Interview with Mark Mordue Derek Alger One on One

portrait Interview with Mark Mordue

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 62 ~ July, 2002

Writer and journalist Mark Mordue is the author of Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip, published last year by Allen & Unwin, Australia. Dastgah is a collection of stories, poems and impressions written during a one-year odyssey that took him through India, Iran, Turkey, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Mordue’s work has been published by Interview, Madison, Speak, Salon , and The Nation the United States., and Purple in France. In Australia, his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, HQ, Vogue, The Australian, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, GQ, the Bulletin, and HEAT.

Born and raised in the east coast Australian steel town of Newcastle, Mordue spent much of his teenage years in Aboriginal and mining country in Arnhem Land. Inspired by the new wave of music and rock ‘n’ roll journalism of the late 70s, he moved to Sydney and began a writing career that diversified across the cultural spectrum of music, film, literature and the arts.

He was a founding editor of Australian Style (1992-1997) and is also the winner of a 1992 Human Rights Media Award. He has also co-directed and written a documentary, A Night with Louis Tillett, with his partner, the writer and filmmaker Lisa Nicol.

Mordue was an Asialink 2001 writer-in-residence at Beijing University, and is currently developing a novel set in Beijing which he describes as “an offbeat thriller with a political edge.”

Derek Alger: A good beginning. I suppose, is to ask how you came up with the title Dastgah for your book, and what it means?

Mark Mordue: Well that’s like presenting you with the key to the book — I can’t help but want to open the door as well and show off the whole house, so to speak. So you might have to excuse a rambling explanation here!

DA: I’m sure it will be coherent rambling. Please, continue.

MM: I should first of all explain that Dastgah is a collection of stories involving a journey across the world that I took with my girlfriend Lisa –through India, Nepal, Turkey and Iran, as well as London, Paris, Edinburgh and New York.

It’s a travel book and it’s also a love story too — and like any road story, it’s about questions of identity and self as much as the information I bring back from other countries. So it’s deeply personal at times. Nonetheless it was very important to me that I not spend the whole journey vomiting my ego all over these other worlds. I think there has to be a balance between the personal and a more external set of observations, and I hope I found that balance.

DA: I would describe you as a very versatile writer, which comes across in Dastgah.

MM: Well, let’s just say I try. I also think travel demands a variety of responses. And I wanted to mirror that variety of experiences through the prism of different tones. So the book incorporates all kinds of writing styles: including New Journalism, poetry, memoir, impressionistic glimpses, even a dream. Each piece from each moment or place has its own individual integrity — with the deeper notion that they all eventually move together in a larger story. Something like a mosaic or a puzzle that makes final sense when the last piece drops in. If that puzzle was made up of lots of smaller, coherent pictures.

But how does one title a book of so varied nature in a way that represents all its features? To me, that was a crucial question. The funny thing was the word ‘dastgah’ was always in my mind as a title. It’s basically a type of Iranian classical music. When I was in Iran I fell in love with this music, especially with a singer called Shajarian whom I mention a few times in the book.

DA: What was special about the music?

MM: Local musicians have compared the music to an underground bazaar because a ‘dastgah’ is made up of a collection of pieces, or melodic fragments, an open combination of what can loosely be translated as ‘streets’ or ‘corners’. Once you’ve learnt the entire suite of these pieces — something that can take years — you then have the ability to move through this ‘place’ or dastgah at your own discretion, improvising your journey by weaving together these fragments to make your way.

It’s like a jazz, I guess. That felt like a great metaphor for my book and how I was putting it together. I had all these pieces, but I didn’t just want a collection, I wanted something larger and more complete to emanate through the stories and their relationship to each other, a kind of submerged narrative. I also knew I didn’t want to write a book that evolved in an A, B, C kind of way. As I wrote more and more pieces and began to assemble them together, I realized the structure could be more musical, more poetic and jump-cut in style, and that this could still work, still have a direction and an overall pulse.

Obviously, I’m not pretending my book matches the complexity of a real ‘dastgah’, but I felt there was some kinship there. And nothing else I could think of for a title grasped what I was attempting so it felt structurally appropriate.

DA: You clearly thought about this a lot. I get the feeling ‘dastgah’ meant a lot more to you.

MM: Oh yeah, of course. Because on another level, the music has a definite darkness to it, and an ecstatic, devotional quality that is very sensual in feeling while also being marked by sadness and longing. I read one ethnomusicologist describing a ‘dastgah’ as “an avalanche of gracious tones” and again that appealed to me in terms of my own literary ambitions. Singers in a ‘dastgah’ aren’t so interested in a narrative development as the episodic and spiraling aspirations towards an intensity that leads them finally to an ecstatic moment, a dissolution, a oneness with God/Allah. That ecstasy depends on the previous moments and those after for its intensity. There’s that desire to climb higher and higher and set off all these wonderful echoes. Similarly, I really wanted my stories to cascade together, to hit certain notes that set all the themes off like some alarm in the subconscious.

And, lastly, and very simply, it was always a word I liked the sound of — for its sheer exotic quality, as well as the way it vaguely echoed the word ‘dust.’ Both those elements had an appeal to me for what’s essentially a travel book.

DA: Sounds like you picked the right title.

MM: After all that, you’d hope so, wouldn’t you? Every way I looked at it, Dastgah just had to be the title. All I had to do was convince my publishers that such a strange and foreign word could work and grab people’s attention in a book shop, which it most certainly did. I think people recognized the Islamic flavor to it as well, and that was an added curiosity point post September 11, though the book was completed before then.

DA: What compelled you to take a one year journey through so many different countries, and countries with such diverse cultures, especially since you had never left Australia before?

MM: I never felt compelled. It was as much as whim as anything. And though I had never really traveled overseas before, I’d done a lot of road journeys within Australia, which is a very big place. I think I had gotten to know my country first — something I am really proud of, as a lot of Australians tend to hug the urban east coastline and not explore the hugeness ‘out there’ in their own country. That said, I do think Australians are great global travelers because we are so far away from everything. It costs a lot of money and takes a bit of effort to actually get moving from our part of the world, so once we go, we really go! I also think there’s a spiritual hardiness to Australians that helps them get further along on the road than most. A good, easygoing sense of humor never hurts.

DA: Which came first the idea for the journey or to write a book?

MM: The idea for the journey, though the journey changed and bent us to its shape once we were rolling. You can never control everything and half the fun, not to mention the struggle, is remembering to adapt to the unexpected. Traveling on a low budget may be hard sometimes, but I think it keeps you a little closer to the ground, and you inevitably get a more intimate, realistic view of a place. I had vague ideas before I left that it would be wonderful if I wrote a book, but that was as specific as it got.

DA: So, let the events unfold and write about them later.

MM: I’m not a great one for predetermining anything creatively — maybe that’s a reaction to the restrictions of formal journalism and a desire to enforce an ‘angle’ on a story that might actually deny the real story evolving before your eyes. The media’s constant tendency to commodify the human and mysterious into an explainable sound-byte is endlessly depressing. Of course all those organic open, intuitional responses I’m championing leave you with quite a struggle for form — especially in establishing the greater shape of a book, let alone a story of a few thousand words. Maybe that’s why Dastgah, which is my first book, is still just a loosely woven collection. I was learning about that greater sense of form without falsifying the materials my narrative was indebted to.

DA: Some have called Dastgah:Diary of a Headtrip an exercise in New Journalism. First, what is New Journalism? And second, do you agree with that assessment of your book?

DA: New Journalism was born out of the sixties and defined by figures like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Joan Dideon, Hunter S. Thompson and my personal favorite, Truman Capote. It was subjective, cinematic, psychological — a very literary and dramatic approach to conventional reportage. You could almost say it blew journalism apart. At the same time it was still very dependent on all the disciplines of accuracy and research and observation that journalism has always depended on.

Obviously that tradition has been a life-long influence on me. And it’s certainly a force in the book. But I can’t say the whole book is drawn from New Journalism exactly. There’s also poetry, lists, a dream . . . maybe what New Journalism has done for me has encouraged me to be brave with the truth and how I represent the world. To not be afraid of non-fiction work that dares to break out of conventions.

DA: The German film director Wim Wenders described Dastgah as a cross between Jack Kerouac and Bruce Chatwin, the British novelist and travel writer. Good company, but what do you think?

MM: I think I like Wim Wenders a lot. (Laughs). He is being very generous. Deep down I don’t think I have the same level of hungry poetry you see in On the Road. I also think I lack Chatwin’s refined and precise English intellect. But in my favor I’d like to believe there is a romantic, Kerouacian quality throughout Dastgah that is idealistic rather than cynical, as so much travel writing can be today. At the same time, I’m also focused on observing, reporting, documenting, a discipline that Chatwin always managed to maintain in the way he informed a reader no matter how personal his writing from other cultures became.

Maybe I’m a little more hot blooded and sentimental than Chatwin, a little more detached and journalistic than Kerouac. If that’s so, it would be nice to think I could squeeze myself a place in between them. I think Wim Wenders cites those names as lights I can move towards. I’m not there by any means, but it’s nice of him to point me that way and I appreciate it a lot.

DA: It’s rather harrowing in Dastgah when you describe the guy in the restaurant in Iran looking at you and making a slicing motion with his thumb across his throat. I think that might have ended my journey and I’d be looking for the next plane home.

MM: Oh, but you might not have a choice like that. Which means you just have to cope. That situation had an element of unreality about it that was half troubling, half comical in a sinister way. In the end it proved to be far less dangerous than it appeared. There’s so much ambiguity in other cultures for a traveler, it’s easy to get paranoid about what’s going on. Though a dash of paranoia is never a bad thing for one’s alertness on the road.

In the end we never did anything more dangerous than backpack our way around, leave some things to chance, and climb aboard a bus or three. The most incredible things to me were how much you can trust people, how kind and generous the world is. I must say I’m wary of putting myself up as some kind of wild adventurer just because I went to Iran or had a bad experience in India. I’m sure lots of travelers have had wilder experiences than that. I’m no Joe Simpson (Into the Void) that’s for sure, I’m just curious, maybe even a little gullible. My girlfriend is a lot braver than me.

DA: How did you hook up with Lisa? She’s obviously an important part of your creative process, even just by being in your life. Besides, I would think that it’s a lot nicer not to have to travel alone.

MM: We were working together on an arts festival in Australia and fell in love. Technically she was my boss and I tried to avoid the situation with the old logic it’s not a good idea to get caught up with someone at work, which took all of one party to forget about. When we got together we started talking about an overseas trip. I would never have gotten it together to travel without Lisa helping me. She really pulled me along, pushing me off on the journey. Once we got going we shared a tremendous amount. It’s certainly a lot richer to travel with someone, especially someone you love. To feel them beside you sometimes, well that is your world. Though it’s not always easy or simply romantic by any means — travel can make or break a relationship. Luckily for us, it made it. Without Lisa, I would not have done any of it.

DA: How did you get started? You’ve been published in numerous magazines and obviously have written on a wide variety of subjects.

MM: I edited a student magazine at university, which was a great experience, along with getting my B.A. (Bachelor of Arts, majors in English and Sociology). I think university helped open my mind up in lots of ways and I’d always encourage people to enjoy that part of it. I’m also eternally grateful to my love of music and great music magazines and the rock ‘n’ roll writers who really inspired some wild freedom in my self-expression.

I think the underground press allows for that creativity in a way the mainstream never will ,and I’d always encourage people to seek out forums that set their voices free rather than just see writing as a career arc from the unknown into the established. It seems to me that print media has become much more conservative, more formulaic across the board in the last decade. A creative writer starting now would find it very tough, very discouraging. I dread to think what the editors are doing to fine, adventurous young writers. Maybe the net opens up that freedom again, I’m not sure. I hope so.

DA: What advise would you have for a young writer, aside from to keep writing?

MM: From my point of view I’d encourage anyone interested in writing to pursue a broad focus and not get trapped into one area of criticism. I’ve seen excellent writers get stunted by specialization and seduced by where it leads them, exercising their new found power and status, as, say the film critic for a mainstream broad sheet paper, but finding themselves at a creative dead end, no longer the writer they thought they were. I’m not knocking it if it’s what you want to be — if you love it, specialize, do it. But for me, I just think our culture, human nature generally, is so exciting, so broad a subject, it’s better to maintain a versatile front. And that versatility will reward you and affect the fabric of your language. So yeah, write for rock mags, do book reviews, send essays and poems off to literary journals, interview Britney Spears and travel to Afghanistan, send a prose piece off to an art magazine. It’s a big wide world. You don’t have to stay in a box for anyone.

DA: You have said that you are a great believer in the collective unconscious. Could you elaborate?

MM: Jung’s idea of the ‘collective unconscious’, from my reading of it — and I’m no expert believe me — suggests we are all swimming through a world of signs that influences us en masse. Put simply, two, and likely a lot more than just two, people can have pretty much the same intuition or thought at the same time anywhere in the world. This can translate into a moment in art or writing or music, into what later seems like a premonition, then a movement.

For instance, one of the stranger things about Dastgah is the way the stories turned out to have an almost premonitory energy. The opening piece in Calcutta that suggests a world out of kilter. And distant rumblings of war between Pakistan and India. And my final story in the American section ends with New York completely disappearing. The book was complete well before September 11, so I can’t even begin to tell you where those kinds of signals and thoughts come from.

DA: What is Asialink and how did you get involved in receiving a residency at the University of Beijing?

MM: Asialink is an Australian arts organization associated with the Australian government. Its role is to encourage cultural interchange with Asia through the arts. They post Australian writers, painters, sculptors, poets, journalists, curators, a broad spectrum of people involved with communications and the arts in various countries across Asia. And they bring people from Asia here to Australia too. So it’s a swap. Hopefully it increases our understanding of this part of the world, and it builds lifelong relationships and friendships. I think it’s a great project and I’m really proud to have taken part in it.

DA: You’re working on a novel based on your experience in China. What’s the gist of it?

MM: It’s in the very, very early days to comment on it yet. But basically it’s a political thriller set in Beijing, with an Australian foreign correspondent as a central character. I really love Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Iain Banks’ Complicity. It’d be nice to get that level of narrative intensity happening, with something spookier — maybe that existential, almost mystical edge Russell Banks barely brushes on to in The Sweet Hereafter. We will see I guess. China is a big place. It’s not easy to put your arms around it.