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Varga, Susan

VARGA, Susan

Nationality: Australian (originally Hungarian: immigrated to Australia, 1948). Born: Hungary, 1943. Education: Sydney University, M.A.; University of New South Wales, law degree. Family: Married (divorced). Career: Lawyer and journalist; also worked in film and video. Since 1990 full-time writer. Lives in New South Wales. Award: Fellowship of Australian Writers Christina Stead award for biography, 1994, for Heddy and Me.Agent: c/o Sceptre Hodder Headline Australia, Level 22, 201 Kent St., Sydney, New South Wales 2000, Australia.

Publications

Memoir

Heddy and Me. 1994.

Novel

Happy Families. 1999.

Other

Broometime, with Anne Coombs. 2001.

* * *

Susan Varga is one of the most accomplished of Australia's second-generation, post-Holocaust autobiographers. She is a survivor's daughter and a child survivor, and her writing is deeply shaped by the Holocaust, but she also addresses issues of gender, sexual orientation, race, and Australian cultural identity. Varga was born in Hungary in 1943. Her father died in a labor camp during the war. She spent much of the war in hiding with her mother, Heddy, and her sister. After the war her mother married a survivor who had lost his wife and two sons at Auschwitz. The family emigrated to Australia in 1948.

Like many first-person narratives by postwar eastern European Australian Jews, Varga's autobiography, Heddy and Me (1994), gives a compelling account of the migrant experience, especially of the way migrant children learned to move "between our two worlds," the European and the Australian. Heddy and Me won the 1994 Fellowship of Australian Writers Christina Stead Award for biography/autobiography and was short-listed for three other major awards. It has been translated into German and Hungarian. The book is also one of several Hungarian-Australian Jewish autobiographies (others include Andrew Riemer's Inside/Outside and The Habsburg Café and Paul Kraus's A New Australian, A New Australia ) that record a return journey, undertaken when the author is an adult, to the scenes of ancestral catastrophe. After the family had settled in Australia, Varga's stepfather and his brother established a clothing business in Sydney. Other successful business ventures followed, and with them came increasing material security. Varga earned an M.A. in English from Sydney University and later a law degree from the University of New South Wales. After pursuing various careers, including work in film, video, and the law, she settled into full-time writing in 1990. Married and divorced, she has lived in the southern highlands of New South Wales with fellow writer Anne Coombs since 1991.

Varga's first novel, Happy Families (1999), gives a broad sociological overview of contemporary Australian life and the often contrasting elements that comprise it: city and country, "old" Europe and "new" Australia, black and white Australians, male and female values. Coauthored with Coombs, Broometime (2001) is the sometimes controversial record of a nine-month period the couple spent in Broome, a large town on the northern coast of Western Australia. Varga has also written poetry. She has been active in movements to promote reconciliation with indigenous Australians and to create more enlightened policies for the treatment of refugees to Australia.

Varga's writing about the Holocaust is distinctively relational in its orientation. Heddy and Me combines an account of the Holocaust and its aftermath with a history of the daughter's relationship with her mother. The two narrative strands are intimately entwined. The Holocaust has powerfully shaped the often difficult relationship between the two, but researching the Holocaust has helped Varga better to understand Heddy and to arrive at a less fraught relationship with her. The book's last lines are "I chat often with Heddy on the phone. We rarely talk about anything important, but it is comfortable chat. We like each other. We have things in common, Heddy and I." The shift from the "me" of the title to the concluding "I" signals a new existential security and a new sanguinity in the outlook of this hitherto troubled post-Holocaust Jew.

—Richard Freadman

See the essay on Heddy and Me.

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