My latest novel The Sultan’s Daughter’ slipped into the world with little fanfare because of the Covid restrictions across Australia. But there is hope on the horizon, and at 5pm, Friday 20th November 2020 we were allowed have a launch – an actual, real-life, people in a room together, live launch!

‘The Sultan’s Daughter’ (Obiter Publishing) was launched alongside Dorothy Simmon’s new historical novel ‘Of Breath and Blood’ (Australian Scholarly Publishing). The wonderful Cathy McGowan, former Independent Member of Parliament for the electorate of Indi, launched the books. An all-round celebration with Cathy McGowan’s memoir, ‘Cathy Goes to Canberra’ (Monash University Publishing) also recently released.

Numbers were still limited because of on-going Covid restrictions but the energy in the Albury Library was strong. Below is the speech I made – because I want to share the gratitude. And some photos too!

Launch Speech – Albury LibraryMuseum – 20 November 2020

In this horrible year, which remains horrid for so many, I am glad we have been able to come together to celebrate the two new novels, The Sultan’s Daughter’ and ‘Of Breath and Blood,’ and moreover to celebrate local writing and independent publishing, and just being allowed out and about. It is great to see so many friends and so many friendly faces.

We wouldn’t be here except for the wonderful Dorothy Simmons. Not only was this evening Dotti’s brainchild, she has been the mover and shaker getting us all here for this launch. I thank her for generously inviting me to hitch a ride on her magnificent wake.

I’m going to thank everyone first because I really am brimming with gratitude for so much. Like – what a lovely place to have the launch. The Albury LibraryMuseum is an inspiring space. Thank you to Carina Clement for allowing us to be here, and to Michelle and Ann-maree and all the staff, and not only for looking after the details that make an evening like this a success, but for their ongoing and substantial support for writers in the region. The Write Around the Murray Festival (WAM) is a beacon of light every year.

Also here this evening we have Dymocks, doing what they do best. Thank you Heather and Andrew for being so supportive and agreeing to sell our books tonight.

I was blown away when I heard Cathy McGowan had agreed to launch the two novels, Dotti’s and mine. She has been an inspiration to me and to so many for so long. I’m still pinching myself that she is here. And I think I also have to thank the voters of Indi who knew a good thing when they saw it. I can’t wait to read her memoir, ‘Cathy Goes to Canberra.’

There are others to thank, including the University of Technology Sydney who made me a doctor on the strength of ‘The Sultan’s Daughter,’ the writers group in Albury who have been getting together for too many years to count in an informal and yet inspirational way. With lashings of coffee. And a big thank you to Obiter Publishing and my lovely sister Karen who made the book look so beautiful. I’ve been very lucky.

My whole family deserves my utmost gratitude. My parents who uprooted me and took me round the world again and again, yet made everywhere we lived feel like home. My family are always there when I need them, and they leave me alone when I’m writing!

I have dedicated ‘The Sultan’s Daughter’ to my mother in particular:

For my mother who visited Zanzibar when I was a child and brought me back some silver ‘princess’ bangles sparking my imagination.

And I still have them. My princess bangles with bells on! From Zanzibar!

Novels take years to write so a writer has to chose their subject well. Though often I feel the subject actually chooses you. I was doing research on something else entirely and the real life Sultan of Zanzibar’s daughter, Salmé, who became the protagonist in my novel, was simply a footnote to that research. 

But Zanzibar. The word is so exotic and alluring. It resonated, tapping into a pre-existing reservoir of memories and emotions. Zanzibar, to use a cliché, rang bells. Like the bells on my Zanzibar bangles.

We went to live in Dar es Salaam around my seventh birthday. It was then the capital of the east African country Tanzania. Dar es Salaam did not exist until 1866, the year the Sultan’s Daughter, Salmé fled from Zanzibar, scandalizing everyone by eloping with a foreigner. The town I lived in was founded by her brother, Majid, by then Sultan. On a clear day Zanzibar was visible on the horizon. 

A hundred years before, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Zanzibar stood at the crossroads between East and West. Merchants from across the world filled the harbour to trade. African gold and ivory, ebony and rhino-horn, leopard skins, mostly slaves. The Sultan of Zanzibar – Salmé’s father – was the greatest slave trader in the world. The President of the United States sent him a luxuriously appointed ship, the Emperor of China had a china dinner set especially made for him, and Queen Victoria presented him with a state coach, which you will think is hilarious when we get to the bit about how narrow the streets of Stone Town are. He had three wives and unnumbered concubines spread across palaces and harems.

Despite all this, Zanzibar was just the place my mother went without me.

My grandmother visited from Queensland and off she and mum went. Zanzibar was thus a woman’s place in the residue of my memories. Salmé’s life amongst women in the harem was not totally unimaginable. When they got back, I jangled around our Dar flat in my princess bangles from Zanzibar imagining I was a princess. 

I was primed to write this story!

Salmé distinguished herself from all the other women in the Sultan’s harems by running off with her merchant to Germany, as I said, in 1866. A censor is in my head, because someone out there will know there was no Germany until 1871. Heinrich Ruete was strictly speaking from Hamburg, a member of the Hanseatic League.

See – this is how hard writing historical fiction is. So much history, so few pages! How much – strictly speaking – needs to go in so the story can move at a pace?

After stumbling across her in a footnote, I immediately got hold of Salmé’s memoir, published in Germany in 1888 to great success. She was extraordinary even before her elopement. Girls were forbidden from learning how to write, but Salmé taught herself, practising, she tells us, on a camel bone.

Had her memoir been comprehensive, I would have enjoyed it and moved on. But there was a massive, massive gap – you could drive a Mac truck through it. Out of the hundreds of pages, a handful were devoted to the dramatic events around leaving Zanzibar, mere paragraphs between meeting Heinrich and fleeing the country.

How on earth did they even meet? She lived in seclusion in a harem. She did not meet strange men, even in the presence of her brothers she had to wear a mask.

This is all a bit 2020. Lots of wearing of masks. All the flirtation must have been in the eyes! And the clue to them meeting is also echoed in 2020. The roads of Stone Town, Zanzibar are very narrow – about 1.5 metres in places, what we call a social distance. Neighbours up on their flat roofs could reach across and touch. The irony of course is that our 1.5 meters is to keep us apart. Their 1.5 meters brought them together.

This all sounds very romantic with a capital R. Life is never so simple. The tragedy of the events still gets me.

What would you give up for love? Salmé gave up her family, country, religion, even her name – christened as Emily and married to become Emily Ruete. She did it for love, but we never know if ours is going to be the happy-ever-after type.

I have discovered since the novel was published in September, that Salmé / Emily Ruete’s descendants live on. I suspected so, but I was contacted by a social anthropologist working at a museum in Freiburg, Germany who is researching the ethnographic collection of a certain Antoine Brandeis. Who is the daughter of the Sultan’s daughter, and who I was researching when I read about her mother – long story. This social anthropologist has made contact with the daughter’s daughter’s daughter’s daughters! Alive and well and living in America!

I shudder a bit at the thought of the descendants ever reading my novel. Because despite this history lesson I’ve been giving you, this is fiction. For all my research, I cannot claim access to a time machine. Within the boundaries of the known, I took liberties. I wrote a story not a history.

And I began my story with Salmé’s birth. She may have been the daughter of the greatest slave trader of the day, but she was also the daughter of a slave. To set the scene: The official wife and the concubines gathered. One looks at the baby Salmé and speaks… And so the novel begins:

‘She’s not very pretty is she.’

Thank you!

Feature Image: Renoir, in 1875, painted a lovely looking celebration. The painting is titled Luncheon of the Boating Party. We were almost as carefree and relaxed at the book launch.

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