Author Finds Drama Along Ethnic and Religious Divides

Australian writer, lobbyist champions both a republic of letters and a Republic

'I'm not consciously aware of being a moral person," booms Australian author Thomas Keneally "It's just that moral questions are the most interesting ones. Because I grew up in a time when there was a lot of sectarianism but also a real sense that we were all Australians, these questions have always fascinated me. If you want to find some drama as a novelist, then you look along the cultural, religious, or ethnic divide - where issues of morality and identity surface."

In his 21st novel, "A River Town," Keneally continues to stretch his canvas across the world asking the important questions, yet realizing that the answers may lie in our most intimate, often unobserved moments. Abstractions - race, ethnicity, religion, family, culture, and personal identity - find expression in individual lives in Keneally's fiction. He examines the intersection of private lives and chance to understand time and place, moving gracefully from the extreme close-up to the panoramic view.

"The idea of literature based on the intimate without reference to the larger world is a bit of a problem," Keneally said in a recent interview. "If you look at the books I've written in the last 12 years, you will find an attempt, however misguided or failed, to look upon Australia as a place where you don't have to be British to be Australian."

The founding chair and current director of the Australian Republic Movement, Keneally draws a parallel between Australia's bid for autonomy and that of Ireland when assessing the writer's place in politics.

"In Ireland, there was a republic of letters before there was a republic," Keneally notes. "I think the same thing is happening in Australia. The republic of letters, established by writers such as Peter Carey and Patrick White, will precede the likely arrival of the republic before the close of this decade."

Like his Irish predecessors, Yeats and, to a lesser extent, Lady Wilde, Keneally acknowledges and explores art's relationship to politics and vice versa. The young man who wandered through town as a lad toting a copy of Gerard Manley Hopkins's poems, Keneally places genuine faith in the power of metaphor.

"I don't think life is a series of hermetically sealed compartments called culture, economics, and politics," Keneally says. "I think they all flow into one another, and art reflects this."

Dismissing notions of the decline of the written word at the millennium's close, Keneally looks back to locate literature's meaning today and tomorrow.

"There are more people reading good books now than there were centuries ago. There is a massive army of readers out there, and they are people who are going to be teachers, politicians, lawyers, and so on. So the influence of these books goes out into the world via that corps of readers.

"I see literature as influencing the influencers," he continues, "which is all it has ever done. How many people have read Freud? Yet his language and ideas remain widespread. You don't have to read a book for it to have an impact on you. The map of the world is often changed by books that few people have read."

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