Hero photograph
Ruth Arnison and Kristyna O'Connell
Photo by Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature

The Spirit of Literature Beyond Oceans

Kristyna Anne O’Connell —

Kristyna O'Connell was a University of Otago HUMS301 Intern for Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature 2018

F. Scott Fitzgerald says it, literature gives us meaning, it gives us understanding, and it shapes our view of who we are and how we see the world. “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you yourself are not lonely or isolated from anyone, you belong.” Literature has the power to travel from one side of the world to the next. It is why we have English, American, New Zealand literature and many more. Our cultures and our views are understood and told through literature and the stories within. Through the words that you read, you are drawn into another world, another life, another existence. There is a spirit that leaps out at you; a feeling, a thought, a memory and just like that you are possessed by the power of the written word.

I have always felt a certain power when it came to words. I see literature everywhere and it is the foundation to many things. From the words that were spoken at the beginning of time, as they echoed. From ‘let there be light’, there was light. What we speak comes into fruition, and what we read and write can too. I believe the power of what we say, write, and read impacts us to a deeper level. The spirit of literature, the power of the written word, it plays an important role. And I too, have been impacted by the power of literature.

I live in Dunedin, I dream of Prague. I am torn. As I have time to reflect upon the previous chapters that have already been written, I see that literature plays a very important role within the two cities and within my view of the world. Both Prague and Dunedin are UNESCO Cities of Literature, both share so many inspiring elements within the atmosphere that overwhelm and possess me with the spirit of literature, yet I can’t decide. Prague and Dunedin both hold a special place in my heart. I am being pulled in two opposing directions, but through it my perspective on multiculturality is being stretched. I am torn, how am I supposed to choose where I belong? When I was in Prague, I felt the spirit of literature possess me, and now that I am back in Dunedin I feel the same spirit. Can it be that I can have both cities occupy my heart? Can the spirit of literature really travel from one side of the world to the next and determine where I belong?

I went to Prague to find who I am, through it finding who I am not instead. I needed closure, I needed answers, and I found them on the Charles Bridge. The Orloj (Astronomical Clock) stands before my eyes as if I it was only yesterday that it was put in. It represents time, and as I stood there in the present I could not stop thinking about the past and the future. Walking through Prague felt like everything old in the city that has stood there for centuries, still had a novelty to it. Prague is a historical city where culture, history, and literature is the air that you breathe. I went there to find how to breathe when I am trying to operate two lungs within one body. I think to what Franz Kafka once said, “Prague is the mother with sharp claws that never lets you go.” I thought, maybe it is time to let it go.

As I walked across the Charles Bridge, I saw, felt, heard, and breathed in the history. King Charles IV was the only Czech King that held an empire together and still managed to rule with integrity and his heart for culture and language. To this day he is called the ‘father of a nation.’ Without this bridge and what it stands for, I would not be able to hold two cities in the palm of my hands. I keep walking through Prague. I heard the thoughts of writers as I tried to imagine what was going through their minds as they walked across the same bridge that I stood on. The air here, it fuels me but there is something missing. I lose myself in the memory of my other love, Dunedin. “You are my magnetic south, I fall for you true, I am the eel, the gull, the silvery fish, returning and returning, yours is the tide I swim to.” (Sue Wootton)

Being back in Dunedin, I feel it again. The spirit of literature, the words that I thought of when I was in Prague. The air, just like after the rain. The ocean, that tells its own story. “My streets, the pulsing inward of your port- Great King, Filleul, London, Albany steps- pailing and crossed curtains, petrol station, blossoming plum, hospital, blood red church.” (Charles Brasch) The literary walk of Dunedin of the famous authors that thrived in this city. “I fell flat on my face, drunk in the octagon: right on top of a plaque with my name on it.” (Peter Olds) Thomas Bracken who wrote the National Anthem for New Zealand, every time I hear it, sing it, and read the words, my heart beats faster. I know that the words by Thomas Bracken impact me, they remind me that I belong here. As I walk through the city of Dunedin, I feel the power that words hold circling my veins. The same power that I felt when I was in Prague. The pride of the nation, the power behind the words and their meaning. Gratitude for what figures like Charles IV and Thomas Bracken did for both nations, kept the culture, language, and power of words alive. I feel them live in me. Both cities are symbols of literary power, Prague holds the past and Dunedin holds the present. What about the future? I find myself standing in the middle, Prague on one side and Dunedin on the other. How can I choose between the two cities and cultures that provide me with the air that keeps me breathing?

Barthes once said: “Narrative is international, transnational, transcultural; it is simply there, like life itself.” (Roland Barthes) This quote hits me like a ton of bricks as I try to navigate my attachment to both cultures and both cities that offer me so much. I think back to my earlier chapters and how literature has always been a part of me, and how the power of words has led me here, to a place that I thought I would never be. I was never looking for it, the spirit of literature chased me, followed me, and somehow, I have ended up on the other side of the globe. I have crossed oceans to find my place(s) in the world. And maybe, perhaps, through writing, the revelation hits me. I feel the spirit of literature everywhere I go; I see it, I feel it, as if it was blood that flows through my veins. And maybe, just maybe, through it I don’t have to be torn.

How did I end up living in a foreign land, speaking a foreign language, in a foreign city that I now call my home? Growing up, Prague seemed the impossible for a girl from a small village in Moravia. And now, that same Czech girl from Moravia lives in New Zealand, speaking fluent English, and studying a Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of Otago. There you have it, the power that comes from literature and how words, stories, and plain sentences can change a person’s life. The more I immerse myself in the city, there are elements that show me that literature doesn’t have to be something to read or write. Literature is the connection that we have and that we talk of. The nostalgia we feel, the songs we sing, the conversations we have.

As I flick through the chapters of my life, I see one that adds in even more cultures for me to be attached to, and more reasons to believe that there is power in words and in the spirit of literature. I was 8 years old when I learnt the English language. I am now 20 years old, thinking about how I got here. How did I manage to get so good at learning English that I am now writing an article for The Dunedin City of Literature, when 12 years ago I couldn’t speak or understand one word? Ever since that day, the day that I was forced to learn English (even though I really didn’t want to), I realized the power that literature holds and the power that words have had on my life. Now that I am studying at the University of Otago, with my English major, I am proud that I am here, but without literature, I wouldn’t be. Because of this, I was able to intern for the Dunedin City of Literature, and because of it I am writing this article. Each event in my life is linked to the next. Just like each chapter within the novel of my life. Prague and Dunedin too, there is a link that is embedded in me, and it's one that I can’t explain, but only the spirit of literature can. I learnt the English language through books and through the power of words that spoke to me. When the world seemed dark and loud, books gave me a voice, clarity, and silence as I would listen to the characters and their stories. I couldn’t control it even then, the power of words, the stories, the literature, they lured me in and I was taken aback by each word that I read and what would come next. Literature has taken me the long way around, and it has transported me to Dunedin, still having Prague and England in my mind, without each stop, none of this would be possible. Storytelling has the ability to change one’s world. Stories and books were the first change that I saw in my life, and I hope that one day, my story will change somebody else’s. I see it every day, I see it on the way to University every morning, I saw it when I was in Prague, and as I look back at my life story, I see it there too. The power that literature holds. It can change a person’s view, feeling, emotion, situation, their world can be turned upside down.

Czech Republic, England, New Zealand, I cannot give up any of these places because each of them has given me my tile to build my path, just like a word that blossoms into a sentence. In Czech I attained the foundations and the roots that I needed. In England I learnt English and found the power of literature. And in New Zealand I found that I can embrace all of my cultures, languages, and homes. I can be a Kiwi girl that happened to be born in Czech and loves Prague. I can make my own definitions and build even more bridges to those places that make me into who I am. But most of all, I found that literature isn’t in the past, or the physical things that we see or touch. Literature is within us, it travels with us, it shows us, and most importantly, it makes us feel through the words that we read and write. When you put literature and the city together, magic happens. The spirit of literature lives in the city, it lives in every place you go, it lives in the books you read, in the stories that we tell each other, the spirit of literature lives in you and me. “The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.” (T.S. Eliot)

As I stand in front of the house that burnt down when I was 7 years old, all the memories flash before my eyes. As I look at the wreck that this house has turned into and how it has stood in the same spot, broken and damaged for the last 13 years or so, I see it as my very own saving grace. Understand me when I say this, it has been a long, hard road, yes. However, without this one event in my life I would not be writing this article, and I would not have had the knowledge, wisdom, and experience with the spirit of literature. I once prayed, and wished with all my being to have a ‘normal’ life, to have just a monolingual life and family, to be born in one and the same place that I live in. But, as years go on and I get older, as the spirit of literature dwells within my soul, I thank this house that it burnt down when it did, as it opened doors to me that would have remained locked and still just like this house, stationary for the past 13 years. To the girl that wished she could have a simple life, I tell her this. I wouldn’t be standing here, already knowing truly where I belong and that I don’t have to be that Czech girl living in Czech, England, or New Zealand and feel torn between the three choices. I don’t have to choose. As I face my past, I stand here knowing that no matter where I am, Czech, England, and New Zealand will always live within me through the spirit of literature. Through my story and the words that I have within me, the words that define, impact, and inspire. As I look forward to ending this chapter, I know that the spirit of literature that has gotten me this far will continue to show its power in my life. I realize that both cities and both cultures have been my destiny all along. I need both Prague and Dunedin to be me, to thrive, to breathe. It is a journey that starts with a word, turns into a sentence and you end up with a paragraph, not knowing that one day you will find that your life has been a novel in the works.

Notes/ References

Barthes, Roland. 1977. “Image, Music, Text.” New York: Noonday. 

Gentile, John. Sobol, Joseph, and Sunwolf. 2004. “Storytelling, Self, Society.” An Interdisciplinary Journal of Storytelling Studies: Once Upon a Time: An introduction to the Inaugural Issue. Vol. 1, No. 1. Pp. 1-7.

Johnston, Christine. 2003. “Dunedin: The City in Literature.” Exisle Publishing.

Neale, Emma. 2012. “The Truth Garden.” Otago University Press.

Olds, Peter. 2017. “Taking My Jacket for a Walk.” Cold Hub Press.

Ticha, Jindra. 2015. “Death and Forgiveness.” Mary Egan Publishing.

Wootton, Sue. 2008. “Magnetic South.” Steele Roberts Publishers: Wellington, New Zealand.