I have not worked out yet what I am, in the writerly sense. A new author? But I have been writing since I dictated stories to my mother and caregivers as a toddler. An emerging author? Are not all of us emerging from idea into development, research into sketching out our story, work into the world? My sister believes that the only thing you retain from one baby to the next is remembering how to change a diaper — the rest is all new, all over again. I can ascertain to this, I feel in a constant state of “emergence” as a mother, with each new birth and each new day of my daughters’ lives. I feel the same about my art!
A debut author, then? The grand entrance in an expensive dress, the debutante image that seems bound with this term does not suit me either. I feel I kind of shuffle in an open back door of a potential nice-person-could-be-friend-maybe(?) and call out tentatively, “Hello? Anybody want to have a free ticket to a world I made? Anybody want to come play here?”
A writer? Yes. Maybe. Still a maybe. I am half-way through a MFA, I have written for love and money (occasionally) for years, I have published a novel, but I still struggle with that basic term. Perhaps because I sat in my advisor’s office last week trying to explain the dream images and the sensed path of my next novel, using hand gestures, images as well as words. Her eyes blinked back at me while she leant back in her chair. Her arms were limp, she seemed very tired. “So?” she asked me, her voice New-York sharp. “What’s the actual story? Like the action, what happens? Just having a character think and feel and meet people is not ACTION.” Then I catch up with my writing teacher and theater director from Australia who, after listening to the same explanation (with my added tentative, “does that make any sense to you?”) “Of course! Of course! And the writing journey will show you how to get there!”
Perhaps because I have sat in too many classes now that tell me every scene, every story has to have a beginning, middle and end (complete with arc graphics and grids) and that nobody publishes anything that begins with a dream, uses long sentences or that doesn’t tell you the whole story in the first chapter (because who’s gonna read more to find out … we haven’t got time, right?). This leaves me, the one who enjoys the quiet unravelling, the ambivalent world we navigate through our interior landscape as we pass through the much more desperate one of the Real World, who inhabits a Synesthesiac space, wondering whether I can indeed presume to call myself a writer. There is no time or place here, it seems, for the quiet gathering and fingering of words, enjoying them before we know how we will place them in patterns and stories. Before we know the line any action will take. Perhaps the meditation is, itself, the action?
What then can I call myself? What can, or do, any of us call ourselves?
Do we even need a name?
So, I move to a review I received recently. I am including it in full here, because I felt that here was someone who, like me, loves to read and loves to love what she reads. Here is someone who opened my work and let it breathe. And by doing so she poured back into my ravaged storytelling heart (battered as it feels here in the city of concrete, commercial power and being too fast and busy to listen, listen) the sense that just maybe I could craft the story gestating in my heart that could speak to the heart of another.
She is the person who came to the backdoor, took the proffered ticket, and stepped into the world I made. My way to thank her is here.
Intense and haunting, debut work dissects multiple layers of human interaction as it explores questions about Nazi past. Exquisitely written, exceptionally engaging, and deeply thoughtful, Niki Tulk’s Shadows and Wings spans the decades and the distance from pre-World War II Germany to modern-day Australia. The stories of German Tomas Müller and his granddaughter, Lara, intertwine in this debut novel.
A tale of war and peace, destruction and rebuilding, guilt and forgiveness, Shadows and Wings embodies a statement—and warning: “Don’t ask so many questions.” Don’t ask, that is, unless you really want to know the answers—if, indeed, there are any answers.
At seven, Lara is inadvertently allowed to watch part of a television program about the Holocaust. The narrator sounds exactly like her beloved Opa, the name she calls her grandfather. It is not, but the subliminal connection has been made.
Tulk transitions with seemingly effortless ease between accounts of Tomas’ childhood in Germany and Lara’s in Australia. A classical cellist herself, Tulk fashions Tomas as a cellist, creating a character whose musical aspirations are thwarted by the coming of war to his native country. Drafted into the German army, he serves the Nazi cause, and the guilt stays with him for the rest of his life. Secrecy reigns, as well, and it is his secrets that Lara is tasked to discover.
The moon, the ocean, birds, and the landscape serve as metaphors and constants throughout Tulk’s book. Virtually everything she mentions has deeper meaning. After the war, in a devastated Germany, Tomas looks out over his destroyed homeland and decides to leave for Australia. In his new country, he is a gardener, known for creating abundance and beauty. During his ocean voyage, he throws his military uniform and papers overboard; Lara, too, disposes of “evidence” in the same way. “I am trying to throw my past into the ocean,” thinks Tomas, “But it floats too easily.” Lara, as well, will never forget.
Shadows and Wings haunts in its intensity. Tulk captures the family dynamic convincingly and poignantly and displays a clear talent for dissecting the multiple layers of human interaction. She shows that she understands both the whimsy of childhood and the anxiety of the child in an adult environment. Her dialogue, whether between children, adult and child, or adults, is realistic and wholly believable. Tomas’ and Lara’s family secrets are not unique to them, yet they are as personal in Tulk’s story as they are universal in their nuance and effect.
This book is appealing on many different levels. Beautifully written and evocatively told, the story offers readers much to ponder. Those interested in WWII and its aftermath will find the emotional impact telling, and those simply seeking a “good read” will discover a gripping portrayal of relatable characters and a solid, powerful plot line. Readers may actually weep with Lara at the end, as she ultimately comes to understand, “There are some things, no matter how deeply I search for them, I will never know.”