Holly Ringland: A place to call home

"You can't go home again," wrote Thomas Wolfe. For most of my life I've railed against accepting this unbearable truth, stubbornly searching in vain for a way back to homes that were lost to me; those of wood and nails, those found in other people, and, maybe the most elusive, a sense of home and belonging within myself. For all that time spent searching, what I never paused to consider was that I'd always held a way home very literally in the palm of my hand.

I've wanted to be a writer since I was three years old, the age when my mother taught me to read. Our family home was on the northern end of the Gold Coast, a block from a glittering, shallow estuary of the Pacific Ocean called the Broadwater. I was always outdoors, in Mum's subtropical, ever-blooming garden – full of silver-green ironbark, scarlet bottlebrush and pink flowering tea trees – or at the sea; I could smell the salty pungency through my bedroom window.

I used my life savings to leave Australia for England to give my writing dreams a wholehearted crack … I’d never been to Europe before, I was alone, and I knew no one.Credit:Simon Letch

My favourite stories were ones that reflected the landscapes I lived in: May Gibbs' Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and Pixie O'Harris's Marmaduke the Possum. Both were tales embedded in Australian flora and fauna, told from European storytelling perspectives. As soon as I learnt to write and read, I started writing stories about gumtree kingdoms, paperbark queens, soldier crab warriors and wattle witches. When Mum added Indigenous Australian books to my library, such as Dick Roughsey's The Rainbow Serpent and The Quinkins, my fascination with the relationship between stories and landscapes deepened. As I grew older and began to choose my own books, I turned to young-adult novels and fairy tales, most of which were European or American; the culture of Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club also mirrored most of the television and films I watched.

When I was nine my family moved from Australia to North America. We rented a home in Vancouver, which we used as our base while we lived and travelled in a campervan from national park to national park throughout Canada and the US. The experience was like jumping into one of Mary Poppins' chalk drawings; suddenly I was in the world I'd read about in the adventures of the Wakefield twins, seen on Sunday night Disney television, and absorbed at the movies. North American landscapes, both wild and suburban, created an exotic sense of wonder and pure escapism that my homeland surroundings couldn't compete with.

A couple of years later, on the cusp of becoming a teenager, I noticed in a vague way that the stories I was drawn to writing were always set overseas, even if the setting was only implied. It didn't feel like a conscious decision to separate my storytelling from my homeland, it was a default in my imagination.

In my early 20s I moved inland to live and work in Australia's dramatically beautiful Western Desert, learning and sharing culture and stories with Anangu colleagues. For the first time I noticed a sense of Australian people, weather, bodies of water, flowers, and bushland creeping onto my page. But that wasn't to last; the desert was a landscape that became a home I loved and lost.

I didn't leave because I wanted to. I left the desert because I was fleeing a violent relationship. This was not a new phenomenon to me. I had lived with male-perpetrated violence before. Ongoing research shows how traumatic experience changes the brain. According to author Michele Rosenthal, for trauma survivors who go on to develop symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder – an unmitigated experience of anxiety related to the past trauma – the shift from reactive to responsive mode never occurs. Instead, the brain holds the survivor in a constant reactive state. In my case, I lived with high-functioning fear and anxiety as a result of trauma.

One of the ways this manifested was in my relationship with Australia. "Memory is the fourth dimension to any landscape," wrote Janet Fitch. By my late 20s, everything about home caused me pain and fear. Accumulated memories were embedded everywhere I'd ever been, in every sense and memory: the smell of the sea, the changing hues of red dirt. The feeling of summer heat softening in dusk air, and saltwater tightening my skin as it dried. Gum leaves hushing each other in the strengthening wind and the deep growl of thunderstorms; the smell of rain hitting baked dry earth. The unholy screech of cockatoos and drunken joy of rainbow lorikeet song at sunrise, and the haunting scents of wattle and honey grevillea in bloom.

I tried different cities and jobs in Australia, but lived with the unending feeling that I belonged nowhere. I understand now that it wasn't only cultural influences that caused me to crave an escape from the familiarity of home in my writing. It was also my brain's response to trauma. Writing stories set elsewhere was an act of refuge; I wrote myself away from places that weren't safe, into fictional ones that were.

The tipping point came during dinner with a trusted friend, who held space for us to talk about the debilitating sickness of shame as a result of trauma, and its consequential stasis. Why don't you go? I remember her asking. Make a new home, somewhere totally different. But choose a place that takes you towards writing. Don't leave yourself completely.

I remember how time slowed between us at the dinner table as I took in her words. There was a spark in my belly as I considered following my childhood dream, the one thing that trauma had not extinguished. What would become of my life if I tried to follow and honour that one constant in how I identified and understood myself? An old memory arose: sitting at my childhood desk with the window open, sea breeze blowing in while, oblivious, I hand-wrote stories full of wonder. Everything I hoped for was possible.

Holly Ringland.Credit:Giulia Zonza

Six months after that dinner conversation, I used my life savings to leave Australia for England to give my writing dreams a wholehearted crack: I accepted a place at university in Manchester to do my master's of creative writing. I'd never been to Europe before, I was alone, and I knew no one.

The contrast of the moody, consistently grey north-west of England to the extreme weather and bright colour of central eastern Australia was a deep shock. No matter though how I struggled with the lack of sunlight, the colourless skies and a dampness I could feel in my bones, it was also – immediately – a place of deep relief. Manchester was a tabula rasa; fear and anxiety were still enormous parts of my learnt behavioural responses, but, for maybe the first time in my independent adult life, I didn't panic about what or who might be around every proverbial corner.

In my first week I met the kindest man I've ever known and somehow knew enough to not turn away from the sense of safety and sun-warmth being in his company gave me. I was on different time, under a different sky, with different trees, seasons, light, wildlife, cultures and people. And I'd gotten myself there to write, something I hadn't done in a long time. There was a brief period a few years earlier when I'd tried, but it had caused too much conflict in my relationship at the time. Held liable for the wandering depth and breadth of my imagination, I had hidden away my lifelong calling to write.

Every new morning in Manchester, my mind seemed to unfurl a little bit more with another day of freedom and possibility. I took to my northern life with as much zest and gusto as I could muster. I started writing and, again, vaguely noticed most of my new writing was set everywhere and anywhere but Australia. I didn't return until 2012, three years after I'd left; I shook with fear for most of the long-haul flight to Brisbane. Homecoming was painful, poignant, anxious and beautiful. My fear was mainly unfounded, like a child's fear of the dark.

When I returned to England six weeks later, a question began to form that I'd not considered before. It niggled and agitated deeply in my mind, a pea under a princess's mattresses. I wouldn't turn to it, I wouldn't ask it. I didn't want to have to answer. What does it mean to exile ourselves from the places that make us?

Back in Manchester, a couple of years passed. I was writing regularly and working on storytelling projects that took me to places in the UK and Europe I never expected to go. I was in a healthy, loving relationship with a kind man. I felt safe. I began to trust myself. At the same time, the longer I stayed away from Australia, the louder the country started to call to me. In my dreams, in my memories and most of all, in the gaping spaces between the lines of everything I wrote.

In 2014, when I sat down and wrote the first line of my first novel, it was immediately clear that the story was set in Australia. Even more surprising and unfamiliar to me was how utterly right it felt.

I wrote the entire first draft of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart in Manchester. Over 12 months my office, home, and wherever possible, wardrobe, became a trove of Australian native flora, scents, photos, art, music, poetry and objects. I was driven to embody my story's world as much as possible, insatiably hungry for the sea I grew up beside; the feeling of salt on my skin; the mystifying green sugar cane fields at the end of my grandmother's street; the peach and violet-blue sunsets I watched from my mum's verandah; the wildflowers and red dirt of my old desert home. Safe to freely remember the landscapes that meant home to me caused a hunger like first love. It was blissful, unstoppable agony to revive them to life on the page. It was blissful, unstoppable agony to realise I was writing my way back home to them and them to me; I was coming home to myself.

I'm writing this at my desk in Manchester in mid-November, when the holly bushes and rowan trees have burst into red-berried bloom and night draws in at 4.30pm. People around me are buttoning up for winter. All this time of year signals to me is home: in a couple of weeks I'll pack my suitcase stuffed with togs, thongs and cotton dresses, and make what has become an annual pilgrimage south for a long slurp of summer in Mum's garden. The journey home has grown easier since 2012.

With the publication this year of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, returning has become outright magical, and in all my years of travel the international arrivals gate at Brisbane Airport is still the best destination I know. The beauty of clutching my mum and stepdad, grinning with teary faces as we walk out into the sweltering humidity and I catch my first glimpse of gumtrees in their native soil, fills my heart like nothing else.

Until I wrote Lost Flowers, I had thought that to escape trauma I needed to separate myself from everything that reminded me of it. But, it turns out home is deeper than pain, deeper than love. Those roots go deeper. The landscapes, flora and fauna that raised me will never be any further from me than the microsecond between my heart's beat or the unseeable dark in the blink of my eye. Those places are always there. Here. Home.

Writing has been my homecoming in all senses, to places made of wood and nails, to accepting and reciprocating the love and kindness of others, and to learning that I wholly belong to myself. Maybe this is what Thomas Wolfe meant: we can never go back to what was. We can't go home again, to home as it was when we lost it. But we can find our own ways to return, anew. And in those ways, maybe everything we hope for can be possible.

Holly Ringland's debut novel, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart (HarperCollins, $33), was released in March.

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