Ramona Koval

A Letter to Layla is very much a book of our times. Its impetus lies in our rapidly changing climate, and it concludes with the unexpected impact of Covid-19. In between, the book explores both our distant past and our future.

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The whole of inland Australia is manoeuvred, manipulated by the weather and by seasons, especially if you are in primary industry. I always like the story, I was travelling north once on the plane and the person next to me said that they hadn’t had rain for seven years. They were living out around Mt Isa and the first time it fell, his five-year-old ran in screaming with fright. But that’s probably one of those north Queensland stories.

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This engaging but disturbing memoir describes Ramona Koval’s obsessive attempts to find herself another father than the one who had brought her up, the ‘Dad’ who was married to ‘Mama’. Dad and Mama, along with most of their circle in 1950s Melbourne, were Jewish immigrants from Poland, among the tens of thousands who came to Australia as displaced persons ...

Ramona Koval asked Robert Manne what his version of the strange story of Helen Demidenko might be.

Robert Manne: Well there was once, I think, a very strange young Australian woman of English parents, who, for reasons that we don’t understand decided to identify with Ukrainian war criminals. She decided that the Jews had got control of the history of the Holocaust and that a terrible story of what happened to Ukrainians at the hands of Jews had not been told. So she decided to take the name Demidenko because she read in a book that Demidenko was a Ukrainian who had been at Babi Yar where thirty-three thousand Jews were killed. She identified so strongly that she took the name Demidenko and wrote a high school essay in which she imagined what it would be like to be Ivan the Terrible, probably the most monstrous figure that emerges from the killings at Treblinka or at any other extermination camp. She decided to write a novel in which she would adopt the identity, imagining herself to be this daughter of a Ukrainian war criminal, with an uncle who served at Treblinka. And so she wrote a novel. Amazingly enough, not only was her novel published but it won a major award. It so convinced the literary community of its authenticity that it was regarded in 1995 as the best literary work published in the country.

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