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Deborah Hunn

Further information

About the author

Deborah Hunn is completing a PhD in the English Department, University of Western Australia.

Publication details

Volume 4, May 1999

Deborah Hunn Interviews Eva Sallis

Eva Sallis is an Adelaide based writer whose first novel, Hiam, won the Australian/ Vogel literary award in 1997. In Hiam, a journey through the Australian interior provides the catalyst for the unravelling of an Arab migrant woman’s memories of the cultural clash which has brought about the disintegration of her family and identity. The novel has been widely praised for the poetic intensity of its writing, its synthesis of Western and Arab narrative models and its sensitive and perceptive handling of the problems facing Arab migrants in contemporary Australia.

Dr Sallis has recently been appointed to a lectureship in English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide, having earlier held a position there as a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Asian and Middle Eastern Architecture. She has travelled widely in the Middle East and this interview was conducted through a series of email exchanges shortly after she returned from a research trip to Yemen in March, 1999.

Qu: You have an MA and a PhD in literature and you have published academic as well as creative work. To what extent do the two areas intersect? I believe, for instance, that you were writing Hiam whilst working on your PhD on translations of The Arabian Nights?

A: They are connected in odd ways. They are quite different as final products but in the process of writing I found that each fed richly into the other. In Hiam I use some old Arab folk tales which was almost as a matter of compulsion at the time. Writing the novel gave me the release necessary to face the subjects of my critical work calmly. Research and necessary language study took me to Yemen, but the experiences there rise up in my fiction.

Qu: Some reviewers have stressed the poetic rather than the plot elements of Hiam, but while the book has a striking lyricism it obviously also addresses some crucial social issues in contemporary Australian society: the alienation of Arab immigrants in Australia and the generational conflict produced by cultural clash, in particular through conflicting ideologies of gender. The first question here is whether you think this aspect of your writing has been adequately addressed, and if not why not?

A: I myself haven't thought it through in those terms. Hiam is still a very young book in terms of any serious analytical reception. I wouldn't expect criticism to go much deeper than linguistic lyricism and migrant issues for a while, since these are its most obvious faces.

Qu: Can I ask what you take its less obvious faces to be?

A: Perhaps that it is a story of religious redemption and return to faith. A story documenting a private movement beyond the boundaries of a specific culture and geography towards grace. Narrative, deflected telling and healing. I was quite conscious of structural layering rather than linear narrative. From my point of view it is the thin thread of the road itself which creates the illusion that there is a story. In fact the fragments of Hiam's self which are strung on this road might not have appeared to belong together without it. It is more than a trick: to me the structure itself is symbolic. Many things.

However, I think it is dangerous ground for an author to assert his or her interpretation. It is the ground of an author's desires rather than actual achievements.

Qu: Do you think that gender plays a role in the critical reception of the text, or that poetic and political writing are still somehow seen as incommensurable?

A: I don't really understand the first part of the question, perhaps because an answer doesn't come easily in relation to Hiam. For myself poetic and political writing are not separable, although I don't consciously aim to be political. 'Political' is part of a very rich tapestry. I sense that the question stems from a belief on the part of the interviewer that Hiam has not been read politically enough and she is perhaps wondering if its poetic nature has led to soft readings. I don't know. I think this falls into the category of readers' secret business.

Qu: I would agree with you that poetic and political writing are not separate - I suspect there is still a tendency towards this in critical interpretation, and that women's writing sometimes tends to be more pray to soft readings, in particular if it is in a lyrical mode. But tell me about reader's secret business - or is it too enigmatic and private to expand?

A: This is related to my earlier comment. I think what a piece of literature achieves or communicates can be identified and argued better by a reader than by the author. I say this as an experienced reader.

Qu: The second issue here is the extent to which you feel the tragic circumstances of mother and daughter, husband and wife, in Hiam reflect the problems of Arab women in Australia? Did you research this aspect of the book at all?

A: I think the tragic circumstances reflect the problems of migrant families in Australia, not just women, not just Arabs. I chose a set of circumstances which would highlight the fragilities and defences of minority communities. I am intimately involved with several migrant families and both researched and experienced all the material used in these parts of the book.

Qu: Another striking gender issue in the novel is disintegration of patriarchal authority. I was interested by the inflection of this aspect of the narrative through conflicting stories - the traditional tales recounted by characters within the narrative seem to draw on powerful, even tyrannical patriarchs, but the central story stresses the loss of power and self-esteem of Hiam's husband Masoud in a quite moving way.

A: Answering these questions makes me aware of a real difference between my practice as a critic or as an analytical reader and my practice as a writer. These issues seem reasonable and familiar in the scholarly realm. In writing Hiam I didn't think in these terms. I wrote using material which seemed richly resonant with the state of mind of Hiam herself and which could enunciate her choices. This was the role I pictured for these stories. I don't see the Jarjuf as tyrannical. The web of responsibility both in that story and in Masoud and Hiam's relationship is too complex. However, I think authors are the worst authorities on the contents of their own books. All I can say is that writing was and is not a critical activity, indeed perhaps a kind of critical blindness descends.

Qu: I like the way you resolve this incommensurability of "selves" by simply accepting it, but I guess I'm interested to know how you see this working at the level of teaching creative writing. You've just been appointed to a Creative Writing job at the University of Adelaide. Do you think there is a conflict for students taking CW options in English departments - the shift between studying writing and studying textual analysis?

A: Perhaps it is my background and the fact that the two modes worked for me as a reader, scholar and writer, but I usually teach reading as the principal point of access to acquiring writing skills. I think critical skills are invaluable to a writer, or at least to a particular kind of writer. I think studying writing and studying textual analysis belong together and the division between the two is both destructive and artificial. Writing fiction and reading fiction are the full circle of what makes a book and the greater understanding a contemporary practitioner has of both, the better, even if in the act of writing or the act of reading, we use different selves or faculties.

Qu: I guess this question is inevitable - Did you feel it was necessary for you to address your own position as a white western woman in writing Hiam, and how much has this been an issue since the book was published? Is it an issue which troubles you?

A: Part of the excitement of the experience of writing was what I discovered about myself. I think now that effort matters. Any effort to cross boundaries, in research or with the imagination or both really matters.

This has been an object of curiosity amongst reviewers since the book was published. And I was apprehensive at first about how Muslim readers would respond to it, as I intentionally gestured towards two very different readerships and for a few months the one was silent. However, once responses started coming in I was reassured. The book is alive and well in its other aspect.

Qu: Do you want to tell me more how Muslim readers responded?

A: In general very positively and warmly. An extensive review and interview in Arabic was published this month in Lebanon, in al-Hurriyat. It is a reading which focuses on issues of identity, culture and cultural alienation, as well as the more religious dimension of Hiam's journey. It has been featured in an article in Yemen and will be reviewed in Egypt shortly. I am curious to see what is said but the reviewer was very keen when he approached me.

Qu: I know you spent some time in Yemen a few years before you wrote Hiam and I was wondering how much your own journey into a space of cultural difference affected your treatment of Hiam's journey through suburban and urban Australia?

A: As journey, not at all. In fact I was writing Hiam  while I was in Yemen, both in 1996 and in early 1997 and the influence was far less easily defined than just as parallels in spaces or in disorientation. There was no real equivalence, for one thing, between my experiences in Yemen and Hiam's in Australia, although I met some German migrants/expatriates there who resembled the minority communities here in their outlook and values. Yemen did influence my writing and still does. It was in Yemen that I hit upon the idea which finished Hiam. Time in Yemen was creative time out from my normal life and as such I could focus on the writing and its demands.

Qu: The journey into or through the interior is a strong theme in Australian writing, although the tendency has been for it to be a largely male centred narrative model. So too the more specific "road" genre to which Hiam has been connected. Do you see yourself engaging with or drawing on this tradition?

A: No. I was, until 1997, very poorly read in Australian literature. I have read voraciously in contemporary and historical fiction of this country in the last two years and have discovered all sorts of things about my place as a writer, after the fact. I first realised Hiam  could be termed a road novel when a reviewer said so.

Qu: I note your publisher's material makes a point of noting it is a road novel - probably in response to critical engagement - how does it feel to be packaged and commodified as a writer - the official bio, the back cover blurb, the writer's festivals?

A: In the end the hype can set the readership up to buy but the book still has to prove itself in the privacy of the encounter between text and reader. While on occasion I have felt swamped, in general my publisher has made it very easy on me. They gave me a lot of input into blurb etc and of course what I choose to say at festivals is up to me. I have tried to use the forum well.

Qu: Hiam seems to demonstrate a fascination and repulsion with Western technology - I'm thinking in particular of the symbolism of the car, the taxi of Hiam's dead husband, which provides the vehicle - at both a literal and figurative level, for her journey through the desert. Could you tell me a little about this? What made you focus on such a trope?

A: I had to get Hiam from Adelaide to Darwin. Riding a camel would have been too much.

Qu: Yes - you could only have pulled that off if the plot revolved around some sort of charity fund raiser. The interviewee is being a little evasive (tellingly so?) here so I won't push it but I do want to pin you down a bit on the issue of technology in particular in relation to the environment. There is a startling sequence in the early stages of the novel where the road is constantly littered by dead animal bodies - mutilated by cars. This reminded me that you are a very passionate protector of animals and I wondered whether you saw this issue of conflict between human's and nature as factoring as a major focus in your future work?

A: I'm not sure. The dead animals of the Stuart highway could make a macabre coffee table book. They are fact. I am influenced by the killing of animals. It is likely to appear in my writing. It is one of the things which comes up, as do images of the sea and fish. But I don't have a coherently thought out position on it (other than being a vegetarian who eats fish).

Qu: Arab characters in the book, in particular Hiam herself, are critical of what is termed "Australian madness". Whilst Hiam's daughter Zena is forced to struggle with her traditional role in the family in ways which have dreadful consequences, and which are obviously the subject of critique in the book, it does also seem that the book does have a strong streak of critical engagement with contemporary Australian society and more generally with aspects of western culture. Is this valid?

A: Yes. I don't think any culture has a monopoly on prejudice, stereotyping and racism. I didn’t want to portray human communities simplistically. Most Australian attitudes to Muslims or Arabs are insulting, even when wellmeaning. I didn't want any reader to rest easy with his or her preconceptions.

Qu: Which writers have had the strongest impact on your own writing?

A: Dostoevsky, T. S. Eliot, the philosopher F. H. Bradley, the many anonymous hands of Arabic prose narratives, fairy stories (Grimm etc). The list would be endless.

Qu: Recent Australian writers?

I don't think any recent Australian writers have had an impact on my writing: it is too early to tell. I have admired some books greatly. Tim Winton's The Riders; most of Sue Woolfe's Leaning Towards Infinity; Emma Tom's Deadset (a stunner hidden behind a terrible blurb and cover); Murray Bail's Eucalyptus; Raymond Gaita's Romulus My Father; Marele Day's Lambs of God and several more.

Qu: Can you tell me a little about your current writing projects and also about your business Driftwood manuscripts?

A: I am at present working on several projects. These include a novel set in Yemen and Kangaroo Island (off the coast of South Australia). I have just returned from Yemen and this novel is progressing very rapidly. I am also working on a song cycle with the composer Quentin Grant, and the screenplay for Hiam in collaboration with Morgan Smith. Apart from these, Driftwood keeps me very busy.

Driftwood Manuscripts is a manuscript assessment service which I and a friend, editor Dita Wilde, set up in 1997 using money from the Vogel. It has snowballed. It has also been a very rewarding experience. We serve the needs of writers from the very new to the well established, providing very detailed critical feedback on manuscripts ranging from postgraduate theses to literary fiction. We have assessors and clients Australia wide and have just begun receiving our first manuscripts from overseas.

The reality of the current publishing climate is that writers have to be able to finish and edit critically their own work. Manuscript assessment plays an increasingly important role firstly in writer development and secondly in the eyes of publishers.

Qu: I suppose one of the worrying aspects about the translation of novel into film is that the end product is less than worthy of the original, but sometimes film versions are different and yet satisfying in their own ways. Do you sense a metamorphosis in the move from novel to screenplay and does the prospect of a film Hiam becoming something utterly other than you envisioned trouble you?

A: I have done a lot of study of script writing lately, enough to be comfortable with writing and thinking of a film as a new artform, a new creation. I am quite excited by this transformation. I would cripple the film if I hugged the book too protectively. I love thinking in images, so I am hoping this will help.

Qu: I can't finish without raising the Vogel win. I know you've mentioned in the past that the whole "overnight success" syndrome seems odd given just how long you've been writing, reading, thinking and so forth. How comfortable - or uncomfortable - do you feel with your status as a "first novel" prize winner?

A: The more I write the more comfortable I am with the whole, weird experience. It has certainly been the best experience of my life. Now that the hype has settled to a steady hum, the readers' end of the business and the much more private writer's end have separated from each other. I more or less accept that from the readership's point of view I am new fruit while from my point of view my writing fits into a long continuum.

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