I came across Questions of Travel (winner of the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award) through my desire to read more Australian fiction and more fiction written by women. It was apt then, that I read the book during the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, where I was constantly inspired by incredible women, including Michelle de Kretser herself. The 2013 program, by new Artistic Director Lisa Dempster, saw me attend a wide range of sessions that were equally challenging and heart-warming. For me, attending a good festival should be just like travelling: you should be opened up to new experiences, new people and new ideas. You should have your heart filled by new places, but at the same time refocussed on the joys of home.
Questions of Travel is, simply put, a novel about why we travel. The two central characters provide us with contrast – do we travel for leisure, or do we travel out of force? Do we travel to escape, or do we travel to find out more about the world and our place in it? Ravi travels around Sydney and Australia to understand the culture of the country he finds himself in as a refugee from Sri Lanka, but these adventures also help him to understand himself, his family and his values. Laura travels to escape, but when she finds herself back home, staying still forces her to understand herself and it’s not something she knows how to handle.
Laura is a character I think a lot of young Australian women would identify with. As she travels through Europe, hungry for new experiences, desperate to see the unfamiliar, she grapples with homesickness and niggling thoughts of what it is to be Australian and how she thinks of home. Personally, travel in my twenties allowed me to explore who I was, away from family, away from school and university, away from a city where I was increasingly feeling claustrophobic. Travel was instrumental in working out who I was – but this in itself didn’t happen while I was away, it happened when I came home. Laura’s experience of coming back to Australia and dealing with the reverse culture shock, settling back in to life surrounded by cultural and environmental familiarities, family, friends and work, felt incredibly genuine to me.
These were the feelings that led me to the recipes I cooked for this post. I have always wanted to travel to the Middle East. I adore the food of that region, I love the colours, the coast, the architecture, the culture, the people that I have met from Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel. This recipe for allayeh was something I had been wanting to try, so what better way to test it out than on a captive audience at a dinner party. The recipe comes from my friend Yasmeen’s blog Wandering Spice, which continues to fuel my love of Middle Eastern cuisine. For a weeknight dinner with friends, I cooked allayeh, served with a headily fragrant rice pilau, and this simple but delicious side dish of spinach, pine nuts and sultanas. This photo was taken whilst reading and eating the leftovers over lunch the next day.
I have spoken a lot here about Laura, but it’s important to note that Ravi is the heart of the novel. His story is a familiar one in Australia, but one that needs to be published more often. The choices he makes and the ramifications they bring are sensibly dealt with by de Kretser: she does not push or grate opinions on her reader, she deals with them quite journalistically at times. But as the novel moves along, it is his story that kept me turning page after page, and the one that provides a dramatic conclusion.
Questions of Travel was a thoroughly enjoyable read. For me, Michelle de Kretser struck a good balance between talking about big issues and ideas, planting the seed for further thinking and reflection, and a beautifully composed, easy to read story. A perfect novel for long flights, lazy summer holidays or dreaming of places near and far from your own home.
As well as reading more Australian fiction, I'm also trying to push myself to read less contemporary American fiction by white male authors. Looking at my book shelf, that's where the majority of the authors lie, other than the occasional female author or Haruki Murakami. I have on my to-read pile The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and The History of Danish Dreams by Peter Høeg, but I am also hoping to delve through this Flavorwire list of 50 Works of Fiction in Translation That Every English Speaker Should Read.