Unexpected Joy by Lisa McKay

One of the great joys of this reviewing caper has been “meeting” the wonderful Lisa McKay ~ psychologist, Aussie, author and most recently fiancée (congrats, Lisa and Mike!).

Lisa sent me her latest essay (believe me I would read this girl’s shopping list!) and I loved it so much I wanted to share it with you.

With Lisa’s permission, I have posted it here ~ just soak it in :)

Unexpected Joy by Lisa McKay

I’ve been in love with reading since before I can remember. Our family photo albums are peppered with photos of me curled up with books – in huts in Bangladesh, on trains in Europe, in the backseat of our car in Zimbabwe. Recently my parents went on holiday to Northern Australia, and I got a postcard from them not of Ayers Rock or Kakadu, but of a little girl propped up against the side of a sleeping calf, reading.

I can’t remember my parents reading to us before bed, although they swear they did – sweet tales about poky puppies and a confused baby bird looking for it’s mother. No, my earliest memories of reading are solitary, sweaty, ones. They are of lying on the cool marble floor of our house in Dhaka. An overhead fan gently stirred the dense heat while I chipped away at frozen applesauce in a small plastic container, book in hand. But it’s from around nine, when we moved from Bangladesh to the States, that my memories of books, just like childhood itself, become clearer.

Of all the moves I’ve made in my life, this was one of the most traumatic. Abruptly encountering the world of the very wealthy after two years of living cheek by jowl with the world of the very poor, I discovered that I didn’t fit readily into either world. My fourth grade classmates in Maryland had no framework for understanding where I had been for the last two years – what it was like to ride to church in a rickshaw pulled by a skinny man on a bicycle, to make a game out of pulling three-inch-long cockroaches out of the sink drain while brushing your teeth at night, or to gaze from the windows of your school bus at other children picking through the corner garbage dumps.

I, in turn, lacked the inclination to rapidly absorb and adopt the rules of this new world – a world where your grasp on pre-teen fashion, pop-culture, and boys all mattered terribly. Possibly I could have compensated for my almost total lack of knowledge in these key areas with lashings of gregarious charm, but at nine I lacked that too. I was not what you would call a sunny child.

So I read instead. I read desperately.

I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. One of the few good things I could see about living in the States was the ready availability of books. Some weekends Mum and Dad would take us to the local library’s used book sale. Books were a quarter each. I had a cardboard box and carte blanche. On those Saturday mornings I was in heaven.

Like many kids, I suspect, I was drawn to stories of outsiders, or children persevering against all odds in the face of hardship. I devoured all of C.S. Lewis’ stories of Narnia and adored the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, especially the ones featuring little girls who were raised in India before being exiled to face great hardship in Britain. But I also strayed into more adult territory. I trolled our bookshelves and the bookshelves of family friends, and those bookshelves were goldmines for stories about everything from religious persecution in Russia, to murder, to sepoy uprisings, child brides and honor killing in India.

“It would be nice,” my father commented dryly upon reading the first draft of this essay, “if you could manage not to make it sound like our personal library was stocked exclusively with troubling filth.”

“Dad,” I patiently explained, “that’s why I used the goldmine analogy. You don’t just stumble across gold, you have to dig for it. I worked really hard to find that stuff in amongst all the boring family-friendly fare.”

Mum and Dad didn’t know everything I got into, of course. After they caught me reading a tale set largely in a brothel in South Africa and confiscated it, I got stealthier with censorable material. I also found their hiding place – behind the pile of sweaters on the top shelf of the wardrobe – and read the rest of that particular book in chunks during times they were both out of the house. In retrospect, even at eleven I wasn’t reading largely for pleasant diversion, for fun, for the literary equivalent of eating ice cream in the middle of the day. I was extreme reading – pushing boundaries, looking to be shocked, scared, thrilled, and taught. I was reading to try and figure out how to make sense of pain.

It is entirely possible that had we remained in Australia throughout my childhood I would still have spent the majority of these years feeling isolated and misunderstood. After all, in the midst of our mobility I never doubted my parent’s love for me or for each other yet this did not forestall an essential loneliness that was very deeply felt. I suspect I would still have grown into someone who feels compelled to explore the juxtaposition of shadow and light, who is drawn to discover what lies in the dark of life and of ourselves. But I also suspect that the shocking extremes presented by life in Bangladesh and America propelled me down this path earlier, and farther, than I may naturally have ventured.

It was largely books that were my early companions on this journey – stories of poverty and struggle, injustice and abuse, violence and debauchery, yes. But they were also threaded through with honor and courage, sacrifice and discipline, character and hope.

Most people seem to view “real life” as the gold standard by which to interpret stories, but I don’t think that does novels justice. For me, at least, the relationship between the worlds of real and fiction was reciprocal. These books named emotions, pointed to virtue and vice, and led me into a deeper understanding of things I had already witnessed and experienced in life. They also let me try on, like a child playing dress-up, experiences and notions new to me. They acted as maps, mirrors, and magnifying glasses.

In all those years of reading, however, I had never put down a book, no matter how much I loved it, and thought to write to the author to thank them for what they had given me.

Which is probably why I never expected to get letters about my book.

You spend years writing – going over every word again, and again, and again. You hear the title the publishers have chosen and feel an inner ring of “yes”. You reverberate for days with the shock of seeing something that has existed fully formed in your mind through someone else’s eyes in the cover art they have designed to clothe your story. Then one day you get a box from the publisher, and you open it, and you pick up a copy of your own book for first time…

These were all incandescent but largely solitary moments. And after that, when the book actually came out, it felt as if it was out there doing it’s own thing without me – roosting on bookstore shelves and in libraries, cruising around town, flying across the country.

After so much nurturing I was left alone in my empty nest and I felt a bit bereft, frankly.

And then I began hearing things.

It started with friends.

One wrote from the heart about reading the book during a trip to the town where he had once lived in far North Queensland – a place he had not visited for five years, not since the traumatic death of a close friend there.

“It was somehow nice,” he wrote, “to have these guys trekking through the jungle dealing with their experiences whilst I was getting flashbacks.”

A friend here in California told me he had taken the book with him when he’d returned to Vietnam for the first time since he’d fled as a refugee in 1978. When he left that time, Hai reported, he’d been a frightened seven-year-old on a small, rickety, fishing boat headed for Thailand. As they’d neared land a Thai police boat stopped them and instructed them to turn around and sail back to Vietnam.

“We had to sink the boat and swim ashore so they wouldn’t send us back. Then they picked us up and took us off to prison,” Hai said. “I was reading your book and it all came back. I know what it is to set out at night on a small boat and not know whether you’ll live. They went through what I went through.”

Then letters started filtering into my website mailbox. Total strangers – the ones who had accompanied the book in its meanderings without me – were writing to let me know about their journeys together.

They’ve written of how reading the book brought back their own experiences of short-term mission trips, of how grateful they were for an account of the difficulties involved in returning home after life-altering experiences, of how they came away challenged to learn more about what is going on in Indonesia and around the world. They’ve written demanding to know how the relationships in the story play out. They’ve written just to admonish me to write faster. One letter that made me laugh out loud started with, “Lisa. I have just two words for you – HURRY UP! I am a quarter of the way through your book and I am already hitting your website looking for a new one.”

There have been a handful of these letters that have taken my breath away and left me profoundly overwhelmed. Many of these came from those who themselves survived the conflict my characters found themselves caught up in. One woman who lived in Ambon for many years and must remain unnamed, wrote:

“Your book really captured the gut-wrenching, tragic stuff that that conflict in the Maluku islands was all about. I must say it was a bit of an emotional ride to experience Cori’s journey as I read it. My colleague just read it, and her word was, “raw”. We and basically everyone we knew there, Indonesian and ex-pat, lost our homes, and some lost much, much, more.

I’m very thankful for the healing from the wounds caused by hearing so many stories of human tragedy and loss, but found myself realizing anew that all that we heard and experienced has changed how we see things… Obviously, this conflict affected us all in many ways, but by God’s grace, we’ve found new ‘normals’, and can relate to the suffering in our world that we had no idea about prior to this.”

These letters have been many things – not least encouraging and energizing. But most of all I think, they have been humbling.

It amazes me to think that “Hands” has called out to others – that it has stirred memories, given voice to struggles and questions, and kept people company as they reflected on how they have changed as a result of pivotal times of suffering and struggle in their own lives.

I didn’t write it hoping for that, not consciously. I wrote out of many of the compulsions that drove me to read as a lonely child. I was reaching for a private understanding. I was plumbing the depths of things that scare me. I was trying to figure out how to make sense of pain. And I was trying to follow through on a promise I made at eighteen.

What specific designs God may have on our lives, and how on earth we figure out what they might be, is a mystery that’s been pondered at length by minds far more versatile than mine. Personally I don’t think God minded overmuch whether I studied psychology or medicine in 1995, whether I moved to Croatia or Kazakhstan in 2001, or whether I ate raisin bran or cherry strudel for breakfast yesterday. This book is one of only a handful of things in my life I dare use the word “called” in reference too, and when I made that decision at eighteen and even while I was writing it I had little firm idea why I might feel that way. I had no training or experience in writing. I had never had a single thing published. And I had so little idea what I was doing on my first draft that I wrote seventy thousand words too many and didn’t grasp until much later how unusual it was to be offered a contract off an unsolicited submission by the first publisher I queried.

Sometimes, many times perhaps, we may feel that abstract soul-tug of “calling” and never get a glimpse of reason or impact. So these echoes that come to me now in the form of comments and letters, they have been an unexpected joy.

They remind me of all I love best about reading, and gift me awe that I am so blessed to have been granted privilege to feed in some small way into other’s essential dialogue between fiction and real, between us and God, between what is story and what is remembered, and between what has been and what will yet be.

Thank you.

© lisa mckay 2008

Relz Reviewz Extras

If you haven’t read Lisa’s book, My Hands Came Away Red, you are missing out! Add it to your TBR as soon as you can.

My review

Interview with Lisa

Visit Lisa’s website

Buy My Hands Came Away Red at Amazon or Koorong

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3 Responses to Unexpected Joy by Lisa McKay

  1. You read about dishonor killings as a child? Wow. I’m impressed. I never even heard of them until I was an adult. And, even then, I found them deeply disturbing.Ellen R. Sheeley, Author“Reclaiming Honor in Jordan”http://www.redroom.com/author/ellen-r-sheeley

  2. Rel;Thanks for posting that. It really gives you an insite into the heart of the writer. Thanks for that glimpse. This has made me really want to read this book even more.Great interview by her as well.Norahttp://www.psalm516.blogspot.com

  3. Wow. That’s a poignant essay, Lisa! Thanks for writing it and Rel, for sharing it here with us. I was a voracious reader as a kid, too, so I can relate. I still read as much as possible, but alas never have the time I did as a child. I know some writers grow up without reading much, but I’m glad I wasn’t one of them. :)

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