‘Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific’, is 29 short stories in the genre of creative non-fiction. Tracing Australian connections with Asia and the Pacific through three generations, it is published in 2015 by Glass House Books an imprint of Interactive Publications (IP) ISBN: 9781925231182. Also, in Kindle and as an Audio Book. (Pecha Kucha about the book)
Influencing this collection is an acceptance that interactions with people from our own culture are generally tangible and familiar. By contrast, when beyond our immediate culture meaning and understanding must often be negotiated in intangible, non-rational and unseen ways. Foucault’s notion of the third space has influenced this work. Another influence is the Balinese belief that reality is an interaction of Sekala (The Seen) and Niskala (The Unseen).
Precisely what comprises the unseen realm varies throughout the region. What might be understood as mere micro ecology, in the ‘developed world’, can have spiritual explanations in some Asian and Pacific cultures. In rational secular society people commonly eschew magic as mythology or superstition, yet in parts of Asia and the Pacific what might be seen as myths and misconceptions can possess the power of reality.
The basic and enduring interplay of the seen and the unseen worlds is of great significance to those of us from Australia, the land that’s girt by sea. While we might choose not to see, to look inwards and to rejoice in the notion that our land abounds in nature’s gifts, regional and planetary systems are unfettered by such introspective cultural constructions.
A short biography
‘Born in 1947 Russell Darnley had grandparents who were children when Australia achieved its independence, lived through World War I, and struggled as parents through the Great Depression of the 1930s.
His parents found their first paid employment as World War II broke out. Growing up in Sydney by the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and with a seafaring father, gave him an interest in what lay beyond. His childhood saw the birth of multicultural Australia, which he embraced, and ended with Conscription and the Vietnam War, both of which he resisted. As a young adult he travelled the world and discovered that his interests lay in South East Asia. Working respectively as teacher, administrator, researcher, director of an Indonesia based field study centre, consultant to the Australia Indonesia Institute, educational writer and digital education pioneer, he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his voluntary work after the 2002 Bali Bombings.
Russell’s outlook is eclectic and interdisciplinary, passionately scientific yet profoundly spiritual.’
He has lived in Singapore since January 2014.
What the reviewers say
Associate Professor David Reeve, Visiting Fellow UNSW, School of Humanities and Languages
In launching the book, David had this to say: “This is partly creative fiction though it’s based on his own life and I think of it of keeping to a tradition of writing on Asia. I remember the excitement back in 1978 when Chris Koch published The Year of Living Dangerously then in 1980 Blanche D’Alpuget published Monkeys in the Dark and in 1981 Turtle Beach. Robert Drew in 1981 published A Cry in the Jungle Bar.
When I look at the similarity of those four novels in each of those Australians go forward full of high ideals and anticipation but in fact come home defeated, physically wounded or psychologically wounded or in the case of the hero of A Cry in the Jungle Bar actually dead.
So, I think this is a new and more mature and more realistic mood in Russell Darnley’s book. The Australian doesn’t go out with high hopes to Asia, gets defeated and returns partially destroyed, certainly damaged. In him it’s a much more complex engagement, it has of course it fears, it’s dangers, its sicknesses but it’s much more mature in its approach to the complexities of these enmeshments.”
T. D. Luong, author of The Refugee Wolf
Sometimes distance can help us recast our perceptions of the world. They can be based on unspoken and wrong assumptions about culture and identity. The Australian author, currently based in Singapore, but who is fluent in Indonesian because of having provided extensive cultural tours in his former career, is well positioned to recast such perceptions. He forces us to ask: is Australia’s relationship with Asia working well enough to bridge the cultural divide?
The opening and closing chapters are deftly written book-ends. They are set at Coogee beach and it is the author’s emotional connection to this place and relationship with his grandfather that helps us look outwards to inviting places like Bali, then inwards to ruminate upon the darkness and trauma that fell upon us after the 2002 bombings.
Darnley’s exceptional debut work reframes Australia’s relationship with Asia and Melanesia in a myriad of ways.
There are entertaining stories over 50 years, which traverse Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Vietnam, PNG, just to name the main places. There’s a story set in Bali about adultery and told through the prism of magic; another one reflects upon Baby Boomers and their perception of the Japanese after WW2, and there’s a hilarious one about an activist uni student who dodges the Vietnam War draft.
The book also reframes Australia’s identity. Does Australia lean more towards being progressive or conservative or vacillate between both, and how might this impact on our relationship with Asia?
Through many personal journeys, observations and interesting characters, he illuminates and expands upon the notion, which is at the heart of the book. What we sometimes see in an empirical way is not necessarily what lies underneath. There are intangible structures such us cultural practice, memory, spirituality and power relationships which intersect, weave and give rise to more nuanced complexity than what we can fully rationalise or even articulate at a given point in time.
Seen and Unseen is an insightful, intelligent and very significant book which helps us learn more about the Asian region and ourselves as Australians.
With his hard-won insights and descriptive powers of observation, Russell Darnley is a cultural interpreter of the first rank.
Kim Patra, Author, In the Arms of Angels
It’s a very candid and wonderfully written account of the Bali Bombings. Pretty hard to read actually, emotionally, I guess the ghosts never really go away, do they?
Bill Dalton in Toko Buku, Bali Advertiser, (for Ubud Readers’ & Writers’ Festival) October 2016.
This entertaining and enlightening book of short stories spanning 100 years is a work of naked and unflinching honesty. The subject matter perfectly compliments the spirit of this year’s UWRF whose dictum is Tat Tvam Asi, translated as ‘I am you, you are me.” Darnley’s experiences help us understand the lives of others and recognize our common humanity. As the writer himself puts it, “Seeking meaning across cultures we each absorb a little of the other and enter a new cultural space where I am you and you are me.”
Emeritus Professor Stuart Campbell author of Cairo Mon Amour
‘Seen and unseen’: testimony of a man who kept faith with his vision for Australia in the world.
I bought Russell Darnley’s Seen and Unseen some months ago and tucked it into a corner of my Kindle, dipping into some of the ‘stories’ in the gaps between my backlog of novels-to-read.
With some holiday time on my hands, I decided to start at the beginning – and I couldn’t stop reading. I now saw that the ‘stories’ formed a coherent narrative woven from threads of spirituality, self-discovery, and an expression of one man’s understanding of Australia in the world.
The motif of the seen and the unseen, drawn from the Balinese notion of sekala and niskala, signifying the ubiquity of the spiritual world, is the strongest of these threads: How else to interpret the first and last sections of the book, when Darnley converses with his dead grandfather on the cliffs at Coogee.
But Seen and Unseen isn’t an extended navel gaze. There’s wonderfully powerful and evocative material about intellectual life in seventies Sydney, about student parties in inner city flats, about the study of Bahasa Indonesia in the brief period when the Australian Government was prepared to fund it generously.
In reading Darnley’s book, I realised that he and I had moved in intersecting circles in the seventies and eighties but had (perhaps) never met. As a university languages school head, I rode the crest of the Indonesian studies movement for a few years, but Darnley’s book brought back uncomfortable memories of my having to close an Indonesian program as funding tightened and the popularity of the language waned in the face of Japanese and Chinese. I was also reminded of the hopes for deep engagement with Indonesia during Gareth Evans’ tenure as Foreign Minister, and the dashing of those aspirations under his successor.
For a newish Australian (I arrived in 1977), Darnley’s account of a childhood in Coogee was fascinating; I’ve lived mostly on the north side of the Harbour Bridge, and Coogee is foreign territory for me. Indeed, the biographical thread running through Seen and Unseen is subtly and tenderly handled. While the ‘stories’ follow chronologically, there are gaps, but the reader is given to understand that each story tackles a new stage in the author’s progress through his professional, personal and spiritual life. The middle section of the book is set mostly in south-east Asia, from which I drew two main impressions: One was Darnley’s wonderful work in establishing and running an overseas study centre for Australian students; the other was his extensive knowledge of Indonesia, and especially Bali, based on his years of residence in the region.
But the core of the book – in my view at least – is the section dealing with the author’s voluntary work in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings (for which he was awarded the OAM). The description of those days is the most harrowing and powerful writing I have encountered in a long time. I had the strong impression that Russell Darnley’s life up to that moment in 2002 was a preparation for the awful work that he volunteered to do, including searching body bags for identification evidence. Russell Darnley surely was the right man in the right place.
Ian Burnet author of ‘Where Australia Collides with Asia
Russell Darnley seeks to cover an extensive time span in his book Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific.
I have read it as a memoir written as 29 stories, beginning when he was a boy growing up in Coogee in Sydney, Australia. Here, his stories begin with him exploring the headlands and rock pools around this beachside suburb with his grandfather. They delve into the early years of the 20th century and then on to descriptions of his childhood, family and friends.
He tells stories of his student days at Sydney University and of his first travels through South East Asia in the 1970’s. I can identify with this period as we would have travelled around the same time to Singapore, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
Years later in 1984, Russell is involved in setting up Asian Field Study Centres for Australian students in Bali. It is here that he first becomes aware of the interplay of the ‘Seen and the Unseen’ and begins to realise that it has always formed part of his life. Here, in Bali, he experiences just how the Balinese are immersed in both a physical and a spiritual world, and some practice ‘black magic’ as well.
In Indonesia in 1999 to deliver workshops for [Indonesian] teachers whose students are studying Australia meant he happened to be in Surabaya and Jakarta during the tremendous outburst of joy and energy of the nation’s youth, after 35 years of suppression under Suharto’s military dictatorship. He is present in the middle of the excited masses and vividly describes the political campaigning for the first democratic elections after this long period.
Russell’s description of his response to the 2002 Bali bombing in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy and his volunteer work in aiding the victims and their families at the Sanglah Hospital, must be highlight of his book (if that is the right word). Personally, I had to pause several times to recover my emotions while reading his descriptions of these traumatic events.
Seen and Unseen concludes where it starts with the now elder Russell in conversation with his long-departed grandfather around the headland of Coogee, while trying to understand his life experiences and the significance of the seen and unseen. The strength of Russell Darnley’s writing is his ability to position himself as an observant outsider. Central to his work is the idea that interactions with people from cultures other than our own, in particular those of Asia, allow us to challenge many of our own assumptions. His engaging memoir will be a ‘must read’ by all those who have an interest in Asia and wish to follow his footsteps.