At a recent book club talk, my latest novel sparked an animated and far-reaching discussion on and around culture, belonging, identity and generally fitting-in. Again many instances of synchronicity with people coming up to me with variations on ‘I’ve always felt I never really belonged anywhere’.
The first draft of A Question of Belonging was written on leaving South Africa only to lie dormant for decades. And it’s only in retrospect I realise the story itself – the belonging part of the story – was always there and that it was just waiting for my own understanding. This came – largely – in two parts: uncovering the intricacies of my concealed past (see my historical novel A Break in the Chain) and the path my studies were to take. When I eventually rewrote the book, its final iteration was a far cry from its shy beginnings.
Why? Partly because my writing matured, but in the main, I think, because the time that passed was filled by the nomadic path I continued to tread. From the beginning, it had been suitcases, packing cases, many sadnesses as childhood friends became pen pals and beloved dogs were left behind, schools, boarding schools, ships, new countries, places, people, cultures, jobs – and houses, many many houses, some of which became homes. And little changed until I settled in Perth.
Towards the end of my precious uni years at UWA during which I was lucky enough to have Terri-ann White and Brenda Walker among my supervisors, I started to think about a PhD – and the theme that interested me most was loneliness: loneliness and how it is depicted in literature. Think books like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Huckleberry Finn, Frankenstein and many more – increasing numbers today.
Following advice to progress my studies at a different university from my undergraduate days, I approached Murdoch where I was in discussion with a potential PhD supervisor when we were interrupted by Professor Vijay Mishra – newly returned from Canada and the Chair of Literature at Alberta University. We were introduced. Vijay took one look at me and said ‘I’ll take her on’ and that was that really. Except I had the chance to study under the guidance of one of the most incredible minds I’ve come across.
On the face of it, the resulting 120,000-word thesis “Writing From the Shadowlands” was a long way from my original wish to examine the concept of loneliness. But in reality it plunged me right into the entrails of one of the most controversial discussions of the twentieth century which had at its centre questions of identity, post-colonial discourse, cultural representation and appropriation.
It gave rise to a gradual awareness of my own rootlessness and how, unknown to my conscious self, how much my own wish for stability, a home and fitting-in had infiltrated my own writings. See the award-winning “My Mother Was a Russian Spy” in Perspectives.
In fact when I look back at my work over the last twenty or thirty years – from the short stories and essays to the non-fiction and novels – a large proportion have loneliness at the core. Time for a well overdue chat with my subconscious!
Praise for A Question of Belonging
‘How far would you go to protect your family? By turns heartbreaking and joyful, A Question of Belonging is a deceptively intimate novel in which tumultuous outward events imbue the fraught intertwined lives of just a handful of characters with a rich universality.’ William Yeoman, Literary Editor of The West Australian.
‘Set during the tumultuous 1978 civil war on the border of Rhodesia and Mozambique, A Question of Belonging paints beautifully the juxtaposition of the yearning to belong on a personal level, when surrounded by uncertainty and political unrest. Tangea Tansley’s deeply engaging narrative will have you reflecting on your own sense of belonging.’ writing WA
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