The Writer’s Voice
by Janis Balodis
The writer’s tool is language. We are all born into language, but what if the one we are born into is not the one we end up speaking? What are the forces in our lives that determine our use of language, that prompt or stifle our need to speak? And how does the writer find his or her authentic voice?
When I left England in 1979 to return to Australia, the staff of the drama school I taught at gave me an ironic gift, “How to be an Alien” by Georges Mikes. It’s a humorous manual for foreigners on how to fit in to English society. The gift was doubly ironic, not only was I now leaving, but on my arrival in England I had the not uncommon experience for the children of immigrants. I had made the startling discovery that I was very, very Australian. It was as if something in my spirit had awoken after lying dormant for twenty-six years.
I talked Australian and felt Australian, and I was constantly being told that I had a European sensibility. Was that due to some Latvian influence nurtured in North Queensland? If I felt so Australian and was at times heartsick for Australia, did it mean I wasn’t as Latvian as I had previously maintained? To confuse matters further, when I returned to Australia I suffered profound culture shock. The place was very familiar yet I felt like an alien here. In England I had discovered that I wasn’t really Latvian, now I wasn’t really Australian either. It is this sense of dislocation that informs all of my plays. At times I think I have taken the best from both worlds, with a foot in either camp. In darker times I think I have fallen between stools. The truth, as always, is in between.
I grew up in a small sugar town of about 1500 people, a third of whom were foreigners. There were only about twenty or so Latvians, three families and about eight or nine hard drinking bachelors. My mother contracted tuberculosis and had to spend nine months in hospital in Townsville, five hours away by train. As my brothers and my sister ranged from one to six years in age we were also sent to Townsville to a Queensland State Government Children’s Home. Dad came down to visit us once or twice a month when shift-work and train schedules allowed. We saw our mother once in that time when she called down to us from a third floor hospital window.
Dickens had been dead almost one hundred years but he would have been familiar with the running of the State Children’s Homes in the 1950s. Most of the children were wards of the State, delinquents on their way to reform school or recently released, runaways from foster homes, and a few of the stolen generation. There were only a few like us whose parents were actually paying for care. The older ones taught us the unspoken rules and protected us at school where we were often bullied. We were discouraged from speaking Latvian. English was not only the language of fitting in; it was the language of survival.
By the time we returned home none of us spoke Latvian very often. Why speak Latvian in an uncertain world where family and home can be taken away so easily, where Latvian is not only a disadvantage but can be forbidden? Our parents and their friends continued to speak to us in Latvian while we were growing up and we mostly answered in English. We did not think ourselves as Australians, but aliens who had learned to fit in.
Sixty years ago when I was a child I gave up speaking Latvian. What little Latvian I can speak is the “bread-and-butter” language of an infant. I have visited Latvia four times but have never made the effort to learn. I speak even less since my parents died.
With regards the tools of my craft, the language I use is English. It is the language I could not afford to lose. Even when writing about Latvians, it was how they spoke English that captivated me, perhaps because it is at that level that I enter the Latvian language, as a foreigner, and can share in their experience. As for my authentic voice, I’m still calling from some undefined territory in between worlds, neither here nor there, not Latvian, not Australian, and unmistakably both.
Janis Balodis is an accomplished director and playwright. His works have been enjoyed and praised by the people of the Northern Rivers area for many years. Janis was born in Australia to Latvian parents who migrated to Northern Queensland after WW2. He attended Townsville Teachers’ College where he majored in drama and then worked as a teacher before establishing his career for the stage. His career began in Brisbane but continued in London as director and tutor at E15 Acting School. Upon his return to Australia, his career in theatre included being Associate Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company and Dramaturg-in-Residence and Artistic Associate at Queensland Theatre Company. Other accomplishments include writing for both television and radio. His Latvian heritage has been a major influence in his works which frequently reflect the difficulties facing migration to a new country.