A novel journey
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A novel journey

An awakening during travels inspired Canberra author Felicity Volk, Karen Hardy writes.

When Felicity Volk headed overseas as a 19-year-old, a friend gave her a copy of James Michener's The Source as a farewell gift, inscribed with the words ''If we are the product of all we meet, I look forward to talking to you on your return."

That interconnectedness is something that has stuck with Volk over the years, through her travels, through her work with the Department of Foreign Affairs as an adviser to Australia's Global Ambassador for Women and Girls, and through her writing.

Author Felicity Volk.

Author Felicity Volk.Credit:Elesa Kurtz

''At one level, Lightning is that conversation,'' Volk says of her debut novel.

''Although the people and stories populating my novel bear little resemblance to those I have encountered during numerous trips overseas, they invoke the mystery and magic of the experiences I've navigated.''

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Volk's travels are an interesting story in themselves: Siberia by rail at the age of seven; a brief Bollywood acting career at 19; a stint volunteering in a Kolkata home for dying destitutes; dining with Proust's ghost in Paris' Laduree tea rooms; a visit to a refugee camp in Peshawar; and trekking the Thar and Gobi deserts by camel.

But Lightning is a story that begins here in Canberra. It's the afternoon of the 2003 fires and the protagonist, Persia, is at home alone, giving birth to a stillborn daughter.

… The night that settled over the city was a different sort of black from that of the soot-filled skies of the afternoon …

From here Persia embarks on her own journey, figuratively and literally, to find a suitable burial place for her child. Along the way she meets up with Ahmed, a refugee, and their journey together touches on mystery and magic - the book has been described as ''magic realism'' - but also looks at Australia's national identity and what circumstances have forged that.

Volk didn't intend to take the book in that direction. Indeed, she shies away from making any statements about things like migration policy but says it was something that just surfaced during the writing process.

''A lot of ideas sit at the base of the brain and come out without any great intention and it became very much a story of multicultural Australia,'' she says.

''Many of us are unaware of how connected we are to the rest of the world but if you're that Polish or Latvian miner in Lightning Ridge, the Italian in Broken Hill or the refugee who's come to Australia and [got] stuck in a detention centre, you have a fundamental and profound sense of your connection to the rest of the world.

''Those of us who have been here for several generations have kind of lost that idea of interconnectedness of people across time and across place.

''For me, that was more a metaphysical element of the book, and it is encapsulated in the section where Ahmed and Persia are on Camel's Hump Lookout, looking out across the Flinders Ranges talking about the way a human being feels when looking at geological structures that are millions of years old.''

… every cell in your body carries more than 13 billion years of history. Everything, everyone, all our stories are connected over space and time … We are players in a cosmic drama that began long before we entered and will continue long after we leave …

Volk's own journey began as the daughter of two English teachers and writers who packed up her Melbourne family when she was seven and took a year-long sabbatical through Europe in a campervan. A decade or so later with an English literature major, a handful of short stories and poems under her belt and a half-completed law degree, she headed off to Asia for nine months.

She had begun to write at university, but once she joined the workforce she found she had no time nor energy for it.

''When I came back from my second diplomatic posting, in Laos, I was pregnant, and went on to have my two daughters and in the process of working part time found I had more space to start writing again.''

She began writing short stories ''because they fitted into the little blocks of time that I had'' and became involved in the ACT Writers' Centre. She was awarded a residential fellowship at Varuna, the Writers' House, completing a collection of short stories. The title story of the series, No Place Like Home, was a prize-winner in The Australian Women's Weekly/Penguin Short Story Competition (2006).

''That's been the most lucrative part of my writing career so far,'' she says with a laugh. ''I received $5000, nothing since then has matched that dollar for word!''

Volk received another fellowship from Varuna and a grant from artsACT to help her complete Lightning; the artsACT grant enabled her to go on her own road trip to research the places Persia and Ahmed visit as they look for the burial place.

Volk remembers heading off only to be detoured by the Queensland floods of 2009, and as she weaved that detour into Lightning it took the book in a different direction.

''I think I would have missed something significant if that hadn't happened,'' she says.

''As much as Lightning is a study in loss, disconnection and the challenge of our journeys through dry and unforgiving places, it is also a celebration of the shared tenderness that nourishes and heals us, and the grace of love.

''Lightning is a salute to the restorative properties of imagination and a reminder that, like Scheherazade and her Arabian Nights tales, it is our stories and their telling that keep us alive. Certainly, that was my experience during the writing.''

Lightning. By Felicity Volk. (Picador, $29.99)

Karen Hardy is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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