October 2007

Arts & Letters

Politics, writing, love

By Richard Flanagan
Writing ‘The Unknown Terrorist’

I met David Hicks not long before he was released from Guantanamo Bay. He was drinking Makers Mark bourbon in a bar in Greenwood, a fading town in the Mississippi Delta. He was fatter than in the photos I had seen, and though his wavy blond hair showed only a few streaks of grey, he also appeared to be a good 20 years older. In fact, he bore no physical resemblance whatsoever to the grenade-launching young man with whom I, along with the rest of Australia, had become familiar.

In a strong, deep southern accent David Hicks, scion of an old cotton-plantation dynasty, told me how he had been unable to fly for two years after September 11, because David Hicks was on a no-fly list circulated by the US authorities. But, I objected, they already had David Hicks locked up in orange overalls, shackled to an eye bolt in Guantanamo Bay.

“Yes sir,” said David Hicks, “I know that. I said that, sir. But y’all know, you cannot be too careful where national security is concerned, and that’s the truth sir, yes sir, that is.”

Nietzsche said individuals are rarely mad, but societies frequently are. If that’s true, we’ve just lived through one such era of madness which is, I suspect, finally beginning to end. It’s a cliché, but true, that the world was different after September 2001. I felt I had become a stranger to my own time. And like David Hicks of Mississippi, I came to accept a world so strange that it became possible for my own country to legislate for secret trials and secret imprisonments.

I found the way I had of thinking about the world didn’t seem to work anymore, and the way I had written books suddenly seemed no longer relevant. And then I had an odd personal experience. This is a very small story, and I don’t wish to make too much of it. But it had a large effect on me.

I became involved, largely by accident, in the debate about logging old-growth forests in Tasmania. In 2004 I wrote an article in the Melbourne Age questioning the curiously close relationship between one large company, Gunns - the world’s largest exporter of hardwood woodchips, all Tasmanian - and the Tasmanian government.

All hell broke loose. For a week I was front-page news on my home island. Lies and scuttlebutt were said about me and run as news. And I had no recourse. The local newspaper refused to publish my writing. The minister for forestry - now up on a conspiracy charge - had called me a traitor in parliament, and the Tasmanian premier, Paul Lennon, now publicly declared neither me nor my writings welcome in “the new Tasmania”. But it wasn’t that which shocked me.

It was the way the media was more than happy to run what one company and the government would, I suspect, be pleased for them to run, and the way most people believed most of what they were told. People, I realised, thought I was who they were being told I was.

And I was far more upset by this than I could have believed possible. I felt something far worse than humiliation, a sense that something deep within me had been taken away. It’s a very hard experience to convey to those who haven’t experienced it.

Then I realised that what was happening to me was but a very small example of what was happening in a much larger, much more horrific way around the world. It was clear that endless lies were being told about Muslims, terrorists, Iraq, refugees, our own freedoms and liberties, and it was being done to protect power and money, and no one seemed to care. And the target of all this hate, all these lies, was always the weak and the powerless, those we once called battlers.

It became possible to say anything outrageous; and the more outrageous, the more publicity it got. Aborigines hadn’t really suffered. Refugees weren’t really genuine. Torture wasn’t torture if Americans did it, and Australians were doing their Australian duty doing whatever Americans told them. To protect our freedoms as Australians, laws were passed here in Australia whereby people can now disappear and we will not know, and no one cared about that either.

The one thing that no longer mattered was the truth. And so when I heard a senior American official say that the three prisoners who committed suicide at Guantanamo Bay were committing an act of asymmetrical warfare, a publicity stunt, I knew it wasn’t comedy but our age.

I found I didn’t much like Australia anymore. Because it’s my country too, and I was tired of watching it slowly being trashed and sold out. I was weary of the interminable crap about property prices and Howard’s generation and investment seminars and what I should do with my super. I didn’t like the racism, the materialism, the inescapable stupidity, the way in which we embraced everything American, be it another murderous war or another series of The West Wing or letting them anally rape an Australian citizen and keep him locked up in Guantanamo Bay, and I didn’t like the way we’d cop just about anything now and smile as long as interest rates stayed on hold. I was exhausted by having to listen to shock-jocks and read opinion columnists and their nonsense that had created an Australia where a skinhead Nazi with a flag draped around his body on Cronulla Beach was seen to be more Australian than a Muslim or someone of Middle Eastern origin.

And I didn’t like the way we stopped believing in what was unique and extraordinary about ourselves - our land, our black identity, our mongrel society, our strong democratic impulses - and lost faith in the worth of our own culture.

And so I searched for a story that might explain to myself what had happened and what it meant and what it might yet mean. I hung out in Sydney with cops around Kings Cross, with junkies and with pole dancers, with homicide and counter-terrorism police, and set about making my mirror to what we had become.

All my novels until then had been about love, land and memory, but now I wanted to write a novel about the opposite, about people for whom love wasn’t sufficient and money was enough, who were lost and who had no connection to history or place, yet for whom tomorrow wasn’t a promise but a growing threat.

I needed a story that would make it work. It was no good doing it about a Muslim or an Arab or anyone like that. It had to be about someone of no particular background and with no strong beliefs. I wanted people to read this book and think: It could be me they come for next. And the truth is, as I had learnt, it could be you. And if that happened, what would an ordinary person do?

I searched for a tale that would allow me to do this. I ended up with a parable about four days in the life of a Sydney pole dancer who is mistakenly identified as a terrorist.

I took this book from everywhere: radio ads, infotainment programs, newspaper headlines, pub talk. A lot of what is most disturbing in the novel are quotes from shock-jocks and politicians - no one in Australia, I felt, was doing fiction better. How could I have known that the tale I was cobbling together from such unpromising material would later be imitated in life with the Dr Haneef controversy?

The one thing I knew was that a story will always take you beyond what you know and what you think. For nothing is more secondary to a book’s achievement than the intentions of its author.

And why?

Because a novel, when it succeeds, takes the writer beyond his own history and character, escapes the shackles of his politics and opinions, and in the alchemy of story there is torn out of the writer’s soul that which joins one human being with all human beings. For this reason, Kipling’s great stories can never be reduced to his imperialism, nor Dostoyevsky’s genius invalidated by his anti-Semitism.

A few miles from where I drank bourbon that day with David Hicks in Greenwood, Mississippi, is the Tallahatchie Bridge. In August 1955, the corpse of the African-American Emmett Till was thrown over that bridge into the river below, weighted with a 75-pound cotton-gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire. As punishment for having spoken to a white woman, the 14-year-old Till had been brutally beaten, then shot dead.

A few miles in another direction lies the grave of Robert Johnson and a different story. Through the influence of his music, the Delta-blues singer perhaps did more than any other to bridge such a horrific racial divide.

There are so many forces in the world that divide us deeply and murderously. We cannot escape politics, history, religion, nationalism - for their sources lie as deep in our hearts as love and goodness, perhaps even deeper. But at its best, art reminds us of all that we share, of all that brings us together.

And when I finished The Unknown Terrorist and I had to tour with it, I realised the novel wasn’t about the things I daily told others it was about at all. It wasn’t about politics or the state of the nation or the static of current affairs. It was about something else entirely: about love, about its inadequacy, about our hopeless need for it. If a writer writes a novel in order to write a single sentence, that sentence for me is, ‘Love is never enough, but it is all we have.’

I had begun the novel in despair, but I concluded it taking my compass in hope. Perhaps it is a choice. Or perhaps it is a more truthful understanding of this world: after all, to reflect only on power and the powerful, on politics, is only ever to essay the worst of what we are as human beings. We may need politics, but we should not make too much of it. Politics, I wrote near the end of the novel, is the enemy of love. Could it be that the world also advances through the countless acts of individual goodness and kindness made every day by numberless everyday people? As much through unsung, unnoticed acts as through policy announcements, cabinet reshuffles and leadership battles? Such a sense of hope - it can scarcely be called an idea - is not the basis of a politics. For many that would be its unforgivable weakness. For me it is its fundamental strength.

Perhaps, in the end, I wondered if what we were living through was really a political crisis at all: perhaps it was a crisis of human nature; perhaps it was a crisis of love. It manifests itself all around us in an epidemic of loneliness, of sadness. I have been struck, reading about suicide bombers, by how they are often described as peaceful and loving young family men. What is it that leads people of love into acts of murderous evil? What is it that has led us to make a world in which people feel the only way they can manifest love is through hate?

These are questions that have as their subject human nature and not politics. And it is these questions that my novel, however inadequately, grapples with. In consequence it’s not a political book, though it has been intensely read as one. And, in consequence, it’s not a story that offers comfort to any point of view, Left or Right. Its portrait of Australia hasn’t pleased all, neither some political standover men nor all the drones of local letters.

But I hope it may just have reminded a few readers that books matter. That books aren’t just novelty items or celebrity front-list accompaniments, one more marketing platform for the famous and the powerful. That books are one of the last things that we have left that remind us that we are not alone.

Because in a world where the road to the new tyrannies is paved with the fear of others, books show us that we are neither alone nor ultimately that different, that what joins us is always more important than what divides us, and that the price of division is ultimately the obscenity of oppression.

And if my book achieves nothing more than reminding one or two readers of these truths, if it encourages but a handful more people to pick up just one more book by another author that similarly offers a defence of what it is to be human, my creditors will be, as always, disappointed, but I’ll judge it a success.

Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan is the author of The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Gould’s Book of Fish and the Man Booker prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Cover: October 2007
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