Alice Pung interviews Jock Serong
Alice Pung interviews Jock Serong about On the Java Ridge, his literally page-turning novel of politics, asylum seekers, a storm, a surf trip… and treason on the high seas.
Jock Serong tells me a true story about a British surfer who went out to ride the waves immediately after a tsunami struck Sri Lanka: ‘Tens of thousands of people were killed, but he went out the very next day. This guy would have had to clamber over debris and dead bodies to get to the water. When he was asked why he decided to go out there, he said – well, there’s nothing I can do is there? And I paid good money for this.’
Serong, a veteran surf-writer, award-winning crime novelist and former lawyer, is also a consummate storyteller: in person as well as on the page. He doesn’t crank the outrage dial up to max, but lets the story sit, until it festers. He’s the sort of writer who lets the reader feel their own feelings.
On the Java Ridge has been hailed as Serong’s first foray outside the crime genre. But what happens in this story is state-sanctioned criminality – espionage and murder, both by ‘foreigners’ and Australians – so by definition, it is the ultimate crime novel. Serong’s ability to weave egregious examples of political complacency with a churning tale of treason on the high seas makes this a real page-turner in the literal sense of the word. All of the action takes place within a span of just 10 days.
But where you might expect pirates and prime ministers to play a central role, Serong narrates his story from the perspectives of an asylum-seeker girl, a rookie (male) politician on the verge of a breakdown, and Isi, a young surf-tour operator. Isi runs the Java Ridge, a boat built along traditional lines by Sulawesi’s Bugis people, ‘so on the outside she’d look exactly like a traditional fishing vessel, but on the inside – luxury!’. (Serong based this on a real trend of making boats look as ‘authentic’ as possible, consulting extensively with a friend who conducts such tours.)
But then a real fishing boat – carrying refugees – crashes in the waters of Dana Island, where Isi and her group had landed earlier, to surf. Serong and I talk about the limits of empathy and whether there’s a reader bias towards ‘people like us’.
‘Two hundred brown people might have died in a boating disaster in the news,’ he says, ‘but what moves us more is the plight of two or three white Australians lost at sea.’ Here, Serong seeks to focus our lens on two people on that refugee boat: a little girl, Roya, and her pregnant mother, Shafiqa. Serong treats these characters carefully and tenderly, ‘a bird in a fist’; Roya is loosely based on an Afghan interpreter he knew when he worked as a lawyer for asylum-seekers. ‘I only have to look at my own daughters to feel the absolute horror of the situation,’ he says.
His second novel, The Rules of Backyard Cricket, which was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, was as much about the women who shaped their men as it was about examining tropes of a certain kind of laconic masculinity – in fact, an undercurrent of love for their women underpinned the men’s decisions. In On the Java Ridge, Serong says, he wanted to write from the perspective of female characters, but worried that they would come across like men in disguise. His wife – who reads all his work – was an important critic and guide. Indeed, while The Rules of Backyard Cricket was characterised by a garrulous black humour, this novel has a gentler voice. That is not to say the women or girls in it are effete: rather, they are resilient, stoic and enterprising.
The accidental rescue boat, the Java Ridge, takes on a life of its own – it thrives under Isi’s care, with its deck-grown tomatoes, vegetables and herbs, and purrs under the careful maintenance of the two Indonesian staff. When the surviving asylum seekers join the staff and surf tourists on board, the older ones show tenderness and respect for its power and beauty:
‘A couple of the older men were studying the lines of the Java Ridge, running weathered hands over the planking and the seamless joinery. Isolated for months, maybe years, by language and geography, the timber spoke to them in some dialect that was secret and shared.’
But human suffering takes its toll on the vessel. ‘The more the boat gets sabotaged, the more it starts to look like an asylum-seeker boat,’ says Serong.
William Hazlitt wrote that ‘the smallest pain in our little finger gives us more concern than the destruction of millions of our fellow beings’. Serong fills this novel to the brim with small, relatable details of human discomfort. There’s a limbless man on the boat trying agitatedly to feed himself rice. He is only mentioned in a few paragraphs at the beginning of the journey, and never appears again, but when the refugee boat capsizes, his was the first fate I thought about. There is the terror of being stuck at night in the middle of the unrelenting ocean: a blackness that roils and rocks. Alongside these discomforts are more indelible sufferings, like a surgeon drilling through a skull, and an amputation that goes awry.
‘The worst pain a man can suffer is to have insight into much and power over nothing,’ said Herotodus. Our third key narrator is the Border Integrity Minister, Cassius Calvert, ‘a man of integrity with no interest whatsoever in immigration’, whose off-script act of imaginative empathy and curiosity leads to dire consequences: political and personal. ‘The Immigration Minister would be so easy to paint as an ogre, but I thought it would be more interesting if he was a human being who felt some of the pain of his decisions, and if he had his own problems,’ Serong explains. The minister’s name is a play on the name Pontius Pilate. The analogy is in no way heavy-handed; an astute reader may notice the symbolism that runs through the narrative, but it’s not necessary for understanding the story.
A dark undercurrent of this novel is the surveillance and selection of images – including pictures used for prime-ministerial PR purposes, and a distant grasping for help using modern technology. The white Australians on board the Java Ridge believe, without a doubt, that being seen is tantamount to being acknowledged, recognised, and rescued. They ultimately have faith in their government to protect them, to recognise them as citizens, and to care about their plight. Serong powerfully contrasts this instinctive belief with that of the asylum seekers who are their guests, refugees from regimes where the opposite is true – especially the captain of the wrecked boat, whose fear of surveillance, and communication technology, has dramatic consequences.
Susan Sontag wrote that: ‘To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.’
Drones keep an eye on this little boat in real time, at 90-minute intervals, but the real drones sit in the comfort of air-conditioned offices, scoffing down fridgefuls of publicly funded alcohol.
On the Java Ridge is a compelling and ultimately compassionate book that transcends political divisions. It gripped me from the first page, and still has not let go. ‘The whole idea was not to pontificate, but to try and appeal to conscience,’ Serong says. ‘How would you feel if this was your family?’