Felicity Volk is Australia’s Ambassador to Nepal, but many may not know that she is also a novelist.
Long before joining the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Volk had grown up with writer parents who sparked an interest in writing from his early years.
“They were the voices of my childhood ear that brought my own words to life and introduced me to the infinite possibility of imagination,” Volk recalls.
When she was seven, her parents spent a year traveling around Europe in a Bedford motorhome with the family. They made stops at galleries, and in one Volk remembers seeing the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
The girl was struck by how a canvas could hold so many stories, and everywhere within a Bruegel frame was an unfolding world, interconnected, but also complete in itself, a kind of visual novel.
“The stories I want to tell have a similar ambition,” adds Volk, who went on to study English Literature at the University of Queensland while continuing to write short stories and poetry.
Then she left for Canberra to start her diplomatic career and before long she was absorbed in the demands of her new job which left little time for anything else.
It was only after assignments in Bangladesh and Laos, and the birth of his daughters, that Volk rediscovered writing. A screenplay leads to short stories, to short stories, to two novels, Flash (2013) and lines of desire (2020).
“Juggling between my two professional lives is difficult, but the compulsion to write is elementary,” Volk explains. “I write, as the American writer Joan Didion so eloquently described, “to know what I think, what I watch, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear”.
Extensive travels as a diplomat have allowed the author of Volk to explore what it’s like to be a stranger in someone else’s country and even a stranger in your own life.
Grief, identity, alienation, and connection are common themes in Volk’s novels, as is the question of whether we are responsible for our circumstances or whether fate is predetermined. She often brings her personal experience into her work, of loss, betrayal and pain, of compassion, towards self and others.
As an ambassador, Volk is so busy that the best she can do to keep her writing muscle exercised is the occasional poem. This week, for example, she was in Lumbini to watch a cricket match honoring legendary Australian bowler Shane Warne.
Volk was appointed ambassador to Nepal during the pandemic, which largely shaped her tenure.
“Covid-19 was a very interrupted experience to settle into my role as an ambassador and get to know Nepal,” she says. “The opportunities that are now available, to travel to remote parts of the country, to connect, to find out what unmasked people are like, to explore Kathmandu, are even more valuable as a result.”
Australia itself has reopened its borders. Nepal has started sending students down again and is expected to soon reach the pre-pandemic peak of 50,000 a year. Nepalese students represent 8% of the total international students in Australian universities. More than 200,000 Nepalese are settled in Australia.
It has been 62 years since the two countries established diplomatic relations and during that time Australia has supported Nepal through some of its greatest successes, including its community forestry program credited with doubling the country’s forest cover in only two decades.
In recent times, Australian aid and support has mainly been directed towards sub-national governance, gender equality including women’s political participation, climate resilience and Covid recovery.