Arnold Zable: Award-winning Australian writer and human rights advocate

Arnold ZableAn award-winning Australian writer, novelist, storyteller, and human rights advocate, Arnold Zable combines a prodigious creative output with extensive human rights advocacy work.

Recently appointed as a Vice-Chancellor's fellow at the University of Melbourne following his completion of doctorate in Creative Arts, he is the author of a broad range of work including theatrical pieces, essays and books including Cafe Scheherazade (2001), Sea of Many Returns (2008) and his most recent release, Violin Lessons, published in 2011.

We interviewed Arnold at the Sydney Writers’ Festival about his latest book.

Click play to listen. Running time: 19.28

Violin Lessons

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Danielle:
Hi, I’m Danielle Williams from the Australian Writers’ Centre. I'm about to speak to Arnold Zable. He’s a writer from Melbourne and his latest book is Violin LessonsHi, Arnold.

Arnold:
Hi.

Danielle:
First of all just tell us a bit more about Violin Lessons.

Arnold:
Well, it’s a book of stories. My previous three books were novels and this book is a book of short stories. Although the longest one is 13000 words so it’s a bit longer than that, I guess. Each one of them is related to music in some way, but also they’re woven together with common themes such as displacement, exile.

And the other thing that links them are the fact that they all did take place, they’re true stories and many of them took place in my travels over a period of 40 years. So they are stories that are set in war-torn Saigon, where I happened to be at the height of the Vietnam War. There are stories set in Berlin and Nuremberg, there are stories set in Poland, they are stories set in Venice, and also stories that harkens back to places like Baghdad. So there’s quite a spectrum of stories that cover a lot of time and space in a way.

Danielle:
I was going to ask you about how you came across these stories, but obviously in your travels. So my question then is why so long before you brought them together? What’s been the driver for it now?  

Arnold:
Well, in a way all of my books, even the novels – works of fiction – have been based on things that I've encountered, people that I've encountered, things that have happened to me, and through listening to other people’s stories. And in a way it’s always been there. For example, my previous book was the novel Sea of Many Returns, which is based on going to the island of Ithaca, where my wife’s family comes from the island Ithaca, between Italy and Greece. Over a period of 20 years I go there every few years and have heard many, many stories. And there came a point where I wanted encapsulate those stories in a novel. So, I go back to Jewels and Ashes, my very first book, it’s a quest for the missing link in the ancestral chain, which takes me to Poland and Russia, and Siberia, and all of those areas. I go back to a previous collection, The Fig Tree, and there were stories set in various locations. So, I guess travel has been so much a part of my life and listening has been so much a part of my life. I always say that if you want to be a storyteller you need to be very much a listener first.

Danielle:
The music theme through Violin Lessons, was that accidental or was it part of all of these stories?

Arnold:
Well, it’s interesting because I wrote a couple of stories and I noticed that there was some connection to music. I mean the connection to music can be fairly oblique and sometimes it’s very direct. For example, there’s a story called The Chorus of Feet, which is set in Venice, which is really driven by the fact that one morning I woke up and heard what I thought was the pitter-patter of rain, but then when I went to the window I realised it was just the sound of Venetians going to work, it’s a car-less city and there was hundreds and hundreds of people going to work, and that rhythm drives the story and it leads to an extraordinary encounter with a man who had a connection with the Venetian ghetto.

But, I noticed that after writing a couple of those stories that there was a musical link, so then I became more conscious of the fact. I started to weave them around stories, or find kind of a musical connection. I mean I have to say that the musical connection, like I said, they’re quite diverse.

There’s one moment, for example, in a story that’s set in Vietnam at a time during the war when I went on a journalist visa, but really as a traveller. And at this particular moment after recounting a number of harrowing things that I encountered in Saigon, it’s called the Dust of Life, which refers to the street kids of Saigon. At a certain point I guess I’m so overwhelmed I go out on the Mekong river with a fisherman who invited me to go out with him, this is in Phnom Penh, and I went out of Vietnam and that was a relatively peaceful place at that time, before the killing fields struck in such a horrific way. And there’s a moment when we’re out on the river and he takes out a bamboo flute and he begins to play a melody, he’s laid out the nets, he’s fed me from his little stove, gas stove, and he begins to play a melody and that melody was totally and utterly in harmony with the movement of the water, with the movement of the river, and it took me beyond all I’d had seen and heard and it gave me a point of release and relief. So, it can act in that way, too.

But I guess the most powerful way that music plays out, if I had to choose the most powerful way it acts out, it’s in the ultimate story, which is about an asylum seeker called Amal Basry who survived the SIEV X Disaster by clinging to a corpse. And this story was a harrowing one to write, but also a wonderful story to write. I’d always promised to write her story and she died in a cruel irony of cancer. And she loved Umm Kultum, the great Arabic diva. So as I was exploring her story I began to explore Umm Kultum and it led me to an extraordinary place. I mean Amal always wanted to be a singer, but it didn't pan out that way, but every Friday when she was a child her father used to walk with her along the banks of the Tigris and he’d sing to her the songs of Umm Kultum, who’s a renowned Arabic diva.

And, I did the research, I went to a music store on Sydney Road where new communities live, and he told me she’s still a bestselling artist. And did you know that four million people came to her funeral, it was the largest gathering of human beings ever in one place, he claimed. If you listen to the music, now I was struggling at that point in the story, and I was writing it already, with I wanted to get Amal’s voice right, she had an extraordinary way of telling stories, she was mesmerising as a storyteller, and she had a very rhythmic, poetic way, even despite the language restrictions. Speaking in English which wasn’t her native tongue, and he said to me, ‘Listen to these CDs'. I began to listen to them as I drive around Melbourne, and he said there’s a concept in Arabic music, which is called Tarab, and you listen to the way that the music builds up and up and it reaches this point, and you can hear it because the crowd goes crazy, and at that point is when the distinction between the performer and the audience disappears and they become one.

And so I’m listening to this and I can listen to the build up and I could hear the rhythm of Amal Basry storytelling. And, she always wanted to become a singer, as I said, and here I am listening to someone who could tell a story, could mesmerise an audience of over 2000 on one occasion at Melbourne Town Hall with the story of how she survived by clinging to a corpse. But also she told very funny stories, too – she was a great story teller. So that became the rhythm of her voice and her storytelling. And I sent the story to people that had known her when I finished writing and they said, ‘Yes, we can hear her'. Rather than have her speaking in broken English, which would have done a great injustice to her, I found another way of getting across her voice.

Danielle:
Yes. Another theme in all of your books, and I guess especially Violin Lessons, is the personal tragedy and displacement, I guess, of people after hideous things in their home countries. Have you always set out to do that? Or is that again something that came from your travels and personal experience?

Arnold:
It’s very interesting because I was formerly lecturer in political science and anthropology. I had a very different career and I left it for all kinds of reasons, but I guess deep down inside I felt that I wanted to do something that eventually turned out to express myself through story and through writing, and through even just storytelling in itself. But interestingly enough I went and I spent a year in China in 1984 and 1985 and I came back and I thought, ‘This will be my very first book', it was such an extraordinary time in 1984-1985, and I kept journals, and I lived in a remote providence. So it was a wonderful year.

But a certain series of events occurred and it took me back to the story that I had to write first, which was the drama of my own family. And my mother, for example, was very disturbed by the loss of her entire family in the Holocaust. I grew up in a house of ghosts and absences with her kind of rage at what had happened. My father, too – his responses were different, but he had lost his entire family. So, I had to go on this quest to find out the missing link in the ancestral chain. And I guess in a way ever since then I've been on the same quest, but the quest has taken all kinds of variations on a theme. For example, as I said in Sea of Many Returns, half the novel is set on the island of Ithaca, but it concerns the journeys of Ithacans to distant Australia and to the city of Melbourne and their struggles with the ‘nostalgia’ as they call it, the pain of longing for the return. The things they achieved here, extraordinary adventures they entered into.

And, that theme repeats itself in many of my stories, and I think it’s only now that I've written seven books and I look back and I say, ‘Yes, these are the concerns that have driven me'. And interestingly enough one of the projects that I'm doing now is a series of stories set in China. In a way I've come full circle and it’s one of the things that I'm working on. It’s almost as if maybe I’m getting to the point where I can break free.

But, on the other hand, we’re a nation of people who are apart from indigenous people, come from elsewhere and this is a great archetypal story of ours, and there is enough for a lifetime of work. And, you learn a lot.

One of the things that I've learned, and I mentioned this in a wonderful panel we did on the immigrant experience, it was called Extraordinary Journeys, and I was with some wonderful, very courageous people. Majok Tulba, he’s a Sudanese-Australia writer from Iran, Paula Wen from Vietnam. And, when I look back on looking at these journeys, and they’re human journeys, in a way putting ‘immigrant’ there, take way the ‘immigrant’, they’re journeys, we all go on journeys. But if you look at these journeys you'll see there are three acts. There are many variations, but in a way there are three acts.

And act one is the time before. ‘Once I had a village', ‘Once I had a city', ‘Once I had a community', even bushfire survivors have this three-part movement. And for various reasons, ‘I lost it', ‘I had to make a run for it', ‘It was too impoverished'. There are many reasons why people leave. Then there is the journey itself and the chromatic events associated with it, or maybe they’re horrific events that lead you to make the journey, whether it’s the civil war in Sudan or whatever.

And then, so you come to the new world, we’re a new world country. It doesn't end there, because the third act is the roller coaster of adjustment and things such as ‘nostalgia', what the Greeks call ‘nostalgia', which literally means the pain of longing for the return. So many people I've known, even Amal Basry, the story that I write about her at a certain point I recreate the journey she used to do at night. When she couldn't sleep she would come in from the northern suburbs on a train to the city, at midnight, and she would descend the steps down to the Yarra River and sit. So, I recreated that and sat late at night on the same bench she used to sit on beneath the Morton Bay Figs. And if you looked across the river you saw a line of palm trees and it reminded her of the Tigris River and Baghdad and her father walking with her every Friday and singing to her the songs of Umm Kultum. So, there is enough there for a lifetime of exploration, as a storyteller.

Danielle:
I just have a couple more quick question, because these stories are true, I guess you must feel a fairly strong sense of responsibility to represent them in the right way. How did you ensure that you did that in these stories?

Arnold:
That’s a good question. If you look at the after word I say that in five of the 10 stories I changed events, I have composite characters in situations. In a way they’re really on the boundary between fiction and non-fiction in a sense, and I needed to say that. Every specific thing is true in itself, but fiction actually comes from the word ‘fictia’ which means to make, or to shape. Originally, it didn't mean making up, it meant the way you told the story. So there are various devices I use that really are on the borderline and I make that very explicit. I point out the stories where this is the case, and in other stories I change people’s names. I only use names in stories where I could tell the people, ‘I'm writing about you, how do you feel about it?' And another thing I do is I often show what I've written to the people that I'm writing about, what I've found again and again is that they actually, whether I'm writing it in fiction or non-fiction, they actually come back with something which is far more powerful. People don’t mind if you depict them warts and all, as long as they feel there’s a sense of fairness in what you’re doing and a sense that you’re sharing the journey with them. Many of those stories happened on the road quite a few years ago, and these people have either passed away or I have changed their name. Even then I change their names because I feel an obligation in that respect.

By the way, that’s one of the reasons you write fiction, that’s one of the reason why the previous three books were novels. Because Café Scheherazade, Scraps of Heaven, Sea of Many Returns, once you change the names and you change the situations you are free, you are freed of that obligation and I think you are able to tell in some ways a deeper story. You could dare to explore the interior life, put yourself in the shoes of different characters, and that’s the glory of fiction.

Danielle:
One final question, what would your advice be to new writers?

Arnold:
Well, I’d say, I've been thinking about this a lot recently. I mean, my answer would change at different times. But at the moment I would say that you know that a story is really working when the story is leading you, rather than you leading the story. What I mean to say is the art is the art of beginning, right? You say, ‘OK, I want to do this. I've always wanted to write about this…', right? Well, begin. But begin with a sense that, ‘I don’t know where I'm going'. Begin with a sense of exploration, ‘I'm exploring something'. And if you enter into it with that spirit there comes these wonderful moments where you take, ‘Oh, right, Umm Kultum, the grand diva of Arabic music, who was she? Maybe I should explore that'. So, you've got to be open to the things that come your way.

I think one of the reasons people struggle with story and why people struggle to the point of writers’ block or whatever is because they haven’t got that attitude of openness the way the story can lead them.

Danielle:
That’s excellent advice. Thank you so much, Arnold. Enjoy the rest of the festival, and good luck with the latest book.

Arnold:
Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

Danielle:
Thanks.

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