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Michelle de Kretser talks Questions of Travel

Oct 23, 2013

Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka, where a significant part of her most recent and highly-acclaimed novel Questions of Travel is set. Having emigrated to Australia at 14 you could argue that, like many Australians, the question of travel is one that has informed her life.

Her previous novels The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog were all very well-received, but it was QoT that really swept the field, winning the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award, the 2013 ALS Gold Medal, the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Premier’s Prize and the Prize for Fiction in the 2013 WA Premier’s Book Awards  as well as several shortlistings.

What is it about QoT that has struck a chord with so many readers? Literature program officer Joanne Simpson took the opportunity to ask some big questions about this significant book that goes to the heart of what travel means and why we do it.

JS: I’m particularly interested in the ways in which you deal with the themes of repatriation and dispossession in Questions of Travel – obviously a topical subject at a time when asylum seekers are high on the political agenda. Given that you started the project in 2007, do you feel that there has been progress in the public discourse on this subject?

M de K: Official policy has clearly taken a turn for the worse with both major parties seeking to outdo each other in coming up with ingeniously cruel ways to deal with asylum-seekers. As for `public discourse’, I never pay much attention to it, least of all with respect to my fiction. Topicality is the business of journalists. Novelists are after a more elusive prey.

JS: Could you have anticipated when you began the continuing emphasis of these issues in the public imagination?

M de K: QoT isn’t a novel about asylum-seeking. It’s a novel about various kinds of travel and travellers – tourists, asylum-seekers, immigrants, expatriates. If you had asked me in 2007 whether travel would still be topical in 2013, I would have said yes, certainly, because mobility is integral to and symbolic of modernity. But when I am setting out to write a novel, I never think about whether or not it’s of interest to the public – that would be fatal, I believe. I really just wrote about travel because it interested me, since it had played a significant role in my life and because I saw it as central to the modern world.

JS: What role do you feel the novel (as a form) plays in contributing to the conversation on these issues?

M de K: The novel as a form encourages us to experience the lives of others and thereby to reflect on our own lives. I hope that at least some readers of QoT reflect on the ease with which Australians move around the world as tourists and contrast it with the emotional, psychological and physical suffering of other kinds of travellers. But a novel is not a prescription drug. Its effect on the individual is various and unpredictable.

JS: What was the significance of receiving the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for this book? I’m interested in your views on the significance of the award in terms of status and recognition, but also more broadly how it helps you to continue your career as a writer.

M de K: All awards are of significant symbolic value. What they announce to the world at large is that literature matters. This is backed up, in the case of the PMLA, by an extremely generous purse. I was thrilled to find myself shortlisted with wonderful writers, some of whom I have been reading and admiring for decades, and it was a great honour, and greater good luck, to win. I can’t really say what the significance for my career will be as the award is too recent, but I can certainly say that the prize money will make a huge difference to me – as it would to pretty much any literary writer in Australia. The fear about money and debt that wakes us up at 3 am is gone – at least for the moment.

JS: I’d heard great things about your acceptance speech, and have searched for some quotes from it. I found this: “Mr Rudd, I hope you read my book. I hope it makes you smile. I hope it makes you think. I hope it breaks your heart.” What is the significance of receiving this specific award for this book in particular and the intersection between art and politics?

M de K: This is a huge question, Jo, and one that would require an essay – or a book! – if it were to be answered thoughtfully rather than in a glib way. So I’m going to leave it, except to say that political art of any kind must try to avoid three things: 1. didacticism 2. demonising the bad guys 3. sentimentalising their victims

JS: You received a grant from Literature at the Australia Council in 2007 for an early version of the work, which led me to wonder about the importance of this funding in the creation of the work. Was the funding vital, or would you have written anyway?

M de K: It’s impossible to say, but I think the novel would have ended up the same whether or not I received that very welcome grant. But it would have taken longer to write – and it already took four years.

JS: Why does a novel sometimes take so long to write? What does that process of thorough thought and development give to the writer, the subject and the audience that other forms do not?

M de K: Again, this is a very large question. What I can say is that many – perhaps most – of the ideas that go into a novel take shape over a long period of time. In my own case, for instance, I would say that all my novels show an interest in people who find themselves on the wrong side of history. Over time, abiding interests express themselves through a variety of fictional situations and characters that act like overarching metaphors for those ongoing concerns. These situations and characters take time to appear, and time to develop.

I’d like to say something about QoT as technique. An interest in strong storytelling and vivid characters is generally considered typical of the realist novel, while an interest in style – the use of figurative language, for instance – is generally associated with the modernist novel. Most novelists choose to go down one route or the other. What I always try to do in my work is to bring those two things together without compromising either. There is no inherent reason why they should be incompatible. And so the writing of my novels – their technical aspect – takes time. I usually produce at least five drafts of a book. That’s another reason why that grant was so welcome.

JS: I’ve focused on the creation of and response to the book, and only one aspect of it in terms of content, but a really crucial aspect of the book is the critique and analysis of tourism which has, I think, relevance to our uneasy relationship with people who come to Australia for reasons other than leisure.

M de K: I’m so thrilled you feel this. For me, Ravi’s story is backlit by Laura’s, and vice versa. They feel inseparable. But I don’t think that Australian unease about immigrants or especially asylum-seekers is connected to why or how we travel. In the first place, I think this unease is whipped up by unscrupulous politicians who are looking for a soft target. If we had leaders who showed compassion for the less fortunate in our society and across the planet, the great majority of Australians would follow their example.

However, at an unconscious level of the national psyche, there is clearly deep anxiety about who owns the land. One way of dealing with this is to insist on the `illegality’ of asylum-seekers. This distracts attention from anything problematic about our own occupation of the continent.

JS: Can you comment on why our experiences ‘on holiday’, particularly in developing countries, might be uneasy? Do you think that they should be uneasy, that this is part of the value of travel? I know that a novel speaks for itself, but I’d be interested to hear your views on why people travel when they don’t need to. There’s a marked contrast in the book as in life between people who are forced to flee for their lives and people who are, perhaps, seeking escape from comfortable but stifling lives.

M de K: I don’t think anyone’s holiday experiences `should be’ anything. There are as many different responses to tourism as there are tourists. But clearly, tourism is a byproduct of leisure and privilege, and if we travel with any degree of awareness, we realise that most people in the world don’t have access to the satisfactions that foreign travel brings. The world is divided with increasing sharpness into the global rich and the local poor. But tourism is only one more example of the ease and self-indulgence of life in the developed world. Perhaps it’s just harder to ignore our privilege when we’re faced with other people’s lack of those things we take for granted.

Questions of Travel is published in Australia by Allen & Unwin.