Anna Krien is no stranger to writing about politicised issues. Her back catalogue as a longform journalist includes forays into sexual assault in the AFL (2013’s acclaimed Night Games), and an investigation into the standoffs between environmental activists and forestry businesses in Tasmania (Into the Woods, 2012).
So it’s fitting that her debut novel would dive headfirst into contentious territory: Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war, the legacy of the stolen generations and, through the characters she inhabits, the literary world’s evolving conversation around cultural appropriation.
Act of Grace is told through three strands of narrative, which intersect over the course of the novel. Toohey is a returned Australian soldier, disgraced after killing an Iraqi child in friendly fire; Robbie is a young Indigenous Australian woman, grappling with her identity through art; and Nasim is an Iraqi refugee to Australia, who became personally embroiled in – and then fled from – the atrocities of Saddam Hussein’s reign.
The idea of writing about the Iraq war, Krien said, was one she had “become quite obsessed with”.
“Many of our modern political problems could well stem from the misinformation that saw Australia and allies go into Iraq,” she says. “I find [that misinformation] a really important, potentially unacknowledged chapter of our national history.”
To tackle these ideas through fiction rather than journalism was a move born of necessity: after having two children in a small space of time, Krien didn’t feel she could drop everything to immerse herself in another far-ranging investigation.
“I did think, ‘This is my moment to work on my fiction,’” she tells Guardian Australia. “Which was quite nive, because babies don’t sleep. They don’t actually do anything that you want them to do! But I did manage to chip away at it.”
Act of Grace is a complex book covering an enormous amount of ground but, from Krien’s account, it just sort of happened, unfolding in front of her without a great deal of planning. “I did research the bejesus out of a couple of different topics in order to inform some of the characters. But then when I started typing, the journalism just kind of disappeared, and I found that I could make these great leaps that you can only make in fiction.”
It’s an interesting admission, at a time when the literary community has cultural appropriation front of mind: should fiction make the kind of great leaps it takes for a white Australian to write from the perspective of Indigenous and refugee characters?
In her now infamous 2016 speech at the Brisbane writers’ festival, the US novelist Lionel Shriver wore a sombrero on stage as she defended the right of novelists from any background to write diverse characters and narratives. Shriver was criticised for making light of cultural stereotyping and appropriation, which can damage and exploit marginalised groups in very real ways; for disregarding the real systemic inequalities that these practices reinforced; and for doing so from a position of white privilege – privilege which has contributed to her success within an industry that creates little space for others to tell their own stories.
While Shriver’s views seem to have remained unchanged in the years since, the wider conversation has grown more nuanced. In an essay for the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith argued that the issue was too complex for easy answers, writing that without novelists projecting into other lives, fiction would die. “Has fiction, over the centuries, been the creator of compassion or a vehicle for containment?” she asked. “I think we can make both cases.”
Krien’s novel will inevitably be read in this light: two of her characters are from minority communities whose voices are often marginalised. When I ask if she has faced any criticism for that, Krien laughs. She was expecting this line of inquiry.
“I have had those questions, and I’m sure they will only increase. I think it’s interesting, because what Lionel Shriver was trying to say was that the great intrinsic point of fiction is to go places where you can’t go in non-fiction.
“Whereas in my novel I was actually showing how characters were trying on sombreros, so to speak, and realising that there was only so far you could go. One of [character] Robbie’s early art projects is to wear an abeyah, a veil, and to cover herself up, because she wanted to see what it felt like. And she did get a small sense of what it felt like from the reactions of people around her. But she also acknowledged that you can only understand [that] to a certain extent. And when she realised that, she took it off.
“I think these conversations are really important,” she continues, “and I think there is a need for deep respect and a need for listening. But I also think it doesn’t mean that these things shouldn’t be written about; I just think they need to be written about well.”
Krien’s characters are complex, and feel three-dimensional. Nasim, for instance, is more than a caricature of the humble, grateful refugee; in fact, she is capable of truly horrific acts.
“I think when you create diverse characters that you can only be sympathetic towards, it’s just a continued arrogance really,” Krien says. “[The idea that] only white people can be racist, or only white people can be bad, or only white people can be nuanced. Well, that’s just a continued [effect] of colonialism.”
None of Krien’s characters are above criticism but they are all vulnerable, open to change and a product of their circumstances. It’s what makes the book so compelling. Krien’s key argument in favour of fiction’s ability to drive change is the insight it can bring to the complexity of human nature.
“I don’t believe in good and evil. I think we can all do bad things. It’s how we’ve chosen to live with those consequences – that’s what determines our character.”
• Act of Grace by Anna Krien is out now through Black Inc.