Author Interview: Annee Lawrence

Annee’s novel The Colour of Things Unseen is out now.

Tell us a bit about yourself? Where were you born? Grow up? What job do you do now? Before?

I was born in Australia and grew up on a sheep and wheat farm about 300 miles south west of Sydney. After high school, I went to university in Sydney where I did an arts degree and then drifted into working as a writer, editor and publications officer. Most of my publications work is in-house and freelance and revolved around social justice issues and this work eventually led me into women’s health promotion and community development work. In 2015, I graduated with a PhD in creative writing and for the past six years I have worked as a sessional tutor (and sometime lecturer) in the School of Humanities at Western Sydney University.

What is the name of your latest book and what inspired it?

The novel is called The Colour of Things Unseen and one of the central characters is a young Javanese man from a village in Central Java. His name is Adi and he is granted a three-year scholarship to attend art school in Sydney.

The novel was inspired initially by my deep interest in the often fractious relations between Australia and its near neighbour, Indonesia, and the demonization of Indonesia and Indonesians in the media, particularly over the conflict in East Timor during the 1990s. These events often impacted on my daughter as a child because her father is Javanese.

At a national level I was curious about the lack of cross-cultural understanding between our two countries, and at a personal level I was curious about why some cross-cultural relationships are successful, and others are not.

When I began writing the novel I discovered that many Australian novels set in Indonesia have Indonesian characters that are demonised in some way — shadowy, not to be trusted, even treacherous. Few, if any, of the novels presented Indonesian characters that were well-rounded or had a voice of their own, and not one reflected meaningful cross-cultural relationship.

This led me to ask questions about the possible role of literature in perpetuating stereotypes about certain others, for example:

  • Does literature play a part in Australian’s lack of curiosity about or knowledge of Indonesia’s rich histories, traditions, and cultures, even though many have visited there as tourists?
  • Could the way authors write or fail to write about other places and peoples contribute to a failure to esteem what we might discover about ourselves if we learned their language, read their literature, studied their history and architecture?
  • If literature is a part of the problem, what then could a different kind of literature “one that is less solipsistic” perhaps do?
  • Could literature open a door to greater awareness of ourselves in relation to other people and places? Could it stretch our horizons and lead to greater dialogue and listening, and opportunities to know their histories alongside our own and vice versa?

The key question then was whether it is possible to write about a character who has a very different background to one’s own. And if so, how might one do that without doing harm or stereotyping? And, was there a way I, as an Australian woman writer, could ethically and aesthetically write an Indonesian character who is believable to Indonesian and non-Indonesian readers?

One among many guides with me on this journey was the art historian Stanley J O’Connor (1995) who characterises the deep study of art originating from other cultures as involving a ‘risking [of] the self so that it may be broadened and deepened, so that it will be rooted fully in its time and place in a way that is effective, responsible, and imaginatively rich’ (153). For O’Connor, such study is therefore about the furthest thing from demonization for the purposes of domination and exploitation.

In The Colour of Things Unseen, my intention was — through the eyes of the characters Adi and Lisa — to make Sydney strange and Yogyakarta and Adi’s home village in Central Java familiar to non-Indonesian readers, and vice versa for Indonesian readers. I also wished to imagine the experience of being in a very different culture to one’s own, and how the sheer vulnerability that requires leads, as O’Connor puts it, to living “in a more wakeful, mindful and composed way in the adventive present of a world we are actually making” (153).

Themes explored in the novel include migration, cross-cultural encounter and dialogue, creative arts practice as a way of life, the giving and receiving of hospitality, and the impacts of social, cultural and political change (local and geopolitical) on people and places.

How much research do you do? Have you visited the places you write about in the book?

I do a lot. As well as reading Indonesian history, culture and art history, in 2012 I spent two months in Yogyakarta while working on the second part of the novel. On that trip I was lucky to also run a focus group with artists of the same generation as my character.

By ‘research’ I tend to mean reading, talking to people and hanging out. I have certainly visited and stayed in the places I write about and I have a good friend in Yogyakarta who is Javanese and an anthropologist, and she has been a great sounding board for me in relation to the characters.

Initially Adi’s village was constructed as a composite of the different villages in Java and Bali that I knew, but then I had to settle on one place in particular to ensure the details of place were geographically authentic; hence the river, the rice fields radiating out from the edges of the village and separating it from villages nearby, and no palm trees!

Life imitating art, or not? I began studying Indonesian during the early 1990s when my daughter was a toddler. Since then, we have regularly visited Indonesia to be with family and friends in Bali and Central Java. This novel is inspired by all of those rich and varied connections.

In 1997 when I began work on the novel’s first manifestation as a filmscript, my daughter was just nine. Since then she has attended art school in Sydney and Yogyakarta, and she is currently a practising visual artist. Her father (and late step mother) is a painter too but, unlike Adi, he never lived or studied art in Sydney.

Tell us about your lead characters? Who would you like to see playing them in a movie version of your book?

I have no idea who might play my characters, but I do have a very clear sense of their energy, and how they would look and move and interact with one another!

Adi grows up in a batik-producing village in Central Java which he leaves in 1997 to go to study at an art school in Sydney. He is just twenty and a year later the Suharto dictatorship is toppled and replaced by a democracy. After graduation, Adi’s career as an artist takes off in Sydney and he begins a relationship with Lisa whom he marries. When his marriage to Lisa breaks down, Adi returns to the village after a fifteen-year absence and discovers that while he has changed, so too have the social, economic and political attitudes of his family and community.

When Adi and Lisa later reconnect, it is on new terrain — in Yogyakarta, and she has been there for some months, learning Indonesia and doing research into some contemporary female artists.

Other characters in the novel are the members of Adi’s family – his mother, father, step-mother, sister, aunts, nieces and nephews; the inhabitants of the Darlo Boarding House in Sydney where Adi lives with Marj, Archie, Bert and Akira; the gallerist Gerardo Pettini; and the counsellor from the Islamic Council of Churches, Pak Bambang and his Lebanese-Australian wife Wafa and their two daughters.

What else have you written? Is this book a departure from your other work?

This book is the first of two novels that explore cross-cultural Indonesian-Australian relationships.

I have written one other novel and a work of creative non-fiction that have yet to be published.

Other texts are I Always Wanted to Be A Tap Dancer: Women with Disabilities (editor) and (with Nola Colefax) Signs of Change: My Autobiography and History of Australian Theatre of the Deaf 1973-1983.

How do you write? Do you have a special place or routine?

I work from home mostly but will occasionally attend a writing retreat.

I tend to work on my creative work during the university semester breaks and then I work regular office hours.

What were you like at school? Were you good at English?

I loved reading books and discussing ideas as a girl but it wasn’t until I went to university that I found people who enjoyed them in the same way I did.

My town did not have a library so books were a rare treat. I was sent away to boarding school for my high school education, and the school had a library. So that was a great thing and I read my way through Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy as well as Australian women writers such as Miles Franklin and Henry Handel Richardson. I think reading was a great means of escape, and a way of countering my terrible and enduring homesickness.

One favourite discovery was Charmian Clift’s Peel Me a Lotus about the time she, her Australian writer husband George Johnston (My Brother Jack) and their children lived on a Greek island. The book opened my teenage eyes to the possibility of living across borders, and the magic and challenges that might offer.

What authors, or books have influenced you?

Inspiring writers at various times include: Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Henry James, Patrick White, Margaret Atwood, Alexis Wright, Judith Wright.

More recently I have enjoyed Antonio Tabucci’s Pereira Maintains, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

The first Indonesian novels I enjoyed reading were Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s quartet set in Indonesia under Dutch colonialism; and more recently, Eka Kuniawan’s Beauty is A Wound.

Edward Said’s Orientalism has had a huge impact on my thinking about how we might live in harmony, peace and respect with those whose histories, stories and culture are different to ours.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel set in Sydney, Brisbane and Dutch New Guinea before and after the Japanese surrender in August 1945. The novel is inspired by Jan Lingard’s remarkable history: Refugees and Rebels: Indonesian Exiles in Wartime Australia.

The novel’s central character, Yanti, is a young Indonesian woman whose family was interned as political prisoners in Dutch New Guinea during the 1930s and 1940s. When the Japanese begin dropping bombs on the internment camp, the Dutch decide to transfer all 500 internees (including wives and children) to Australia. They arrive in a freezing cold winter in mid-1943 with scarcely any warm clothing and find themselves locked up in a prisoner of war camp. After the Australian government insists on their release into the community, Yanti encounters various Australian women who play an active role in supporting the Indonesian struggle for independence after the republic was declared on 17 August 1945.

What are you reading now?

Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains.

Boochani is an Iranian author, journalist and refugee who has been locked up in Australia’s offshore detention centre on Manus Island in New Guinea for six years. The book just won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize.

What is your favourite book of all time?

I have so many! Recently I re-read Anne of Green Gables to see what I might have got from it as a child. I suspect it was my first connection with feminist thinking and ideas about social justice. Perhaps it planted a seed in me that I could choose to live a life less ordinary.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Firstly, you won’t know what you want to write until it is written. So, take the plunge and set aside the time to get the work written – set word count goals if necessary. When you have a first rough draft, it is time to begin revising and redrafting. Don’t be surprised if that all takes years!

Secondly, keep reading. It is from other writers that we learn about structure (form), style, voice, character, narration (story), time, and innovative ways of using language, and crafting sentences. This applies whether it is fiction or non-fiction you are writing.

Thirdly, a community of support is important. These are family, friends, teachers or other writers who give you encouragement and never denigrate your efforts. Writing courses are also a good way to build a network of support, and may be helpful too in developing your craft. You could even join or form a writing group.

Finally, be discerning about whom you show your work to, and when. I avoid showing my work to anyone in the early stages.

Do you have a website or social media platforms where readers can find more information about you and your books?

See also: