Saroo and Sue Brierley: Taking Pride In New Lion Works
by Bonnie Mary Liston
When Saroo Brierley was only five years old, he got lost on a train in India and separated from his family. From the streets of Calcutta he was adopted by a Tasmanian family. He grew up happy and loved but never forgot the family he had left behind. Eventually through the power of Google Earth and his own remarkable visual memory he was able to find his hometown, reunite with his birth mother and sisters, unify his two families.
Saroo’s incredible story has been recounted in his bestselling autobiography, A Long Way Home, and its film adaptation Lion. It’s now being retold from two new perspectives. Saroo has released a picture book, Little Lion: A Long Way Home, in collaboration with iconic Australian illustrator Bruce Whatley, of Diary of a Wombat fame. Not to be outdone by her son. Sue Brierley has written a companion memoir, LIONESS, sharing her own traumatic childhood as the daughter of a violent alcoholic whose business gambles left her family destitute.
What was your process for adapting your memoir to a picture book? For children, it can be quite wholesome, reading about something they’ve never encountered before. The difficult part was resolving what can we put in, because there was so much data. I was extremely involved in it. I thought if I was a child reading this, what would pop up to me? We thought, oh, let’s use the main landmarks through the narrative. Initially you talk about the house that I’m born in, my sisters and then the train, then coming to Calcutta train station. Having a big landmark like that can really show, once illustrated, the disparity of a child to this massive gargantuan structure behind me. It wasn’t hard because it’s been in my brain for such a long time and I’ve got a photographic memory.
When you read your Mum’s memoir, did you learn anything new about her? Yes and no. It filled in things I was curious about. Things about my mother’s father, my grandfather, and their trials and tribulations, their journey from Europe to Australia and the relationship between her sister and herself. Through reading the book, I’ve understood that my mother was the way she was because of her past. She wanted to bring my brother and I up better than her parents did and have a different angle to parenting. She certainly took on a tough challenge to raise us, but I don’t think that was challenging for her. The thing was for her, that this child needed a home and love and that’s what it was at the end of the day.
Did you have any advice for her as a successful memoirist yourself? Not really. I had no doubts, my mother doesn’t need help writing this book, she can do it herself. She’s such a poetically spoken woman, full of effervescence and vitality. She helped me with my memoir, but I didn’t really help her much. I always have so much confidence in my mum and I know when she needs to be uplifted. One of the things was, hey mum, the world is asking for the other part of Lion, because it’s a story of not just me, but you as well. I’ve had some fame, I wouldn’t say I’m famous, but hey, I’m going to give her the stage now!
You travel a lot but always come back to Tasmania. Why?
At the end of the day, home is where the heart is, so that’s where I needed to come back to re-energise myself. It’s the habitat I’ve known for over 32 years. My parents are there, my friends. I’ve got my boat there and my boat is where I find peace when I go out. I’m quite close to my mum, I need her guidance sometimes and support as well.
What are you doing right now? I live between Hobart and Madrid. The whole world is my playground and that’s how it’s been for the last seven years really. Obviously this year’s been just totally a disaster for people that are doing keynote speaking. I mean, COVID is what it is. I think life is a rollercoaster, has some downs and ups, and this is just the down that we have to go through before we go back to normality.
Little Lion by Saroo Brierley and Bruce Whatley is available in bookstores now.
Had you written like this before? No. I’d had a little dabble with poetry and in my diaries but that’s not writing a book. That was a totally different experience, and a very different process. I took some advice from a good friend who said, “What are you worried about? You already know the story.” That put me back into the right headspace, I thought, “I know this, I can write it.” And it just poured out of me, from my heart and memories.
In this book, you reveal very personal stories, was that scary? I was in charge of what I wrote down. I could’ve decided to write down half the story. I thought, ‘I’ve made the commitment to do this. I’ve got to do it properly.’ I didn’t particularly enjoy the idea. Through the process, I kept on thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? What will this gain? What will be the outcome?’ In my life, this is the only time I’ve done something that created this vulnerability for me. And I guess only time will tell whether I come to terms with that.
Why did you decide to write this book? The book was Saroo’s idea. Right from the beginning, he asked me if I were to consider doing this. And because the request came from him, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll give it a go.’ There’s no way I would have done it otherwise. He’s got so used to notoriety, whereas my taste of notoriety was around the edges of his. For me, one of the things I hope will come across in the book is freeing up of ideas about becoming a parent. If you choose adoption, that is an acceptable means of becoming a parent. As far as a cross-racial adoption, I think it particularly targets children in need, which is a very important thing for me. But obviously, that is going to be difficult. Most people, they couldn’t even consider it. As a species, we are so conditioned into reproduction by normal terms. I don’t use “normal” in a derogatory sense, but it isn’t perfect for everyone. I think we need to talk about all of those issues a whole lot more, I really do, just for the future of humanity, and our species on the planet. John and I discussed it a lot, between ourselves, that it needed to be a much more open situation, viewed with good things and bad.
You’ve lived in Tasmania your whole life. What do you love about it? And dislike? I like our isolation, in geographic terms. I like that, until this year, we could explore the world easily if we wished. I like the purity of the place. I’m very mindful of our benefits, living in a place like this. I dislike that we often seem to think we’ve got to become like somewhere else. I don’t like that we’re obsessed with money making. That sort of small thinking. The other thing that I don’t like is that we’re not treating our island with respect in a lot of areas.
If this book was adapted into a film, like Lion, who would you like to play the younger you? I’d really prefer it to be a Tasmanian woman. I’d like someone with the spirit of Greta Thunberg. I don’t think that I fit very easily into any current young actresses at present. They’d have to be a little bit alternate, not mainstream Hollywood-styled actresses. I don’t think that really suits me. Nicole Kidman (who played Sue in Lion) was perfect, because she’s a very raw and natural person in real life. And that’s what I love most about her. So I think it’s going to be a newbie for me, if it happens. And personally, I’m really not keen on the idea!
Lioness by Sue Brierley is also available in bookstores now.