Sunday, March 14, 2010

Transplanted and hungry for history.

Growing up in Australia in the 1960s and 70s my grandparents still spoke of the Old Country. Their grandparents had come out to Australia to make a better life for their families. The women of my family still baked hot Christmas Dinners with plum pudding. meals which were more suited to wintery English weather, than 104 degree summer days with 95% humidity.

The books I read reflected a European world view. Yet, when I looked around I lived in a seaside town surrounded by Australian bush. Our houses were built of fibro on ground cleared last year, or ten years ago. An old building was 50 years old. In Brisbane the oldest building still standing is the Old Windmill (1823, built by convict labour).

What we lacked was history. (I won't get into the Aboriginal culture because the ownership of mythology is a very touchy subject to indigenous people and when I was growing up we were told nothing about indigenous Australians).

I read stories about King Arthur, but I lived in a very young country. I was hungry for anything that had history and beauty and depth to it. I don't know if other European Australians felt this lack. The most exciting thing to me when I finally went to the UK, was to walk where people had walked for hundreds, even thousands of years. I had grown up reading so many stories set in England that I felt like I was coming home.

I think the reason I loved fantasy was because it grew out of European mythology. It has this sense of majestic beauty that comes from shared history. (I loved SF because it asked, what next, and I didn't see anything odd about loving two such opposite concepts. Where we come from is equally as important as where we are going).

As a child, if I could have found a ruin like this one from Ireland, I would have been in heaven.

I am curious. Do people who grew up in the US have this same sense of missing something? (I know the European settlers in the US have a history which is about twice as old as Australia, but compared to Europe, the US is still very young. Again not touching on indigenous people).

Did you grow up with stories of the Old Country? Did you long for something more permanent than shifting sea side sand and fibro beach houses? Did you read books set in Europe so that you felt like a citizen of the world, rather than a citizen of a particular country? Is this shared history something that is more important to writers, than non writers?


Amanda Green said...

Rowena, thanks for filling in for me today! Maybe by tomorrow my migraine will have decided to immigrate into someone else's head.

Jim McCoy said...

It's really weird that you would bring this up, in a good kind of way. I'm less than six weeks from finishing a bachelor's degree in history and I've been debating about what country/time period to study. For reasons of language I'll probably end up doing American, but I've always wanted to do something with Central Europe or Ancient Rome. This is something I doubt that most Americans notice though.

The fact that I would say that is really sad, but very few people in the US of A care much about their history outside of World War II (although most still couldn't tell you about US involvement with saving Australia from Japanese invasion) Vietnam and possibly the US Civil War. I'm assuming that most of them would have never thought of something like this.

I've alwas had a fascination with the Orient and the Middle East as well, because they're even older. One day, I hope to take trips to both Egypt/Israel (Ok, technically separate countries, but they're right next to each other) and Japan to get this same kind of feeling. Thank you for posting this. You made my day

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Jim, one of my good friends did her PHD on Strong Women in Rome. She won a scholarship to go a live in Rome for 6 months. And her new series, which is coming out with Harper Collins, partly based on that research.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda, I do hope you are over your migraine soon. They're horrible things.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Jim, if you study all those countries, then go to visit them, I will be so jealous!

EvMick said...

Before I got to thinking about the future, science fiction, the only past I thought about was the "wild west".

Considering that I'm from a long line of Texans that past wasn't so very long ago. I, at one time, actually met some of the people that lived it.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't subliminally aware of Europe as being so extremely much "older" than the US until I went there.

Or maybe my history teachers just drug our US history so long that it felt that way.

I think there has been long enough for the country's European history to have a feeling of depth.

Oh, and Jim is obviously not a Southerner, or he'd know that people can argue the intricacies of the War of Northern Aggression for days without repeating themselves.

I'm from California, and my family mythology includes wagon trains across the Great Plains, and the English ancestor that sailed around the horn on a clipper ship.

And when I went to Europe, I was awed by the depth of history there, where it seemed like every other building was at least double the age of anything in the US.

Jim McCoy said...


I won't get much chance to study other cultures in Grad School, because that's when I'll have to being specializing. I've studied Japanese history fairly extensively for an undergrad though. Unfortunately, my college doesn't offer a course on Ancient Rome, although I have done some reading on my own. I just want to go because...uuhhh.. I want to go. Hopefully that makes sense.


I'm familiar with "The War of Northern Agression" concept spoken of in the South. Even most Southerners who still use the term and hold a grudge though no next to nothing about the conflict itself though. It's really pretty depressing.

C Kelsey said...

I've actually never met a young American who didn't, on some level, wonder at the richness of history that the US has while still marveling at how much older Europe is. In the US, a 100 year old building is quite old. I've known folks in Europe whose colleges were built five hundered years ago. On the other hand, we do get to tease the Europeans on how local their lives tend to be. For example, in the UK a hundred miles might be considered a vacation length trip. In the US, it's a day trip. :)

Kate said...

Ah, yes. The old 50 miles is a long way vs 50 years is a long time.

In some ways I think (being a transplanted Aussie living in the US gives me an interesting perspective) that the US does itself a huge disservice with the relative lack of interest in anything outside the country. It's easy to see how that happened: the US is big enough and populous enough not to need external input, where smaller countries tend to take a rather active interest in the rest of the world out of necessity (neighbor with ten times the population not far by boat? Let's keep them happy, just in case).

To me, living the US northeast 'feels' a whole lot older than living in Australia. I suspect I'd be blown away by the depth of history in any part of Europe, where there have been people living and leaving records in a continuous history for at least two thousand years.

That history does affect things: it takes many generations for habits and ideas to work their way out of people's mindset. So many of the things you "just do" are things that your parents did - and they did them because their parents did the same thing. And so forth.

I don't think I really felt that when I was growing up - I read EVERYTHING, and I never felt that I belonged anywhere particularly, so the shallow roots in Australia didn't matter that much. Beauty... well, the Australian landscape has a different beauty. The shadings of color are more subtle, and even the sunlight has a different feel (it's softer in the US than in Australia. In Oz the sunlight is quite sharp, without the slight fading around the edges I see here).

As for citizen of the world... Hell, I never bought into that one. I remain an Aussie at heart, but aspects of being American are finding their way in. Mostly though, my community is the one I talk to online, and it's... not exactly what you'd call citizenship of anything, unless the land of Weird takes citizenship applications :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I first encountered the concept of history at eight, reading my mom's old school books. (Portugal publishing establishment did NOT believe in reprints or backlist except for "worthy" books, so I had to read what I could find.) Everything younger than two thousand years felt like "yesterday's barely aged news" to me, and to an extent still does. My interest was "Roman period or older."
Heaven knows how old the village I grew up in was. Our house was over a hundred years old and it was one of the "new" houses in the village until the big bout of building in the late sixties. My grandmother routinely discussed events that had happened to her grandparents as though they'd happened yesterday. I grew up with a sense of "depth" like an extra dimmension to any location. I'd see how it had been used by all the various peoples who'd lived there before. This being Portugal -- aka, the welcome mat of Southern Europe -- these signs of former inhabitants often included Celtic, Greek, Carthagenian, Roman, Arab, French (from the time of the crusades. Yes, Portugal WAS crusade land) yet anything younger than say about the fourth century bc felt like "recent" to me.
When I first came to the States I felt like I was "blind" on one dimmension. The sense was that immediate and accute.
However, since then I've adapted and when we went to Europe this summer, my kids captured the bad side of the sense of deep history. History is like a ball and chain around Portugal's ankle. Every event is motivated by things that happened to people now long dead. What Kate said about doing what your andestors did, unthinkingly, is true, but it's much worse when most of the community is descended from people who have been there some three thousand years. No mater how unfortunate the behavior, it can't be changed because "everyone has always done it this way" and the community polices for it. So, Rowena, beware what you wish for. The fantasy novels I've read lack that sense of being CONFINED (Coffined, even) by history and unable to change even when it's needed. They have to lack it. It's impossible for people who grew up without it to believe it at a fundamental level.
Oh, and I badly want to write a mediterranean-base pre-cretan fantasy. The proposal is in the plans.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, on the citizen of the world thing... They might appear that way and their newly minted sophisticates might TALK that way, but the only reason for the union of Europe -- in my opinion. And I heard a lot of the people who were pushing for this in the seventies and eighties. Long story but I used to attend embassy parties -- is the hope of rubbing it in the US's face. They convinced themselves the only reason for American to do better was that they were so big. (No, I'm not going to argue this.) In that sense it is absolutely no more than "me and my cousins against the other tribe." Scratch an European, any European, and you find an extreme provincial. Where I grew up there were proverbs warning of marrying anyone from the village next door. Any place has catalogues of injuries from the place seven miles off, etc. My dad married a woman from three miles off and we had cultural clashes within our family. She tended to band with local women from the other village, too.
The "citizen of the world" thing comes more easily to "colonials" because you grew up surrounded by people from many different races and cultures and don't understand the centuries-old fear of the stranger that IS true xenophobia.
Of course, I understand it but I shook the dust from my sandals. Like Kate, I belong to the nation of the outliers and owe my alliegiance to the unusual.
Oh, and the citizen of the world thing has always struck me as an easy way to pick and choose what you want to believe and whom you want to attack while claiming moral superiority. That way one can claim to be perfect and always better than wherever one lives/the society to whom one owes one's livelihood (No, not you Rowena, but most people who do this.I KNOW you mean it in the sense of being open minded, but that's not what I encounter over here.) Me, I'm a citizen of the US and loyal to my friends and neighbors. And I'm willing to accept the friendship and loyalty of any decent human being. You see, in the US I'm ALLOWED to be an outlier.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Meeting people, who lived the past. Wow.

I used to wonder if the reason westerns movies were so big in the 1950s was because there were still people around who remembered the world depicted in the westerns.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Part of my family history consists of a Scottish girl getting married at 16, leaving her home at 18 with a 2 year old and her husband and sailing out to Australia and never seeing the rest of her family.

When you think about it, they were so brave to gamble everything.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I studied the Iaido, the art of the Samurai sword for 5 years, so I have some knowledge of the Japanese mind set, at least of this part of society at that time.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


The European distance perception is so different.

Growing up in Australia, I looked at the map of Europe and transpose Australian distances on it. When I realised you could drove from London to Italy in a day, (according to Top Gear)my whole perspective changed.

When I was in school, I met a British teenager, who had looked at the map of Australia, bought a bicycle and planned to ride from Brisbane to Sydney for a day trip to see what Sydney is like. That's 800 miles.

C Kelsey said...


In Highschool my family hosted a german exchange student for a year. One day he wanted to visit LA. We were in far Northern California, LA is a little over 500 miles south. Our exchange student could not wrap his head around the idea of a city being in the same state, but so far away. We had to go to extreme lengths to get him to understand that LA took a lot longer than an hour to drive to. Finally we convinced him by simply showing him the size of the state versus the entire size of Germany. His country could fit inside some states here.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Land of Weird. LOL!

I can really relate to that.

C Kelsey said...


It's immigrants here that make the US so strong. That is why we generally like immigrants (yeah, yeah, there are folks who don't handle it so well, but they're the societal outliers here).

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I didn't realise the term 'citizen of the world' has such bad connotations on some circles.

Yous aid:
'When I first came to the States I felt like I was "blind" on one dimmension. The sense was that immediate and accute.'

That is just how I felt growing up. I felt something was missing.

You said:
'Oh, and I badly want to write a mediterranean-base pre-cretan fantasy. The proposal is in the plans.'

I'd read it. Keep me posted.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, I know what you mean about distance. It is a different mind set.

You could take a map of Australia and drop it over a map of the US and Australia would be just about the same width.

But over here, the middle of the country is mainly desert and people live around the coast. And even then, there are great stretches of coast where no one lives.

I met a European traveller who was telling me how he caught a train in Norway and travelled for an hour and did not see any sign of human habitation. He said this like it was amazing.

I told him he could travel for a day in parts of Australia and see nothing man made.

Chris McMahon said...

In our family (mostly from Ireland) it was very much the thing to completely cut off from the past. Trying to get any family history out of the older generation was tough. Certainly any connection with the Old Country - beyond a few tales of superstitions - was gone.

It must have been there at one point though, since the original McMahon who emmigrated to Australia did send money back for gravestones.

Certainly in fantasy fiction, I was very much into the European forest and setting.

EvMick said...

Rowena: Back in the sixties I had many a conversation with my future first wife's grandmother.

She was eighty something. She was married as a young teen and traveled by horse and buggy to her new home. It took her and her new husband several WEEKS to go a distance I routinely travel in hours.

She had Nine Kids.(imagine being pregnant for over six years)...she personally witnessed buffalo stampedes and prairie fires. She recalled listening to people who personally listened to LINCOLN. She counted people such as Sitting Bull, Custer, Wyatt Earp and such like as "older" contempories". In other words they were alive when she was a child.

Things I read about in history books. She was alive when it happened.

No telling what HER mother or Grand mother witnessed.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris McMahon,

One branch of my family came from Virginia in Ireland. Any of yoru people from Virginia?

Knowing the history of Ireland now, I don't blame them for emigrating. That great grandmother could write the letter B for her name 'Bessie' and that was all.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


She sounds amazing.

My grandmother died at 104. She'd lived in 3 centuries, from wood stoves through to computers. Her generation saw such big changes.

I wonder what changes we'll see.

Francis Turner said...

Like Sarah I've kind of grown up being used to history (although, thanks to a family of globetrotters, I also got at least the basics of geography).

But even in Europe geography affects history (or at least the visible remains). A place like Sarah's Portugal, or Southern England or here on the Riviera has traces of stuff from well before the Roman Empire, considerably more stuff from Roman times and then ever increasing amounts of stuff from about 1000AD onwards.

But if you go to Finland (for example) you are pushed to find anything much older than the US. Finland - as a nation - is less than 100 years old and in the past they tended to build mostly in wood which doesn't last too long. The Dutch and N Germans have stuff dating back to the middle ages but very little from before that and outside Hanseatic towns not too much before the 1600s - I think the same applies to much of Northern and Eastern Europe. Russia / Ukraine / Byelorossia are certainly as poor in really old stuff. St Petersburg was built as a new city in the early 1700s.

Sarah's also right about History being a potential ball and chain. It doesn't have to be one - in England it mostly isn't, we have old stuff and we look after it but we don't venerate it or look back so hard to a better past - but it is a problem some places. Some countries / regions seem to try to stick in the past because they can't handle the mess they've made of the present. I think you need to not just look back but also look forward - be proud of your ancestors but also try and make sure they would be proud of you.


riffing on the 50 miles is a long way comment. I've driven to Barcelona in Spain a few times now. It's 640km/400 miles and takes me roughly 6 hours. I can in other words leave after lunch and be there in time for a (latish Spanish style) evening meal the same day. The route is motorway/freeway the whole way (apart from the first and last dozen km or so) and the roads more or less follow the various Roman roads built some 2000 years ago. But 2000 years ago that journey would have taken a week for an imperial courier who had access to changes of horse every few miles. A Roman legion might do it in 2 weeks (25-30 miles / day was standard for legions on good roads) For the average person we're looking at more like 3-4 weeks. And this is on a good road. If we were to do the same distance in Northern Europe 2000 years ago - say between the bog that was to become Potsdam and the forest that would be Warsaw then we're looking at a month or two as 10 miles a day would be good progress for anyone on foot in a wilderness with few tracks.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Always interesting to get another perspective. I hadn't thought of the building in wood angle.

Although I should have. The Australian aboriginals did a lot of their painting onto bark and wood. Only the paintings done in caves or under overhangs have survived.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Portugal is very much a dowager looking back on the past... :) "I'm ready for my closeup, now". There is untold potential, but the past seems to consume all WILL.

OTOH, on the "older than Rome" in the mountains there were Celtic ruins. Around the place I grew up in, there were carved lintels of farms saying the land was given to so and so after his service in the legion. Some it's still the same somewhat decayed name, too. Property markers in the fields were written in Latin. And someone digging for a cow shed uncovered an entire Roman graveyard. Mind you, it didn't deter him. He greased the right palms and built the cowshed atop of it.

And Rowena, my FIRST biggest shock at 17, as an exchange student, was taking a bus from NYC to Ohio (chartered bus with exchange students) and passing miles and miles and miles of nothing but forest. You just cannot find that in Portugal, without seeing houses or ruins of houses. I didn't KNOW it was possible.

Eleni Konstantine said...

Growing up as a Greek-Australian, I've always had a connection to a history that spans thousands of years. My last trip I was lucky enough to go visit an excavation site of a village in Santorini; see Olympia and Delphi, and try to read the writing on the stones there. I'm fascinated with tales from the distant past to the now. With historical places and objects, to the natural beauty of a landscape. Though coming from the driest inhabited state in the world, I'm fascinated by the greenery of the European landscape. :)

Francis Turner said...


there are some extensive forests in France, Germany (and even more extensive ones in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe) where you can also go a long way without seeing anything beyond logging tracks and cryptic signs relating to the forest.

The falling over Roman remains thing applies here on the Riviera too. There are bits of roman aquaduct which you can only find if you're dedicated and which have no marking or protection apart from the fact they aren't near anything interesting.

What is interesting is that you can fall over ruined cottages in forests and on mountains which have been abandoned for perhaps 50-100 years. There's one no more than half a mile as the crow flies from our house. It gives you a great idea of how stone buildings decay and how fast fields are overgrown with saplings from adjacent encroaching woodlands.

But the climate and the building materials make a big difference to how long traces remain. Stone buildings in arid climates last a long time. Wooden ones in lush wet ones can disappear in a few years. There's a house near my parents-in-laws place in Japan which has almost totally disappeared into overgrown greenery but which was inhabited less than a decade ago.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Alas my (mis) adventures in Europe weren't till after I came to the states. I always do things backwards. :)

In Portugal right now there are abandonned villages -- whole ones, as I'm sure you know. Urbanization did that.

As we drove around last summer I kept daydreaming of writers' resorts. If only the lottery picked the RIGHT numbers!