‘I’m always drawn to absences’: Hannah Kent on her new queer historical romance

The Australian author of Burial Rites looks homeward with Devotion, a hymn-like love letter traced from 1830s Prussia to the South Australian frontier

When Hannah Kent decided to explore the immigrant roots of her German forebears in her third novel, she didn’t realise just how close to home the book would ultimately land. It was late 2017 when something in her early drafts about friendships between Lutheran migrant women finally clicked.

“It was the year that the [same-sex marriage] plebiscite happened – and my girlfriend proposed to me,” Kent says.

“I feel like I’m always drawn to absences and silences as a writer; there’s so little representation of queer relationships from that time, and so I started to wonder, ‘Is it even possible to do this within that historical, religious context?’ That’s really what led to a lot more imagination and creative freedom.”

After her first two novels – 2013’s Burial Rites and 2016’s The Good People – hewed closely to real people and events in 19th-century Iceland and Ireland respectively, Kent had already resolved to loosen her ties to the archive. “I didn’t want to become a writer who only writes about historical criminals. Because my previous two books were so wedded to the historical record, I was yearning to indulge in fiction which was slightly more imaginative – in a way that could still honour the past and people that lived in it.”

Devotion opens with Hanne Nussbaum, a teenage girl living in the Prussian village of Kay, home to a small congregation of families resolute in their Lutheran faith despite persecution from the state and Union church. The arrival of a new girl in town, Thea Eichenwald, sees Hanne form a bond that seems to reach beyond the institutions and faith of their brethren. When the congregation decides to make the difficult voyage to a newly established, religiously tolerant colony in southern Australia, these young women find their horizons are suddenly broadened.

Plate 12: Klemzic by colonial artist George French Angas, a lithograth from an 1847 edition of South Australia Illustrated.
‘I didn’t want to fetishise Australia’s colonial history,’ says Kent. Pictured: Klemzic by colonial artist George French Angas, a lithograth from an 1847 edition of South Australia Illustrated. Photograph: George French Angas/State Library of South Australia

Their journey mirrors that of real-life dissenters who built communities in Hahndorf and the Barossa Valley – now popular South Australian tourist destinations that retain a strong sense of German identity and reverence for their “pioneer” origins. “I still live in this area,” Kent says, as we sit in a cafe near her Adelaide Hills home. “There’s a lot of people with last names that are in the ship logs that I was researching.” But there was a reason she’d felt more comfortable with other, more distant settings until now.

“I think historical fiction sometimes has to walk a very fine line between accurately representing the past and fetishising it – and I didn’t want to fetishise Australia’s colonial history. It’s something I remain deeply uncomfortable about. There’s so much I deplore about it.”

Devotion doesn’t romanticise the impact of Hanne and Thea’s community as they built their new homes and lives on unceded Peramangk country in what is now the Adelaide Hills. As the book unfolds, so does a poignant supernatural undercurrent that allows Kent to reflect upon the tensions and contradictions that underscore any colonial story – and the tragic irony of a community fleeing oppression, only to inflict it upon others in a new country.

Cover image for Devotion by Hannah Kent

These otherworldly flourishes reveal themselves in ways that would be a shame to spell out here but also give Kent space to explore the love, faith and conviction of its characters – while avoiding certain tropes often seen in the growing canon of queer period drama.

“I needed to avoid it becoming a narrative of shame,” she explains. “All my early drafts were much more conventional, but I thought, no, there’s going to be some element of shame or regret or fear, or ignorance – that they’ll have what is essentially a very strong romance without ever really realising that’s what it is. And that was tempting for a little while, but [I realised] there’s another possibility too, let’s break it open.”

The result is a blend of research, imagination and feeling, with lyrical prose that reads like a hymn. “Really I was fascinated by the idea of a love that was to some degree outside of time; something that in many ways mirrored the religious fervour of their people. It was also nice to try and write about love in a way that made it seem modern, not through it being queer, but being something universal – about a level of connection and communion between two people.”

Universality hasn’t been a problem for Kent in the past. Burial Rites is now translated into more than 30 languages, with a long-anticipated, Jennifer Lawrence-led film adaptation still, apparently, on the way. (“I occasionally get emails with new details,” Kent says.) Other screen projects in development include the psychological thriller Run Rabbit Run, on which Kent is screenwriter, and a film version of The Good People. But if Devotion is any indication, Kent still has plenty to give when it comes to the page and the past.

As for that moment in 2017? Kent is now married with two young children, to which she credits both Devotion’s dreamier edges (“I was intensely sleep-deprived while writing it”) and its full heart. “To a large degree the book is a love letter to her, and to the way that we found one another,” she says of her partner, who has grown understandably fond of Hanne and Thea after years of reading Kent’s drafts. “I think she’s going through a bit of grief now, knowing that other people will now be able to read and share them.”

Devotion by Hannah Kent is out now through Picador


Walter Marsh

The GuardianTramp

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