Arnold Zable is an award-winning writer of novels, short stories and memoir. In this interview he speaks about the process of writing, the place of trauma and the past in his work, and his story 'The attic' in Griffith REVIEW 42, an excerpt from a novel in progress, which centres on the memories of a Melbourne woman looking back to her childhood in a Warsaw attic in the years before World War II.
The piece in this edition of Griffith REVIEW in an excerpt from a novel in progress, how far along is that novel now? I'm also interested in the kind of process you have when you sit down to write – do you have the whole idea fully formed when you begin, or is the process more fragmentary?
This particular project has come along unexpectedly. I started having occasional telephone conversations last year, with Ruth Bergner, who's now ninety-six-years old, a former dancer who I first met a number of years ago. I loved the way she looks at the world and the way she looked at her past. I was also taken by the way she was so totally immersed in the past when she talked about it, especially the Warsaw of her childhood. So I began to improvise upon what she was saying and the novel started writing itself, in a sense. The bigger piece will probably involve a journey that her father took to the Australian outback in the 1930s. It is a story that has fascinated me for a long time and have written about before in non-fiction form. He was in search of a place to have a community for Jewish people. I guess what I'm saying is that the piece is evolving, and it will go in all kinds of directions and unexpected places. You know a story is working well if it leads you rather than the other way round.
I know that a lot of writers don't like being asked questions about things that are still in process.
Yes, I think the main thing is that by publishing that extract in Griffith REVIEW, and judging from the feedback I have so far received, I am encouraged and relieved that what I set out to do appears to be working. It's a wonderful way to test a piece of writing, and the positive feedback inspires you to keep exploring that particular idea, and that way of writing the novel. It is one of several projects I am pursuing.
Your first book, Jewels and Ashes (Scribe, 1991), was a memoir, and you've seemed to return again and again to the lives of European and Jewish migrants in Australia. Certainly this piece in Griffith REVIEW seems to be in a similar vein.
My work often gets defined in that way, but I see it within a wider context. There's a broader project that involves exploring displacement and exile in many times and settings. That has included stories that range from the Jewish refugee experience, through to the Greek immigrant experience, as in Sea of Many Returns (Text, 2008), a novel set on the island of Ithaca where my partner's family come from, and which moves to and from there from the island, Kalgoorlie and Melbourne. I've also explored journeys of contemporary asylum seekers, especially in my most recent book Violin Lessons (Text 2011), where I tell the story of SIEV X survivor Amal Basry who was from Iraq. This book includes a number of tales of displaced peoples, drawn from my travels over the years. These include street boys of war-torn Saigon; a band of Italian women who labour as guest workers in Switzerland; a forest worker estranged from his family working in the Russian-Polish borderlands; the estranged daughter of an SS man and our encounter in Nuremberg; and a violinist from Baghdad whose travels take him eventually to Melbourne. My stories involve a range of characters, settings and communities. Because of my own background – my parents were Polish Jews, and I've spent time travelling in Europe and in Poland – that's been one of the focal points of my work. But I also have a contemporary dimension to most of my tales, so that it's as much about the present as it is about the past. In the extract in Griffith REVIEW the central character moves about the streets of Elwood. So the story is also an exploration of how the past intrudes on the present. My novel Café Scheherazade (Text, 2001) is set in a cafe in St Kilda where refugees meet and tell their stories. Once again, they can be in the streets of St Kilda circa 2000, and then they're elsewhere. A writer who does this in a way I admire is W.G. Sebald. He does it beautifully, and I'm drawn to his flowing and exploratory style of writing. I'm also drawn to John Berger, a European-based writer who has explored displaced peoples, exile, fragmenting communities, and the stresses of modernity, through the prism of his deeply felt secular humanism. He is also a writer that works both in fiction and non-fiction and crosses the boundaries between them. When I explore the lives of contemporary asylum seekers, I am constantly struck by the parallels their journeys have with previous waves of refugees and immigrants. Australia is a new country in the eyes of refugees. In actual fact it's an ancient county in terms of indigenous history. But for asylum seekers, for refugees, it's seen as a kind of mecca, a place where you can start life anew. These are central themes that weave their way in and out of my work. Underlying all of this however, whatever time or place a story is set in, is my aim to create a sense of immediacy, with the details and minute observations that bring a particular scene alive.
I'm interested about what you were saying about the idea of displacement and exile. Reading your work reminds me of a concept I read about in university called 'postmemory'. Marianne Hirsch writes about it, primarily in terms of second generation Jews, I think. But it's a process wherein the second generation continue to feel the effects of their parents' trauma, but they're both temporally and spatially exiled from the histories integral to their identities, to the stories they tell about themselves. It's like they're exiled from their own stories.
Yes, that makes a lot of sense. I am second generation – and this brings up a very interesting question. I've written novels in the third person – like Scraps of Heaven (Text, 2004), a novel set in my childhood, in Carlton – but when I write in the first person, there are at least two types of stances that a second-generation person can take, or any writer can take. One is the first person as witness: the writer as a medium through which stories are told. I have had access to the older generation through language – the Yiddish language, and to some extent the Greek language for instance. In a way I'm a conveyor, or a medium for their stories. You see this in Café Scheherazade. Even though he is a fictional character, the principle narrator Martin Davis is to some extent, a second-generation witness, an alter ego. Then there is the first person as the subject. The question becomes: 'to what extent is the story about the impact that these experiences have had on the next generation?' So my characters and narrators often move between the first person as witness and the first person as subject. Even when I write in the third person, and I create a second-generation character like Josh in Scraps of Heaven, he is also an alter ego of sorts – and through him we get to see both the traumas and stories of the older generation, as well as the impact their lives have on subsequent generations.
One of the things I'm interested in, which you mentioned before, was the work that you've done with asylum seekers. There was a long profile done with you in the Melbourne Writer's Festival edition of The Lifted Brow, which detailed in quite a lot of depth the work you do with asylum seekers, with the deaf, with survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires. Obviously there's an emphasis on traumatic experience and traumatic stories in those groups, which mirrors many of the themes you have in your work. I wonder in what ways that work informs your own writing.
That's a great question. I grew up in a community of survivors. I grew up in a house where there were ghosts. Absences. My mother couldn't talk about what happened to her family, and she was quite traumatised by it. Because of that, I think I developed a degree of sensitivity to people who have experienced severe dislocation in their lives. I had to learn to be present with people who had gone through that trauma. Mind you, some of the people I grew up with were larger-than-life characters, survivors who came out of their experiences with a zest and a lust for life. Several principle characters in Café Scheherazade are like that: they didn't survive for nothing. They survived to drink, eat and be merry. You get all kinds of survivors. You can't typecast. I find to this day that I can relate to people who've gone through trauma, whether it's the Black Saturday bushfires, or whether it's the homeless, or the deaf, or whether it's the characters that come into my novels and my stories. I find that I am able to sit down and listen to, and absorb their stories. I think a lot of it does go back to what I experienced as a child. In a way I am obsessed with such stories. In The Age today I had an opinion piece. It's October 19, and it's the twelfth anniversary of the SIEV X sinking, and in this piece I argued that October 19 should be a day of remembrance for all boat people. But the piece revolves around Faris Shohani, a survivor of the SIEV X disaster, who lost his wife and his daughter to that tragedy. I see him regularly, and I have a story about him in a collection of stories, edited by Thomas Keneally and Rosie Scott, released this month, A Country Too Far. The story 'Zahra's Lullaby' is based on the evolving relationship I have with Faris Shohani who I have known since 2002. A number of my stories have evolved out of ongoing relationships. These are people I've come to know over a period of time and I have therefore been able to develop a more in-depth understanding of who they are, and the subtleties of their life experience. I have found there are two hazards to avoid when it comes to writing about survivors. On the one hand you can gloss over the extent of the trauma and emphasise the triumphant survivor's story, how the survivor is able to rebuild their life. That's true to some extent, but there are also those that go under. My mother had nightmares for the rest of her life. And Faris dreams about the daughter that he lost, and he sings her a lullaby in his sleep at night – Zahra's Lullaby. The challenge is to explore the subtleties of people's lives, the shades of light and dark that you begin to see when you get to know someone in greater depth.
I didn't know so many of your characters arose from real life. I'm interested in how that works. Is it a process of fictionalising someone's biography?
Oh no, it's not biography, not in the conventional sense, and I need to emphasise that. In fact, Ruth's name may change in time. You may begin with the real name but at a certain point the story takes on a life of its own. It's a tricky business. Kate Grenville writes about it beautifully in a book called Searching for the Secret River. She gives a wonderful account of how this works for novelists who draw on real-life characters as their inspiration. Sometimes I end up with a memoir, like Jewels and Ashes, and a collection of true stories as in The Fig Tree.But sometimes a story that begins as non-fiction becomes a novel, a work of fiction. Kate Grenville began with her real-life ancestor Soloman Wiseman and in the process he became William Thornhill. At a certain point he was transformed into a fictional character. Most of my projects are journeys that may end up one way or another. Another Australian writer who does this is Drusilla Modjeska, who has moved from real life to memoir, as in the case of her book Poppy, or from real life through to fiction, as in the case of her recent novel, The Mountain. I think that's why I'm reluctant to talk about projects that are in progress, because I don't know what's really going to happen, I don't know where it's going to go. Each book is an exploration.
It seems at the moment that the barrier between fiction and nonfiction is almost dissolving into itself.
Yes, but I think there can be a point where it really moves into fiction. In a number of my novels totally unexpected fictional characters emerged. They just came as I wrote. I guess that is the more conventional idea of fiction. You've immersed yourself in a particular story, a particular time and place, and a character forms. Who knows where it comes from? In Sea of Many Returns there's a character called Old Niko who lives on the island of Ithaca, a kind of a recluse, who just came out of the blue. But yet when I finished the novel people said 'I knew someone like that.' That's what you hope for – that the characters that emerge ring true. I don't want to be defined as someone who only creates characters based literally on real-life people. There are characters that emerge, or are transformed the way Solomon Wiseman is transformed into Thornhill in Kate Grenville's The Secret River.
One of the things I noticed in the piece – and obviously some of it comes from the real-life experiences of Ruth Bergner – is that there's very much a sense that storytelling works as a form of travel.
Yes, it's a beautiful point you're making. In my encounters with Ruth you could hear the shift from Melbourne to Warsaw take place as she spoke. She would move from a kind of weariness to lightness. Her voice starts to sound very young. It was a physical transformation. I never meet her directly. She doesn't want to be seen. But even over the phone there is a very physical component to it, something very concrete and tangible takes place. Her memories are wrapped in images, and they are very immediate, recreated and relived in the present.
There's a very strong element of space in the piece as well. She can travel back there, to that attic in Warsaw, from the streets of Elwood. And there's a sense of how important the space of that home is, how each room corresponds to a person and mirrors their character, and how the attic almost takes on a life of its own.
Yes. Every space begins to vibrate, and every space begins to take on a life of its own, and this is one of the things that have drawn me to her, and to her stories. They cross the boundary from the real into the fabulist. And in improvising upon them, you hope that the reader begins to inhabit each space, to physically be in each room, and to experience each room as a world unto itself. It is spatial, as you suggest, and the spatial dimension involves not only the attic, but the four flights of stairs to get there, and the sense of the vast metropolis that extends from, and beyond the attic and the tenement, to other places. So the story moves to and from the attic, out into an ever widening world, into the city of Warsaw at large, and from there, eventually into the distant lands that her father travels to and returns from. And in time she too travels to distant lands, finally living out her years in Melbourne. And yet, in those final years, she again returns to the Attic. This is how the story is evolving and taking on a life of its own. Who knows where it will eventually take me, or, to put it more accurately, who knows where I will be taken.