David de Vaux deems himself an intentional rolling stone. That he has been an almost lifelong expatriate and inveterate traveller may in part be attributed to his birth after World War II in a non-existent country described on his birth certificate as the British Army on the Rhine. The son of a British officer stationed variously on three continents, when he was nine years old and in need of a passport so that he could travel to England to attend a boarding school, he was discovered to be a bureaucratic anomaly, and a citizen of nowhere. He jokes that it was his good fortune that this was before the days of “extraordinary rendition”, and the problem was discreetly solved by the concoction of an alternative, retrospective birth certificate.
De Vaux acknowledges blood connections with John Gay, author of The Beggar’s Opera, and the novelist Graham Greene, with each of whom he assumes he has shared the wanderer’s gene and the accidental license of family disapproval – the latter by failing to embrace the expected patriotic, military, class and church traditions. So he pursued his own adventures and misadventures at London University, the Players’ Theatre, the antique trade, the King’s Road hippie show and the anti-war movement, acquiring the privilege of a dossier that, as he was privately advised, followed him into his Australian exile, where he took up a teacher’s scholarship for further study in New South Wales and was introduced to stage direction in a night course of the Newcastle Workers Club. Along the way, he found gratification in the disciplines of Political Science, English literature, Meditation and Theatre.
After childhood years with family in Europe, North Africa and Southeast Asia, the inevitably itinerant de Vaux spent time in New Zealand, the Tongan Islands, Fiji, India and Australia – and first visited the United States at the turn of the 21st century. He has worked in five countries, on the fringes of teaching, publishing, editing, arts funding, house building, activism, theatre and writing, has produced two collections of poetry, a handful of play scripts, short fiction, and Cassowary Hill, his first novel.
De Vaux has a daughter and two sons who have, between them, lived adventurously in various parts of the world and are now all in Australia, as are his grandchildren. In 2004 de Vaux returned to England where he lived for two years with his second wife in the small Derbyshire village of Church Broughton. Moving to the U.S., they established a rural home in a high valley of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico. They have since settled in Portland, Oregon.
The author talks about Americans and others transcending nationality
How is the United States depicted in Cassowary Hill?
It’s a novel with a number of interwoven strands, and in that weave I’ve sought to entertain, and perhaps tease, the American reader with questions of how our country looks to foreign eyes, especially Australian eyes – and vice versa.
Why Australian eyes?
Most of the main characters are either American or Australian, or expatriates in either country whose origins were somewhere else. One of those has lived in both countries, though she was born in East Timor after Portugal had let go of their colony and the Indonesian army had moved in. Still a youngish woman, she has already become a renowned photographer, now a U.S. citizen but in reality a genuine internationalist. So she is the one who is least susceptible to notions of national identification. But of course most of the Australians and most of the Americans I know have not transcended those designations, and I think they’re very similar – each coming from a country of immigrants that has no wish to ape the culture of its first colonial settlers – so when they meet, each can see themselves as they might be in different circumstances.
And how do the Americans and the non-Americans in Cassowary Hill interrelate?
Their interactions are social – including one intense love affair that ranges across the world – and they are cultural and political too.
The book has been called a tragicomedy. Do you consider that a fair description? After all, there’s a shadow cast over the middle of the story by a genocide that Noam Chomsky has described as the worst slaughter, relative to population, since the Holocaust.
Well there’s much levity and ironic observation, stretches of unabashed hilarity, a sprinkling of bawdy retorts and the kind of grim humor that honors the burden of suffering. I think the tone of the narrator, who’s also a character in the story, is playful by nature – for example, where he’s looking rather indulgently at differences between the two major nationalities he encounters. Other characters do it too, somewhat like members of two distantly related families who rejoice in discussing the foibles of their cousins. It can be done with a kind of mocking affection, can’t it? Yet the narrator’s no clown, and there are times – especially, for example, where atrocities of the recent past are being relived in his presence, or when he fears a chasm of doubt growing between himself and his lover, all levity evaporates. But tragicomic? Well, that is the corollary. I think the way ordinary people with different perspectives interact in matters that are inherently unfunny can indeed, at times, be darkly comic. It’s a form of courage, and in both art and life it can be a welcome restorative.
One of the strands – that interweave, as you put it, with international themes – involves little known examples of the world’s increasingly rare wild animals. Why did you put those into a book about such utterly human concerns as ambition, travel, love, sex and politics?
I think it’s high time to start considering the truths about habitat destruction and species under threat of extinction in the same context as the truths about human life. Surely it’s all of a piece, and it’s dangerous to compartmentalize these urgent questions. We have at last, and far too late really, started to take serious notice of the dwindling habitats of so many wildlife species. I wanted to show certain lovely and literally awesome animals that might be watching from the wings, as it were, as we humans “strut and fret [our] hour upon the stage” – animals, I should say, of which we are nearly always unaware while we go about the affairs of our own self-absorbed species. Tom, the narrator in the book, is an amateur naturalist, and his heart is torn between the concerns of his own aforesaid species and his love of a magnificent, giant bird in a tropical rainforest, the cassowary that once kicked in the glass panel of his cabin door.
This conversation begs the question of who you are. On which side of the Pacific Ocean does the author stand?
I’m an Australian-American with memories of an unsettled childhood far from either country, so it just depends when you catch me. I could make myself at home in lots of places, and do love going back to Australia where I have children and grandchildren, but I’m now happily ensconced, with my wonderful American wife Molly, in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, and between there and the mountains of northern New Mexico I have found places conducive to a mode of writing that comes from the love and the fears that the two countries evoke in me.