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Nicholas Jose

Transcript: Jennifer Mills’s launch speech for The Idealist by Nicholas Jose

Jennifer Mills launches The Idealist in Adelaide.

The Idealist by Nicholas Jose (September 2023) was launched in Sydney at The Cross Art Projects by Julia Leigh, and in Adelaide at The Wheatsheaf by Jennifer Mills. Read a transcript of Mills’s speech below.

I can’t remember when I first came across Nick Jose’s work as a reader, but it would have been before I knew I was a writer. I might have picked up a copy of Paper Nautilus from a second-hand bookshop, or maybe it was on my mother’s overflowing shelves. That book made quite an impression on me, presenting a version of this country I hadn’t encountered elsewhere.

I turned to his work when I went to Beijing on an Asialink residency in 2010. I looked to his words to help me make sense of that country and to unpick some of the intricacies of Australia’s relationship with China.

He is a serious writer with an internationalist outlook that is not extractive – a rare thing – but eternally curious. There are writers who close the door behind them, and writers who open doors for others as they go. Nick Jose is firmly in the latter category, very generous with other writers, I know he has done a great deal for his students in particular.

His work often has a sense of mystery that shows his generosity also extends to readers. He’s not rushing to solve the world for us, or explain it, but opening our eyes to its wonders and complexities. He has a real gift for character, a sensitivity to emotional nuance, and importantly a moral spine. He also has a really intelligent approach to narrative structure that I particularly love.

The Idealist is no different. It’s a novel about East Timor and a particular period of history, the independence struggle at the turn of this century. But it’s also a novel about complicity, the impossibility of doing right within a geopolitical context characterised by greed, dehumanisation and self-interest. It takes the shape of memory in action, moving gently through associations, with multiple points of view. There is anger here, and doubt, and horror, but there is also a moral core, a sense of the novel as doing useful work in the world.

The war in Gaza has been front and centre for the past few weeks, overlapping the failure of the Voice referendum. When you write for a living it can sometimes feel like art is inadequate to the task of politics, to the task of life on Earth. We need action – diplomacy and international co-ordination and a ceasefire. We need treaties, truth, and an education about whose country this is. But we also need voices of care and compassion, thinkers who are able to set these difficulties out before us and invite us to ask ourselves, what would I do? Whose side am I on, when would I take a stand?

So this book is incredibly timely, and incredibly useful. And it’s beautifully written, of course. That goes without saying. I am so pleased to be launching it tonight. Please raise your glasses to The Idealist, and to Nicholas Jose.

— Jennifer Mills, 25 October 2023

Nicholas Jose signs his new book at The Wheatsheaf.
The Idealist at the NSW launch.

Nicholas Jose: a note on The Idealist

Acclaimed novelist Nicholas Jose reflects on The Idealist, his first novel in almost two decades. Set during the independence movement in East Timor at the turn of the century, it continues the themes of his previous novels in exploring Australia’s place in the world in times of conflict, and the changes wrought in the lives of individuals who are impacted by them. The Idealist was released in September 2023.

This one has been a slow burn. I still have the vinyl record of the Fretilin song we sang along to in Canberra backyards in the late 70s. In 1998-99 I was obsessive about following the events leading up to East Timor’s independence referendum, trying to decode what was being said and done. Then I happened to be in Washington DC for Shock and Awe, the attack on Saddam Hussein. We were told to get anti-radiation tablets just in case. We found one of the last available packs in a neighbourhood pharmacy in Georgetown. In the end it wasn’t needed but I keep it as a souvenir. I saw at close hand then the difficulty for Australia in supporting a powerful ally when our interests diverge. It got me thinking. There were more questions than answers about East Timor and the story just kept growing. 

A lot has been written about East Timor and Australia’s role in what happened – evidence of a guilty conscience. But very little fiction. Timothy Mo’s The Redundancy of Courage fictionalises the events of 1975 when Indonesia invaded. His wonderful narrator Adolph Ng gives us one of the great quotes: ‘There’s no such thing as a hero – only ordinary people asked extraordinary things in terrible circumstances – and delivering.’ Luís Cardoso’s The Crossing is another fine book. As Jill Jolliffe says in her foreword: ‘There are many crossings…’. Not everyone is an idealist, but some are. It’s a story I couldn’t let go. 

I’m interested in what happens when the world challenges our deepest attachments, as is the case with Jake and Anne in The Idealist. Another novel that inspired me was Giorgio Bassani’s The Heron in which the protagonist drives through his watery region of Italy trying to piece things together. I transpose that driving to places that are familiar to me, in the Adelaide Hills and on the peninsula further west. Where do those winding roads begin and end? Simple enough, but complicated by curves of time and space. 

Timor-Leste celebrated its twentieth anniversary as an independent nation in 2022. A new generation is writing their story now, with the future as a destination for hopes and dreams. It can be a happier ending. Let’s help with that. 

Giramondo eBooks available now

Selected Giramondo titles are now available as eBooks, and can be purchased through (in alphabetical order):

AmazonBooki.shFishpond, iBooks, KoboEbooks.comEbrary, Netlibrary, Read How You WantOverdriveReadCloud

The digital editions offered are:

Brian Castro’s Street to Street

Alike Melike Ülgezer’s The Memory of Salt

Jess Huon’s The Dark Wet

Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch and A History of Books

Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile

Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing

Sara Knox’s The Orphan Gunner

Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria

Mireille Juchau’s Burning In

Brian Castro’s The Garden Book

Nick Jose’s Original Face and

John Hughes’ The Idea of Home

We are developing our digital publishing program. If there are any titles you would like to read on your device, please email Alice, alicegATgiramondopublishingDOTcom.