Browsing Tag

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

words and wanderlust

28 April 2017

I have a small problem. I am a travel junkie and a voracious reader. Combine the two and the result is an endless itch to jump on a plane.

I recently read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and was overtaken once again with the desire to visit India that first gripped me after reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Not because I want to join the violent Mumbai underworld that Roberts explores of course, but because the writing so vividly evoked the place and its people. It brought alive the sounds and smells and vibrancy and colour of a country. It made me want to explore it for myself.

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For me, fiction does this better than any other form. On the Road by Jack Kerouac is perhaps the most well-known travel novel, but I have also been to Nigeria with Teju Cole (Every Day is for the Thief), to Indonesia with Madelaine Dickie (Troppo), to Spain with Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), to Cambodia with Laura Jean Mckay (Holiday in Cambodia), and to Columbia with Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude). The list is long, and I could go on and on, but you see what I mean. Books can be grand adventures.

Later this year I’m headed to South Africa, and not just through the pages of a book. As the birthplace of my father, it has long held a fascination. I explored Tanzania and Kenya in my early twenties, but it has taken me more than two decades to finally make it to South Africa. Let’s just say anticipation levels are pretty high. I’m hoping that I will find the spark of a novel there, but at the very least I know I’ll find a short story or two.

For me, travel is always entwined with reading and writing. In 2015, an artsACT grant sent me to Thailand as research for a children’s picture book. I returned not just with a finished manuscript, Seree’s Story (forthcoming from Walker Books), but also the seed of an adult novel. In early 2016, this time thanks to a CAPO grant, I returned to Thailand to undertake the research for that book. While in Kanchanaburi I read Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, based on the Thai–Burma death railway, perhaps standing on the very spot where characters in his novel died, where real men died. Needless to say, it was a profound experience. After my return to Australia, I spent the rest of last year writing the first draft of my novel. Hopefully it will soon be ready to go on its own adventure out into the world.

But back to South Africa, my next stop on this planet. I first fell in love with the country through fiction, as a teenager. I started with The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, which has since sold over eight million copies. To my adult sensibility it is an idealistic, romanticised and overly sentimental representation of the struggles of apartheid, but at the time I fell in love with the hero, Peekay, and felt righteous indignation about the situation still facing Africans at that time. It led me to read my way through nonfiction about Mandela and Biko and Sobukwe. To fiction by Doris Lessing and J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer.

Last year I finally read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country which had been on my To Read list for far too long. The novel subtly explores the tensions and issues that gave rise to apartheid. It reveals deep truths and creates empathy for multiple perspectives. This is what fiction has over nonfiction. We can walk around in characters’ shoes and see what they see, feel what they feel.

Now I intend to explore the fiction of South Africa in greater depth. I picked up the Granta Book of the African Short Story as a starting point and have discovered a new generation of writers whose novels I am rounding up. I’m travelling into the complexities of the place, while curled up in bed with a cup of tea. But come September I’ll be avoiding tourist trails and attempting to go beneath the surface, hoping to connect with the heart of the place and its people.

Like pretty much every writer except J.K. Rowling, I am not flush with cash. This means I must ration my travel. But while my feet remain firmly in Australia, there are novels to transport me. Even if they make me want to scratch that itch harder.

This post first appeared on Noted Festival’s blog here.


11 March 2014

Yes, I’m still talking about Adelaide Writers’ Week! It was my first time there and I couldn’t possibly cram everything into one, or even two, posts. And I do want to talk about Richard Flanagan. I was ambivalent about attending his session. I have read and liked Flanagan’s work before but I had little interest in reading yet another war story. That is until I sat down and began listening to Flanagan. He read from The Narrow Road to the Deep North at the request o711065f interviewer Steven Gale, while insisting that he loathes readings because as a listener he finds his ‘eyes rolling into the back of the head’. But both his readings and the story behind the book moved me profoundly. He was extremely likeable and funny, too. A knock-out combination in the eyes of any festival programmer.

Flanagan’s father worked on the Thai–Burma railway, or Death Railway as it was known, and spoke of his experiences to Flanagan as a child. The conditions were unfathomable. Flanagan took 12 years and five different versions to find the right way into the story he wanted to tell. During research for the novel Flanagan visited Japan and interviewed one of the cruellest and most notorious guards at his father’s camp, known as The Lizard. He asked Flanagan to pass on to his father that he ‘was sorry’. When Flanagan did so during a phone conversation, his father fell silent, then hung up. From that moment on he had no memory of his experiences during the war and Flanagan felt that The Lizard’s apology had in some way released his father. Months later the manuscript of The Narrow Road to the Deep North was finished and Flanagan bundled it off to his publisher. That very night his father died. Flanagan considers this more than a coincidence. I don’t recall feeling close to tears at a festival before, but Flanagan took me there.

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Then during question time, an audience member posed a question about asylum seekers, prompted by Flanagan’s piece in the new Saturday Paper (do read it here). Flanagan recounted how The Lizard had explained that they felt no compassion for these skeletal Australian men crawling around in the mud because ‘they didn’t consider them to be human’. In a similar way, we treat asylum seekers as if they are somehow less than human. This is dangerous territory. Like  Indigenous Australians who were, until 1967, classified as flora and fauna, or the Jews in Nazi Germany (and any number of other examples), when we lose compassion for our fellow humans we commit terrible crimes. As Flanagan said, ‘It is a wicked poison for society to drink…that says it is good to be cruel.’ At this point in time both sides of politics are justifying their right to be cruel. No humane society should allow it.

While some authors — like Flanagan — shone more than others, the Festival organisers curated, without exception, a bunch of articulate, thoughtful and confident writers (bearing in mind Helen Dunmore’s truism: ‘None of the authors I’ve met are ever as confident as they appear…They are always more vulnerable and uncertain’). In fact, one of the authors I went to see — who is an old hand at festivals and exuded great confidence on stage — apparently threw up before going on, so terrible were this author’s nerves. This is somehow comforting for the rest of us!

Unfortunately the chairs were not as consistent as the authors, ranging from exceptional to pretty ordinary. A good interviewer brings out the best in their panellists so that the session flows and the interchange of ideas opens out. A poor interviewer results in a disjointed and awkward experience that authors must make the best of. Just because an individual is well regarded in the literary community and has an interest in the subject matter or the authors in question does not necessarily mean they have the skill to successfully chair a panel. For me, the two best interviewers at this festival were Steven Gale and Jeff Sparrow. Both were knowledgeable and relaxed in a way that set the authors and the audience (equally as important) at ease. They had notes but they referred to them in an unobtrusive way, rather than reading questions out word for word. (Of course, there were other good interviewers, too, but these two chaired multiple sessions.) Interviewing is a skill that is often underestimated. Except, perhaps, by authors. As Richard Flanagan noted, ‘Authors rise or fall on the strength of their interviewer.’

LuminariesThere’s still so much I haven’t been able to cover in these posts. New Zealand author and Booker Prize-winner Eleanor Catton was brilliant, managing to display both great intellect and great warmth. She gave us a detailed and fascinating insight into the research and structure of The Luminaries. I simply must read it now.

I am a long-time fan of Mandy Sayer’s work and she was both candid and funny during her session about her third memoir, The Poet’s Wife, which details her abusive relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Yusef Komunyakaa. That one is also on the list.

Rabih Alameddine and Alison Bechdel were a riotous combination. Alameddine’s story about how he killed his five imaginary friends in a car accident was one of the more bizarre and hilarious stories I’ve heard at a festival. And Jeet Thayil and Christos Tsiolkas were delightful, often disagreeing in the most amenable ways. (And can I just say that the festival wrap-up party was like a Christos fan club. He is just the most genuine and likeable guy and not surprisingly everyone wanted to hang out with him.)

I came away from the festival buzzing, but now it’s time to put on the kettle and relax with my massive pile of festival books. The only question is, which one to start with?