Melbourne poet, short story scribe and writing teacher A S PATRIĆ talks about his first novel, Black Rock White City, which just won the Miles Franklin Award! It tells the story of a refugee from the Bosnian War, Jovan, who is a former university lecturer and acclaimed poet now working as a janitor in a Melbourne hospital. Jovan sees strange and increasingly malicious graffiti on the hospital walls, and the horrors of Jovan’s former life unravel as the mystery of the bizarre vandalism deepens.
How does teaching writing affect your own work?
Literature has been a way to enter the world beyond the suburban wasteland I was born into, and to continue to live in that world is a daily blessing. That’s a word I almost never use, but ‘blessing’ is right, since literature is as close as I get to religion. It’s thrilling when you can help others find their own ways into that particular faith.
Jovan is a bear of a man and a former academic, but is now a refugee forced into overalls each day. How did this character come to you?
I had the notion of graffiti as a particularly aggressive disease breaking out on the walls of a suburban hospital in bayside Melbourne. A janitor would be needed to clean the graffiti off the walls, a job often done by immigrants. That story idea exploded for me when the janitor turned out to be a refugee from the Bosnian War – a professor of literature cleaning away graffiti.
Why did you write about the refugee experience?
I met refugees from the Bosnian War in the ’90s. Nothing about them revealed the cataclysm they had survived. They were often robust, loved to laugh, and were good-natured. When I talked to them at greater length, a few appeared to me to be like that terrible war’s walking wounded – men and women who had escaped the battlefields yet could still die from their wounds, sometimes years later.
Suzana suspects that Jovan is proud of his heavy accent – why would he be?
Suzana and Jovan have been living in Australia for about five years. When the novel opens, she has found a way to begin to move forward again. For Jovan, Australia is an underworld, a variety of afterlife. They lost both their children in Bosnia so ‘moving forward’ is more than difficult. A person might be proud not to learn the language fluently if he still has his lips pressed to those he loved in another place and in another language.
Every day Jovan scrubs and bleaches away new graffiti in the hospital. Why is graffiti such a common phenomenon?
Nature abhors a vacuum, and if that’s true, big blank spaces draw words out of some people. In my novel, the graffiti is provocative, as disturbing as it is creative, but the real issue is that the graffiti in the hospital is the work of a doctor – who, when not using blood for messages on the walls, is performing surgeries and prescribing medicines. From the outset there’s a dialogue between Dr Graffito and Jovan, who finds the poetry of his past life rising to the surface every time he’s forced to clean away another brutal message from the walls of the hospital.
Why did you focus on Bosnian War?
You would think that a major conflict in the centre of Europe would have generated a great deal of literature, yet it hasn’t. Such a recent conflict should be better understood, especially as it offers a perspective on the way in which fault lines can open up within multicultural communities and nations. I think I’d be able to give you an outline of the Bosnian War if I were a journalist, but as an Australian writer of fiction I’m more interested in histories that find confluence here in Melbourne, eddying into stories about contemporary life.
Many people would have unwittingly walked past a refugee on the street who may have faced unfathomable cruelty. Are the majority of Australians oblivious to the terrors that refugees may have experienced?
A politician might speak for the ‘majority of Australians’. What seems significant to me in attempting to respond to this question is that our government has been fuelling xenophobia for many years, and how we respond to refugees has become radically politicised. Literature can return us to our humanity.
Why do people foster such a violent infatuation over nationality and religion? Are people by nature discriminatory?
Religion and nationality are forms of community; both are derived from love. History shows us that they are often corrupted by hate. Violence in humans perverts every institution. And fear destroys everything else.
Jovan and Suzana’s story is vast in breadth and decades in length. Why have you condensed the story of a war into the suburbs of Melbourne?
Black Rock White City is not the story of a war. It’s about Melbourne. More specifically, it’s about the love of a husband and wife that survives the loss of nation and faith, family and children. Melbourne is a city made by such resilience. Strife and disaster is in the histories of most people who settled here after the First Fleet found the Australian coastline.
If you were to tell Jovan’s story in a poem, how would it go?