Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 11, 2021

MJBW Summer Bookclub: ‘The Watermill’ by Arnold Zable

MJBW Summer Bookclub: ‘The Watermill’ by Arnold Zable

Melbourne’s Jewish Book Week, like many other bookish organisations, pivoted quickly during Melbourne’s lockdown, and one of the benefits of that is the digital MJBW Summer Bookclub.  It’s usually on a Tuesday evening, which is when I have a regular commitment, but the program is available, free, on the MJBW website events page, shortly afterwards.

This conversation between Arnold Zable and Tali Lavi offered readers an insight into The Watermill, a quartet of true stories of displacement, of survival and and of resistance, and how Zable sheds a ray of light in the darkest of places.

Tali Lavi introduced Arnold Zable as a man of many talents, writer, dramatist, teacher, essayist, activist and much more.  He’s also a man with an international outlook.  He has worked with refugees, immigrants and many groups of vulnerable people.  You can find out more about him at his website.

The Windmill is due for release on March 3rd.  This is the blurb:

Echoing the rhythms of the watermill—and ranging from remote provinces in China and Cambodia, to pre-and post-war Yiddish Poland, Kurdish Iraq and Iran, indigenous and present-day Melbourne—this quartet of stories are united by the ebbs and flows of trauma and healing, statelessness and displacement, memory and forgetting, oppression and resistance. And ever-recurring journeys in search of belonging.

The Wheeler centre promo expands on it like this:

The four stories of The Watermill, by widely-loved novelist, storyteller and human rights advocate Arnold Zable, take place around the world – from remote provinces in China and Cambodia to pre- and post-war Yiddish Poland, Kurdish Iraq and Iran, and Indigenous and present-day Melbourne. Zable’s compassionate, sensitive nonfiction unfolds with novelistic lyricism, as he explores the tides of history, memory, healing and belonging.

For many migrants, including Zable’s parents, Australia is a haven, but it’s also much more ancient than that.  There was discussion about Zable’s relationship with Aunty Joy Murphy which began back in the 1990s.  It is this relationship that has given him a sense of Australia’s ancient past continuing into the present.

One of the quartet of stories derives from China.  (The photo on the front cover is a watermill in the place where Zable was teaching). Zable talks about the Cultural Revolution, when the whole country went mad, and then the Tiananmen Massacre, followed eventually by the country opening up.  Though when he visited, he still found a wariness in the people.  But he also found that the Chinese knew their ancient history and culture, and were connected to something ancient, something more important than the rise and fall of ancient dynasties.

Lavi asked him about whether fiction is more freeing than the NF.  She quoted his haiku about the limitations of language to convey the richness of the experiences he had in China.  He thinks the borderline is thin, including in this book.  He said that in Café Scheherazade he created composite characters to conflate a bigger experience, and in The Windmill, he has done the same thing.  The stories are true, but the characters are composite.  All writers struggle with how you capture an experience.  How do you do justice to the experience of a woman who lost four children in Cambodia genocide?  How do you capture the magic and grandeur of being alone in the valley of southwest China for a year? It’s even harder to convey the experience of trauma…

Lavi asked him about walking… she said it seemed restorative and also integral to the stories he’s written.  He said he’s always been a walker, it’s how he sees and gets the feeling of a neighbourhood.  Solitude is important, and the magic of walking is three part: someone or something comes towards you: then you may talk or observe it for a while.  And then you move on, and that’s the third part.  Stories are like that, they come, and they go. Walking also makes one alert to what’s going on around you, including what’s on the periphery.  Walking is a big part of his passion for life.

Although most of the time he’s a listener and a conduit for other people’s stories.  But in writing NF there are times when he is a participant and has to step forward.  It’s different in fiction because different points of view enable those other perspectives.

Like many writers he keeps journals, and he says that if he didn’t he wouldn’t have the detail, the immediacy or the texture that he needs.  But still he has to make choices, not just publish his journals: he wanted to zero in on the heart of what he learned, about endurance, for instance.  Also some things become magnified with the passage of time.  You may be alert to what you see and what’s going on, but when you rework them in writing something new, something else emerges.  (And you still have to do research afterwards!)

[Not that I am a writer in Zable’s league, but I find this is true with my reading journals too.  Sometimes what I write in my journals is just my immediate feelings, which are sometimes gushing or negative or dismissive or puzzled or banal.  But then (I am a walker too) as I walk the dog each day I think about the book and I process it in a different way.  A lot of what I write here has been ‘written’ on my walk.]

The Windmill is based on journals from the 1980s, and though the completion of it took about two years, so it’s impossible to ask ‘when did you start writing’ something.  He doesn’t pre-plan, he follows where the story takes him. He says he never writes about victims, he writes about human beings, and that he is always alert to gestures because so much is conveyed by the hands.  Talking about a woman who founded a theatre in Bergen-Belsen, he showed how she used her hands to block her eyes and ears because, he knew, she did not want to revisit the past.

It is a betrayal not to tell some stories, but it’s also a betrayal if you don’t do the story justice. The people who share their stories are the authors of them, because they are the authority on that experience.

Lavi’s questions were thoughtful and responsive to what Zable said.  An excellent interviewer!


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