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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

John Mateer John Mateer has published five books of poems: Loanwords, Barefoot Speech, Anachronism, Burning Swans (all in Australia), and most recently, The Ancient Capital of Images, a collection of poems on his experiences in South Africa, Australia and Japan. He has also recently published a non-fiction work, Semar's Cave: an Indonesian Journal, a meditation on his experiences in Sumatra and Java.
Mateer is an invited reader at the 5th International Meeting of Poets in Coimbra, Portugal, at Poetry Africa in Durban, and at WORDfEAST in Singapore, as well as at writers' festivals around Australia. He has been writer-in-residence in Sumatra and Kyoto, and visiting artist at the School of Contemporary Arts at Edith Cowan University, Perth. Among his awards are the 2001 Victorian Premier's prize for poetry and the Centenary Medal for his contribution to Australian literature.
In South Africa his work has been published on Donga (online), in Itch and New Contrast.
His work as an art critic specialising in contemporary art has appeared in many journals and catalogues and he is a frequent contributor to Art Monthly Australia.
Mateer was born in Roodepoort, South Africa, in 1971 and spent part of his childhood in Canada. Since 1989 he has lived in Australia.
Rose Zwi Rose Zwi was born in Mexico, lived in London and Israel, but spent most of her life in South Africa, where she graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand with a B.A. Honours Degree in English literature. She is married and has three children. In 1988 she immigrated to Australia.
Of her five novels, the trilogy (Another Year in Africa, The Inverted Pyramid and Exiles) was written and published in South Africa. The Umbrella Tree and Safe Houses were published in Australia. Last Walk In Naryshkin Park, a non-fiction account of an aspect of the Holocaust, was published in Australia, as was a collection of stories, Speak the Truth, Laughing.
Among her literary awards was the Olive Schreiner Award for prose in 1982 and the Thomas Pringle prize for short fiction in 1988. In 1994, she won the Australian Human Rights Award for Literature for her novel Safe Houses.

John Mateer in conversation with Rose Zwi

  1. You were born in Mexico, have lived in London and Israel and for a long time in South Africa, and now reside in Australia. Have you found that there is a correspondence between the historical "nomadism" of the Jewish people and the extent of your own travelling? Is it possible to see it in that way?

    The "nomadism" of the Jewish people was imposed on them by historical circumstances. They did not choose a wandering life. When, for example, the Assyrians conquered the Israelites in 800 BC, the Jews were expelled from their homeland. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 600 BC, they were deported en masse to Babylonia. ("... if I forget thee, O Jerusalem, etc" was written while they were in Babylonian exile.) Skip a few centuries to Titus's destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. With the razing of their centre of cultural and religious life, with their homes burned and their fields laid waste, the Jews dispersed to every corner of the known world.

    My forebears, many centuries ago, landed up in Lithuania. With the rise of nationalism and anti-Semitism after World War I, the slogan "Lithuania for the Lithuanians" - the Jews were not accepted as Lithuanians - drove many of them from the country. Part of my mother's family emigrated to Mexico, where I was born. My mother, however, could not adjust to the meso-American culture, so we joined the rest of her family in South Africa. My father's family remained in Lithuania. In 1941 they were all massacred by the Nazis, with the help of the local community.

    This could have been our fate as well. This knowledge heightened my awareness of our tragic times. I needed to bear witness to it. And the only way I knew was through my writing.

    My own wanderings were driven more by ideological yearnings than by external peril. Newly-established Israel seemed to offer hope. When that failed, we lived in London for a year, then returned to South Africa, right into the eye of the apartheid storm. No amount of protest or work in civil rights organisations assuaged the guilt of living a privileged life in an iniquitous society. Why Australia? I wanted a quiet life with time to write. By 1988 I believed that apartheid was so deeply entrenched that its monolothic structure would never be breached. Just eighteen months later, everything had changed. I was overjoyed to be proved wrong.

  2. Considering that you have written about so many places and circumstances, are you conscious of a particular audience for your work, in a certain place?

    I'm never conscious of writing for a particular readership. I write what I need to. But there are always surprises. Another Year in Africa, for example, found a readership outside that of the community about which I wrote. Last Walk in Naryshkin Park was written in memory of the 220 000 Jewish Lithuanians who were massacred by the Nazis and their collaborators in 1941. I was moved and delighted that it was short-listed for the NSW Premier's General History Award, ensuring a wider readership.

  3. In your last book, Last Walk in Naryshkin Park, you were writing a personal non-fiction concerned with the genocide in Lithuania. Why the interest in, or need for, the testimonial mode after publishing the books of fiction?

    Although I had written novels that touched on the Holocaust, it did not satisfy my need to bear witness based purely on fact. My research for LWINP took five years to assemble. By following the fate of six people (my father's family), not Six Million, which has become a terrible clichť, I hoped to give a glimpse into the human dimensions of the tragedy. I could not have written a novel about it. How does one construct dialogue of people whose agony I cannot begin to imagine? In an earlier novel, Exiles, I do have a character who survived the Holocaust. His part in the novel is based on fact, but I had to devise a way of telling his story, mainly through his nightmares.

  4. In 2001, JM Coetzee quietly emigrated to Australia to live in Adelaide, and has since been accepted, in an understated and unquestioned way, as an Australian writer. Has that at all affected how you think of your own writing and life in Australia?

    My husband and I immigrated to Australia in 1988, thirteen years before John Coetzee arrived, so there was no question of trying to emulate his quiet, dignified settling in. When I came to Sydney, I knew no one in the literary world, and no one knew me. I went to the Yellow Pages to find a publisher. I felt fortunate to be published, particularly as I was still writing about South Africa. When I was invited to literary functions, I stood on the sidelines, warming my glass of wine. I gave up going after a while and no one seemed to notice my absence. When John Coetzee arrived in Australia, he was warmly received, as indeed he should have been. He is a very fine writer, with a world-wide readership.

  5. The late K Sello Duiker once said in an interview that publishers today don't want writing about Apartheid. As someone whose last book was about investigating an earlier "crime against humanity", how do you feel younger writers might contemplate the traumas that shaped the experiences of preceding generations?

    I have no idea how younger writers might contemplate the traumas that shaped the experiences of preceding generations. One would hope they'd want to know what happened in history. If they do not, it is indeed their loss.

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LitNet: 26 July 2005

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