Debbie Bateman interviews author Anne Lazurko

1. Your novel, What Is Written on the Tongue, weaves together Sam’s life as a Dutch soldier during the Indonesian independence movement and his earlier years in Nazi-occupied Holland. The differences and similarities between the two narratives highlight deep questions about war, peace, cruelty, and love. How did weaving together these narratives shape the larger story?

It seemed impossible to me that young men who spent their teenage years under occupation as brutal as that imposed by the Nazis, could within months be drafted to occupy another nation and commit atrocities reminiscent of what they’d just endured. Yet, in many cases, they did. Sam wants to be a good man, but during both wars, and among his family and friends, he keeps bumping up against ambiguous definitions of loyalty and courage. He comes to realize that what defines an ‘enemy’ is not as straightforward or knowable as he believes, and that notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are completely dependent on motivation and circumstance. He is swept up in the racism and cruelty of the moment in Indonesia, even as he simultaneously looks back and tries to understand the Nazi occupation. Weaving the two narratives allowed me to explore how fragile the scaffolding is that we build around the stories we use to explain ourselves, and the human capacity to willfully ignore historical truth in order to justify our actions.

2. In a letter to his son, Sam’s dad writes, “It seems nothing about the war is forgotten, nor forgiven, but the effort of trying to understand is so exhausting people are afraid they will never recover. And so they don’t say a word.” Many of the characters in the novel are unable to share their full story. Can you reflect on the unspoken stories in this novel? How did this influence your writing process?

Throughout the novel, I played with ideas of truth and memory, and how easy it is to hide from our past by altering or silencing our stories. But until we speak the truth, we are not forced to face it. There are saints and monsters in the book, but the cocoon of silence spun around them makes it difficult to know who to revere or condemn. Sam wants only clarity, and by leaving so much unsaid in the novel I was able to ratchet up the tension around him, eventually giving both Sam and the reader that ‘holy shit’ moment when the secrets and motivations of characters are revealed. It was also a way to illustrate the burden of undisclosed memory, the young character of Taufik being the most extreme example—his need to silence the trauma he’s experienced renders him literally mute. How do we move forward: complete silence, complete truth, or some middling ground?

3. Sam’s sister says that what matters is whether a person can live with themselves after the war, whether people can live with each other. Inner conflict creates enormous tension throughout the novel and it affects how the characters treat each other. No one is tortured more by inner conflict than Sam. As you were crafting the novel, how did you explore and deepen this inner conflict?

In Indonesia, Sam asks himself ‘what are we, the fucking SS?’, and the rest of his story explores the question of what we become when we lose our empathy and begin to accept the unacceptable from ourselves and others. Balancing the narrative tension and Sam’s inner conflict was my way of figuring out how this happens. I put Sam and the other fictional characters through true historical events that challenged their notions of loyalty and human decency. The characters’ responses to this process often surprised me as they evolved in unexpected ways, some rising to the occasion and others not so much. Witnessing such ambiguity only deepens Sam’s uncertainty about his own attitudes and motivations, eventually leading to a crisis when he too must choose the answer to his own question about who and what it takes to become a Nazi.

4. Was there a specific incident that inspired this piece of work?

My dad was about 85 when he casually mentioned the nervous breakdown he’d had during his three years with Dutch forces in Indonesia. Both my parents were teenagers in occupied Holland and shared many stories about that time, but my dad rarely mentioned Indonesia. So, his revelation was a surprise I wanted to understand better and that inspired the novel. Sam’s story is not my dad’s. My dad had a desk job in Jakarta for the duration of his service, but I did wonder why the thoughtful, joyful man I know had a nervous breakdown in Indonesia. I was stunned by what I found in my research and in the course of writing this novel I came to understand my dad better. Remarkably, at 96, he came to understand his time in Indonesia better through my writing about that time in history.

5. How do you think the work responds to the questions it raises in the context of the time and place the characters are situated in?

It’s easy to read (and write) history as good versus evil in a world that yearns for quick and easy explanations. I hope this work holds the architects of colonialism to account while both recognizing the complexity of the history it addresses and showing compassion toward the fictional characters I’ve written into a context they had little control over and often didn’t understand.

Through Sam’s journey, today’s reader might recognize our own capacity— perhaps even tendency—to allow ideology or race or dogma to justify the ‘othering’ of people. In Canada, we’ve been slow to embrace the truth about our colonial history as the first step to reconciliation. Our ugly side has also been revealed in recent events, mirroring those in the United States and other democracies under siege by those who distort the truth. If we can empathize with Sam’s desire to be a good man, perhaps we’ll ask ourselves the fundamental question of who we want to be.

6. How did you arrive at the title? What did you want the title to do?

 The title for What Is Written on the Tongue comes from a book of essays called Writing on the Tongue. In one of the essays, Benedict Anderson analyzes the work of an Indonesian writer and dissident named Pramoeyda Ananta Toer, suggesting that, as we allow language to ‘slip the knot’ that ties it to meaning, words come to have no meaning at all. Anything can be said to support an ideology and weaponize language. The title I chose for my novel ties together the cost of keeping silent about historical and personal injustices, and the importance of how we remember, talk about and write history.

7. What kind of research did you have to engage in order to create the story world?

It’s almost impossible to create a world based in historical fact without having walked the earth where it happened. I traveled for five weeks across Java, melting in the heat, falling asleep to jungle sounds, eating sambal hot foods, and listening to stories. People I met became or added to characters in the book. Places contributed to plot, theme, and metaphor. I could not have written this book without the gift of travel.

Though I have binders of research, secondary sources about the Indonesian war were hard to find. I was only able to find a few academic papers and carefully curated documents. But Indonesian novelists and poets gave voice to the vagaries of revolution and power, while archival documents from Australian newspapers provided first-hand accounts and blistering analysis. The words of Dutch veterans themselves that I found in newspapers, journals, and even YouTube videos most vividly articulated the experience of war on the ground.

8. How did you arrive at the structure of the work? Did you have a structure in mind when you started? What other structures or shapes did you consider? What was driving the choices of structure: efficiency or something else like style, urge for innovation, compulsions of the genre, and/or compulsions of a literary movement your work aspires to connect with?

I wrote the novel chronologically at first, getting down all the historical facts and taking Sam through World War II and into Indonesia. But in marketing terms, the lesser-known Indonesian war is the hook and, in terms of craft, a chronology didn’t serve the larger story. The whole idea was to juxtapose the two wars in real-time, making the reader part of Sam’s inner conflict. So I went back and figured out at what point we meet Sam in Indonesia, and from there which of the World War II stories served as a parallel to drive Sam’s inner conflict which in turn drives the tension and plot.

9. What was your main concern about your choices regarding the point of view? Did you try alternative points of view for the protagonist / main characters before settling into the final points of view that you ended up using?

There are two points of view in the story, and I had to try several to nail down the right view and voice. The stories of World War II Sam are in first-person past tense. Although Sam is only a few years older as he writes his experience of occupation, I wanted him to ‘say things out loud’ about it with some degree of reflection and self-awareness. But he’s having these moments of revelation about the past in the same moment he’s soldiering in Indonesia and becoming detached from the person he hoped to be. Most of us muddle along in the present and only know its significance when we look back. It’s why we screw up so much. Writing the Indonesian War in close third-person present tense, I could show Sam making decisions without understanding exactly what his choices were doing to him. Even as he is figuring out all the intricacies of the Nazi occupation, I wanted to show his inability to see beyond his present actions as a soldier in Indonesia to what it might mean for his future.

10. Would you say the pace of the story is uniform through the work? How did you consciously deal with pacing?

An early reader told me the intensity of the Indonesian war forced her to periodically put down the manuscript. She suggested it needed some moments of ease. It’s another reason I chose the structure. The World War II moments Sam looks back on and writes about are less intense because, though those moments are sometimes horrendously difficult, the reader knows Sam survived to live in the present moments of the story happening in Indonesia. The pacing was a give and take of these two things. Because there are many intensely violent and suspenseful scenes in Indonesia, I also had to consciously slow things down, and find moments of grace and beauty and hope for Sam and the other characters in the book.

Anne Lazurko is a novelist, a farmer, and a sometime poet. Her novel Dollybird won the Willa Award for Historical Fiction, and she has prose and poetry published in Canadian literary magazines and anthologies. A graduate of the Humber Creative Writing program, Anne also holds a degree in Political Science and is currently fascinated with melding the two disciplines to creatively explore the ways in which history and memory are manipulated to justify, excuse, or redeem. She writes from her farm on Treaty 4 territory in Saskatchewan.