EPISODE #8

Finding my way home: an Aussie woman's journey to reconnect with her past

Elizabeth Corbett
  • Lived, worked and studied in Wales
  • Melbourne, Australia
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It started with a mid-life crisis. On approaching a significant birthday (let’s not be specific), I realised I’d always wanted to write a novel. I’d never written a novel before, mind. But I loved history, and moving to Australia had been the defining event of my childhood. So why not make it an Aussie immigration novel? Dad was born in England but Mum was Welsh. Almost as an afterthought, I threw a Welsh couple into my fictional group of migrants. Looking back, I am struck by how casually the decision was made.

It has changed my life in so many ways.

I knew nothing about Wales, beyond the history of coal mining (mum was from South Wales) and that Wales played rugby. I also knew Welsh people spoke a different language. I wanted my Welsh couple to be an agent of change in the life of my young main character. But rugby wasn’t invented in 1841 and, even if I could have invented a scenario in which a whole male voice choir emigrated en mass, I didn’t think she’d find it inspiring. Some initial research told me Wales also had a bardic tradition. I read the Mabinogion and a host of other Welsh fairy tales. My Welsh couple became storytellers. I enrolled for a term of Welsh classes, just to get a sense of the language.

I had four children living at home in those days. I must admit being able to say, I’m off to my Welsh class, and walk out the door was part of the appeal. But I also found Welsh words strangely enticing. One term of classes turned into two, then three.

Before I knew it, Welsh class had become part of my life.

I didn’t ever expect to speak the language. I’d done Japanese at school and never progressed beyond the basics. But writing a novel with Welsh characters and learning the language were waking a hidden part of me, a part that I hadn’t not known existed.

I finished a first draft and got shortlisted for a manuscript development award. I also won a short story prize. Then disaster struck. Our youngest daughter began to work her way through a list of every parent’s worst fears. The running away, the self-harm, the dropping out of school and shoplifting had a terrible effect on my mental health. I couldn’t write. I could barely function. My husband insisted I take a break. We had loads of frequent flyers points.

Why not travel to the land of words and stories?

In preparation, a friend recommended I try 'Say Something in Welsh'. I felt so fragile. The idea of doing strange online language course terrified me. But I decided to try one lesson. Aran, the man on the podcast, was so kind and encouraging. He told me I was doing a great job, I would succeed. It was like rain on parched earth.

Five years of language learning fell into place.

I did Cwrs Haf in Aberystwyth, the following year. Whilst there, I met Veronica Calarco, an Aussie artist living in Wales. When Veronica set up Stiwdio Maelor, a residency studio for artists and writers, I became her first long-term volunteer.

I improved my Welsh, during my seven months in Wales and finished my novel, The Tides Between - an historical coming of age novel about fairy tales and facing the truth – which has recently been published Odyssey Books. It is an Aussie immigration novel, filled with Welsh fairy tales, that is set in the steerage compartment of an emigrant vessel, and somehow, through the process of its creation, I have found my way home.

For information about The Tides Between, learning Welsh and my Welsh heritage, head over to my website

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