Today we welcome Bem Le Hunte, to discuss what inspired her to write her new novel Elephants with Headlights. Then, read on for our 4.5 Star review of this enthralling novel.
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THE WORD: Bem Le Hunte on the inspiration for her new novel, Elephants with Headlights
It took several years to write Elephants with Headlights, but one of the biggest waves of inspiration came when I was on sabbatical in Auroville – a utopian community in South India. Named in honour of India’s revolutionary philosopher and seer, Sri Aurobindo, this community’s aim is to experiment with an evolving consciousness that explores the concept of lived human unity, and it hosts people from around 50 different countries and many different religions living together to engage in the experiment.
One of the themes in my book is triggered by a character who claims to have everything, but has no idea what ‘everything’ means until a 200-year old guru gives him ‘all the worries of the world.’ The seed of this inspiration comes from one of the great lessons from India’s spiritual heritage that could be used a little more in these times – the idea of a unified self. (One of the beautiful phrases that articulate Vedic thought is ‘aham Brahmasmi’ – I am everything, the universal spirit as well as individual self.) The idea is that we are not separated from the whole, and therefore should care about the world and people outside of ourselves.
Through a thirty-year meditation practice (and the exploration of a literary genre I’ve described as ‘spiritual realism,’) I’ve tried to explore this foundational issue – our sense of separation. We’re the only species on Earth that sees itself as separate from nature, for example, and just look at the problems this has caused. Half of our brain is wired to make us feel unified with all living and non-living beings, and the other half is structured to make sense of our personal narratives. Getting these two halves of the brain into alignment through fiction (although ambitious) may be one of the aims of this story.
A love story between Australian and India
As this story attempts to bridge all kinds of gaps, Elephants with Headlights is also a love story between Australia and India, and I have to admit that it tells many personal narratives in disguise, through intimate details. From a photo on a wall with the famous Indian cricketer (Dhoni), to a psychic vision of birth (based on the birth of my third son) right through to the moment when one of my characters ‘grunts’ to agree to an arranged marriage – all of these details are real family stories. (Indeed, even the 200-year-old guru is a *real* character as he often visited the nearby Delhi farmhouse described in the book (which is also real, and belonged to my mother until recently).
This book started when I ran the Year of the Novel course at the NSW Writers’ Centre. My students may recognise my response to some of the many creative exercises I set for them, as I was writing with them, not separately. We were in the soup of inspiration together.
I’m also inspired by my students in the degree I lead – the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation. The future-thinking we do is mirrored in one of the foundational questions of this book – what shall we take into this great future with us? And so it starts with a character, Siddharth, who is investing in the introduction of driverless cars to India. Imagine driverless cars alongside elephants in the streets of New Delhi (with the recent innovation that elephants now have to wear headlights at night!) And so, the ancient and modern traversing into an unknown future together, became a compelling theme that inspired me, thanks to my work in innovation and education.
Elephants with Headlights Synopsis
In the tradition of Bem Le Hunte’s acclaimed novels, The Seduction of Silence and There, Where the Pepper Grows, this is a spiritual and emotional journey like no other – a richly realised and hugely entertaining story that straddles cultures, continents and generations.
An encounter with Elephants with Headlights is a collision between east and west, modernity and tradition – between driverless cars and ancient lore – and a world that needs revolutionary reappraisal. In this world, Savitri, named after a Goddess, refuses outright to marry anyone. Her brother, Neel is intent on marrying an Australian girl called Mae, much to the displeasure of their mother, Tota, and father, Siddarth. But do they have the power to command love or destiny? Only the family astrologer, Arunji, knows, yet his truth is tempered by obligations to the family that transformed his life.
Characters we come to love and care for teeter on the brink of a radically altered future, leaving questions in their wake. What is the generative legacy of tradition? Can spiritual values survive amidst personal challenges, the tragedy of a death foretold, and the momentous changes of our times? A warm and engaging novel touched with love, wisdom and soulfulness, Elephants with Headlights is a breathtaking story for the threshold era we all navigate.
‘Bem Le Hunte is quite simply, a wonderful novelist.’ GERALDINE BROOKS
‘Dances through countries, cultures and ideas with wit and verve.’ SUE WOOLFE
(Transit Lounge Publishing, March 2020)
Genre: Literature, Drama
I quickly found myself engrossed in Elephants with Headlights, enthralled by Bem Le Hunte’s inventive prose and thoroughly modern, darkly playful narrative.
Maybe one day when the future called he would no longer be able to answer because he no longer inhabited it, but for now he was part of the invincible sub-continent that was answering the call.
But driverless cars? In India?
What kind of algorithm or sensor would account for the cow that decided to give birth in front of the Toyota three cars ahead in the traffic jam on the MG Road? … Why, they’d only fairly recently passed a law that these elephants would have to wear headlights at night — would they equip the prehistoric beasts with sensors next?
This novel is a metaphorical treasure hunt for lovers of wordplay.
Oh, that incident! It had been replayed on the ancient cassette of family mythology for as long as she could remember. Arunji had told her father that he had to avoid the golf course and he’d blindly ignored the prophecy. The fact that he’d been knocked out cold by a golf ball hitting him between the eyes was all the evidence required to confirm Arunji’s sibylline divinatory powers.
Note, Arunji, the family astrologer began life simply as the son of the man that washed this wealthy family’s clothes. Savitri’s grandmother offered him the opportunity to go to school and he went on to become a professor of mathematics. A fine example of the many ways this novel revels in and indeed celebrates the infinite possibilities that exist at the crossroads where old meets new.
Elephants with Headlights oozes an appealing open-mindedness but also a comforting, sage-like knowing; an acute shrewdness far above any single doctrine or belief system. While I am not the most spiritual person, Le Hunte’s exploration of the importance of self-love and the redemptive power of truly listening (and equally, being heard) really struck a chord.
An immeasurably wise, thought-provoking and ultimately uplifting read.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5
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About the Author, Bem Le Hunte
Bem Le Hunte is the author of four novels. The Seduction of Silence and There, Where the Pepper Grows have become number one bestsellers and been published internationally to critical acclaim. She is also an Associate Professor at the University of Technology Sydney, where she’s the founding Director of the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation, a transdisciplinary, future-facing degree that teaches creativity across 25 different disciplines. She has a BA and MA in Social Anthropology from Cambridge University and a Creative Doctorate from the University of Sydney. Writing has always been her elemental passion, and the gift of this calling has allowed her to flourish in many ways and worlds – well beyond the written word. More at www.bemlehunte.com
More intriguing literary fiction:
Hotel Silence by Audur Ava Olafsdottir / Atlantic Black by A S Patric / Restless Souls by Dan Sheehan / A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza / Less by Andrew Sean Greer