Artist profile: Arnie Zable

Written by: Fiona Gruber
One of my first encounters with the writer Arnold Zable was in the form of a small suitcase that had belonged to his father. It was part of an exhibition at Melbourne’s Jewish Museum in 2011. Called Mameloshn, the Yiddish word for mother tongue, the exhibition told the story of a once vigorous culture and language that had survived despite terrible adversity.
The case was a battered object, more than 75 years old, incongruously spot-lit and displayed with the lid up to reveal its contents, a small library of books in the language of millions of European Jews before the Holocaust.
When Zable’s father, the poet Meier Zable fled to the Antipodes, this was what he packed, this was what he deemed most precious from a world he would never see again.
In many ways, Zable the son has honoured that impulse throughout his long career. His childhood amongst migrants in post-war Carlton has led to a lifetime chronicling their stories and those of others, dispossessed or exiled, in more than a dozen books and short story collections. He’s also been an educator, working with communities in Australia and overseas, helping them articulate their journeys, however traumatic. Zable has always been attracted to the grass roots of writing, he explains,
“From an early age I saw that this was my means of expression; getting it out to work it out.”
He adds that in a long career (he’s now 74) he’s received many accolades, but there has been a shift in the way he’s perceived.
“When Jewels and Ashes [his award-winning memoir published in 1991] came out, it was nominated for ethnic literary awards but nowadays, my work is more likely to be entered into the mainstream”, he says.
We’re talking about the Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature which was awarded to Zable in April 2021. It’s a great honour, he says and very affirming. It also reflects the fact, he adds, that Australia is more comprehensively coming to terms with its cultural identity.
“We’re now more ready to accept ourselves as a nation of immigrants and Indigenous peoples; there’s a renaissance in Indigenous literature and new voices,” he points out and telling these stories bridges cultures.
“Storytelling is the art of the specific and you must remain true to the details so that they can be heard and seen. But if they ring true, they hold up a mirror that shows the universality of the story”, he observes.
Whilst his best-known novel, Café Scheherazade chronicles the lives of a group of Jewish émigrés who meet in a fabled Acland Street, St Kilda cake shop, Zable is drawn to tales from a diverse geography.
His latest quartet of tales, The Watermill, is garnered from experiences working and living in China and Cambodia, in Poland and among Indigenous communities in Australia.
Many of his characters have had harrowing lives but he says he never wants them to be seen as ciphers for suffering.
“I don’t see people as victims; they always have some kind of agency,” he argues. And it is this human impulse to keep going, he continues, that lies at the heart of so many tales told by the dispossessed and exiled.
“They have what [the Italian Jewish writer] Primo Levi calls ‘feral vitality’”, he says; “they didn’t survive for nothing”.