WELL-READ IN BEIJING
Tom Keneally talks to Rowan Callick about his longstanding relationship with China, as well as works-in-progress and ideas for the future
Tom Keneally has been bustling around Beijing, books of the future on his mind as much as the 54 already under his belt. Readers have been on his mind, too. China, after all, is the world’s most populous and most literate country.
On a recent trip, Chinese translator Li Yao buttonholed him at an Australian embassy reception for Australian Writers Week, asking for new books. The author made sure to stuff a couple of recent novels into his briefcase as he headed off for a discussion at Peking University on translated literature, alongside Li, who has translated more than 30 Australian works.
Keneally, 81, began travelling frequently to China to speak at the writers festivals organised in Hong Kong then Shanghai by Michelle Garnaut, one of China’s most famous foreign restaurateurs in the country (and “a magnificent Australian”, in the author’s words).
He first visited China in 1980 with his friend the historian Geoffrey Blainey, through the Australia China Council. He recalls Blainey’s “patently sincere” interest in the country, intensely manifested in his fascination with the larger-scale economic significance of a woman farming beans on the muddy banks of the Dadu River, a tributary of the Yangtze in Sichuan; she was allowed to keep the crop, in return for accepting the risk that a flood might ruin it.
“It was a more raw China,” Keneally says. “Everyone wore Mao jackets. People would ask tentative questions — often in perfect English — out of the blue.”
Now, things are different. “On my last trip here,” Keneally says, “I had the sense I was in California” — especially at universities, whose architecture is dazzling and where the “students seemed as forthright and as glamorously dressed” as the buildings they studied in. Keneally remarks too, about the Chinese shift to capitalism. That the ruling communist party was able to suppress that spirit for so long, until recent decades, “is fascinating to me”, he says.
Chinese consumers continue to buy large numbers of books. But like most foreign authors published in China, Keneally has no idea how many volumes he has sold in the country.
Seven have been translated, four of which are still in print — led by Schindler’s Ark, the Booker Prize-winning book turned into the Oscar-winning Spielberg film Schindler’s List.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was published in China “in the old days”. “But not one of these posh editions we see today. It was popular in the old Soviet countries, too. Shows what a pinko I was,” he says.
Keneally is impressed by the quality of the Chinese publications. “We are limited by the size of our population in Australia,” he says, “while China’s is both enormous and literate. Publishers in both Shanghai and Beijing are so hungry for Australian stuff. It’s amazing.”
He describes “a kind of Chinese politeness that is misleading”, since it conceals great enthusiasm. Western audiences and publishers do not share that hunger for work in foreign languages, he says. “If we had the equivalents of Professor Li living in Australia, we would get a lot more Chinese works published in translation — though that’s probably going to be much less profitable for the Chinese writer than for us Australians being published in China.”
Jan Adams, Australia’s ambassador to China, said Li’s work has brought some of Australia’s best-loved authors into classrooms, libraries and homes across the Asian country.
He has recently been translating Coal Creek by Alex Miller, two times winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and Alexis Miller’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted The Swan Book.
“I love Australian literature,” says Li. “It is an important pillar of world literature. Over the past four decades, I have nurtured great friendships with many outstanding authors from Australia. “In translating their works, my own life has changed immensely.”
Keneally is all the more appreciative of Li’s skill because he knows language can be “a terrible barrier”. He recalls being interviewed by a Chinese journalist who asked, after reading a book not translated by Li, “why I didn’t believe in love. I assured him I did — and that his view must have come from a mistranslation,” Keneally says.
The author receives quite a few letters from students at Chinese universities, “usually concentrating on motivational and pragmatic questions” such as whether people can really exchange dreams, or on the most themes such as women losing children.
This most famous and most diversely motivated of Australian writers remains unconcerned about the trend to restrict point of view to the writer’s age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and direct experience. Since the 1990s he has “tried to write from the point of view of women”, he says.
He exults in Australia’s growing diversity, making it a desirable destination for people from around the world.
“When I first went to Britain, in 1970, people actually said to me Australia was one place they’d never wanted to go,” he says. “In my lifetime, Australia has become very desirable, and we’re lucky that so many people with so many different rites are coming — with the exception of Islamic terrorism, that’s one of course we would like to skip.”
He describes growing up in “a secluded, more insular Australia”. His mother was fascinated by strangers; his father less so. His dad was disconcerted, for instance, by recently arrived Turkish farmers slaughtering goats in their backyards.
But he challenges the notion that Australians were always isolated. He loves to chase weighty
Tom Keneally, above; the Chinese translation of Schindler’s List, below