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Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites | 2SER 107.3

burial-ritesAgainst the backdrop of an unforgiving, windswept terrain of Iceland in 1830, Agnes Magnusdottir was executed for murdering two men.

She was sent to spend the remaining months of her life on the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their daughters. While she was there, a young assistant reverend was appointed as her spiritual guardian, and he tried to understand her, and to save her soul.

27-year-old first-time author Hannah Kent has had something of a dream run with her novel, Burial Rites, which fictionalises Agnes’ last few months, fleshing her out and offering an alternative view to her motivations. Hannah was mentored by Geraldine Brooks, won a two-book deal and has sold translation rights to 15 countries so far.

Hannah spent a year in Iceland on a Rotary Exchange when she was 17, and told me how she first heard of Agnes’ story.

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HANNAH KENT: The first time I heard of Agnes, we drove past the site of her execution. She’s largely famous for being the last person to be executed in Iceland. This was still when I was feeling very homesick, very lonely. We were driving through this strange area in the north. It’s all extremely beautiful – it’s these big sweeping old glacial valleys, interrupted by mountain ranges; a lot of it is pastoral land. And we were driving along this main road in Iceland when suddenly the land in front of us seemed to erupt into hundreds of small hillocks. I was really struck by the sight of all these hundreds of tiny hills; to me they looked like nothing more than Viking burial mounds. I’d seen a documentary and they looked very similar to that.

And so I asked my host family if this was the case, and they said, “oh no, it was caused by an avalanche years and years ago, but it’s interesting you mention this place, because something interesting did happen here”, and they pointed to three small hills that were by the side of the road, and said “that’s where the last execution took place in Iceland”.

They said it was a woman, a woman named Agnes, and she was beheaded there in the early 1800s. And for some reason I was immediately fascinated, and not just in a simple, curious way, when we hear about these stories of murder and crime and so forth. But really, deeply curious about this woman.

And I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, about why I was drawn to this character about whom I knew nothing, and I think there must have been something about the fact that I felt so alienated in this community, and I think I intuitively knew that she too, in her time, would have been treated in a similar way.

Of course, you can’t compare an exchange student who’s homesick and a woman who’s been condemned to death. Read more

Deborah Levy on Swimming Home | 2SER 107.3

SWIMMINGTwo couples are holidaying in a cottage near Niece on the French Riveria one summer in 1994. They’re somewhat surprised to find a naked young woman floating in their pool one day. There’s been a mix-up with the dates, she says. Isabel, a war correspondent, invites the girl, Kitty Finch, to stay. But why? Her poet husband Joseph is a renowned philanderer, and their teenage daughter Nina is young and impressionable.

Naturally, all is not as it seems in this apparently idyllic setting. Relationships break down and madnesses are revealed, in this beautifully crafted novella by British writer Debroah Levy, Swimming Home.

The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year, and I caught up with Deborah at the Sydney Writers Festival to talk about how we try to make our way home.

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You’d described somewhere your feeling of the pool as a stage or a theatre, which I found a really interesting way of looking at it.

DEBORAH LEVY: Yeah, because Swimming Home is set around the swimming pool. It takes place in the south of France. It’s 1994. And when I was thinking about setting it around the swimming pool, there were two things that came to mind: I looked up what a swimming pool physically, architecturally is, and it’s a hole in the ground.

So I began to think about that: If  it was a hole in the ground it was also a bit like a grave, and that was going to play a part in my sunny holiday story that goes a bit wrong.

But in a more upbeat way, a swimming pool is like a theatre because it has exits and entrances, and people wear costumes, albeit very scanty ones! People could literally enter it and exit it, so that’s it’s relationship to a theatre in my book.

You said you’ve been ispired by the story of Hansel and Gretel, and you do feel it in the book, because all the characters seem to be floundering around in some way trying to find their way back to wherever it is where they want to go, and none of them are quite sure what they’re doing.

The theme of home is very potent in Swimming Home. The leading male character Joe Jacobs slides precariously between two names – he’s also Josef Novogrodski. He was born in Poland and he’s Jewish. When he’s five years old his parents walk him into a forest in Poland and tell him “you can never come home. It’s not safe to come home”. And he is smuggled through the forest and winds up – as many children of that generation were – he winds up in East London at Whitechapel, and he never sees his parents again.

So he has to live with that refrain in his mind – “you can never come home”. He has to live with something that’s very hard to bear.

One of the questions of the novel is: how do we live with knowledge we can’t endure? So Hansel and Gretel come into it – you asked me this earlier – and I often read fairytales because there’s so much in them. They walk into a forest and in the original, they have a wicked stepmother, of course, and there’s a famie in the land and there’s not much food, and they abandon the children. And the children nevertheless make a trail of bread in the forest to get home. And I was so touched by that because home wasn’t a good place for Hansel and Gretel, and they still made that trail.

And the trail they made is so easily destroyed, there’s nothing permanent about it.

Well, exactly. What are all our trails and traces but home? For Hansel and Gretel, the birds come and eat the bread up and they have to find another way back.

And we call them fairytales but really they’re nightmares – they’re these cautionary tales for how not to live your life, and the horrible things that will befall you if you do the wrong thing.

Perhaps – and also how to live your life. Home in Swimming Home is an impossibility. Joe doesn’t know how to get home, but he wants to. But what is home?

An inspiration for Swimming Home was the John Cheever short story called The Swimmer, and there’s a scene in that amazing short story – and I recommend it to everyone, to readers and writers and especially writers who are just starting out, because everything you need to find out about how to construct a story and move a character through it is in Cheever’s story.

But anyway, the story is set in suburban Connecticut in America in the 1950s and there’s lot of swimming pools in this rich suburb. The leading character looks out at all the pools and he thinks of them as a river, and he names the river after his wife. He calls all these pools that are making a river in his mind’s eye the river Lucinda, and he reckins he’s going to swim home through the river. And we just know as the reader that home isn’t going to be a great place. It’s a tremendous effort for him to get back through those pools and he arrives home to find his house locked up, and we know his wife has left him and taken the children and all the rest of it. So that was the real inspiration for Swimming Home.

You’ve got Joe trying to find his way home, wherever home might be, and then you have his wife Islabel the TV war correspondent, who’s been fleeing home for how many years to these war-torn places where people are completely adrift, instead of staying home.

Yeah. Joe is a hopeless husband and a very good father. [Laughs] I wanted to make him as complicated as possible. Sometimes you hate him, sometimes you warm to him, he’s a great dad–

I pitied him, a lot of the time.

Oh right! Well that’s the job done then, isn’t it. He’s a great dad to his 14-year-old daughter Nina, and I’ve reversed the usual stereotype of the mum at home. So it’s Joe, Nina’s dad, who’s washing her tights and sewing buttons onto her cardigan and getting her to school and making her lunchbox.

But also introducing her to his lovers.

He’s a philanderer and he cheats on his wife, and Nina has to live with a father who’s constantly cheating on her absent mother. Isabel is a war correspondent and her work takes her to all kinds of conflicts. She’s pressed up quite closely to the suffering world. When she comes home she feels she has a transient place in the family. To do the things she’s chosen to do in the world, she’s kind of given up her place in the family, and I give that an airing. What does it mean to be a mother, what does it mean to be a father in the twenty-first century?

What does it mean to be pushed out of your own home by your own hand?

Exactly. And there’s a part of her that would rather be shot at in war zones than live with her cheating husband who betrays her all the time. So I’ve made things very complicated there. And of course Nina really resents her mum. She thinks her mum is more interested in the suffering world than in her suffering daughter. So mothers and daughters in Swimming Home get an airing, too.

And that brings us up to the starting point of the story, when it’s Isabel who invites the naked girl in the pool to stay for the summer.

She does, and no one can fathom why, not even herself, really. Kitty Finch arrives, they see her in the pool, swimming naked. The family are there with two friends, Mitchell and Laura, and the male characters in the novel – Joe and Mitchell – when they see this naked woman in the pool, there’s some sexual excitement, and they say “is it a bear?” and Mitchell, who collects vintage guns, says “well, if it’s a bear, I’m going to have to shoot it”. But the women know it’s a naked young woman in the pool. It’s obvious to Nina that that’s what it is. So Isabel invites her to stay in the spare room, but most of the characters try to unfold why she’s done this, inviting this pretty young thing–

Who’s obviously caught her husband’s eye.

Yes, obsessed with her husband.

Flattering him, following him; stalking, I guess you would call that.

Yep, she’s written a poem called Swimming Home; the novel takes its title from the poem. And she asks him to read it, and we discover at the end of the novel why Isabel asks Kitty to stay.

Kitty is– I don’t know if I want to call her mad, I don’t think it’s as black and white as that, but Kitty is certainly haunted by her own demons, and she has her own way of looking at the world, and she seems to see in Josef a kindred spirtit.

She certainly does. She’s a fragile young woman, and she’s fiercely clever.

And I have her naked throught the book partly because I wanted to explore the ways in which men scrutinise women and women scrutinise women. Everyone projects everything, their own demons, onto Kitty Finch, who has plenty of her own.

But she seems to revel in that role of being their blank canvas, as well.

She loves the attention, but I did want there to be some doubt about how mad she is, or she isn’t. So one of the themes of the book is: what is madness? How do we live with it? Our own and other people’s? Who’s to say; who’s pointing the finger here? What does it mean to be mad, and what is normal? So Kitty Finch serves that purpose, really, for everyone. We could say she’s a bit noisily mad, and it’s the quiet ones we watch.

This interview was first broadcast by 2SER 107.3’s weekly book program, Final Draft.

Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar | 2SER 107.3

grammarLinguist Diego Marani is a self-professed language freak, and his first two novels to be translated into English are preoccupied with questions about how language and identity intersect. Can we have one without the other? The protagonists of both books are two lonely men stranded by language, or their lack thereof.

In Last of the Vostyachs, a linguist stumbles upon the final member of a remote Russian tribe. She’s thrilled, because he proves her thesis that his people are the missing language link between Finnish and Native American tongues.

But her nefarious colleague will do anything to stop her discovery coming to light, and disproving years of his hard work arguing that there’s no evidence the two languages are linked. He’ll stop at nothing – including murder.

Meanwhile, in New Finnish Grammar, a soldier in a Finnish uniform is found in Italy during the second world war with no memory, not even language. A doctor sets about teaching him Finnish and he takes off to Finland to try to discover who he really is.

Diego Marani met with me while he was in Sydney for a very philosophical chat about how language shapes who we are.

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Languages are obviously a great preoccupation of yours, and reading your books you can’t help but be struck by this interest in linguistics and the way we form our language. I wonder where this great love comes from?

I’ve always been curious about languages. When I was a child in my village there was a forbidden language, which was dialect. We weren’t allowed to speak dialect – we had to speak proper Italian at school and in family. We had to rebuild our national pride after the destruction of the war. So when I saw something forbidden I jumped on it. And my grandparents used to speak dialect, so I learned dialect and it was my first language. Now dialect is well accepted.

And in this way began my curiosity about languages, but I wanted living languages, spoken languages, not dead languages, the ones I was learning at school – Latin, Ancient Greek, that old stuff, which is equally fascinating.

So I went to an interpreters’ school at the university in Trieste – it was the only one at that time in Italy. Then I went to Brussels to work for the European Union. And when you work for the European Union you begin to wonder, what is a European? How can we define a European? What is the identity of a European? We are all European, yes, but we are French and English and German and Dutch, and we have many different national identities.

And so with my books, language has always been my passion – I’m a language freak – but I like the word in all its forms, so I like to write, to tell stories, to use my language to tell what I feel.

I began to write, and my writing was the expression of these feelings and thoughts about language, and my first three novels are about language in three different ways, because in each of them I approach the language subject in a different way. But language is, I could say, the main character of my first three books. Read more

Tash Aw on Shanghai in Five Star Billionaire | 2SER 107.3

the-five-star-billionaire-tash-aw-jackie-magpieA property developer, receptionist, popstar, businesswoman and a billionaire all go to Shanghai with big ambitions, fleeing Malaysia to chase fame and fortune. Their cross in various ways as they all climb the ladder of success, some leaping ahead and some struggling to hold on.

As they move through the enormous, pulsating city of Shanghai, pursuing their various imagined lifestyles, they come to realise what’s really significant is what they’ve left behind.

Malaysian-born author Tash Aw’s first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2005, winning a slew of other accolades along the way.

Five Star Billionaire is his newest book and I met up with him during the Sydney Writers Festival to chat about it.

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This Shanghai that you’ve painted is such a frenetic, full-on, ruthless city. Is it the new American Dream? All  of your characters go there with very little in their pockets to try and build a better life for themselves, and it seems like it’s the America of Asia in a way – in the way that fantasy is sold.

I think you’re right in pointing out those comparisons. Certainly a big city like Shanghai is the New York of the 21st century – for Asia, at least. Although they’re very different places, they do share certain things. For example, New York one hundred years ago gave the impression that anyone, any foreigner, could arrive with nothing and reinvent themselves and create a wonderful, glittering life for themselves.

And Shanghai does that today – it gives people the impression that whatever you do, you ca go to Shanghai and do that on a scale that’s so unimaginably vast, and that you can change your life and no one asks you any questions. It’s such a huge city, teeming with 20 million people; it has such a hunger for new resources, new labour, that they can’t really stop to ask you where you’re from, what your background is, what your qualificatinos are. Which is what happens in more mature Western cities. Everyone’s obessed by what education you have, what background you have, what paper qualifications you have, whereas China doesn’t do do that. If you can–

If you can do the job–

–It’s yours. And that’s all that counts. And I guess that’s what draws a lot of people to China, particularly Asian people. If you wanted to leave Malaysia to improve your situation ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, you would naturally gravitate towards Western countries, which is why Australia has such a big Asian population. But now, the choice is much less obvious, and I would say that more people are gravitating more naturally towards China. Certainly rather than Western Europe, no one goes there anymore.

Well, it’s just not the economic powerhouse that it was.

Absolutely. Economic or cultural. I don’t think people associate it with modernity. Whereas they look at China and they see all that. Now, I guess the novel is about how much of that is an illusion, how much of that is actually true, and how much is a dream. Read more

Dylan Coleman on Aboriginality and Mazin’ Grace | 2SER 107.3

mazin-graceLife on a mission isn’t easy for little Grace Oldman. Her classmates tease her for being a bastard, and she doesn’t know why. Her grandpa says her father is the Lord God in Heaven, so she prays to him to help her make sense of things. As Grace slowly comes to understand who her father is, she struggles to find a place in a community that rejects her for reasons she doesn’t understand.

In Mazin’ Grace, Dylan Coleman has fictionalised her mother Mercy’s childhood at the Koonibba Lutheran Mission in South Australia in the 1940s and ’50s.

Dylan is a lecturer in the Indigenous Health Unit at the University of Adelaide,  and in 2011, Mazin’ Grace, which was the creative component of her PhD,  won the Arts Queenland David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Manuscript, as part of the Queensland Premiers Literary Awards.

This year the book was long-listed for the inaugural Stella Prize, and short-listed for the Commonwealth Book Prize.

I spoke to Dylan about colonisation, racism, and how you go about telling a communal story.

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I’ve not a read a story quite like this one: it’s almost written in 3 languages, in a way, in English, Aboriginal English, and in language. You have an extensive glossary, which readers need in the early pages before settling into the rhythm of the dialect. You’ve said it was really empowering to hear your story in your own voice and language, and your own way of speaking, and from your own perspective.

Absolutely. English isn’t our first language. We have hundreds of Aboriginal languages throughout Australia and they were the languages we spoke before contact. And I think it’s enormously empowering for Aboriginal people to be able to – especially in the literary landscape – to write and have their language words read by the broader community. Enormously important.

This story is based on your mother’s life, but it’s not an autobiography. Can you tell me a little about the confusions that arose for a fair-skinned aboriginal girl growing up out of wedlock in 1950s South Australia?

There was the protection era, and there was also segregation. There was assimilation, and a range of government policies that really pushed Aboriginal people, their language and their culture, to the limit in terms of being able to survive in ways we would have beforehand. They were quite racist policies and it was extremely challenging for many of our people at that time, and even today.

These ideas around assimilation, for example: Aboriginal people were expected to act white, expected to take on the value systems of non-indigenous people. There was Christianity, so there was a Christian belief system that was imposed on people. Some Aboriginal people embraced them because they could relate to the spiritual beings of God and Jesus similarly as they could their Dreaming ancestors. There were some commonalities, but unfortunately these Western belief systems didn’t always value Aboriginal ways of being, so you have this internalisation of these Western value systems and that’s what you can see in the book.

There’s a complex group of Aboriginal people living on the mission and you’ve got these influences, and so sometimes there’s internalised racism. Sometimes there’s people acting rather than cooperatively, competitively in terms of surviving. For 60,000 years we operated in cooperative ways but with these (Western) systems coming in, they changed things.

Also, there were a lot of non-indigenous men who engaged with Aboriginal women and these children were born to non-indigenous men, so having fairer skin was a signifier of shame in some cases in Aboriginal communities. A child with fairer skin identified there had been an act of sin in terms of Western value systems. And that was shameful, that a child might be perceived by the western community as shameful that a child had fairer skin, because it meant a union between an indigenous and non-indigenous person. Read more

Dina Nayeri on a Teaspoon of Earth and Sea | 2SER 107.3

nayeri1Growing up in a small village in the early 1980s Iran, 11-year-old Saba Hafezi and her twin sister Mahtab dream of America. They keep lists of English words and collect illegal  magazines, tv shows, and cassette tapes.

So when her mother and sister abruptly disappear at the airport, Saba is convinced they have moved to America without her.

Things, of course, aren’t as they seem in A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, Dina Neyeri’s story of destiny and memory. Saba tries to work out what really happened and struggles to seize control of her own life as she grows ito a young woman, taking refuge in dreams of America.

In her village over the next decade, Saba is spied on by mullahs, mothered by neighbours, and fights against the limited lot of women in Iran following the revolution. And she dreams of an alternate life, the one she thinks her sister is living in America.

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I was fascinated by this concept of storytelling and the way Iranian storytelling seems to be so different from that of anywhere else – it has this really unique flavour. Tell me about that culture of the way you share stories. 

DINA NAYERI: I think there’s parts of it that are universal and parts of it that are distinctly Iranian. Storytelling is one of the ways people connect all over the world, and it’s so beautiful. It’s rich and exquisite, but in Iran I found there was something wonderful about the relationship to stories and truth and lies. I think there’s a lot more room for living in the fantasy world, for fudging, maybe because of all the hard times they’ve had, but also because the village culture in Iran is not very modern even now, and the primary form of entertainment for a lot of people is storytelling, or just sitting around and being social. Whether that be stories of real life, gossip, or whether that be made-up stories that’s grown up to be part of the culture.

And not only that – Iranians have a very, very rich history of literature and poetry and that plays in. The idea of language and the beauty of language, and the importance of stories throughout time and their lasting effects. So because of all that, and because of the relationship between truth and lies, which is very fuzzy in Iran, stories take on a whole new life there.

And at the same time, one of the things I noticed when I was growing up in America, is that storytelling in the west seems like something that’s for children. So for example, when two adults get together in the western world, except for very intimate situations people wouldn’t sit together and tell each other stories orally, you know? And stories that are not true.

Of course you sit around and talk about things that have happened, but you don’t sit there and unleash your imagination with another adult. Or at least I haven’t experienced it, but you do in Iran, and that can be a source of great intimacy and that fascinates me. Read more

Catherine Jinks and A Very Unusual Pursuit | 2SER 107.3

unusual pursuitMonsters have infested London’s dark places for centuries, eating every child who ventures near.

That’s why little Birdie McAdam has gotten herself a job with Alfred Bunce, the bogler. With her beautiful voice, Birdie is the bait that draws bogles from their lairs so that Alfred can kill them.

Set in the damp dark alleys of Victorian London, Catherine Jinks has written a three-part series for children called A Very Unusual Pursuit.

Catherine’s been writing for children and adults for decades, and I gave her a ring to chat about Charles Dickens, using the internet for historical research, and the slang of the time.

What does a bogler do?

CATHERINE JINKS: A bogler! A bogler is something I made up, let’s get this straight. Even though in the historical context of the novel – it’s very, very correct historically – a bogler is made up.

I decided to do somebody who went around, like a door-to-door service like a knife-grinder or a chair-mender or one of the numerous people that used to go around door-to-door in Victorian England. And I had a guy who went door-to-door killing these monsters that lived in the sewers and cellars and coal holes of Victorian London. Read more

Nicolas Rothwell on Belomor – 2SER 107.3

Nicolas Rothwell’s new book Belomor is almost impossible to categorise. It’s a blend of memoir and fiction, essay and philosophy, with some travelogue-type writing thrown in. But to describe this book in such a way is to do it a disservice.

It traces artists and historic figures from 18th-century Dresden to modern-day Kununurra, following four loose stories in long conversations as they traverse across the plains of memory and longing, loss and death.

He might well be one of the most articulate writers I’ve ever spoken to – and you’ll see why.

I called Nicolas and started off by asking him where the name Belomor came from.

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NICOLAS ROTHWELL: Belomorkanal is the name of a brand of cigarette which was put to sale in the Soviet Union in the 1930s as a commemorative cigarette, if I can put it that way. It was a commemoration of the heroic achievement of completion of the White Sea Canal, the first great slave labour project undertaken by the communist regime.

A project that joined the White Sea and its arctic opening and the city of Archangelsk to the lake next to Leningrad, and so, an enormous geographic undertaking that claimed the lives of at least 10 and probably 20,000 political prisoners who had been recruited from the labour camps on the Solovetski rchipelago.

So, a most unusual kind of commemoration. And the cigarette that ensued was strong and harsh and, strangely, it became rather popular in later gulag camps, and it’s still on sale in some corners of the former Soviet Union today.

Now, it’s something of a circuitous route that you take from the Belomor Canal itself to Northern Australia. I was wondering how it was that you came to Darwin in the first place, and the way it was that living in such a place affects the way you write.

Strangely, the plot of this book traces back in a shadow way something of the plot or the meander of my own life. I was born in New York and I have a double background – Central European and Australian. And so both the deserts of the inland and the dark past of Communist Europe were very much my childhood associations from the two different sides of my world, and I spent quite a lot of time in my childhood in both those worlds.

So, for example, I would visit northern Australia and central Australia as a child and a teenager. And when I began my profession as a journalist I would travel quite often into the Northern Territory to report. Only after I finished a number of years as a foreign correspondent did I move permanently to live in Darwin. And I did so partly because it was already lodged in my imagination, and partly because I made a journey there shortly after I left Northern Europe. And the experience of moving through inland and tropical Australia as an adult with open eyes, fully experienced in the ways of the world and the nature of the rest of the planet, was a very marking one for me.

I realised how rich and complex it was, how the outback, the bush and the Top End were worthy of being taken seriously. How they could provide the material for a lifetime, for many lifetimes of thought and imagining.

And it’s from that initial awakening, if you want, that much of my life has flowed. And most of the books I have written have flowed from it too, and have worked this double seam of comparing history and the recent memory of Europe, and what lies on the surface of Australia. Read more

Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel | 2SER 107.3

michelleIn Questions of Travel, Sri Lankan-born author Michelle de Kretser traces two very different lives across decades.

Laura travels the world before returning to Sydney, where she works for a publisher of travel guides. Meanwhile, in Sri Lankan, Ravi dreams of seeing the world before a tragedy forces him to flee the country.

Michelle spoke to me about tourism, work, and the pitfalls of technology.

MICHELLE DE KRETSER: ‘Away’ is always defined in relation to ‘home'; it doesn’t exist except in relation to home. And one of the things I was interested in was why people go away and why they come back. With Laura, I had a feeling that it was hard for her to define home because she didn’t have— she’s very Australian in many ways, but she doesn’t have good connections with her family, and in many ways there’s not a strong emotional connection to Australia. She finds emotional connections with friends, with people. But that pull back—although she comes back, she doesn’t fit in or she doesn’t feel entirely at home when she returns. And she’s been away for a long time.

With Ravi, it’s kind of the opposite, because he has to leave home, and yet the pull home is much stronger, because unlike Laura he does have very strong connections. He’s very grounded in family. So I think origins are important. And the longing for home, the nostalgia for home, it’s connected to geography, perhaps, but it’s strongly emotional.

Home is where the heart is.

Home is where the heart is, yes.

Ravi is particularly interesting because he comes to Australia without intending to, and the Australians that surround him have great difficulty categorising him: he’s a refugee, he’s not an asylum seeker, he’s not imprisoned, he doesn’t particularly seem to want to be here, and there’s this notion that he’s not the right kind of refugee, that he doesn’t fit into the right kind of boxes that people expect.

Yes. I wanted to explore the idea that when we talk about asylum seekers we often have a very rigid idea of them. They’re people who risk their lives to come here in a boat and have ended up in a detention centre. And that’s because its those people whose stories we find in the newspaper, and their cause is publicised quite rightly.

But there are different kinds of refugees, different kinds of people, seeking asylum for all sorts of reasons, and it’s entirely possible for people to come into Australia on a visa – tourist visa, student visa, whatever- and subsequently to seek asylum. The government seems to distinguish very sharply between these two kinds of people, although in fact they are exactly the same kind of person. But because they want to criminalise the people that come here on the boats, they are often referred to as doing something illegal, even though they are not.

I was very aware, when I talked about refugees and asylum seekers, people who were very sympathetic and well-meaning nevertheless tended to have a very stereotyped picture of what an asylum seeker was, and so I wanted to unsettle that a little bit.

Also, Ravi is very ambivalent. He’s grateful to be alive but he’s not necessarily grateful to be beginning a new life in Australia; it’s not exactly what he wanted.

No, and he’s a very damaged person because of what he has seen. One of the other things about Ravi is that as a result of what has happened to him, he is unable to talk about what he has been through. This is a very common symptom. And to a large extent, we are sympathetic to the extent that someone is able to narrate a suffering self. And where there is no story, where there is no narration of the self that suffers, it simply tends to be withheld.

So it’s interesting, the degree to which as human beings we depend on narration and particularly narration of the self to engage our sympathy. Read more

Summertime – Lomography Australia/NZ Exhibition at Koskela

summertime

This weekend was the launch of the Lomography Australia/NZ Summertime competition and exhibition.

Although usually a summer for me involves a whole lot of beachy goodness, picnics and the park in full bloom, there are other kinds of summers. Like the summers that are actually winters. The ones in the desert, where it’s baking hot by day and so cold at night you can’t properly sleep. When the camels hide in shrubs and the queue to get into the Taj Mahal is so long it winds the entire way around the building. Kind of like at a theme park, really, but this is a different kind of fun.

So I exhibited a couple of Diana+ photos from my trip to northern India. If you live in Sydney and you like Lomography, pop by the Koskela Gallery sometime over the next few weeks and check it out.

 

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