Christos Tsiolkas is an Australian writer. Barracuda is his latest novel since his bestselling novel The Slap.
Barracuda deals with the violence and frustration and blind dedication that comes with high-level sport training, in this case the world of swimming. Water is Daniel’s greatest ally and but also his worst enemy. Why did you choose this sport in particular?
The most immediate reason is that I swim. Never professionally, but I know something about the movement of the body in water. I knew that I could rely on my knowledge to help create the character and the situation. The notion of the athlete was how I made my entry into the novel, when I thought about what I wanted to create. I knew Danny couldn’t be involved in a team sport, he couldn’t be play football or basketball. It had to be an individual pursuit. Swimming is one of the most individual of sports, because it is yourself and the water. The other reason is the cultural meaning of swimming in Australia.
I come from a country that is an island and also an immense continent. It’s an island surrounded by water, and because of a very conflicted colonial history, there’s something about water that could represent a lot of things for me, and for Danny Kelly.
The book is about a lot of things, but it is about belonging. It is about where Danny belongs. He is this working-class boy who is broken from his world and sent to another world because of his phenomenal talent. Water is the only place he has that he feels a belonging to. He feels he can be something in water, but that too is taken away, and that’s when, I think, the real battle begins. From this moment, he really doesn’t have a place to belong.
I guess there are three reasons why I chose this sport: because I swim, because of what swimming means in the Australian context, in terms of a nation still trying to define itself, where sports become an obsession by definition, and of course because of the metaphor of water.
In the uncompromising picture you paint of Australia and its many disparities, in terms of class, race, or even religion, Daniel Kelly seems stuck between two worlds, between his working-class family and another world he would eventually aspire to.
Do you feel he echoes a certain kind of malaise among the young generation in Australia?
I began writing Barracuda by wondering how to enter into the novel. I began by hearing the voice of a 14-year-old boy, a kind of insistent angered voice, and I started writing down in this voice. It was the germination of the book. I started to wonder what to say about this place, what to say about Danny Kelly, what to say as a writer. In that moment, after having had a significant success with the last book, I wondered what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about something called class, which I think had disappeared from Australian literature, or that we no longer were talking about. I think that the great success of the previous novel, The Slap, had taught me something. For the first time of my life, I had money, and I realized that it is true: money does change things and does lead to enormous opportunities. Barracuda was a kind of return to thinking about the journey I’d made, in my life, as a writer. That break had come, for me, with going to university and suddenly going from one class to another class. It was particularly acute, I think, as a child of immigrants. I think you carry the weight of that history with you, when you have that background. It seems that there was an immense pressure on young people in Australia that wasn’t being articulated. One of the reasons why it wasn’t being articulated is because we had lost the language of class.
As the novel developed, and as I built the structure, I realized that another story was developing along something called shame, and the kind of violence that can come from the experience of shame. That became almost more important than the question of belonging.
Danny has his grandparents, he has his immediate family, and I think they’re really good people. I wanted to paint a portrait of a young man who does something shocking but who has got really good people around him. The difference between Danny and his family is that his parents have a language of class, his grandparents have a language of class, and he’s part of a generation that doesn’t have this kind of language.
I think that Danny’s story is different from Christos Tsiolkas’s story, because he doesn’t go to university but to a private school. It’s the scholarship that he gets that begins that break, but I did draw on my own experiences.
If you were to sit down with any of us from a wide variety of groups, religions, or races—we were the first generation to go to university and to leave that working-class life, I think we’d all share an understanding of how dislocating that experience is. You have this astonishing opportunity where you are introduced to this world that you had no idea existed, it could literally be just a few kilometers down the road from where you grew up, and you did not know that this world and these opportunities were there, but you find that you go back, and you no longer know how to use a language that once was central to your identity and who you were. That was very much my experience.
If you come from an immigrant background, that break is also linguistic. You lose the language of your home. At university, you’re introduced to some very sophisticated and astonishing language. When you go back home, you’re still speaking in Greek or in Arabic or whatever the language is, and you become less and less confident in the language, because you don’t speak it anymore. In France, you speak French, in Australia, you speak English, but you don’t know how to translate your world back to your parents, or your old friends, or your sisters, or your brothers.
How do you speak when the two languages are no longer in balance? It’s almost as if there’s no translation possible. Part of what I’m trying to do with my writing is to translate that shock, to give it a voice.
How different was it for you to write Barracuda, compared to your precedent books?
I think each book has its own history of creation. It wasn’t that Barracuda was particularly hard to write. Writing for me is an apprenticeship: you learn how to do a particular craft, but unlike apprenticeships, it never finishes, it goes on until the rest of your life, so you’re always learning.
It’s true that after a while, you get confident in what you do. That doesn’t mean the self-doubt goes away, but you know how to structure a novel.
It felt that, after The Slap, I had to dive back in. I had to reconfirm to myself what I wanted to do as a writer. I wanted to find a language to talk about, so in some ways, Barracuda is closer to the first novel I wrote, both thematically and also as an experience I had as a writer. It felt as if I was writing a first novel again, but with a 25-year experience.
Do you feel there would be any distant connections between Danny and Ari, the protagonist from Loaded, your first novel?
I think they share the rage and the shame. The difference is that I was in my twenties when I wrote Loaded, and I was in my mid-forties when I wrote Barracuda. I have a very different relationship to the characters. In Barracuda, I wanted him to survive, I wanted to take care of him, so I think that corresponds to the older Christos Tsiolkas. There is a ways to atone, to reconstitute oneself, there is a ways to finding how to speak, in life.
Another thing that connects those two characters is inarticulateness. When Ana Kokkinos directed the adaptation, she thought the novel was very cinematic. When she and Andrew Bovell came to writing the script, they realized that Ari hadn’t said anything at all! I think that inarticulateness is something that connects those two young men, that experience of translating yourself in a language you don’t know.
Literature is one of the things that allows Danny to breathe again, in many ways.
Yes, and as I said, writing it felt like writing a first novel. I’ve been touring for the book in several different countries, and what struck me in the Francophone countries is that no one asked me “who do you write for?”, whereas the English and Australian journalists always ask that. I’ve always found it a hard question because the only answer I could give is that I write for myself.
Writing Barracuda, I found myself answering the question the way I had 25 years ago, which is that I write for myself. The way I got confident about my writing was by re-reading the books that had inspired me as a young person. Some of those are the books that Danny Kelly is reading: Dickens, Malouf. For me there is something about the humanism of the great novels that can actually shine a light into your misery, into your darkness, into your shame, into your fear. That is what brought me to writing, and before writing, to reading. I think it’s very easy to lose sight of that, we’re all so suspicious of words like humanism these days. It made perfect sense to me that when Danny was at his most miserable, the light would come from those books, because those are the books that shone a light for me.