Three main influences account for why I wrote The Divine Wind. First, as a child I was steeped in the Second World War of 1939-1945. Both of my parents served, my father as a soldier fighting the Japanese in Borneo and New Guinea and my mother as a munitions factory worker in Adelaide, making bombs and bullets. Most of my aunts and uncles and my parents’ friends were similarly involved in the war. I grew up hearing stories and seeing evidence (a family friend who had lost a leg when a landmine exploded, for example, and my father’s Army photographs and war souvenirs).
Second, as a child I read many books about remote Australia, and one made an impression on me: Forty Fathoms Deep, by Ion Idriess, about pearl diving in Broome in the 1930s.
Third, early in my writing career I was commissioned by Oxford University Press to write three history textbooks for schools. One of these studied daily life in Australian during the Second World War, which entailed extensive research in the archives and the War Memorial. When I came upon material related to the 1942 bombing of Broome by the Japanese, I was reminded of the pearl-diving book and I began to see in my mind’s eye a young man in love with the daughter of a Japanese pearl diver, and what might happen if suddenly she was seen as the enemy.
First I reread Forty Fathoms Deep and many other books about northern and inland Australia before and during the war, which gave me an understanding of people’s beliefs at the time (we find some of these in statements made by characters like Mr Kilian—his ‘populate or perish’ ideas, for example). I also read about outback aviation, the internment of the Japanese, and letters and diaries of people who experienced the Broome air raids. Meanwhile old photographs helped me ‘see’ Broome and its people back then. For example, as soon as I looked at a photo of a Japanese pearl diver in Forty Fathoms Deep I thought: He could be Mitsy’s father.
Why not Darwin, which also had Japanese pearl divers and was bombed by the Japanese?
Broome appealed to me because it was smaller, more remote, and the first stopover on the way to Perth and Fremantle for the planeloads of Europeans fleeing the Japanese invasion of Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia. Also, Broome has had a dramatic frontier history, involving cyclones, robberies and murders, and was racially diverse, the pearling industry attracting people from all around the world: white Europeans, Japanese families, Aborigines, Indonesians and Malays, and Koepangers and other Pacific islanders.
Remote Australia back then
The people of central and northern Australia were geographically and culturally isolated. They felt ignored and misunderstood by the urban south (they still do today) and resented federal government interference. They feared invasion from ‘the Asian hordes’ to the north and felt Australia would perish if remote areas were not populated and developed. Racism was intrinsic, with the Aborigines seen either as treacherous and lazy, or as childlike and in need of protection.
Themes in The Divine Wind
I never think about themes when I write a book. Often I don’t know what they are until I’ve finished writing, and even then they don’t much matter to me. However, there have been times when, suffering from writer’s block, I’ve tried to identify the main theme as a way of getting back on track.
I think most fiction is driven by this theme: The search for a true home. A true home might be the arms of a loved one; peace of mind; a personal philosophy that makes sense of everything; or simply a place. The main character, Hart, can be understood as searching for a true home.
Friendship and love also matter in the novel– more particularly, friendship and love under strain. The relationship between Hart and Mitsy is strained by three main factors: first, their friendship becomes a sexual relationship, and this introduces new pressures and responsibilities to their interactions; second, Australia declaring war on Japan means that Mitsy is now seen as the enemy; third, race—despite his best intentions, Hart’s view of Mitsy begins to alter.
There are other themes such as intolerance, what happens when young people are forced to grow up quickly, and guilt—for example, neither Hart nor his father feel they’ve done enough for the ones they love.
But what mattered to me when writing The Divine Wind was to tell a non-soppy love story against a backdrop of dramatic events. I’m never interested in beating readers over the head with themes and messages.
I’m the first to admit that he’s not always likeable. He can be fearful, suspicious, jealous, easily swayed, easily hurt.
Yet I believe he’s redeemed at the end. Heroic, in a modest way. Being heroic doesn’t necessarily mean rescuing a baby from a burning building (or kicking a goal)—I’d argue that in atoning for the past, and finding a measure of courage and self-respect, Hart is being brave. He understands himself a little better by the end of the novel and acknowledges his weaknesses. To me, this is a measure of strength (and many people go through life unable to do that).
Step out of your own skin for a moment, and into Hart’s. Try to feel the pressures he’s under – extraordinary pressures compared to yours, probably. First, his crippled leg. He feels self-conscious about it – the way it looks, the way he walks now, his restricted abilities. Mitsy doesn’t mind it, even makes it part of their lovemaking, but at one level deep inside he’s always going to ask himself: Am I ugly? Will anyone want me?
Second, he can’t take an active part in the war effort because of his leg. All around him young men of his age are doing heroic things, joining the armed services, being treated as heroes, but Hart feels useless. This uselessness breeds paranoia, suspicion and a sense of grievance. But, at the same time, he becomes the lover of books that his mother had always wanted him to be, and these help him be a philosophical thinker.
Third, he has troubled relationships with his parents. Both are absent figures, his mother shutting herself off emotionally, then later removing herself to England, where she’s killed by the German bombing of London, and his father shunning domestic life and wanting only to be at sea. In fact, you could argue that the single-mindedness of Hart’s father is the engine that drives the whole book. If he hadn’t been so stubborn and impatient, sending the luggers to sea in a cyclone, then Hart wouldn’t have been hurt and Mitsy wouldn’t have lost her father.
Fourth, Hart is worried about his sister. He thinks she could be dead.
The name ‘Hart’
It’s been suggested that I chose the name to symbolise the human heart, which is the locus of love, hate, pity and compassion, emotions that thread through the novel.
Maybe, but it’s simply a name that I thought the reader would remember (a name like John Smith slides off the page), and it’s a name from the era (my father knew two Hartleys).
Mitsy: hard and unforgiving?
Some high school kids I’ve spoken to hate Mitsy (too hard, a bitch, etc).
If you think that, step outside of your skin and into hers, and consider the pressures she’s under. First, the loss of her father. There will always be a part of her that thinks: Is he still alive on some distant beach? There’s no body, and so no closure for her. Yes, they have a Japanese burial ceremony, but that’s not the same as knowing for sure that he’s dead.
Second, she belongs to a racial minority. She’s made acutely aware of that as news stories of Japanese actions in China and southeast Asia filter through, and when Japan bombs the American port of Pearl Harbour, and finally when all of the Japanese living in Australia are interned as a security risk.
Third, people who were once friendly now treat her as the enemy.
Fourth, she’s not the social equal of her friends, Hart and Alice. Her father is a mere employee of the big boss, Hart’s father.
Fifth, these things are brought home to her powerfully in the scene when she and the others are taking the drunken man home from the cinema, and encounter Hart’s mother in the street. She’s very dismissive of Mitsy, treats her as a nobody, and perhaps a corner of Mitsy asks: Are Hart and Alice like their mother underneath?
So all she has left is her ‘Japaneseness’ – her growing interest in her language, cultural heritage and customs. She was born in Australia, thinks of herself as Australian, until public opinion forces her to think otherwise, to think of herself as Japanese.
He’s genial and ineffectual early in the novel, yet also impatient, with disastrous results, but, ultimately, he stands up for what he thinks is right (the Saltwater Jack court case and the treatment of Mitsy and her mother). Does Hart measure himself against his father, maybe?
She’s a refined Englishwoman who finds herself in hell: a hot, remote, anti-intellectual, masculine world. Rather than adapt, or accept her children’s friendship with Mitsy, she withdraws, hides with a book. No one can understand her. They all spin stories about a secret lover.
I think it’s a perfect title, on several levels. The strict meaning is this: ‘the divine wind’ relates to the Japanese word ‘kamikaze’, which means an act of deliberate self-destruction in pursuit of a cause (does this explain Hart?). Kamikaze pilots saw themselves as being on a divine mission, to fly their planes into enemy warships (in most cases American) in an act of suicide on behalf of Emperor and nation.
Also, winds of change blow through the story, bringing destruction and renewal. A cyclonic wind injures Hart’s leg, affecting his personality. The Japanese air raid came like a damaging wind.
The whole novel is there in the first paragraph, which took me several weeks to get right (I needed to close the gap between the book I was ‘dreaming’ and the graceless sentences on the page). In that opening we have an idea of who, where, when, why, the main issue, and the tone or feeling or ‘personality’ of the book. Overall, the tone is reflective, the deliberations of a young man who has been forced to grow up quickly, who has seen terrible things, witnessed great losses, learnt hard lessons about himself and the people around him, and been forced to be his own guardian. It’s the tone of a young man who has put some terrible things to rest, including a sense that he’d betrayed Mitsy’s love, and should have been stronger and less afraid. And now he’s waiting for Mitsy to come back, waiting to show her that he’ll not let her down again, that he’s found self-respect, courage and self-knowledge. He’s not going to chicken out. It’s not a dramatic or heroic reversal, but quietly hopeful. He says, ‘We may not make it,’ meaning he knows the terrible pressures he faces now, in post-war Australia, but is willing to give it a go.