David Malouf at Sydney Writers' Festival

Photo courtesy of Kylie Matthews

On Sunday afternoon David Malouf spoke at the Bradman Museum in Bowral as part of a satellite event for the Sydney Writers' Festival, and what an enthralling hour it was.

David was in conversation with Lisa Forrest about his new book, A First Place, a collection of personal essays released in 2014 and coinciding with his eightieth birthday year. The discussion was wide-ranging, covering his childhood growing up in Brisbane, the making of Australian identity and the impact of place on shaping us.

It's this last idea that's been bouncing around in my head lately. The concept of how those childhood and first places indelibly mark us. This theme runs strong in Malouf's writing, with his works questioning how the topography of  a place shapes how we relate to the world, and to those around us.

For Malouf, a Brisbane-born boy, its hills, trees and airy stilt-houses instilled in him a love of winding streets, the surprise of new vistas around the corner, the effort of striding uphill to take in another view. For him, the straight, flat topography of Melbourne, it's wide and stretching streets, have always felt a bit strange.

To this I can relate. I grew up in Perth, with its flat cityscape and river bending towards the sea. Parts of that place are imprinted deep into my being. The wide beaches stretching to the horizon, the fierce red desert landscape of the Kimberley, the long evening light born by the sun setting over water, the searing heat of 40 plus degree days.

I agree with Malouf, it's shaped me. Created a longing for views tarred with heat, burnt red dust blurring at the horizon, the unpredictable and often savage swell of the Indian Ocean. There's a comfort in feeling swallowed by the immensity of the landscape sometimes. A fierce joy in its wild places. A craving for the dry heat and the bellowing Fremantle Doctor that can whip the sand into your legs until you're hopping a retreat back to the car at all of 7am, the sun already hot overhead.

Malouf spoke about a place shaping its inhabitants and how they relate to others and themselves. I wonder about this. Is there something about the different cityscapes in Australia that shapes their people and connections?

It's as much about the impact of a childhood landscape as it is about perceptions of "home". I'm half-way through Nikki Gemmell's Honestly: Notes on Life, a collection of her Australian Weekend Magazine columns, and the meaning of "home" to her is a common thread woven throughout.

I've also been listening to kids in Redfern and Waterloo and helping them to write about what "home" means to them. It got me thinking about how those suburbs shaped me while I was there.

What's 'home' to you? A place? A person? A feeling? A comfy bed and food in the fridge?

I'll keep you posted on Nikki Gemmell's sense of home once I've finished the book. You can also catch her speaking at the Southern Highlands Writers Festival on 12 July 2014.



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