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The Memory of Salt Book Launch

Alice Melike Ülgezer’s debut novel, The Memory of Salt, was launched at Readings, Carlton on Thursday 13 September 2012.

Here is Antoni’s Jach’s launch speech:

Welcome to the launch of Alice Melike Ülgezer’s brilliantly written and brilliantly edited first novel, The Memory of Salt.

Every launch of a first novel is a cause for great celebration. Book publication is the transformation of random thoughts, feelings and descriptions into an exact sequence of words that can then affect a reader’s sense of what constitutes his or her life. A nameless but persistent longing to tell a story finally finds a concrete expression in words that can last for a very long time.

I’ll begin by telling you a few things that I like and admire in this novel. I like the disjointed presentation of time; the flowing backwards and forwards between an immediate past and much more distant pasts. The novel employs a braided treatment of time that resembles thinking itself; it is a Proustian use of time in its to-ing and fro-ing and its accumulation of jumbled memories.

Other things I like about this novel include the poetic phrases, the specificity of the characterisation of the three main characters, the rhythm of the sentences, the multilingual universe we are plunged into, the confidence, the daring and the narrative propulsiveness of the storytelling, the use of a ‘genderless’ narrator, the vivid descriptions of Istanbul and Sydney Road Brunswick, the unapologetic purloining of the parents’ lives for the sake of literary art, and the intricate structure of the whole novel.

Alice utilises a poetic turn of phrase in the novel to great effect: the father’s eyes are described as “black olives cut with sunshine”; there are minarets in Istanbul that are described as keeping “the time signature of the city”; the Black Sea Coast is described as “an unforgiving scribble of rocks”; and walking around Istanbul the narrator describes the evening by saying: “Overhead was the first star and a savage cut-throat moon”.

And in terms of characterisation, while the back cover blurb focuses on the portrait of the unforgettable main character, Baba, I would like to draw your attention to two other equally fascinating though less dramatic portraits in the novel: that of the mother Mac, and that of the narrator. Here are three sentences from the novel that draw a pen portrait of Mac: “The thunder thump of the black horse as she rode, all handsome heroism, the Maiden of the Never-Never. It was her song of celebration as she cut herself loose from family and country, her pediatric studies completed, her i’s dotted and her t’s crossed, she was free. Her platinum girlhood, gingham-checked to over-locked perfection, was behind her.”

There are many superb characterisations of the father, Baba, including the virtuoso opening scene in which Baba falls off the railing of a ferry in search of a mystical union with the fire in the water, but here’s a simple but telling pen portrait which I like. In this scene Baba sees a guitar: “His face creased with pleasure as he stretched out his arms and said quickly like a child: “Here give it here. Give it to me.”’

Now to turn to the narrator. We are given many versions of the narrator from age seven to seventeen and beyond. The narrator Ali is someone who could be either male or female but whom I chose to read as female. Ali, while it’s obviously a male name is also a cut down version of the name Alice. Also I have taught Alice for so long and have been in so many workshops with her that I could hear her voice reading the story to me, which I enjoyed. So for me this novel is about a close and tormented relationship between a father and his tom-boy daughter, and it’s also about a mother and a daughter relationship as much as it is about its ostensible subject matter, an exotic love affair that whirls through Afghanistan, Iran and London before it founders in the streets of old Sydney Road in Brunswick.

And of course it’s both a migrant story and it’s a deeply Australian story. But it’s a story that’s told with a colourfulness and an exuberant excess that is not consistent with the typical Australian writing style in fiction, which favours emotional restraint with touches of irony.

One of the real delights of the novel is its multilingualism. As well as Australian-English the novel is created out of Turkish inflected with Arabic, German and with the occasional bits of French thrown in. These other national languages present language both as a barrier, as a displacement — one of the novel’s key themes — but also as a oneness with the Other.

It is language that has created the edifice of the novel and towards the very end of the novel the narrator reflects upon the nature of language itself in a passage that is well worth reading to you:

“Here, in Istanbul I rediscovered language; the elemental sound meaning that bore the first thought, the chromatics of surrender, the longing of separation, the primary conversation. I learnt the idiom of blood, those syllables and cadences that drift through us, the rhythms and metres recognised in the shape of a mountain, the breath of a city, the arc of a leaf as it falls from a tree. I rediscovered the memory of sound, the memory of blood, the memory of water in the chronology of prayer.”

This is complex, moving and invigorating writing. Alice is lucky to have found a publisher who has allowed her to have her manuscript turned into a book without sacrificing all of its intended complexity. In addition to Ivor Indyk, Alice has put together a large team of people around her who were able to help get her initial brilliant pieces of wildly fantastical prose into its current shape. It wasn’t always obvious to me that the early versions of the manuscript would find a publisher. The novel needed a structure and it didn’t fit the Australian norm of emotional restraint. Also, cautious publishers would be put off by the smatterings of multilingualism.

Alice told me that once she signed the contract she went to Istanbul and rewrote the whole manuscript in only one month. Such is the confidence a contract can give to a writer and such is the propulsion that insightful feedback can give to a writer too.

The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé has said something that is relevant in this context: “The world exists to end up in a book”. It is Alice’s world of a Turkish father and an Australian mother, of Istanbul and of Sydney Road Brunswick that has ended up in this book. Alice has rendered visible what was previously invisible about this specific story of migration and of reclamation and of disintegration.

For as Paul Klee the painter has said, the role of art is to render the invisible visible. And while we’re on the subject of painters, I would like to quote Lucian Freud’s remarks about what he expected from art. He said he wanted it “to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince”. And that’s what I want from a novel too and that’s what Alice has given us in this fine book.

We are fortunate as readers to be the beneficiaries of Alice’s complex art of alchemy — whereby so much of the joy and pain of living has congealed into fictional yet true words that are so resonant with meaning.

And let’s not forget the role of Alice’s parents in the storytelling of this novel. Without their stories, their lives, this novel would not exist. It is their gift of story combined with Alice’s ability at encoding a narrative that has allowed this novel to have a heart.

Now just before I finish this speech I want to pay tribute to Alice’s courage and to her tenacity; her courage in laying bare her own life and the lives of her parents in the transformative form of fiction; and her tenacity in pursuing this novel to the very end through so many rewrites and revisions.

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