Daniel Jenkins grew up in New South Wales. He has spent most of the past ten years living in Asia and the Middle East, teaching and writing. His novella ‘Those Boys From Jalaan’ is set in a Middle Eastern country and focuses on the mixed experiences of a woman who arrives to teach English to college students, and that of her predecessor in the apartment she occupies. In this interview, he discusses how his writing has influenced his choice of destinations, and the challenges of writing from a female perspective.
To me, ‘Those Boys from Jalaan’ is about the consequences, traumatic and otherwise, of hypocrisy, misunderstanding and division, as much as it is about faith in fellow man. Was this your intention? What makes the Middle East the right place to set this story?
I can actually pinpoint the exact moment the story began. It was 1 January 2016, and I’d been in the Middle East for less than a day. Jet lagged in a hotel room in Muscat, I was reading about the New Year’s Eve attacks on women in Cologne. Over the next couple of weeks, I followed the media’s response and was worried about the left’s inability to reconcile its feminism with its championing of immigration, as if the two couldn’t exist simultaneously. This feeling was compounded by my own, admittedly very limited, experience of the institutional sexism inherent in an Islamic society. But I knew that there was more to it. Was Australian society just as sexist, but just hiding it under a veil of equality? The easy answer was no (and it’s still no), but I wanted to explore Rachel’s attempts at unpacking the question. We usually read about these issues within a context where the Muslim person is the other, the outsider. I wanted to flip the setting to show what it’s like for a white Westerner when, suddenly, their ideas don’t fit the dominant paradigm.
The story was about perspective: the hypocrisy, misunderstanding and division that our perspective is, perhaps inevitably, victim to. It was also about our natural inability to see beyond our perspective, which is I think why the leftist media couldn’t respond to the Cologne attacks and why fiction could.
What challenges did you encounter narrating ‘Those Boys from Jalaan’ from the point of view of two women? And were you tested in particular when it came to the scene of attempted rape?
This was the first time I’d written from the point of view of a woman and, to be honest, I loved it. I knew before I began that this was Rachel’s story – the experience of Western women here is much different to that of Western men – and I enjoyed the chance to look at it all through a female eye. I did sometimes worry that, in Rachel, I was projecting my own version of an idealised woman, but then reminded myself that she was just the conglomerate of three ex-girlfriends and my mother.
The attempted rape scene was much more difficult. My first draft didn’t include the scene at all and only alluded to something that happened. But I realised I was taking the easy way out. I think I trod a fine line between gratuitous sex and essential action, and I’m not sure the line wasn’t crossed. And throwing references to Islam in there didn’t help the situation. I needed something to happen and I chose attempted rape – more than anything, it was a plot device, made more appropriate by its relationship to the themes of the story, but not necessarily justified by them. So yes, it was a difficult scene to write. But the story wasn’t about rape, so I didn’t feel like I was entering any area where I had any particular responsibility. Still, I may be wrong.
The narrators both have Old Testament names, the novella is set in an Islamic country, and ends with an allusion to the passion of Christ. Would you say ‘Those Boys From Jalaan’ holds out much hope of reconciliation between the three Abrahamic faiths, divisions between which continue to cause enormous problems in the world?
The clash I wanted to show was not so much between different religions, but with all religion and secularism. To really understand the Islamic society in which she lives, Rachel finds herself re-evaluating her own Christian faith, which had long ago ceded to the edicts of science. In the West we look at Islam through a secular-humanist lens – a lens which posits humanism, equality and science over all else (and it’s often in these values we find Islam lacking) – but in Islamic society religion seems to govern all, and so the only way to understand Islamic society is through an understanding of the faith. Rachel’s admiration of their piety and her invocation of the Passion represents her (admirable) attempt to understand Muslims on their terms, which is something we rarely do in the West.
I think the Abrahamic religions have much more in common with each other than they do with the modern world. The problems in the world now aren’t caused so much by religious division – unless you live in Pakistan or Myanmar – but by forces much more outwardly benign: capital and power.
It’s the non-secular state that Rachel finds threatening, but rather than reacting to it, she tries to understand it, and finds, in her own discarded Christianity, a bridge to, if not entirely understanding Islam, then at least appreciating the beauty of it. The aesthetics of Islamic culture – the beauty of the mosques, for example – offer her a way into the culture, but only by reinvigorating her own Christianity.
The physical location of your stories often seems to direct the narrative and a strong sense of place is central to a lot of your work, including ‘Those Boys from Jalaan’ and ‘Not At This Address’ (One Book Many Brisbanes 2, Brisbane City Council, 2007). How do you feel your experience of place has contributed to the fictional worlds you have built in these instances?
A confession: I moved to Oman almost entirely so I could write about it. So I guess, in some sense, rather than place forming my fictional worlds, the necessity of fictional worlds has contributed to where I decide to live. But I don’t think that, after a year here, I have developed any real understanding of, or connection to, place. Here, I am always foreign – and it’s really the foreignness that interests me.
Every piece of fiction I’ve written has used place thematically; it either represents something to embrace or to be fought against. Both ideas seem to speak to the conflict between symbiosis and distance: a conflict we see between religions, ideologies and cultures, and a conflict in which ‘place’ is often a secondary consideration, but where often something as innocuous as the weather is the uniting element. That’s what I love about Brisbane; you don’t know how many mates you’ve got till there’s a flood at Milton Maccas.
You’ve mentioned before the influence of environment upon writing in a piece for World Vietnam, specifically in reference to your time spent in Hanoi. What is it about living and working away that impacts so positively upon your creative process?
In Hanoi, good coffee, cheap beer, like-minded ex-pats, cheap rent and ultra-flexible working hours. In the Middle East, pure, unadulterated loneliness. I’d like to give a more enlightened response, but I think I’d be lying.
From what I’ve read, you’ve published in a wide range of magazines and journals for about a decade now. Have you been teaching in some capacity all this time? How do you find your teaching work impacts upon your writing?
Teaching abroad has given me a lot, but mostly free time. When you live overseas, often just living is enough, so you put aside questions of family, career, money and future. You feel justified spending four days drunk and reading David Foster Wallace. Overseas, life is simple. You create, in the Sartrean tradition, your own meaning, which is enhanced by the various cultures that you find yourself immersed in, and you end up devising some sort of identity which you hope – separated from home as it is – might just appear to be original.
But teaching itself? No. I teach non-English speaking adults how to write essays. After you’ve corrected sixty essays with sentences like, ‘Thereof, my favourite fish are chickens’, you wonder what the point of everything is, and if maybe – because of your myopic cultural perspective – you’d failed to see the truth: that fish really are some type of chicken.
Though you explore trauma and hypocrisy I see a lot of natural and human beauty in ‘Those Boys from Jalaan’, not least through Rachel’s ability to find beauty in strangeness. I see this in connection with one of your earlier works, ‘My Little Christmas’ (Wet Ink, 2010), in which the narrator erases all of the best parts of his life when writing his story to leave only his lowest moments in the hope of winning a writing prize. Will you expand upon this? How important is acknowledging beauty in the face of the literary obsession with the darker or seamier aspect of life?
I would say that there is a lot of beauty in the darker sides of life, but that it manifests in people’s ability to deal with trauma. I’m always amazed by how people in the most abject of circumstances – the Bangladeshi workers here, for example – always seem to be smiling. I think the literary obsession with darkness is only justified when the darkness invokes some form of transcendence. I think the final line of ‘Those Boys from Jalaan’ encapsulates this: ‘The beauty, she knew, was in the strangeness, and sometimes best beheld in the dark.’
That said, I think there are also more practical reasons for the literary obsession with darkness. Darkness sells. It titillates. It enables vicarious experience of situations most people, in their real lives, would be too afraid to enter. The narrator of ‘My Little Christmas’ wants to talk about the beauty of flowers, but all his counsellor, with her own literary ambitions, wants to hear about is sex and heroin. Only Proust can get away with forty pages about falling asleep. The rest of us have to write about rape and murder.