How I found this book:
When I began my book-from-every-country project and started thinking about the books I might read for various countries, I was surprised to realize that I couldn’t name a single book from Australia. Surely I ought to have heard of at least a few books from a reasonably sized English speaking country? A few months later I found ANZ LitLove, a blog specializing in reviewing Australian and New Zealand books. I read their list of recommended books and found that I hadn’t heard of any of the authors or titles.
I mentioned my surprising lack of knowledge of Australian books to my dad, who told me that he wasn’t surprised because he had just finished reading a book entitled Foreign Correspondence that discussed that very topic.
Foreign Correspondence is a memoir (by a former newspaper foreign correspondent) that centers on Geraldine Brooks’ experiences growing up in Australia in the 1960s and 70s and the pen-pals that she sought out, wanting to know more about life in the wider world. My image of the stereotypical Australian is someone very outgoing and confident, but the Australia depicted in Foreign Correspondence is very different (though they do fit the stereotype of drinking a lot of beer). Brooks describes Australia as a country with an inferiority complex. Nothing homegrown was seen as quite as good. To be seen as truly successful, young people had to leave the country and establish themselves in Britain or the U.S. Then, if they wished, they could come back to Australia and be respected.
Having grown-up in a midsize Midwestern U.S. city, I can relate to this attitude. The city has a lot of great things about it, but its residents have a much stronger sense of inferiority than of pride. I hate to admit it, but I have absorbed some of this attitude too. In reading Foreign Correspondence I realized that I would consider myself to have less credibility in my career if I hadn’t left the Midwest for at least a few years. By the 1990s when Foreign Correspondence ends, Australia appears to have gained a great deal more self-confidence. Maybe someday soon the Midwest will also.
For Australia, one consequence of this lack of self-confidence was the retention of aspects of British culture even when they were completely incongruous with the local environment. Of course, we retained a lot of British culture in the U.S. too, but our climates also bear more similarity. English flowers have a better shot at being able to grow. Christmas is still in the wintertime, so the traditional heavy foods make sense. The Australian climate required much bigger adjustments.
As a child, Geraldine Brooks had pen-pals in Israel, France, and the U.S. She found some of these pen-pals through the International Youth Service pen-pal service based in Finland. I was excited by that because both my sister and I had gotten pen-pals through IYS as kids. You sent in your address and age and interests and for a small fee they would match you with a pen-pal from somewhere else in the world. Sadly I wasn’t a very good correspondent and exchanged only a few letters with my assigned pen-pals in Sweden and Indonesia, but my sister still keeps in touch with one of her pen pals.
Thinking of the IYS made me wonder if the growth of the internet has affected the prevalence of pen pals. It could go either way. E-mail would be much easier than sending letters around the world, but I don’t think it would have the same thrill as receiving a paper letter from far away. It seems that IYS itself shut down in 2008, citing the internet as having made the business no longer viable. Sad, but it’s nice to think of all of the people they connected over their 50-some years of existence.
In the second half of the book, Brooks tracks down her old pen pals and learns how their lives have turned out. Surprisingly she is able to find all of them quite easily and all of them tell her their stories. Out of curiosity, I just tried Googling my Indonesian pen-pal who had a very memorable name. I found a Twitter account and a Facebook profile. The picture on Twitter looks like she might be about the right age. I wonder if it is her?