Part II: Raising the political stakes with Jeanne d’Arc and Dr Ali Alizadeh

I think truth is something we, artists and scientists alike, are all interested in in different ways. My novel might propose a truth about what it means to be a revolutionary subject, and a scientist might propose a truth about the cause of global warming. So we’re interested in truths in different ways. And I think there’s a lot more we have in common than not.

This interview is a continuation of Part I: Raising the political stakes with Jeanne d'Arc and Dr Ali Alizadeh where we explore Dr Alizadeh's decades-long research into the controversial life and death of Jeanne d’Arc, depicted in a comprehensive new literary work by Dr Ali Alizadeh titled The Last Days of Jeanne D'Arc due out this yearWe discuss political writing, the phenomena and ideology of real revolution, the question of war, and the revolutionary potential of Jeanne d'Arc in contemporary discourse, politics and concepts of universalism.

The search for truths… as someone who’s always wanted to be a writer, I’m curious if there was a book that got you started?

I loved reading adventure stories, I loved Zorro. He was my favourite comic book hero. I had a couple of books about him that I remember reading a lot, obsessively. My grandmother used to read a lot to me as well, when she babysat me. I’m pretty sure the influence of that is still with me. And interestingly, I guess, war and history and politics also affected me a lot, because I grew up in Iran during the revolution and I felt that even as a child what I was reading had to be somehow connected to the world I was living in.

At least one or two generations of people in the Western world now have not experienced an actual war or a revolution. This is not a criticism but there seems to be a de-politicisation amongst readers and writers in the West, where people at best can only talk about this idea of identity politics. But for people like me politics is a very real thing, and I experienced that from a really early age as a very young child. That's why I guess I was drawn to Zorro, he's a political figure as well.

Joan of Arc statue in the French Quarter in New Orleans, USA.

Joan of Arc statue in the French Quarter in New Orleans, USA.

It's kind of interesting when you look at the origins of action heroes and comic book heroes in US popular culture – they’re also political. Today we have Superman and Batman and they seem to be battling each other for no reason other than their egos, but once-upon-a-time there were political stakes. And stories with real political implications were the stories my grandmother used to tell me and I think they really influenced me.

Later on in life, in my late teens when I thought I would become a writer, I was reading a lot of the things other kids were reading at the time like avant-garde poetry, things that were a bit underground, and I still like them, but I think to me it's been quite important as I've developed to make a connection between my formative experiences as a writer, the formative things that I was reading – things like Zorro! – and what I’m writing now.

I think that’s why I’m going back to history and things like that, history, politics, revolutionary writing, which is at odds with contemporary Australian writing scene. Most of my peers in Australia would not be producing that kind of writing at all but I'm returning to my origins in a way.

This de-politicisation you mention, do you think writers can afford to stay away from politics given the current political climate?

That’s a good question. In Australia, I would say the Indigenous rights movement has gone mainstream, environmental concerns have gone mainstream, general views about race, gender, they are totally mainstream – what would have been activism in the 90s is now what I call mainstream moralism. In the 90s, you would have been a radical if you talked about being queer or about immigrant rights or reclaiming the streets. Today, these are the values of our bourgeois ruling class.

So that means more writers are writing about those things. It is very common now to find some kind of environmental concern, or some sort of sympathy for refugees or whatever in a novel by a best-selling novelist published by a major commercial house, much more so than before.

But I would say what's happened is that what we are seeing is not a political move but more of an ethical or a moral move.

I think political writing proper is still very rare in Australia. And that's writing that I think really aims to make the reader, or make the artform, instigate some kind of a change in the politics of the world. Not just in the way we live, not just by getting people to be more ethical about recycling their rubbish or whatever, I mean, not just that, but actually writing that is directly about politics.

And I have a definition of politics: politics really is about the relationship between the people and how they are governed. That’s a very classic definition of politics. I know we use ‘politics' as with the word ‘revolution' very loosely and freely these days – there can be a ‘food revolution', ‘IT revolution', ‘fashion revolution'. But I don’t. There really have only been a few actual revolutions in history and revolution is a real historical phenomena where a government is changed and the ruling classes toppled –  that's a revolution, and politics to me is something associated with that as well.

The word politics to me has its own integrity so that's why I really rail against the idea of identity politics for example. I don’t think identity has anything to do with politics. When it does it's dangerous, and turns into sectarian politics which produces fascism. But I think when we talk about immigrant rights, minority rights or whatever we are not engaging with a political question. I think concerns like that constitute an ethical or moral question. So, today, despite the ethical tone on environment, refugees, etc, I still don't think Australian writers are engaging with politics the way I define it.

How do you see Australian writers tackling politics then?

I’ve done a lot of research into contemporary poetry and I think you do see a few Australian writers that tackle politics. Like, for example, the poet Lionel Fogarty, who's viewed by some scholars and others to be a sort of representative of an Indigenous identity, and I'm sure it is a very legitimate way to look at his work, but when I read his work I also find a real questioning of dominant Australian ideology. And I think that sort of relationship with ideology is what some genuinely political art does.

By ideology I mean the dominant values of the society because we say in Marxism that there is a relationship between the dominant values and the dominant class. So if today, for example, we decide that we should all of us drive less because it’s better for the environment, and if this becomes such a dominant value, and I would argue it has, then I'm sure somebody’s making money from it, and I'm sure they are the most powerful class in society who are making money from it. So you know this is where some of us Marxists end up being labelled as conservative by so-called progressives because we question dominant ideology. We say look at any given point in time / dominant ideology, no matter how progressive it might look, is serving the economic, material interests of the ruling class.

So I think when writers attack ideology, then that's where we can get some real political action.

Not in the work of writers who happily endorse progressive values of the ruling class but writers who say, no, there is hypocrisy for example, in the way you champion minorities. And then they go bravely to places where sometimes they shouldn't go. And if you're a writer like me, before you know it you get accused of racism just because you question the concepts of charity and sympathy, for example, in your writings. Publishers are so jittery about that sort of thing. They're not sure how readers might interpret them.

But I think from time to time you get writers, for example Christos Tsiolkas, who's now a sort of establishment figure in Australian literature. Looking at some of his early writing, novels like Dead Europe and Jesus Man, he was really railing against the dominant values of the ruling middle-classes in Australian society and he was, if you like, trying to be offensive, intentionally. Being offensive is one way to do the kind of thing I'm talking about, and could be immature, and sometimes it is just immature. There are moments when some writers are prepared to do things that may not be good for their careers, that may make them unpopular, but they write this sort of thing anyway. But if the story of Christos Tsiolkas is anything to go by, we can see that if a writer wants to really make a living as a writer he or she has to make a U-turn, and of course in Tsiolkas's more recent writing that's what we see, and his fans are celebrating his new ethical tone, the fact that he's not just railing against society but he's offering solutions. What are these solutions? I don't know. But in The Slap, the solution was I guess, to suggest that people should just learn to get along, don't destroy things, preserve them.

It's a real problem of our time, especially for our writers, and I have many private conversations with writers and a lot of them tell me that they will not write against dominant ‘progressive' ideology, because they know they will not be published if they do that, or they will be misunderstood, or they will not get a grant – there are real economic concerns here. If a book is considered too controversial and the message in it is not easily palatable for a progressive literati – and in Australia the literary culture is by and large ‘progressive' – then the literary scene will not support that author. But you do occasionally get people like me. I was chastised for my last book. I was almost publicly humiliated for doing the sort of writing that I’m encouraging, and I was called all sorts of horrible things. Ultimately, I thought, that’s fine. We need to be able to speak out against dominant values, and I think we should be able to do that in literature, and also at universities. I fear that there are cultural trends that are trying to prevent that.

For those interested in research, what advice do you have for them?

The main thing I can say about doing HDR at Monash or anywhere else is that you need commitment and passion. Because I’ve seen too many very bright students given advice on what is ‘good to research', and not going very far because they haven’t developed their own interest. One of the best things I was told recently was to start a project that I would do even if my project got no funding, something that I would do anyway even if I got no money or recognition for it.

When I did my PhD I knew I wanted to end up writing a book on Jeanne d'Arc, so it helped that my PhD was also a part of that project, otherwise I would not have been able to complete it. Many things happened along the way, financial pressures, social pressures, and I think that to survive those pressures and to do really well, you need to find something that has real personal resonance, something that you want to be remembered for. Avoid the trendy topical ‘research priority' of the week – far too many bright minds have been sacrificed in on the altars of short-term academic careerism.

Finally, what are your last words on Jeanne d’Arc and what do you hope readers will get out of your forthcoming novel?

Her story has been told many times, but I think I've told it in a new way, in a way that may scandalise some readers, but I hope it does justice to her story because I think it’s an amazing story.

I think the thing that I hope people would get out of the book is, firstly, the realisation that truly radical subjectivities like hers are possible. I want people to be reminded that someone as revolutionary as Jeanne really did exist.

We live in an age where we think change is impossible. Or that the most rudimentary reforms is the best we can hope for. There's nothing we can do, we feel totally impotent, or maybe we can, you know, drink fair trade coffee and change the world by doing that. I think it's really important to be reminded that people like Jeanne who really genuinely changed the world really did exist. And that they did it in ways that are really profound, shocking and disturbing.

I think it’s really important to be reminded that to change the world one must really fight, and one must make real sacrifices.

I would like us to look at people like her more realistically and take them more seriously. And maybe even recognise elements of her in ourselves. I personally remind myself of her courage, regularly. And there are other elements of her personality that are really amazing and inspiring too, and I hope people would get that from the book.

Dr Ali Alizadeh is in the School of Languages, Linguistics, Cultures and Literary Studies and coordinates two units: Writing in Australia and Reading the City. Among Dr Alizadeh’s books are the collection of poetry, Ashes in the Air (UQP, 2011), shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, Poetry; the work of creative non-fiction Iran: My Grandfather (Transit Lounge, 2010), shortlisted for a NSW Premier’s Literary Award; and the novel The New Angel (Transit Lounge, 2008). His most recent book is a work of fiction titled Transactions (UQP, 2013), long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

Dr Alizadeh is interested in political writing, poetry and fiction that explore controversial themes such as history, violence and war. His research is mostly in contemporary writing, especially contemporary Australian writing, and also philosophy, literary theory and Marxism, and he supervises a range of postgraduate research that has an affinity with his research areas.

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