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North Melbourne Books: Alice is a regular swimmer at an underground pool. The pool is a broad church, welcoming all sorts of different personalities. Once in the water, worries and anxieties melt away. So does above ground status; everyone becomes equal. But these are Alice's last days of swimming. She has dementia and is losing her way in the world. Where did the idea for the novel come from?
Julie Otsuka: A broad church, I love that. About fifteen years ago I sketched out a few loose paragraphs describing a community pool and the regulars who swam there. People who not only loved to swim, but lived to swim. There’s something intriguing to me about fanaticism, obsession, the life of the body. I was also interested in the anonymity of the pool. On dry land, someone might be an astrophysicist, a janitor, a diplomat, a cook - you don’t know. In the water, all you know about a person is “which lane?” Fast, medium or slow?
At a certain point, I got the idea for a character who was beginning to succumb to dementia. The other people at the pool are watching out for her. They’ve known her for years, they’ve seen her in her prime. We see this character only peripherally in the pool chapters—she’s one of many—and then, in the second half, we suddenly zoom in on her and watch the end of her life unfold. For many readers, this sudden ‘swerve’ is a bit of a shock, but that was intentional. I wanted it to be a bit of a surprise, which, I now realise, I’ve just given away.
NMB: The first two chapters concentrate on life at the pool. The descriptions are very authentic and any regular swimmer will recognise themselves in these pages of the story - the devotion to routine and the calming effects of the water. Are these sections of the book written from personal experience?
JO: I grew up in Southern California, very close to the beach, where I spent a lot of time in summer. So I’ve always felt very at home in the water. Years later, when I moved to New York City, I began swimming recreationally at a nearby pool, which was a very different experience of being in the water. Lane lines, chlorine, no waves, limited hours. Lots of rules. But I loved it, and found lap swimming a very calming, meditative experience.
I was also fascinated by the whole pool culture: the rules, spoken and unspoken, the regulars, their oddities and quirks, their maniacal devotion to the act of swimming. For some people, it’s almost an addiction. If they don’t get in their daily swim, it’s as if the earth has spun off its axis. Also, the locker room scene greatly interested me. It’s one of the few gendered spaces that exist in ‘real life.’ People have these really intimate conversations there about their health or their marriage or whatever in a state of semi or full undress, as if this were totally normal!
What I also found touching was how people looked out for each other. If someone hadn’t been around for a couple of weeks, inquiries were made. Have you seen so and so? Is she ok?
NMB: The style of The Swimmers is often quite surreal and quirky. There is plenty of humour, too. And yet the book is about grief. How did you come to write the book in such an unusual manner?
JO: I think humour and grief are flip sides of the same coin. Humour helps us cope with the things that are most difficult in life. Lessens the blow, somehow. It’s also very much a part of my own natural sensibility, which may surprise people, as my first two novels are serious works of historical fiction. Those novels, too, though, are laced through with humour, but the humour’s much quieter. With Swimmers, I didn’t make such a conscious effort to keep the humour in check.
Much of what I describe in Swimmers—a mysterious crack, a somewhat malign care home—is just inherently surreal. So all I had to do was describe things as they are.
NMB: Despite the sadness of Alice's decline, the story is very celebratory of her life. What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
JO: I hope I’ve communicated the sheer joy of being in the water and the power of community, as well as the pain of watching a parent slowly descend into dementia. Alice has led a full and rich life, and, in many ways, with the exception of her childhood during the war, a very ordinary life. And I wanted to celebrate that ordinariness, the pleasure we take in everyday small moments. I think we often forget, when confronted with a person with dementia, that they were once like us—and that it is not unlikely that we will one day be like them. Compassion is in order.
I also wanted, through Alice, to keep the memory of what happened to the Japanese Americans during WWII alive. She is representative of an entire generation—the last to have been sent to the camps—that will soon no longer be with us.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
JO: I just started Deborah Levy’s Real Estate, the third book in her “living autobiography” trilogy. I admire her work the same way I do Rachel Cusk’s. They both seem to be treading similar ground - writing about women in crisis in midlife - in their own very particular ways. I reread Cusk’s Outline trilogy during the pandemic and was blown away yet again. One of my favorite recent reads is Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, about a translator who’s moved to The Hague to begin a new job. Kitamura’s prose—cool, sleek, seductive—is absolutely stunning. Just one perfect sentence after another. I think she’s one of our finest writers working today. Another recent read is Rumaan Alam’s Leave The World Behind, a brilliant send-up of race and privilege in the guise of a quietly apocalyptical thriller. It’s very very funny, and scary as hell. I also highly recommend Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, an extremely moving memoir about the author’s experience growing up as a Korean adoptee in a white family, and what happens when she eventually meets her birth family. Next up on my to-read list are Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police - I’m a big fan of her work—and Natasha Brown’s Assembly
The Swimmers, by Julie Otsuka. Publsihed by Fig Tree. $29.99
North Melbourne Books: The Genius Under the Table is about growing up in Communist Russia. You must have had plenty of interesting experiences to put in the book. How did you approach turning this material into something suitable for young readers?
Eugene Yelchin: There must be as many approaches to writing for young readers as there are authors who write for them. I often tend to think of my writing approach as a performance, particularly when I’m using the first person’s voice as I did in my memoir. But writing in your own voice as a young person is tricky because accessing my thought processes at that age is impossible now. I couldn’t remember what I thought at the time about this or that situation that I was describing in the book, but I surely remembered how I felt. And so, it is from those remembered feelings that the book is constructed. The feelings of being puzzled by the world around me and being astonished by my discoveries of its secrets. These feelings created a bridge to young readers because those kinds of feelings are familiar to them. Who at that young age is not puzzled by the world? Who is not astonished by learning of its secrets? No matter where you live or what language you speak, most children have similar emotional experiences as I had growing up in the former Soviet Union.
NMB: Your novel is for the most part a warmhearted story about a tight knit family, but there are some creepy characters. The KGB spy that lives in the family's apartment block, Blinkov, keeps everyone vigilant so they don't say the wrong thing. Was it scary growing up in Russia at this time?
EY: It was very scary, not that I had known the extent of the danger at the time. I had no idea that only a short while ago, our country had more concentration camps than Nazi Germany, camps in which millions of innocent people were tortured, starved to death, and executed. The grownups were still terrified by what happened under Joseph Stalin, but I didn’t even know who Stalin was. My parents had never talked to me about Stalin’s crimes against our own people. After all, silence was the means of self-preservation. However, children do not need to be told. They can feel when something is wrong. So as a kid I did feel that something was wrong, I did feel that certain words and certain behaviors were best avoided, but I did not know why. And yet, I did know. I knew it intuitively. It was in my DNA.
NMB: We learn from your father that there is a high price for telling the truth in Communist Russia. Poets were executed for doing so. How did this atmosphere of denial affect you as a child?
EY: Denial, secrets, whispering behind closed doors, looking over your shoulder, keeping your mouth shut, the constant dread of persecution; how could such an atmosphere not affect a young person? Particularly, a person with a curious mind and a vivid imagination. In such people prohibitions tend to stimulate imagination. In fact, the lack of freedom is essential to creativity; allow anything, and the artist is lost. Allow only a few things to work with, and the imagination kicks in. I can’t complain about my imagination and creativity, but often, as a result of my Soviet upbringing, I lack courage. I’m a great deal more courageous on paper and canvas than I am in real life.
NMB: One of the themes of the book is the importance of having talent. Is there a message you'd like young readers to take away with them?
EY: Having talent is a touchy subject in the contemporary American culture. We are raising our children as if each one is talented, as if each one is a winner. It’s lovely, but it is often overdone, which has a potential to create disillusionment and frustration when real life kicks in later. In my book, having talent is a practical tool one needed to do well in the USSR. I don’t think that it is much different for my young readers in the West. Most of us are talented at something; the trick is to find out what it is. If there’s any message at all in my book, it is this: you cannot find out if you are talented at something unless you work very, very hard at it.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
EY: For about a year or so, I haven’t read a book that had held my attention long enough. Either my bar is too high, or at 65 years of age, time is too precious, or my choices were poor, I don’t know, but I have a stack of unfinished books on my desk. When this happens to me, and it does happen fairly regularly, I go right back to the usual suspects and re-read the classics. Presently, I’m reading Brothers Karamazov by Fedor Dostoevsky, a collection of short fiction from the 19th and 20th centuries, and Dead Souls by Gogol, but also, I’m reading a non-fiction book on craft (The Artful Dickens by John Mullan), and two books by Timothy Snyder on history and contemporary politics.
The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin. Published by Candlewick Press. $27.99
North Melbourne Books : For close to three decades, Colin Manock was South Australia's chief forensic pathologist. He got the job almost by default. There were no other promising candidates at the time (it was 1968) and reluctantly the job went to Manock. The only problem was he had no training in histopathology – the practice of taking tissue samples from various organs to discern more complex signs of disease or injury. This lack of expertise, coupled with Manock's hubris, meant his forensic evidence was often of questionable quality. Many went to prison for long spells based on his court testimonies.
What drew you to this story?
Drew Rooke: I was initially drawn to the story after learning about the case of Derek Bromley who was convicted of murdering a young man named Stephen Docoza in Adelaide in 1984. Bromley claimed to be innocent but Manock’s expert scientific testimony, delivered with his trademark confidence, helped ensure the jury reached a guilty verdict.
When it was reviewed by several forensic experts many years later, however, Manock’s evidence was found to be riddled with major mistakes which threw serious doubt on the validity of Bromley’s conviction. As I started looking into this case more, I discovered that it was just one of many which legal experts like Dr Robert Moles were deeply troubled by because of the questionable quality of Manock’s forensic evidence.
My interest in the story grew as I learned more about how Manock secured his job in the first place — and how he managed to retain it for so long. It seemed to me to be a story that, at its heart, was about a disastrous systemic failure which also served as a reminder of the danger of hubris — and of the importance of humility — in science and in life more generally.
NMB: It's taken many decades, but Colin Manock's work is now being reviewed and found wanting. In some cases where his evidence sent people to jail, their convictions have been overturned. Why has it taken so long for the deficiencies in his work to come to light?
DR: The small group of people who employed Manock actually knew about the deficiencies in his work at the very beginning of his nearly thirty-year career; the issue was that they decided to keep it secret because they had no one else to fill Manock’s position — and because they hoped he would undertake further training to address the deficiencies. Manock did not fulfil their hopes, and the more years that passed with him as South Australia’s chief forensic pathologist, the more power he obtained, and the more reluctant people became to openly question his work.
Since he retired in 1995, the deficiencies in his work have been more widely publicised, thanks to the work of a few local journalists and advocates. But many within South Australia’s political and legal establishment have been — and continue to be — opposed to a more formal and thorough investigation into Manock’s career, which is the only way to know the full extent and impact of his deficiencies. It is hard to know for sure why this is so, but I suspect the associated political and financial cost may have something to do with it.
NMB: You tried several times to set up an interview with Colin Manock, but he didn't want to participate. His only message to you was to “proceed with caution when dealing with his name”. How did you feel about meeting him?
DR: I was very eager to meet Manock — I really wanted to speak with him about his life and career and to give him the opportunity to respond to the many criticisms levelled against him — but I quickly discovered that although he was once a very public figure in South Australia, he is now a very elusive one who is very difficult to contact. When I finally managed to contact him via his current wife, I was hopeful of meeting him, but his message to me ultimately dashed my hopes and forced me to assemble the puzzle of his life and career using the fragmented pieces of information that live in the archives and in other peoples’ memories about him.
NMB: The book points to the need for reform of how forensic evidence is used in court. It seems like more peer review is needed to eliminate mistakes. What kind of reform do you think needs to happen?
DR: There are serious problems with the way forensic evidence is currently used in court, and the story about Manock highlights only a few them. More peer review would help eliminate mistakes, as would more thoroughly testing the reliability of forensic evidence admitted in court. But this would not help eliminate mistakes in the past which have likely resulted in many more wrongful convictions than are presently known about. Addressing that very important issue requires the establishment of an independent investigative body which is empowered to actively perform post-conviction reviews of cases. The value of such a body has been demonstrated by the United Kingdom’s Criminal Cases Review Commission which has referred more than 750 cases from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland back to the courts since its establishment in 1997, with over 450 convictions overturned as a result.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
DR: Mainly books —old and new, fictional and non-fictional — about the environment and the natural world: The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson’s classic and very poetic portrait of the ocean; Currowan, Bronwyn Adcock’s devastating and deeply moving account of living through the Black Summer bushfire crisis on the NSW south coast; The Animals in that Country, Laura Jean Mckay’s mind-bending and mind-expanding novel about a new virus which causes its victims to understand the language of animals, and; Wild Souls, Emma Marris’s philosophical and far-reaching examination of humanity’s relationship with non-human animals which raises profound questions for anyone interested in conservation. Continuing this trend, I’m about to start reading Signs and Wonders, Delia Falconer’s celebrated collection of essays about living in an era of profound ecological change.
A Witness of Fact: The Peculiar Case of Chief Forensic Pathologist Colin Manock, by Drew Rooke. Published by Scribe. $32.99
North Melbourne Books: Adrift in Melbourne takes the reader on seven walks through Melbourne. We travel through a dazzling kaleidoscope of time, revealing our beloved city in so many different aspects. Indeed, Melbourne’s plethora of stories makes it the gift that keeps on giving. What inspired you to write another book on Melbourne?
Robyn Annear: To be honest, the idea wasn’t mine. Michael Heywood, publisher at Text, had taken a memorable literary walk in St Petersburg and came to me with the idea for an immersive walking guide to historical Melbourne. That was in early March 2020. When I took the project on, I pictured myself dawdling in the city’s back streets for days on end. But as it turned out, my exploring was all done from a distance. I was able to visit Melbourne just once, between lockdowns (live in Castlemaine), and relied instead on old maps and city directories, as well as online resources like Trove Newspapers and Google Street View. Mainly though, I dug deep into my own memories and the fund of Melbourne lore I’ve stored up over the years. Plus, the time-machine I keep in the shed came in handy.
NMB:. The book describes so many historical buildings that are torn down, often replaced with architectural monsters. Do you bemoan what’s gone, or take the march of progress in your stride?
RA: Yeah, no. I don’t bemoan, but I’m not in step with the march of progress either. Not to be too Zen about it, I try to be accepting of change. That doesn’t mean I always like it. I’m no fan of the ‘mighty erection’ school of architecture, and I’d be happy to see Docklands relegated to an outdoor escape-room. I don’t mind a bit of facadism: keeping the front of an old building can help keep things real at street level, preserving the illusion of a human-scale city. A through-line in my books about historic Melbourne is the idea that cultivating memory and stories (can) mean that nothing’s ever really gone.
NMB: A recurring lament in your book is the fact that Melbourne has never really had a city square. What would be your ideal?
RA: I feel that we’ve missed our chance, and our need, for a city square. It was something Melbourne could’ve used in its founding years. (It was deliberately omitted when the town was drawn up, a public square being a place where democratic impulses might flourish.) Now it seems like a formality the city can live without. Surely humans prefer improvised gathering spots, anyway, over officially designated ones.
NMB: Several bookshops make an appearance in Adrift in Melbourne. Once upon a time there were so many weird and wonderful bookshops. Remember Shrew women’s bookshop in Fitzroy, or the International bookshop in Elizabeth Street?, to name a few. Have you ever thought of writing a history of Melbourne’s long gone bookshops?
RA: Yes, and someone reminded me just the other day about the legendary Batman record (and book) shops. And the needle on my time-machine is permanently set on Cole’s Book Arcade, circa 1895. Bookshops have always been the lodestars by which I navigate Melbourne – or any city. But a book about them? It feels too niche to me. Though if someone else wants to write it, I’ll buy a copy.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
RA: I’ve just finished Suzanna Clarke’s Piranesi. What a blast. Weird and gripping. It struck me as a true original, but also somehow like The Little Prince, reimagined for our times. Now I’m reading The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux. It’s a history of the tie-on pockets worn by women under their clothes from (at least) the 17th century to the early 20th. It’s amazing what those capacious pockets held: tools, money, keepsakes, weapons. The Pocket opens up a whole new way of seeing how women lived in the past.
Adrift in Melbourne, by Robyn Annear. Text Publishing. $27.99
North Melbourne Books:
The Contrarian traces Peter Thiel's rise to billionaire and dabbler in hard right politics, from Stanford University's culture wars to co-creating Paypal and donating $1 million dollars to help elect Donald Trump. He's a puzzling figure, one could say a dark prince of the tech and investing world, playing markets and people ruthlessly to his own advantage. At one point in the book he's described as a nihilist. What drew you to write his biography?
Max Chafkin: There were two big things. The first: Thiel's centrality to what I think is one of the most important stories of our lifetimes, which is the rise of Silicon Valley as an economic and cultural force. I’ve covered tech since 2005, and in that time the tech industry has gone from being a minor curiosity to a major power center, rivaling Wall Street and Washington in terms of influence. Big tech companies not only are generating huge profits and concentrating wealth in the hands of a small group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and engineers, but they’re dominating our lives. They are increasingly influencing (a critic might say: controlling) what we think, how we think, and even what we desire. Thiel’s career is tied up in that rise; he’s been connected to almost every company of any consequence that has been started over the last twenty or so years—including PayPal, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Yelp, Airbnb, SpaceX, Lyft, and on and on.
That would all be enough, I think, to justify a book about Thiel and tech power—but of course, that’s only half of Thiel’s impact. The second reason I pursued this project was that in 2016 Thiel became one of the first business leaders to back Donald Trump’s candidacy. I felt, in some sense, that Thiel was attempting to pull the same trick he’d pulled in Silicon Valley—when he’d essentially approached the industry as an outsider and then taken it over. Thiel’s Trump support also raised interesting human questions: How could a self-proclaimed futurist, a gay immigrant from California with two Stanford degrees, come to support a nativist reactionary, from a political party that has historically been hostile to the rights of gays and lesbians? That struck me as a question that might reveal something about Thiel’s character, and also about his approach to power.
NMB: The story of Peter Thiel, as written in your book, also reads as a history of Silicon Valley - its ethos, drive and energy. Do you see some of Thiel's characteristics reflected in the tech industry in general?
MC: Thiel is sometimes portrayed as a man apart – as Silicon Valley’s token conservative – but that’s a really misleading portrayal. He is, in so many ways, Silicon Valley’s ideological avatar. More so than his conservatism, Thiel’s worldview is defined by his feelings about tech. In particular, my sense is that Thiel believes that the founders of tech companies are a privileged class and that they should be elevated above the rest of us, given more power and allowed to run their companies (and, ultimately, our lives) with complete freedom. He believes that these companies owe no particular responsibility to existing institutions and rules; and in fact that they should seek to break rules and destroy institutions whenever possible. This sense of tech supremacy, that tech companies should break the rules – or, “disrupt” them – is core to Silicon Valley, and can explain a lot of the questionable behavior by tech companies over the past decade.
NMB: The book raises so many questions about technology and power. The early years of Silicon Valley seemed to promise a more utopian future, but the power that behemoths like Google and Facebook acquired have led us to some dark places. Both companies have even courted authoritarian China. Is the endgame of technology more power unto itself, rather than an equal distribution to all?
MC: Tech companies get painted as being overly friendly to China, though I’m not sure that’s entirely fair – especially as it applies to Google and Facebook, neither of which operate in China. And lots of non-tech companies, like Nike and Disney, are deeply enmeshed with China. That said, I agree with the premise of your question: Tech utopianism has turned into something much darker than what was promised. I think some of that is baked into the world view itself. The belief that tech would solve our problems sort of lead us to start giving our power to the tech industry. We told ourselves that news algorithms were better than the old media, and then acted surprised when local newspapers started folding and were replaced with highly profitable crap on Facebook.
That said, I’d argue that Thiel himself is responsible for a lot of this. It’s not just that tech companies are overly idealistic about what they can achieve; it’s that Silicon Valley has followed Thiel’s ideas about monopoly capitalism to their logical conclusion. Thiel encouraged tech founders to—by his example, through his investments, and in his writings—to create companies that sought not to build useful products but to dominate markets. He told Zuckerberg and those of Zuckerberg’s generation that the goal of business should be monopoly. They believed him—and set about buying market share, destroying competitors, and, when that failed, acquiring their competition. Thiel’s worldview helps explain how Facebook went from being a democratizing force to being the amoral, destructive empire that it is today.
NMB: There now seems to be an appetite to rein in the big tech companies. Australia recently introduced laws that compel Google and Facebook to pay for local news content. Are you hopeful that more governments will step in to regulate?
MC: I think it’s encouraging that we’re starting to have debates about what regulation of the tech industry might look like. This seems necessary and important—and it seems like even many of the companies have resigned themselves to being regulated going forward. That said, I’m not especially optimistic that these efforts will do what regulators are hoping. Many of the proposed regulations seem like they may entrench the power of Facebook and Google rather than take it away. Facebook and Google, of course, can afford to pay for local news while nascent competitors cannot. So you could imagine a situation where these Australian rules help entrenched media businesses but don’t do much to dent tech power. Basically the rich: Big media and big tech, get richer.
The other thing is it’s not clear that consumers even want to reign in tech. We still like many of these companies; and we’re still using them in huge numbers. They’re part of our lives now, and many of us still enjoy their services. There are a lot of people who rail against Facebook and then say, “Well, I still love Instagram, and I use Whatsapp all the time.” That’s profoundly strange! People talk about Facebook’s “big tobacco moment,” but the company is not going to have a big tobacco moment if we’re all still smoking.
NMB: What books are you enjoying at the moment?
MC: I recently read Margaret O’Mara’s The Code, which is an excellent general history of the tech industry, and American Prometheus, the wonderful Robert Oppenheimer biography. I’m about to start reading Duff McDonald’s book, The Firm, which is about McKinsey and its influence on American business. There’s a pattern here, I guess. I’m super interested in books about tech and power.
One book that doesn’t quite fit into this pattern that I’ve found myself recommending over and over again over the past two years is How to Survive a Plague, which is David France’s history of the AIDS epidemic. It’s amazingly moving, and also has much to say about Covid and our current moment.
The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley's Pursuit of Power, by Max Chafkin. Published by Bloomsbury. $29.99
Author photo credit: Matt Horspool
North Melbourne Books: It's 1932, Northern Norway. Ivanna “Wanny” Wolstad longs to enter the male dominated world of hunting and trapping. When she meets a trapper heading out to the Arctic Ocean, she manages to convince him to take her on as a partner. Cold Coast is based on the real life of Wanny Wolstad. How did you find out about her and what inspired you to turn her story into a novel?
Robyn Mundy: I spend several months of each year working as a tour guide on ship-based expeditions to the polar regions, north and south. This includes Svalbard, an archipelago in the High Arctic, way north of Norway. A favourite site we visit is Hornsund in the south-west corner of Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s largest island. At the inner end of the fjord sits a pint-sized trapper’s cabin at the foot of a mountain with cliffs and ledges alive with the shrieks of breeding seabirds. When I learned that the cabin was used by Wanny Woldstad (pronounced Vonny Voldstad) in the early 1930s, and that she was Svalbard’s first female trapper and hunter, I wanted to know more. How did a woman—a young widow—break into a fiercely guarded male domain? What was the experience of months of winter darkness in bitterly cold conditions? Those questions set me on a course to writing Cold Coast.
NMB: Your novel has a wonderfully realistic feel, especially the descriptions of the tough natural environment, the cycle of life and death. How did you go about researching the book?
RM: Part of the research rests on a solid foundation of general knowledge of the Arctic region, having spent 20 years as a polar tour guide. Just as importantly were weeks spent in Tromsø in northern Norway, the trappers’ gateway to the Arctic and the place where Wanny lived and worked as the town’s first taxi driver. Wandering Tromsø’s docks and streets, checking out the trappers’ local beer hall, interviewing a Norwegian hunter, soaking up the feeling of the place, all felt as vital as days spent in Tromsø and then Longyearbyen’s excellent polar museums, with exhibitions dedicated to the trapping and hunting eras. My investigations took in researching genealogy sites, and visits to Norwegian libraries to learn more about Norwegian history and culture. Wanny published a memoir in 1956 which I had translated into English. It provided invaluable background information about the day-to-day life of a trapper, as well as insights into Wanny’s determination and gutsiness.
NMB: Wanny Wolstad was Norway's first female trapper. How hard would it have been for a woman at that time?
RM: As a young woman, Wanny regularly attended competitions and won championships in target shooting. Her ability with a rifle was her primary ticket to the Arctic world. Then, working as Tromsø’s first taxi driver in 1930 (a role remarkable in and of itself), she would ferry trappers to and from Mack Ølhallen, the town’s local beer hall, when they returned from their Arctic season. It was the stories of the trapping life they shared with her that inspired Wanny to want to experience Svalbard for herself. When, in 1932, trapper Anders Sæterdal found himself short of a trapping partner, he reluctantly agreed to take Wanny on. Without that happenstance opportunity, it would have been an impossible dream for a woman craving wilder freedoms.
NMB: There is some breathtakingly beautiful prose in Cold Coast. Who are the nature writers that inspire you?
RM: Thank you for saying this about Cold Coast. While I’ve been researching and writing Cold Coast, I’ve focused on Norwegian authors, as much to get a feel for the people and way of life. In any novel or movie set in rural or remote Scandinavia, a strong sense of nature and place are inevitable. I so admire Norwegian author Roy Jacobsen, in particular his gem of a novel The Unseen. Both The Summer Book and The Winter Book by Norway’s Tove Jansson fueled my inspiration. British author Georgina Harding’s The Solitude of Thomas Cave is a stellar story set in Svalbard in the 1600s. When I read Harding’s prose it draws me right into the raw and fetid setting of a summer whaling camp amid the wilderness. Closer to home, who can go past Hannah Kent’s remarkable Burial Rites, not only for its tragic tale, but its evocation of the bleak Icelandic landscape.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
Katherine Scholes: The Beautiful Mother
Ruairi Murphy: Two Set of Books
Diana Reid: Love and Virtue
Melissa Manning: Smokehouse
Cold Coast, by Robyn Mundy. Published by Ultimo Press. $32.99
North Melbourne Books: Tasmania's Black War was fought from the mid 1820s until the final surrender by the remnants of the Oyster Bay – Big River clans in 1832. One of the leaders of this group, Tongerlongeter, was an extraordinary strategist and resistance fighter. How did you learn about Tongerlongeter and why has Australian history overlooked such an important figure?
Nicholas Clements: My PhD research looked at both black and white perspectives of the Black War. Previous research had been more zoomed out. The Aborigines tended to be just that - ‘the Aborigines’ and not individuals with stories of their own. My research zoomed in, allowing me to see just how significant Tongerlongeter was. What’s more, today’s Aboriginal community in Tasmania is descended solely from northeast peoples, Tongerlongeter’s traditional enemies. Had he and his nation had living descendants, it’s likely more attention would have been paid to him.
NMB: The reader learns much about First Nations beliefs and culture in the book. For example, the fact that Europeans on first contact were thought to be returned ancestors. What struck you most in your research that you didn't know previously?
NC: The research that culminated in this book began in 2007, and before that I, like most others, knew almost nothing about Tasmania’s Aboriginal history, so basically everything was new.
NMB: First Nations Women received especially brutal treatment during the Black War – abduction, rape, enslavement and murder. Why were they treated so poorly?
NC: The answer is basic human nature: desire + opportunity – restraints = an epidemic of sexual violence. But let’s look at these factors in more detail.
Desire: there was a massive gender imbalance in colonial society during this period, and on the frontier there were virtually no available white women for the largely young, largely convict population. Some slept with each other, some with animals, but a significant minority took to preying on Aboriginal women and children.
Opportunity: most of the men populating the frontier were armed, unsupervised and in remote situations. They could wait around until they saw the fires of a passing band and then launch an ambush.
Restraints: morally, few felt guilty about victimising ‘naked savages’. Socially, there was little to condemn it either, at least not on the frontier. And legally, there was virtually no obstacle at all. They had only the wrath of Aboriginal warriors deter them (though this could certainly be an intimidating deterrent).
NMB: Could the violence of the Black War have been avoided? Or reduced?
NC: A glance at colonised societies elsewhere suggests that there was no way to avoid violence. Reduction would certainly have been possible, though, had a treaty been negotiated and honoured with the various nations.
NMB: Tongerlongeter's grave on Flinders Island lies virtually unmarked. Should he be given a more fitting memorial?
NC: Even though he and his people left no descendants, I would like to see Aboriginal Tasmanians decide how and where Tongerlongeter and others like him are honoured. If it seems they do not have the desire or initiative to do so, I’m unsure what would be the best way to proceed, though I feel strongly that the current situation is an insult to a great man, and to the resistance of all Aboriginal Tasmanians.
NMB: What books are you enjoying at the moment?
NC: The first two books of Jock Serong’s trilogy about early Bass Strait – Preservation and Burning Island…incredible!
Tongerlongeter: First Nations Leader and Tasmanian War Hero, by Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements. NewSouth Books. $34.99
North Melbourne Books: Set in North Korea in the late 1990s, The Last Exiles is a love story centred on two young university students, Suja and Jin. Suja’s family is well connected, while Jin comes from the rural north, where poverty and hunger are constant. The two make for an unlikely couple, but their futures look bright. They have plans to work hard and serve their country. Then suddenly everything goes horribly wrong. Jin tries to right a wrong in his village, only to find himself accused of the worst kind of betrayal. He is sent to a brutal labour camp. Suja, determined to be reunited with Jin, risks everything and soon finds herself descending into a living nightmare. Their experiences will change them forever.
The story is a real page turner, with so many extraordinary twists and turns, yet it is so believable. Did you base the novel on people you have met? How much did the stories of real exiles inspire you?
Ann Shin: As I was researching the novel, I met with many North Korean defectors who inspired me deeply. They had risked their lives to escape their country by foot, embarking on a 3,000 mile journey across China to find safe asylum in South East Asia. I remember telling one of them how brave she was, and she replied simply, “I’m not courageous, I just had no other choice. I had to do this.” I was struck by her stoicism and her modesty, and realized how desperate she had been to see that risking her life was her only option.
A couple of the women I met were inspirations for my character Suja, and most notably, a human smuggler called ‘Dragon’ was a person after whom I modeled ‘Sarge,’ the smuggler character in my book. Dragon had a larger-than-life personality and was the kind of guy who owns three cell phones, not counting all the burner cell phones he got rid of. He had served in Kim Jong-il’s personal army cadre and then went rogue, turning to ferrying North Korean defectors out of the country. I had mixed feelings about this man who made money off the backs of defectors, and yet had also helped them find freedom. I learned a lot about how to navigate the North Korean and Chinese underground from this man.
NMB: Suja and Jin make some incredibly dangerous journeys. The book captures the gritty atmosphere and sense of place so well. What kind of research did you undertake to get all these details so right?
AS: I ended up getting embedded in a journey with Dragon and five defectors and the experience of that journey left its indelible mark on me. The details in the book come from these first-hand experiences like travelling with them on public buses, private vans and trains, all the while fearfully keeping silent so that the authorities would not discover that we were not Chinese nationals. We ended up in safe houses, eating instant noodles together, sharing many stories. I learned about where each person came from, the hometowns they longed for, and why they were each undertaking this perilous journey. Living, eating, and travelling with the defectors gave me an intimate sense of their lives, as well as the terrain they had to cover to get to freedom. All these experiences went into the writing of the novel.
NMB: Perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of the book is to learn of the trade in women, sold as wives and slaves, often sexually abused and raped. The trade seems more widespread than many in the West might realise. Suja makes some fairly pointed remarks about women being sold into slavery and how some men can be complicit almost by default. What needs to be done to combat this terrible trade?
AS: It was heartbreaking to meet women who were trafficked in China. In 2019 it was estimated that the business of trafficking North Korean women transacted $105 million dollars annually.* Approximately 60% of North Korean refugees are trafficked and sold into prostitution, forced marriages, and cybersex. Because North Korean women are not recognized as refugees by China, they can’t flee their traffickers to seek help from officials because they would be deported back to their country where they would be sent to prison camps and subject to torture and abuse. China needs to be pressured about their human rights abuses – and as we know, there are many, including the tragic situation of the Uyghurs. We should lobby our governments and the UN to condemn China’s repatriation of North Korean defectors, and to lobby for alternatives; for example, providing safe passage to a third country. We can also support NGOs like Liberty in North Korea, Crossing Borders, and church groups who are actively working to help North Korean defectors today. Many help them find asylum as refugees.
NMB: Suja and Jin, being patriotic North Koreans, revere Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader”. But their experiences make them gradually realise they’ve been fed a steady stream of lies. How do you think power is maintained and entrenched in North Korea?
AS: The North Korean government has maintained their power through a regime of terror and by controlling all media and telecommunications within the country. The average North Korean has no access to outside news, entertainment, or even books. All information is created by state news agencies and state presses. Even the cell phones in North Korea are geo-blocked and cannot make calls outside the country. With this absolute control, the regime is able to shape people’s worldviews, and terrorize any dissenters.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
AS: I recently finished The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and really enjoyed that. I'm re-reading Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry - mainly for the brilliant voice in that novel. And I'm also re-reading some short stories by David Means. I love his spare, poetic style.
The Last Exiles, by Ann Shin. Published by HarperCollins. $29.99
North Melbourne Books: The Golden Book tells the story of two childhood friends, Jessie and Ali, growing up in the regional town of Bega in the 1980s. Jessie is adventurous and a risk taker, getting the two girls into their fair share of scrapes. Then one day a terrible accident changes everything. Many years later, when Ali is a mother with a daughter of her own, she hears of Jessie’s death and must confront much that is uncomfortable from her past.
The novel has a very realistic feel. Did you rely much on your own experiences for the story?
Kate Ryan: I have always been fascinated – and remember – the intensity of childhood friendships, especially those between girls on the cusp of adolescence. This intensity can almost have the character of a love affair, though no physical attraction may be part of it. I think we can romanticise what it is to be a child, to simplify it too, to forget that the emotions which exist in adults are there in children too – love and hate and fear, for instance – and rivalry between children may run deep. Children are complex beings – and I wanted Jessie and Ali to reflect this. I am interested in the way our childhood best friends are often complementary selves, possessing traits that we would like to have. A best friend’s family, its strangeness and difference, may be part of their allure too.
This preoccupation was sparked again when, eight years ago, on holiday with my partner and three children, I visited Mumbulla Creek Falls near Bega on the south coast of NSW.
I arrived after a meandering drive through the bush into the blue-green mountains. On the path leading to Mumbulla were signs from the Biamanga Aboriginal Board of Management explaining that it was a significant spiritual site. The Board encouraged people to reconsider swimming there. As soon as I saw it, I was struck by the beauty of Mumbulla, and an air of timelessness that seemed palpable. As I sat under a tree watching people swim and slide and jump into the pool, for some reason I felt great anxiety that someone might be injured. As a white person, I also felt considerable responsibility and guilt about the disregard for the wishes of the area’s custodians.
This interplay of emotion eventually led me to imagine two very different 12-year-old girls, Ali and Jessie, swimming at Mumbulla in the 1980s.
Both Jessie and Ali reflect something of me as a child. I was shy and quite anxious, but also an obsessive reader and physically confident and adventurous. I spent most of my spare time with my best friend Michael, usually barefoot, exploring the neighbourhood. We played elaborate games in and around the grounds of a school we lived next door to, climbing trees and onto roofs. Our friendship was competitive (at least from my perspective). I always wanted to prove, as a girl, that I could do things as well or better than Michael, was tougher and braver.
As an adult I have become cautious and I sometimes wonder, as with Ali, what happened to my brave child self. In my own life I was 12 when we moved houses and then my father died when I was 13. Both events signalled the end of my friendship with Michael and that particular feeling of childhood freedom and also brought amorphous fear. I have brought many of these emotions to The Golden Book, both directly and indirectly.
NMB: The story is beautifully constructed, slipping back and forth between the 1980s and the present. It’s a finely crafted book, one that is also a pleasure to read. What was the writing process like?
KR: The writing process has been many layered like the book, years of writing and re-writing! Although the initial idea and first draft came quite quickly, it took a long time to work out how to structure the book and the best order in which to tell it. Each time I went back to a new draft however, I felt I got deeper into my characters and understood them better and was able to deepen particular themes.
NMB: Key events in the book take place around a forbidden watering hole, a sacred Aboriginal site that has signage requesting people not to swim. Was there any comment you wanted to make about non-Indigenous attitudes, or lack thereof, to sacred places?
KR: I wanted Ali and Jessie’s obliviousness to the fact that Mumbulla is a significant site for the Yuin nation to make people think about how often Aboriginal people’s wishes have been overlooked at best, at worst trampled on. I also wanted to show how easy it is for non-Indigenous people to ignore large complex questions of colonisation. In a sense, in a different lesser way, in the battle of their friendship, Jessie and Ali seek to have, and hold onto individual power and this is a microcosm of the larger power structure. I also think that in everyday ways, non-Indigenous people choose not to take in the particular significance of ancient sacred places. Attitudes to climbing Uluru are a clear example of this. Eventually not climbing had to be mandated because people actively ignored the wishes of Uluru’s custodians.
It is not forbidden to swim at Mumbulla but the board of management gently suggests people reconsider doing so. I would understand though if, in the future, much stronger directives were given. I spoke to Glenn Willcox the CEO of Bega Land Council and he said that it is really a matter of respect. Some local Yuin people themselves choose to swim at Mumbulla, but they would like people to have respect for its great significance to their nation and act accordingly.
NMB: The Golden Book has several themes about writing. Ali is participating in writing classes, testing the waters to see if she would like to write. As a child she also keeps a journal of her and Jessie’s daring exploits. Writing is almost presented as a form of therapy, or a way to explore the past and present. What is the importance of writing for you?
KR: Writing is vital to me. It is my way of working out what I think about things and processing my life, my relationships and the world. Most mornings I write three or four pages of stream of consciousness writing in my journal as soon as I wake up, drinking coffee and looking out over our inner-city street and at the sky. Quite often preoccupations and connections will emerge in these jottings that grow into larger pieces of writing, fiction and nonfiction. When I am really immersed in a piece of writing it is a completely intoxicating feeling.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
KR: Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ series: The Cost of Living, Things I Don’t Want to Know and Real Estate, Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill and Albert and the Whale by Phillip Hoare, an incredible discursive nonfiction book about the artist Albert Durer. Rachel Cusk’s Second Place was intriguing and strange and left me puzzling over the complex intersection of gender and art. I have also just finished the first book of Jimmy Barnes’s autobiography, Working Class Boy, which I picked up in an opshop. I have never been a fan of his music but he is a very good writer and I am amazed at how he emerged as an artist (and survived) the incredible disadvantage he experienced as a child.
The Golden Book, by Kate Ryan. Published by Scribe. $29.99
North Melbourne Books: The Shortest History of China briskly covers thousands of years of Chinese history. How did you decide what to leave in and what to leave out?
Linda Jaivin: That’s the million-dollar question - or at least the 3,500-years-of-recorded-history question. My first draft was way too long. That required some tough calls about the most important historical and cultural developments, rulers and rebels, philosophers, battles, technological and scientific innovations, and so on. I was determined to make space for as many of the great women who often get left out of short histories as possible, as well as the talented quirks and non-conformists who have always been part of this diverse nation and have greatly enlivened its civilisation, beginning with the first Daoists. There needed to be a balance between the broad sweep of history and the fine details that make history live, as well as things that just tickle me, like the wild makeup trends of the Tang dynasty and how an uptight Confucian official lost his mind over an emperor welcoming a Buddhist relic into the palace. So not every one of China’s 550+ emperors gets a mention, but I don’t think lists like that are what my readers are looking for anyway.
NMB: What do you think is one of the most common misconceptions Australians have about China?
LJ: That China is a monoculture, with a relatively homogenous population. China is in fact wonderfully diverse. If Australians understood the diversity of China better, we wouldn’t be so quick to believe it when the Communist Party of China claims to speak on every topic for all 1.4 billion citizens of the People’s Republic of China. China is a multiverse, big and messy, and full of every kind of person as well as different cultures and subcultures, and all the more fascinating for it.
NMB: The book has an interesting focus on women, from the powerful Empress Dowager Cixi to more contemporary feminists and warriors. Do you have a favourite historical figure who you find inspiring?
LJ: There are several. But while I’m personally committed to non-violence, I can’t help but adore the early feminist and revolutionary Tang Qunying. Born in 1871, the daughter of a Qing dynasty general, she learned martial arts from her dad, who gave her a boy’s education. She became a feminist and revolutionary, studied bomb-making with Russian anarchists, and led an all-female militia in the republican revolution of 1911. When the new National Assembly stepped back from the early commitments of the leaders of the revolution to female suffrage and gender equality, Tang led her women to the parliament, where they kicked the guards to the ground, smashed windows and boxed the ears of the legislators with, as one contemporary report put it, their ‘delicate hands’. January 6 this year notwithstanding, this story still gives me a little thrill every time I think about it. (They still didn’t get equality or the vote, by the way – the men told them it wasn’t yet the right time. Sigh.)
NMB: The Australia-China relationship is currently at a bad moment. How do you think things could be improved?
LJ: By our government understanding the difference between playing domestic politics and being a responsible and effective actor in the international sphere. We may need to be prepared for war but our politicians and public servants need to stop their hairy-chested display about the ‘drums of war’. If you study Chinese history, or even just Confucius, you’ll realise what a serious business words are in China. The government needs to take more advice based on knowledge, less on ideological affinity and to allow that knowledge pool to be built up over the long term through greater, not less, investment in the humanities. But all Australians have a role to play as well, not just in better informing themselves about China generally, but in uniting to combat racism against Chinese-Australians and Chinese in Australia in all its forms, from violent attacks to subtle social exclusion.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
Kate Holden’s The Winter Road and Colm McCann’s Apeirogon. I recently scared myself senseless, in the best possible way, reading Andrew McGahan’s last novel The Rich Man’s House. And I am loving, most of all, my long, slow, mindful stroll through John Minford’s masterful translation of the Daoist classic Tao Te Ching.
The Shortest History of China, by Linda Jaivin. Published by Black Inc. $24.99