Lightning: Author's Note
When I was seven, my parents, both of whom were English teachers and writers, took a year-long sabbatical. They packed up our family, locked the door to our home in Melbourne and launched us into twelve months of chugging around Europe in a Bedford campervan, occasionally visiting schools to substantiate the ‘sabbatical’ claim. So was my appetite whet for travel, for the vagaries of adventure, the story-studded road and the capriciousness of destination.
Eleven years later, heeding the siren song echoes of that first overseas trip, I left Australia again for nine months. I had an English literature major and a handful of my own short stories and poems under my belt, a half-completed law degree pitched as my tethering post on the horizon, and all of Asia spreading before my itchy feet. A friend gave me James Michener’s The Source as a farewell gift inscribed, “If we are the product of all we meet, I look forward to talking to you on your return.”
At one level, Lightning is that conversation. Although the people and stories populating my novel bear little resemblance to those I have encountered during numerous trips overseas, they invoke the mystery and magic of the experiences I’ve navigated. An odyssey across continents and centuries, Lightning harvests from my travels through Siberia by rail at the age of seven, a brief Bollywood acting career at nineteen, a stint volunteering in a Kolkata home for dying destitutes, dining with Proust's ghost in Paris’s Ladurée tearooms, a visit to a refugee camp in Peshawar and trekking the Thar and Gobi deserts by camel. My professional life, working as a diplomat in Bangladesh and Laos, and, currently, as adviser to Australia’s Global Ambassador for Women and Girls, has also provided 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.
Through my protagonists, Persia (whose lineage traces varied geographic and cultural sources) and Ahmed (who is set adrift as a refugee in Australia), Lightning describes my sense of how it is to spend long periods as an outsider in someone else’s land and even as a stranger in one’s own life. It illustrates the simultaneous liberation and imprisonment of being anonymous, the importance of being named and known, the yearning to be attached when dislocated and the profound interconnectedness of all our stories wherever we find ourselves in time and place. Drawing from desert pilgrimages in Morocco, India, China and Mongolia, and a road trip through central Australia while researching Lightning, my novel pays tribute to the peculiar miracle of the desert, where space and silence amplify the hidden self, where we do battle with ourselves and our gods and where the promise of subterranean waters sustains us.
Lightning is also a conversation about the multiple griefs which inhabited my life as I worked on the book. That friend who once gave me The Source might as well have inscribed in it, “If we are the product of all we lose, I look forward to talking to you on your return.” Chief among the losses was the unexpected death of my father half-way through the writing of Lightning. It was almost as if, having embarked on a novel about grieving, I felt the book’s tears begin to seep off its pages. With my father’s passing, I lost my first story-teller, and the voice in my childhood ear that called my own voice into being and initiated me into the infinite possibility of imagination.
As much as Lightning is a study in loss, disconnection and the challenge of our journeys through dry and unforgiving places, it is also a celebration of the shared tenderness that nourishes and heals us, and the grace of love. Lightning is 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.