Dominique Wilson spent her childhood in Algeria before she and her family fled the country as it became embroiled in civil war. She is the author of The Yellow Pages, and her latest novel, That Devil’s Madness, switches between friends Louis and Imez in 1896 Algiers and Nicolette, an Australian photojournalist in 1974. We asked Dominique about her memories of growing up in a war zone and the discoveries she made while researching her novels.
You take your title from a poem by Robert W Service, and a stanza from the poem preludes the opening to your book:
When we the workers all demand
‘What are we fighting for?’
Then, then we’ll end that stupid crime
That Devil’s Madness – War
How does the poem and the title phrase in particular relate to the story and themes you explore in your new novel?
War is, to my mind, madness. No one wins – not the vanquished, and not the victors. Look at the Algerian War, which That Devil’s Madness is centred around – it lasted almost eight years, killed close to a million Muslim Algerians and some 80,000 French soldiers and civilians. When it ended, some 900,000 pieds noirs [French settlers] fled back to France as homeless refugees, and three times it took France to the brink of civil war. Even when it officially ended, still over 100,000 Harkis and their families [Muslim Algerians who had fought beside the French] were murdered by the FLN or by lynch-mobs who regarded them as traitors. And still peace didn’t come to Algeria. Now I’m not saying there is never a good reason to go to war – that, unfortunately, is a reality we can’t deny – but maybe demanding honest answers to ‘What are we fighting for?’ can stop some of this madness.
What memories do you have from your childhood in Algiers? At what age did you leave and under what circumstances?
I was ten when we left, after experiencing six years of that war. By that time, Algeria was like a pressure cooker about to explode, but you’d be considered a traitor by your own people for wanting to leave. So we pretended to be going on holidays – we left everything behind, taking only one suitcase. We went to Corsica, and from there applied to come to Australia.
The smell of warm honeyed syrup laced with orange-flower water in which street vendors dipped pastries, and the stench of exploding Molotov cocktails. Memories of a child, but still vivid all the same…
I still have a lot of memories from that time – a strange conglomeration of contrasts. Watching the sky for the arrival of white storks in spring, watching a formation of Alouettes – those missile-armed, tadpole-like helicopters – flying overhead. I remember classes interrupted by a siren followed by a dash to the school cellar until the threat had passed, and the freedom of roaming the streets of Constantine after escaping the watchful eye of Fatma, the Muslim woman who was supposed to look after me until my sister or mother got home. Soldiers everywhere, the peace of public parks where I used to float origami paper boats in their lakes. People being frisked at random in the streets. The smell of warm honeyed syrup laced with orange-flower water in which street vendors dipped pastries, and the stench of exploding Molotov cocktails. Memories of a child, but still vivid all the same…
How have these memories bled into That Devil’s Madness?
I’ve used them to enrich the story, in the way any writer will use past experiences to enhance their work. That Devil’s Madness is a work of fiction, though the historical events depicted are accurate.
Both The Yellow Papers and That Devil’s Madness combine Australian settings with international history and characters. Why did you choose to do this in your novels?
Australia is such a multi-cultural society, and many people here have experienced, either directly or indirectly, a war or civil conflict elsewhere – it seemed natural to link the two.
How do you behave when face-to-face with someone you once loved, that you now must hate? Must kill?
The Yellow Papers was inspired between the differing opinions of two Chinese women who immigrated to Australia. Did a particular event or person begin to germinate the story in That Devil’s Madness?
As a child in Algeria, my closest friend was a Muslim girl. I wasn’t allowed to play with her, but did anyway. Later, as an adult, I learnt how often in a war situation one’s friends or family can suddenly become one’s enemy. For instance, whilst researching the Korean War section of The Yellow Papers, I came across a number of accounts of South Korean villagers being captured by North Koreans and forced to fight for the North. What must that be like? How do you come to terms with it? How do you behave when face-to-face with someone you once loved, that you now must hate? Must kill? I wanted to explore this further, and did so via Louis and Imez in That Devil’s Madness.
While researching The Yellow Papers you mentioned that you delved into both ‘factual’ and ‘psychological’ research. Can you explain the difference? Was the same kind of research involved in That Devil’s Madness?
A poor choice of words on my part, I’m afraid! What I meant was that firstly, there were facts that had to be correct – things like the dates of political events, the geography of a place, even small things like the types of plants or insects found in a particular region. Things that anyone who has lived there, or at that time, would know. That is the easier of the two types of research. But then there are other, more abstract things that are just as important if the story is to ring true. For example, for The Yellow Papers, it was important to understand how a Chinese person might view Western customs, or the psychological trauma a prisoner undergoing torture may experience. So I did a lot of research into those areas. Similarly with That Devil’s Madness – for example, the old doctor calling Michael, who had been a medic in Vietnam, a ‘patch-up merchant’, came from talking to Vietnam Vets about what it had been like, coming back to Australia after that war – how some Australians treated them on their return. That sort of information is invaluable for authenticity.
Did you travel to any of the places described in That Devil’s Madness while you were writing it? Or did you rely on memory and research to evoke your settings?
The Algerian sections were from memory and research – unfortunately, there really hasn’t been true peace in that country for many years. It had been under emergency law from 1992 until 2011, and since then there have been mass protests, hostage-taking incidents and so forth. So I didn’t consider it a safe place to travel to, unlike Melbourne and Gippsland.
What were some of the surprising discoveries you made when researching your new novel? Were there any unexpected sources that were helpful?
Absolutely! What I love most about researching a new novel is the serendipity of it all – the way you come across bits of information that you would never have thought to look
for, simply because you never knew such a thing existed – if that makes any sense. For example, in The Yellow Papers it was discovering the secret Australian/British military mission called Tulip Force. With That Devil’s Madness, it was being lucky enough to meet people who had been either foreign correspondents or photojournalists during the sixties and seventies, and who were generous enough with their time to let me pick their brains, as it were. That’s how I found out they often had an extra fake passport, so as to keep the original one hidden in case one was confiscated, or that they used little Remington typewriters whose keys folded over to make them more portable. Little gems of information that you’d never know to ask about.
Can you tell us about Nicolette? Is she the main protagonist, or is your attention split evenly between her storyline and Louis’s chapters?
Split equally between Nicolette and Louis – both are equally important, in that Louis’ story is that of the coloniser, and Nicolette’s is that of naïve outsider.
How do the two story strands connect?
Each is essential to the other. Louis’ view of Algeria – and of its Muslim population – is the result of his friendship with Imez, which in turn influences Nicolette’s view of the world, and of Algeria. They intertwine, so that years after Louis’ death, Nicolette is still influenced by him.
What is the significance of the relationship between Louis and Imez?
Their relationship represents – to me at least – what could be. What can happen when two people are willing to accept each other, even when each comes from a very different world to the other. What can happen when you refuse to let religious or cultural differences become the focus of a relationship. Somewhat idealistic, perhaps, but I like to think it can happen…
The Yellow Papers was described by a Good Reading reviewer as an ‘uncompromising examination of the impact of historical events on individual lives’. Is the major priority of your novels to inform people of historical events they mightn’t know of?
No, the major priority of my novels is to tell a good story. But it is true that I tend to examine the impact of historical events on the individual, and that I use different conflicts to do so. I believe my job as a novelist is to create a world that the reader can inhabit for a while, and if, in the process, they learn something new, then that’s a bonus, but it’s not my priority.
You’ve been involved in many projects aimed at publishing and encouraging new Australian writing, like Wet Ink and two anthologies of new work. What drives you to help propagate new writing?
I think it’s important for readers to have access to the work of writers who may not be published by mainstream publications – many of these little-known writers have intelligent and thought-provoking things to say, so that reading their work – whether as a writer, teacher or reader – can only enrich one’s opinions and view of the world.
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