Tuesday, September 16, 2014

P. M. Newton on writing, Buddhism and trauma

This is an edited version of the talk Australian crime novelist P. M. Newton gave at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in 2014. The theme of the conference was Worlds Within, and Newton was one of four novelist invited to respond to the theme. P. M. Newton is an award-winning novelist whose novels set in South-Western Sydney have been widely acclaimed. More about her after the essay:

To talk about the Worlds Within in respect of your writing is one of those invitations that probably should come with the warning, ‘beyond here there be dragons’ – because the more I thought about it, the stranger and more layered those worlds seemed to become.

Snippets of other people’s words about their worlds started pinging around, hints at their worlds within were lodged in my brain, their sources and their contexts long forgotten. Phrases like “My name is Legion: for we are many” eventually sent me scrambling to nail down its source, only to find it was a new testament description of a exorcism, and this was how the afflicted one – probably someone with multiple personality disorder – had introduced himself.

The idea of writing (and re-writing and re-drafting and editing and re-editing) is probably not a bad analogy to a lengthy exorcism of the multiple personalities one creates, nurtures and introduces to the world in the course of writing a novel.

Then my brain, flipped through its random access memory and came up with, “I am large, I contain multitudes” which flickered back into my consciousness – confused somewhat with the first quote – I’d imagined them to be from the same source, to be different expressions of the same thing. But this was Walt Whitman’s conception of the self and identity in all its rich and varied contradictions.

It was starting to get a bit noisy – because almost simultaneously as I was re-hearing the bible and mixing it up with Whitman, a Crowded House earworm from 'Four Seasons in One Day', took root - which I now share with you and defy you to shake loose ….

Worlds above and worlds below

Along – importantly - with the line that follows it

The sun shines on the black clouds hanging over the domain

And it’s those black clouds that I recognised. Because belatedly I realise that they have been hanging very much over my writing, particularly the process of writing my last book, Beams Falling, and I think they’re still out there, hovering on the horizon, ready to roll on over me, and over the next one, whatever it may be.

It would be easy to imagine that this sense of imminent darkness is because of the genre I write in – crime fiction. It’s a genre that’s produced and consumed for the most part as entertainment – but for me, it’s a serious topic. I’m actually more confused when it isn’t dealt with as such.

After all, the subject mater is usually violent death, murder. The ultimate exercise of power over another – the power of taking a life; power which is often deeply rooted in other forms of power and powerlessness that are historical, cultural, social, political in nature.

And each murder, each one, is a unique tragedy. And the ripples of grief extend out from the victim, changing lives forever. A grief that is, at its heart, insoluble – because as American crime author George Pelecanos so beautifully put it -

‘There is no solving murders, you know. Not unless the dead are going to rise up out of the earth. Once somebody is killed, it's forever for their loved ones and their family and the community. “

I did not set out to be a fiction writer. When I left the police it was to find a better life, a happier life, a new world in fact: to travel, to take photos, to write about music, to study Buddhism.

When I did start to write fiction it was in a kind of mad catharsis triggered by a triple murder when I was living in Dharamsala – three Tibetan monks were stabbed to death one night about 100 yards away from where I was living; their murderers - five other monks who were engaged in an internecine war over esoteric questions about deity worship. 

A world within Tibetan Buddhism that I hadn’t known existed suddenly ruptured into my world and it felt somehow that all the darkness I’d experienced in 13 years in the police world - and thought I had quietly sealed up while I wrote about West African music and studied Buddhist philosophy – that world was back and felt real and I can’t tell you why, but it felt like the only way to try and understand this world of violent murderous monks was to fictionalise it and relocate it back to Australia – to build a new world and to create a character who would come and investigate it on my behalf.

The story I wrote as a result of that was unfinished, I didn’t know what I was doing, but the character I created, my Detective Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly, remains with me today and is the central figure in my two novels. It was, I suppose, unavoidable that I ended up bringing to my writing my own experience as a copper, most of it spent as a detective.

Crime novels are generally about the world of cops - and I bring to it my personal understanding of that world. And that is, that it’s not just one world, it’s worlds within worlds, the cops – the longer you stay in, the further you go, the more those worlds, the layers between those worlds unpeel and you penetrate deeper. You join the cops and you join a new world. At first it’s the world of the uniform cop, but then, like me, there’s another world, the world of the detectives, then if you are good at that there’s another layer, the world of the squads – and within each of the worlds there are layers and layers of secrets.

P.M. Newton as a police officer
As a cop, I always felt like an insider /outsider. To the world you’re a cop. End of story. But within that world, you’re a woman, and in the 80s and early 90s, that made you somewhat suspect – there were layers of the world you could not penetrate. And that’s the core aspect of my character, Ned, an Australian Vietnamese young woman, starting out in the cops in the early 1990s, a new detective, slowly moving through the worlds within, but always slightly outside them as well, doubly suspicious to her colleagues as a woman and a non-Anglo Australian.

She comes out of the first book, The Old School, wounded, emotionally, physically and mentally. The second book, Beams Falling, picks up immediately after those events and deals with her movement through new worlds – physically it’s a new place, Cabramatta, early 1993. The world of the ra choi, Vietnamese kids who went out to play joined street gangs to sell drugs, the kids of refugees, leaving homes and families scarred by war.

But emotionally this book was about the world of trauma, the world of the traumatised, those damaged by violence – Ned by the violence of her work, the community by the refugee experience, by conflict, by war, by drugs.

It meant researching and wading into the reality of PTSD, the symptoms of which include hyper- vigilance, emotional numbing, paranoia, inability to form new relationships or maintain old ones, hair trigger anger, fear, panic attacks, blackouts, flashbacks – it meant creating something described by therapists as “trauma world” because that’s where my characters were living.

People suffering from trauma are caught between trauma world – where being suspicious of everyone makes perfect sense because everyone is a threat, where being hyper vigilant is the only way to survive - and the “real world” where you exhaust yourself with mood swings, you alienate everyone around you, you don’t trust others or yourself, you’re incapable of love or being loved, and you pose a risk to yourself and others.

Which brings me back to those opening lines that I remembered when I saw the title of this conference

“My name is Legion: for we are many.”

“I am large, I contain multitudes”

When it’s going well a book is like a kind of madness – the voices in your head, of characters, imaginary friends, foes, threats, enemies, victims, betrayers, all those worlds within that you create and that before you even put them on the page begin to colonise you and as they become more convincing, you live there, in their world, with them.

Trauma world was for me the world within Beams Falling. It was hard to create it, to get it to a liveable stage, and then when it was, it became hard to live in it, and almost impossible to live outside it. During my research into trauma world I discovered that patients suffering PTSD are asked to write or read their trauma narratives, and then to re-write, re-read, and re-listen to it again and again in the hope that the re-exposure will eventually give them distance, so that they no longer live in trauma world. It struck me how very like novel writing this is. We all know what that last pass at page proof stage feels like, yeah?

According to behavioural therapy experts, “traumatized individuals crave metaphor and imagery . . . to make sense of their worlds.”

Is this not what we are trying to do when we write novels?

I’ll finish with a quote from the poet Alicia Ostriker that for me encapsulates why we pursue this special madness of creating a world within, living in it, and trying to write it down so that others may also experience it -

A metaphor gives us at least a fighting chance of saying something real.
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