October 2014

The world is her oyster

Kiri English-Hawke has packed a lot into 20 years of life. The talented former Stella Maris College student has already published her first novel; she speaks four languages and is an international class rower.

BY Stephanie Thomas

Kiri English-Hawke was a 13-year-old student at St Scholastica’s College, Glebe, when the seeds of her first novel began to germinate. In those very early stages of the creative process, Kiri found it helpful to explore her chosen topic – World War II and the Holocaust – by writing poetry.

Two years later, and now in Year 9 at Stella Maris College, Manly (another Good Samaritan school), Kiri seriously got to work writing her novel while participating in the school’s gifted and talented program. A year later and only 16, she published her debut novel, The Handkerchief Map.

It’s a remarkable achievement, especially when one considers Kiri’s youth and the subject matter she embraced. The Handkerchief Map has received glowing reviews and was nominated for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Young Writers. A number of schools, particularly in Melbourne, have also included it in their reading lists.

Last month, Kiri, now 20, returned to Australia from Italy, where she’s currently studying, to promote the second edition of her novel, a revised version that she says is “stronger” and “more polished”.

Set in World War II, The Handkerchief Map focuses on the lives of three young people directly involved in the conflict. Through a series of letters to their loved ones, the three characters – Franz, Helga and Susanna – share their innermost thoughts about their war experiences.

Franz, a young Nazi soldier has begun to question the rightness of the Nazi cause; Helga, a Russian girl is determined to join the resistance; while Susanna, a Jewess who has been separated from her husband and children, is condemned to the horrors of a concentration camp.

For Kiri, a major aim of the novel was to reveal the less explored perspectives and experiences of the Holocaust.

The Handkerchief Map is not focussed so much on mainstream history, so you’re not looking at Auschwitz and… things that you know about, and things that you just open a history book and you find,” she explains.

“It’s historical fiction, but it’s also just kind of trying to inspire people to look into other aspects of that history and to understand other things that you just don’t find.”

In particular, she wanted to look at “aspects of human nature”, “how people can change”, “the progression of decisions and things like that”.

Interestingly, Kiri had no personal connection with the Holocaust, or any direct contact with World War II survivors, but she’d “always had a real fascination” with this period in history.

“I was World War II obsessed for about five years,” she laughs.

Kiri first heard about the Holocaust through a book she’d read as a six- or seven-year-old. Let the Celebrations Begin! by Margaret Wild tells the story of a child in a concentration camp at the closing stages of the war. Along with the women there, this child collects scraps of fabric to make toys to give to other children in the camp at a party they’ve planned when they are liberated.

“The concentration camp was alluded to, but it was more about the positive experience of people coming together in adversity,” says Kiri.

“When I was a kid I [thought], ‘that’s the best story ever’… I think that introduction [to the Holocaust] when I was a kid really helped me to be interested in the topic. I wasn’t scared of the Holocaust, whereas when we started studying it at school, people wouldn’t want to read about it; I even wouldn’t want to read about it, because you don’t want to admit to that side of human nature.”

Kiri says that “inherited guilt” about horrific events in history like the Holocaust can prevent people from exploring such subject matter.

“I think it’s important that people aren’t thinking about it as guilt, but rather as something that happened and that’s really unfortunate, but let’s learn from it rather than shying away from our own history,” she says.

Another book that had a significant impact on Kiri was Markus Zusak’s award-winning novel The Book Thief.

“I read that in one sitting,” says Kiri. “I started it at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and finished at 5 o’clock in the morning. I loved that book, absolutely. And it was a real inspiration.”

Kiri read The Book Thief about the same time she was in the early stages of her own novel.

“I really wanted to do something like [Markus Zusak],” she reflects. “His book was so hopeful.”

As part of her research for The Handkerchief Map, Kiri visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, an experience she describes as “confronting”. She says watching a video interview with Anne Frank’s father – “the only survivor of the family” – was “absolutely heart-breaking”.

“That [experience] really inspired my need to have hope in the book rather than to have that sadness, all the tragedy. I really wanted to have hope. So that was something I saw that really changed the way that I wrote the book.”

Kiri is grateful to the people who encouraged and supported her as she worked on The Handkerchief Map; she also pays tribute to the people who have been significant influences throughout her life.

“My parents, obviously, have been such massive influences on my life,” she says. As an only child she is very aware of the opportunities she had. “I was really lucky… I got a lot of opportunities, I think, that families with five kids just don’t have.”

She adds: “My parents have always been really supportive of me seeing the whole world, knowing different things and [having] different experiences of different people. So it’s been a very wide kind of growing up, I guess.”

Kiri also looks back on her time at Stella Maris College with appreciation. “It’s such a nourishing school,” she says. “High school was really enjoyable for me, especially in the last three years at Stella.”

She identifies two teachers who stand out: “a great religion teacher” and “a fabulous English teacher”.

Of her English teacher, Kiri elaborates: “She was really excellent and really challenging. She terrified me but at the same time really pushed you to think for yourself”.

Kiri’s peers thought similarly: “Everyone wanted to be in that class and everyone wanted to be terrified and challenged by this person who was so intellectual. You got to see a side of yourself that maybe you didn’t know about. I think that was a really valuable lesson”.

These days Kiri lives in Turin, northern Italy, where she’s completing a Bachelor’s Degree in Language Mediation. Apart from English, she speaks Italian and is learning Russian and German. Before arriving in Italy two years ago, the only language she’d studied apart from English was two years of junior high school French!

“It’s been a bit intense, but interesting as well,” she says.

Kiri also happens to be an international class rower. She rowed throughout her school years and it’s something she enjoys to do competitively but also personally.

“For me, being on the water on my own in my single, I feel very at peace and at ease and I work through a lot of my problems, so it’s kind of meditative.”

So is Kiri planning to write any more novels?

“I’m attempting at the moment to finish something that I started – a book – but it’s a narrative form so I think it’s going to be a lot slower [process] than [The Handkerchief Map].”

She adds: “I’m always writing poetry, so maybe something to do with poetry might come out before a novel. I just don’t know.”

The Handkerchief Map is available in book stores and online at Amazon. It’s also available as an e-book. Find out more here.

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