When I walk to my classes at The University of Queensland (UQ), I can’t help but touch the rough texture and marvel at the beautiful pinks, lavenders and creams of the Helidon sandstone. It propels me back in time to when I was a child, obsessed with volcanoes and rocks—thanks to Leonard Nimoy, who starred in a documentary series that explored wonders around the globe, including volcanoes on Hawaii. My head full of grand ideas, I wanted travel to exotic places, just like Spock, applying my combined volcanology/geology skills that I would learn at university. But life didn’t quite work out the way I expected.
School was a torment. I entered kindergarten in Western Sydney in 1974 not knowing a word of English. At the time, Granville was an experiment in multiculturalism and our local primary school was a lesson in linguistics, where children spoke a tapestry of Arabic, Spanish, Polish and broken English. The majority of us attended the English as a Second Language class—a dishonourable opportunity that separated new Australians from the old and created palpable borders in the playground. Seeing the hand gestures of the Australian kids, I knew I was being teased. I learnt up yours through body-language long before I learnt the actual words.
Unfortunately, my inability to speak English was not the only obstacle. Born with a rare hereditary condition called Glanzmann’s Thrombasthenia, a platelet function disorder, I suffered many nosebleeds, bruising and endless hospital visits that played havoc with my schooling. The Catholic education that my parents saved for so diligently, was wasted. My primary and HSC results—abysmal. At seventeen, I sadly waved my university aspirations goodbye.
What saved me during this time was my love of reading. The sheer boredom of being in hospital weeks at a time meant I would read anything I could get my hands on, and it was never enough. I took to hiding in the library during PE, and while I failed to write a decent essay on Jane Austen or Jessica Anderson, I discovered books that were sordid, sexy and unbelievably addictive. Thank you, Colleen McCullough, for The Thorn Birds, and John Jakes, for North and South. My English improved immensely, not because of my long-suffering teachers, but because I could escape into a world that did not include being in hospital or being placed on the sideline marking scores, enviously watching other students play team sports.
Desperate to embark on any career plan, while considering the needs of my chronic illness, I followed everyone else’s advice and began working in an office as an Accounts Assistant. My spare time was occupied with earning a Diploma of Accounting at TAFE that led to a Degree of Business and Economics. I continued this line of work when I moved to Hong Kong with my first husband and to England with my second. However, my career aspirations were scuppered with two long stints of illness where working in an office became impossible. Flexibility was key, as I often didn’t know if I was able to work from one day to the next. But I never stopped reading. It was one of the few comforts I had. Our living room became lined with books and my wallet with library cards.
My dreams of studying rocks and volcanoes had long since disappeared. A bookkeeping business from home seemed the logical choice, but tight deadlines were unworkable. Inspiration struck when I nostalgically flipped through my photo-albums. A hobby that I loved, but never took further than the usual holiday/family snaps that everyone has floating on their bookshelves. Looking through images with new eyes, I saw amateur travel photographs that were barely memorable but had potential. A creative need seeking a way out. Back to university I went completing a Degree of Photography at Queensland College of Art. At the time I thought, yes, I can do this at my own pace. And while photography fulfilled my dreams of travel and creating beautiful things, along with a new business that I ran from home for a few years, my body decided to betray me once again, forcing me to take a year off. My illness slapped me with a vengeance and reminded me that physically I was becoming fragile, which was frustrating when my brain still wanted to do so much.
What to do? I abandoned doing my Honours Degree of Photography and decide to add to the repertoire of skill I had so far built. I realised that I also enjoyed learning for its own sake and searched for courses to improve my writing, inspired by the many authors that have accompanied me through two marriages, two broken careers, three continents and twenty-six relocations. Thank you, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami and Ruth Ozeki, to name a few.
Thankfully The University of Queensland (UQ) became my salvation, offering the Graduate Certificate of Writing, Editing and Publishing, which I began this year. As I complete each course, I discover my photography informs my writing and my writing informs my photography. My love for reading and writing has deepened to the point it has become an obsession and I now have a legitimate excuse to read all those books. “It’s work! I have to study!” I say. And while I still struggle with grammar terms, the stories flow. I combine the skills, knowledge and life-wisdom I have acquired and find endless volumes of fiction and non-fiction coming to fruition, thanks to the new skills and techniques I have learnt at UQ. Writing is also incredibly flexible and I’m able to do it from my sacred sitting chair (that’s if I can force my dog to find a new spot). I feel incredibly lucky to have tread this path where UQ has played a significant role. And while I still have to google ‘dangling modifier’, when a tutor marks my work in red, thanks to UQ, I can proudly say, “I am a writer”.
Eva Turek-Jewkes, Writer|Photographer (& UQ Student, 2018)