by Gail Jones
Published by Harvill Secker
256 pages, 2008
The author of four novels that combine elements of photography, cinema and painting, Australian Gail Jones could well be considered a multimedia artist. Her literary work is highly visual, a carefully constructed montage of visceral images whose pacing owes much to her love of film.
Gail Jones recently traveled to Shanghai, China as part of the annual Shanghai Literary Festival. I was on hand to hear the soft-spoken novelist open with a reading from the award-winning Sixty Lights, a story told as a series of 60 photographic images or flashes that illuminate the lives of her characters. In her stunning opening passage, an Indian man falls while carrying a mirror and dies, bleeding among the mirror’s shards.
Jones explains that her work often starts with an image. “In this case, I had the image of a man being speared with a mirror.”
A former painter, she is interested in “the construction of beautiful objects,” and particularly in creating arresting images.
“In a very tight, compressed narrative there might be all these moments of magnesium flash,” Jones says. “I’m fascinated by the early years of photography, the moment when there was a kind of jubilation in affirming the existence of being in the world through the image. If you read the early sources on the photographic enterprise, there is indeed this immense sense of affirmation, a kind of double self, [an idea] that the self exists both in the material sense but also as a representation.”
In the 21st century photography has lost some of its mystique; for most families, snapshots are commonplace and even banal. Jones “want[s] to go back to the moment of the photograph when it was a miraculous discovery, when the image coming out of the solution or being cast onto a glass plate was something astounding.”
When constructing Sixty Lights, Jones considered the idea of “trimming a narrative by deciding which themes to extend, which to compress,” seeking “a certain aesthetic that recognizes duration as fundamental to the way we read.”
The plot, too, and its pair of orphaned siblings, owes something to her childhood.
“I’m very attracted to the melodramatic tale, which comes out of my childhood,” she explains, “watching B-grade movies rather than reading movies. We didn’t have access to books but I did go to the pictures.”
Her latest novel, Sorry, opens with a similarly shocking scene, the murder of a white anthropologist in Australia. The attack is witnessed by a white girl and her Aboriginal friend. The Aboriginal girl takes the blame, while the white girl forgets the traumatic event, an allegory for Australia’s own troubled past concerning “the stolen generations” of Aboriginal children forcibly taken from their homes by the Australian government between 1910 and 1970.
Jones began working on Sorry in the ninth year of John Howard’s tenure as Prime Minister of Australia, and witnessed Howard’s refusal to offer restitution for the crime.
“Many people were feeling that the sense of civic self in Australia had been utterly changed by [Howard’s] conservative government. We could never have believed that there were would be detention centers in the desert with children held behind razor wire.”
By 2002, when she wrote Sorry, such atrocities seemed terrifyingly more believable.
“I wanted to write about historical amnesia,” Jones says, “what it means to forget ... to have history with a gap in it.”
The murder is the center of the story, which is recalled again and again in segments that resemble camera flashes or a cinematic montage, as characters seek the whole truth in a sea of shifting images.
“There are lot of things [in my work] about duration, image, space and time, the idea of the traumatic time, which is a time that is broken, and that is recursive.”
Summer Block: Let’s start with some questions about your most recent novel, Sorry. The novel is about forgetting and remembering, and the ways that people and nations can choose to eradicate difficult memories of the past. What is the balance between acknowledging the past, and not letting it dictate your present? Is there a way to truly atone for past national sins? Is it ever possible to really move on and say, OK, now we can put this behind us?
Gail Jones: There is no single response to these complex issues. Each country negotiates its own highly specific history; however the issue of remembering or forgetting is central to all. I am reminded of Milan Kundera’s famous statement: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The first responsibility is to remember what it serves the state to repress; the second to recall, to tell and to consider the recovered history through the lens of justice.
My novel allegorizes the “forgetting” of the so-called Stolen Generations in Australia, those Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families by order of state policy from about 1900 to 1970. The anguish and suffering of these people is the basis for a collection of heart-rending testimonies delivered to the Australian Parliament in May 1997. One of the recommendations of the report was that the government of the day offer a formal apology to indigenous Australians for the wrongs done to them. The [Howard Liberal] government refused to say “sorry,” a matter that was rectified [recently] when the new Labour government in Australia, under the leadership of Kevin Rudd, issued an apology at the opening of parliament. This did not necessarily atone or repair the hurt, but it did signal a new initiative for reconciliation and dialogue between Aboriginal and other Australians.
Here in China there is a big debate about children’s textbooks and their view of Chinese history, particularly regarding Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and also debates in the US about how we teach our children about Native Americans and the colonization of the country. How can we find a balance, a way to teach children about their country’s true history while still fostering some positive kinds of patriotism and civil engagement?
I think the best education is one that admits fully the mistakes as well as the achievements of the past. Children learn by circumspectly understanding that the world is not perfect, that mistakes have been made, and that the struggle for justice within communities involves admitting injustices have occurred. We have a responsibility to the next generations to offer not simply reassuring or triumphal narratives of nation and identity, but to allow then to consider the complexity of living with conflict, competing interests and dominant and dissenting narratives of nation.
I’d like to turn now to your previous novels, Sixty Lights and Dreams of Speaking. In both, you discuss the ways that new technology -- cameras, telephones -- changes our way of seeing the world. You refer to these technologies as a “beautiful form of knowledge,” and describe part of your literary project as an effort to “de-familiarize the banal.” What is the relationship between the way that cinema handles time, space, and perspective, and the way that a novel can? How does this relate to your own style, and to your methods of structuring a narrative?
This is a big question! I teach cinema, as well as literature and I do believe that cinematic knowledge and contemporary technologies are changing the ways in which we tell stories and the ways we imagine our experience. As a writer I’m interested in considering how the image, rather than the plot (although of course it’s still crucial) shapes our conceptual and emotional responses in reading. Time and space are deftly handled in cinema (since editing is a kind of “sculpting in time,” as the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky put it); novels could benefit by a more virtuosic and audacious treatment of story and image.
Can you comment briefly on the Australian literary scene? What characterizes it, or distinguishes it from those in the United States or the United Kingdom? Do you still consider yourself a part of the Australian literary scene, despite your very international audience?
The Australian literary scene is very vibrant and multicultural. There is an understanding now that there is not one single Australian identity, but many; and there is a welcoming of many perspectives, forms and modes in writing practice. This seems to me the sign of healthy creativity and genuine artistic exploration. A thousand flowers are blooming in each space and these flowers are various and complicated.
The scenes in the US and Britain seem to me more governed by large multinational publishing houses and their interests: one of the encouraging and exciting aspects of the Australian literary scene is the emergence of strong and vigorous independent publishing houses, ones that take risks outside the mainstream and open the space of publication to more people.
Australia enjoys a relative geographic proximity to Asia and a history of Australians traveling and living abroad in Asia. In your books, too, you write about India and about Japan. Can you comment on the relationship between Australia and Asia?
My own cultural identification is with the Asian region. I believe Australia needs to look to Asia, not to the imperial centre, for its inspirations, dialogue and creative collaborations. Our new Prime Minister has lived in China and is a fluent speaker of Mandarin, so I believe under his leadership there will be a strengthening of ties between our nations and a new optimism and affirmation concerning the Asian identity of Australia. | May 2008
Summer Block's essays, fiction and poetry have appeared in many publications, including Small Spiral Notebook, ALARM, Identity Theory, Rain Taxi, Stirring and Diagram. She is also the founder of The Foghorn magazine.