Q&A with Ruby J. Murray, author of Running Dogs
Jessica Au from Readings St Kilda chats to Ruby J. Murray about her debut novel, *Running Dogs.*
Photo courtesy of Brad Dunn
How did Running Dogs begin for you?
I was working in communications for a large intergovernmental development organisation in Jakarta at the time, and things were… hectic. Political fall-outs, earthquake disaster responses, an enormous amount of change within the organisation. The only fiction I wrote during the whole year was the opening to a short story: three children sitting in a car, looking out to where their father is teeing off at an eerie golf driving range at a big sports complex in the city centre. The children were sitting in darkness, and the father didn’t know they were there, watching him.
The day after my contract ended I flew out of Jakarta and into the Northern hemisphere’s winter in a kind of exhausted shock. I sat down in a café, looked at the snow, and thought: I have this one page. And I’m not ready to leave Jakarta, not yet.
** Indeed, Jakarta runs through the book as a living, breathing force; full of ‘crowded kampong’, ‘silent malls’ and ‘the slow burn of sambal’. How much of an impression did your time there make on you and what are your feelings towards the city now?**
A city like Jakarta forces you to love it, or hate it. You can’t be indifferent to it. And if you choose to love it, you have to work at loving it. Because it’s not an easy place, and it’s certainly not always a loveable place. Estimates of the population of the city alone rage from 10 to 15 million; the Greater Metro area is around 27 million and growing. It’s polluted, and congested, frequently filthy, and hauntingly beautiful in ways you would never expect. Jakartans call the city ‘The Big Durian’ because it’s stinky and prickly and most people hate it… but if you acquire a taste for it, you’ll have it forever.
So: I love Jakarta. Except for when I hate it. It’s fiercely modern; it provides a window on to where the world is going. It’s always one step ahead and one step behind.
You cross effortlessly between two eras: 1997, during the childhood of Petra, Isaak and Paul and just before the fall of Suharto, and the more contemporary Reformasi period, when Australian expat Diana arrives in Indonesia. How much research did you do?
A lot. It’s an old academic procrastinatory technique. Research forever and don’t write anything. I did a lot of desktop research, and even read a whole year’s worth of The Jakarta Post newspaper, which was a weird experience; knowing what was going to happen and watching it unfold before me, day after day. I sat in the Newspaper Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria muttering at the paper, ‘No! Don’t do it! No! They’ll be shooting people at Trisakti University today, don’t go!’
I also talked. To everyone I could. The stories that come out when you start in on the Indonesian revolution in the late 1990s are amazing. Jakartans can take anything in their stride.
A colleague of mine was actually at Trisakti when the police opened fire on a crowd of students demonstrating for Suharto’s resignation in May 1998. Once, when I was leaving the office to go to an anti-corruption demonstration, she told me to ‘remember my toothpaste’. When I asked what she meant, she said: ‘to put under your eyes. For the tear gas.’ As if I was just being silly and forgetful, leaving the office to go to a demonstration without toothpaste in my handbag.
Petra, Isaak and Paul, lead expatriate lives of relative privilege, and as a result observe many brutal shifts in power and game-play. Yet they are also very much on the periphery – both hypersensitive to their adults’ moods and painfully unaware of the wider repercussions of their actions. There’s a certain tragedy in that. Do you feel this is true of many childhoods, not just the Jordans?
I don’t know if their childhood is tragic, exactly. Certainly not compared to the lives of a lot of the children around them. And kids aren’t passive, either. They’re actively involved in their own lives, and they can be pretty horrible; tribal, and working out the boundaries. That continues as we’re adults, too, all that boundary work. We talk the talk but stumble the walk.
I guess… as children we do bare witness to the adult lives around us, and in some ways we’re soaks for their mores and hypocrisy. I think kids are often acutely aware of the fact that grown-ups are despots who aren’t following the rules.
Running Dogs is described as a novel ‘about the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive’. Indeed, Diana goes on barely acknowledging the truth about the Jordans’ to herself and, without giving too much away, Petra too has secrets to keep for her family’s survival. Are these kinds of narratives survival mechanisms, or a kind of ignorance?
I think ignorance is a survival mechanism. We’re interpretive animals, we like to put things in a causal order. In a way, stories are imperfect heuristic devices we use to try and explain the world around us; what we leave out of stories can say as much about the story and what it’s trying to do as what we put in.
It’s the development worker in the novel, Diana, who is in control of what you see of the world in Running Dogs. She’s the one who gets the privilege of withholding her own story from the reader. In a way, by keeping the reader ignorant, she refuses to understand herself in relation to what’s happening, or her role in what’s happening.
So, I think the answer is that we use ignorance in a very real way when we go to construct the stories we tell about ourselves and other people. We choose what we want to know, and what we want to ignore: what we will accept as ‘causal’ and what is too difficult for us to confront.
**At one point Diana reflects, thinking of the Jordans, ‘all I do is watch’. Do you feel that this is the novelist’s lot as well – to be the constant observer? **
I can’t speak for all novelists, but I think there have been times when I would probably have liked to feel that way! If you give yourself observer status, you’re somehow relieved of responsibility for what you’re watching. You have to keep out of the politics of the war zone so you can stay alive long enough to report on it to the outside world, you have to remain unbiased… but no, novelists aren’t journalists, they certainly can’t attempt to claim neutrality, and I don’t think novelists are passive observers. They’re involved, explicitly, in creating the world that we’re all watching.
There’s an old academic adage that runs ‘every description is a prescription.’ I think that novelists have a responsibility to reflect on why they choose to write about the subjects they do, and what they are remaining silent about as well. If stories really are heuristic devices we use to try and understand the world, then they’re potentially very powerful things. Lots of single notes adding to the cultural cacophony.
**One of the things that struck me about Running Dogs is its outward glance – it’s a book that goes both beyond our borders, and our more ‘traditional’ storylines. Was this a conscious move? Do you ever feel that Australian literature is too inward-looking? **
I wrote Running Dogs because I was in love with a city, and part of me wasn’t ready to leave it. I needed to understand a place; I needed one of those heuristic devices. But the only book on Australians in Jakarta was Christopher Koch’s Year of Living Dangerously. And it’s a beautiful, amazing book, but it’s based in 1965, and it wasn’t enough. So I had to write a new one, about now.
Is Australian literature too inward-looking? There are so many complex answers to that question, but quickly, and crudely, my gut feeling is: yes. But that’s reflective of an Australian culture that’s often too caught up in the ‘myth’ of its rural past, its masculinity and whiteness, in the colloquial digger and the jovial larrikin. There’s a pervasive feeling that we’re somehow a very long way from the rest of the world. But that’s not true, now, if it ever has been.
Putting aside Australia’s internal diversity, there are over a million Australian ex-pats at any given moment. In 2010, 7.1 million Australians travelled internationally, a third of the nation. We’re a hugely mobile population. In South East Asia, especially, the Australian tourist dollar is king, and people do some pretty appalling things while they’re flinging it around. We’re very much part of a region, a community of cultures, and active within it.
I’ve lived as an expat in three countries, now, and as an ex-pat you spend a lot of time looking back at your ‘home’ culture, and at the culture around you, and trying to work out what it means: to ‘be’ a culture, to ‘be’ an Australian or an Indonesian or an American. Ma Jian, a Chinese writer whose work I really admire, once said that the further you get from the mountain, the clearer it becomes. That for him, being away from his culture and country meant that he could see its contours more clearly.
I don’t know how true that’s been for me. I don’t know if things are necessarily clearer. But I’m starting to realise just how big the mountain is, and maybe that’s a start.
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