At the still point of the turning world

A literary historical novel — yet to find a publisher

My latest novel, At the still point of the turning world, is the coming-of-age story of sixteen-year-old Indonesian girl, Siti, who is locked up with her family and 500 Indonesian political prisoners in Cowra POW camp in World War 2.

Ten months later, they are set free and Siti heads to Melbourne to train as a nurse’s aid. In the last year of the war she takes a job in a sanatorium for Indonesian TB patients in Sydney’s Turramurra.

The civil liberties campaigner Mrs Laura Gapp of the Civil Rights Defence League opens the door for Siti to fall in with the painter and fellow-artist Rosie, the documentary filmmakers Joris Ivens and Marion Michelle, and the diverse group of feisty women involved with the Indonesia Club and newfound Australia-Indonesia Association.

At the still point of the turning world observes the fracturing of the cool complacence of the White Australia Policy and pre-war colonial status quo in the Netherlands East Indies. It bears witness to a moment of Indonesian-Australian cross-cultural comradeship, desire and friendship; enduring colonial coercion; a minor nation’s faltering assertiveness on the world stage (Australia); and the 20,000 strong Communist Party of Australia’s determination to drive a conversation about de-colonisation, race chauvinism (racism), and Indigenous sovereignty and resistance.

It is the coming-of-age story of a nation (Australia), and the birth story of another (Indonesia).

The Colour of Things Unseen

My debut novel, The Colour of Things Unseen, was published in the UK by Aurora Metro Books in September 2019 and in Australia in 2020.

Book Launch Ubud Readers and Writers Festival 2019: By Janet de Neefe, Sunday 27 October 2019, 2.00 pm, Ubud, Bali.

Book Launch Gleebooks Sydney 2020 — postponed due to Covid: By Professor Gail Jones (author of the acclaimed novel The Death of Noah Glass), Sunday 22 March 2020, at Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road, Glebe.

In The Colour of Things Unseen, Adi leaves his family and small village in Central Java to travel to Australia to study art at a Sydney art school. He arrives in early 1997 and later that year Indonesia is hit by economic crisis and collapse. The following year, in May 1998, the seemingly entrenched thirty-two year old Suharto dictatorship, in whose shadow Adi has grown up, collapses and is replaced by a democracy.

Adi comes of age in Australia. As a student he has a foot in both places, but when he marries and becomes a permanent resident his ties to family and village seem to loosen. On his return to Central Java in 2012, he finds that home has become both familiar and strange, but, as he is surprised to discover, also well-connected with art and artists of the region and the world.

The question is what difference this will have on him as an artist living in the present time. And what of his relationship to place as he is confronted with the shadows and concerns that have ceased to be hidden as they were in the history taught to him at school?

In writing this novel I had in mind readers who were Indonesian and non-Indonesian, and my aim was to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange (to readers). Above all, though, I was interested in the questions: What is an artist? What can art do? Why does it matter? Can it expose us to new ways of connecting with the unfamiliar and the strange, and with the parts of our respective histories that remain hidden, or which disguise our links to the histories of others?

I also wondered whether there is a role for all kinds of artists including writers – in a world of disruption, displacement, and the politics of borders, wall building, exclusion and suspicion – to shed light on an imaginative blurring of national borders and boundaries that could uncover a plurality of being and cross-cultural and cross-national connectedness that we have yet to fully recognise and peaceably live with.