Rein­vent­ing the lost lan­guage of flow­ers

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - BOOKS -

TOKYO: Marigolds for grief, pur­ple dahlias for dig­nity, peri­win­kle for ten­der re­flec­tions. Basil for hate.

The mean­ings at­tached to each flower un­der­pin the life of Vic­to­ria Jones, the prickly and sus­pi­cious hero­ine of Vanessa Dif­f­en­baugh’s The Lan­guage of Flow­ers, who uses blooms and bou­quets to say what she can­not force her­self to speak out loud.

A vet­eran of the foster care sys­tem re­leased upon turn­ing 18, Vic­to­ria strug­gles to find a place for her­self in San Fran­cisco, work­ing for a florist and dis­cov­er­ing she has a tal­ent for chang­ing peo­ples’ lives through the flow­ers she chooses for them. Her own past is a dif­fer­ent, harder is­sue.

Dif­f­en­baugh, who has worked ex­ten­sively with foster chil­dren, spoke about the Vic­to­rian lan­guage of flow­ers and the role it plays in her de­but novel.

What made you come up with this char­ac­ter?

“I was home with my kids, I had two ba­bies and two foster kids at the time, and I just fin­ished writ­ing a book I pretty much knew I wasn’t go­ing to sell. It was pretty hor­ri­ble and I didn’t be­lieve in it from the very be­gin­ning. So when I sat down to write this one, the seed idea was that I wanted to write about a char­ac­ter who had never loved or at­tached to an­other per­son, and write about what it was like for that per­son to learn how to love and at­tach again. I didn’t re­ally set out to write about the lan­guage of flow­ers, but the char­ac­ter of Vic­to­ria re­ally came to me first, and whole.

“Ac­tu­ally, I just put her in San Fran­cisco – it was the very first scene I wrote, and I put her on the street. A young man looked at her in a way that made her very un­com­fort­able, and in­stead of re­spond­ing with words in the way that some­one might who was well ad­justed, she left and came back a week later with rhodo­den­dron, which means ‘be­ware’. So that hap­pened spon­ta­neously and then the whole book evolved from that point.”

Have you known the flower sym­bol­ogy for a long time?

“I was 16 when I dis­cov­ered Kate Green­away’s Lan­guage of Flow­ers in a used book store in my home town, and I’ve been car­ry­ing it around ever since. I just adored it and I went through it and wrote po­etry by string­ing flow­ers to­gether on twine and mak­ing my high school boyfriend trans­late them with the flower dic­tio­nary. It’s just al­ways some­thing I’ve loved, I think for a num­ber of rea­sons, one of the main ones be­ing that it’s just so for­got­ten and such a se­cret, even though it was so wildly pop­u­lar, not just in Europe but also the US. It just fas­ci­nated me that some­thing that once was so well known has fallen off al­most com­pletely. Why was it such a big deal? “I’ve done some re­search on that. There are a num­ber of rea­sons but it’s mainly just that in the Vic­to­rian era, flow­ers and gar­dens were in the ab­so­lute cen­tre of cul­ture. They were pop­u­lar in a way that we al­most can’t un­der­stand from where we are in his­tory. So once the idea popped up it just spread wildly and be­came a part of ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion.”

Why marry the flower sym­bol­ogy and this per­son who hasn’t at­tached?

“It def­i­nitely came out or­gan­i­cally, it wasn’t pre­med­i­tated. But then as I started writ­ing it just re­ally felt right to me. Be­cause one of the things I re­ally liked about what it al­lowed me to do was that Vic­to­ria, at the be­gin­ning, couldn’t show any love or pos­i­tive emo­tion to­ward peo­ple be­cause it was just out­side the char­ac­ter’s be­liev­abil­ity. But in or­der to get read­ers to at­tach to Vic­to­ria and care about her jour­ney, you have to show that she did have an­other side. Hav­ing her show that she had this tal­ent and pas­sion for flow­ers al­lowed me to show a com­pletely dif­fer­ent side of the char­ac­ter.

“The other thing that sur­prised me about the flower part was that when I started writ­ing, I thought as Vic­to­ria does, that ev­ery flower only has one mean­ing, and I’d planned to write my book that way. It was very sim­ple. But then when I re­alised a third of the way into the book that ev­ery flower has much more than just one mean­ing, it caused a lit­tle break­down in my plot – in a good way, I think. Vic­to­ria was able to ac­tu­ally have a two-way con­ver­sa­tion with flow­ers, rather than just study­ing flow­ers and not ex­pect­ing any kind of re­sponse.” – Reuters

SYM­BOL­OGY: Vanessa Dif­f­en­baugh

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