Foreword, from ESL Study Guide: A theoretical and practical guide to literature study based on the novel Paper Nautilus by Nicholas Jose, by Viv Tellefson and Sophie Arkoudis, Directorate of School Education, Victoria 1995.
Paper Nautilus has a special place in my writing. I had gone overseas, to Italy, not long after my mother died from a long and painful illness. One day I was driving from Rome airport the several hours' distance to the town where I was staying, when the idea for Paper Nautilus came to me. The curious thing is that almost the whole story came to me, in a complete form, almost in a flash. I knew from the first moment that is was a story that moved backwards in time, following a line of connection between one event and another, and one person and another, to try to understand the meaning and subtle mystery of how life unfolds. I was very excited and began work on the novel immediately, and within a few months most of the first draft was finished. It was good to be able to work quickly, so as to achieve a powerful sense of connection between the elements of a complex story. It was important that the reader should follow clearly, step by step, until the whole picture came into focus. The story commemorates the lives of Jack, Penny, Vera, Peter and the others, lives lived with their own dignity and logic, once you understand them; my own feelings of loss lie beneath the surface.
Through events and decisions that are often beyond our control, our lives can involve huge changes. People move from country to city, or from their home to a foreign land. The change job or profession. They have to make new families, new circles of friends. The world itself seems to change so fast that it can suddenly seem like a foreign place, even if you have stayed where you are. It takes an effort of memory and understanding to put the pieces together, which can help us then to find the common threads of motives and values that run through our lives. That is part of the storyteller's art, as I have tried to show in Paper Nautilus. A reader who comes to the novel from a foreign country or different language background will have special insights into these processes of change, memory and moving forward. Such readers will understand precisely how stories can start from where you have already got to, here and now in the present, the gradually take you back to another point of origin, long ago and far away.
I have lived and worked in foreign countries myself, and struggled to become at home in foreign languages. One of the most exciting stages for me is when I start to be able to read literature in another language. It seems to happen at a different level from speaking or aural comprehension. With literature, something of the heart of the language and the distinctive feeling of a culture and society come through. Windows open into insights, even from a short and simple piece of writing. I remember working through my first story by Lu Hsun in the original Chinese. It was slow and painful, but quite thrilling.
Paper Nautilus takes readers into a particular Australian environment that may seem old-fashioned from our present perspective, but which provides part of the background to the Australia we have today. Through life in a small, isolated country town, through several generations of its people, the novel shows some important aspects of recent Australian history as they affect particular lives: the Second World War, especially in Asia; post-war migration; conflicting moralities and prejudices. A reader coming from outside will be helped by this useful and stimulating study guide to enter the town of Wooka in Paper Nautilus with a fresh and sharp eye for what is going on there, and a passionate understanding of the life decisions that are being made.