A Conversation between Michael Faber and Thomas Oberender

20 September 2019 at the Collegium Hungaricum Berlin

Ein junger Pastor tritt die Mission seines Lebens an: Er soll die Einwohner eines fernen Planeten zu seinem Glauben bekehren. Während er fortan Seelsorge für seine neuen »Jesusfreunde« betreibt, erfährt er aus den wöchentlichen Emails von seiner Frau von apokalyptischen Erscheinungen wie Naturkatastrophen und Bürgerkrieg auf der Erde. »Lesend bei sich sein und doch nicht von dieser Welt – das ging lang nicht so gut wie mit diesem Roman.« (DIE ZEIT)

During the 2019 internationales literaturfestival berlin, the celebrated Dutch-Australian-British novelist Michel Faber had a public conversation onstage at the Collegium Hungaricum with the German writer and dramatist Thomas Oberender. We are very pleased to feature a transcript of their conversation here, which, besides delving into Faber’s books and the migrations and tragedies of his life, explores one of SAND’s perpetual questions about the role of transnational – and even transplanetary – literature, from aliens to alienation.

(Spoiler alert: They talk a great deal about endings, though not in too much spoilery detail. Plot points are less of a sacred cow in the German literary world.)

Thomas Oberender: Michel, a warm welcome to the international literature festival berlin. It’s a great pleasure to have you here. Ulrich Schreiber, the Festival Director, is with us this evening and I know he is delighted to welcome you and to have the opportunity to discuss your books, each of which is so unique and fascinating. 

Before we begin, I would like to introduce you to the audience. Michel was born in 1960 in Den Haag, Netherlands. At the age of seven, he moved to Australia with his parents and his brother. There, he studied English Language and Literature of the nineteenth century, which I think we see traces of in his later writing. 

Michel Faber: I have to interrupt you there, because you mentioned that I emigrated to Australia with my brother. In fact, my brother was left behind in the Netherlands. This is one of the things that probably lies beneath all my writing: My parents were very fucked up by World War II. They decided to leave the past behind them, and the past included their children from previous marriages. So they left those children behind in the Netherlands and emigrated to Australia just with me.

Was it only your brother who was left behind in the Netherlands?

No, there was also a sister. I only met her for the first time when she was seventeen. I saw her again a few years ago and she is a nice lady, but I didn’t know her. I met my brother again when I was about thirty-four.

How did he manage his life?

He had a troubled youth. He did a lot of those things troubled young people do, but then he straightened out and got a job. He’s become a very fine human being, but still very damaged by the way our mother treated him. She is dead now.

How was it for you to move as a young boy to Australia with your parents and to live there with parts of your family?

I think the theme of alienation and encounter with a foreign culture is present in all my books. And of course, as a Dutch kid arriving in Australia, separated from my brother, I felt those jarring emotions. I would often ask my mother how my brother was doing and what he was up to. She would say, »Oh, it’s so long ago, he will have forgotten you.” And when you are a kid, you don’t question that kind of narrative. It was only when I was in my thirties, that I began thinking this didn’t add up and made contact with him again myself.

But it was strange growing up in Australia. I’m a very Northern Hemisphere creature, so growing up in a hot country was weird for me. When I was 33, I emigrated to Scotland and lived in the far north of Scotland in the Highlands, which is where Under the Skin is set. That was weird also in a different way. Now I live in England which is the fucking weirdest place I’ve ever lived in my life. The English really are very strange and they don’t think they are strange, which is strange in itself. I don’t have settled status, so I don’t know where I will live in the future. I’m Dutch. My passport is Dutch. After Brexit, all us Europeans will automatically be illegal aliens. We have to apply for permission to stay. That basically means me asking Boris Johnson or whoever is in power: Please can I stay in your country? But you know what? I don’t want to, it’s wrong, it’s just wrong. We will see what happens. If they get tough on those Europeans who have not applied, then maybe I will have to leave, and there will be another part of my life in another country. We’ll see.