Not long after I finished uni, I moved to the Netherlands to live with my boyfriend, who I’d met while on student exchange. This was in the years immediately after 9/11 and the Dutch, who had long considered themselves tolerant and welcoming of foreigners, were becoming increasingly wary of immigrants and the way their presence was reshaping the country. My status, for the first six years I lived and worked there, was tenuous to the point that one weeknight, arriving home from my job as a university research fellow, I received a deportation notice.
At my first job in the Netherlands, I worked in a research school alongside a professor who, it later turned out, was consistently making up his data. I found this out a decade later, watching the news on a tiny television in a hotel room in Alice Springs. It was such a strange rewriting of my career history that for a while I struggled to make all the pieces fit.
A number of years after that, at an interfaith barbecue in Santa Barbara, I heard the story of how local mosque plans had been delayed by some (as I was told it) spurious scientific data, posted anonymously online, about the flight trajectory of a certain species of bird. I couldn’t help wondering about the person or people who had posted the data, and then quietly, months later, taken it down again. And so, one of the early antecedents of this novel is my interest in academic integrity, bad science and questionable research ethics.
My time in Santa Barbara was under the auspices of a US State Department program in which representatives from seventeen countries came together to study and discuss religious pluralism. This book is dedicated to the women and men who attended in my year and to the coordinators at UCSB. Working with this incredible group of people and encountering all those who were part of the multifaceted program across the United States – in many different capacities – showed me something I hadn’t entirely appreciated up to that point, namely the profound ways in which religion (and indeed atheism and agnosticism) has shaped and continues to shape our world.
A year after that I began a PhD in which I planned to write about religion, science and the environment; the things we put our faith in and those we hold sacred. I wanted to explore the question: in an essentially secular society, where does religion fit? I wanted a protagonist committed to secularism to be forced to confront some of these questions. So I began writing, in small fragments, and from the points of view of many of the characters who are still central to the book and a couple whose roles are now much more minor.
At the centre of this story is a mosque, or rather a planned mosque. For a while this was a nebulous, detail-less aspect of the novel. I wanted a modern design but one that honoured the principles of Islamic architecture. I wanted it to be a design that addressed the same question my book tackles but from another angle: what is the place of a religious building in a modern city?
I did an online image search and fell in love with a mosque design that had been entered into a competition to design the city mosque in Pristina, Kosovo. It was not the winning design but it captured my sense of what I needed for the book, and it was incredibly beautiful. A little further digging revealed, to my surprise and delight, that the architect was Merve Bedir, a Turkish woman based in the Netherlands – where the book was set at the time and where, within a few months I was due to be on a research trip to investigate the local bird life.
It was one of those moments that are sent to bring novelists hope that they might be on the right track: ‘my’ architect was a Dutch woman of Turkish descent, Salema. Merve Bedir, together with her North American partner, headed up an architecture and urban design firm based in Rotterdam, where she was kind enough to meet with me for a coffee.
Our discussion was perhaps the most exciting moment in the research for this book. Merve’s understanding of how to shape community spaces by involving the people who would actually use them was deeply inspiring. Her sense of herself as a facilitator of interactions made me think, She really gets it. Her understanding of architecture, and the world she was designing for seemed deeply relevant to my book; she was grappling, in a very different medium, with similar questions to the ones I was trying to examine in my novel. Salema was already a fully formed character when I met Merve – and they are not especially similar. But I have since given Salema some of Merve’s passion for the importance of architecture as a way to create human communities through shaping space, and through community engagement in the process. At the time I met her, Merve travelled regularly between Ankara and Rotterdam She is now based in Hong Kong. I am deeply grateful for her generosity in speaking with me and sharing her vision. During the final draft I also took inspiration from Angelo Candalepas’ stunning Punchbowl mosque.
One of the longest standing challenges of this book has been its location: spatial, sociological and cultural. When I began writing it was set in California but for most of its development it was set in the Netherlands. Its timeline roughly spanned the time between the assassinations of politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004. I had been a newcomer in the Netherlands during this period. When you’re a foreigner – especially in a place where you don’t yet speak the language, the things you learn about your surroundings are both sharpened by unfamiliarity and filtered in many ways: by your own background and interests, by what people think is important to tell you, by incidental things like the artifacts you happen to study in language classes, the music those around you play, the particular interests of one’s officemates, partner, in-laws, taxi drivers, classmates and people you meet in bars.
The extent that this book has been influenced by the above is considerable even though, this novel has – since its acquisition by Affirm Press – been relocated to Australia. Australia was not my home during the time period of the book, and by the time I returned ‘home’ in 2010 I was a dual citizen and as such it will never again be my only home.
Relocating the novel was a challenge not just because of the shifts in seasons, local news events, history and birdlife, but also because I felt in myself a partial blindness to the country in which I was born, raised and largely educated. I thought often, during this relocation process, of Christina Stead relocating her autobiographical novel The Man Who Loved Children to an East Coast US setting and reassured myself that her book still resonated with many people – in Australia, in the USA and around the world.
Since I started writing, the mosque outside Santa Barbara has been built, after a decade’s delay (a similar length wait to that of the Muslim community in Bendigo). Merve and her collaborators’ mosque design is as yet unrealised. My former colleague’s case remains one of the largest research integrity issues in the history of scholarly publishing.
Anyway, here it is – my attempt to grapple with a question that I might now formulate like this: what is truly sacred and how can we protect and foster it, even when it’s inconvenient; uncomfortable; expensive; counter-cultural; expressed in unfamiliar symbols or languages; or has ocean views? The question is as relevant in Australia as in Europe, and now as fifteen years ago. In my view, if we could answer it, we’d have come a long way towards addressing the most pressing issues of our time.