First impressions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 December, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 December, 1994, 12:00am

DAVID Malouf has a Lebanese name, but don't call him a Lebanese-Australian author. Doing so seems to be a trend, but it's also a nonsense, says the third-generation Australian.

At a time when Australia is emphasising its multi-culturalism and Asian links, Malouf sees himself as an unashamed chronicler of the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic Australia he knows - an Australia that still exists and that is often devalued as the contribution of new migrants is emphasised, he says.

Malouf grew up in Brisbane but at 24 left for a decade in London. He says much of a writer's material is drawn from childhood and he can talk only about his own experience and the world he comes from: 'If that is going to change I accept that - just by writing about it critically you are part of what is going to change it.

'Writing about what that old world stood for or the Aboriginal world stands for, you are part of it. I am interested in all the phenomena; I don't like it when half these phenomena are ignored because they don't fit in with some sort of passing notion of what is politically expedient to push.

'I think, for example, that in the wish to emphasise the impact of what other new people are bringing to Australia, we often devalue what was originally there.' What they bring may be interesting, but that doesn't mean Australia was previously a cultural void, he says. Eighty per cent of Australians still belong to the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic cultural group from which the first white settlers came, but it is fashionable to claim they created no real culture before the influx of Europeans after World War II, Malouf says.

'A lot of the statistics, it seems to me, are false. If I am an example of somebody who is usually included in a non-Anglo-Saxon Australian ethnic group, that is simply wrong. The last people who came to Australia in my family were my grandparents last century. Why should I be bunged into an ethnic group?' He's not ashamed of his family background and is happy if it shows new arrivals that people of non-Anglo-Saxon background can succeed in Australia. But that's enough.

He had a standard Australian education and knew no other language until he was taught one at school. His grandparents did not speak English, but his father completely assimilated, deliberately becoming an archetypal Australian. 'He had done that so my sister and I would not have to feel there was anything problematical about our background at all.' Malouf, a charming and erudite man who turned 60 this year, was shortlisted for both this year's Commonwealth Writers Prize - a prize he won in 1991 for his novel The Great World - and last year's Booker Prize for his latest novel, Remembering Babylon. Last week it won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, against tough competition. The judges said its appeal lay in both its interracial theme and its poetic language.

It's the story of a white castaway who arrives in a 19th-century settler community on the Queensland coast after being raised by an Aboriginal community for 16 years. His whiteness combined with his knowledge of Aboriginal life unsettles the community.

The Southeast Asia and South Pacific committee that selected it as regional winner of the Commonwealth Prize said: 'This novel sets out to remember the violent dispossession of the Australian continent by white settlers and the collision of histories and cultures which occurred.' Malouf, who lives in inner Sydney, is now working on a new novel, cutting himself off from the world at a newly-acquired secret hideaway, his earlier one in Italy having been discovered and constantly dropped-in on. He writes with his favourite fountain pen, ensuring his mind doesn't run ahead too quickly, at a pace he can't control. After two long hand drafts it is typed into a computer for him to 'fiddle round with'.

He admits to being 'kind of a bit of a perfectionist' and says: 'That means getting it right so it is absolutely clear and as economic as can be and the pictures are as clear as possible. But more than anything, the discipline is getting the rhythm right. It is really writing the sound in your head.' Malouf says he has found that is what make his books work for the reader. 'It's easy to think the reader is led on by the wish to know what happens next, but I think when a reader says they cannot put a book down they mean the writer has hypnotised them by rhythms. They cannot break their attention.' Casting those spells is a slow process and one that must take place alone. Malouf lives with friends in Sydney, but works alone elsewhere, eating, reading, walking as he feels like it. If he has a cupboard full of crisply ironed sheets, it's a bad sign. When he has writer's block, he irons. And when the shirts run out he starts on the sheets.

'My favourite activity when I am writing in my head is walking because the mind just floats and starts solving problems. The thing which I resort to when I am in a place where I cannot walk is ironing. It is very repetitive and your mind just floats,' he says.

He becomes aware of the atmosphere of the book before he knows about its characters or plot: 'I know what the landscape will be, the light, as if it was a film I had seen. I don't start with a plot worked out, I just start with a landscape.' He has reached the point where his new novel seems to be sustainable and soon should be applying himself to the first draft. 'It's a nice feeling because you know what you are going to be doing for the next two years.'