Rather than send Goldie Alexander off on a blog tour to promote her new book That Stranger Next Door, we decided she should blog here on the Clan Destine Press website and invite some fellow authors to pay a visit a talk about their writing.
We begin, today, with Goldie’s own piece on Fictionalising History.
Then from Thursday the following authors will drop in, every couple of days, to talk about why they do the things they do:
Kate Forsyth – Felicity Pulman – Errol Broome
Jane Yolen – Julia Lawrinson- Pauline Luke
Steven Herrick – George Ivanoff – Hazel Edwards
THE PERSONAL MEETS THE POLITICAL
by Goldie Alexander
In my seventh decade it appears that my childhood memories are becoming stronger while my instances of wondering ‘why have I gone into this room?’ are increasing.
As a result, certain events that occurred Australia when I was a teenager in the 1950s have become my writing fuel; although their recall is often inspired by current affairs.
Though many books have been written by the children of Holocaust survivors, I don’t think much has come out about the immediate after effects on those Jews who were here in Australia well before WWII, and their children, even though repercussions echo through the decades.
That Stranger Next Door is partly my account of what it was like to be a Jewish girl living in Melbourne, Australia in the mid 1950’s.
It is not my own story, nor that of my family. Although like us, the Cohen family in my novel emigrated to Australia long before the outbreak World War II.
When the worst atrocities of that conflict became known, I recall grown-ups whispering about these dreadful events as if they were something we should be ashamed of.
Perhaps they were trying to save us from the horrors that were emerging or perhaps they felt guilty that by living here they had escaped hell.
I recall, as if it was only yesterday, watching film of concentration camps being liberated and photos of children who didn’t survive. One little girl looked so much like me she could have been my twin.
When I am asked why I write about such events, all I can say is that writers must write about how certain events affected us, whether it be inside a disaster or how we deal with it later. None of us were immune, even if we couldn’t speak about them at the time.
The facts were that we cared too much about them to dare discuss them. Worse still, we could nothing, except perhaps, to continue to remember and remind generations that follow.
Holocausts are not unique to Jews. They happen all over the world where the cultures and religions are of others are feared or hated.
And wars continue no matter what we do; and every conflict produces refugees.
The number of immigrants Australia should accept is still a hot issue. As each wave of migrants have come into this country, they have had to face hate and bias until time sorted things out and they were eventually absorbed. There seems no good reason why this shouldn’t continue.
What triggered me to write That Stranger Next Door was the current plight of our asylum seekers, and the so-called ‘Children Overboard’ incident of 2001 which John Howard used to win an election and become prime minister.
The way our modern politicians – now and in 2001 – use the fear of ‘the other’ is too scarily familiar to the propaganda of the ‘reds under beds’ in the 1950s.
Having taught history to high school students I knew how boring the topic can sometimes be. What was often lacking was a sense of ‘being there’.
Placing people’s histories into fiction is the best way I know to give contemporary Young Adult readers more insight into history while promote understanding and tolerance of the modern world.
Once I started fictionalising history, my challenge as an author was to create convincing settings, characters and dialogue. The all-important narrative had to develop from the problems my characters encountered: their aims, wishes and fears.
My historical fiction always start with the premise: ‘what if you were there at the time’.
Background to That Stranger Next Door
1954 seems a long way away – even to those of us who lived through it.
It was the height of the Cold War between Communist countries and the West. In the United States, Senator McCarthy was using anti-communist laws to force academics, film producers, movie stars and writers to a senate hearing to ask if they ever belonged to the Communist Party and to name anyone who had gone to their meetings.
Many writers, film directors and academics, lost jobs, family, and some even committed suicide.
We think of this time in Australia as barren and conservative; a time when Prime Minister Menzies ruled, the Queen visited us wearing pearls, England was Home, migrants passed through camps and into the community. There was the Snowy Mountain Scheme, the six o’clock swill, nuclear families, housewifery for women, and the coming of television.
In 1954, barely a decade on from the horror of WWII, Australian soldiers had only just returned from another conflict, the Korean War.
My memory of the politics of the 1950s – of things like the Liberal/Country Party Coalition being in power, the White Australia Policy, the Communist Referendum, and the split in the Labour Party into ALP and DLP and how the infamous Petrov Affair was used by Menzies to retain power – screamed at me, here in 2014, that we are doing it all over again.
It niggled at me to write about that time in the fifties as a warning for today. But, when I approached several submission editors with the idea, some didn’t know what I was talking about when I mentioned ‘the Petrov Affair’; others told me no one would be interested.
Given that I am obstinate enough to persevere, I went ahead and wrote the book anyway.
That Stranger Next Door is set in Melbourne in 1954 at the height of the Cold War.
When an insignificant Russian diplomat called Vladimir Petrov, working in the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, defected to Australia, promising to provide information about a Russian spy ring, he neglected to mention the decision to his wife.
While Petrov became ‘Russia’s top spy in Australia’, his wife Evdokia – obviously a spy as well – was ‘taken’ by Russian officials; but rescued at the last minute from a plane in Darwin by ASIO. She was hidden in a safe house ‘somewhere’ in Australia.
Prime Minister Menzies used the whole ‘evil communists trying to take Evdokia against her will’ scenario as propaganda for his attempt to bring introduce anti-communist legislation into Australia.
The defections came shortly before the 1954 elections. Many believe the Petrov Affair, and Menzies’ stand against the Communists, was responsible for the Liberals staying in power, when a Labor victory had been forecast.
Like Howard’s non-existent children overboard 47 years later, Menzie’s spy ring was also a bust. There were no arrest, and no spies were ever uncovered as a result of Petrov’s information.
(It’s believed Petrov was merely afraid to return to Russia, as the man who’d sent him to Canberra had been shot by the new men in the KBG following the death of Stalin.)
In 1954, the implications of Menzies’ attempts at anti-communist legislation were frightening for so many Europeans who lived in Australia. Not just those who had arrived post WWII, but the many who had come to Australia in the decades prior, and thus escaped the Holocaust.
The propaganda coming out of the Soviet Union had been successful – as this was before Russian tanks rolled into Hungary – and many Australians had joined the local Communist Party.
With MacCarthy’s anti-communist hearings in the US, the fact that ‘known’ or suspected communists were being refused visas to the States, and the scaremongering of the Petrov Affair here, Australian communists buried and burnt any telling comunist literature.
Because then, here in Australia, the Catholics and the Protestants might have hated each other, but they were united in their intolerance and hatred of Jews, Asians, Aboriginals and Communists.
So: 1954, 2001, 2014 – history repeating.
Now, while I may he an ex-history teacher, I am also a storyteller and I knew full well that this very political story needed a sweetener to make it appeal to contemporary readers – the current readers of Young Adult fiction.
What could be better than a Romeo and Juliet type romance (without the knives and poison) set against that infamous affair?
Clever 15-year-old Ruth Cohen, and her Jewish family – mother, father, grandfather and little brother – live above the family milk-bar in Melbourne’s Elwood. Ruth is a scholarship student at St. Margaret’s Girls’ College.
Because Ruth’s father once belonged to the Communist Party, the family fear that Menzies will use the Petrov Affair to bring in anti-Communist legislation that will bring on another wave of anti-Semitism and thus harm his family.
When the next door flat is rented to a mysterious Russian called ‘Eva’, Ruth decides this woman can only be Evdokia Petrov.
The story also begins with Ruth’s first meeting of the Catholic Patrick Sean O’Sullivan. As it happens, Patrick’s father is about to work for Bob Santamaria and the emerging Democratic Labor Party (DLP).
Patrick offers to teach Ruth to ride a bike at a time when some Jewish girls were never allowed to mix with gentile boys.
Meanwhile, the mysterious Eva next door provides Ruth with an alibi for meeting Patrick, but only on the proviso that her presence also be kept secret.
As Ruth rails against ‘how a good Jewish daughter should behave’, she is fascinated by Patrick’s totally different background.
Interwoven with Ruth’s life is Eva’s voice, retelling some of the horrors that happened to her in the previous three decades.