Mi casa (no) es tu casa / / Writing about my House in somebody else's home

You wish to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which you work, and pay your respects to the Elders, past, present and emerging. *

You begin writing a story about a city that is not your city when you’re living in a place far from home. For your first ever creative writing exercise, you are told—write what you know. This is where you start. You write a scene set in your childhood kitchen in Brisbane, where your adopted tías are talking, and you as a chica are listening to recuentos of Buenos Aires and Budapest, cities with exotic names; faraway places they escaped from and you’ve never been to. Even though your tías are not from here, they tell you, you are of this new place. You’ve been given an English name, so it will be easier for you as you grow up in this city, vas a ver, they say. (It isn’t). You’ll write these things down because you know these stories by heart. The words come quickly as you picture them telling you their historias. You write how as a chica you grew up overhearing whispered stories of faceless family members, except for the ones whose faces you  could imagine. No matter how hard you tried, you know your ciudad is not the same as theirs.

You’ll write how in this place you have to forget your Spanish mother-tongue, learn the new language and all the rules that come with it. How when you speak your idioma, you’re made to feel ashamed. How most people around you are blancos. How you don’t sound or look like them, though over time, you’ll pass as white, una whiteina. Even though you are not rubia and your hair is dark. Your skin tans but you aren’t morena. You don’t look like your neighbours or eat their food. They eat white bread sandwiches and dilute their tea with milk . Not you. Your food is bright red and served hot and eaten this way all year round. Your Ma’ll complain how it’s always the wrong weather here, as she cooks with sweat pouring down her face. Your Pa too misses his Eastern-European hometown, village, su familia, the language he barely gets to speak, even his garden. You’ll write this.

Abuelas. Aunties. Bácsi. Dons. Doñas. Grannies. Miss. Missus. Mister. Nagymama. Nagypapa. Néni. Pani. Señor. Señoras. Tías. Tíos. Uncles. With each, you have to learn how to say hello, to kiss or not, to behave, to be quiet. Shh. You are forced to sit around their tables and keep still. You listen to them talk in their strange acentos and broken-English while they show you black-and-white photos of people who are back home or no longer alive, of grown-up kids or spouses who are desaparecidos. You’ll see photos of your tías when they are still young, stuck in between another time and space. When these aunties talk, it’s like they’re back home, like they’ve never left. When you complain as a chica you’re bored or that their housing-commission flat is too hot or squishy-small or there’s no yard or other chicos to play with, their eyes fill with tears because back in their real homes (where they can’t return to), there would’ve been children (they died of hunger), and spaces and places for you (mi casa, es tu casa), there would be walnut trees to climb, ciudades to roam and explore. They’ll speak with such sorrow that sometimes you’ll cry. When you grow older, you’ll not want to visit old Tía―or Abuela-so-and-so in the sad nursing home because all they do is talk about el pasado. They’ll speak to you mezclando languages you no longer understand, but it’s how they remember. They’ll eat, drink, sing, laugh, smoke, cry, hold you, kiss you, squeeze you, way way way too tight when it’s time to say adiós. You’ll go back home to your poor, small, suburban house and realise no one cares about them. You’ll write as you remember them―like that. 

You first start writing this when you’re living in Hong Kong. Here, you are accepted into the first ever Creative Writing program at Hong Kong University, a momento that changes your life forever. You begin writing cuando extrañas tu casa, when you’re missing home. Later, you’ll learn your teacher Shirley was terribly homesick too. It gets worse after you read Tim Winton’s The Turning. You’ll cry at his cuento ‘On Her Knees’ (your Ma was a cleaner, and as a chica you helped her clean). You become obsessed with Winton, his stories, his practice. Soñarás of sunsets and of writing a linked collection of short stories about outsiders settling in a fictional place, like his Angelus.

One night in your writing class, you jot down this quote by Ernest Hemingway, ‘Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.’ Later, sitting at your desk in your apartment on Caine Road in Central, you’ll be staring at the old walk-up building opposite. Dripping off the small square concrete retaining wall, is a huge creeping Banyan Tree. It reminds you of the jacaranda in your front jardín back home. You note this (and turn the page). The next day, staring out the same window, it starts to rain, heavy and strong. The black rain makes you think of the fierce tropical thunderstorms back in Brisbane. Much later, on a ferry ride to visit your Spanish amiga y su familia who live in Discovery Bay, you’ll see a dead dog floating in Victoria Harbour. You instantly get a scene in your head (the final scene it turns out), and the title. Your story is not fully formed, but you workshop it anyway. You’ll remember the teacher’s feedback at the time; the writer Gish Jen from the United States, saying how violent and ‘grossed out’ she is by it. You’ll laugh with your classmates to hide your disappointment and put the draft away. It’ll take years, but you’ll return to it. Re-writing again and otra vez. You’ll eventually finish the story.

In another evening class, your teacher for the semester, the inspirational Asian American/ Malaysian-Singaporean writer, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, will give you another writing exercise. She’ll read out the vignette ‘My Name’ by Sandra Cisneros from her libro The House on Mango Street. You are to write your response for this, she says. You do. Your sentences flow, strong, fluid; they sound more like musical notes than words on a page. This is how your character’s name is born. This is when you first hear your voz being read out aloud. For the first time en tu vida, you come across a book that speaks and sounds like you . You rush off to buy a copy. You’ll read all about this poor Mexican girl, Esperanza, growing up in Chicago. Su vergüenza of not liking where she lives and of her pobre familia migrante just getting by and making do. You know this story, because in part, it is you. Even if it takes years, and it will take you años, your linked collection will be about a mixed-race girl finding her place too.

Years will pass. You’ll visit Brisbane, but won’t stay because you have been accepted into the Masters of Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne. You’ll finish this and continue on to a PhD, specialising in second-generation immigrant writing and trauma, encouraged by your tutor Martin who urges you to please, write your father’s refugee story. Tu papá at this stage is very ill; you try to go home as often as you can, but it’s hard. When you return home, you’ll sit on the balcón with him, look out past the jacaranda , and talk. You’ll ask if you can write about his life. You’ll listen as he recalls small memories in his heavily Hungarian-accented Spanish. Later, you’ll realise, when you are rewriting in English about him, that he could only share what he could. Sometimes, your father is angry. Other times, tired or irritable. You’ll come home to be with him justo antes de que muera. This time, he’ll not talk anymore, but you will. You’ll talk about los árboles, az idöjárás, the birds. You’ll be with him when he takes his last breath. You’ll write his eulogy, but won’t be able to read it. You’ll finish your estudios. It’ll take many hard years to finally finish writing la novela based on your father’s lives in Hungary and here. You’ll keep sending it out.

It’s true, ya no vivís in Brisbane. You haven’t done so for muchos años, but it’s always inside you. It’s in the warmth of the sun as it touches your skin, the subtropical green your eyes long for, the virgin blue-coloured sky that comforts you, the ground your bare feet aches to walk on again and again. Your first short story collection is loosely based on your childhood, una familia growing up in a poor forgotten barrio in Brisbane. In your second novela, the contemporary section is also set there. In it, this place calls two estranged adult sisters back, so they can be reunited at the deathbed of their Spanish-speaking Hungarian-born father. And yet…

Tus cuentos, your mixed-up homes remain unpublished. You picture your manuscripts hidden under a pile on an editor’s desk. You don’t believe they’re forgotten. No. You’d like to think, they are waiting for their time to be read and understood.

*No te podés imaginar what such loss of country means, so you hope to pay your deepest respects to those fortunate to have ancestors and a place with all their dreams; to those First-Nation teachers, mentors, and writers who on your return, have taught you and shown the ways in which their words can.

Suzanne Hermanoczki is a writer and teacher of creative writing. Her critical and creative works on death narratives and photography, trauma and the immigrant journey, gringos, magic realism, code-switching and bi/multi-cultural identity, have been published in both local and international publications. She first began studying Creative Writing at The University of Hong Kong while living and working in Hong Kong. She holds a PhD and Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. 

By Suzanne Hermanoczki

Issue 2 | Spring 2022

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