Janette Turner Hospital Biography
Janette Turner Hospital Comments:
In childhood, I felt like a space voyager, traveling daily between two alien worlds, daily mediating between them, decoding mutually unintelligible sign systems, an instinctive semiotician from the age of six. This was the result of growing up within a subculture of evangelical fundamentalist Pentecostalism (in which almost everything was forbidden to me) within the wider culture (encountered at school each day) of boisterous working-class anti-religious subtropical Australia. The incantatory rhythms of the King James version of the bible (especially the Psalms), read aloud at the family dinner-table every night for the first twenty years of my life until I left home, are a dominant influence on my prose, as are the jagged, irreverent, piquant, slangy bush-ballad rhythms of working-class Australia. My weirdly cross-cultural childhood turned out to be a good rehearsal for the rest of my life, which, by happenstance (economic, academic, and marital) rather than by deliberate choice, has been culturally nomadic. I have lived for extended periods of time in the U.S.A., Canada, India, and England, although for some time I have been spending an increasing portion of each year back in Australia, and the drift of things is toward a permanent return.
All my writing, in a sense, revolves around the mediation of one culture (or subculture) to another. Wherever I am, I live about equally (in terms of company kept and haunts frequented) in the rarefied academic/literary/cultural worlds and the netherworlds of working-class pubs/cops/street people/gutter people (with, I must confess, an instinctive preference for the latter). I mix easily in both worlds, I switch accent and idiom easily. I have, in general, (there are always individual exceptions on both sides), a higher moral opinion of the denizens of the netherworld than of pillars of the community.
My first novel The Ivory Swing, was written after a period of living in a village in South India and explored the fact that, regardless of the degree to which educated and enlightened individuals of western and Asian cultures bend over backwards to understand and appreciate one another, there are certain basic and intractable differences that, given a particular course of events, will result in insoluble dilemmas and cataclysms. Since then, all my novels and short stories have explored the same basic situation of clashing perspectives (particularly the clash between the socially favored and the disempowered) but have stayed within a western framework.
The themes of dislocation and connection are constant in my work. So are the themes of moral choice and moral courage. I am always putting my characters into situations of acute moral dilemma (this encompasses the political), to find out what they will do. This is, it seems to me, the question of maximum interest about the human species: what will she, or he, do under extreme pressure? The attempt to find a fictional form which will bridge the disparate worlds I explore has meant that I have often seen myself categorized as "postmodernist." I don't object to this, except that I am disturbed when I read Terry Eagleton, a critic whom I esteem, extolling modernism but finding postmodernism morally nihilistic. I object. (His definition of the term is too narrow). I have passionate moral and political commitments (though I like to feel that these can be surmised but cannot be precisely located in my work. I would like to think that my writing forces the reader to make inner moral and political choices and alignments, but does not tell the reader what such alignments should be).
Stylistically, I probably have more in common with poets and formalists than with other politically engagé writers and postmodernists. Words, images, rhythms are of major sensual importance to me. I have an erotic relationship with language. (Ironically, this goes back to those family bible readings. The stern prophets of the Old Testament were voluptuous with words.) I am a feminist who has frequently been trashed by literary "career feminists." I am, it seems, "ideologically unsound." Apparently I'm much too exuberant about female sexuality, seeking, for example, to redeem and reclaim words like "slut;" and much too fond of male characters.
All labels, in fact, are a bad fit. I'm a maverick and a guerrilla.
* * *