26 July 2016

A Postcard from Van Badham

Postcards: A series of reflections from Express Media alumni living their literary dreams

“I had a vocational calling and a chance – that precious, sacred chance – to begin.”

Before she became a renowned writer and columnist for the Guardian Australia, Van Badham was just like you. Bright-eyed and eager to break into the literary realm, where writing and creativity entwined truly become magic. Living in the suburbs of Wollongong, Van was a small town girl with big dreams. Now, her dreams of being a published writer have come true – this is her story.

I first published in Voiceworks in 1999 – Triple J were running a competition called “Postcards from the Future” as part of a big cultural project they called Y2J, to commemorate the turning of the millennia. I was a dab hand at Photoshop back then and entered a digital postcard made from an old family photograph of two women sunbathing, overlaid with mushroom clouds, and the writing that went with it was a suitably sarcastic comment on American foreign policy; NATO was bombing Yugoslavia and they managed to incinerate a Chinese embassy and my young mood was appropriately apocalyptic. I was one of a gaggle of winners, and one of the prizes was publication in Voiceworks, as well as some CDs and an extraordinary CD-ROM encyclopedia of Australian rock music that Triple J had put together (and which, all these years later, I’m somewhat desperate to relocate).

My chronology of this period is hazy; it’s a long time and many versions of myself ago. I do remember clearly that I was living in Bulli, a suburb of Wollongong, in a wooden cottage with polished wood walls and a view from a too-small kitchen sink of the mountains. I remember the day the magazine arrived, the sound of the postie’s motorbike floating ahead of its arrival at my letterbox, my own eager gallop out to meet the mail. I remember the quick-torn shell of a yellow envelope, and the magazine in my hands, black and white. My memory insists I stood in the Bulli sunshine for minutes, and stared.

I was in my very early twenties and although I was at uni studying Creative Arts I didn’t feel part of any kind of artistic or literary community beyond my home town. Voiceworks was thick with all of these articles and people who seemed to live at the epicentre of a cultural universe that I was desperate to visit. I’m sure I would have read every page of the magazine a hundred times, and it encouraged me to send something else in – I can’t remember what it was now, but I remember, again, that feeling of seeing my name in print, and believing that there was a world outside of Wollongong that wanted me to travel to it.

As it was, I went to Newcastle, to the Young Writers’ Festival, where I met, and befriended, and joined in long, loud, late night conversations with the Voiceworks crew. And they invited me to Melbourne, and down to Melbourne I came, in the bus, taking up the offer of pillows on couches, and more late nights at launches and poetry bars. For someone like me, it was if the pages of a book of fairytales had come suddenly alive and beckoned me step into their magical paths and enter their dark castles. I couldn’t believe I knew people who wrote articles and published for a living, let alone that they were so blasé about the extraordinary work they were doing to offer those opportunities to me as well.

About a year after my first publication, a couple of the Voiceworks boys came to visit me in Wollongong; I was still in my wooden Bulli cottage, still with my boyfriend at the time, but the difference of a year was that the wall in my room was covered in calendars, addresses, acceptance letters and mailing lists, because I had that taste for publication and the youthful energy to pursue submissions and subscriptions, rebound from rejections and process the slow motion avalanche of paperwork entailed by the onset of professional writing. And the boys remarked that I was “everywhere now” and I’ve surely been “everywhere” since, with a career that’s trod its own magical paths into theatre and television, and film scripts and poetry, performance and comedy, a novel and this fresh beast of journalism. Me, from Wollongong, and suburban, awkward and ordinary and the lesson learned was not that I’m special or clever or particularly talented, so much that I had a vocational calling and a chance – that precious, sacred chance – to begin.