Maria Tumarkin is a cultural historian and the author of three books of ideas: Traumascapes (2005), Courage (2007) and Otherland (2010). She has taught at universities and writing centres, and holds a PhD in cultural history from the University of Melbourne. In this interview she discusses her essay 'This narrated life', which critiques the culture of storytelling and the belief that stories are the best way for human beings to communicate and achieve understanding.
I know that you emigrated from Russia when you were fifteen, and had to learn English when you moved. I wonder how having to learn English affected your writing. Do you still write in Russian?
I used to write poems in Russian, and if I were to write poetry now I would still write in Russian. When I came to Australia, it felt like there was nothing connecting me to this place, or this language. So it wasn't just a sense of cultural displacement; everything around me was cold and abstract, like I was in outer space. When you come into a new language it's abstract, two-dimensional. When I was speaking it was like no one was listening. I could say anything and not mean it. I could say 'I love you' and it would mean absolutely nothing, whereas in Russian those words would take me years to utter because they held such weight. But as you grow into a language, you grow a reality at the same time. The more connected you become to the language, the more three-dimensional the world around you becomes. And you feel more real. Because when you can't articulate yourself and everyone inadvertently patronises you by speaking slowly and enunciating, you feel alienated from the reality of who you really are. It took me a long time to come to a place where English had the same weight as Russian, and it was in my bones, and when I said 'river' it was wet and when I said 'ice cream' it was sweet.
I connect your work to a particular exploration of place, and so I wonder how formative that experience of cultural displacement was to your development as a writer?
When I went to the University of Melbourne I studied history and I thought 'I have no idea where I am'. The usual stuff that's taught about Australia and its history - that's just 2 per cent of the story. I wanted to know what it really means, to live in this country. The only way to try and wrestle with that is to try and work out the nature of a place in the most non-abstract, physical, material, tangible way. You need to ask about the people whose bones are in the soil you're walking on. Cultural displacement focused my attention on place, in that way.
It's interesting to me that you were so interested in exploring Australian history having come from elsewhere, because so many Australians aren't interested in Australian history.
My Russian and Ukrainian friends used to mock me when they asked me what I studied, which ended up being Australian History and Eastern European History. They would say, 'Really, Australian history? It must be a very short course, it must be over in two weeks', because it seemed ridiculous to them. But the factual narrative view of history – the disembodied and displaced history – that did absolutely nothing for me. If that's what studying history had entailed I would have abandoned it quickly.
I was interested in a different kind of history. Understanding a place involves more than a factual narrative - it's about haunting, it's about echoes, it's about the unsaid and it's about what everyone knows but no one says. It's about jolts in your body, and what gets passed on without being articulated. It's the silences. I understood that I wanted to find my way into Australia through that.
All the books that you've written seem to start at one idea – whether it's courage or the intersection of trauma and place – and then extend out in a rhizomatic way, like the roots of trees. What prompts you to try and explore ideas in a lateral way, as opposed to the magnifying glass scope of academia?
I haven't been in academia for three years, but I was. I started writing when I was at university. It was while writing my PhD thesis about traumascapes that I worked out that I really did want to be a writer. In my thesis I was writing about people's suffering, I was writing about memory. I needed to be able to put emotion into it. But I was trying to shove myself into a framework, which didn't allow that. I found that there were these 'bits' sticking out. I decided that I didn't have to be at the centre of what I was writing, I could be very much on the margins, but I could not pretend that I wasn't there. I couldn't make myself write in any other way. I decided that I was going to write my thesis as a writer, not as an academic.
In terms of structure, I'm a big fan of stumbling in the dark and I'm a big fan of not knowing, especially when you're presented with an intellectual project. I was trying to think about the significance of sites of trauma, and the ways that we remember and grieve and make sense of traumatic events that happen not only to us but to our families as well as strangers elsewhere.
I felt that if I knew the answer at the start, the project wouldn't have had any intellectual integrity, it would have been incredibly tedious to read, and it would not have been true. I had to structure what I was doing in an honest way, and that meant an exploration. It meant knocking on doors, and as we say in Russian, 'kissing the lock'. That's how the structure presented itself. It was true to my experience of wrestling with intellectual projects, it felt true to what was in my head and how my head worked.
And writing in that way felt like it had more space in it for readers as well. It didn't have a rigid or dogmatic feel to it. It had enough pockets and corners for readers to get in and wander through it as well.
You spoke about not being able to be emotionless when you write. How does including yourself in your writing – that element of self-examination – effect the way you write about things? Because I know for some writers the personal can often be really frightening, or feel too raw.
I saw recently that The Lifted Brow are going to publish an issue themed around 'Ego', and none of the writing will be written in the first person. I honestly think in some ways there's too much of that kind of writing. The kind that focuses on the 'I'. I've done too much of that kind of writing and I want to do less.
In the book that I'm writing now I'm present, but it's not personal examination, it's not personal history, it's not personal exploration. Because I found that I was doing too much writing through myself, and about myself, and it's a very small world that you construct when you do that. Having said that, there are things I really enjoy about first person narrative in non-fiction. Because you're writing about yourself can push things further. You can interrogate yourself in a way that, I for one, would never interrogate others. So there was a certain amount of freedom that came with being able to undertake that sort of personal self-examination. But did I find that frightening? No.
I feel writing about other people frightening. The idea that you could expose others, injure them, or even worse, you could misrepresent them. That's frightening. You can write with great conviction about something that you've glimpsed as their very essence, only to discover that you got it terribly wrong and all you saw was a reflection of yourself. That's what would keep me awake at night, that fear of misrepresenting another person's experience and injuring them.
But to come back to the initial point about emotion: I'm very interested in emotions. In the kinds of emotions too which are a bit 'too much' and generally unwelcomed, particularly in essays. To me, emotion is a very powerful thing. And it's also quite an uncomfortable thing.
I'm interested in exploring what we're trying to stay away from, what we're scared of, when people are emotional or sentimental. I think part of it is that I come from another culture, and in this culture we hold back when it comes to big things like suffering and anguish and grief. We like to be very understated. We like to use as few words as possible, and that's somehow considered more powerful. Will we empathise better that way? I'm interested in that within an intellectual framework.
The idea of empathy actually ties in with some of my thoughts about your piece in Griffith Review. One of the implications of your essay seemed to be that the culture of storytelling can obscure the reality of a story by imposing narrative on it. Which is in some ways very dishonest. It encourages a false empathy, in a way.
It's a good question. I love narrative, I believe in narrative. But I believe we have lost sight of the limitations of it. We believe that storytelling or listening to stories is the answer to all kinds of questions. It is true that the only way many people can deal with huge geo-political tragedies – the ones that are happening elsewhere – is by being given a particular story. It might be the story of a girl in an Afghan village or a family torn apart by genocide in the former Yugosalvia. That's the only way for some people to start relating to the story.
But for me that's just the start. I'm not claiming it's false empathy. But it's just not enough. Maybe that's the way to compel people to find out more about Rwanda or Yugosalvia or Afghanistan. But you cannot understand what happened, and what it means, and what it will mean for generations to come, through narrative alone.
So if we're going to fool ourselves into thinking that the work of empathy is done once we hear a story about one individual experience, that's where we're deluding ourselves. To me, that should be the beginning of the work.
Narrative is an easy thing to consume. It's much harder to consume complex bodies of information, on history, on economics, on human psychology, or something that explains the mechanisms that will enable families and neighbours to turn against each other. You cannot get to the kernel of that through narrative. But you perhaps need narrative to be part of the mix.
My sense was that people were stopping there. They thought they'd 'got it'. But they hadn't. So I'm not going to claim that the emotional response that we get when confronted with a narrative is false. I don't think it's false, but what is false is the idea that it's sufficient.
One of the interesting ideas your essay brought up was the idea of 'narrative fetishism', because that seemed to explain the way storytelling can obscure absences. It can seem like it's shedding light but it's actually perpetuating trauma, or has the potential to do so.
There's an American writer called Gabrielle Schwab, and in one of her essays or books she talks about the way that stories of WWII were circulating in her family. There were all these stories about what happened to members of her family in the war, but it just smelled funny. For a long time she couldn't work out what the nature of that transaction was, until she realised that the more they talked the more the narrative became a way of controlling the silence.
Telling stories was a way of not saying anything about the war. When I read that it made a huge impact on me. We take it for granted that talking is about transmitting, but often talking can be about stopping the transmission, within families or in cultures and in a generational sense as well. Sometimes silence is the medium of communication. Sometimes talking, just talking, doesn't equal communication.