Writers & Company

Michelle de Kretser probes the human heart with insight and wit in her novel, The Life to Come

In this 2019 interview, the Sri Lankan-born Australian author talks to Eleanor Wachtel about how the ambivalence of travel shaped her life and fiction.
Michelle de Kretser is a Sri Lankan-born Australian novelist. (Mayu Kanamori)

This interview was originally broadcast in 2019.

Sri Lankan-born author Michelle de Kretser is a fiercely intelligent voice in contemporary fiction. Intimate and engaging, her work is always a pleasure to read. The New York Times described it as "a dazzling performance; rich, luxuriant, intense and gorgeous." 

With her 2019 novel, The Life to Come, de Kretser became a two-time winner of Australia's most important literary award, the Miles Franklin Prize. Through five interconnected stories, the book explores themes of race, class, migration and the art of writing itself.

Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka's Dutch Burgher community in 1957, when the country was still known as Ceylon. When she was 14, her family emigrated to Australia, where she has since made her home.

De Kretser spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from the Banff Arts Centre in Alberta, during her stay as writer-in-residence in 2019.

Sense of austerity

"When I was growing up, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was following an economic policy of austerity and self-reliance. In the wake of independence, there was an effort being made to stimulate production within the country itself. Most imported goods were banned. They were just not available.

"This meant I grew up with not much at all in the way of consumer goods. I think that sense of austerity, and being able to get by without lavish consumption, has left its mark on me.

I remember coming to Australia and being completely overwhelmed when I realized that there were these things called 'brands.'

"I remember coming to Australia and being completely overwhelmed when I realized that there were these things called 'brands.'

"So not only could you buy whatever you wanted —  if you had the money to do it — but you had a choice between different versions of the same thing. Now this is something that's taken for granted in the West, but it seemed absurd to me and it still does.

"Not being entirely in thrall to the market has stayed with me."

Constant craving

"The Life to Come revolves around the stories that individuals as well as nations tell about themselves. The myths by which we live — this notion of fashioning stories to give meaning to and shape our lives.

"There's also the idea of people yearning for their lives to be different in some way. They're yearning for things that they find hard to articulate even to themselves — that might include things like worldly success, love, friendship and human connections in some way."

The ambivalence of travel

"The ambivalence of travel on the one hand is wonderful. It enlarges one's horizon and sense of possibilities. On the other hand, especially in an age of mass tourism, it's quite a trite experience.

"But travel has played such a huge part in my own life. I'm a migrant, so I moved from one country to another. I also have lived in France for quite a long time, and I worked for almost 10 years for a publisher of travel guides, Lonely Planet.

"Of course, I travel for pleasure like so many other people in the West. I began to really think seriously about travel as an economic activity and the privilege that enables tourism, compared to the kind of travel that people from less affluent countries do, which is often travel for work.

I began to really think seriously about... the privilege that enables tourism, compared to the kind of travel that people from less affluent countries do, which is often travel for work.

"When you think of people moving countries for work, your first impression might be of someone traveling up the pointy end of the plane and wearing a suit; a business class traveler.

"But in fact most of the people who move around the world looking for work are very poor. They are seasonal workers. They're migrant workers. And they are impelled by economic necessity to leave home and look for work — which is usually not well-paid and offers little protection in terms of their rights as workers. Then of course there is the whole question of refugees and all the people who are moving across the world because they've had to flee their homes due to ethnic conflict or environmental catastrophe."

Michelle de Kretser's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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