Lunch with Booker prize winning author Thomas Keneally

Last week, I was privileged to attend a private lunch with Booker prize-winning Australian author Thomas Keneally.  I also travelled to Taichung, central Taiwan, to hear him give an address on multiculturalism and literature.  Keneally was visiting Taiwan to participate in Taiwan’s 2011 International Master Speech of Humanities series organised by the Council for Cultural Affairs.  His visit was also sponsored by the Australian Commerce and Industry Office.

Thomas Keneally holding up a book during his presentation

Keneally is the author of more than 30 novels and 17 non-fictional works.  He was short-listed for the Booker Prize four times, and won the award in 1982 for his work Schindler’s Ark, which was later made into an Oscar award-winning film by Stephen Spielberg.  He has also won the Miles Franklin award twice, and was awarded the Order of Australia in 1983.  Despite having such an impressive resume, he was refreshingly down to earth.  He even joked that he started writing because, having not completed studies to become a Catholic priest, it was a better pick-up line to say that you were a novelist rather than a failed monk.

Keneally signing a poster advertising his speaking series in Taiwan

During his visit, Taiwan’s Minister for Cultural Affairs awarded Keneally with a Cultural Ambassador Award, in recognition of his contribution towards literature and human rights.  Keneally is only the sixth person to receive the decoration.

You might wonder why I am writing about Keneally’s visit on the Taiwanxifu blog.  Well, as an aspiring food and culture writer, I was incredibly inspired from hearing him talk.  Much of Keneally’s work focuses on race and discrimination, something that he probably knows something about from growing up Catholic in a (then) predominately protestant Australia.  And his interest in exploring identity and culture is something that resonates strongly with me.

I am fascinated by culture, and my Taiwanxifu project aims to use food as a bridge for cultural understanding.  Food plays such a central role in culture, especially in Taiwan society.  Where would the Mid-Autumn Moon festival be without mooncakes, the Dragon Boat festival without rice dumplings (zongzi) or Chinese New Year without all its auspiciously named dishes?  And learning to like different foods is a short step from being interested in the people (and culture) who made them — just think of spaghetti multiculturalism in Australia, where society began to accept Europeans through dining on pizza and pasta.  Many people in the West think of Taiwan only as a potential war-zone in a conflict with China: describing food and culture is way to demonstrate the beauty and uniqueness of Illa Formosa.  And it must be working because in the past year we have had eight sets of visitors from Australia, with more to come in coming months.

Yes, that's me! Taiwanxifu with Thomas Keneally

Keneally said growing up in Australia, there was a sense that Australians were the ‘unchosen’.  Culture and the arts was something that happened ‘over there’ in the motherland, and the perception was that Australian colonials could not produce anything of importance.  When he started writing in the 1960s, no-one thought an Australian could possibly make it as a writer.  Many in the audience related to this: there are similar issues in Taiwan, with its own Japanese colonial baggage and sense of being overshadowed by a rising China.

Yet Australia’s ‘betters’ in Europe committed genocide during the holocaust, despite being supposedly civilised.  How could Keneally reconcile this?  He said his writings were a response to understanding how hatred between races degrades.  And he also started writing to test his own moral fibre — would he make the same choices if he were in the same situation?  His research has led him into some gruesome territory  … I squirmed hearing him relate some historical details of the Japanese invasion in Nanjing.

Schindler’s Ark (now known more commonly by its cinema title ‘Schindler’s List’) is Keneally’s only major historical work.  His other novels are fiction, although many were also inspired by racial tension (e.g. he has written about Australian Aboriginals in ‘The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith’, and also about the civil war in Eritrea in ‘Towards Asmara’.)  He referred back to Eritrea several times, and it is clear that his time in Africa affected him deeply. 

Keneally was inspired to write about Schindler when he bought a bag from a man called Leopold Pfefferberg, one of the people saved by Schindler.  Pfefferberg later introduced Keneally to other survivors, and Keneally pieced together the story from them.  But still there is a resonance of the contemporary in his work.  When Spielberg shot the film in the early 1990s, Spielberg noted that the film came at a time when the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was coming back into vogue in Europe due to events in the former Yugoslavia.  Yet there have been other instances of genocide and racial intolerance since then, and Keneally referred to racial unease behind Australia’s recent maritime asylum seeker policies. 

Keneally said many governments were scared of writers, and there was often tension between the government and literature.  For example, the anti-slavery book ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by Harriet Beecher Stowe had been a major trigger for the Civil War; when Lincoln met Stowe he greeted her with, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”  Perhaps this is why Chinese authorities go to almost ludicrous lengths to suppress dissident literary writers and bloggers.  Why else would they be scared of fiction? But Keneally joked that the Australia and Taiwanese governments were too lazy to do anything about him — although perhaps they should be scared! Hmmm, maybe. 

Keneally offered encouragement to budding writers.  He said that the more you write, the more you ‘get into it’.  He only has a dim idea about his form-less characters when he starts writing.  But then, the more he writes the lights begin to come on and things begin to take shape.  He urged writers to pen at least 500 words a day — “you would be amazed how much material could be amassed in six months’ time”.  By my calculations, this adds up to 89,000 words, more than enough for an decent-sized novel.

Keneally went on to say that you must be ‘hungry’ to be a writer.  There is a cost to writing — you miss out on lots of parties and other social activities.  Writing can be solitary, but it can also make you intoxicatingly happy.  Clearly, Keneally has found his calling.

In answer to a question on blogging and self-published e-books, Keneally said the trend was ‘unstoppable’.  Yet he wondered why young writers still worked hard to get their works printed in hard-copy book form, even though there was no real reason why they should aspire to a Gutenberg style book.  He had relied on online resources to write about Abraham Lincoln, and saw value in e-books.

Hearing Keneally speak has given me further encouragement to continue with the Taiwanxifu project.  Look forward to more food reviews and cultural insights in the near future.  And perhaps I can help prevent racial misunderstanding through Taiwanese bubble tea, oyster omelette and mooncake.  (I don’t think I’ll try my luck with stinky tofu, although it’s actually not as bad as it sounds.) But for now I will take Keneally’s advice and try to write at least 500 words a day.

P.S.  Taiwanxifu and hubbie have donated a signed copy of ‘Schindler’s List’ to the 2011 Community Services Center Charity Auction Dinner, which will be held on 21 October at the Grand Hyatt Hotel.

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About taiwanxifu

‘Taiwanxifu’ (pronounced ‘shee foo’) means ‘Taiwan daughter-in-law’ in Chinese and has been my nickname ever since I married my Taiwanese husband, Sam. I love sampling Taiwanese food, even local specialties such as stinky tofu, pigs blood cake and Taipei beef noodle soup with offal. But there are many other options on the menu. Promise!
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One Response to Lunch with Booker prize winning author Thomas Keneally

  1. Wow that’s a great donation! Really enjoyed reading this post, thanks!

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