Broken Novels, Ruptured Worlds: A Conversation with Michelle de Kretser

Photo: Mayu Kanamori

Australian novelist Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and immigrated to Australia when she was fourteen. She worked for many years as an editor at Lonely Planet and was responsible for setting up their French series as well as a travel literature series, Journeys. The author of several award-winning novels, de Kretser published her most recent, The Life to Come, in 2017. It won the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the 2019 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction. A short monograph, On Shirley Hazzard, was published in 2019. 

De Kretser lives in Sydney, where she is an honorary associate of the English Department at the University of Sydney. Her fiction is both vividly grounded in place and transnational. Her settings include Australia, Ceylon/Sri Lanka, France, Italy, and India. A. S. Byatt has described de Kretser as “a master storyteller who writes quickly and lightly of wonderful and terrible things.” Neel Mukherjee called her “preternaturally attuned to the patient rage of history,” while Hilary Mantel notes de Kretser’s “formidable technique.” 

In this conversation, de Kretser and Roberta Trapè discuss tourism as privilege, casual racism, Australian politics, Shirley Hazzard, and the role of clothes in fiction.

Roberta Trapè: Your writing is deeply connected with the idea of movement, translation from one place to another, often migration. And with history, I would say. Are there particular reasons for these interests?

Michelle de Kretser: The twentieth century saw mass movements of people in unprecedented numbers: tourists, refugees, guest workers, migrants, students, troops deployed in war and peace. These movements continue apace today. I’m interested in exploring this phenomenon because as a novelist I’m interested in how the world works and trying to figure out how we have ended up here. 

On a personal level, travel of various kinds has played a significant role in my life. I migrated from Sri Lanka to Australia; I spent several years studying and later working in France; I worked for a publisher of travel guides for many years; I moved from Melbourne to Sydney; and I continue to travel for both pleasure and work. 

My family left Sri Lanka because of language politics occasioned by the rise of nationalism in the aftermath of empire. Consequently, I had a sense from early on of the enormous impact that large, historical events can have on small, individual lives. So yes, I’m definitely interested in history, in the intersection of the self and the historical moment. 

Trapè: Your fourth novel is titled Questions of Travel after Elizabeth Bishop’s poem of the same name, which you quote as one of two epigraphs, the second being from E. M. Forster’s Howards End. The epigraphs question each other. The Forster quote, which comes first, is: “Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle.” The lines you used from the Bishop poem are: “But surely it would have been a pity / not to have seen the trees along this road / really exaggerated in their beauty.” Why did you choose them? 

I’m interested in complexity. Travel is a large phenomenon, and some of its facets are directly contradictory.

de Kretser: I’m interested in complexity. Travel is a large phenomenon, and some of its facets are directly contradictory. I chose the epigraphs to suggest the sense of drift, the loss of historical and emotional connection that can come with travel, as well as the joyful revelations that it can bring. 

Trapè: Questions of Travel charts two very different lives, separated by time and space—Laura, born in Australia in the 1960s, and Ravi, born in Sri Lanka, first seen as a child in the 1970s. Laura travels the world before returning to Sydney; Ravi dreams of being a tourist until he is forced to leave his country. Laura and Ravi each have near-alternating chapters through forty years of separate travels, restlessness, and movement. The counterpointing of Laura’s story with Ravi’s throws a particular critical light on the former. Laura lives the relatively privileged life of an expat: she can leave any time she doesn’t like a place. And of course elsewhere she is a tourist; she travels for pleasure. Travel is fairly uncomplicated for Laura, since she has money and a passport that carries her easily over borders, whereas it’s difficult for Ravi, who is poor and whose Sri Lankan passport is not looked on favorably. Your book questions tourism and explores the issue of tourism and travel—and forced migration. 

de Kretser: You’ve summed it up beautifully. I was preoccupied with the questions Who travels? Who doesn’t? Why? I very much wanted to show tourism as a privilege—different in scale but not in kind from having the money to eat well or dress fashionably. It seemed to me, from years spent working for Lonely Planet as well as from listening to middle-class Australians talk about their holidays, that tourism was seen by privileged people as a transcendent phenomenon. For instance, traveling for pleasure was habitually referred to as travel, rather than tourism, because travel sounds grander: more cultural and less coarsely material. The privileges that make international tourism possible (wealth and leisure) were never mentioned. Instead, tourism, masquerading as “travel,” was presented as something akin to a spiritual practice that widens horizons, increases knowledge, opens the self to otherness, and generally ennobles the tourist. I hoped to show the materiality in which tourism is always embedded as well as to question the claim that it changes the tourist for the better. 

Trapè: You involve the reader in this beautifully constructed novel, startling us into reflections on the difference between those who travel for pleasure and those who are forced to leave their homelands, between tourism based on privilege and money and escape from terrible conditions. Do you think that fiction can contribute to creating empathy with other people’s suffering?

de Kretser: It might, if receptiveness is already there in the reader. But that’s relatively rare. Look at the insatiable, dreary demand for “relatable” fiction. It seems as if most readers only want to read about people like themselves.

Trapè: Your fifth novel, The Life to Come, focuses in part on the lives of Australia’s middle-class progressives. It is set during Australia’s boom—mining money, big mansions, swimming pools, restaurants, and overseas holidays. We meet Pippa, a novelist who achieves success; Ash, a British Sri Lankan academic in Sydney; Eva, a Polish immigrant to Australia who has married into old money and fetishizes the “exotic” other—people who are appalled at Australia’s refugee policy but gradually reveal themselves as materialistic and narcissistic. These characters, extraordinarily drawn, represent attitudes easily recognizable in progressive, lefty people in contemporary Australia, who would be shocked at being labeled racist. Yet they display casual racism. Does this represent contemporary Australia? The massacre of Indigenous Australians, the 1961 massacre of North Africans living in Paris, and the complex ethnic politics of Sri Lanka are also present at the margins of the novel. 

de Kretser: Well, racism—like travel—is a vast and multifaceted phenomenon as well as a subject that makes people deeply uncomfortable. That makes it an ideal subject for literature. A great deal of fiction as well as commentary is devoted to the overt racism that’s represented in The Life to Come by brutal killings—of Indigenous Australians, of North Africans, of Sri Lankan Tamils. Casual (often middle-class) racism, of the kind displayed by the characters you mention, is more rarely explored.

Does casual racism represent contemporary Australia? Well, of course it doesn’t represent everyone in Australia, but I believe the phenomenon is more widely spread than is acknowledged. Let me illustrate my response with a story. A wealthy Australian man, an intellectual who would see himself as progressive, antiracist, and of the left (and aspects of whose politics I share), read the novel and reacted to its critique with fury, telling me that I consider myself superior to Australians. Now obviously, what that statement reveals is that he doesn’t consider me Australian! He is a familiar figure: happy to help refugees and people of color, people he can “save.” But when it comes to someone like me, an intellectual, a middle-class woman of color, a migrant who doesn’t require “saving” and who dares to assume a confident, critical voice, well, I am an affront to his white liberalism.

People like that man—and they are myriad—conceive of racism as overt, often brutal acts of discrimination. They sincerely condemn such acts. Consequently, they have awarded themselves a gold star and a framed certificate that reads: i am not a racist. And consequent to that, they believe that nothing they say or do can be racist—a self-awarded, unlimited license to behave as they please. Hence the phenomenon of casual racism, the kind most commonly committed by middle-class progressives, and, since those are the circles in which I move, the kind that I typically witness or experience. 

The truth, as I see it, is that the nonracist is a chimera. We are all capable of sliding into racism (I certainly am), and no one can afford to be complacent about their conceptualization of or address toward others. The danger starts with the self-congratulatory “I’m not a racist.”

I have come to believe that many—certainly not all, but many—“progressive” white Australians have no real commitment to equality, although their self-deception on that score is vast. What these white liberals revel in is a scenario in which people of color are in need of assistance of one kind or another, so that they can provide it and confirm their image of themselves as “good people.” That kind of goodness is basically patronage, and it’s predicated on inequality. There’s a wonderful moment in the Shirley Hazzard novel The Great Fire in which a Eurasian woman tells a white Australian, “You intend to be kind. But just so far.” Just so far: that’s it, exactly. 

I say all this, and I also say: race is not of primary importance to me as a writer. My interest is in character. The Life to Come describes casual racism because of the psychological complexities that give rise to it.

The danger starts with the self-congratulatory “I’m not a racist.”

Trapè: When you’re describing white liberals, I can’t help thinking of Pippa! What the novel presents with particular subtlety is the way in which her self-centeredness works together with her need to think of herself as a decent and blameless person, to demonstrate her essential goodness to the world. She’s preoccupied with questions about how she presents and represents herself, carefully curates her online persona to present herself as a supporter of other writers and all good causes.

de Kretser: Whereas her real feelings with regard to successful writers, to vegetarians, to people from other ethnic backgrounds, are complicated by things like envy, anxiety, and insecurity. This is a way of saying that Pippa is human. And vastly self-deceived.

Trapè: You don’t let the reader settle into a single storyline. Questions of Travel has two protagonists with alternating stories throughout the book, and The Life to Come could be described as a collection of linked stories. Does this hint at the complexity of life or to the necessity of being open to many stories?

de Kretser: They come down to the same thing. With The Life to Come, I had in mind John Berger’s famous line, “Never again will a single story be told as if it’s the only one.” We’re back at complexity: of character, of situation, of reality. And yes, I hope that readers will find their opinion of characters shifting, becoming unsettled, perhaps just slightly, as new information is revealed and we see a character through a different lens. 

In fact, it’s all a question of power: who has it in any given situation and how it’s wielded. In the scenes between Pippa and her mother-in-law, Eva, I think the reader feels for Pippa. Elsewhere, in Pippa’s relations with Christabel, the reader’s sympathy will almost certainly lie with Christabel. Pippa has more power than Christabel—she is younger and richer, she is white, she has cultural capital—and misuses it. Eva, in turn, misuses family and cultural power against Pippa. And Eva herself has been misused by history as well as by her husband.

But the form of my last two novels (especially The Life to Come) arose from another concern as well. They are both novels about the contemporary world, and that is a world in which many if not all of the old certainties and continuities have been ruptured. The “broken” form of those novels reflects widespread psychological, social, and historical rupture. 

The “broken” form of those novels reflects widespread psychological, social, and historical rupture. 

Trapè: The extraordinary final chapter of The Life to Come, “Olly Faithful,” introduces a powerful character, Christabel, a Sri Lankan woman who has followed her friend Bunty to Australia to make a new life in Sydney. She seems to be sophisticated and naïve at the same time, smart and passionate. In a few pages, through unforgettable details, you convey a strong sense of humanity, how human beings make sense of themselves and of each other. There is hope, maybe, but also deep melancholy and sadness in the closing of your book. We talked about empathy; this story leads the reader to try to understand and be sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of your characters. Care is one of the issues that will be important for humanity in the next decades; you seem to question the capacity of human beings to care, to be caring. 

The measure of any society is how it cares for its most vulnerable members. Australia has done better in the past, but we’ve taken a real dive now.

de Kretser: Again, it’s complicated. I would say that Australia, at present, is a mean-spirited nation. To take just one example, our government has refused to raise the Newstart Allowance, the money paid to unemployed workers, despite clear evidence that people can’t live on the current allowance with dignity. I won’t even mention Indigenous Australians or asylum-seekers and our disgraceful record in regard to them. The measure of any society is how it cares for its most vulnerable members. Australia has done better in the past, but we’ve taken a real dive now. 

Most egregiously, our government cares nothing for our endangered planet. Even as fires rage across the country and the air quality in our largest city has plummeted, the government repeatedly asserts its commitment to fossil fuels—a commitment echoed by the major opposition party, it must be said. At a recent UN climate conference, Australia was identified as one of a small group of nations that set out to thwart the Paris climate agreement. Our government is basing our emissions target on an accounting loophole that has no legal basis—we’ve been called cheats and shamed across the world, but what’s far worse is the lack of respect for our planet that underlies Australia’s actions. The lack of commitment to a climate policy that tries to hold back climate change is astounding. Our leaders have children, but they seem not to care very much about their futures. 

It’s true that that in any society there are always admirable individuals and organizations who work tirelessly to make life better for others. It’s never just a single story . . . but the dominant story in Australia today seems to be indifference to suffering and a lack of solidarity with the vulnerable.

The lack of commitment to a climate policy that tries to hold back climate change is astounding.

Trapè: When reading your fiction, the reader cannot help being struck by the intensity of precise details you introduce, with a very careful use of language. Is there a purpose in this?

de Kretser: There are two aspects to this, I think. First, I see fiction as intimately and profoundly concerned with truth-telling: with seeing and depicting the world as accurately as possible. Naturally, this isn’t confined to realism—the depiction of psychological truth was modernism’s great achievement in literature. Second, I also see fiction—like all art—as existing in relation to time: I believe it springs from a futile (and for that reason moving) desire to halt time, to snatch moments from time. So, I try to capture fleeting emotions and scenes and states of mind as accurately as possible on the page.

Trapè: Your name, and rightly so, has been associated by some reviewers with the names of other widely acclaimed Australian writers, such as Patrick White, Christina Stead, and Shirley Hazzard, for the style and substance of your work, for its complexity, and for your gift for creating characters who live on the page. And now you’ve written a short monograph on Hazzard. What draws you to her work?

de Kretser: The quality of Hazzard’s writing and the quality of her mind: her sentences make me sit up! Her characters are sharply alive, and she also writes marvelously about place. Soon after finishing my second novel, The Hamilton Case, which is set in colonial Ceylon, I read Hazzard’s description of late 1940s Hong Kong in The Great Fire and was filled with envy. She absolutely nailed the atmosphere of colonial decay, along with the heat, the light, the smells, of a tropical place. The squalor and brutishness of colonialism is brilliantly conveyed, the queasy compromises it entails and the price it exacts from its victims. Proponents of colonialism are its victims too, of course—it diminishes them by coarsening their vision of life. 

Another reason why I feel an affinity with Hazzard is harder to put into words, but let me try. There are writers whose books create an environment, an ecology, in which one’s own work can grow and flourish, can be received and understood. Hazzard was one of the great trees in my patch of forest. I didn’t know her, and I’m quite sure that she never read my fiction, but there’s a sense in which I wrote for her and still do. It’s my guess that every writer has Hazzard-like figures in their working lives—writers who make us feel that what we’re doing is worthwhile, who affirm the value of literature, who encourage us, by their example, to hone our writing and our minds. 

It’s my guess that every writer has Hazzard-like figures in their working lives—writers who make us feel that what we’re doing is worthwhile.

Trapè: Changing the subject, clothes play a significant part in your work. Why is that?

de Kretser: Great question! Clothes interest me because they’re bound up with ideas of character. They’re the interface between the self and the world. They conceal and proclaim. They play with mutability and identity. They hold out the promise of transformation. In that sense, they’re not unconnected to migration, which also enables the discarding of former selves and the piecing together of new ones. 

Photo: Anthony / Flickr

Trapè: What about houses? They figure prominently in your work as well. 

de Kretser: I spent many years studying French literature and probably absorbed something of Balzac’s interest in the connection between setting (and clothes!) and character. All those l-o-n-g descriptions of rooms and the objects in them that I read when I was young have left their mark. Houses (and rooms) fascinate me because they convey so much about socioeconomics, aesthetics, values . . .

Here are two more thoughts related to houses. Bachelard, who wrote with such evocative brilliance about them, noted that “words are little houses, each with its cellar and garret.” I enjoy picturing myself as a builder of little houses! The other thing is that as a child I was indifferent to dolls, but doll houses—those worlds in miniature—stirred my imagination deeply. I spent happy hours improvising furniture and fittings for mine (the caps of Smarties tubes for plates, postage stamps for pictures), shifting the dolls between rooms and making up winding stories about their lives. Writing a novel, too, is a form of world-building. Perhaps my liking for it can be traced back to my fascination with my doll house. And perhaps the houses in my novels are versions of that doll house, itself fitted into the most important house, the first one, the childhood home. In any case, I find that inventing settings for my characters—the houses and rooms they know intimately, the atmosphere in which they’re steeped—is one of the great pleasures of writing. These fictional surroundings, an amalgam of observation and daydream, are utterly vivid to me; they swim in my mind, lit with a clear brilliance.

Writing a novel, too, is a form of world-building. Perhaps my liking for it can be traced back to my fascination with my doll house.

Trapè: The Miles Franklin Literary Award is Australia’s most esteemed literary prize. You’ve now won it twice. Writers often speak of feeling overwhelmed by winning major prizes because of the expectations they create. What do you think?

de Kretser: The subject of expectations is interesting. There are the expectations of other people—readers, publishers—and the expectations a writer herself brings to the creation of new work. Either or both of those things can indeed be overwhelming. 

The worst thing a writer can do is set out to replicate a successful book. That’s guaranteed to produce shoddy work. If you’re lucky enough to have known success, the best response is to take your work in an untried direction. The prospect is unnerving because it might lead to disaster. But the best thing to do with success is to use it to free you from the consideration of success. 

Trapè: So are you working on a novel now that’s taking you in a new direction?

de Kretser: Ha! I think I am. . . . The uncertainty is part of the gamble.

January 2020

Roberta Trapè is an honorary fellow of the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, where she lectured in Italian studies for five years. She works extensively on the theme of Australian travel to Italy in contemporary Australian fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She has written on notions of space in narrating history and examined travel ideals of Italy in food in North American films.