Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Richard Flanagan Wants a "Gentler, More Generous" Australia

In a recent post, I shared a number of insights expressed by Irene Khan, the Secretary General of Amnesty International.

She has been one of two people I’ve recently seen interviewed on Australian T.V. whom I would call “inspiring.” The other has been Australian author
Richard Flanagan, who was interviewed by Kerry O’Brien on the ABC program, The 7.30 Report.

Notes O’Brien: “Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan has to be Australia’s most unlikely Rhodes Scholar and looking at his life before and after Oxford, it is no surprise that he hated the experience. Something of an iconoclast, whose award winning books have the opportunity to polarise critics but nonetheless win him awards, Flanagan started his adult life as a daredevil kayaker who has survived near-death experiences on previously unexplored rapids and trying to row Bass Strait to become one of his country’s most celebrated authors. He also wrote and directed the film version of his early book The Sound of One Hand Clapping. A subsequent novel, Gould’s Book of Fish won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for what the judges described as “a touch of genius”. His work has been published in 25 countries and he is currently working on a script for Baz Luhrmann’s latest film on Australia. But [his latest novel] The Unknown Terrorist could be the most contentious for his harsh critique of what he believes modern Australia has become.”

Indeed, when sharing his perspective on contemporary Australia, Flanagan notes: “We’re materially rich, but spiritually impoverished. . . .I’m tired of hearing about how to invest our super and about rising property prices. There is something else that’s going on in Australia, a sort of spiritual malaise that I find sickening, in a word. At the end of the day it is our Australia, too, and a lot of people want it back. They want a gentler, more generous, kinder Australia”.

Following are excerpts from The 7.30 Report’s interview with Richard Flanagan.


Kerry O’Brien: When you started [your new novel] The Unknown Terrorist, did you really intend to write such a bleak book?

Richard Flanagan: I wanted to write a book that was a mirror to these times and a book that I hoped might be a warning to people about what I feel are a series of frightening tendencies in our society.

Kerry O’Brien: You describe two thugs beating up an old vagrant in Sydney’s King’s Cross: “They kept on for a few minutes more, kicking him as if he were to blame for everything in that dirty, dead decade they were all condemned to live through. A sack of shit that had once been a man in a place that had once been a community in a country that had once been a society.” Is that what Australia has become for you?

Richard Flanagan: I think it’s become that for many people. We are more frightened, we are more frightening; we are less free, we are more unjust; we are more callous; there’s a greater divide of wealth and power. And the truth gets ever harder to get out. So, that was very much how I felt, and that story sort of captured it in a few sentences.

Kerry O’Brien: That’s a pretty grim view.

Richard O’Flanagan: It is, but it is hard to have any other view at this point in time. But I think there are always sources for hope, and I try and take my compass from the hope. . . . There’s been too much faked jubilation about our prosperity and I’m tired of hearing about how to invest our super and about rising property prices. There is something else that’s going on in Australia, a sort of spiritual malaise that I find sickening, in a word. At the end of the day it is our Australia, too, and a lot of people want it back. They want a gentler, more generous, kinder Australia, not the kind of Australia they are getting presented with every day at the moment.

Kerry O’Brien: Not possible to have both: your Australia and an Australia where people do care about super for retirement and do care about a comfortable lifestyle?

Richard Flanagan: Of course it is possible to have both, but I think when this period is judged by historians it will be seen that we had a moment of great prosperity when we could have done so much to build a better, stronger, more democratic society and, because of fear, we went the other way.

Kerry O’Brien: Your book has a drug mule named Tariq who is mistaken for a terrorist and a rather sad pole dancer who couldn’t be further from the terrorist stereotype but who gets sucked into the vortex anyway. What are you saying? That the whole terrorist fear in Australia is a myth, that there is no real threat of terrorism?

Richard Flanagan: There is a threat of terrorism. There is obviously a very real threat of terrorism, but I think as a society we ought be fearful when that is used to attack our freedoms and to attack the truth. And really, we’ve gone from reds under the bed to tea towels under the table, and it’s been used to subvert our democracy and that frightens me just as much as a terrorist attack, because we now have a society that’s capable of doing quite horrific things to innocent people and it is very difficult for those people to get justice.

Kerry O’Brien: And, yet, I mean, that’s a subjective view and I know it is shared by some others, but government in these circumstances does find itself having to walk a fine line, doesn’t it, between protecting its citizens and going a step too far?

Richard Flanagan: Of course it does, but I don’t think we achieve it by constantly using fear to subvert what we ought be defending, our principles of freedom and truth telling.

Kerry O’Brien: At the beginning and the end of the The Unknown Terrorist, you said that love is not enough, but it is all we have. You talk of the hopelessness and failure of human love. Yet, in the family you grew up in, and your own family now, it seems there’s been a lot of love at the centre of your life. How do you explain that apparent contradiction?

Richard Flanagan: All of my books have been about love. But when I started writing this book I realised that we lived in a world where it was ever harder to manifest love, where people were increasingly isolated from the things that really fed their spirit in a positive way: family, friends, land and so on. We live in a world where we are ever more divorced from what makes us spiritually rich and of course we’re materially rich, but spiritually impoverished. I wanted to have a character who wants to love, but is denied the chance to love and in the end is presented as simply an object of hate. Look at what that person might do in those circumstances. Because I think as a society this epidemic of loneliness, of sadness, is really related to the way in so many ways, we’re stopped from being able to show love, express love and be love to one another.

To read Kerry O’Brien’s interview of Richard Flanagan in its entirety, click here.

To read the Sydney Morning Herald’s review of The Unknown Terrorist, click

See also the previous Wild Reed post,
Irene Khan: Shaking Things Up Down Under.

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