Interview with Chris Lynch


Chris LynchAs a part of our collaborative issue with the Queensland Poetry Festival, Sarah Gory took the time to connect with Chris Lynch, learning more about his work, his complex sense of home, and a longing to be mangi lo ples. 


My ex once pointed out that in the space of a few minutes I’d used ‘home’ to refer to Brisbane, my apartment in China, and our hotel room in the Chinese city we were visiting. Home is where the heart is, but if the people you love are scattered across the world, where does that fireside feeling come from? One idea that recurs in my reading is familiarity. Home feels like home because it’s familiar, and because the environment is intimately known it’s safe. You can relax. Some of my family and friends grumble at having to take their shoes off when they come into my house, but habits like that are one way I create familiarity.

The question I can never answer straightforwardly is “Where are you from?” (unless it’s expressed as “Are you a Brisbane boy?”). I’m a US and Australian citizen who grew up in PNG, where my whiteness was marked. Maybe that’s why I’m in many ways more comfortable in Asia, where my whiteness is also marked, than Australia. I’ve been greatly influenced by Daoism through philosophy and poetry, Buddhism through meditation, and Zen Buddhism through haiku, but I’m generally more interested in working out what it means to be a Westerner. My ancient Greek heritage is more important to me than my Anglo-Saxon or Irish heritage.

I am Australian now, in a way that I’m not American, or Papua New Guinean. But I’m more at home in PNG. Sweet potato will always be kaukau to me. One of the things I found really difficult when I moved here was the Australian (male) way of (not) expressing how you feel. I’ve recently written some poetry in Tok Pisin (the lingua franca of PNG), and one of the freedoms it brings me is the unapologetic expression of emotion. The Tok Pisin in ‘Queen’s Land’ (oh, my sister) sounds a lot more honest to me than it does in English.

I moved to Brisbane from Papua New Guinea [PNG] when I was twelve. It was a formative experience–the worst culture shock I’ve ever had. To be honest, ‘Queensland’ made almost no impression compared with ‘Brisbane’ and ‘Australia’. It was only when I reached university, and studied journalism, that I was shaped by ideas like ‘the moonlight state’. Maybe for that reason, I still think of Queensland as mostly a political structure. I probably have more in common with someone in Sydney or Melbourne than someone in a rural Queensland town. The state doesn’t make a whole lot of sense–I’m all for splitting Queensland into several smaller regions based on the natural landscape. We’re likely stuck with the lines we have, though; we’re probably better off focusing on slightly less crazy projects, like bringing back an upper house.

I moved to Brisbane in December 1988, the year of Expo ’88. Most of my class in Port Moresby went on an excursion to the exposition, and came back with amazing tales. Though perfectly understandable in retrospect, I was bitterly disappointed I didn’t get to go, and in my imagination Brisbane became a vast metropolis teeming with possibilities. The reality, suburban Redcliffe, was somewhat different. I’d spent my childhood reading Tintin and Tolkien and nineteenth century literature and dreaming of adventures in other lands, and then found myself marooned in concrete and bitumen, incredibly homesick and longing to be mangi lo ples, a boy from the village.

So, for much of my life, Brisbane has actually been a place I wanted to leave. But my drive to understand meant I went in search of the history. My first attempt at a novel was set in a post-apocalyptic Brisbane, but included a thread of historical fiction about the convicts who were the first white people in Moreton Bay. I remember photocopying original documents in the old state library, and feeling for the first time a sense of connection to this place; I wasn’t the only stranger here. I’ll always be an observer of something like State of Origin, never a participant or spectator (which marks me as a poor New Guinean as much as a poor Queenslander!). But, as you say, those images are of Queensland, and need to be responded to and digested for any expansion of the possibilities of place.

The Green Mountains are one of my favourite places in the world; I’ve spent a lot of time there. William Robinson’s paintings of the area are incredible; every Queenslander–certainly every South East Queenslander–should know them. He mythologises place.

‘Queenslander’ evokes to me a kind of house more than a person. I don’t really know whether I’m a Queenslander, other than a long-term resident of the capital city. Is that a good thing? Something that springs to mind is the Brisbane wave, seen when you let a car enter your lane, or as the silent version of thanks given by the passenger to the bus driver when exiting the bus. It’s presumably an echo of the country town Brisbane was not that long ago, and therefore something that could be on its way out. It’s a custom I always make an effort to maintain, though, because I think it’s valuable connective tissue in a rapidly changing city. I hope it survives. I’m also interested in the strong connections between Queensland and PNG, something that hasn’t been reflected much in our cultural life. Probably because it would mean facing up to being a colonial power, not just a colony.

How does all that inform themes in my writing? In many ways, I suppose. I’m interested in tribes, myth, group dynamics, land/cityscapes, the Other, ecosystems, transcendence, apocalypse, loss. How does a place or person contain multitudes without losing a sense of cohesion? What are the ley lines and secret pockets of the world? Who are the survivors? As the product of Australian colonialism, I’m interested in post-colonial ideas, but so far I don’t think I’ve been very successful in incorporating them into my writing. How do I, a while man, be true to my experience as an outsider, at the same time acknowledging my insider privilege?

In general, I’m wary of identity politics, and its intersection with art. It’s a perfectly good and necessary means of organising to bring about political and cultural change. Once you align your identity with your politics, though, I think you’re in danger of participating in erasing the complexity of identity, your own as well as that of those who oppose your right to be ordinary. Identity is hybrid, and not reducible to an adjective. Admittedly, since I scan in Australia as the norm, that’s easy for me to say.

I’d have to say ideas around identity manifest in my creative practice in an ambivalent way, on the edges of things, as a by-product of wrestling with what the world is, how we can know it, and how I can make my way in it. Sometimes it’s frustrating not to have an easily defined identity, other times it’s a relief. I mostly appreciate the pressure to create one. The happy citizen of a monocultural land has no great pressure to individuate, and many (unseen) pressures to conform. For the archetypal hybrid, the monster, there is no way to conform; individuation is a question of survival.

I guess I like to see myself as a citizen of the world; how different that is in practice from a rich tourist I’m not sure. Whatever I am, I’m getting better at it.

E.L. Doctorow said that the responsibility of the artist is to know the time in which they live. That resonates with me a lot. If you do that properly, you’ll inevitably dig up things that people don’t want to know about, and that may well lead to action as a citizen. The idea that every artist is an iconoclast is certainly an attractive one. I’m not sure that it’s true. That could just be because by temperament I’m more of an observer. But the idea that the opinion of an artist on the burning issue of the day is worth less than that of a businessman or politician, or that artists shouldn’t be politically active? Complete bollocks.

I studied ecology, and Noah’s Ark is my ur-myth. I’m fascinated by dislocation, reflected in the speaker’s call to revel. It’s not all bad though. We live in interesting times, but (as Jeff Goldblum once said in a dinosaur film) life finds a way. Possibly one of the main reasons cities aren’t teeming with wildlife is simply that most species haven’t had time to adapt, not that cities are inherently inimical to life. The generalists, like cockroaches and geckos, are having a great time, even coyotes and birds of prey are starting to move in. (We could certainly do more to make cities better places to live for everyone, of course, not to mention halt a mass extinction.)

I think we hate invasive species like cane toads and lantana because the impossible task of exterminating them is easier than facing up to the guilt of what we have done to the land and the people who lived here first. There is nothing inherently bad about cane toads. Like us, they’re complex animals doing their thing, which includes eating others. And then we beat them to death. To what end? The ordinary, fallen world can also be loved. And must be, I think, before reconciliation is possible. A lot of non-Aboriginal Australians seem to think that reconciliation means bulldozing the cities and living in sack-cloth. Well, that’s where we’re at. So, okay, let’s start with that idea. There would be a certain justice in it, after all.

Can we speak unironically of a lantana dreaming? I don’t know. Perhaps not on the timescale of a human life. I struggle with the right balance between evolution and revolution, the need to accept the world as it is and the desire to overthrow it. The world’s changing: home is becoming an unfamiliar place for everyone. The children of the diaspora understand better than most that there’s no going back. One of the consolations of poetry is the way it orders and distills experience, sanctifies longing and loss. The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz says language is the only homeland. There is something terrifying about that, and comforting.

Chris’s contributions to this insight into the sunshine state are Lantana Dreaming and Queen’s Land.

Sarah Gory

Author: Sarah Gory

Sarah Gory is a reader, writer, and cultural producer. She is the Director of Queensland Poetry Festival, and has previously worked with Queensland Writers Centre, National Young Writers Festival, and Oxfam Australia. She has had short stories published in The Lifted Brow and Stilts.