A review of Local Time: a memoir of cities, friendships and the writing life by Inez Baranay

Reviewed by Sue Bond

Local Time: a memoir of cities, friendships and the writing life
by Inez Baranay
Local Time Publishing
Paperback, 208pp, 2015, ISBN: 9781329170414

“Stories about a self make the self a fiction; time makes the earlier self a fiction. When we tell a story from our life, the told story displaces the memory. The memory of our experience is now shaped and coloured by the manner in which we relate it. Memory no longer has access to the original event. And yet memoir has to be about something true. We know fiction can be true-er sometimes somehow, but we know also that it allows a kind of making up that is not allowed here.” (10)

This excerpt from Inez Baranay’s memoir encapsulates a couple of interesting points about life writing and memory. Firstly, the recall of memories is not straight forward. We don’t lay them down as events happen and then open a door in our memory bank and there they are. They are influenced by many things, like emotion and context, which is why no two people remember an event the same way. As we recall memories of events, we change them, they do not remain the same over time with many rememberings. And, secondly, life writing, which includes biography, autobiography, and memoir, is expected by the reader to be an account that is based on truth. As Baranay notes, fiction, in the process of making up a story, can show truths extremely effectively; life writing can do the same, not by making things up but by recalling and interpreting them.

Continuing on with this, further on in her memoir Baranay writes about Paris, its museums and old buildings and the ‘arresting moments’ she experiences there: ‘Now this memory of our week in Paris is layered and entwined with other memories of Paris’ (87) and ‘The layers of time and memory, the choosing and discarding of words make a life seem fictional. Maddening though that is, because it’s not fiction: if you were inventing a life it would have more point to it’ (87). The author is highlighting to the reader the trickiness of the process of remembering and shaping those memories into a narrative of one’s life.

Baranay’s memoir is about travelling, art and culture(s) and food, home (and not having one), writing, and friendship. She begins by telling the reader that an inheritance has allowed her to plan a trip to Europe in 2006, one that will enable her to live well while she’s travelling but not be away too long as she does not want to stop writing for too many months. The author does not expect to write while she’s away, which gives us the first hint of a commitment to writing that is strong but realistic. In fact, she does write, and she describes how her life really revolves around writing and reading as well as friendship and human connection.

She comments early in the book that there is a ‘thread that weaves through this work’ and it began as a question about how she would ‘experience Europe now, and how do the stories of friendships tell stories of my time, times that are not mine alone?’ (13). The author adds that the thread also asks questions of her motives for returning to Europe and working there, and crucially ‘where will I find I belong?’ (13).

There are stories about New York (‘the citiest of cities’, p. 14), London, Bristol, Amsterdam, Budapest, Berlin, Paris, Prague, Barcelona, and Rome. But she also writes about the Gold Coast in Queensland, where she lived for a while and had stored her belongings, and a little about Papua New Guinea where she did some volunteer work and from which was born her book Rascal Rain. One chapter largely describes her writing various books in different places. Baranay has a substantial publishing record, having published her first book Between Careers in 1989, and her fourteenth, Ghosts Like Us, in 2015; short prose appeared in anthologies and journals from the early 1980s. Writers will find these parts of her memoir especially interesting, the struggles with drafts and the starting and stopping and putting away.

The memoir is more or less chronological in the main, but contains many forays into the past and the future, causing this reader to wonder where exactly I was in the narrative on many an occasion. But this is not important, as it’s much more a memoir about time shifting, places explored, friendships maintained, and writing begun, suspended, and returned to. There is a diary-like feel to the book, with a casualness of language, a playfulness with words and phrases, in order to express what she felt at the time.

One section is called ‘Really Talking: Remembering Sasha’ and describes her relationship with a long-time friend who, one day after she arrived in Bristol, she learned was dying. This was Sasha Soldatow, who was a published Australian writer of Russian heritage and a memorable personality who co-wrote a book with Christos Tsiolkas called Jump Cuts and helped many writers learn the craft. This was a rich but often difficult relationship.

In the course of spending time overseas, Baranay thinks deeply about being Australian. It is not nationalism or patriotism that interests her, but the response to ‘actual land, its spaces and its colours, its atmosphere, the sense it gives you of timeless mysterious realities that even non-Indigenous people get a glimmer of once they have slept under its huge sky’ (51). At the end of the memoir, she balances this with the following: ‘Always I have held cosmopolitanism to be a value: to be familiar with and at ease with many places, customs and societies’ (202). The author is not tied to any particular place but has a ‘plural, flexible’ identity and believes that ‘my people are always becoming someone else’ (203).

In a similar sense, the concept of family is not straightforward for Baranay. ‘Friends are the true family’, she states, ‘that was my politics’ (119). Her relationship with her father was difficult to the end, and she describes her family as being ‘very critical’. All throughout the memoir she recalls meeting up with friends in different cities who offer her shelter and companionship and wonderful experiences. Some are like patrons who enable her to write without worrying about the everyday problems of life. And one or two are writers themselves—‘Nothing could be more useful to a writer than another writer’ (40)—who read her drafts and provide feedback and vital support.

There is much gorgeous descriptive writing as well as thoughtful, heartfelt, experimental, painful writing. In Barcelona she describes her neighbourhood:

I’d been told Rambla del Raval was an area to avoid, it wasn’t supposed to be quite safe, but naturally I loved it, full of immigrants and punks. Shops were run by people from Pakistan and Bangladesh. That was a nice melon you sold me yesterday I said, returning to one shop, can you give me another like it today? There is no guarantee, the shopkeeper replied, to my delight treating it as a philosophical rather than a commercial question, speaking in the sub-continent’s accents that so suit replies like this; he said, there is no guarantee over anything, that is life, yesterday’s melon was good but today, who knows. (129)

If you appreciate a more philosophical memoir, one that does not proceed in an orderly fashion, but which presents the writer’s thoughts organically and creatively, then Local Time will delight and engross you. And everyone else should read it, too, particularly writers and artists, because it portrays a writer’s life in the full spectrum.

About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane.