The work of three writers most influenced me in the years when I was studying literature and writing, all the while daring to hope I might one day be able to write, myself. Those three writers were Gail Jones, Joan London and my guest today, Simone Lazaroo. You can imagine, then, how delighted I am to have the opportunity to interview Simone here.
Simone migrated to Western Australia from Singapore as a young child. She is an honorary research fellow at Murdoch University, where she taught creative writing for many years, and is part of a Spanish-funded research group.
Since winning the T.A.G. Hungerford Award in 1993, Simone has published six novels, as well as numerous short stories and essays, and has won the WA Premier’s Book Award for Fiction three times. She has also been shortlisted for the prestigious Kiriyama Prize and the Nita B. Kibble Award.
If you are not acquainted with Simone’s work, please do hunt down the brilliant novels that form her backlist: The World Waiting to Be Made, The Australian Fiancé (optioned for film), The Travel Writer, Sustenance and Lost River: Four Albums.
But before you do that, there’s the sixth, her new release, Between Water and the Night Sky…
Elspeth is full of inexpressible longings: to leave behind life in Perth and her beginnings in a small wheatbelt town, and a secret she scarcely comprehends.
Francis wants to fit in—to make a life for himself after migrating from Singapore that is not determined by the colour of his skin or the judgement of others.
Told by their only child, Eva, this is a novel about falling in love, and falling apart—the beautiful, sad story of a shared history that never ends.
AC: Simone, Between Water and the Night Sky has been described as auto-fiction, a hybrid genre blending elements of fiction and autobiography. There are many ways a novelist can weave real events and characters, and themselves, into a work of fiction; Donald Stuart, for example, whose novel Shuggie Bain is often classified as auto-fiction, said that it was not autobiographical but inspired by his own experiences. Could you please talk about your choice to write this novel in the way you have, and some of the challenges it posed?
SL: Between Water and the Night Sky began as a couple of short stories that drew on incidents from my parents’ lives, but fictionalised aspects of these (including some elements of plot, setting, characterisation, imagery). But a few years after my mother died, I felt compelled to incorporate extracts from these short stories into a longer story that memorialised aspects of my mother in particular, including her relationship with my father. I focused particularly on my mother’s courage and creativity in the face of considerable struggles she’d experienced. I’d always felt that the way she lived her life showed a kind of heroism often unacknowledged by society. Doubtless many of us know individuals who have shown unacknowledged courage in dealing with the after-effects in their daily lives of traumas they’ve endured, although we sometimes don’t know the precise nature of those traumas.
I also tried in this book to convey many of the social and historical circumstances of my parents’ lives, to give a sense of the era and some of the social and geographical settings in which they lived. For example, partly due to aspects of the White Australia Policy still operating then, marriage between Anglo-Australians and Asians was unusual in the late 1950s, when my parents married, as was migration of Asians into Australia. However, partly because I simply didn’t know certain details of my parents’ lives before and after their marriage, imagination was all I had to fill in the gaps. Also, as the writing of the story progressed, it took on a life of its own. I used various fictional techniques (some of which I’ve alluded to above) to make the story more engaging, and because of issues of privacy.
At the intersection of cultures
AC: Throughout your body of work, you have explored characters at the intersection of cultures. Could you discuss how this plays out in Between Water and the Night Sky?
SL: The marriage of Elspeth and Francis might be considered an embodiment of the intersection of cultures—in this case, Francis’s Singaporean Eurasian culture and Elspeth’s Anglo-Australian culture. And of course, they each experience the upheavals, difficulties and joys of migrating and living in cultures and nations they are unfamiliar with. These kinds of experience can make unusual demands on the individuals involved, and on their relationship with each other. Some of the effects of such experiences upon a bicultural (or perhaps it would be more apt to say multicultural) marriage and family are reflected in this book.
Ways of seeing
AC: A photo’s just a memento of how a person looks at a particular moment…but a person’s life floats across countless moments. Elspeth, p. 164
I love the use of photography as an elemental motif in the narrative. The younger Francis is a keen hobbyist photographer, an interest gifted to daughter Eva, who studies photography at university. It recurs again and again as a metaphor for light and shadow, positive and negative, truth and illusion. I wondered, too, about the relationship between photographs and words in telling the story of a life—whether each complements the other, compensating for the other’s limitations. Was photography always a fundamental part of the story of Francis, Elspeth and Eva?
SL: Yes—photography is in a sense emblematic of how Francis and Eva develop their ways of ‘seeing’ other individuals, particularly during Francis’s courtship of Elspeth and later as Eva sees Elspeth aging. Many of us are familiar with the ways in which family photographs help trigger narratives and understandings about family members.
An enduring kind of love
AC: The relationship between Elspeth and Francis is both incredibly strong and heartbreakingly fragile, and ultimately does not survive—or at least not in the way we expect of a love story. But (and I’m trying not to wander into spoiler territory here) long after finishing the novel I was left thinking about the nature of love, and what endures between people. Did you conceive this work as a love story?
SL: Not while I was in the early stages of writing it. But as the writing progressed, I reflected on some aspects of Elspeth’s and Francis’s relationship with each other in the light of some of the wisdom I believe my parents acquired about their relationship as they aged, and saw that a nonetheless enduring kind of love had developed between my parents, despite the breakup of their marriage. Although my parents didn’t have the conversation that Elspeth and Francis have just before he dies, I wanted to convey something of the growing respect they had for one another as they aged.
AC: The great trauma of Elspeth’s infancy, painfully, shockingly, revealed to her late in life, in some ways drives the narrative. Again, I don’t want to give too much of that away. But I have always been interested in the idea that trauma can be passed from one generation to those that follow, and I sense that in this novel. Could you talk about that aspect of the work?
SL: I’m certainly not an expert in these matters. But I’d suggest that while the offspring of a person who has suffered trauma may experience it much less ‘directly’ than that parent, they nonetheless are affected by their parent’s long-term psychological responses to the trauma, which can continue to play out in their daily life decades after the traumatic event—in ways such as depression, anxiety, perhaps difficulty with some kinds of social engagement—even if the parent hasn’t told them about the traumatic event. And it’s possible that offspring who know more directly about their parent’s trauma may feel a heightened sense of responsibility towards their parent, sometimes resulting in the offspring taking on a carer’s role towards the parent at a young age; this can in turn lead to depression and anxiety in the offspring, particularly if they feel powerless to ‘cure’ or make their parent feel ‘better’.
AC: I’ve noticed that while you don’t use it exclusively, you often seem drawn to writing in the first person. What does first-person narration bring to a novel such as this?
SL: As one of my hopes for this novel was that it might help people who’ve suffered similar kinds of trauma feel less alone, I used first person to try and build a sense of more ‘direct’ communication between the writer and reader.
More broadly speaking, I sometimes use first person in my fiction to give a sense of immediacy and direct revelation of the narrator’s thoughts, feelings and experiences—although attentive readers and writers know this isn’t impossible to achieve with third person point of view, too.
When you have to let a title go
AC: Between Water and the Night Sky is a beautiful, evocative title. Was it an ‘always-was’ title or one that took time to emerge?
SL: It took a long time to emerge—partly because I discovered around the middle of last year, while I was working and travelling in Europe, that the title I’d originally chosen for the manuscript-in-progress (almost three years ago) was very similar to the title of someone else’s novel published about two years ago. So en route to various work destinations in Europe, and just as the cover design was being finalised, I had a frantic email correspondence with the exceedingly helpful and patient Georgia Richter of Fremantle Press, in an effort to find another suitable title. Both titles included water, which is central to the novel’s preoccupations with the Indian Ocean and with states of merging, flux, separation and release, in the relationship between Elspeth and Francis, and in her life generally.
Between Water and the Night Sky is published by Fremantle Press
Simone Lazaroo is on Facebook