Where to travel next? Another first world problem. Michelle de Kretser reminded us at the Sydney Writers’ Festival that ‘travel is a privilege. It’s not always the green quilted view.’
De Kretser was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Australia at 14. She used to work for Lonely Planet, as an editor, and is the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case, The Lost Dog and recent winner of the prestigious Miles Franklin award 2013 for Questions of Travel.
Questions of Travel is a novel so huge in size it made her panic when it was first published. The Miles Franklin justifies its size. It is a book of ideas and stories that collide; of Laura, an Australian woman, travelling the world as a tourist and Ravi, who had to leave Sri Lanka due to political violence and came to Australia.
The main theme is different types of travel. ‘To travel is to say goodbye, to connect and pass on to another place.’ De Kretser said she doesn’t just present the quilted green idealistic view because in reality not everyone travels. You need the money and the right passport to cross borders. There are over one billion tourists worldwide, but to put this figure into perspective six billion of the world’s population aren’t tourists.
The main character, Ravi dreams about travel but as a Sri Lankan he doesn’t have the means to be a tourist. Sri Lanka attracts an increasing number of tourists yet Sri Lankans can’t visit their visitors’ countries. De Kretser said she’d written the book but had forgotten the difficult reality of travel for Sri Lankans. Applying for a tourist visa in India is a long process but if you’re Sri Lankan there’s an extra layer of complication. To Indians Sri Lankans are suspicious, just like Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. These themes lie underneath the narrative.
It’s interesting that Ravi arrives as a tourist by plane not as an asylum seeker. Whether Ravi is an authentic refugee depends on his mode of transport. There’s a stereotypical image of a refuge as someone who arrives by boat and lives behind barbed wire. De Kretser wanted to particularise suffering, and convey the individuality of asylum seekers through the portrayal of Ravi.
De Kretser said our sympathy depends on someone’s ability to narrate their story. Current examples of this are the stories of Amanda Knox and Lindy Chamberlain. We depend on story on lots of levels; our legal system is built on narrative. De Kretser said when an assessor reviews asylum seekers’ experience they compare stories of a family. The problem is people often have contradictory memories, can’t remember or, like Ravi, are too traumatised to articulate what happened. The assessor, in her opinion, is not a reliable witness for reviewing asylum seekers’ stories.
Questions of Travel has been described as witty, poignant and possessing great wisdom. De Kretser said she hoped it would ‘make people think about travel in new ways and move them when they are considering the politics around asylum seekers.’
A must read for anyone interested in travel, issues of asylum and Australian society.