Author Robin de Crespigny in conversation with Sonja Anderson.
The first time I saw Robin de Crespigny, she was talking to a group at the breakfast table, her lovely face animated and positively luminous with enthusiasm for her subject. It was at the Honeymoon Guesthouse in Ubud, Bali, where I spied her, on the first day of the annual Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, 2013.
That evening, we fell into pace walking through the lush gardens of the guesthouse, both returning to our respective rooms after dinner. I introduced myself, and in the still of the scent soaked evening, told her how much I was looking forward to the festival over the next few days. In turn, she introduced herself as a filmmaker turned author, relaying the allotted times for her talks on her book, The People Smuggler.
I attended Robin’s session, listening closely to her strong and impelling voice. That same voice predominates in The People Smuggler, a book I admit, that created in me feelings of deep restlessness. Reading it evoked annoyance at the cultural intolerance I found embedded in its narrative, and despite the ultimate dismay I felt with the protagonist Ali Al Jenabi’s plight, the story engendered a fine splinter of hope in my heart; one for the promise of the author’s words in a tragic tale well told. As my current passion is books and the whys and wherefores of their creation, I interviewed Robin about The People Smuggler. This is her story, in her own words.
SA: To quote one of my favourite writers, Annie Dillard, “When the writer begins to put words upon the page, they fight back, struggling with the writer for life.” You are a filmmaker by trade; what did you wrestle with in the process of hearing and visualising this amazing story and translating to words on a page?
RdC: Annie puts it so eloquently and I agree. I suspect my attraction to filmmaking was to do with being very visually orientated. I relate to images better than words. When writing I tried to put myself inside Ali’s situation and picture it, then let the words fall freely onto the page, often in a muddle that lacked any literary merit.
Then I began to shape these words into a genuine depiction of the experience. The struggle was to find the best way to craft them to expand character and tell the story, and when they were not moving the story forward it was a small death each time I had to sacrifice bits I loved. I also loosely used the Three Act Structure which works so well for screenplays as a storytelling device.
In a broader sense the struggle was a deeper, more complex thing, because I chose to write what is essentially a biography in the first person. This meant that I had to conjure up and picture all Ali’s experiences from the inside, as if I was him, in order to understand exactly how he made his choices and what he felt.
Ali lived through many horrifying experiences, both psychologically and physically, which were very taxing for me to imagine, but I knew when people got to meet refugees, to hear their stories and come to know them, prejudices would dissolve.
I needed this truth of character so readers really felt they were standing in Ali’s shoes, and therefore empathised enough to ask themselves what they would have done if they were in his situation.
For most of the three-year process it took to write the book, I worked long hours, seven days a week. Despite having been a relatively gregarious person I began to find social chat difficult to maintain, so retreated into isolation for most of that period. In retrospect I recognise that isolation, and difficulty in relating to others, is possibly similar to that experienced by many refugees. You could hypothesize that as a result of my writing process, I was beginning to lead the life of alienation Ali experienced when he arrived in Australia.
I also had to hold the line against both merging with my subject and becoming his therapist. Both would have destroyed my objectivity, which somehow had to co-exist with this extremely subjective path I had chosen to tread.
By the end of the three years we were both flying in the face of post-traumatic stress, and I became quite physically ill.
SA: Besides a compelling current tale, what induced you to write the life of Ali Al Jenabi?
RdC: The primary reason was to get justice for Ali, who had been denied a visa to stay with his family in Australia once he got here.
Finding Ali to be the complete opposite in everyway to the people smuggler profile presented to us by our politicians and media also intrigued me. Ali was simply an ordinary, caring human being, wanting to save the lives of his family and other Iraqis escaping the brutality of Saddam Hussein, and I wanted to expose this.
It soon became apparent that his story was such an extraordinary yet accessible human drama, both deeply moving and thought provoking, that it could also be about the plight of all refugees, thus helping to make Australians more understanding and compassionate towards people who are less fortunate than ourselves, and to contribute to changing attitudes in the toxic debate crippling our international profile.
SA: You say, so eloquently and elegantly, in your Author’s Note “I feel privileged that Ali has allowed me to preserve his story and pass it on to the world.” These words touched me deeply, in my heart, for the humility they engender, the vulnerability they expose, although expressed in ordinary words, is indeed extraordinary. He was, for all intent and purposes and in the words of our country’s leaders, an enemy of Australia … how and when did it come to you that in the telling there was privilege? How would you describe the privilege?
RdC: For someone to take you into the darkest moments of their life, a life they had never wanted to revisit, and relive it in detail for you, I see as a privilege.
Ali entrusted me with what was inside his head, in a life which he had endured incarceration and torture, the death of family members and dear friends, love and heartbreak, and the birth of a child he cannot raise. I felt privileged to be the bearer of the most intimate details of this very complex and intelligent person from a culture so far from mine, and I saw it as a great act of courage on his part.
He is a unique individual and despite surviving the most horrendous circumstances under Saddam Hussein – if I was to see the world from his point of view, I needed him to relive many times over the details of these tragedies, yet he maintained his warm, charming, insightful self with his high moral standards and a great sense of humour.
And so I was able to write aspects of Ali’s life for everyone to relate to, which meant his story could reach people from all walks of life, and help humanize their often ill-informed opinions about asylum seekers and refugees in Australia.
SA: On a more practical note, in the early chapters of your book you capture the thought processes and cultural nuances that made Ali’s early experiences so close to be felt in my bones. Did you have a translator or did Ali speak English well enough for you to capture the emotional power and intangibles of the tale?
RdC: Ali spoke four languages, Arabic, Kurdish, Fasi and Indonesian but didn’t speak English until he came to Australia, where he learnt it while jailed in Darwin, from the mostly indigenous men who made up over 80 per cent of the prison population.
Ali’s English was not great but good enough. He has an amazing depth of insight and self awareness, which is a gift to any author in search of a great character, but I did not want to use a translator that Ali had to learn to trust, as it may have impeded the slow process of going deeper and deeper into his psychological world that was so crucial to the book.
I also needed to find a voice which was essentially a construct of Ali and me, in the English language as he might have used it.
I struggled for months writing and rewriting, seeking this elusive voice, without which I knew the book would not live.
SA: By what process were you able to convince Ali to share his life story? How did Ali Al Jenabi feel about: the first person narrative, the finished book and its trajectory of fame?
RdC: Even though virtually all the five hundred people Ali had brought to Australia were granted permanent visas, and he had done his punishment for bringing them here, been cleared by ASIO, and found to be a legitimate refugee, he was still unable to get a permanent visa.
Ali had not expected anything much to come of the book but he never rejects a chance, and he did realise the benefit it could bring to a change of attitude in the hearts and minds of Australians about why and how refugees come to this country, so he committed himself to it.
He is a very humble man and does not enjoy standing out. He has remained relatively secluded and avoids publicity. I believe he is happy that many refugees feel his story has helped change attitudes in the Australian community, and that his family, especially the younger ones born here in Australia, now know more about his life and their heritage.
SA: Ostensibly, this story strikes at the conscience and ultimately, it is my hope, at the over consciousness of our society, at its ethos. In your travels to promote The People Smuggler, what can you tell WonderWomen about the reaction of your readers? Does this story warn us that we must develop compassion and understanding in order for change … Do we need change?
RdC: I don’t believe we, as a people and a nation, can accept the horrendously punitive approach our current government has taken towards the most needy without it affecting who we are at a very deep level. You can’t continue to perpetrate cruelty on others without it hardening your heart.
Asylum seekers are human beings like us who come here with a legal right to ask for sanctuary, and until we change the narrative to one of compassion, instead of political rhetoric, I believe we will pay the price culturally, personally and in the eyes of the rest of the world.
SA: The last chapter of the book leaves the reader with the reality of an Australian bureaucracy devoid of compassion and lacking in humanitarian values, much misaligned with the country’s fundamental values. Please excuse my clichés, yet you surely must feel that your voice is a cry in the wilderness and that you are a David standing against the all-powerful gargantuan. How do you feel about the end of the book?
RdC: I can’t help feeling anger at the end of the book. But there is also the positive message about how much pleasure Ali finds in having given back life to his family and other Iraqis he got to safety.
Otherwise, I mostly feel despair, sadness, shame and embarrassment. In this rich country of ours we have become such an intolerant, blinkered and inward looking nation. We are being seen by international journalists as ‘a cruel and frightened’ people. I receive emails from overseas asking me what has happened to Australians.
On a brighter note, from my experience of two years of travelling around Australia speaking non-stop at events for people across the political, religious and racial spectrum. I believe the number of citizens that are appalled at our government’s treatment of asylum seekers is growing. Even school children are uniting and voicing angry opposition.
It has given others and me a tool with which to combat Goliath. In the process let us hope we can liberate Ali.
SA: How is Ali Al Jenabi now? Is he well and progressing his case?
RdC: He is as well as a man can be who hasn’t seen his only daughter in 11 years and remains in ‘limbo hell’. It breaks his heart that she has gone from a tiny baby to a woman without him being able to have any part in it. But Ali is not a man of blame and still, remarkably, has his sense of humour.
Each Immigration Minister since 2006 has refused to give Ali permanence, so he remains in the same situation as he is in at the end of the book.
SA: Will there be a movie?
RdC: Yes, I am currently working on adapting the book to a screenplay, but being such an epic story through six countries, with mountain crossings, ships at sea, and a large cast, it may take a while to fund and get made.
Sonja Anderson – Books
Sonja is a communication specialist and passionate author with a rich background in multi-media journalism, public relations and marketing. As well as her expressive professional life, Sonja teaches meditation in her Freshwater studio, in Cairns, Australia. Sonja has raised three children, who are her best friends. Life Balance = Meditation. Love. Communication.