Tom Ke­neally talks to Rowan Cal­lick about his long­stand­ing re­la­tion­ship with China, as well as works-in-progress and ideas for the fu­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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