Creation and Destruction

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Jordi Bernabeu Syrian girls on their way home from school

 

After my interview last week with a Syrian refugee, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books I could find on Syria. One of the books I borrowed was The morning they came for us by Janine Di Giovanni.

A seasoned war correspondent, Di Giovanni, first visited Syria in May 2012, as the country teetered on a precipice. Having described the hotel Dama Rose where she and many other  UN workers lived, she moves on, in Chapter Two, to the story of young Nada, who used Facebook and Twitter to broadcast messages from the opposition. One morning, the police came for her. Her parents watch on, horrified.

Nada’s prison experience, and more broadly, the sexual violation of women in the Syrian war, is heart-rending to read. I feel my body bracing itself for the next sentence, and the next. It is as if I am holding my breath. It is as if I cannot breathe normally. What are the men going to do next?

It is so nauseating that I stop reading after Chapter Two and try to forget what I have read. I try to focus instead on onions sizzling in the pot.  I look out of my kitchen window and admire the vegetable garden I have planted. I take pleasure in the way the tomatoes have been staked, the way the beans peep out from beneath heart-shaped leaves, and the bright orange marigolds in this riot of green.

It is human to create, and the work of creation takes skill, effort, concentration, time. What has been created takes only an instant to destroy. War destroys, decimates, dehumanises.

Di Giovanni writes, ‘The lowest depth that a human being can reach is to perform or to receive torture. The goal of the torturer is to inflict horrific pain and dehumanise another being…How does someone return to the human race after having been so brutalised?’

What is it like to try to return from that place of war, to try to rebuild a life? That is the question I am trying to answer. After three years interviewing refugees and writing their stories, I am not even sure it is ethical to ask about war experiences because the question so often causes pain. My focus is increasingly on how refugees rebuild their lives and on the people who help them. I hope it is a gentler and more productive approach.

Di Giovanni will be speaking at the Adelaide Writers’ Week on 8 March 2017.

 

 

The Little Man Counts

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Emerald Bay, Pangkor Laut, Malaysia

Earlier this year, I stopped to read a commemorative board by a sandy footpath leading to Chapman’s Bar at Emerald Bay on Pangkor Laut. I learnt that the bar was named after Freddy Spencer Chapman, a British soldier who remained in Malaya and led a resistance force against the Japanese during World War II. Chapman recounted his experience in the book, The Jungle is Neutral.

With a jolt of excitement, I remember the book. I particularly remember Chapman’s description of laying explosives on a train line, running back into cover (rubber plantation or jungle I cannot recall), and watching the bomb tear apart a trainload of Japanese soldiers.

Toward the end of 1941, Chapman had travelled against the flow of retreating British soldiers in order to train a small group of locals in guerrilla tactics. It is said that Chapman and his men were so effective that the Japanese thought they were facing a British resistance army of 200 men.

Three and a half years later, in May 1945, it was from this same island, Pangkor Laut, that a much weakened Chapman swam out and escaped into a waiting submarine. He made it safely to Ceylon. For the rest of his life, however, Chapman suffered from illnesses picked up from the jungle and was tormented by what he had witnessed during the war.

Endurance Challenge held every year in Chapman's honour

Chapman’s Challenge held on the island every year in his honour. In 2016, his descendants participated in the challenge and are listed in placing 4 and 5.

I have previously written that the British deserted Malaya when the Japanese invaded but now realise that not all the British left. Some chose to stay. Freddy Chapman stayed.

This realisation prompts me to reflect on the conscience that drives the individual. When people disagree with the actions of their elected government, they can choose to act differently. One of the stories in my book is about a family that opens their home to asylum seekers released from Baxter  Immigration Detention Facility in South Australia. Their actions bring healing, not only to a young Sri Lankan asylum seeker, but also to themselves.

Politicians and all manner of people in authority purport to speak and act on our behalf. But that doesn’t remove from us the ability to think as individuals, and to choose to act in what we believe is the right spirit.

 

Seeing life through the lens of death

Since moving away in 2001, I have returned to Malaysia and Singapore each year to spend time with family. As the years passed, I have noticed loved ones growing old, often witnessing one year’s worth of ageing in a single visit. Chinese New Year celebrations this year were tinged with sadness. My uncle and cousins were still in black, mourning the recent passing of their beloved wife and mother.

Leo Tolstoy

Rees Leo Tolstoy

While I was in Singapore, I read Tolstoy’s The death of Ivan Ilyich. Without sentimentality, Tolstoy describes the various stages of pain, panic and depression that beset Ivan as his unnamed disease progresses. It is painful to read, but the most wretched moment is when Ivan realises that he has spent his whole life on things of inconsequence: societal approval, salary increase, house decor. Why had he not instead sought out those rare moments of genuine human connection he had experienced early in life?

So, 2017 has arrived. I have been working on this book for more than three years. I’d like to think that it is very nearly complete. In fact, I printed out all 168 pages today. I am usually miserly with my printer toner; it’s a big step for me. Having given myself the last two and a half weeks off for travel, I will, starting tomorrow, read it through from beginning to end and mark the places where the prose and logic are found wanting. So I continue working toward the hope of publication.

But if I regard my interviews with refugees and migrants primarily as a means to writing a book, would I, like Ivan Ilyich, have focused on professional competence and missed the moments that truly mattered? So I recalibrate my mindset: the journey is about the people first; the book is a by-product. People before projects. Always.

Lord Jim in Borneo

When I began reading Lord Jim, I was pleasantly surprised that Jim was not the Lord of an English manor as I had supposed. Instead, he was a seaman, disgraced by his desertion of the passenger ship, Patna, which he believed was about to sink.

Tormented by his loss of honour, Jim banishes himself to the village of Patusan, a fictitious village, on the island of Borneo (a real island on which Kuching, capital of Sarawak, is located). There, it seems that he finds redemption – his strategic thinking and courage bring peace to the village. The villagers call him  Tuan Jim, Tuan being the Malay word for Lord.

When I finished this classic, I felt my emotions quivering so near the surface of my being that I could have wept. I wondered how the author, Joseph Conrad, of Polish descent, could portray Jim and the villagers in Patusan with such empathy.

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Sutherland Bronze bust of Joseph Conrad

Was because he had sailed to the Malayan archipelago while working aboard British trading ships? Was because he understood his own frailties? (In his youth, he had attempted suicide in the face of gambling debts.) Or was it his extensive research? To inform his writing, Conrad drew on many 19th century non-fiction works.

Given that this was the age of colonisation, I find it all the more extraordinary that Conrad had the intellect and heart to go beyond superficialities and prevalent stereotypes. He wrote to our shared humanity.

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Beckett Conrad’s gravestone inscription

 

A hundred and sixteen years after Lord Jim was published, Mark Nyambang asked the Bishop of Kuching about the true meaning of Christmas. The bishop spoke of hatred in the world, the refugee crisis and the challenges of diversity. He highlighted the uniqueness of Sarawak, where people of different races and religions live together in peace. His words ring true to me, because I have lived there. I have experienced their welcome. It is real.

 

 

‘So my Christmas message to everyone is that we should try to obey God, to embrace, to reach out to one another in love and be reconciled. Heaven and earth is reconciled on Christmas Day.’

The Right Reverend  Bolly Lapok

Bishop of Kuching

Capture them while you can

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My aunt, Lim Kum Ying, circa 1950.

My aunt once told me of her older brother, who had loved her dearly. During World War II, he was taken away by the Japanese and never returned. ‘That day,’ she said, ‘I had given him a piece of cake. It was so strange. He was usually the one giving me food.’ She was reluctant to say any more. ‘Surely you don’t need to write of these things?’

I had heard that the Japanese were cruel during the war and truth be told, I had never given much thought to Hiroshima. The atomic bomb did, after all, bring an end to the Japanese military occupation of Malaya.

But then, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a work of non-fiction that follows the lives of six atomic bomb survivors. The day before the bomb was dropped, for example, Reverend Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Mehodist Church, had just moved the church piano to a home two miles away from the town centre, where he believed it would be safer; the piano didn’t survive. After the explosion, he ran back to the city to check on his church and the twenty families he was responsible for as the head of their Neighbourhood Association. He was held up, however, up by cries of the injured: ‘Mizu, mizu! Water, water!’ For the first time, I started to imagine what it had been like for ordinary Japanese.

When I visited my aunt in December last year, she did recognise me, but said that I was such a pretty girl (Bless her! When was the last time anyone said that?), and who was this? My husband? He is very rich, is he not? My dear aunt has forgotten us. Her memories are slipping away. Many stories are already gone.

Hiroshima ends by referring to Reverend Tanimoto and the proliferation of nuclear weapons: His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.

I guess that’s why we must talk about the past, and write down stories.

Iced coffee instead of bush tea

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My friend Merrilyn remembers a wonderful Afghan family and has a visual picture of where she parked when she visited them twelve years ago. On hearing that I would like to interview Afghans for my book, the two of us set out in my little car to try to locate this family.

‘It’s a corner house like this, but this one looks too flash.’

‘It has a long backyard like this, but there are only men’s shirts hanging in the backyard.’

‘Look, there are council workers over there. Would you be embarrassed if I spoke to them?’

‘No, but I don’t think they are going to know the Afghan family.’ I was starting to have my doubts, but admired Merrilyn’s commitment to the mission.

When we crossed the street to speak to a lady wearing a fluorescent vest, I thought of Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, the detective and her secretary from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, as brought to life by Alexander McCall Smith. The only difference was location: Adelaide, not Gabarone.

‘I’m looking for an Afghan refugee family who live here. I visited them twelve years ago. You wouldn’t have stumbled upon them would you?’

‘No,’ she shook her head. ‘We’ve just started in this area.’

‘You’re probably not even asking ethnicity.’

‘No, dog registrations.’

‘Ah, that’s a good thing to do. Keep cool. Sorry to take up your time.’

‘Not at all.’

It was a cheerful exchange, though not a very productive one.

‘Let’s try this one,’ said Merrilyn, pointing to an old sandstone bungalow with a letterbox propped up against the chain link fence. My heart sank when we rung the doorbell and heard Broadway music from the last century. An Aussie bloke in a singlet shuffled to the door. Definitely not Afghan. We did however learn that he barracked for Carlton because his brother lived there, though he did occasionally barrack for Port.

Ah, well, it was not to be.

We had spied a bustling cafe and decided to quench our thirst after all that sleuthing. Once again, like Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, only we had iced coffee instead of bush tea. Waiting to pay, I read a small newspaper article pasted to the till. Loveon Cafe had been started by a certain Rashed Kabir, who came from Bangladesh 10 years ago. While waiting for our coffees, we admired the handmade clay earrings we had bought to commemorate our day of detective work, the artistic decor and the little teapot on our table with the words ‘Coronation 2 June 1953 Queen Elizabeth.’

We met Rashed before we left and I said, ‘Wonderful cafe. Who is the artistic person who did your decor?’

‘All of you. The community. Everybody contributes.’

‘Where are you from?’ asked Merrilyn.

‘Bangladesh, crazy place,’ he says, smiling.

 

His son was just behind the counter, a mop of curly hair and bright black eyes. The young boy moved to a small table with crayons and toys, and I understood why it felt like a child friendly place, not just because of the brown paper wall covered with children’s drawings, the high chairs, the mothers with their babies, but because it was this child’s space too.

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Trying to finish the first draft for the book while juggling all the other commitments in life, the best thing motto I can think of for now is: Love On. After all, ‘Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.’

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

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Loveon Cafe along Gladstone Road, Mile End. Well worth checking out if you’re in town.

The curious scribbler meets the rug-maker

‘Would you like some tea?’ asks Najaf, the rug-maker of Mazar-e-Sharif. I accept his offer gratefully as I step into his  shop – Afghan Traditional Rugs – on High Street in Prahran, Melbourne.

Moments earlier, from the opposite side of the street, I was so disappointed to see the sign ‘Closed’ on the shop door,  but thought I’ll cross the street anyway. Peering in through the glass door, I saw two people in the dim recesses of the shop beckoning me in. Najaf himself opens the door, flipping the sign to ‘Open’. I blurt out, ‘I’m from Adelaide. I read your book.’ and he offered me tea.

Najaf was apprenticed as a rug-maker in his village in northern Afghanistan, near Mazar-e-Sharif, before the Taliban captured him and tortured him, leaving him no option but to flee to Pakistan, aided by, of all people, a Pashtun, one of the traditional enemies of Najaf’s people, the Hazara.

Najaf told his story to award winning biographer, Robert Hillman, who captured Najaf’s voice so well in the book The Rug-maker of Mazar-e-Sharif that I felt quite sure, just by reading  the book, that Najaf was a good and friendly person, the sort of person who won’t mind if I visit him to talk about refugees and about his book, even if I don’t buy a rug, though I hasten to add that there is a 50% sale on right now because Najaf is clearing stock in preparation for an overseas purchasing trip.

Inside the shop, a young lady, wearing a beautifully embroidered hijab, removes a pile of bright cushions from an office chair and offers me the seat. She sits in the other chair in front of the computer and we chat about the Australian tax system before Najaf reappears with a thermos and a cup of steaming green tea on a saucer for me.

I notice a picture of two stylised birds beneath a mosque with the words Masawat Development Fund. I ask Najaf about it. As he leans on a column, carpets hanging on either side, he tells me that funds from his book sales have been used to buy an ambulance for the area around Mazar-e-Sharif to transport pregnant women to the nearest hospital – a three to four hour journey along hilly, rocky, windy road.

He is returning to Afghanistan in October, with his daughter, to give school supplies to the children in his village. ‘Put pens in the hands of children, not guns,’ said Najaf. ‘Don’t blame the refugees, blame the people who drop bombs and put guns in the hands of people, because this is why there are refugees.’

We talk for almost two hours. Najaf offers me advice on agents and publishers before I leave his shop at noon. Only then, as I say goodbye, when lady turns around from her work on the computer, do I realise that she has been waiting all morning for Najaf’s input to finish the accounts. Nothing in her body language or her demeanour had suggested any impatience with my nattering on and on, keeping her from finishing her morning’s work.

Such is the kindness of strangers.

View from the tram as I left Najaf's shop (the yellow one in the middle)

View from the tram as I left Najaf’s shop (the bright yellow one in the middle)

Life comes first

Palmer: Children of Sao Felix, Brazilian Amazon

Palmer Children of Sao Felix

I was cutting the vegetables by the kitchen sink and listening to Annie Dillard’s audiobook The Writing Life. ‘Why people want to be writers I will never know, unless their lives lack a material footing.’

“Does yours?” piped up a small voice.

“Mine what?” I asked, confused. I had forgotten that my young son was there on the floor, some ten feet away, constructing a cross bow out of paper, cellophane tape, and rubber bands, all held together with glue from a hot glue gun.

“Lack …” he trailed off, struggling to remember the exact words, before I realised he was referring to Dillard.

“Oh, no, with such wonderful children, my life could not possibly lack any materiality,” I assured him. Truth be told, when I heard that Dillard found all her pot plants dead and black after completing a manuscript, I misguidedly rued the fact that I could not possibly let my children die of hunger as she had let her plants die of thirst.

To put it all this into perspective was one of Australia’s best story tellers – Arnold Zable, who taught a class on Advocacy as an Artform at SA Writers Centre last Saturday.

‘Life comes first, writing second,’ he said. It is out of our ongoing engagement with life and the people around us,  that we learn things, and from that engagement flows writing that is true. I suppose we can insert any occupation into that second clause. Life comes first, all these things come second: plumbing, doctoring, teaching, gardening, milking the cow, mowing the lawn.

In the unlikely event that any of my children read this, know that you are loved and truly, because of you, my life does not lack a material footing.

Vonnegut’s Letter to the Draft Board, 1967

When something rings true, time does’t diminish its timbre.

Penguin Blog

It’s fairly rare that the written word moves us to actual tears, but we’ve shed a few reading the very moving letter that Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaugherhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, wrote to the Vietnam Draft Board about his son’s registration as a conscientious objector in 1967. Demonstrating the meaning of fatherly love, it details the reasons Vonnegut is proud of his son for making the choice to refuse to fight.

November 28, 1967

TO DRAFT BOARD #1, SELECTIVE SERVICE,

HYANNIS, MASS.

Gentlemen:

My son Mark Vonnegut is registered with you. He is now in the process of requesting classification as a conscientious objector. I thoroughly approve of what he is doing. It is in keeping with the way I have raised him. All his life he has learned hatred for killing from me.

I was a volunteer in the Second World War. I was an infantry scout, saw…

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Acting on orders

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I have been listening to the audiobook “Ghostwritten” by David Mitchell, read by William Rycroft. Mitchell is a storyteller par excellence; his words transport me right into scenes as they unfold, for example, into a far flung hostel where a member of a cult group is in hiding after unleashing a gas attack on a Tokyo subway.

As the townsfolk shake their heads, unable to comprehend the motivation behind such senseless killing, a lady in the group, a teacher, suggests that none of the cult group members had chosen specifically to become killers. What they had done, she said, was to abdicate their inner selves.

She elaborated: ‘Society is an outer abdication. We abdicate certain freedoms, and in return we get civilisation. … However, we all have an inner self, that decides to what degree we honour this contract. This inner self is our own responsibility. I fear that many of the young men and women in the Fellowship handed this inner responsibility to their Guru, to do with as he pleased.’

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As part of my research into Cambodia for Place of Refuge, I am also reading ‘Facing the Torturer’ by Francois Bizot. In 1971, Bizot  convinced his Khmer Rouge captor, Duch, that he was not a spy. Duch, in turn, worked to secure Bizot’s freedom. The night before Bizot’s release, Duch confessed to Bizot how hard it had been to carry out his duties. Bizot recounted: “Finally, the young commander with whom I spoke every day … had revealed that he had to beat the prisoners himself. … It was nothing more than putting the ardour of his commitment into practice, the action being in proportion to the greatness of the revolutionary ends.”

Putting these two images side by side, one, a fictional cult member who gasses travellers because he believes the world is corrupted, and the other, a non-fictional account of a Khmer Rouge prison guard who vomited the first time he beat his prisoners, his own body rebelling against his task, I reflected on how, from time to time, we justify our actions, by saying that we are ‘acting under orders’.

I thought of the fishermen who delivered food to the Rohingya refugees adrift at sea. Was it their humanity that compelled them? How did the patrol guards feel when they had to tow boats away? (It has been reported that this is no longer the practice.) Did they have to suppress their natural human instinct to help their fellow man? Did they have to convince themselves that they had to a job to do, regardless of how unsavoury it was? That they had to be professional? What would I have done in their shoes?

If a person suppresses their conscience once, does that conscience slowly begin to die? Does it get easier the next time? In 1998, Bizot is startled when he visits a prison museum, and recognises Duch’s face in the exhibit, and ‘discovers the horrifying extent of his actions from 1975 to 1979, as well as his responsibility in the organisation of torture and executions. … I felt myself shivering as I thought of the brilliant young revolutionary I had known compared with this possessed being, who remained my fellow man.’

Bizot writes with great compassion, and also with fear, recognising that he is himself capable of evil, and capable of justifying evil. Each time we silence our conscience in the name of a ‘greater good’, do we deaden ourselves a little?