Jonathan Harlen Interview

 

Jonathan Harlen

This interview was first published in Viewpoint: On Books for Young Adults Volume 1 Number 2 (Winter 1993)

“I carry a gun,” Juan said, “so that when I talk, people will listen. So that when I want something done, people will do it. Never again will I be treated like dirt, like sucios. If I get shot, so be it. I will die with my dignity.”
Hector, who spoke English with no accent, who went to school with Russians and Vietnamese and Lebanese and South Americans, said, “I don’t understand.”
“Good,” his father replied. “And I hope you never will.”

The last twelve months have seen the emergence of a number of extraordinary new voices in writing for the young adult audience, voices that are taking on new themes, and new ways of telling stories. Not least amongst the remarkable fictions being produced by authors such as Catherine Jinks, Melina Marchetta and Gary Disher is Jonathan Harlen’s first novel for young adults, The Lion and the Lamb. (Hodder and Stoughton, 1992.) Like Disher, Harlen has previously published for the adult market; his first novel The Greening of Copeland Park was published in 1991. The Lion and the Lamb is an important contribution to the body of fiction for young adults, both for its honest and compassionate exploration of the relationship of the central characters, and the controlled beauty of Harlen’s prose. For those who do not know the novel, it is the story of Nicaraguan emigres Juan Castillo and his son Hector. Juan and Hector live in a high-rise block in inner-Sydney, where Juan nurses his hangovers by cleaning his gun, and thrives on a feud with a Russian family upstairs. Hector is a pacifist, creative and practical, who struggles to understand his father’s burden of rage. It is a novel which explores the nature, causes and ramifications of conflict; conflict between father and son, between races, between the (implied) traumas of the past and the search for peace and security in the character’s present lives.

The great strength of Harlen’s narrative lies in the understated and unsensational way in which he deals with these conflicts, and with questions of prejudice and violence. In his short, impressive novel, Harlen has addressed some of the most pressing questions facing the children of migrant families like the Castillos with great respect and empathy, and at times even a gentle humour. Via the miracle of the fax*, Jonathan and I discussed his motivation and techniques in exploring the lives of Hector and Juan Castillo.

I think that possibly the most admirable thing about The Lion and the Lamb is the understated and unsensational way you have dealt with the difficult questions of prejudice and violence. You’ve addressed issues that are terribly pertinent to a lot of children of migrant families and personalized these issues. Hector and Juan, the Stolkovs, are people before they are Nicaraguan, Russian or whatever, and their lives are significant before the “politics” enter into it. We feel very much that we are reading about a relationship first and foremost- yet it is a political novel; pacifist, anti-racist, pro-multiculturalism (yet it’s not a “multi-cultural” novel either.) And you’ve chosen not to dwell on the horrors that it is likely that Juan faced, even though they are the likely cause of his aggression. His past is only alluded to (pp 43-44), and Juan himself has rejected everything about his previous life, even the good things. Why did you choose not to make his past, and therefore the reasons for his present behaviour more explicit?

The style of The Lion and the Lamb was influenced strongly by Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway manages to express passion in a very restrained way which gives his central character a tremendous amount of dignity, and that is what I tried to achieve with Juan. Juan could easily have been a man with no dignity at all, simply another violent drunkard, but in that case Hector’s continued love for him would not have rung true. Also I think part of Juan’s dignity lies in his mystery, the fact that we don’t know much about him and are left asking questions. I did try to fill in all the gaps in Juan’s past, I wrote material about his life as a fisherman and the death of his wife, but in the end it came out only as a short rambled sequence which he spoke when he was drunk.

Hector went to school two blocks away, in a small concrete valley between large concrete hills, near an intersection of asphalt rivers which ran into the busiest part of the city….

The urban landscape is of thematic and symbolic significance to both The Lion and the Lamb and The Greening of Copeland Park. Harlen’s depiction of the urban landscape is harsh, and in many ways it is a place of great ugliness and cruelty, yet it is significant that 14-year-old Hector, the central character of The Lion and the Lamb, does not want to move from his high-rise home to the suburbs with his father Juan and Juan’s girlfriend Chela. Community is important in this environment; this is especially true in The Greening of Copeland Park, and a sense of community is seen as the essential element for survival in the tensions of the multi-cultural world of The Lion and the Lamb. While the city is the backdrop to violence, bigotry & unfulfilment, it is not presented by Harlen as the cause of his character’s problems. I asked Jonathan about these issues, and his attitude to urban life;

My attitude to the city is certainly ambivalent. I moved to the country three years ago because I wanted to write more or less full-time and also to start a family: to do both things in Sydney I would have had to resort to robbing banks. I have a great deal of affection for the city as a diverse and chaotic backdrop to so many different lives, anyone interested in human nature can’t help to be drawn to it because of this. Obviously in my writing I tend to focus on people in vulnerable circumstances who are not shielded from the chaos, who must confront it head-on. But ultimately that takes in all of us; even if you’re Howard Hughes and making a million dollars a minute you can’t escape the underside.
As to whether the city is ugly and cruel, well, I don’t think it’s my intention to portray that. If you look at one of the high-rise tenement developments around Redfern or Surrey Hills you might say yes that’s ugly but then if you imagine Juan and Hector and Chela living in there you can see it is a place where real lives are unfolding and those lives can be quite inspirational.

Narrative voice in y.a. & children’s fiction is frequently tied closely to the protagonist(s), even in third person narrative, the idea being that younger readers like to closely identify with a character in order to become involved in the text. The narrative voice of The Lion and the Lamb, however, is somewhat detached from both character and action. What made you decide on this approach?

The restrained nature of the narrative voice also has to do I think with my reluctance to impose judgements, I don’t mean to portray what happens as shocking or unconscionable, that’s simply what happens. A good scene should be able to stand on its own without embellishment, and a primary aim of my writing is always to say what I have to say as simply as possible.

 

“I’ve seen your boy play soccer,” Raol said. “He’s a very good player.”
… “My son is no Maradona,” Juan said. “My son is a coward.”
The spitefulness of this remark surprised everyone, even Juan himself.

The novel is interested in notions of power and strength, both real and perceived. The balance between the portrayal of the relative strengths and weaknesses of Hector and Juan provides the novel with a great deal of its tension and meaning. Juan has very high aspirations for Hector, which is, I think, quite typical of many migrant families. This in itself can cause tension, when the parent’s and the child’s desires do not coincide, and in some instances becomes a distortion of the freedoms the parents were seeking for their children in emigrating (or escaping) in the first place.

The father-son conflict is a very powerful one and one which has a compelling interest for me, growing up as I did for the most part without a father. In the case of The Lion and the Lamb it is the son who is the repository of wisom and true moral authority…. the father, Juan, who is in the position of authority, in fact uses it irresponsibly. Apart from shooting the Stolkov’s goldfish and fighting with Mr Stolkov at the soccer match Juan also acts irresponsibly toward Hector, forcing him to clean house and study all the time, berating him for being only an average student. He is a man driven by a vision of a better future but he has no real conception of how to achieve it. Like many of us he holds academic and financial success to be the most important measures, but Hector offers the true way to a better future simply through his dealings with others; the way he resolves his conflicts with the Stolkov brothers and forms a bond with the sister Anna.


In a deeply symbolic novel, Christian imagery dominates, which I feel adds to the “Everyman”, fable-like tone of the story, as does the narative style we discussed earlier. The central symbol of the boat has (for this reader, at least) quite a few levels of meaning. Tell me about your choices of symbolism in the book; were these conscious choices, easily arrived at?

I have a lingering concern that the Christian symbolism in The Lion and the Lamb might have been overdone. I was aware at several points in the novel (especially at the end) that I was probably hammering the mahogany but so far the book hasn’t elicited that sort of response. The symbols I like to use most a workaday things like boats and guns and fish… and parks, as in my adult novel The Greening of Copeland Park. But always the story comes first, I take the conflicts between my characters and work on them to see if they have some kind of symbolic resonance and if so I keep working.

 (Hector) looked around the lift at the collection of closed faces, then felt the gentle pressure of Anna’s arm against his own. What if this was all there was in the world? he wondered. Eight people, a broken lift, and no emergency telephone. He would settle for this pressure, this braided hair, this friendship. That was more important than anything, even a blessing from God.

The novel indicates that the hope for reconciliation between the many peoples of this country lies with the young; yet racism is all too common amongst teenagers and children, even those whose parents, if not themselves, have emigrated or escaped to Australia. Is this hope something you really believe in, is it something you are trying to “promote” through your book?

The book is certainly a fable on the theme of reconciliation but I must say personally that I’m quite a fatalist, I don’t believe there will ever be an end to the conflicts of race, class and gender. I think people’s attitudes toward these things are forged somewhere very deep in the mind, far beyond the public realm in which a writer has any influence. Actually I think very little…. possibly nothing at all…. is decided or altered in the public realm, which isn’t to say we shouldn’t keep trying. T.S. Eliot put it well in East Coker when he said, “For us there is only the trying, the rest is not our business.” I do believe in multiculturalism, I believe it is this country’s defining characteristic, and while I’ll throw my weight behind it as best I can I would be surprised if I ever changed anything.

Your first published novel was written for adults; what prompted you to write for a younger audience? Do you think you will continue to write for a younger audience?

I didn’t really set out to write for a younger audience. I had in mind to write a book about a feud between two migrant families, but then I added the father-son element, with a 14-year-old-boy as the central character, and that made it work a lot better. I am certainly hoping to write more books in the same vein, dealing with urban and multi-cultural themes, but whether or not they will be for a younger audience I don’t know.

The reviews I’ve read of The Lion and the Lamb so far have been excellent. Have you had much response to the book from younger readers?

I’ve obviously been very pleased with the reviews of the book, and the responses from people who’ve read it have been equally encouraging. I haven’t had a chance to get out to schools or book fairs or anything of that nature, I lead something of a hermit’s existence out here on the fringes of civilisation.

Are you happy with the cover? The colours seem to me to exactly represent the “colours” of your prose.

I must agree with you about the cover, the credit for which must not only go to the artist, Greg Rogers, but to my editor Belinda Yuille. If there was an award for young adult’s book cover of the year I’m sure we’d win it, but unfortunately there isn’t. Perhaps you might like to do something about that Judith.

*It was 1993, remember!

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>