[Issue 12 / 1 Feb 15]
BULLYING IN AUSTRALIAN SCHOOLS, THE QUESTION OF CLASS & THE GRAY IN HUMAN STORIES
By Kulpreet Yadav
Christos Tsiolkas is the author of five novels: Loaded, which was made into the feature film Head-On, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe, which won the 2006 Age Fiction Prize and the 2006 Melbourne Best Writing Award. He won Overall Best Book in the Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2009, was shortlisted for the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award, longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and won the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal for his novel, The Slap, which was also announced as the 2009 Australian Booksellers Association and Australian Book Industry Awards Books of the Year. He is also a playwright, essayist and screen writer. He lives in Melbourne.
This interview was arranged by the Australian High Commission in India and conducted at The Leela hotel, New Delhi.
Kulpreet Yadav: How many Danny Kellys do we have in Australian schools? Does bullying inspire students to outperform others? In India ragging in schools and colleges is banned by law. Is it the same in Australia?
Christos Tsiolkas: It’s a hard question. I think I drew on my own experiences when I was a student. Because like Danny I was someone who came from the migrant part of the city to an Anglo school, like Danny arrives at the Cunts College. At school I was targeted for being a Greek. Now of course there are laws to control bullying but it still happens. Nowadays most of the bullying happens online. But bullying is not the central theme of my novel, Barracuda. I wanted to show the group mentality of boys in the Australian schools, and since sports is an important aspect of the Australian culture, I made Danny a swimmer.
KY: Have you ever been to India before? Do you think Indian readers will be able to relate to the characters in your books?
CT: I have been here in India only for 3 days. But India seems to be quite a complex society and I’m not sure who an average Indian reader is. But in our globalized world, there are common experiences that we have as members of a particular class, as members of a particular world. For example, the question of how do we raise our children? Or what’s it like to live in an increasingly multi-cultural world? I think it will be a mistake to second guess the reader. Right from the beginning I wrote for myself. I write because this is the story I want to tell. For me my own voice is very important because if you change that you betray your own craft. Because the market is always shifting. There is no ideal reader but I assume a reader wants to be challenged. I wrote Slap as a very Melbourne story, about class, about family life, and the surprising thing is it was successful in so many different parts of the world, and that’s the reason I trust my own voice.
KY: As a person of Green origin, have you faced racial discrimination in Australia as a student or a writer?
CT: Yes, I have experienced racism. As I said before my moving to an Anglo school is one of the formative experiences that I am very aware of. When you are a child and you see how your parents are treated, how people use derogatory words on the street while addressing them. When my parents arrived in Australia they first worked the fields and then they were factory workers. I came from a very working class background and that’s why class is such an important thing for me. Now I am here in Delhi and all this has been possible because of my parents, who worked hard to raise me and my brother. I think this knowledge for me is very important, and it affects how I write, and why I write. But the Australian society has changed in all these years. When my father emigrated in 1955, Australia still had the white Australian policy which included Greeks as non-whites. Whites were predominantly from Britain and northern European countries. But now with the third generation Greeks accepted in the society, the targets of racism are the Chinese and the Indians. Australia has a very ugly racist history. I think as a country we still sometimes bow to the United Kingdom as the source of our culture. I think the real vitality in Australian writing will come when we abandon the English English and write the Australian English.
KY: Why do you write: to entertain, to highlight social issues, or to push the boundaries of creative expression and impress people?
CT: As I child when I heard someone say ‘writing saved my life’ I completely understood what I had to do. I had to take the rage that was within me on the paper. But as I started writing more and more I realized it is work, a craft, an apprenticeship that doesn’t end.
There is some literary fiction that is very hard to understand, but I write because I want to tell a great story. I think David Peace is one of my favorite British writers who write crime. He is a master of the English language and is also a great story teller. I like my readers to start reading about my character who is not particularly likeable, who has made terrible mistakes, bad choices, so that the readers can have compassion for that character. And as you can see, clearly, this is a social motivation.
In Australian politics, as also in our literature and media, we are very black and white about things. The gray area has been forgotten. But human life is not that like that. People make mistakes; I have made mistakes too. Because that is how life is. I want the readers to say this after reading my novel: I understand this man.
KY: The adaption of a novel into a movie: is it a boon or a bane?
CT: In adaptation the most important thing is the trust between the writer and the film maker. I have been very lucky. For the Slap series I spent three weeks with the writers and the filmmakers making them understand why I wrote that novel. I think I am very satisfied with the way the collaborative effort has gone.
KY: Your literary influences? Any Indian writer you admire?
CT: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and of course Salman Rushdie, who is a hero for anyone of us born in the diaspora, in any part of the world.
Founder-Editor of Open Road Review, Kulpreet Yadav’s latest novel Catching the Departed, shortlisted by Hachette-DNA in a contest called ‘Hunt for the Next Bestseller’, was launched at The Arts House, Singapore on 18 July 2014. He lives in New Delhi. More at www.kulpreetyadav.in