The Writer Within

An introspective work that considers the lifelong effects of growing up amid humble beginnings…

by: Fernando Gros

“He grew up working class, like me,” I was saying to my wife about one of my friends, and how it was part of why we bonded. “But now he finds himself a long way away from his roots.”

Shards of this story apply to several of my friends. They live well now, maybe even very well, but came from humble working class beginnings.

I’m writing this while seated in a first class airport lounge. I’ve just finished a “signature club sandwich.” I’m staring out over three parked regional Qantas jets, past the faded green fields between the runways, out past the edge of the airport to the rolling hills next door, paddocks bordered by dark green leaved eucalyptus. I see some movement near the share of a small grove of trees. It’s a group of kangaroos, settling for an afternoon nap.

I should be doing my homework. For the past few months I’ve been taking part in the Granta Memoir Writing Workshop. I chose my mother as my topic to write about. Specifically, about how her death has triggered a great deal of memories of her from my childhood home. The food she would cook. The things we grew together in the garden. And the good humor with which she embraced life. A humor that faded and warped as she grew older.

That home was cheaply built and devoid of any luxury. It was a “fibro shack” in the local parlance, in reference to the asbestos-ridden fibreboard of which those houses were made. A tiny corner of Australia’s rapid post-WW2 suburban expansion.

It was government housing when we moved in. Eventually my parents bought the house. Then we improved it, adding a garage, then an extension, flower beds, fruit trees, a vegetable garden, even a Chilean style parron, a wooden pergola covered in grape vines that made an idyllic spot to sit on amid hot summer evenings.

Our neighbors spent their weekends mowing lawns and fixing cars and downing “slabs of tinnies” (cases of beer) while lounging on plastic chairs in the sun and listening to sports on the radio. It was idyllic, in between the moments of extreme violence. One night I woke to find my mother hugging the woman from next door. They were in our front yard. My father was talking to the police. The guy who lived next door was handcuffed in the backseat of a police car. Apparently the screams had woken my parents. My father went in and “subdued” the man. My mother called the cops.

Another night I woke to red flashing lights outside. Apparently another neighbor had an accident. His garage was full of paint before the explosion. “Go back to bed,” my father said as I stared out of the living room window and looked at the upturned car, aflame in the street outside.

Several of my friends were beaten by their fathers. I don’t mean the kind of controlled, almost ritualistic violence that middle-class parents dole out after a long ethics lecture. I mean violent punches and kicks, rage-fuelled attacks, sometimes aided by alcohol, which seemed to feature prominently in every household.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that violence trickled down through generations. Being punched in the face was commonplace on the playground. As was being wrestled to the ground and pummelled by a group of kids. It was the price you paid for going to the park to play football with local kids, or for simply walking home from school with the wrong group of friends.

In contemplation of my childhood I cannot help but ponder what it means to be working class. Or a member of a minority. I consider white privilege and wealth inequality.

When I think of that working class upbringing I call to mind values that I still cherish. Taking care of your possessions was a necessity. You didn’t have the money to replace things if they broke. So you had to watch out for wear and tear. Or learn to repair. I carry this still in my own life and believe it’s good to care for your possessions and not be wasteful.

It was also important to make room for people to work. Everyone needed extra cash. People worked overtime to make ends meet. Everyone took on second jobs. Paid in cash, whenever possible. Spare rooms became tiny sewing factories. Garages became night-time repair shops.

I still instinctively respect people who are working, such as by moving aside to make it easier for a delivery person to get where they’re going. I’m always baffled when people who work in public, such as cashiers at supermarkets, or waiters, are not automatically well-treated.

But these beliefs can have their dark side. Like being prone to a fear of things breaking. For years I would become angry whenever anything was broken accidentally. Even the word, accident, is hard for me to say at times. And while work is at its heart noble, it so often ends up being exploitative. In fact, every conversation about work when I was growing up, every “What do you want to do with your life?” question, always came back to the idea that you will be doing something hard and unpleasant, but will accept it anyway because you will need the money.

This idea invited a very narrow range of possible jobs, none of them creative. As Royce Kurmelovs put it in the opening pages of his book, Rogue Nation, “People with my roots don’t often become writers or work in media, because it doesn’t occur to them that they might.”

It’s all too easy to romanticize humble beginnings. While those working class roots made me diligent and hard-working, they also made me fearful, keen to please and easy to exploit. Churches and employers later took advantage of that. Even now, despite the wealth, and the frequent flyer miles, I feel like an imposter much of the time. Those same roots filled me with dreams and fuelled my creativity. But they also saddled me with self-doubt and limiting beliefs. I am always forced to contemplate what if big dreams never work out.

Sometimes I wonder if privilege is being told you’re special, and to believe in your dreams, to chase your goals. Or maybe privilege is just fitting in.

One of my earliest memories is being invited to a neighbour’s house. I was on their green carpet, playing with toy cars. The father came home.

“What is that doing here?”

“Get it out of my house.”

I remember kids spitting on my mother as she walked me home from primary school. Sometimes rocks were thrown as well. Always there were insults. Wog. Dago. Slimeball. I remember my mother’s hands shaking as we stopped off at a friend’s house (another immigrant family) for an understanding hug and a warm cup of tea.

Sometimes I wonder if my creativity came from enforced solitude. A consequence of being an immigrant kid. Learning to activate the fullest possible imagination, like prisoners who learn to write as a way to transport themselves somewhere, anywhere, other than the cold reality of their prison cell.

The truth is, no matter how much wealth comes to you later in life, you can still find yourself in a corner of a first class lounge feeling like that little boy who had no one to play with. That’s the thing about dealing with privilege. We speak about it like it’s some kind of permanent quality. Like DNA. You have privilege in the same way you have blue eyes or blond hair.

They say kids are resilient. They grow up and overcome these sorts of things. I’m not so sure. My guess is we always carry the wounded child around with us. We never fully outgrow our roots or the culture we grew up in. Instead we’re fortunate enough to find a better adulthood than the one in which we grew up; one that lets us tend to that wounded child inside, and encourage them to come out to play. Because at last it’s safe now, and maybe there are a few friends to share the experience with.


Fernando Gros is a writer of nonfiction essays about creativity and simple living, a musician, and a student of Japanese calligraphy. He divides his time between Australia and Japan.

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