Telling stories for the Martians
BY LUKE SLATTERY (BA(HONS) 1983)
It’s a late summer afternoon in Sydney and writer Anna Funder walks with a languid grace into a cafe with an industrial air – plain tables and raw concrete surfaces. Outside the heat is fierce and the light harsh yet Funder, slender, pale and the very model of sangfroid, is her own microclimate.
Last year the 49-year-old, Melbourne-born writer returned to Australia after nearly four years in New York with architect husband Craig Allchin (BArch 1989), three young children at serious risk of becoming precociously Americanised, and 16 cases of luggage.
Allchin had continued to work in Sydney during their time in the US – “a long commute”, says Funder, with a slight curl of the lip and a generous dose of irony.
This year she starts work at Sydney’s University of Technology, from which she has a doctorate in creative writing, in an honorary role that allows her freedom to write without the shackle of a heavy teaching load.
Family seems to have been the chief motivation for her return. “So many things become clear only when you do them,” she says as her gaze falls to the white tabletop, “and for someone who works with their imagination I’m bad at imagining what they might be like.
“In time we realised that we would always be foreigners if we stayed in America. We would always be at one remove from the society, and at one remove from our children who are absolutely a part of that culture.”
But the move feels good. Funder (BA(Hons) 1988, LLB(Hons) 1991, MA(CrWrtg) 2002) spent the first month walking around Sydney taking photographs. “It was so beautiful,” she laughs, seemingly embarrassed at the pure simplicity of the emotion. “Australia is a fantastic country.”
In place of America’s excitement and intrigue, and the physically intimidating mass of New York city – the family lived in Brooklyn – she is now “in a confident place to write from, a place I know”. But in a tacit admission that she might not know the place well enough, she is reading about early colonial Sydney when we meet, and excited by the story.
Arriving at her family home from the airport her father, renowned medical researcher Professor John Funder AC (BA 1964, MB BS 1965, PhD 1970, MD 1971, DMedSc 2013, Newman College, International House), offered the Punjabi taxi driver a tip.
“He didn’t want that spare change,” she recalls. “It was like, ‘This is Australia. We’re all equal. I don’t want your loose change. I have my own dignity and I don’t need it.’ And I like that!”
There is a remarkable – almost fantastical – quality to Funder’s writing life: it seems to have come out of nowhere. There was no obvious apprenticeship. She emerged fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus.
Armed with her University of Melbourne degrees and a gift for languages – she is fluent in French, which she learnt at school in France from the age of six, and German – Funder had pursued a Europe based career in human rights law. It was while working in Berlin in the mid-1990s for Deutsche Welle TV that she started researching what would become Stasiland.
First published in 2002, after earning Funder a Master’s in creative writing at the University of Melbourne, the book is a driven, almost journalistic (in the best sense of that word) inquiry into the remnants of the German Democratic Republic’s ubiquitous security apparatus, the Stasi, and its victims. In some hands it might have been a rather grim investigation, yet Funder’s prose is warmed by human sensitivity, humour, and a writer’s capacity to see the world aslant.
Stasiland won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, the British equivalent of a Pulitzer. Her next book, All That I Am, is a novel similarly concerned with the victims of a German-speaking security apparatus, only this time the events that send a depth charge through the story take place against the backdrop of Hitler’s rise to power, and the human drama is focused by the white magic of imagination.
Stasiland is a true story animated by novelistic craft; All That I Am, which went on to win the Miles Franklin, is a novel nourished by a quest for truth. She continued to work this fictional seam in The Girl with the Dogs, a quiet, lapidary novella published last year, a riff on Chekhov’s masterful The Lady with the Dog.
The heart of it is a rewriting of history. It is trying to tell a truth that history has tried to cover up, or refused to tell.
Why did she turn, after the global success with Stasiland, to the high-wire act of fiction? “I started to write Stasiland as a novel and a terrible novel – just execrable in its own right – but my problem was the form wasn’t meeting the content,” she explains.
“I was living in Germany and would talk to people living in Berlin and they were all alive. People who had resisted the Stasi and people who had been part of the Stasi were walking around streets together and in a supermarket queue together.
“Stylistic choices are ultimately moral choices and it seemed inappropriate to try to inhabit someone’s head rather than let them speak for themselves. It had to be non-fiction and I had to put it together in a string of pearls form and the glue of the story was what it was like to live in Berlin at that time.
“With All That I Am everybody is dead. The central mystery is probably, I think, an outrageous injustice and the only thing to do was to bring the characters back to life. The suspense of the book is what happens to them. But the heart of it is a rewriting of history. It is trying to tell a truth that history has tried to cover up, or refused to tell.
“Both of these stories are interventions in history – I don’t mean this in a grandiose way – but the form was dictated by those factors, by what I felt was appropriate.”
She has returned home to a life unencumbered by the awkwardness of exile – an easier life where she has to worry less about the kids – and to serious work on both a novel and some longform non-fiction pieces.
She doesn’t want to talk about the novel before it’s set down. Writers rarely do. But for Funder it’s not a case of creative superstition so much as a concern that casual verbalisations might block off narrative paths.
“Fiction is an exploratory process,” she says. “If I say what it’s about I’ve made a synaptic path. I don’t want to make it harder for myself.”
I invite her to step into an alternative reality and consider what life might have been like if Stasiland had not steamrollered its way into best-seller lists and human rights law had instead been her true vocation: what causes would she most likely fight for?
She declines, politely, the invitation to improvise. There’s just no point, when she only ever wanted to be a writer.
“From the age of six I was so fascinated with language and what it could do and how the world looked different in French from in English and the power of that.
“It wasn’t even so much perhaps that I wanted to be one, it was that I couldn’t imagine being or doing anything else. Now, of course, I’m not competent to do anything else. If I ever was.
“I don’t think I would have actually harmed anyone if I’d continued as an international lawyer for the Australian government, but still. What I’m really interested in is exploring what it is to be human, in case the Martians ever come down and want reading material.”