Scrolling through his Facebook feed back in 2015, John Safran came across a picture of a “skinhead” with a swastika tattoo and a “cool-as-fuck black dude” in a standoff. The photo was taken at the first Reclaim Australia rally, and caused enough intrigue in Safran to attend the next one held in July, 2015.
Similar images to the one Safran saw on social media manifested at the event, but what was particularly surprising was the amount of non-white Australians in attendance supporting the Reclaim Australia movement. In response, he tweeted a photo with the caption: “Don’t mean to awkward everybody out but heaps of non-white people rallying in support of Reclaim Australia”.
An article for news.com.au was written by him in response, and after some kind words from friends and the general public, it helped shape the introduction to his newest book ‘Depends What You Mean by Extremist’.
“I wrote this article and it got really great feedback and then my friend said, ‘Oh John, you should always write like that because it’s funny and that’s what you should do’,” John mimics.
“And she was basically subtly slamming my first book [Murder in Mississippi]: ‘John it’s fine to go poking around and investigating things but it’s better if you were to be funny about things because a lot of people wish they could do that. So why don’t you just be funny’. And I thought that was a pretty good argument.
“I went to Penguin and they liked it and I really liked it because it was really Aussie. Usually with most of my stuff there’s a lump to convince people. Like, ‘This is when I grew up at Yeshiva College but I swear it speaks to bigger things and not just me’ and this was bang in the middle of white Australia and flags and not my usual novel gazing Jewish stuff,” he says.
From the day that article was published, the next 18 months for Safran were spent following rallies, drinking with the “enemies” and speaking with many of the personalities who attended the first rally – including Pastor Daniel Nalliah, a Sri Lankan immigrant supporting Reclaim Australia.
Raised as a Jew with grandparents who escaped the Nazis, Safran was taken to having tequila shots with members of the United Patriots Front and the Nationalist Alternative in his quest to discover extremist Australia. It’s an unconventional setting, but Safran confesses he’s always felt drawn to racism.
“The fact that there’s real meaningful bigotry in the world, I think the kind of interest and fascination came from that: the darkness that’s floating in the background. I guess that’s a big reason why I was fascinated with the dark world of racists,” he says.
Early on in writing the book Safran became a target due to his Jewish heritage and public profile with Nazi jokes thrown at the satirical writer at rallies. As Safran says, “this is the game I’m in”. Rather than letting the insults slide, he challenges them at the right moments, putting himself front and centre in the discussion of race and religion.
“It’s almost about making it really personal for the reader, and me making it personal in this environment is to talk about Jewish things. It’s coming from that perspective. A reader is more likely to engage in the book more because that’s what my existing audience want,” he says.
Having worked on various television projects including John Safran vs God, Music Jamboree, Race Relations and the Goddam Election! Safran is relishing the experience in writing rather than filming.
“It’s more the opposite, where for all sorts of reasons I’m really enjoying this way of researching and this way of writing,” he says. “Partly just because of my skill set. I’m not a technical camera person or anything like that, and if I was to leverage my skill set being on my own I know how to weasel into situations. It’s less of an ask when you rock up with just your Dictaphone saying, ‘Oh, you know, I’m doing a book can I talk to you?’ I can just get into cracks and little spaces rather than if I was bringing a film crew.
“I like new ways of being thrown into these worlds and having to solve new problems, so throwing yourself into a book means I have to think about things in a different way and I find that exciting – it keeps my brain alive,” he says.
This August Safran returns to one of the key scenes in his book, where the two sides of Australia’s extremism collided in Bendigo. He joins the likes of Clementine Ford, John Marsden, Maxine Beneba Clarke and more at the Bendigo Writers Festival. And he assures us, there won’t be a repeat of last time he was there.
Photo by Penguin Random House
Published in Forte Magazine and online.