Robin de Crespigny
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
As a child I rode horses and had a pet kangaroo on a farm in the Western district of Victoria. My three sisters and I had unrestricted freedom to run wild, much to the envy of my urban cousins who taught us about city life when we were in our teens. My father, whose father was a journalist, only ever wanted to be on the land. All my life he told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. We were a very close family until one by one, as we reached secondary level and there were no local schools, we were sent to boarding school. It was built on a single city block with high stone walls to keep us in. I missed my animals and fretted for my freedom, but I did become a good athlete and on occasions a good actor, otherwise I learnt very little.
2. What did you want to be when you were 12, 18 and 30? And why?
At 12 I wanted to be a jockey and race horses on tracks around the globe but I grew too tall, and I was a girl, so I had to let go my dream. At 18 I wanted to be a journalist but at my school it wasn’t encouraged as a career for women, so I didn’t know what to do. I wrote to the papers and they said I needed a tertiary degree, but once I got to university I was side-tracked rebelling against the restraints of my schooling. At 30, in New York, I discovered filmmaking and a new world opened to me.
That I was invincible.
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
The Vietnam War. As students we marched in moratoriums of over 100,000 people against the war and the conscription of our male peers to fight in it. Ordinary people came out on the streets dividing families, friends and our nation. It was a defining time, which could be said to have politicised a generation.
When I was around six or seven I nearly died from Encephalitis, which I was believed to have caught from the Ibis in a swamp I liked to play in. My strongest images are of overhearing it said I might have polio because I was paralysed for a period, and later being propped up on pillows at my bedroom window to watch the spring set in. My mother picked me stems of blue grape hyacinths from which I plucked the tiny blooms and threaded them into a necklace. I remember feeling tremendous joy and it was then I knew I would live.
Although not to everyone’s taste, reading Tom Robbin’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues about Sissy, an ugly duckling with super-sized thumbs who grew up to be a hitch-hiker, model and cowgirl, set me off travelling Europe. As one reviewer said ‘you won’t just put it down and go pet your cat. You’ll want to go make love to the horizon. It’s beautiful stuff.’
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? Aren’t they obsolete?
Ali Al Jenabi’s story was originally brought to me to write as a film script but the epic breadth of his journey, both physically and emotionally, is so great, with boats at sea and at least six countries, that I somewhat gratefully took advice to tell this odyssey in book form first.
It is the true story of Ali Al Jenabi, an Iraqi refugee who became a people smuggler to save his family, and ultimately came to be seen, not as the heinous criminal the Australian government believed him to be, but as the ‘Oskar Schindler’ of Asia.
(BBGuru: publisher’s blurb – The True Story of Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oskar Schlindler of Asia. At once a non-fiction thriller and a moral maze, this is one man’s epic story of trying to find a safe place in the world.
When Ali Al Jenabi flees Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers, he is forced to leave his family behind in Iraq. What follows is an incredible international odyssey through the shadow world of fake passports, crowded camps and illegal border crossings, living every day with excruciating uncertainty about what the next will bring.
Through betrayal, triumph, misfortune – even romance and heartbreak – Ali is sustained by his fierce love of freedom and family. Continually pushed to the limits of his endurance, eventually he must confront what he has been forced to become.
With enormous power and insight, The People Smuggler tells a story of daily heroism, bringing to life the forces that drive so many people to put their lives in unscrupulous hands. It is an utterly gripping portrait of a man cut loose from the protections of civilisation, attempting to retain his dignity and humanity while taking whatever path he can out of an impossible position.
‘An engrossing account of a figure seen by some as saviour and others as criminal. A significant book.’ Thomas Keneally)
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
To make Australians more compassionate and understanding towards people who are less fortunate than ourselves.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
There are so many people in the world to admire but some would be: Aung San Suu Kyi for her utter commitment to what she believes is right for her people, despite no promise of success. Paul Keating for being able to mix a true love and appreciation of the arts with politics, a quality seldom revealed. Scorsese for his passionate dedication to film. Meryl Streep for her unqualified talent to literally inhabit a character, yet being able to withstand the rigours of fame. Steven Soderbergh for maintaining his integrity while making great films. And my sister Paddy who inspired me with the grace and honesty with which she lived her life and faced a most untimely death.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To change the direction of the debate about refugees by touching people who had previously never asked themselves what they would do if they were in the same situation. To get them to see it is not all black and white, and to gain respect and compassion for asylum seekers as fellow human beings.
Take risks and live life to the fullest until you have something to say. Meanwhile pour your passion into diaries, poetry, short-stories and bar coasters until you find a voice that feels true, then write film scripts, books and TV; they inform each other. Otherwise it is just about endurance. Being able to hole up, buckle down, and bounce back.
Robin, thank you for playing.