The fig tree and the writer

I write on a laptop, at the kitchen table, even though there’s a perfectly functional study at the front of the house. Looking up from the screen, I’m facing north, gazing through the glass doors to the small courtyard, to the fig tree. The fig tree is netted in the late summer as part of our ongoing battle with the local birds and rats over the sweet juicy fruit that I have been addicted to since childhood. In autumn it begins to discard its leaves until it is a bare, grey-brown skeleton and then it grows them again in spring. By December, its thick shadowy canopy is an oasis under which I can sit with a book and a gin and tonic. This fig tree was grown from a cutting that came from my father-in-law’s tree. That tree was grown from a cutting that made the twenty-nine days trip from Calabria on the ship Australia in 1959. Like the bean seeds sewn into my husband’s toy bear, like the passengers on that ship, that fig tree cutting spawned offspring that are now scattered across the city.

Weekdays begin with a swim. The water is my happy place. Counting laps, thinking about the day ahead or the ones left behind, listening to the voices of the characters whose stories are still forming and then letting their whisperings drift away. Coffee and breakfast and then writing. In the distance, children squeal and scream and laugh as they play in the local schoolyard. The boom gate bells ring and the trains blow their horns as they come into or through the station. I can’t hear the traffic; not the cars on the West Gate or the semi-trailers that roar down the two main roads that frame Yarraville – Frances Street to the south and Somerville Road to the north – but I know they are there.

My suburb is gentrified. I counted twenty-four coffee machines one day while avoiding writing. There is an art house theatre, cafes and restaurants. I have lived in this suburb most of my life except for those wild years in my twenties when I pretended my family did not exist. In the 1960s and 70s, Yarraville was working class, migrant and industrial, manacled by refineries, chemical plants and storage facilities. No oil painting.

There was also a fig tree just outside the back door of my childhood home. That fig tree’s origins, like mine, were Sicilian. During fig season, I’d stand under the tree and pick the fruit and eat it whole, the white sticky milk oozing over my fingers. Inside the house, my father raged. My mother cried or screamed or locked herself in her workroom. My brother had his own interior life. I ate. I ate, eating to fill all the cavities.

I sit with my laptop on the kitchen table in my home in the western suburbs of Melbourne. My childhood home was on the other side of the same suburb. I remember the putrid smell of the abattoirs as we turned towards Footscray on the way back from the city, the streams of tired workers walking past our house on the way home from double shifts at Bradmill, my father coming home greasy and angry and my mother, an outworker, surrounded by mountains of nylon panties which she sewed for a few cents a pair between cooking meals and cleaning house.

I remember the house full of cousins, aunts, uncles and laughter. Running to the creek to catch yabbies and watching games of cricket played on the street. A table overflowing with food and wine, the generosity of my mother’s cooking and the stories they told about a Sicilian village. And my English teachers who could see that beyond the rolls of fat there was a girl starving and so they fed me books.

My childhood was a balancing act. But I’ve no sense of balance, I can’t ride a bike, when I trip I fall. I didn’t want to be Italian. At home, I declared I was Australian. Everywhere else I was a wog and constantly being asked, where do you come from. Books were my escape. Once I learnt to read, I read all the time. Hiding with my book, hoping my mother would forget about me, and the housework she thought I should be doing.

There were no characters like me, my family or my neigbhours in those books, so I day-dreamed, constructing narratives out of thin air. By my early teens, I’d started to write them down, filling cheap exercise books with invented stories – the hero was a girl, beautiful, and desired. She had great sex, very early. She was never hungry, she always belonged. She was a warrior, she fought for justice, she ruled several universes. She was me and not me.

When people asked ‘what to do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said teaching because it was an acceptable profession for an Italian girl, because it meant going to university and because the only educated adult women I knew and admired were my teachers. From teaching to youth work, policy development to academia, a circuitous route on my way back to writing.

The Bridge is my second novel, it took over seven years to write, in the kitchen, the study, the Public Records Office, the library and my office at the University where I was then an academic, teaching other writers to write. Writing in-between lectures, research projects, student queries and fights with the administration to save the creative arts offerings.

I didn’t mean to write about the West Gate Bridge even though the idea had been lingering for years. As a feminist writer, women were my focus. What did I know about being a working-class bloke in the 1970s? What did I know about building bridges?

In 2009, Frank was a volunteer in a local op shop. He was in his late seventies. Along with my collaborator, the visual artist, Sue Dodd, I was interviewing him for a research/arts project exploring the importance of op shops to people and communities. We were in the back room, behind the shop, surrounded by sacks of donated, unsorted clothes, by books, furniture, bric-a-brac. The smell of mothballs, of dust. Everywhere the remnants of other people’s lives. At the end of the interview, he told me he’d worked on the West Gate bridge after the collapse. He’d been overseas on the 15 October 1970. Frank’s brother survived the collapse but many of their friends and workmates had died. Frank decided to go and work on the bridge because he wanted to make sure it was safe, because he believed it was up to the men, men like him to keep it safe for the workers and for the people who were going to use the bridge – because he didn’t trust the companies or the bosses.

His story pricked and prodded and wouldn’t leave me be. I started to research and write, and Antonello appeared, a gentle Italian migrant, young and in love. There are two main protagonists in The Bridge: Antonello, the rigger who worked on the West Gate and Jo, a young woman who drives home drunk one night and has an accident in which her best friend dies. These two narratives arrived separately and then became intertwined in ways I couldn’t have predicted when I began writing.

My writing is a process of making, a stitching together of thoughts into words and then sentences. I begin with a series of questions, writing to explore, to understand, without knowing what this thing is that I am making, what it might become. The questions were about the working class, about tragedy and trauma, about guilt and grief and culpability. About a bridge that is part of the city, admired and detested in equal measure depending if you are gazing up at it on a clear night when its lights are reflected in the water or if you are jammed between cars on the bridge during peak hour. About how a city is made and shaped and how it makes and shapes our lives.

What became The Bridge, began with scenes built on images – a rigger sketching a half-made bridge, a young woman reaching for another drink at a party with a friend she fears she’s losing, a lawyer walking and falling on a city street, a woman behind a deli counter flirting with an older man, a house across the road from the oil storage facilities. There is no order here. This is writing – blind, slow writing.

Writing requires faith in the process. When my mother and I argued about the existence of God, she’d often say, blessed are those that have faith. I am furious at the Catholic church. I want it shut down until all the victims are compensated, until it has cleaned up its act, until it has done its penance. My mother’s church-going and my lack of faith resulted in many arguments. But I understood that hers gave her comfort.

Hold your nerve, says the novelist Michelle de Kretser in an interview. She explains that in the face of not knowing if the novel she’s writing is going to work, she’s learned to hold her nerve. I chant this to myself in the middle of a struggle with my novel-in-progress. There were times during the writing of The Bridge, when I stumbled. When I felt lost. When all confidence in the work dissipated and it seemed that both it and I were doomed to failure … but the only thing to do during these periods is to keep working, keep writing. Faith. Nerve. Work. The reward: the moment it became a living, breathing thing. Life, work, everything became fuel for the novel, every conversation, every observation, every thought. The moment the novel would not leave me alone, is the moment that I had been striving for from the very beginning from those first ideas and images.

There were several more drafts of The Bridge. There was structural work and work at the level of the paragraph, the sentence and the word. There was also what I think of as ‘vigilant work’. Adrienne Rich wrote ‘if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at the moment.’ I believe stories can make us more tolerant and empathetic, but they also have the power to perpetuate prejudices and intolerance. Because stories have this potential, and because writers are products of their cultures and communities, and therefore, like everyone else, susceptible to the taken for granted assumptions of those cultures and communities writing requires a critical eye, vigilance.

Finally, there was a moment when I decided the novel was finished and sent it out into the world. That is a whole other story. While writing I rarely think of audience, but once the book is published, it is all about readers. I write because I believe that there are stories that are missing, silenced, made invisible, stories that should be told. Stories that should be included in our national narratives. Stories that challenge who we are and the way we see things, do things. Will the readers connect with the novel, with the characters? The only thing to do when a book is finished and out in the world is to return to writing.

I write here and about here on a laptop on my kitchen table watching the seasons have their way with the fig tree. This is my home but not my country. When I visited Sicily for the first time as an adult, in the 1990s, I understood that maybe it was my country but it could never be my home. The fig tree is oblivious to its origins, to its alien status but for me, this belonging and not belonging is the source of all my questions, all my writing.


Image: ‘Basket of figs’ fresco at Villa Poppaea, Oplontis, Italy.

Enza Gandolfo

Enza Gandolfo is a Melbourne writer. Her acclaimed second novel The Bridge was shortlisted for the Stella Prize 2019. She is an honorary professor in creative writing at Victoria University.

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