An interview between Samuel Cox, Publishing Intern, and Rashida Murphy, author of The Historian's Daughter.
1. Your characters try to forge new lives for themselves in three countries: India, Iran and Australia. What does your novel say about the concept of ‘home’?
I think immigrants such as myself, who have spent more time away from than in their ‘home’ country, find the concept troublesome. My characters have connections to, and a longing for, a home they have left or cannot return to, yet make themselves at home wherever they are.
I wanted to explore the idea that we are all immigrants and in some sense will always be immigrants, so ‘home’ is just a word. For example, the Magician lives in India but comes from Iran. The Historian was born in India but is English. Gloria lives in Iran and Hannah in Australia, but both are Indian. They all come from somewhere else, with ancestral memories and social codes that they feel obliged to preserve in their migrations, but also remain somehow undefined, fluid. I wanted to explore the idea of home as a place of struggle as well as refuge, rather than a fixed geographical location. Anais Nin said, “we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” I think my characters’ concept of home is defined by who they are, in any location.
2. The Historian is a malevolent presence in the novel who, through his actions, writes the personal histories of his family members, and, as a British man, the national history of India. You start the novel with the line: “This is not the story he wanted me to tell.” To what extent is The Historian’s Daughter a comment on the way history is written?
History is written by those who are victorious, educated, male and usually white. India’s colonial history was written by white men who believed they had tamed the savage hordes by teaching them English, building a rail network and gifting the Westminster system of government. My husband, who is white, was raised with this version of history. I, as a brown woman, was raised with the version that said the British destroyed 3000 years of ethnic cooperation and governance, bankrupted India, stole from its temples and palaces, and granted a (bloody) Independence in 1947.
When I applied to become an Australian citizen in 1986, the nice English man interviewing me asked why “every country, like India, that the British leave, goes to the dogs." While writing The Historian’s Daughter, I wanted to comment on received versions of history. Therefore, the Historian seeks to re-write the personal histories of his family, especially forbidding his wife to speak her own language, locking up a troublesome sister, terrorising a vulnerable daughter – yes, he is a symbol of colonisation. And we need look no further than Australia to know what happens when people are denied permission to raise their own children or speak their own language, or when troubled and troublesome women/children are incarcerated.
3. Hannah is a complex narrator. We follow her growth from childhood to adulthood and through a series of life events that profoundly impact her. Can you comment on the way you developed Hannah’ s voice in order to strike a balance between consistency and growth?
I experimented with Hannah and her voice before deciding to make her a knowing, loving, intelligent child who grows into a knowing, guilt-ridden young woman. Hannah’s early years are informed by her love for books, and being the youngest child in a complicated family. She watches, reads, learns and misunderstands - and these qualities define her as she grows up. Hannah experiences trauma when her mother and sister disappear, leaving the only female influence in her life the malignant aunty Meher. I also wanted Hannah to recover from this trauma rather than give in to it. I sought, through Hannah, to explore the way that life sometimes forces clarity on individuals, despite the mistakes they make, and despite the isolation they feel when confronted by potentially life altering secrets.
4. What sort of discussion do you hope your work might generate?
I hope we can start to talk about uncomfortable things honestly. Without turning away, without thinking it’s somehow shameful to deal with our collective, personal baggage. We are a nation of immigrants and colonisers who bring with us history and trauma. We need to look at these intersecting histories and face them.
I hope my novel encourages conversations about Asian and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees as people, rather than as ‘others’ that Anglo Australia seems to find so threatening in these times of right wing racism. In the words of Shylock, from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, are we not “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer...”
5. Tell us about your writing process.
It’s different for each work. I write poems, short stories and essays. The shorter pieces are usually written in one sitting, with re-writes and edits if I’m convinced of their potential. For The Historian’s Daughter, I just turned up every day (except weekends) for 3 years and wrote, whether I wanted to or not. In the beginning it was just about getting the word count up. I didn’t pay much attention to what the story was at this stage. When I got to about 30,000 words I started to feel where the narrative was going. There were a lot of threads I explored, but they were more like tangents, so I discarded them. It was a difficult book to write, except for the scenes of loving sibling banter which people tell me they find appealing and funny.
My new project is very different, and - I’m about 20,000 words in. I don’t look at it for days, then pick it up where I last left it and write about 2000 words over a few hours before putting it aside again. The poems and stories still come at a single sitting, so I’m always looking at several things in an average writing week. I have learned not to edit when I write because I never get anywhere. Best to get the beast out into the room, then pound it into submission. And if it dies, it was never meant to be.