Simone Lazaroo has written three novels, The World Waiting to be Made (TWWTBM), The Australian Fiance and The Travel Writer. She was interviewed by Paul Giffard-Foret in early 2007 and 2008 for his masters thesis. We have published a brief extract of these interviews here.
PGF: In an article on Commonwealth literature, Salman Rushdie deplored the fact that writers from ex-British colonies are too often constrained to write about their local communities for a white audience whereas British writers are allowed and have the legitimacy to deal with everything and set their novels everywhere while reaching a world-wide audience. Now, who is the reader you try to reach, and do you think that if you started writing on something else, you would lose some of the legitimacy you have towards this reader?
SL: As far as my three published novels are concerned, I was interested in reaching a so-called Western, Australian mainstream audience, because I was aware that people were misinformed about Eurasian culture. I was partly writing for that reason, but also from my own desire to both memorialise and get in touch with my Eurasian origin, because as I said I migrated to Australia when I was three and my Dad is Eurasian. When I migrated, I felt this pressure to assimilate, so that although we kept linked with Eurasian identity, we were also very much trying to be part of Australian mainstream society. Now, to deal with the second part of your question, the novel I am currently writing is again about individuals at the juncture of Western and South East Asian cultures. Yet it is set in a hotel in Bali and looks at the interactions of locals with tourists, so that it steps away from novels based in the culture of my origins. It will thus be interested to see what the reader’s response is.
PGF: One theme in your work is the search for a hybrid or hyphenated identity. The three heroines of your books (Isabelle and the two nameless ones) try to renew with their Eastern past while evolving in a Western environment. Both Eastern and Western worlds are part of their mixed origins, and yet remain foreign to them. How would you define a term that you use in your work, that of hybrid?
SL: I was previously asked a similar theoretical question concerning hybridity on the radio which I could not answer, and I still have not looked at how theorists use that term. But when I write about this issue, I look at individuals whose identity is a synthesis of various cultural influences around them. You could speak to Eurasians from Singapore and Malaysia, and they would say that they have been synthesising various cultures within their own culture for centuries. (And what about the term in-between that you also use?) I think it might have been coined by the British but I certainly know that the British used that term to refer to Eurasians. Some Eurasians took up the term to define themselves too.
PGF: What do you think are the main barriers that stand between the West and the East in your work? Are these barriers primarily cultural, or do they follow from other sources, such as colonisation and racism?
SL: In my writing so far those barriers tend to primarily arise from colonisation and racism. Unfortunately a lot of the colonisation that occurred in Singapore and Malacca had a baggage racism. But I think it is partly to do with some Western misconceptions of race that were widespread at the time. Colonisation brought some good things too, though.
PGF: In your work, Western men such as Max or Walter Humphries are much older than your three Asian female characters. What do you think make “old” Western men particularly attracted towards young Asian women, if such a pattern exists? Do you use it as a symbolic device to underline lingering stereotypes opposing an old, decaying, civilised and corrupted West with a young, fertilising, wild and innocent East carrying the potential to regenerate but also to annihilate or “swamp” the West?
SL: Again I am not saying that it is peculiar to all the Western men, but I certainly know that it is so that there are old men attracted to Asians. I guess it has to do with their exoticism and a wish for these men to consume the wider world. Isabelle’s relation with her English tutor in the Travel Writer is an example of such consumption of exoticism and approach towards the world of women.
PGF: As in-betweens and outsiders, your three woman protagonists are too often vehicles for the stereotypes and distorted visions towards the Other that border Western and Eastern cultures, rather than mediators for a better understanding between East and West. Could you mention some of the stereotypes you particularly wished to emphasise in your work?
SL: What I have shown by these stereotypes on both sides is that when people do not understand other cultures or individuals within other cultures, they do tend to see individuals as stereotyped. I have already mentioned that stereotype that some of the West has towards Asia as exotic. The WWTBM [initials of The World Waiting to Be Made] also shows how migrants’ expectations of the place they move in often clash with reality and experience, which leads to a readjustment. The narrator’s father’s devilish vision of the West is partly a generational issue, especially since Eurasian upbringing is more conservative. It is also due to his awareness of a cultural gap between his Eurasian background and Australia, and to the fact that his status in Australian society is uncertain.
PGF: To gain access to Western and Eastern cultures and build hybrid identities, your “in-between” characters must convince both Westerners and Asians to open their borders and get hybridised as well. The Singaporean woman in the Australian fiancé for instance will never be part of the West if Australians refuse to abolish the White Australia policy and mix with Asians. Now, what do you believe are the reasons that make both your Asian and western characters so reluctant towards, and even afraid of hybridity?
SL: I would like to focus on the Travel Writer and the Australian Fiancé, both novels covering a similar time period that goes from the end of WWII to the 1950s. Now, if you read and listen to the anecdotes of people from Malaysia and Singapore who lived around that time, one of the big concerns for the West was racial purity. This obsession with the percentage of Asian blood in some of the main characters is mentioned in both those novels. If you look at the Australian parliamentary proceedings in the 5Os, that question of percentage was asked to migrants to Australia. Thus in both those novels I tried to show this preoccupation with racial purity by some governments. I actually met a woman when I was doing that research on Australian parliamentary proceedings who was asked this very question when she came over to Australia in the late 50s, which was an amazing coincidence. This shows that this was not only talked about in Parliament, put also put into practice.
PGF: While ‘black men have to smile more’ (38), as Sue remarks in the WWTBM, Asian women in your work have to keep up appearances to suit the Western gaze’s will. Could these “disguises” as you call them be a way for them to collaborate in order to better resist, or do they result from resignation and the wish to find at last a place, or rather a “role” to play in society, although this role is certainly not what they’d wish to be?
SL: I should say a little bit of both. Going along with the Western gaze’s will as you put it here allows them to keep energy for other things and resist. Yet also a part of it does come from resignation and just downright tiredness and fatigue, as it would take too much to keep fighting against that role. Although the women in my novels do appear to be going along, resistance takes place within themselves, and in the case of the Travel Writer, in what Isabelle writes to herself. Although she might appear to go along with Philip Border’s gaze, she has to deal with the fact that he no longer wants to be with her, and she moves on. Her book [Isabelle is writing the memoirs of her dying mother] is written at a particular time of her life when she is developing a resistance to it.
PGF: If so, is the white Anglo-Saxon / coloured Asian divide more easily reconcilable than the male / female one for these women in the end? Is there a female solidarity transcending racial borders in your work?
SL: They indeed find it easier to build bridges with women of different race than it is to do that with men.
PGF: At the Asian Australian Identities Conference in Melbourne next June, you will give a talk on the marketing of Asian-Australianness. Your work is full of market rhetoric as far as women and cultures are concerned. Both, as you show, are subjected to the law of supply and demand. Now, does the fact that your main characters are women explain why Asianness is for them nothing more than a strategic exchange commodity in order to gain access to the market place? Do Asian men in your work view Asianness in another light?
SL: Asian men probably do view this differently and I probably imagine this would be in my work just because I think gender does affect the way in which all of us look at aspects of our identity. In the WWTBM the narrator’s father is however also using his Asianness as an exchange commodity in his wish to become a member within that group of white Australian adults.
PGF: In opposition with your three heroines who are borderless, the western men you depict have borders, sometimes as vast as the world, apparently at home everywhere. Yet, it seems as well that these borders in their limitation leave them unrealised or too early realised, already locked within caricatured images of themselves. Do you think this accounts in part for their attraction towards these women who as outsiders have more freedom of movement and carry within them the potential to challenge these borders?
SL: I do think so. As I said before Philip Border for example is aware of a certain uncertainty within Isabelle which he exploits. His surname was indeed a conscious choice on my part, and shows that unlike Isabelle, his identity is clearly delimitated and fixed, which is what Isabelle looks after. Now, as to whether or not he wishes to transcend the border of his Self through his relation with Isabelle, I cannot tell. What is sure is that his attraction to her comes from the fact that she is vulnerable and an easy prey, so to say.
PGF: In your talks at the Perth International Arts Festival, you mentioned that you started working on the Travel Writer when on your fellowship at the University of East Anglia in England. You also said that lingering British attitudes with migrants informed Isabelle’s relation with her tutor. Is the character of the tutor inspired by the academic sphere you frequented there?
SL: The Travel Writer was actually conceived a bit before that. The character of the tutor is not really inspired by any person or group in particular I would have met. But I certainly witnessed a few incidents both in Australia and England that encouraged me to write about post-colonial England and lingering imperial attitudes there.
PGF: Australia also has to deal with the Aboriginal issue. There seems to be a proximity between Aboriginals and Asians in your work, probably based on a common exclusion from the nation’s building. As the narrator in the WWTBM remarks, Asians like Aboriginals are seen as exotic natives while remaining aliens. Now, in which way do you think this common ground has its limits?
SL: This common ground has its limits for political reasons. Aboriginal political claims are not the same, and one of them indeed is: “please do not make of us an ethnic group, for we are not migrants, but the original inhabitants of Australia”. Asian people are settlers and very recent ones. As such they bear different claims and have other issues over for instance the question of whether or not they should assimilate once they migrate to Australia.
PGF: Could you tell me something about the last novel you are currently writing? How is it linked with, or deviates from your previous novels?
SL: The novel I am currently writing is again about individuals at the juncture of Western and South East Asian cultures. Yet it is set in a hotel in Bali around 2007 and looks at the interactions of locals with tourists, so that it steps away from novels based on the culture of my origins. The title for the moment is Unexpected Guest.
PGF: How is this project going?
SL: I’ve just finished a draft and it’s been taken up by a London agent but it’s too early to say yet. She’s just very recently sent it out to publishers so it’s sort of nailed by in time waiting to see if anyone takes it up for publication either in England or Australia.
PGF: What made you come up with the idea?
SL: Of course, it’s all depending on if it gets published, but a couple of things I guess helped me come up with the idea of the novel. One of them was simply my first visit to Bali and observing the interactions between Western tourists and the local Balinese people. I suppose that there is a continuation of my interest in looking at what happens when cultures meet or individuals from [different] cultures meet. But I would also say very simplistically on a most basic level that I was very moved by Bali as a place and by the Balinese as a people. So it was kind of an insistent feeling that I really did want to write about those interactions between East and West in this particular place, Bali.
PGF: I read that the Australian Fiancé was being adapted into a film. When will it be released, and do you take an active part in its making?
SL: There is right now an option on the film, but the film has not been made yet. As I heard that options are no guarantee, and that most of them stop suddenly, everything remains uncertain.