news, analysis, lifestyle & travel from thailand and southeast asia header image 2

Thomas Keneally – The Tyrant’s Novel interview

June 1st, 2005 · No Comments

Four times Booker Prize nominee and one time winner – Schindler’s Ark, 1982 – Thomas Keneally intelligently investigates the dehumanizing effect of transforming real people into the homogenous, singular entity of “asylum seekers” in his book The Tyrant’s Novel.

The story revolves around the protagonist Alan Sheriff, a refugee locked up in a detention centre in an unnamed country – based on Australia. It details life in his homeland – Iraq – and a task set him by the despotic ruler, Great Uncle – based on Saddam Hussein.

Speaking to IHT ThaiDay from his home in New South Wales, Australia, Keneally discusses what motivated him to write the novel.

“The whole immigration crisis that the world is going through, or at least what western democracies see as a crisis, puts politicians in a situation where they can either address it as global problem and humanely, or use it for local demagoguery. In Australia there was a tendency for our government to use it for the latter.

“I wanted to tell a fable that did some honor to the journeys that some people had made. The government at the stage I wrote it had been very successful as depicting these people as “other”people who could not possibly fit in here.”

Throughout the story Sheriff, the other characters and most places are given Anglo-Saxon names, a move which makes tale more accessible by diminishing the effects of otherness.

Keneally was inspired to use this literary device after an Iraqi told him: “This wouldn’t be happening to me [being incarcerated in an asylum centre] if I were a white farmer from Zimbabwe, a refugee from Mugabe.”

“I thought, what if I create this character who awards himself an Anglo-Saxon name, not because they are more superb than others, but because he says I am as much a human being as the people who bear these particular names; the people with whom you’re accustomed to feeling fraternity.”

This simple method drives home Keneally’s main point – that refugees are more than the stereotypes whipped up by politicians and press alike. They are humans, they are more like us than they are different, and perhaps the biggest divide is that many of them have suffered ordeals which most of us would not care to imagine.

Keneally says, in general, these systems are “supported by lies” and cites a recent case in Australia where a four-year old girl was finally released from the asylum centre where she was born. She had never known life in the outside world. “You would think it’s very hard to run a detention system like this in a liberal democracy,” he says.Calling on us to overcome the “inherent racism which resides within us all,” Keneally reflects on how the international community has become much worse in dealing with refugees since World War Two

“It seems that the world got together after WWII to deal with displaced people. Perhaps they didn’t want to. Perhaps they didn’t want all the Jews coming to their respective countries, but they gritted their teeth through the burden of enlightenment and responded appropriately.

“Now there is no international programme capable on its own on dealing with the problem.”

So will The Tyrant’s Novel be a driving force in changing people’s perceptions?

“I’m sceptical about the impact of these things upon public opinion. But I just thought I had to write a fable about flight, about becoming an asylum seeker. I felt through telling the story from the point of view, from the impetus that drove a person to become an asylum seeker I could tell a good yarn, but I would not be adverse to the idea that it might alter opinions here or in Britain. Not that it does, dream on Tom.

“Maybe it is just that I would like my country to be nicer.”

Tags: books · IHT ThaiDay · interviews

0 responses so far ↓

  • There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment