Janette Turner Hospital Biography
Janette Turner Hospital comments:
Nationality: Australian. Born: Melbourne, Victoria, 1942. Education: The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Brisbane, B.A. in English 1965; Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, M.A. 1973. Career: Teacher, Queensland, 1963-66; librarian, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967-71; lecturer in English, Queen's University, and St. Lawrence College, Kingston, Ontario, 1971-82. Since 1982 full-time writer. Writer-in-residence, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1985-86, 1987, 1989; University of Ottawa, Ontario, 1987; University of Sydney, New South Wales, 1989; Boston University, 1991; La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, 1992-93; University of East Anglia, Norwich, England, 1996; adjunct professor of English, La Trobe University, 1990-93. Lived in the United States, 1967-71, and India, 1977, and 1990. Currently divides year between Australia, Boston, and Paris. Awards: Seal award (Canada), 1982; Atlantic First citation from Atlantic Monthly, 1978; CDC Literary Prize, for short story, 1986; Fellowship of Australian Writers Fiction award, 1988; Torgi award, Canadian Association for the Blind, 1988; Australian National Book Council award, 1989. Agent: Jill Hickson Associates, P.O. Box 271, Woollahra, New South Wales 2025, Australia; or, Molly Friedrich,, Literary Agent, 708 Third Ave., 23rd Floor, New York, New York 10017, U.S.A.
The Ivory Swing. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1982; New York, Dutton, and London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1983.
The Tiger in the Tiger Pit. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1983; New York, Dutton, and London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1984.
Borderline. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, New York, Dutton, and London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985.
Charades. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1988; NewYork and London, Bantam, 1988.
A Very Proper Death (as Alex Juniper). Melbourne, Penguin, 1990;New York, Scribner, 1991.
The Last Magician. London, Virago, and New York, Holt, 1992.
Oyster. London, Virago Press, 1996; New York, W.W. Norton, 1998.
Dislocations. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1986; Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
Isobars. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1990; BatonRouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1991; London, Virago, 1992.
Collected Stories: 1970-1995. St. Lucia, Queensland, University ofQueensland Press, 1995.
"Recent Australian Writing: Janette Turner Hospital's Borderline" by Michael Wilding, in Working Papers in Australian Studies, Australian Studies Center, University of London, 1988; "The Commonplace of Foreignness: the Fictions of Janette Turner Hospital" by Sabrina Achilles, in Editions, (Sydney), 1989; Introduction by Helen Daniel to Virago Modern Classics edition of Borderline, 1990; Janette Turner Hospital issue of LINQ Magazine, (Queensland, Australia), 17(1) 1990; "Charades: Searching for Father Time: Memory and the Uncertainty Principle" by Sue Gilett, in New Literature's Review (Australia), 21, Summer 1991; "Janette Turner Hospital" by Elspeth Cameron in Profiles in Canadian Literature, No. 8, edited by Jeffrey M. Heath, Toronto, Dundum Press, 1991; Janette Turner Hospital, edited by Selina Samuels. London, British Australian Studies Association, 1998.
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.
* * *
Janette Turner Hospital was born in Melbourne, moved to Brisbane at the age of seven, and then to the United States in 1967. She spent a number of years in Canada and accompanied her husband to India on his study leave. More recently she has divided her time between Australia, Boston, and Canada. It is hardly surprising, then, that her fiction should be deeply concerned with clashes between cultures, beliefs, nationalities, as even the titles of some of her works suggest: Borderline, Dislocations, Isobars. In one of the stories in Isobars, the narrator could well be speaking of the author when she says, "I live at the desiccating edge of things, or the dividing line between two countries, nowhere."
The Ivory Swing is a study of the faltering marriage of a Canadian academic on leave and his wife and family, focusing on the wife as she struggles to decide when it is legitimate to interfere in the lives of others and when it is not. At the end her well-meant intrusion has disastrous effects, and she is left pondering the ensuing tragedy she might or might not have caused, or prevented, had she acted differently. Early in the novel we are told that "There was a blurred borderline crossed by accident at certain times," and this question of where to draw the line recurs often in Hospital's fiction. At the end the novel intimates the precarious but perhaps hopeful condition of the couple's marriage.
Though the title of The Tiger in the Tiger Pit refers to the irascible, dying old man Edward Carpenter, the most important character is really his wife, Bessie, who on the occasion of their golden anniversary manipulates the various members of the family in order to bring them together. The novel slowly builds up composite sense of the myriad dramas that have unfolded among the members in the past and that will lead towards a climax. Hospital cuts skillfully among them, shifting point of view and focus, enacting her belief in the people's subjective perceptions of reality. It is Bessie who "arranges" the various lives. Having given up a promising career for her husband, she is now working on a composition of her own, "a family symphony," that is both actual and metaphorical; she "conducts" the members of the family as if they were players in an orchestra.
Borderline is one of Hospital's most accomplished novels, working well simultaneously on the levels of narrative thriller and moral speculation and inquiry, especially of where to draw the "borderline" between intrusion into others' lives and responsibility for them that she raised in The Ivory Swing. A meat truck is stopped at the border between the U.S. and Canada and found to be carrying a number of refugees inside with the frozen carcasses. One of them, however, escapes by hiding inside a beef carcass and is rescued on the spur of the moment by the occupants of two following cars. Gus Kelly is a Catholic, guilt-ridden, alcoholic philanderer and Felicity one of those very beautiful, slightly unworldly young woman who are the characteristic heroines in Hospital's novels. They assist the woman, and out of that impulsive action a complicated, ambiguous web of mystery develops, within which they are both eventually embroiled. Though the themes raised are almost too many for the novel to handle with complete authority, Borderline is a highly intelligent and gripping novel.
Hospital's later novels have grown increasingly speculative and even in parts apocalyptic. Charades, for instance, opens: "The grand unified theories, Koenig writes, are difficult to verify experimentally." Koenig is an American scientist, tipped for the Nobel Prize, who is accosted late at night by an Australian named Charade Ryan. Charade is engaged on a quest for her father, which proves in the end to be a quest for her mother; only much later do we learn why she has sought out Koenig. He is working on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and the novel is itself a dramatization of the principle, of the "necessity of uncertainty," as Charade puts it. Hospital announces the theme repeatedly, and the novel is filled, too, with images of dissolution, change, uncertainty. Charades is the account of a wanderer and a search, a psychological study in guilt, an intellectual thriller, a rewriting of A Thousand and One Nights, but above all a narrative that simply hums and crackles with tension. If there is a criticism it is again that at times the author appears to have taken on too much: the quest for the father, the Holocaust, Heisenberg, allusions to other scientists and writers, Scheherazade, the logbooks of early Australian explorers. What tends to result is a kind of intellectual promiscuity, with the author struggling to do justice to the richness of her material.
The Last Magician begins in startling fashion, with a woman fainting in a London cinema as she unexpectedly sees herself on screen. Still in a state of shock, she takes a flight home to Australia, where she begins her agonizing reappraisal of the lives of four people born in Queensland who grew up together and whom she has come to know later in Sydney. Slowly sifting through the rubble of memories and photographs, the narrator Lucy Barclay eventually arrives as nearly as she can at the truth of their entangled relationships, though the author, in self-mocking anticipation of critical objections, points out, "Late twentieth century social realism cannot always provide definitive and enclosed endings to novels." Speaking in an energetic, often self-contradictory voice, addressing the non-existent reader, breaking off to indulge in long parentheses, Lucy patiently follows the trail right back to its beginnings, trying to "salvage the future and to predict the past." But The Last Magician is also a philosophical inquiry into what the novel postulates as the overground and the underground, into the contingent and uncertain nature of the self, and into the concept of "triage," by which the powerless are sacrificed to those in power.
Hospital's writing is as usual dizzyingly energetic, full of allusions, sudden shifts in time and place and above all packed with images, the most important of which is that of the quarry. Here, she proposes a giant system of caves, tunnels, and canals beginning under Sydney's suburbs and reaching as far perhaps as Brisbane. In the novel's most pervasive motif they are a kind of Inferno, the eighth circle of hell, and "the last magician," the photographer Charlie Chang, becomes an antipodean Dante. Hospital's sympathies are clearly with the undergrounders and outsiders of this world, rather than with characters like the complacent judge Robinson Gray. Worldly society, she seems to be arguing, can only exist at the expense of those it drives out, or under: "The quarry props up a lot of walled gardens."
Oyster picks up and foregrounds the apocalyptic elements in parts of The Last Magician. Written with an eye on the millennium, it tells the story of a cult in the tiny town of Outer Maroo in outback Queensland, so remote that it does not appear on any map. Mail occasionally gets into the town but never leaves it; the postmistress makes sure of that. This doesn't stop its citizens from behaving violently, especially towards "foreigners." Oyster attracts young people to his fabulous underground opal site and then exploits and enslaves them. This is a novel crowded with metaphysics, rollicking in ideas, rendered in a prose that borders on the riotously portentous if it does not cross over into it, and ending in a long-heralded and spectacular apocalypse. As often, Hospital highlights the problematic nature of truth by employing a partial narrator who is close to but never a central part of the story and whose search for the truth enacts the sense of indeterminacy that is central to the author's vision. Much of her narrative is to do with the difficulty of creating coherent narratives. But it is hard to find any coherence at all in this one, with its gallery of characters whose evil is so relentless that finally they lack not merely plausibility but even interest.
Although best known as a novelist, Hospital is also an accomplished and productive short story writer, as her Collected Stories attest. These bring together the stories from her two collections, as well as a further seven more recent ones, gathered together under the title "North of Nowhere." They amount to some thirty-nine stories in all. They are cosmopolitan, ranging widely over the various countries in which Hospital has lived, and the variety of her protagonists is equally impressive. Again though, a common theme is displacement; the characters are often at odds with their environment. Most of the protagonists are estranged or solitary in some form or other, outside the mainstream of humanity. Sometimes the estrangement is by choice, as in "Port After Port, the Same Baggage," in which, in defiance of the young members of her own family, an aging widow makes the decision to embark on a world voyage. At others times, as in "After the Fall," estrangement is thrust upon the protagonist; the artist figure in the story has become unhinged after her husband abandoned her. The later stories tend to be set more often in Australia and especially Queensland, which the author has acknowledged to be her real home, and are often autobiographical in nature.
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