Glenda Guest looks the cute, affable grandmother that everyone would like to have. But she is more than that – her first-ever book, Siddon Rock, recently won the Best First Book prize at the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. The subject of her book is quite topical – how new faces are received in traditionally-closed communities. The fact that she received her prize in New Delhi makes it even more topical, given the fact that Indian migrants are facing some horrifying moments the Down Under. Guest speaks with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on her book, the attacks on Indians in her country, and how culture can play a role in bringing communities closer:
Why do you think your book has been appreciated so much?
It is part of my PhD on creative writing. It’s always really interesting for a writer to have the ability to dig underneath the surface and expose what is underneath. It’s set in a small Western Australia town at about mid last century after the War, when we had a lot of Europeans and Americans coming in. What I wanted to expose was several things at different levels. One was what effect migrations have on small communities. I am really interested in the dynamics of closed communities, and what happens when somebody from another culture brings in their stories into the closed communities. It also has to do with my interest in magic realism. Salman Rushdie was a key model, somebody who I really had a liking for, particularly in his early works. And also it’s about what happens to stories in a closed community. But I was stunned and absolutely overwhelmed at the reception it has got. I had never even dreamt that anything I write would be accepted at such levels.
This has been your first visit to India. What has been your experience?
Overwhelming, though I feel very distressed to see the poor people, especially the children on the roadside. But I also understand the problem – so many people, where would you start? The whole of Australia’s population is a couple of millions more than that of New Delhi. So it’s just overwhelming. I think there is a logic in this chaos that I saw in Delhi. It is chaos, but seems like an organised chaos.
What image about India you had before coming here, especially since there is a big Indian community in Australia?
There is a big Indian community in Australia, and my husband has reasonable contact with many of those in the IT industry. There is a very romanticized view about India in Australia. I teach at several universities, and I have seen Indian students. They are always doing business degrees. Maybe there is just one-off person doing a literature or creative writing degree. I got really, really attached to one young man from somewhere north in India about ten years ago. I asked him why is it that all are doing business degrees, he said he had to go back. I asked him why, and he said his village had got the money together to send him to high school. That’s why he had to go back, take his knowledge back. That touched me a lot.
In recent times, there has been a lot of incidents about attacks on Indians in Australia…
I think in every country, in every community there is a range of people who will be bigots, against somebody. Australians are not like this, but there are pockets in Australia where this happens. We can try to educate these people, but I would say overall there is little racism in Australia.
Do you think more cultural exchanges can help reduce such negativities?
I think that will be excellent. The more the two communities can interchange and send people to each other and get information about each other, and learn how each one sees, understands things, it would help. It should happen all the time, because there is a stereotype – when you see a stereotype people say oh, Australians are like this, Indians are like that. When you start talking one-on-one, your understanding changes immediately since you make it personal. Suddenly it’s not a nation, it’s a person.
As part of the idea about exchanges, would you like to get your book released in India?
I would love it to, but honestly have no idea how to go about it. I have an agent in Australia, who is doing the stuff. I think Indians would understand, because it’s secular, it talks about small communities, and there is a huge English readership in India. It has gone to a couple of schools here and the British Council has taken some copies for its library.
Now that you have started off on a good note, what’s next?
I have four different projects in my head, and which one is going to win is difficult to tell. I always like to think in terms of questions – what if? – which keeps you thinking. I would like to write is what would happen if somebody didn’t come home. And something about fire, I am not sure what would it be. We had tremendous and ravaging bush fires last year, and I have an image of the fire in my head.