis; lies of trivialisation; lies of pigeon-holing diverse groups of people in order to dismiss them; lies of appointing four anti-renewable energy advocates to a Renewable Energy Target Review panel; lies of language, such as referring to asylum seekers as “illegals”; lies of being silent on – and enforcing the silence of these people; lies of re-writing history for our school children.
How dangerous the truth must be.
2500 years ago, a smart Greek dude with a beard of stone, called Plato, wrote a book. In it, he warned of a political culture that panders to peoples’ vices (fear, greed, selfishness, hatred) – rather than their virtues. Aided by the ever-expanding reach of the media – how relevant his warning feels in Australia today.
Okay, that’s the ramble is over – I was trying to highlight two things:
- the importance of truth,
- and, that in my view, a bright future will surely be built from the harnessing our inherent virtues, rather than via pandering to our vices.
Essays from Near and Far is a book of non-fiction, which is to say, it offers true stories of real people and real experiences – that in their honesty, yearn to transcend the ridiculousness of our political culture.
I hope it also exposes some of the more potent human virtues, such as compassion, resilience, selflessness, love, hope and humour. And lastly, I hope that the reader might find something among the pages that triggers something of meaning for them.
And now, as the wine disappears, I want to give some public thanks:
Non-fiction has many authors, it is a genre co-written with those along the way who share a little of their story as well as those who help the writer communicate.
I thank the people of Los Marranitos in El Salvador, the mining community of Potosí, all the people around the place who have been willing to talk and share insights.
Some people who have helped directly in making this book, with advice, encouragement, contacts, editing, inspiration, and in some intangible ways: Bob, Bobby-z, Graeme, Anna, Amy, Linda, Judit, Rene, Matt, Elizabeth, James, John, Leon, Gayle, Lindsay, Paul, Susan and Iain.
I want to thank Lindsay Tuffin, for many years of encouragement, opportunities and journalistic wisdom (and some intangible wisdom), and for the freedom to use Tasmanian Times as a front to obtain an international press ID in order to masquerade as a journalist in Latin America.
Michael Brady for making the outside of the book beautiful.
Dane Chisholm for making inside of the book beautiful. What stunning art he makes!
Pete Hay, for his wonderful foreword, that for me adds a extra dimension, and an important one, to the book. But to Pete, a bigger thank you, for helping to nurture in Tasmania, critical thought, belief in the importance of questions and discussion, and the belief we can all say something worth hearing.
Ralph Wessman – like Pete, there will be a statue of Ralph in Tasmania one day – even if I have to build it myself – possibly out of unsold copies of this book. Countless Tasmanian writers would not have been published or made a book if it were not for Ralph. He is a supremely generous and tireless believer in reading, writing and writers. Ralph emailed me about 9 months ago and suggested this book – and it would not have happened without him.
To my parents, Sandra and Tom. They encourage me to write and believe in it. They are good editors and advisors. They are readers, and they too believe in the power of words.
Thank you Anna, to whom this book is dedicated. My first and last editor! She tells me off when it’s impossible to decipher what I am trying to say, tells me bluntly when I am talking shite, but encourages me when I am on the right track. She has shared almost all of the stories in this book with me in real time – she is a true co-author.
I want to thank the Hobart Bookshop and Petrarch’s in Launceston for tonight and for all they do.
And lastly, I want to thank all of you. I am finding it quite confronting putting a book, and myself, ‘out there’. So thank you for coming to support the book and me. I am extremely grateful. I hope you enjoy it.