Australia’s writing diplomat


Felicity Volk is Australia’s ambassador to Nepal, but many may not know that she is also a novelist.

Long before joining Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Volk had grown up with writer parents who sparked an interest for writing from her early years.

“They were the voices in my childhood ear that called my own words into being and initiated me into the infinite possibility of imagination,” recalls Volk.

When she was seven, her parents spent a year travelling through Europe in a Bedford campervan with the family. They made stops at galleries, and in one Volk remembers seeing the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

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The young girl was struck by the way one canvas could carry so many stories, and everywhere in a Bruegel frame was an unfolding world, interconnected, but also complete in itself, a visual novel of sorts.

“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.

Next, she set off to Canberra to begin her diplomatic career and before long, she was consumed with the demands of her new job that left little time for anything else.

It was only after postings in Bangladesh and Laos, and the birth of her daughters that Volk rediscovered writing. A screenplay led to short stories, to novellas, to two novels, Lightning (2013) and Desire Lines (2020).

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“The juggle of my two professional lives is hard, but the compulsion to write is elemental,” Volk explains. “I write, as American writer Joan Didion so eloquently described it, ‘to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear’.”

Extensive travel as a diplomat has allowed the author in Volk to explore what it is like to be an outsider in someone else’s land and even a stranger in one’s own life.

Grief, identity, alienation and connection are common themes in Volk’s novels and so is the question whether we are responsible for our circumstances, or if fate is pre-determined. She often brings in her personal experience in her work, of loss, betrayal and pain, compassion, towards self and others.

As ambassador, Volk is so busy that the most she can manage to keep her writing muscle exercised is the occasional poem. This week, for example, she was in Lumbini to attend a cricket match paying tribute to legendary Australian bowler Shane Warne.

Volk was appointed ambassador to Nepal during the pandemic, which has largely shaped her tenure.

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“Covid-19 made for a very stop-start experience of settling into my role as ambassador and getting to know Nepal,” she says. “The opportunities that are now available, to travel to remote parts of the country, to connect, to discover what people look like unmasked, to explore Kathmandu, are even more precious as a result.”

Australia itself has reopened its borders. Nepal has resumed sending its students down under and is expected to reach the pre-pandemic peak of 50,000 a year soon. Nepali students account for 8% of total international pupils in Australian universities. Over 200,000 Nepalis 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 best success stories, including its community forestry program credited for doubling the country’s forest cover in just two decades.

In recent times, Australian aid and support have been primarily for subnational governance, gender equality including women’s political participation, climate resilience and Covid recovery.

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We ask Felicity Volk if her travels in Nepal have inspired her to write another novel. One is indeed underway, even though the manuscript is languishing. In the meantime, she is also gathering information for a story set in Nepal woven with its magic and mysticism.

At 56, Volk is in her 33rd year as a diplomat. Before coming to Nepal as an ambassador, she had been here several times as a tourist and last year, her daughters visited Nepal for the first time.

Says Volk: “I loved exploring Nepal with the girls, seeing the country through their first-time eyes, but most of all, I relished sitting by a fire in my residence with them, eating, drinking and playing cards. That was when my house in Kathmandu became a home.” 

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