At writers’ festivals, both as a member of the audience and as participant, I’m always fascinated by the number of questions that attempt to tease out a writer’s connection to a story. Despite academic thinking to the contrary that continues to be influenced by Roland Barthes’ 1960s “The author is dead” – this is something that intrigues me too.
With that in mind – and given the eclectic nature of my work – I thought I’d post another freebie short story of mine (on the dropdown menu under Shorts) and provide some pointers as to the how and the why this particular story came about. These, then, are some of the reflections and connections between story and writer.
The story is called “The Vanities” and the players are two somewhat preoccupied students who meet in the university library – a lonely and rather confused young woman and an arrogant young man. One of the central tenets is the epic poem The Conference of the Birds by the twelfth-century Persian poet Farrid ud-Din Attar.
Firstly, the setting. I passionately loved my student years, which I found all the more enjoyable for being long-awaited. Once I started I didn’t want to stop and often fantasized about becoming a professional student. Like most students, I spent hours in the library and even longer sitting with my books over a cup of tea at one of the little tables in the cafe below and it was this place – sitting alone amid all the cigarette smoke, student chatter and high sudden bursts of laughter – that for a space became my favourite spot in all the world. And, yes, there is a pond adjacent to that cafe, ducks too – and in the dappled shade further up the campus sometimes the sight and sound of the jousting, a motif I used in the story as backdrop to the students’ angry exchange.
The female character could have been drawn from any one or all of the students around me. It also – in its aloneness and vulnerability – picks up on bits of myself in those years. The male character is drawn from fantasy – or perhaps from someone spied briefly among the library stacks one day.
The Sufi theme of the poem that sits at the centre of this tale arises from my interest in religion. At one point in my undergrad years, I was given a year’s exemption from UWA to attend Edith Cowan University where I studied some of the history and key philosophies behind Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism and Baha’i – and then back to UWA for Christianity. Intense, fascinating, totally absorbing. It was during this time I was introduced to The Conference of the Birds.
This Sufi poem of Attar’s tells of a group of birds led by the wise Hoopoe in a long and dangerous journey to visit the Simorgh. Each bird represents a human fault. In this journey they fly over seven valleys – bewilderment, yearning, selflessness and so on – and many give up. But 30 birds persist to arrive in the land of the Simorgh to come face to face with God.
Somewhere in the years between reading the poem and writing the story, I had a flying dream – soaring aloft alongside my daughter over a lush green valley filled with bright and colourful butterflies. A dream of peace – which didn’t, alas, last for long – but also of a type of wonder that stays with me still.
Happy reading and writing.
Photo of Hoopoe bird: iStock.com/cowboy5437