Interview with Arnold Zable

Grace Jennings-Edquist in conversation with Arnold Zable

When it comes to cultural diversity in Australia, Arnold Zable isn’t interested in “tolerance.”

Having been raised in Melbourne by Polish-Jewish refugee parents “well before it became officially accepted that Australia was a multicultural society”, Zable says he’s had enough of that “loaded term”.

“I like the term ‘cosmopolitan’. A cosmopolitan is someone who feels at ease in a range of cultures. That’s the secret to a harmonious Australia – people taking an interest in other cultures, not just tolerating,” he says.

Cosmopolitan is an apt description of Zable himself, who is an author, human rights advocate, educator and speaker at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival.

Zable, 66, was born in New Zealand but moved with his family to then-working class North Carlton as an infant. He says he grew up in “a house of ghosts”; photographs of family members killed in the Holocaust before his birth were displayed throughout his home.

But despite these ubiquitous reminders of family tragedy, Zable’s childhood was shaped by a heady freedom: while their parents busied themselves with “making a new life in a new world”, Zable and his childhood neighbours, who were also from the families of newly arrived immigrants, were allowed to roam the streets.

“We had Greeks, Jews, Italians, Yugoslavs, part of that post-war wave of migration,” Zable says.

“We lived alongside working class Australian families that had been living in the inner-city for many generations. We had our conflicts and we had our harmonies. But basically my experience was in many ways exhilarating.”

Zable, who now lives in Melbourne with his wife Dora and son Alexander, continues to engage with peoples of different backgrounds and cultures today. He even credits his delight in crossing cultural boundaries, an interest which originated in his childhood, with inspiring his writing.

“Working with and writing about asylum seekers in recent years who’ve come from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, I’ve learned a lot about those cultures and been enriched by my friendships,” he says.

“A lot of my stories emerge out of conversations; they emerge out of actively engaging with immigrants and refugees from many backgrounds.”

Since the multi award-winning Jewels and Ashes first placed Zable on the national literary agenda in 1991, his critically acclaimed books have consistently addressed the migrant and refugee experience.

While Jewels and Ashes charted Zable’s own journey of ancestral discovery to Poland, for example, Café Scheherazade (2003) examined war’s lingering effects on survivors living in St Kilda, and Scraps of Heaven (2004) recounted the late-1950s Carlton of Zable’s childhood.

His most recent book, Violin Lessons, recounts the true story of Amal Basry, an Iraqi asylum seeker who survived the tragic 2001 sinking of the SIEVX by clinging to a corpse for over 20 hours.

Zable describes Ms Basry, who passed away from cancer in 2006, as a “very good friend [and] one of the most extraordinary people I’d ever met”.

“In a way she was condemned to be a witness. She felt that she had to tell her story. She’d have chemo in the morning and tell her story in the evenings at community gatherings,” he says.

While Zable helped give voice to Ms Basry’s tale in Violin Lessons, he says that in writing it he was keen to tell not only the story of the SIEVX but also the broader story of the refugee experience.

“The broader story is that these asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants, like my parents, once had another life and another community. They had childhood memories,” he says.

“They sometimes suffer from what the Greeks call nos-thal-ghea, which in English of course is nostalgia.”

“It’s not a sentimental concept, it’s a deep longing. Nostos means ‘the return’ and nostalgia means literally ‘the pain of longing for the return.’”

Through exposure to refugees’ and asylum seekers’ diverse stories, Zable hopes that Australians can “come to see that we’re actually a nation of boat people”.

“Apart from indigenous people, everyone, give or take a few generations, comes from somewhere else. And we’re in it together.”

He is deeply critical of both major political parties’ asylum seeker policies. He describes the announcement of the Coalition’s newest policy, which involves scrapping the right of appeal for asylum seekers, as “the blackest day of many black days”.

“No matter what one thinks, no matter what one’s view is, the fact that asylum seekers have become a political football is extraordinary in every way.”

“If you have this more inclusive vision of who we are, we can work out a more humane, and a more practical, solution to the issues that confront us.”

Zable brings his “unique and extraordinary” ability to humanise formerly faceless political issues to his role as an ambassador for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, according to the Centre’s chief executive Kon Karapanagiotidis.

“What Arnold is so profoundly good at doing is telling a story in a way that speaks the universal truth around our shared humanity and our shared experiences,” Karapanagiotidis says.

Program manager for the Melbourne Writers Festival Mike Shuttleworth agrees, describing Zable, a veteran of the Festival, as “one of the standard-bearers as someone who can give a voice to migrant experience”.

“If English is your second or third or fourth language, you’re not necessarily going to be a fluent speaker of the language, so someone who can put these stories forward is really important,” Shuttleworth says.

But Zable, who has a doctorate from the School of Creative Arts at The University of Melbourne, admits that even with his formal training, giving voice to migrant experiences is no easy feat.

“It needs to be stressed that it is a craft,” he says.

“When it comes to writing stories, if you really want to move people and you want people to come on the journey with you, you’ve got to spend a lot of time on the craft of storytelling and the craft of writing.”

Arnold Zable will be appearing in two sessions at the 2013 Melbourne Writers’ Festival – In Conversation: Alexis Wright on 31 August and From Ruin to Recovery on Sunday 1 September. Tickets can be purchased from the Melbourne Writers Festival Website here.