Speech by ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher at the launch of Lightning. Australian National Library, 2 July 2013.
Thank you very much Anne Marie, Ms Felicity Volk, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
I'd like to begin by acknowledging that we gather today on the land of the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners and I extend my respects to their elders past and present and also acknowledge the ongoing contribution they make to the life of our city and our region.
What a great pleasure it is to be with you here tonight to launch Felicity's debut novel, and here in our much beloved National Library.
Tonight another story will be added to the collection of Australian novels as we debut and celebrate the release of the extraordinary novel Lightning.
As Chief Minister one of the concessions I've had to make as I deal with a demanding job and a demanding home life is that I'm no longer able to read books as much as I have in the past. Don't get me wrong, I do plenty of reading - more than I'd like at times - but reading for pleasure is something that is largely confined to holidays. So it was a great pleasure when reading for pleasure and reading for work combined and I sat down for a few minutes to start Lightning several weeks ago. Several hours later I emerged totally hooked on the book and of course on the intertwined stories of Persia and Ahmed. And I managed to finish the book in just two sittings, which I think is unheard of since I've taken on this job almost two years ago.
It is hard at a book launch to go through all the things you like or loved about the book because you want to talk about all the characters and talk about the story and the bits that made you laugh and the bits that made you cry in a way that doesn't ruin it for people that haven't read the book, so I've tried to confine my comments into quite a general perspective on the book because it's such a lovely story and that I really don't want to ruin it for anyone.
I found Lightning a beautiful and deeply moving novel. It's the story of grief and loss and dislocation, isolation but also of of connections. It's the story of the harshness of Australia's environment. How it can destroy, but how it can heal in the same breath. Its the story of relationships we have with each other - the good, the bad, the dysfunctional, and we can all relate to those. Its also a story of an individuals need to be loved, to be understood, to be respected, and how healing that can be and also the time it takes to achieve that peace.
The fact that the story starts in Canberra in areas that we all know and love and understand make it even more special. From the opening line, "It was a summer of mad winds", readers who were in Canberra at the time of the 2003 bush fires will immediately connect with the setting and descriptions of that time. Felicity's ability to describe the loss and despair that the main character felt by the loss of her baby in such a subtle and normal way is one of the more remarkable achievements in Lightning.
As a mother I relate to the intense emotions. The heartbreak that Persia felt and I immediately understood and sympathised with the decision she took to opt out of her life until she found peace with what had happened and what she had to do as a mother.
What is so sadly yet beautifully expressed in Lightning is a world of changed reality. One which depicts a particular moment in time after which comes the all-consuming nature of grief. And I quote from the book, "She tiptoed across her grief as if it were the icy surface of a pond on the first day on winter - thin and unreliable". Anyone who has endured loss, particularly unexpected sudden loss, can immediately relate to what Persia was describing. But from this story of loss comes the story of the incredible human ability to survive, to heal and to grow. As it shifts across generations, nations and cultures, the story unravels the strength of healing spirt, of stories with endings and beginnings. Life goes on, across countries, across times, across history; consistent themes of human interaction, of sadness, loss, happiness and love.
If I leave Persia just briefly and turn to the story of Ahmed. A wonderful, kind, patient and generous character, looking to belong and to understand his purpose in a new and often at times unkind country. Felicity expertly describes the complete isolation and disconnection felt, I'm sure, by many refugees making their way in our community, our country, seen through Ahmed's eyes. But importantly Lightning enables us to see that, regardless of how an individual arrives in Australia, they have their own contribution to bring to our collective story and this is what makes our country such a remarkable place to live.
Lightning is a story of kindness. Of how the individual actions of one will help the collective spirit. The importance of compassion and caring for another human being and of sharing these things with each other as we journey throughout our own lives, find our own purpose, and understand what is next.
And finally, for me this is a story this is a story of resilience. Often we think that resilience is an Australian quality, part of our identity and culture that has been shaped through living in a country of floods and fires. And it is, but Lightning reminds us that being resilient is a quality of the human spirit that is not ours alone to claim.
Lightning is a book that readers will remember, whether it be the exquisite descriptions of grief and loss, the reality of complicated lives, the individual stories told within the story. Or the feeling of satisfaction that is reached at the end of the novel. Rest assured, you will remember this book. And that is what a good story telling does. It connects us with friends, family and strangers through sharing thoughts, memories, dreams, fears and hopes.
In conclusion, I'm so delighted that the ACT government was able to play a small part in the development of this book. The result of all your hard work Felicity is right here in this book. An enduring legacy of your talent and your commitment. In a highly competitive industry, the publication of Lightning is a real credit to you. And it is with great honour that I launch Lightning here tonight. I loved reading it and I encourage everyone to do just that.
Thank you very much.
Lightning – launch remarks by the author
I wish to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting, the Ngunnawal people, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present.
Thank you all so much for braving a cold Canberra evening to share this celebration with me.
I’m conscious as I stand here with Lightning finally in its beautiful published iteration, of the enormous debt of gratitude I owe to many of the people in this room and to a number who are not able to be present. So I hope you’ll indulge me as I offer some words of thanks to the various people who have supported this book to publication, and its launch, and who have encouraged me through what at times has felt like the longest gestation in publishing history.
Ernest Hemingway famously said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Perhaps the rejoinder to that is, “There is nothing to being the friend of someone who is writing. All you do is stand close by with a packet of bandaids and, as you apply them, recall that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” There have been many bandaid bearers during the writing of Lightning, too many to name individually, but I am grateful for every palliative word I received, all the kind and supportive encouragement when perhaps it wasn’t even obvious that I was bleeding.
Foremost tonight, though, my heartfelt thanks to the Chief Minister for making time in her extraordinarily busy schedule to launch Lightning and to speak with such warmth about my novel. I am also indebted to the ACT Government broadly for its assistance through the artsACT grant program. In 2009, as the Chief Minister has noted, I was fortunate to be the recipient of a grant that enabled me to undertake a road trip through to Central Australia, which tracked the journey of my protagonists, Persia and Ahmed, and which frames the contemporary narrative in Lightning. That research proved crucial in shaping my novel and establishing layers and themes that would otherwise be absent.
Importantly too, the confidence expressed in Lightning by the ACT Government through the grant, opened other doors for me, certainly making the manuscript a more compelling prospect to both my agent and my publisher.
So my profound thanks, Chief Minister, to you and to the ACT Government.
The award of a residential writing fellowship at Varuna, The Writers House, in the Blue Mountains was also a godsend. It provided me with both a quiet place for intensive writing, and access to a nurturing community of writers some of whom are present tonight. I particularly wish to acknowledge the support of Peter Bishop, formerly Creative Director of Varuna. He, along with George Allez, my Wisconsin-based BFF and writing buddy, were chief among my bandaid-bearers.
And this evening, I am especially grateful to the National Library of Australia — to the Director General of the library for welcoming us all here and to Maureen Brooks and her team who in a busy period have graciously managed all the preparations for the launch, including accommodating this heart-warmingly large turnout of friends, well-wishers and Canberra’s reading community.
I was keen to launch Lightning at the National Library because a significant proportion of my book was written and edited here, in the Main Reading Room, as I sought refuge in the communal creative energy which is the spirit of this building, escaping from the sometimes oppressive isolation of working at home. For as Hemingway also said, “Writing at its best is a lonely life.” Tonight, therefore, is the closing of a circle in this place, and I’m delighted to be in such good company inside the circle.
Among this gathering, I would like to acknowledge my dear friend Denise Grieshaber who has travelled from Alice Springs for the launch and who accompanied me on my research trip to Central Australia in 2009, a trip which I now regard fondly as the “Thelma and Louise’ road trip. David Freeman has flown in from Brisbane – thanks Mr Squiggle. The Jenkinson family has driven from Sydney to be here. And serendipity has prevailed to enable Christine Stevens to join the launch en route from South Australia to her home in Sydney. Christine’s book, Tin Mosques and Ghantowns, a History of Afghan Cameldrivers in Australia, was an indispensible reference as I wrote Lightning. Thank you, Christine and husband Andrew, for detouring via Canberra.
Lightning contains a list of acknowledgements that is almost a chapter in its own right and probably made the typesetter’s eyes roll. But there were a few omissions:
Alan Walsh has worked generously and patiently to set up my website. And he and his wife Helene endured my discomfort with the camera to take author photographs for me.
I also wish to acknowledge my daytime employer, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and specifically my boss, Penny Williams, who unhesitatingly supported arrangements that have enabled me to juggle my DFAT career and my writing life.
The experience of working for the department has provided valuable perspectives which pervaded the writing of Lightning. My diplomatic postings in Bangladesh and Laos were a springboard into the exploration of self when far from home, and a useful vantage point from which to view Australia’s complex national identity. In fact, the only constraint DFAT may have presented to my writing career is that I was never going to be able to publish a book titled, “We need to talk about Kevin” or rather, “We need to talk about Kevin — again”.
Finally, in this long list of thank yous, my sincere gratitude to my agent Gaby Naher, and the publishing team at Picador led by Alex Craig. I couldn’t have hoped for a more enthusiastic agent or a more supportive publisher.
I have been asked during recent media interviews about my book, ‘What was the genesis of Lightning?’ It’s as tough a question as its sister query, “What is your novel about?” The simple response to the latter is, of course, if I could describe my book in a couple of sentences, I wouldn’t have had to write a novel.
And then the necessary follow on — at one level, Lightning is the tale of two people — Persia, a grieving mother, and Ahmed, a refugee fleeing his past in Pakistan — both of whom have suffered extraordinary losses and who discover in each other the healing of shared tenderness. More broadly, the book is an odyssey — across continents and centuries -—that explores grief, identity and connection. It’s a road trip novel, a love story of sorts, and a meditation on finding hope in the rubble of our lives. It’s a story about the importance of names and being named, about names shaping our destinies and anchoring us.
It’s a depiction of the challenge of our journeys through dry and unforgiving landscapes, but it’s also a reminder of the possibility of rebirth and regeneration even in these most arid places of our living. It’s a salute to the restorative properties of imagination and a reminder that, like Scheherazade and her Arabian Nights tales, it is our stories and their telling that keep us alive. Certainly, that was my experience during the writing, when multiple griefs inhabited my own life, including the unexpected death of my father, Noel Volk, to whom the novel is dedicated.
But where did Lightning come from?
I have no answer for that one. Writing it was like buying one of those packets of flower seeds titled “Accent on Blue” or “Accent on Yellow” from the Yates stand in the garden centre. You open the sleeve and cast the seeds on the soil not knowing what specifically you’re planting but simply trusting the palette of what will sprout and eventually blossom, given sufficient light, water, warmth and, in my case, a lot of time.
One of those seeds was sown on January the 18th 2003, when from our family home in the heights of Kambah, with a three year old and an eighteen month old at my feet, and with their father on the roof filling gutters with water, I watched fire sweep in across the Brindabellas and the sky darken as if it was night. Some years later that seed, those fires became the starting point for Lightning.
A neat ten years down the track from 2003, it’s somewhat surreal, though in the loveliest of ways, to be here celebrating so publicly the arrival of my third baby, in many respects a much more difficult birth than the first two which delivered me my darling daughters, Bella and Poppy. I can’t describe how fulfilling it is to get to this point, and to be able to share it with friends.
So, once again, thank you all for joining this christening party.
I have spoken far too long and it’s time to let Lightning speak for itself.