Written by Di Li
Writer/performer Jan Cornall lives in Sydney, Australia. She has written and produced fifteen plays and musicals, a feature film, a novel (Take Me To Paradise) and three CDs of songs. Since 2004, she has collaborated with Indonesian writers and musicians including noted Indonesian poet Sitok Srengenge and short story writer Triyanto Triwikromo. Cornall has performed her performance poetry at a number of festivals in the region: Ubud Writers Festival; Utan Kayu Literary Biennale (Jakarta); and Darwin’s Wordstorm. Cornall teaches writing at University of Western Sydney and leads meditative writing retreats in the Australian desert, Tasmanian wilderness, Fiji and Bali. On the first trip to Vietnam, she did have an interesting talk with some Vietnamese writers.
You are very successful in a lot of fields of art such as music, stage. Why are you still interested in literature? Do you think you also successful in writing?
I love writing, as it is such an accessible form of expression. All you need is a notebook and pen – it’s so portable you can go anywhere! I have always loved words. As a girl I used to read a thesaurus just for the joy of finding new words. I wrote poetry for school magazines and later songs. My writing always has a performative element. Songs are meant to be sung and poems (well mine any way) meant to be performed. I like writing monologues and dialogue and I have written in most genres –theatre, film scripts, novel, non-fiction articles, short stories, and poems and songs. Success..Well I manage to make a living from writing or teaching writing and but I’m not a mainstream author. I was well known in Australia a while backs as a comedienne and cabaret performer. These days I am better known as a writing tutor. Actually I have a higher profile as a writer in Indonesia than Australia because of all my work there in the past 6 years.
Can you talk about the source of inspiration of the novel “Take me to paradise”?
My friend the Indonesian poet Sitok Srengenge is also a publisher in Jakarta. He suggested I write a novel set in Indonesia and he would publish it. That night I wrote the outline. I knew I wanted to write about my first experience of arriving in Bali. It is quite common that western women arrive in there and fall in love with the people, the culture and a Balinese Man - often their driver. They think they have found ‘paradise’. Of course it turns out to be not so rosy as the western woman is often expected to become the breadwinner for the man’s family (including sometimes his wife or wives) and many other relatives. And so in the novel Marilyn realizes before it is too late, what she has fallen into.
What is the message of the book you wanted to send to the readers?
I want to say a couple of things - that yes these clichés exist - Bali itself has become a cliché, western women falling for (usually younger) Balinese men is a cliché, but I also wanted to go beyond that and show that human relationships are complex especially in an intercultural context. That underneath it all we are all human – we all have a desire for escape from the sameness of our lives. Bali provides that for Westerners and Westerners provide that for the Balinese. For them it is far more complex because of the level of conformity that binds their culture and community. Most of them could never afford to leave and so they indulge their paradise fantasy in relationship with westerners with the hope that one day they will find their paradise in the west. The reality is life is not so easy for immigrants in Australia especially in the early years.
Why don’t you write about the life of the famous artists, like the way that the other artists write their memoir? The advantage is that they know all the secrets behind the light of stage and that makes success of a book.
I don’t write about the lives of famous others as I think someone else could do it much better than I. But I have written plays about unknown women stars (writers, directors, actors) of the Australian Silent Film Industry and also Australian farming women. But the main reason is I like to write about the things I experience. Most of my work is memoir based. Take Me To Paradise is based on my experiences in Bali although I have created a character Marilyn and that gives me extra license to add and mix more details and characters.
How do you see the literature in Australia and the relationship between Australian and Vietnamese writers?
I have noticed in my travels that the literary worlds of countries in the Asia Pacific region are quite insular and self-contained. It is hard to find your writers’ books in my country and vice versa. A British friend in Malaysia is outraged that you can’t buy Australian books there. Whenever I travel I am always carting books from one place to another but publishers and book sellers haven’t yet worked out how to set up a viable exchange. Except for a few writers being invited to some Australian Festivals our literary relationship with Vietnam and other Asian Countries is quite limited. There may be a few individual writers who have a special connection with Vietnam and build something with writers there and vice versa, but we still know so little about each other. Australian arts organizations are always trying to build relationship with Asian countries, especially in recent years so that is hopeful and provides some finance and forums for a dialogue to take place. And there is the success of Nam Le’s book ‘The Boat’ so that is a good thing and hopefully paves the way for more Vietnamese writers to be launched in Australia and internationally in the future.
I know that you have a very close relationship with the Ubud association. Is that based on the release of “Take me to paradise”?
I met Janet De Neefe, the director of the Ubud Writers Festival in 2004, and was part of an early advisory committee and involved as a participant in the first three festivals. I launched my novel and Jazz poetry CD (with Sitok Srengenge) there in 2006. Ubud Festival’s most important function is as a literary gateway and meeting place for Asia and the West.I met many interesting and important (including Indonesian) writers there and began collaborations with them, which continue to this day. I will be attending Hong Kong Writers festival this year and am interested to see how they compare and I am looking forward to meeting more Asian writers.
How many times have you been to Vietnam and how do you see the atmosphere of Vietnamese literature?
I have only visited Vietnam once (2009) but I was lucky to meet 3 women writers: yourself, Nyugen Thi Hong Ngat and Tran Thi Truong.I would certainly love to come again to run some workshops, meet more writers and get more of a sense of the literary community there. I love the writing of Marguerite Duras and so I am interested to follow her trail some more. And I was thrilled to know you are an innovator in the genre of Vietnamese Crime /Horror. That is very exciting.
And how about the second book?
People suggested I write a sequel to Take Me To Paradise and I am still thinking about that. It would be the other side of the story where a young Balinese man comes to Australia searching for his Paradise. The trouble is I am always very busy teaching and working on other projects. I am currently working on a book of short stories with Indonesian writer Triyanto Triwikromo. He is writing stories set in Australia and I am writing stories set in Indonesia. And I am working on a book about writing plus another novel set in Tasmania and more.
Can you tell us something about your personal life?
I live in the inner city suburb of Newtown in Sydney. It is a great place for a writer to live, as it’s very vibrant and lively at all times of the day and night. I like to have solitude to work on my various projects but I love then to go out and do the shopping among a buzzy throng of people. I have two grown up children: a girl, 26, fashion designer and boy 22 graphic designer. They don’t live with me any more. I am separated from their father but we remain good friends and still celebrate family events together. On the weekends I am usually teaching and often I teach at a university here in term time. I run my own courses through my business Writers Journey. I also mentor writers but my favorite activity is to take writers on trips to the desert near Alice Springs or the Tasmanian Wilderness. We also go to Fiji and Bali. I travel about three months of the year to festivals and conferences so living close to the airport is very handy. I’m a student of Tibetan Buddhism and so some weeknights are taken up with meditation practice and activities. I like to go out to movies and theatre and I also love staying home alone and watching tele. I don’t have such a busy social life because after all I am a writer and I need plenty of down time. I live my life in the service of creativity, whether for my writing or my teaching and I like to encourage others to do the same.