Lara Fergus – a long-time human rights worker – has created a gripping, powerful and intelligent tale about the exile and survival of twin sisters in My Sister Chaos , published by Spinifex, an award-winning feminist press that always releases challenging, progressive material. Kate Goldsworthy spoke to her for Readings.
You’ve worked overseas with refugee and newly arrived immigrant women, and your characters are refugee women who’ve survived a brutal war. How much of their lives did you base on real stories you’ve heard, and real women you’ve met?
I’ve been privileged to meet some extraordinary women who have survived events and experiences that nobody should have to – and who have then had to deal with learning to live in a new country, with a new language and customs, and often without the people they love. Hearing their stories has no doubt influenced how I wrote My Sister Chaos. But I would never draw directly on one particular person’s story, or even an event within a story. Stories are sometimes all people have left out of an experience – they’re of too much value to simply take like that.
It was also more important for me, in the novel, to explore the connections between different types of loss and exile. The loss of someone you love, for example, and the loss of your home or your sense of belonging. Or the links between exile from country and exile from community, which both the sisters experience (at one point they’re described as ‘exiles before the war made it formal’). And in this I drew as much on my own experiences as any I’d heard or read about.
You never name people or places in the book, although with the presence of trams, and with English as the official language, the sisters seem to be refugees in Melbourne. When and why did you make the decision to avoid names?
I decided early on I didn’t want to ‘identify’ the sisters in any way, whether by their names, or the country they came from, or their ethnicity. Firstly because I didn’t want to be presenting anything like a fictionalised history or case study of an actual war. More importantly though, I was interested in looking at the similarities or patterns in how power operates, in how people are excluded or discriminated against, and in how this exclusion and discrimination can so easily flip over into outright intolerance and violence. Not naming people or places was a way of avoiding an ‘individual experience’ sort of story, and of keeping those broader, more structural ideas present.
Secondly, not naming people or places was a way of creating a sense of non-identity, of almost not existing in any one location, which is the experience of exclusion and of exile. The sisters’ names are symbols of their identities, of themselves, so to speak. Only the sisters speak each others’ names (other people mispronounce or confuse them), in the same way only the sisters speak each others’ language. I was trying to convey the sense of them being ‘real’ only to each other, and their relationship with the outside world as one of dislocation, and translation.
The sisters are living in a country where most people have no idea about what they’ve been through. There’s even a scene in which the cartographer sees a map of her country displayed on a news program, and all of the cities are mislabelled. In writing this book, was one of your intentions to raise awareness about the experiences of refugees – and if so, do you see your fiction writing as a form of activism?
I didn’t set out to raise awareness per se, but I’m fascinated by political ideas and notions of how we create change in the world, so I can’t imagine that I could write a story and not have those ideas come out. I think it must be profoundly isolating to be a new arrival in Australia in the current climate, so of course when the cartographer sees that map, or is talking about her workplace, that sense of isolation is going to become apparent.
The irony is that in a country like Australia, this sort of experience is all around us – it’s a part of who we are. You don’t have to work for a human rights or refugee organisation to hear stories of loss or displacement, you just have to talk to your neighbours, colleagues, or in many cases your own family. The survival of displacement and exile is a part of our cultural landscape, and not just in terms of war or conflict. The separation of Indigenous people from their lands and families, the waves of economic or political migration, even the class injustice of the convict era – you’re hard pressed to find somebody in this country who doesn’t have a story of displacement or loss in their background.
But I find it extraordinary that for such an incredibly diverse and multicultural country, there’s also such an insularity here – a lack of knowledge of, or interest in, what’s happening internationally. And when it comes to the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, we have a political culture perpetuating the myth that we can ‘lock out’ the rest of the world, as if it somehow has nothing to do with us. I think those ideas come out in different ways in the book – the cartographer’s obsession with keeping the house secure, for instance, is not only about her maintaining control in a foreign environment but could also be seen as the locking out of the unknown, of everything we see as different or even chaotic in the world. But of course it’s already inside. It’s already who we are, and we’re the richer for it.
How did you become involved in human rights work, and what then led you to fiction?
I don’t really have a good narrative for this – I’ve always taken an interest in lots of things, moved around from one obsession to another. I started doing volunteer work with Amnesty International after I finished a dance degree. I was reading Marx and had decided that the performing arts were a soporific luxury of the bourgeoisie, so I was looking for a substitute. Amnesty, of course, is full of lawyers and no escape at all from the bourgeoisie, but I didn’t know that then (!). From there I went on to study and work in the area of women’s human rights, and particularly violence against women, in a number of different contexts.
I think what’s amazing is that it took me so long – I mean, I grew up in western Sydney, so my friends and neighbours were the children of refugees and immigrants from Iran, Lebanon, Cyprus, Vietnam. By the time I was a teenager the war in the former Yugoslavia was on the television every night; then in my first year out of school came the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. Add to that the everyday discrimination and violence against women that was visible all around me, and issues like Indigenous health, that you only had to open the paper to see. The question should really be: why was I in my early twenties before I did get involved in human rights?
As for fiction – it’s always been a big part of my life. It’s another world to escape into, whether you’re reading or writing. And more than that – as you say in your last question below – it’s a way of making sense of the world that you’re ‘really’ in.
My Sister Chaos is full of complex ideas about human beings, but you’ve also brought in cartography and mathematics. Where does your knowledge of these disciplines come from, and what motivated you to so carefully (and beautifully) weave them into both the structure and content of the book?
Sadly I have no knowledge of either these disciplines, but happily – if your question’s anything to go by – that’s not immediately evident. I was a bit of a science geek at school and up to a first-year undergraduate level, but I gave that all up to become a famous dancer (at least until Marx came along). So thank god I had a real mathematician – Robyn Arianrhod – to help me get those bits right. For the cartography I did a fair bit of research, but also took a lot of poetic licence. This is not an ordinary cartographer, though, and her intentions are not always strictly cartographic. I’m hoping these facts will enable any cartographers reading the novel to forgive its inevitable inaccuracies.
As for motivation, I’ve been intrigued by the metaphor of cartography for years, and have tried writing it into other works with different characters and contexts. But it was with this character that it was suddenly right. The sense of exile from place is heightened, I think, in a character whose professional and personal obsessions are so intimately linked with place and its representation. And yet cartography is also a lifeline, the promise of order, in the chaos of her exile. This character was a cartographer, whether I wanted her to be or not, so I just had to follow that.
Although the sisters are very different women, they’re both involved in acts of creation throughout the story, in their own ways – and these acts help them to come to terms with their world. As you were creating their story, did you find yourself identifying with one or both of the sisters, and was the process your own way of grappling with reality?
With the cartographer I started to notice during my writing of the early sections similarities between our processes and problems. My decisions on what to include in the story and what to leave out, for instance, reflected her methodological paradox of detail and scope. Then whenever I tried to bring the story to a conclusion, new possibilities would suggest themselves. Like the cartographer, I couldn’t decide where to stop, so like her, I didn’t. The story kept growing, and seemed to have the potential for infinite detail, but no matter how much I did, like her I could only see the gaps that remained.
It was tricky; it meant I had to write her character carefully. Her determination and analytical ability were driving not just her process, but mine too. She had to be someone who could accept intellectual compromise and find a way to delimit the complexity she was discovering. Above all she had to find a way to express this complexity, however imperfectly, and adjust her system of representation accordingly. I needed her to find solutions, however radical, so that I could continue with the novel. I needed her to be someone who could eventually get me to an end point, whatever it took.
So yes, one of the things that helped me keep going with the story was the fact that I wasn’t doing it alone – that there were these two other women equally intent on making meaning out of the world in their different ways, and needing to do that in order to come to terms with their experience. I couldn’t abandon them, but, on the other hand, nor did they leave me hanging. We all got there in the end.