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Why would I, as an ex-academic, spend the last eight years writing novels that just a few thousand people have read?
I certainly don’t write fiction for money. My tax return shows that I pretty well break even each year when I deduct expenses from royalties. If I factored in the lost opportunity cost of the hours I spend writing … well, let’s not think too hard about that.
You see, I belong to a subgroup of humanity who simply can’t not write. Every Tuesday I spend three hours with my critique group at the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle, Sydney. The core of the group – four or five of us – are addicted to writing fiction. We just have to do it, just as some people have to sing, play tennis, or drive fast cars.
Perhaps I inherited this compulsion. My father wrote constantly – photo essays for Hertfordshire Countryside, articles on fingerprint techniques for The Police Review, textbooks on fraud investigation and police corruption. I suspect there were a few half-written novels among the typewriter tapping I remember from my childhood.
But it’s more than just raw compulsion. There are other motive forces behind my need to write. One is my fascination with the power of fiction, and the desire to master that power. George Orwell was the first novelist who showed me the force of fiction; his books shaped who I am today, and they shape how I write now. Through the years, others sculpted my intellect and sensibilities – Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, Patrick White, Margaret Drabble … and on goes the parade of geniuses who have wielded the power of stories over me.
But I’m not a best seller – just a mere prawn in the curry of life (that’s a line I’m going to put into the mouth of one of my characters soon); my power to influence is tiny. But (and I know this might sound pathetic), I am almost moved to tears when even one person says, “I loved your book”, or “it was absolutely compelling”.
Here’s an example of job satisfaction: I gave an advance review copy of my latest novel to a friend. I forgot all about it until I got an email from him saying, “Oh no, Ralph died!” with a sad-face emoji. So what did I make of this? (a) He was reading the book – a triumph in itself because it’s harder than you might think to motivate people to read fiction, and (b) he was so affected by Ralph’s sudden death that he instantly emailed me. I walked around with a silly grin for the rest of the day.
There are different kinds of power: Writing fiction gives me the power to entertain, amuse, sadden, satisfy. But let’s get back to the power to shape ideas and beliefs. Despite their tortuous plots, all my novels have what I think of as a moral core: In one, I explore the precariousness of middle-class morality; another has the plight of the Armenians as a backdrop; and they all contain a strand dealing with the way men negotiate partnerships with strong women.
Moral cores aside, writing fiction is, for me, a fascinating intellectual process. I’ll spare you the fine details, but suffice to say that juggling plot, setting, characters, and style is an intoxicating blend of creativity and technique. As an academic linguist, I hesitate to drift into metaphysics, but there are writing days when I enter what I call a ‘state of grace’ with the sentences flowing without obstacle. There are other days when it’s like shoving a barrow of shit uphill.
Let me finish with what might be the most important reason I write. The four novels and one novella I’ve written so far are best described as being on the more intellectual end of popular fiction. If you were to ask who I see as models, I might suggest people like Lucie Whitehouse and Philip Kerr. My books entertain, amuse, sadden, and satisfy. But for the last three years, I’ve been grappling with a dystopian novel called Patria Nullius that deals with a climate apocalypse. I started the novel because I felt so helpless for the future of my grandchildren. It has been a pig of a book to structure. I’ve chopped and chipped at it, turned it on its head, but I’ve vowed to get it finished in 2020. I’m writing it because it will give me the power to influence in an existentially crucial way – even to a tiny extent.
You see, I can’t not write this book.
You can learn more about my books here.
The Pierre Farag Espionage Thriller series is now a trilogy. Book 1 Ash on the Tongue is free to download here. Book 2 Cairo Mon Amour is published here, and Book 3 Bury me in Valletta will be published in early 2020.
If I were name my favourite character in the trilogy, the prize would go to femme fatale Zouzou Paris. Here’s how to create your own Zouzou:
Give her a mysterious name
Just as Mata Hari’s real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod, Zouzou didn’t start life as Zouzou. Her real name was Aziza Faris. Zouzou is an affectionate form of Aziza. It only needed a slight adjustment for Faris to become Paris* when she became a film star and decided to give herself some French mystique.
Give her a tragic past
Zouzou’s parents died in a car crash when she was eighteen. A friend of her father took her under his wing. “A peculiar variety of friend,” she said darkly, describing how the man had helped her into the film industry, where she became a plaything of his business friends. “It was sordid and exciting at the same time. The attention of rich men made me the envy of my fans. But while they envied me, they hated me too. It is the fate of women like me.”
Give her an ambiguous morality
Although she was known in Egypt as ‘the national bitch’, Zouzou’s lascivious reputation concealed a different morality. She remained a virgin until she was thirty-three. “A man may gorge on mango when all he has been given is boiled carrot,” she says, explaining how she tricked the old men.
Give her a quirky view of the world
Zouzou has spent her life negotiating deception and lies. “My whole life was a bargain.” Her instinct is to protect herself through obfuscation: “Why tell the truth when an untruth will suffice?” she often says.
Give her a distinctive speech style
Zouzou’s first language is Arabic, although we learn that she also speaks French and Turkish and probably other languages. When she speaks English, I give her a stilted and slightly florid style, e.g. “I had to go to many parties on yachts in Beirut … So many actresses, so many men with creeping hands. You see, sister, I cannot think of a yacht without remembering the caresses of those old fellows.”
Happy writing! Stuart
*For Arabic speakers: Yes, yes, I l know this is cheating and that the vowels in Faaris and Baariis are different! Let’s keep it bayni wa baynkum!
During my English childhood, every pantry had a bottle of Worcestershire Sauce. The old-fashioned label suggested colonial gents in the era of the Raj, sprinkling a few drops of the brown elixir on their breakfast chops. But this brute of a dish was knocked up in a restaurant in the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, where Mount Olympus watches over ancient Byzantine monasteries. And there was the main course still to come.
This and many other meals have helped frame my view that attitudes to national cuisines are as much to do with politics as with alimentation. Let me go back a few decades.
In the early seventies, a shop in London called Habitat started selling little kits of curry spices. You could buy the same spices in Indian and Pakistani grocers if you cared to enter such a store, but people like me – white people – didn’t. Habitat was the precursor of the cool homewares stores that are nowadays ubiquitous. It was one of the first shops to sell a lifestyle of lightness, quirkiness, ultra-modernity, pop art colours, brushed aluminium. The curry spices were emblematic of the Habitat lifestyle: Adventurous but safe, the Orient without the runs.
If I’d been a clairvoyant I’d have known that in 1978, the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said would publish his Orientalism, in which he theorised that Europeans had invented the notion of the Orient as a means of asserting the cultural dominance of the colonisers over the colonised. I’d have considered with foresight – in 1973 – that in cooking up a Habitat Chicken Korma, I – along with people like me – was one of a new breed of colonialist. We were remodelling a cuisine using a limited range of ingredients, cooking methods and named dishes; we were turning the gastronomy of a vast and varied land into three curries: Korma, Madras and Vindaloo, with a spoonful of Sharwood’s to garnish. The depressing thing was that Habitat curry was tasteless. You’d get a much more satisfying feed at the local Paki with its maroon flocked wallpaper, Bombay Duck, and cold lager.
But the taste of culinary conquest was on my lips, and those of many of my friends: Over the decades we colonised new cuisines: South Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Egyptian. Our spice racks were full, our veggie plots sprouted galangal and coriander. Our kids learned to use chopsticks before they enrolled in school. When we travelled we learned new variants, discovered pockets of cuisines we hadn’t conquered, rooted out new stinky delicacies to surprise our dinner guests back home.
My finest moment was, I think, in about 2002, when I cooked Indonesian food for twenty guests at my house in the Blue Mountains. Perhaps it was the big Australian reds being sloshed back that night, but I didn’t see the irony of a table of affluent Australians eating Javanese street food among the gum trees and possums.
It was also when I lived in the Blue Mountains that a critical light was shone on my immature postcolonial sensibilities. If you look at census figures for the Blue Mountains, you will discover that the area has a minuscule Asia-born population. From a culinary point of view, this was brought home to me when I found that the waiters in a local Chinese restaurant were Europeans. My first reaction was that I had been cheated; shouldn’t Chinese restaurants be staffed by Chinese people? How could the food be authentic?
And this from the white guy who had mastered – or perhaps remastered – half a dozen national cuisines ranging from the Atlas Mountains to the Yangtze River. This was the white guy who was just beginning to understand that eating is political. I hadn’t learned those Oriental cuisines; I’d invaded them, pillaged them, and brought them home as trophies.
I’ll go a little further with my postcolonial analysis, and claim that white guys like me tended to conquer the cuisines of those bits of the world that our forebears had colonised, not those of the colonisers. The acquisition of French culinary expertise is seen as difficult, and part of the learning of high culture; indeed we talk about haut cuisine. Anyone can make a curry, but French – that takes real art, n’est-ce pas?
And so I found myself in Cyprus, yet to taste Cypriot Mushrooms, travelling with a companion who had lived there as a child and still cherished sweet memories of the food. We started our journey in the southern, Greek, part of the island where, my companion told me, we’d wander the beachside food stalls in the evenings seduced by the fragrance of lamb kebabs grilling on charcoal braziers. The tender pink meat, singed at the edges, would snuggle up against yoghourt and mint in warm pocket bread.
Perhaps that was the case in her childhood. Now there was pork, lots of the stuff, white and fibrous and dry, tasting of almost nothing. And there were cappuccinos topped with aerosol cream and powdered cinnamon. It was time to go north.
We crossed the border by car and meandered through the northern part of Cyprus, enjoying delicate pastel-tinted Turkish food as well as robust tourist grub. The fourth day found us crossing back into the Greek south; we would cruise down the Troodos Range and end up at Paphos, where we were to stay with family. It was the end of the tourist season and the fragrant pine clad hillsides were still pleasantly warm. We stopped to look at exquisite little churches – squat and rough-walled, interiors painted with glorious two-dimensional depictions of saints. The roads were empty.
Our accommodation – a tiny hotel carved into rock walls – had been booked long in advance. We were the only guests, we were told in the troglodytic reception niche. And the restaurant was closed for the year. Try down the hill. They’re still open.
Taking the winding cobbled lane past shuttered windows, spilling geraniums and sleeping cats, we met a sweating couple passing us on the climb up – English, middle-aged, underdressed and red. A single scooter clattered by and was gone.
The restaurant was one of those sadly anachronistic places, a faded faux Swiss chalet, out of place, out of time.
“I bet there’s a huge menu,” I said.
There was. It was half a yard across, cracked and stained, the plastic coating having given up the fight against greasy fingers. There was a large ‘local specialities’ section, a small burger-and-chips list, and unexpectedly, a standard Indian selection of Korma, Vindaloo and Madras. We were the only diners.
“Does it get busy later?” my companion asked the waitress.
“Not really. It is not so full this time of year,” she replied. What was her accent? Not Greek, I thought.
“I’m famished. I’m having an entrée first,” I said to my companion.
“You might regret it. I’ll just have the fish.”
My culinary antennae were bristling: A Greek restaurant, notwithstanding the curry and burgers. Might I get something resembling honest Greek grub of the kind my companion remembered from her girlhood?
When the waitress brought me a pint of lager (“You’ll be full up before the food comes,” my companion said) I asked the young woman if she was from the village.
“I’m from Romania.”
“How interesting,” I lied. “Is the chef from round here?”
“India, maybe.” Aha, that could explain the curries.
A little more questioning revealed that the regular Greek chef had finished for the season. The guy in the kitchen was filling in till tomorrow.
“What happens tomorrow?”
“The restaurant closes for the season.”
“What does he normally do?”
“He cleans the place. He drives the van.”
And so I found myself with two pints of lager on board, and before me a bowl of mushrooms braised in Worcestershire Sauce. It was as vile as it looked and smelt.
“You’d better eat it. You’ve got to pay for it,” my companion sniggered.
I consumed the solids.
My companion’s fish arrived – light and reasonably edible, she reported. But there was no so sign of my ‘Cypriot Meat Platter’. I had another pint of lager.
When at last the dish arrived – enough for four diners – I guessed that the ‘chef’ had cleared out all the remaining meat in the freezer, laid it out on a zinc slab – lamb chops, pork cutlets, cowboy steaks, sausages – and run a blowtorch up and down the row.
I miserably picked at the charred edges of something.
“Serves you right. Why don’t you send it back and ask for something else?” Did I detect the mildest hint of schadenfreude?
Later I said, “Next time we’ll find a Greek restaurant with a Greek chef.”
“You know that’s nonsense. Half the Italian restaurants in Sydney are run by Anglos, not Italians.”
She was right of course.
“Why don’t we just find a restaurant with a chef?” I said.
This is an edited version of a story I first published in 2016 under the title Diners of the World Unite!
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Saturday afternoon, Sid’s Pub, Malacca. The old river meanders past the open veranda, the beer’s cold, three different open-air karaoke singers are battling it out in the tiny historical centre. There’s that special Malaysian olfactory cocktail of charcoal smoke, frying and a faint hint of drains.
We’re here for a lazy holiday – a four-hour coach ride from Singapore and five days in the Casa Del Rio hotel, which I mistakenly thought was a grand old colonial establishment like Raffles or the E & O in Penang. Never mind that it was opened in 2008 – our room is a symphony of teak, grand plumbing, and vintage light fittings. The balcony overlooks the river, which snakes through old Malacca (let’s switch to Melaka), and makes this city faintly reminiscent of Strasbourg or Ljubljana – although much hotter!
I’m also here to see a part of the world that featured in my academic research between 1996 and 2006*. My work centred on the way that Arabic vocabulary entered the Malay language around the 13th century, and Melaka featured as an important historic site. My plan was to see some Muslim gravestones that bore the first writing in Arabic script in the Malay world.
I confess that the heat and langour of Melaka blunted my historical enthusiasm. In the evenings we drifted up and down Jonkers Walk, the main shopping street, with its amazing array of fried food and cheap gadgets. We sat to watch a Malay spruiker selling toilet gel dispensers to a crowd of tourists, and then wandered down to the Chinese karaoke stage. On the way home, we stumbled on the statue of Malaysia’s greatest body builder.
In the fresh morning of our last day, we sought out the Kampung Kling mosque in Jalan Tukang Emas, a street of little guest houses and cafes. This is where Melaka finds a lovely balance of old buildings dressed up with a retro aesthetic (think the Ruins Pub in Budapest). When we bought cool drinks in a trendy little cafe, they apologised that they were a ‘no straw’ establishment.
In the Kling Mosque with its odd Hindu-influenced manar, a kindly and courteous lady explained to my wife where to find a robe and headscarf. I went to the graveyard, but the stones had been eroded so that the carving was illegible, and they had been preserved by a coat of thick silver paint. A week later, I found a pair of mint condition Melaka gravestones in a Singapore museum. But that’s what you’d expect of Singpore!
IF YOU LIKE MY WRITING, WHY NOT TRY MY LATEST NOVEL ‘CAIRO MON AMOUR’.
*Campbell, Stuart (2006) “Indonesian/Malay” in Eid, Mushira et al (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics. Leiden: Brill, p. 340-345.
Campbell, Stuart (1996) “The distribution of –ah/-at forms in Malay loanwords from Arabic” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 152-1, 23-44.
Stuart Campbell’s recent trip to Japan wouldn’t have been the same without a rambunctious Japanese science teacher, a swashbuckling English sailor, and an American historian shocked by a monster typhoon.
I visited Japan briefly last year for the first time, and I was smitten – despite the North Korean missile that shot past the day before I arrived. This year, I had a more relaxed trip – a week in Tokyo and Kyoto, followed by a cruise from Yokohama down to Kobe and Kagoshima, with a dogleg to Okinawa via Shanghai.
At the last minute, I loaded my Kindle with Brett L. Walker’s A Concise History of Japan (2015), and two novels: Natsume Soseki’s Botchan (1906) and, in glaring contrast, James Clavell’s Shogun (1975). My plan on this trip was to use my reading to make better sense of what I saw (besides being curious about James Clavell, who I’d never got around to reading).
I’ve given up trying to characterise my fascination with Japan, other than offering a handful of impressions: The fastidious manners and self-control of a people packed into a tiny country; the overengineered ugliness of the technology, whether it be an ATM where you snatch the banknotes from the clicking guts of the machine, bathtub taps like the bumper of a 1960’s Cadillac, or drab industrialised coastlines. And by contrast, food so delicately served that you hesitate to disturb it; picnickers in a Kyoto park dressed out of a Jane Austen novel; an entire street life of miniature bars with names like ‘Old Pal’ in the lanes behind the skyscrapers.
So to the books: What intrigued me about Walker’s History was his rewriting in 2013 of the last chapter after observing Super Typhoon Haiyan smashing the Philippines. The book concludes with ‘a departure from the conventional manner of telling Japanese history – that is it required fully embracing the idea that the physical islands called ‘Japan’ are geologically and historically unstable’. He goes on to say, ‘this book is what I imagine a history should look like in the twenty-first century, as ice sheets and glaciers melt and sea levels and storm intensities rise’. As I sailed south, it was easy to understand the seriousness of Japan’s watery fate: The world’s third largest economy bolted onto a strip of engineered coastline just meters above an inexorably rising ocean.
James Clavell’s Shogun is set in 1600, but its events lay down the foundations of Japan’s contact with the West and its eventual economic dominance of the outside world. It’s easy to categorise Shogun as a ripping yarn – the swashbuckling English pilot roaming the southern seas on a mission to thwart the Portuguese; his imprisonment in Japan and elevation to the rank of samurai; his delicate and passionate lover of high rank. It’s a Western fantasy of Japaneseness of course with its (probably) thousands of seppuku suicides, men and women bound by impossibly stringent codes of honour, lovers with pillow skills of improbable ingenuity. But Shogun is also an extraordinary feat of detailed plotting and character development that stands the test of time.
I found the author’s treatment of foreign languages most charming and compelling. Like many a seadog of his time, the lead character John Blackthorne is multilingual. Our man is fluent in Dutch, Portuguese and Latin (as well as English), and is determined to master Japanese. Clavell deftly shows Blackthorne’s slow progress and frustration by back-translating his halting Japanese into English, and through the use of his multilingual lover Mariko as an interpreter to fill in the gaps when Japanese fails him. And what about these two lovely linguistic tricks? All the Japanese dialogue is peppered with ‘so sorry’ to remind us of the politeness of Japanese speech; and Blackthorne speaks sweet Latin in secret with his lover (we know because they ‘thou’ one another).
Remember that Clavell learned about Japan the hard way as a prisoner of war; surely Blackthorne’s struggle to learn Japanese must reflect the author’s grim experience?
Natsume’s Botchan was the last on my list. This popular 1906 novel (Wikipedia says most Japanese children read it at school) follows the adventures of an awkward and superior-minded young science graduate from Tokyo who takes off to the provinces to be a school teacher. Our hero’s city attitudes brought alive Walker’s account of the adoption of Western culture in the Meiji period, when the cream of Tokyo paraded in European fashion and listened to jazz. In fact, the cream of Tokyo to this day parades in a version of European fashion that is distinctive in textile and cut, and it’s easy to see how the West is co-opted rather than copied. A word on the translation of Botchan: It’s hilariously archaic with girlfriends referred to as ‘tootsywootsies’. ‘Ha, good for you, Gov’nur’ says our man when his friend’s fishing line comes up minus the bait.
To end, a plug for the camera function on the Google Translate app. My travelling companion twisted her knee and was confined to a wheelchair on the cruise ship for a couple of days. In need of art materials to fill her time, she sent me off at Kobe with a shopping list. Mission was accomplished in no time with me pointing the camera at the labels and the translation popping up instantaneously (well, in the instant it takes to send the live image around the world to a server where it is compared to thousands of stored bits of translated text and the best match sent back around the world to the mobile phone of the hapless foreigner in the art shop).
While you’re here, why not have a look at my latest novel Cairo Mon Amour?