In Sydney

By Kostova, Elizabeth | Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

In Sydney


Kostova, Elizabeth, Michigan Quarterly Review


The Sydney Opera House is one of the most globally reproduced architectural images in the world. Anyone who has ever watched television, for example, has seen it at some point; it's usually filmed from the swooping vantage of a small plane. And usually to the accompaniment of Vivaldi, or a symphonic burst of Beethoven, some piece of music as triumphant and familiar as the opera house itself, so that neither building nor melody threatens the viewer with anything more than predictable grandness. Whether the occasion is a PBS special or an ad for a credit card, this scene of white-winged performance hall and splendid harbor tends to follow closely on the heels of similar aerial shots of the pyramids at Giza or the Great Wall of China, placing the Sydney Opera House in the context of ancient wonders. In other words, we moderns, too, we lumbering builders of shopping malls, can produce wonders when we want to.

Early this summer-early winter, of course, in Australia-I walked toward the Opera House, something I never fully expected to do in person, looking alternately up at its curving shells and out to the wind-ruffled gray water of Sydney Harbor. My view was anything but aerial; on the contrary, I was earth-bound and alone, a tall Caucasian woman among crowds of Asian tourists; in fact, I had seldom felt so thoroughly alone as I did that afternoon, and it set me to thinking about the writing of fiction, which for me is among other things a natural expression of solitude.

I could begin this piece of writing again by confessing to never having been to Sydney, or I could swear to it and call this travel writing. Would it matter much which? For a writer of both genres, there's always this interesting choice to be made: should travel experience be filtered through plot or observation, fiction or travelogue? Fiction allows, of course, for the possibility of writing about travel one hasn't actually done. The travelogue allows for the glorification of fact. A writer's mind does little sheer living: I was already pondering this dilemma as I made my way on foot around the harbor.

Appropriately for my purposes, the harbor approach to the Sydney Opera House is marked by a handsome plaque in the sidewalk:

This walk was dedicated on 13 February 1991 by The Hon. Peter Collins, MP/Minister for the Arts/NSW Ministry for the Arts/Writers Walk [apostrophe forgotten].

"NSW is New South Wales, the Australian state in which Sydney lies. Before and after walking over that declaration, the pedestrian crosses sidewalk plaques to thirteen prose writers and poets, foreign or Australian, to whom Australia has provided inspiration over the centuries: Jack London, Henry Lawson, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Daniel Williamson, A. B. "Banjo" Paterson (The Man from Snowy River), Christopher Brennan, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Miles Franklin (My Brilliant Career), Nevil Shute (A Town like Alice), C. J. Dennis, Charles Darwin, D. H. Lawrence (Kangaroo).

The Writers Walk plaque itself declares:

What we are and how we see ourselves evolves fundamentally from the written and spoken word. The Writers Walk demonstrates that this evolutionary process continues to channel the thoughts and perceptions, the hopes and the fears of writers who have known this great city and its people.

I reflected-stepping across the plaque in boots that would have been too warm at home by this season-that Charles Darwin might have liked that assertion, while Lawrence would have deplored the very idea of a plaque, and that I had joined in a small way the procession of writers from overseas startled into words by this faraway continent. I liked, too, the Honorable Peter Collins's choice of "hopes and fears" rather than the more predictable "hopes and dreams"; in both writing and travel, it's fear-of the unknown, of the uncomfortable-that gives practitioners their edge.

The astounding thing about seeing the Sydney Opera House in person (or, for that matter, through careful research and imagining) is that it's far bigger than those credit-card ads lead one to believe.

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