As far as first weeks on the job go, riding a helicopter to the top…
Untethered is the account of a South-African city slicker lawyer who falls in love with her cattle farmer girlfriend and makes one hell of a tree change.
But much more than this, author Hayley Katzen explores migration, searching for one’s true place and home, the politics of country versus city, as well as overcoming massive personal challenges such as living through bushfire.
We caught up with Hayley on the day of Untethered’s release to talk belonging, firefighting and the bush.
How did you come to memoir writing?
I fell in love with the personal essay form in 2012. Before that, as a socio-legal writer, as an actor and in writing fiction and a play, I was preoccupied by a desire to really understand others, to know what it was like to ‘walk in another’s shoes’. And yet, in all my writing, art seemed both an invitation and façade for my inner life.
The essay, by contrast, seemed to allow me to know and be more authentically my full self and to clarify the emotional truth of experiences. It also encouraged my curiosity and inquiry. Untethered began as a collection of essays—a form which gave me, an ex-South African academic urbanite living on my partner Jen’s off-the-grid cattle farm, the opportunity to make sense of myself and this rural world—in my cerebral way.
Along with an opportunity to know myself more clearly, the essay seemed to offer the possibility of understanding others and this world in deeper, newer ways, of bridging differences and separateness. Its promise was less loneliness—absorption, friendship, accompaniment. As Yiyun Li titled her book, and as Katherine Mansfield wrote: ‘Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life’.
When I reworked the essays into memoir on the advice of Nadine Davidoff, a most astute editor, the challenges of writing creative non-fiction seemed to multiply: the ethics of writing about others, revisiting traumatic situations and dredging one’s emotional depths. Memory too is subjective and slippery, and shared experiences, like each of us, are complex and multi-sided.
Certainly, I’d faced these challenges in the personal essay, and many essays remain on my hard-drive still. But the essay’s research and analytical component, the way it reaches to a universality had softened my self-castigation that my writing was ‘self-indulgent catharsis’. I wanted my memoir to maintain some sense of that universality and for its motivating impulse to remain a commitment to making sense and meaning.
‘Hurry up and wait’ is a bit of a refrain in the book—tell us about that
‘Hurry up and wait’ is the firefighter’s motto. When the pager calls you to a bushfire, you drop what you’re doing, throw on yellows, tie up dogs, race to fire station, open shed, jump into truck, call in departure time and crew and drive to nominated address.
Sometimes, when you get there, you can’t take any action. All you can do is wait—for the fire to come out of the bush, for the wind to change direction, or for a Group Captain or another truck to arrive. I’m impatient by nature and ‘Hurry up and wait’ has become a phrase my farmer partner Jen likes to use with me. She’s said it as we’ve stood beside a half-dug hole for a fence post or the hole for the long drop toilet.
But for me, the term’s application extends way beyond manual work. I see it as emblematic of the years it has taken me to find a sense of belonging in a rural landscape and community—as in: ‘how many years does it take to become a local?’
So too does it reflect the many years at the desk, the longings and disappointments, of the writing life.
Your year of ‘homelooseness’ clarified a lot about your place at the farm—what was it about that point in time?
Before my year of ‘homelooseness’ when I worked in the cattle yards or on the property, always a part of me hovered outside: thinking, wondering. I felt useless and incapable, frustrated that the role that seemed mine was ‘wife’. My shame about my limitations and background grew so that a decade later I felt I’d lost my vitality—my self. I was all too aware of the privileges of rural life—the freedoms and beauty, the continuity that comes with sharing the passage of life with others. But I was unable to find a purpose in my suffering and ‘choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances’ as Frankl, who endured the Nazi concentration camps, described in Man’s Search for Meaning.
During my ‘homelooseness’ year, both Jen and I doubted I’d ever return. Melbourne was my New York, London and Paris rolled into one. Stimulated by the scaffolding I’d been reared to believe life depended upon, by old and new friends who shared my passions and by conversations with strangers, gradually I felt the return of my curious and robust self.
Amid the diversity and choice, my shame and litany of otherness dissipated. I was a newcomer but not an outsider and there was no ‘we’ I needed to mould myself to fit. I could just be myself. But to my surprise, as I sat listening to a panel about meat-eating at the Wheeler Centre, I realised too that after my years on the farm, my frame of reference had shifted far from the Shabbat dinners and sophistication of my childhood in apartheid South Africa, far too from the legal tribunals and law school where I once worked, the theatres and luxuries I’d once known. The people and places of my life in the Australian bush had seeped deeper inside me than the scars and splinters I now sported.
I doubt I’d have returned from Melbourne had my love and care for Jen and her dying sister not brought me back. And yet when I did return, I met new people, some who’d always been here, some who were new. Mostly, with my robust self firmly back in place, I was no longer ashamed of myself and imprisoned by my mind and expectations of myself and of ‘life’, able to find satisfaction with connections with people whose passions differed from mine, able to seize the opportunities offered by the freedoms of this life where people live by their own rules, able to ‘do-over’ life on the farm with Jen confident I’d stay only as long as it was right for me.
What have you learnt about relationships and especially the ebb and flow of growth and change?
When Jen and I first courted she wrote me love letters with the help of a dictionary. On weekends on the farm, I passed the pliers, hefted hay bales and watched her work cattle or dig holes in rocky ground. I was awed by her physical capability, magnetised by her, and uncertain whether our love could survive. Twenty-two years on, I’m still awed and magnetised—and finally, and to Jen’s relief, I know and trust this love.
The ebb and flow of our relationship is entwined with this physical landscape, both literally and figuratively. Back in the early 90s as a young legal activist campaigning for recognition of our lesbian and gay relationships, I was adamant we should find ways other than marriage to recognise the diversity of relationships in our community.
For me personally, marriage was not the glue I wanted to sustain my relationship. I never dreamed catastrophic bushfires and softer, slower seasonal change would come to constitute some of our adhesive nor the force that altered the course of my life, my togetherness with a partner nor that it’d educate me about the real meaning of home.
So too, I never imagined how the physical world would serve as a metaphor for the ebbs and flows and lessons of our relationship, nor the depths of this elemental love. Desire has always burbled away but we’ve gone in and out of juicy passionate times, in and out of the dreariness and despair that come with drought and isolated domesticity.
Desire and respect, I think, have helped us through our differences and conflicts. Challenges and griefs have revealed how readily and naturally each of us assumes the role of ‘the rock’. Certainly, Jen’s steadiness has withstood my more tempestuous nature and inflated expectations of life and love. I’ve learned—Jen probably already knew this—that one can’t fence off parts of one’s self or the other, and I’ve come to trust that this love is as resilient as the landscape in which it has been enacted
What does belonging mean to you now?
I appreciate Hugh Mackay’s observation—and title to his book—that there is The Art of Belonging. But despite my friendliness and interest in others, despite how I practised this ‘art’ over the years, my focus on the ‘world out there’ meant I couldn’t find or trust ‘belonging’ with others.
Now my understanding and sense of belonging is utterly simple: it’s inside us, each of us. I know deep inside that I can’t depend on anything or anyone to provide belonging—not communities, workplaces, physical landscapes, political movements or even texts. I can’t even rely on the beautiful and generous long-term love with Jen. Approval is not the recipe for belonging. Ultimately, I have only myself.
And yet, oddly, magically, now that I’ve known that clear, strong sense of home inside my self, I am able to feel a delightful sense of what I think is belonging—certainly a gratitude for the care, respect and kindness—in the many communities of which I’m a part, even in this landscape.
That sort of belonging, I’ve come to think, depends on knowing ourselves and having found home inside ourselves.
What are some books/writers that influenced your writing Untethered?
Montaigne’s essays—with the help of Sally Bakewell’s How to Live: A life of Montaigne, along with Joan Didion, Eula Biss and Robert Dessaix sealed my passion for the essay.
Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, Jessie Cole’s Staying, Virginia Woolf, Janet Malcolm and Helen Garner’s work reassured me there was value in revealing one’s self and story—despite the risks. Writers, such as Vivian Gornick and Olivia Laing who contemplated aloneness, and nature writers such as Robert Macfarlane, Ana Maria Spagna, Emerson and Thoreau helped me fathom this rural life—but I found particular delight and resonance in David Gesner’s Sick of Nature.
Books about ‘home’ such as Marilynne Robinson’s Home and Housekeeping, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation and The Idea of Home, the title of both Geraldine Brooks’ Boyer Lectures and John Hughes’ memoir.
Feature image: Isobel Harding