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De Kretser Values Being an Outsider

Michelle de Kretser, a noted Australian writer, is in Shanghai this weekend as keynote speaker for a reception celebrating International Women's Day, which is being organized by the Australian-Consulate in Shanghai. 

She admitted she couldn't pinpoint the image of current Chinese women, since her visit to Hong Kong in 1996 was her only close contact with Chinese society.


"In my mind, Chinese women are strong, both physically and mentally. They can do the same job as the men," she said.


She believes Chairman Mao's famous comment that "women hold half of the sky" imprinted her pre-perception of Chinese women.


The first-ever book de Kretser read about Chinese women was the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir's Les Chinoises (The Chinese Women). The book came out in the 1950s.


"From the book I learned the social status of Chinese women remained very high. They could be engineers, doctors, lawyers, just like men," she added.


De Kretser says she is lucky to now live in Australia, as the attitude toward women in Sri Lanka, her hometown, is still conservative and caring for the family is still the major responsibility for women there.


"If I were in Sri Lanka, I would probably quit school, marry someone and have babies," she said.


"When I returned, for a visit, to my hometown in Sri Lanka, the local people immediately knew I was not a (typical) Sri Lankan woman because of the way I walk."


De Kretser always walks very fast, taking big steps. While talking she also makes big gestures when compared with women residing in Sri Lanka.


Even though de Kretser sometimes feels that she hasn't assimilated into either culture, she still believes she is fortunate.


"Having the choice to have whatever you like is the most important thing for women," she said.


De Kretser also holds the opinion that the experience of being an immigrant is very valuable for a writer.


"Being a little bit an outsider will always give you the sense to look through things," she said.


In fact, critics say her book The Hamilton Case, which was published last year, embraces a profound sense of humor. The story is set in Ceylon in the 1930s amid tea plantations. Sam Obeysekere is a Ceylonese lawyer, a perfect product of imperial times.


His family once had wealth and influence but it starts to crack open as political change comes to the island, and Sam's glamorous father dies, leaving considerable gambling debts.


But the family's troubles reach back into the past, when a baby is found dead in his cot. The centre of the book is the Hamilton Case, a murder scandal that rocks the upper class of the island's society. Sam's involvement in the case wins him respect, but sets his life on course for disappointment.


The writer once said that Sri Lanka, like many other Asian countries, is known in the West chiefly through a set of stereotypes and she poked fun at writing that relies on tired images of the mysterious and exotic East.


She even said jokingly that although travel writers often portray the country as paradise, journalists compare it to hell.


De Kretser treated Western stereotypes in a satirical way in the book, and tried to represent perspectives to show what a person from Sri Lanka sees.


"Concerning writing, I think that I am subjective, and I can't say I present readers with the truth. I just try my best to avoid those worn-out stereotypes," she said.


From her working background as an editor for the travel guide Lonely Planet, de Kretser also believes that writers, especially foreign writers, are often tempted to fall back onto clich├ęs while trying to depict a place or a country.


"However, as an author, I just want readers to love the characters I create," she added.


De Kretser says she believes people love books because they are able to experience the same emotions or thoughts as the characters they depict.


"However, I find it is more interesting to create male characters and use first person. The process is just like an exploration into the inner world of men, very challenging," she added.


De Kretser revealed that she has been moved by the characters created by Chinese writer Yu Hua, who is noted for his witty descriptions of ordinary people.


"I have read his two long short-stories, and some thrillers. Yu's work is very unusual and innovative," she commented.


De Kretser hopes to learn more about the present China through works by young Chinese writers -- she is now reading the book Village of Stone by Guo Xiaolu, a young woman who has been a successful playwright and filmmaker in the country.


"Many excellent Chinese writers have not been recognized by the world yet. I think the problem is that their works are written in Chinese and need translating," she said.


"Sometimes bad translation really murders a perfectly good work."


(China Daily March 8, 2004)

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