A piece from my second book has been published in the latest issue of Meanjin. This piece addresses the problem that is described in its title: “How can we reconcile the existence of suffering with the premise of a good and almighty god?”
Here are some pics of the published piece, which has actually been printed as a colour supplement or insert. I think it looks great:
I spent so many months working on this piece. In the end, I had to go all the way to Japan to bring the first draft to fruition.
I went to Japan last year for an Asialink residency. I’d already spent many months struggling with the writing of this piece. I felt so burdened by its central question. I was also intimidated by the sheer volume of what had already been written about this topic. Would I have anything original to contribute?
About a week before I was due to go to Japan, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami occurred. Spooked by news coverage of the events and the escalating problems at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, friends and colleagues were telling me to postpone my residency. As I read update after update on the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website, I was starting to feel spooked myself.
And yet I felt that, in writing a piece about reconciling suffering with the premise of a good and almighty god, surely I needed to go to Japan at this time. Eventually, I decided to go and I set myself the residency writing goal of completing the first draft of the piece.
Throughout much of my residency, I stayed in my tiny studio apartment and tried to finish the draft. I had so many dispiriting times. I berated myself that I was wasting my residency because I wasn’t exploring Japan enough. I spent long days where I would simply get out of bed, walk a few steps to my computer, struggle with the piece for hours and forget about eating until about 10:30 at night, when I would finally go out to get something to eat. (Luckily Nagoya is a city that doesn’t sleep – one of the things I loved about it.)
Being in Japan during this point in Japanese history heightened the burden I was feeling in writing this piece. Could I do justice to its central question? Sometimes I spoke to Japanese citizens about the earthquake and tsunami. A few people teared up while talking to me. I am not someone who can cry very easily at all but, one day during my residency, I was in a newsagency and I saw a magazine that contained a photo essay of the earthquake and tsunami. I looked through the photo essay and I teared up too.
Then I discovered this Buddhist scripture, known in English as the Heart Sutra. It was so dense and mysterious. I felt that it could help progress my work on the draft and I really wanted to learn more about it, but soon found myself struggling to access good English-language analyses of the piece. One of my residency contacts recommended that I speak to someone she knew – a Buddhist priest and scholar at Nagoya University. She told me that his English was good. So I made contact with him and he agreed to speak with me about the Heart Sutra.
As it turned out, while his English was quite good, it wasn’t at a sufficient level for us to discuss the complexities of the Heart Sutra. As we tried to discuss the piece, I also felt guilty – and definitely not for the first time during my residency – that my Japanese was so poor.
When I realised that it was too difficult for us to discuss the Heart Sutra, I turned the conversation away from that text and simply asked him if he held any particular belief as to why Japan had experienced this earthquake and tsunami that had killed thousands of people. Knowing that he was a Buddhist, I asked him, “Do you attribute the events to karma?” No, he told me. The events didn’t occur because of any karmic debt that had accrued. I nodded and asked him, “What about the belief that attachment leads to suffering? Did attachment in any way catalyse the earthquake and tsunami?” No, he told me. That had nothing to do with it. I nodded again and asked: “So why did this earthquake and tsunami occur?”
He said to me: “It occurred because…”
…And I leaned closer, desperate to hear his answer…
It seemed that he was speaking so slowly and yet with the assurance of someone who had arrived at a satisfactory answer. “It occurred because of the movements…”
…And I leaned closer still…
“…of tectonic plates. You see, Japan is located at the intersection of some tectonic plates and this is why we have all these earthquakes.”
I stared at him for a bit, wondering if he was joking.
He looked back at me and said: “It’s true. You ask any Japanese person and they’ll tell you the same thing.”
He really did seem serious. In fact, I began to think: he is serious but, nonetheless, the joke is on me. I’ve been wound up so tightly about this piece. I’ve become so desperate for solutions to its central issue.
Not long afterwards, as he walked me back to the street, I asked him if he knew where I could find any English-language analyses of the Heart Sutra. He said to me, “You’d better come to my office.”
It turned out that his office was also housed in the departmental library. His desk was surrounded by shelves of books. He kindly recommended some texts and I was able to photocopy some excerpts.
Yet, around a week before I was due to return to Australia, I still had not finished my draft of the piece. One of the excerpts that I had photocopied back at Nagoya University had helped me, but the draft was still missing a conclusion. I utterly regretted putting so much pressure on myself to finish the draft during my residency. I felt that I was going to return to Australia without a draft to show for my residency, and – despite all my work in Japan – feeling a sense of failure.
But there was one more thing I decided to do. I decided to travel to Sendai, to see if I could take a look, firsthand, at some of the areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami. I reasoned that maybe this would help me finish the draft.
But on the day that I was due to go to Sendai, I had this stronger feeling that I should stay in my flat instead and work on the piece. Although this would be the last day that I would be available to travel to Sendai, I just had this sense that I shouldn’t go – that I should leave Sendai to its citizens and I should work on my piece.
So, once again, I stayed in my flat all day and for most of the night, and I finished the draft later that night.
Just a few months after I came back to Australia, my mum was diagnosed with cancer. I stopped all work on my book. My mum died on 3 January 2012.
By the time February came, I was desperate to get away from all the obligations and pain that I was feeling in Melbourne. I decided to take my pain to San Francisco instead. It was the first time, as an adult, that I had ever taken an overseas holiday that didn’t involve a writers’ festival or residency. While I was there, someone asked me to give a talk to their creative writing class, but I turned them down.
By this time, my piece had already been accepted by Meanjin. I’d already re-drafted it and made corrections to the copy edit and an early set of proofs. While I was in San Francisco, I read over the last set of proofs and made my final corrections.
Now this piece has been published. It’s almost 9000 words long. I look at this piece and it is so steeped in pain.
I am so glad that I wrote it.