Michelle de Kretser: The collector


Prize winning Sri Lankan born author who’s made waves

in Australia

MICHELLE de Kretser’s house sits in a street of once-beautiful Federation brick cottages in the inner-west Sydney suburb of Dulwich Hill. Successive waves of immigrants - Greeks, Italians, Vietnamese, Arabs - have each added their own brand of flair. Across the road an elderly man has an impressive veggie patch behind a front fence of concrete trees in the shape of Lebanese cedars.

"He grew more than 90 kilos of beans last year," the Miles Franklin winner tells me in awe. The previous owners of de Kretser’s dwelling plonked a chunky cement carport, with a balcony above, clad in’70s kitchen tiles, on to the front of the house - the result resembles a handsome-faced old man with a goitre.

"We could never have afforded it unless it was so ugly," de Kretser says, leading me up the stairs past the carport. But she loves the house and she adores the street where behind every Roman column there’s a story of a family uprooted and replanted on the other side of the planet, much like her own.

Four years ago, when de Kretser and her partner, Chris Andrews, a poet, decided to relocate from Melbourne to Sydney, she discovered the joys of modern house-hunting. "The previous time we’d looked was 1990, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, before the internet," she says. "The web satisfied all my writer’s voyeuristic impulses because suddenly you had pictures inside people’s houses - I had no idea this was going on. There were no books in sight and no pictures on the walls, apart from photographs of brides, strangely."

Surfing away, she discovered that a German Jewish woman called Irene had lived in the street where they were to buy. In the 1930s, her father had either been killed or died of natural causes and Irene and her mother fled to England, where Irene married for citizenship. In 1941 or’42, when a German invasion seemed imminent, Irene and her mother made a suicide pact and both took cyanide tablets - her mother died and Irene survived. She was charged with murder and sentenced to hang. "But the King commuted the sentence," de Kretser reveals triumphantly. "She was released after a few months and emigrated to Australia ... Here you have this great sweep of European history, this wonderful human story, and the woman lived in the house next door."

It is this sharp eye and burning curiosity for details, small and grand - the 90kg of beans, the flight from Nazi Germany - magically woven that have made de Kretser, 55, one of Australia’s most acclaimed novelists. "The hidden stories," she calls them. It has earned her high praise from literary giants such as Hilary Mantel and A.S. Byatt. "This is the best novel I have read in a long time," Byatt wrote of de Kretser’s novel The Lost Dog in a Financial Times review. "The writing is elegant and subtle, and [she] knows how to construct a gripping yarn."

De Kretser’s win in this year’s Miles Franklin for Questions of Travel tops an impressive list of awards she has won for it and her three previous books, The Lost Dog, The Hamilton Case and The Rose Grower. Australian author Robert Dessaix makes the bold claim that she is our finest living writer. "That’s a subjective statement, of course, but it is my opinion. Lots of people are telling interesting stories, and telling them well, but I don’t think anyone else in Australia is using English in the way she does."

Dessaix says she has a natural, easy empathy with everyone she meets, be it a famous author, her neighbours or her local shopkeeper. "She wants to know what it is like to be you," he says. "She wants to know what you were feeling and the words you use to describe your disappointments, your joys, your victories. She is not mining for stories - it’s just the way she is and it makes friendship with her something very special."

On a sunny winter day, with her dog Minnie leading the way, de Kretser and I head off to the nearby Cooks River. Minnie, a pound dog, "best guess, beagle-whippet cross", wears a little coat with weights in it; her dog trainer suggested it for a workout. De Kretser is dressed in a comfy blue hand-knitted jumper and is wearing in a new pair of walking boots, disappointed her old boots have given way after eight years of service. Her hair is shaved on top and in a ponytail at the back in some sort of version of the Mohican style. She has beautiful, youthful skin and speaks in the slightly haughty tone of a South Asian of a certain class and education - English from a bygone era. She is terrific company; warm, engaging and witty.

As we trot off towards the river, de Kretser tells me she was born in Colombo, in what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where her father was a judge - they were Dutch Burghers of mixed European and South Asian descent. She was the last of four children, 10 years younger than her nearest sibling, and was brought up almost as an only child with "benign neglect - a loner but not lonely". She sought company in books and lived a life of relative privilege in a big house with a cook, a driver and a maid.

The early’70s were a time of great turmoil in Sri Lanka. A left-wing uprising was brewing, which was "anti-establishment and anti-intellectual and anyone who spoke English, like us, would have been killed, for a start". But it was quelled with brutal efficiency; she heard the stories of bodies floating down rivers but, living in Colombo, she was largely unaffected. It was also a time of language politics where, in independence fervour, English was being phased out in schools in favour of Sinhalese. Her siblings were getting married and felt their children would have more opportunities being educated in English. And so in 1971, when she was 14, the family moved from their big house in Colombo to a flat in Elwood, Melbourne, where de Kretser went to the local high school.

It was an upheaval for her parents but she remembers it as a great adventure and she fitted in well; not at all an oddity, just another migrant kid among many.

We’re at a bend in the river now and the conversation is interrupted as another dog comes into view. Minnie doesn’t much like other dogs and as each one approaches de Kretser scurries behind a tree and shields her dog’s eyes, or veers off the path, until the danger has passed. De Kretser diligently avoids placing friends or relatives in her novels - her characters are always fictional, she insists - but her dogs always make an appearance, as mad as they are in life.

Arriving here as a kid, she was acutely aware that the language was different from the English she’d grown up with - she has a wonderful ear for the Australian tongue, and for humour. She collects phrases and idioms that local-born writers could easily miss. In Questions of Travel Ravi, a Sri Lankan refugee, arrives in Australia to be sheltered in the backyard sleepout of the kindly Hazel, where "the mustard wall-to-wall had been put in for Col, her eldest, when his father died, said Hazel.

‘Carpet can be crucial at a time like that.’" The book is set largely in Colombo and Sydney and follows the stories of Ravi, who flees his homeland following the murder of his wife and child, and Laura, a drifter and traveller who eventually finds her way home to Sydney to work in travel publishing. For Sydneysiders, reading the novel is to see the city afresh, a place where "the Pacific never tired of rubbing up the city, a lively blue hand slipping in to grope."

Likewise, a stroll with de Kretser is to see old haunts in a new light. As it happens, I live just a few streets away; in the past the lovely old Lebanese gardener across from her has advised me on what to do about grubs in my tomatoes. I have walked along the river many times but today it radiates; it’s like a trek through a forest with David Attenborough. A pair of peeping Toms, we peer into each backyard fronting the river, discussing vegie patches, Mediterranean additions and our wariness of those who feel the need to hoist the Australian flag.

She takes me on a detour to see a tree. They feature regularly in her novels and I ask where she gained her love of them. "Doesn’t everyone love trees?" she replies, surprised it could be otherwise, as we head up to a spot in Earlwood where a massive sandstone cliff dwarfs the suburban street beneath. She loves this about Sydney, the parts that are untamed, with their original eucalypts; that you can walk into someone’s backyard and "there’ll be this great lump of sandstone, rearing up from the earth - Delia Falconer describes it beautifully as being like a badly taxidermied animal".

The cliff radiates heat and acts as a wind barrier, she explains, creating its own microclimate.

"Here it is," she says, pointing to a lush tree in a front yard. "It’s a breadfruit tree, a tropical tree, and here it is flourishing in Sydney." A Vietnamese man wanders out while we are admiring the breadfruit and he and de Kretser fall into conversation. The man explains that his father used to maintain the tree, but he died, and it’s beyond his elderly mum. "Now, some Indian man - he come, he trim tree free and take bit fruit - good him, good us." She smiles, and files, I imagine, and we move on.

After school and Melbourne University, de Kretser did a master’s degree in literature at the University of Paris, met an Englishman she would marry and returned to Melbourne to start her PhD. Of the marriage, she says: "I mean, we were in love, but if we had met in Australia we would have just lived together. It was the easiest way to get him into the country."

It ended quickly and relatively painlessly.

At the University of Melbourne she, along with others, founded the journal antiTHESIS.

Chris Andrews was its poetry editor, five years her junior. "I spotted him and said, ‘That’s for me’ and hunted him down," she says. They have been together 26 years. In his book, Lime Green Chair, Andrews wrote a beautiful poem for her called My Life without You.

Next year it will be 20 years already / You’ve probably forgotten all the times / you made all the difference (if you ever knew) / by not being otherwise than you are: / a perfect stranger to dinginess. You were / the barefoot breeze along the bracing path, / the breathable light, and the ocean washed air.

They share a love of books, walking, dogs, words, ideas and conversation, the writer and academic Gail Jones tells me. "They lead very much an old-fashioned life where they like to grow their own vegetables, cook slow food, read books in comfy chairs at night and have friends over for long and meaningful conversations.

They go on month-long walking holidays to France, which is a kind of contemplative, introspective, slow way of being.

"He is absolutely devoted - I think of them as a couple like Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

There are some people who are utterly a couple and are bound in profound ways."

I later relay this to de Kretser - Virginia was famously frugal in the bedroom, with Leonard at least, and I say for Andrews’ sake that I hope her friend’s comparison is not too literal. She laughs.

"Yes, let’s hope so; I mean I’d hate to have to drown myself as Virginia did." They chose not to have children, she says, because neither of them had a great, burning desire to do so.

De Kretser fell into publishing, working as an editor with the Lonely Planet travel guides for a decade she set up an office for the company in Paris and, in her last years with the publisher, edited its travel literature titles. But she was bored, the work was repetitive and, at the age of 40, when the company introduced a policy where employees could take a year’s leave without pay, she jumped at it. "I thought I would spend the year walking the dog, cooking, doing some gardening and, you know, just living."

But she also started writing, 500 words a day.

The words kept coming and before the end of the year she found she had a novel, The Rose Grower, set in France during the revolution. She sent it to a publisher. "A week before I was due to go back to Lonely Planet I got my first offer for my first book," she says. "How good is that!

I just took it as a sign from the universe that I was not meant to go back, so I didn’t."

Jane Palfreyman, de Kretser’s publisher at Allen & Unwin, says her previous books have sold reasonably well "at around 20,000 each" in Australia. They have been well and widely reviewed overseas, although her London agent, Sarah Lutyens, won’t say what the sales in the US and UK have been. "I think the word I would use is respectable," she writes. "Is an adjective adequate?"

Whatever the previous sales have been they are sure to be eclipsed by Questions of Travel the Miles Franklin is an award that sells books and places her on an illustrious list that includes Patrick White, TomKeneally, George Johnston, Xavier Herbert, Thea Astley, Peter Carey, Tim Winton and Anna Funder. De Kretser is about to be read by a lot more people and since her win her book has been sailing off the shelves.

"Her originality is the thing that amazes me every time," Palfreyman says. "Her way of looking at the world is completely unique and tells you something about that world when you read her books. She can make these searing, insightful comments about history or politics - or just about the human heart. It is that balance, about the small and the large comprehension of how the world works. And she can be incredibly funny, which is unusual in serious literature."

Her books are often about displacement and she explores this in depth in Questions of Travel, as well as the question of travel itself. "The thing about travel is that not everyone in the world can do it. I mean it’s a wonderful thing, a wonderful privilege to be a tourist. We buy ourselves a trip to wherever in the same way as we buy ourselves a coffee or a lovely meal or a nice shirt. But you know, if you are Sri Lankan or Pakistani or Bangladeshi ... there are one billion tourists in the world each year, which means there are some six billion who aren’t."

She explores how locals view tourists and takes the perspective of the refugee, looking at Australia and Australians, and what they’ve fled.

Reminiscing of home, everyone stuck to food, plants, childhood, the weather. Ravi assumed that somewhere else, if only on the treadmill of the mind, the reasons that had brought them to Australia were rehearsed. Or perhaps that was how memory triumphed, in the end, over regimes: by according politics less significance than a flower.

"This is a novel unlike any other I have read," A.S. Byatt wrote of Questions of Travel in The Guardian. "It is hard for a reviewer to describe because it seems to proceed with an uncanny lightness, in glimpses and sudden shifts. De Kretser is a master storyteller and again and again prepares small - and large - shocks that explode tens of pages later ... it is not really possible to describe, in a short space, the originality and depth of this long and beautifully crafted book. It isn’t easy to read because the reader is always in danger of missing something significant.

It has an extraordinary ending. It persists in the mind long after the last page."

The Miles Franklin judge Richard Neville says de Kretser deals deftly with contemporary issues, such as the plight of asylum seekers and our attitude to them, but not in a self-righteous way. De Kretser says she was conscious of portraying Ravi as multi-dimensional, a person with faults and dreams, not some idealised version of what an asylum seeker should be. She tells me she met the Indian writer Suketu Mehta at a writer’s festival. "He said to me, ‘To tell the truth I didn’t want to go to Australia, I was frightened, I thought it was racist and I would be given a really hard time; I didn’t think I’d even get through Immigration,’ but of course he had a wonderful time. But that is the message that is circulating out in the world about Australia."

In her 42 years here De Kretser says she can only recall two incidents of overt racism - carpark rants where she was called a black bitch and that there seems to be a great divide between much of the population and the race to the bottom between Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott for the cruellest policy. "I have encountered a great decency in Australians and I can’t see why our politicians can’t tap into what is good in us, rather than inciting the ugly."

After our walk de Kretser and I, Minnie and another dog, Ollie - the only other dog Minnie can tolerate - settle down in a large room at the back of the house over tea and home-made chocolate cake. The space is crammed with books and inviting chairs to read them in. De Kretser is a collector of objects from flea markets - rose-printed cake tins, chamber pots, teapots - and these sit above and beside the books. "I like to rescue lost things," she says of her eclectic collection.

"I think it is related to writing; writing is about noticing things that other people might miss and putting them in a book."

I mention Byatt’s staggeringly good review in The Guardian. She says she hasn’t read it and took the decision after her first book not to read any reviews. "It’s just a form of self-defence," she says. "You need to feel confident to be able to write and the reviews come at a time when you should be thinking about the next book. I have had so many writers quote to me criticism from reviews they received 20 years earlier. I don’t want to carry that stuff with me." But she has heard the Byatt review is good. is like the opposite of a cyanide pill, I’m saving it up for a bad day and I’m going to read it and feel good."

As for her next book, she’s not really sure. She says she possibly has only one book left in her.

"Writing is a gift, there’s no point panicking and pushing it; if it comes it will, if it doesn’t it won’t. I was a late starter, 40 before I wrote my first novel, and I love editing. If I can’t write another novel I will try to be an editor and make it that way."

She says there ought to be a special bond between author and reader. Last Christmas, she and Andrews had planned to have a picnic lunch by the harbour in one of those parks with views that only Sydney can offer. But it rained. "And so we just sat here, reading all day. I was reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child and I just loved it. We had a candlelit dinner with our special Christmas food and it was really magical.

I’ll remember it when I have forgotten other Christmas days. I was moved by the day and I was so moved by the book - two years after Hollinghurst published it, and he never knew.

That is the beauty of being an author - you can give someone on the other side of the world a really good day. Isn’t that a wonderful thing?"

* by: Greg Bearup

* From: The Australian

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