In extreme circumstances, you can see how people behave and how brave they have to be when they are oppressed,” says Anna Funder as she sits by the pool at The Park in central Delhi. The award-winning Australian author was visiting the Capital after her session at the Tata Literature Live! 2015, in Mumbai. She, however, doesn’t sound too far removed from the moment when referring to her long engagement with the history, politics and people of Germany through her books. The 49-year-old is the author of critically-acclaimed titles Stasiland (Granta, 2003) and All That I Am (Penguin, 2011), both of which explore the lives of courageous individuals who face and respond to the autocratic regime of the communist East Germany and the Nazi state in pre-war Germany, respectively.
At Tata Literature Live!, Funder had echoed her sentiments in the Indian context. “I talked about the state, as you see in India now. The government wants to control the narrative of what it means to be an Indian, German or Australian. That question contains sanctions for those who do not fall under that definition,” says Funder. The writer, who also dwelt on the current crisis of refugees and her country’s silence on this, on a podium she shared with author Omair Ahmed, Union minister Salman Khurshid and journalist Siddharth Varadarajan.
Born and raised mainly in Australia, Funder has also lived and studied in France. At Freie Universität in Berlin, she spent time with authors and artists who were expelled from East Germany. “These people, who were older than me, had ex-wives and children living on the other side of the wall. I grew up during the Cold War, when the Russians and the Americans were competing in the arms race. The Berlin wall was the frontline between the communist world and the capitalist world. That wall went right through the lives of my friends. When the wall came down, I was interested to see what kind of place kicks out their best and the brightest artists and writers,” says Funder. The experience eventually inspired her to write Stasiland.
Funder’s transnational approach to writing and language, however, is secondary to her love for history and stories of courage and resistance. “Honestly, if I had studied Russian, I would have written about Russia,” she says, “Really, it is about how humans respond to authoritarian power, how human conscience asserts itself against autocracy. Those issues are universal. India is facing them now.”
Among many of her contributions to human rights and international law (she is a member of Pen International, Australian Privacy Foundation and Folio Prize Academy, among others), Funder is also the ambassador of Norwegian-based International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). ICORN gives refuge to artists and writers from across the world who are threatened in their own country and has hosted over 130 persecuted writers and artists. She is also the winner of awards such as Samuel Johnson Prize, Australian Book Industry Award (ABIA) Book of the Year and Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship.
Funder’s current projects involve an untitled political novel based in ’70s Australia and All That I Am is being adapted into an Australian-British co-produced film.