Once Upon a Time in India

photo by Andrew Fogg

by Sylvia Petter

A spouse accompanies her husband on sabbatical from a Canadian university to a town in Southern India. While he does research on the iconography of the temple in Trivandrum, she taps out a short story on a manual typewriter and sends it off to The Atlantic Monthly.

That might be one way of telling Janette Turner Hospital’s story.

Janette Turner Hospital was born in 1942 in Melbourne, Australia, and grew up in tropical Queensland. She has lived in Canada, India, France, England and the USA, and is now Carolina Distinguished Professor Emerita and living in South Carolina.

She began writing short stories whilst in India, and her story ‘Waiting’ was published by The Atlantic Monthly in 1978. The editors then encouraged her to write a novel. That novel was The Ivory Swing,  recognised in Canada with the Seal Prize. Since then, Janette Turner Hospital has written eight novels and five collections of short stories. These have won numerous prizes and awards in North America, and Canada still claims her as a Canadian writer. After long neglect, Australia now recognises her too, having awarded her the Patrick White Award in 2003. In 2012, she won the Queensland Literary Award for her story collection Forecast: Turbulence.

BOOK_J_Turner_Hospital_Forecast_TurbulenceJanette Turner Hospital is known for her sensual language, speculative insights and concerns with large and troubling issues that mark the lives of her sharply drawn characters. Forecast: Turbulence not only invokes the cataclysmic effects of the weather on human lives, but also the author’s own preoccupation with the experience of dislocation.

As suggested by the title, Forecast: Turbulence, the overriding metaphor is the weather and its unpredictability. The titles of her previous collections, Isobars, Dislocations and North of Nowhere, South of Loss, hint at stories of geography, meteorological influences and, of course, dislocations too. Many of the stories in those collections are set in Queensland, the author’s home state on the east coast of Australia and a vast region where the rainforest plays a grounding role. Although framed by a story set in suburban Melbourne and a memoir rooted in Brisbane, Forecast: Turbulence is predominantly set in the south of the USA, and the stories are true to the question on the jacket cover: ‘How can we maintain equilibrium in a turbulent and uncertain world?’ The collection closes poignantly with ‘Moon River, a Memoir’, an elegy for the author’s mother, and to memories and family history. The narrator is at the hospital. Some people ‘carry flowers. The flowers give off a sad and desperate smell’. It is a return to Queensland, to the ‘tangled ribbon’ of the Brisbane River. But nothing is the same: ‘The turbulent river rushes on’.

Turner Hospital often draws her imagery from the natural elements of Australia; the country and its rainforest appear to be marginal sites of memory and dislocation, linked to both her own identity and the identities of many of her characters. The margin can also be a space where pressures are felt. In an interview with The Bulletin, she spoke of her choice of title for her second story collection, Isobars. She described isobars as imaginary lines connecting places of similar (air) pressure. In order to see them, atmospheric AUTHOR_Janette_Turner_Hospitalmaps need to be drawn, and in each specific place on the map there is the presence or absence of a tolerable pressure. In Turner Hospital’s fictions, such presence, or absence, of pressure gives rise to issues of dislocation, in particular those related to the ambiguities of memory, the expatriate experience, and the difficult perceptions of ‘home’.

Memories play a vital role in her work. However, memories alone are not enough, and the writer’s struggle to situate memory in the present is ongoing. This dilemma is expressed in ‘The Ocean of Brisbane’, in which Turner Hospital writes: ‘I computed the odds against solving the structure of memory which dissolves and devolves and solves nothing’. The characters and narrator are absorbed in a back-and-forth, and Turner Hospital involves the reader in the debate by using free indirect discourse, which itself is an ambiguous device. It draws us into the story, and makes us experience the emotions and feelings of her dislocated characters, as though we are participants, seduced into the sensory vortex of Turner Hospital’s ‘sensual’ storytelling.

A strong sense of agency, in the form of subversion or confrontation, galvanises much of her writing, and her characterisation specifically. It can also be seen in her self-reflexive writings, which are interspersed throughout her narratives, and in the dedication to her family in her novel Oyster: ‘my fellow dislocates’.

These last words zoom in on both the dilemma and the freedom of not belonging. They encapsulate a sense of dislocation that renders identity more general than singular. It is a sense that speaks to the diaspora that has spread with globalisation. Boundaries are blurred, and such blurring triggers an awareness of the marginality of one’s state, the state of life on a threshold, and the thinking that comes from a different space.


Previous post The Turning
Next post Play Scale