In news not recently to hand, I’m proud as punch to let you know that my first nonfiction book will be published by Scribe in 2013 (publisher’s announcement here). The book is about whales, and the way in which different forms of local environmental imagination are undercut by global ecological change. I won’t say too much about it yet, other than it will be a relatively short book, written in a lyric nonfiction style.
Scribe have also recently signed Martin McKenzie-Murray, Luke Ryan and Elmo Keep—demonstrating a commitment to new memoir and nonfiction unmatched by the other Australian publishing houses. Marty and Luke were both from Perth originally and are personal friends, so my excitement about the project was very happily shared between us.
And now for six months sweating over the manuscript…
I have a story entitled “The Nocturnals” appearing in the latest edition of The Review of Australian Fiction (Vol. 2, No. 3), now available through Book.ish. The RAF is an online journal, delivering two stories every fortnight—one by an established writer selected by the editors, and the other by an emerging writer selected by the established writer. The stories are designed to be read on a computer, or any of the various mobile devices that people use as books on public transport (iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Android). The RAF is also accessible in both on- and offline modes, depending on your specific technology.
“The Nocturnals” is a story thematically based on interruption and foreclosure—it takes place in altered environments, using the jerrybuilt ritual of star-gazing to deal with suspended grief. I am indebted to the author James Bradley, who put my name forward to the RAF, and whose story “Visitors” also appears in this edition. There are some interesting (if coincidental!) harmonics between the two stories, which I think indicates some shared preoccupations between my work and James’.
The edition sells for a best buy, bargain price of $2.99, and half of that goes back to the authors. Back issues include stories by Christos Tsiolkas, Kalinda Ashton, David Foster, and P.M. Newton. You can get a taste of my story after the jump, on this website.
There’s a wonderful exhibition of Antarctic cartography, photography and archival material on at the moment at the NSW State Library—if you can bring yourself to weather the festive consumption that has engulfed the city beyond! Fascinating to see how malleable the continent’s boundaries have been throughout exploration (and indeed still are, as a result of global climate change). As this site, built by my good friends at Tonne Gramme, attests, I have an ongoing obsession with maps: particularly oceanographic and polar maps.
I’m reading this evening alongside Sydney City Poet Kate Middleton in the galleries, a series of artistic responses to Antarctica. It’ll be a quiet sort of an event; a chance to meditate on what Melville called the “dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows,” and hopefully an antidote to the freneticism of December. Starts at 6pm, registrations online.
I am very pleased that one of my stories from Overland last year, “Blow In”, will be included the Black Inc anthology Best Australian Stories 2011. It’s a slightly expanded edit, as the original was trimmed for space. The anthology is edited by Cate Kennedy this year, and also includes work by Debra Adelaide, Chris Womersley, Nicholas Jose and Gretchen Shirm, amongst many others. The series includes a Best Australian Essays and a Best Australian Poems too (and often you can buy a Christmas box-set: the Stories is the pink one).
The anthologies are released in November, and you can purchase copies from your local independent bookstore or online at Black Inc. My thanks also go to the original editors of the piece—Sam Cooney and Kalinda Ashton—and to Kate Goldsworthy at Black Inc who has done such an excellent job of liaising about corrections. I buy Best Australian Stories every year for beach reading, and it feels like a real privilege to have something appear in those pages.
Over the long weekend I will be making the trip up to Newcastle NSW for the annual This is Not Art (TiNA) festival. There at the headwaters of the Hunter River, in the long shade cast by capesize coal carriers, a temporary autonomous zone, à la Hakim Bey, springs up for a few days every October. In empty buildings and camping grounds, above chemists and below universities, people come together to make and talk expansively. TiNA is not a place to debate “the book is dead”. No one prattles on about “the brand called you”, or how to monetise art through corporate identity. TiNA is a time to set aside the hackneyed, the commercial and even sometimes, the pragmatic. In a post-idea world—where information increasingly eclipses thinking, and distraction reins over contemplation—these few days in Newcastle represent a strategic deceleration. Here everyone is a kind of public intellectual, but no one strives for punditry. Nights of new noise meet days of strange theatre. Emerging academics skirmish on the borders of critical thought, while workshops showcase radical craft and DIY loop-pedals. Anything can be, and will be, hacked. The nighttime promises contact improvisation dancing, comedy, otherworldly music, and copious bottles of ginger beer. Somewhere in between all that we remember the thing called praxis. Action that is thoughtful, and thought that is active.
On the train heading north-east from Sydney I am often reminded of something the author and activist Rebecca Solnit once said; how “in a divided culture, being undivided and synthesizing and connecting across broad areas can be an act of resistance, just as being slow—as in doing things deliberately, walking or biking … or sitting around and swapping stories, not being dilatory or sluggish—in a sped-up culture is an act of resistance akin to the work slowdowns that were one form of factory strike.” When the festival is in full swing it can often seem like a frenzied, bewildering experience—but an ethos of slowness and synthesis is always there, in the undercurrents. No more so is this evident than in the kinds of conversations that go on around the official festival program; during the early hours, seated on the floor in a hallway, drawing chalk diagrams on the boards to prove a point. It is these open arguments that I most look forward to.
This year I am participating in two panel sessions for the Critical Animals arm of the festival:
2:00-3:30pm Friday Sept. 30. “Science, Sound and the Imagin(ed)ation”, with Ben Byrne, Carl Scrase, and Nick Keys; at the Royal Exchange.
2:00-3:30pm Sunday Oct. 2. “Landscapes of Crisis”, with Sophie Lamond, Clancy Wilmot and Emma Fraser; at the Lockup.
One panel discussion for the National Young Writers Festival:
5:30-6:45pm Friday Sept. 30 “A Lit Prize for the Laydeez”, with Jacinta Woodhead, Van Badham and Dion Kagan; at Customs House.
And I’m also doing a “creative health check” session, from 12:00-1:15 pm on Friday Sept. 30 at Staple Manor (for anyone who wants their patellar reflex tested, or advice on grant applications and the like). The full program is available online here, and the weather looks … well, let’s not talk about the weather. Bring your waterproof poncho, bring your unformed plans and your best versions of the future.
At the NSW Writers’ Centre tonight I’m interviewing Arnold Zable; author of Cafe Scheherazade (2001), Sea of Many Returns (2008), and most recently Violin Lessons (2011). Zable is a human rights activist, and currently the President of the Melbourne arm of International PEN. His writing focuses on migrant experiences, and so I will be talking with him about the power of compassionate imagination, political emotion, and story-telling in a multicultural context (amongst other things). The night runs from 6:30-8:30pm, at the Writers’ Centre: Gary Owen House, Callan Park, Balmain Rd., Rozelle. More information is available here and if the literature doesn’t tempt you, I’m told there will also be writerly canapés.
I’ve recently had the privilege of judging the Meanjin Tournament of Books 2011: an annual event modelled on The Morning News championship, which has been running in the States since 2005. The Meanjin event is slightly different from its predecessor however, as it only focuses on Australian women’s fiction. A full chart of the Tournament is available here, and excellent match is commentary provided on the site by Jess McGuire and Ben Pobjie. My fixture pitted Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach (1984) against Elizabeth Jolley’s Mr. Scobie’s Riddle (1983). It’s a great opportunity for readers to familiarise themselves with canonical novels, by women, that they might otherwise have passed over for the latest release—and I’m excited to see which book will ultimately win (the favourites are Alexis Wright and Christina Stead, reportedly, although my money’s on Garner). My review is reposted here, and you can comment across the way.
Having recently relocated from west to east, I have been unable to escape the geographic implications of reading these two novels alongside one another. My willful expectation—borne only from the stubbornness of rushing to making familiar ground out of what is strange, and new—was that the Jolley would show me a hometown literary tradition out of step with the rest of the nation. Garner is so often cited as the Australian woman reader’s writer (even as a new generation of female commentators gracelessly cosset her politics). Jolley on the other hand, seemed to be from another age. As a lodestar in Perth’s marginal cosmos, my anticipation was that Jolley’s writing would be starchy in tone, and arthritic in form. The ocean would inevitably appear, as it always does in Western Australian novels, the way one salts things that are going stale. Mr. Scobie’s Riddle was the first Jolley book I’d ever read.
But where on earth did I get that impression from? Mr. Scobie’s Riddle is both textually experimental, and architecturally shambolic. Set at the St. Christopher and St. Jude Nursing Home, the narrative springs between the experiences and recollections of ‘patients’ (residents)—interdicted by excerpts from reports by the Night Sister and Matron. An explanatory contents entitled “A Guide to the Perplexed” foreshadows bizarre plot points such as ‘the row with the fish’, ‘Mrs Renfrew eats Miss Hailey’s junket’, and ‘Frankie and Robyn enjoy a rave about climaxing’. Jolley cultivates the absurdity of the semi-blind and the cloth-faced in Mr. Scobie’s Riddle: characters misconstrue and blunder through otherwise lamentable circumstances. What makes this such a dazzling display of writerly craft though, is the way in which the novel sets up its own internal logic systems and vocabularies. Mr. Scobie’s Riddle contains its own operating instructions: so that the reader recognises the clinking of a load of bricks being trucked up an incline as exit music, and a character’s calls for ‘Hildegarde the Meat Bird’ as marking out a loss of home. Garner may be the journalist, but Jolley is the master of shorthand.
Yet, while it is Jolley’s novel that deals most directly with mortality, The Children’s Bach is the darker of the pair. This short book is driven by the tension between sexual desire’s depthless intensity, and our social obligations to contrived imperatives (most notably, obligations to family). Characters orbit, repel, collide and find themselves unable to completely detach. In breaking in and breaking out of their established modes, they discover that morality is circumstantial, and commitment is only ever conditional. Garner may not have Jolley’s sensitivity for language and structure, but her device par excellence is emotional compression. What The Children’s Bach seeks is more rigorous forms of emotional honesty. Garner shows how women (particularly women) foreclose upon their tumultuous inner lives in order to perform a more cohesive public persona. This revelation is at once demolishing, and rousing—particularly in the context of thinking about women’s writing in Australia. Imagination is cruel, imagination is chaotic, imagination is combative in The Children’s Bach. What a wonderful and bold mandate for those of us whose stock-in-trade is imagination.
I ruin the books I love: turning dog-ears down in the upper corners for ideas that strike me, and folding them up in the lower corners for expressions I find elegant or canny. While Mr. Scobie’s Riddle surprised and delighted me, it is The Children’s Bach that has suffered the most as a result of my reading. For her astonishing use of emotional compression, and her ability to construct even as she deconstructs relationships, Garner wins this round.
Since arriving in Sydney I’ve been working with two exceptionally talented writers – Sam Twyford-Moore and Fiona Wright, along with the radio producer Jessica Minshall – to create a fortnightly podcast on matters literary and cultural. The result is The ReReaders, an audio project in its fledgling stages. The first episode (entitled “Out of Money, Out of Home, Out of It“) was launched early last week. We have already begun mapping out a schedule for forthcoming discussions.
The idea motivating The ReReaders was to extend the conversation around works of print journalism, online commentary and other cultural creations beyond their immediate circulation. But it’s also an eavesdrop of our ordinary debates, as they would take place on any given evening over drinks or dumplings, in any number of sticky-floored venues around the city. We mean for you to draw up a chair, punctuate points of agreement with slaps on the table, and certainly to argue with us. That’s why it’s also called – at least, when you squint at the URL – “There, Readers” (take that, Readers!). We like the fractiousness of writing that divides opinion, that starts a debate with the world at large, and with itself. In the future we plan to host a number of phone-in guests too, to develop the conversation beyond our local spaces.
You can keep a track of The Readers on the website and through various social media platforms (Twitter & Facebook), and you can also subscribe through the iTunes store. There is space on the site for any feedback you may have on the episodes, to recommend future texts, or to post public jeremiads. Oh, but our electric ears are burning already!
In February 2008 myself and some friends from The Concrete Organisation established the “Cottonmouth” spoken word project; a performance-based, multi-platform initiative that comes together once a month at the Rosemount Hotel in North Perth. Cottonmouth has now been passed over to a new committee of enthusiasts, and the readings, the publication and the website archive are still growing. Whenever I go along I am consistently amazed at the variety and quality of performances, and the sense of a spontaneous community of wordsmiths drawn in from the surrounding suburbs and further afield. This is all the more impressive for the fact that Cottonmouth has outlived its seed funding from the Department of Culture and the Arts WA.
When I read most recently — at the 26th session — the night included narrated claymation, a-cappella hip hop, indie folk and straight up poetry. In the room adjacent to the bar typewriters clicked, zines were illustrated, and a library of anarchist / feminist / back to the land materials had sprung up. I pored over a children’s picture book about the Exxon Valdez oil spill, while a friend debated the merits of squat-house living with the library curator. Someone offered me a strawberry cupcake and a metal sonnet. Numerous collaborations have germinated here in these ruby-curtained rooms; from the electronic anthologies of Black Rider Press (the “hardest cats out on the sawdust”), to the DIY publications of Coastal Shelf. Writers such as Craig Silvey, Gabrielle Everall, Tom Cho, Claire Potter, John Mateer and Juliette van Loon have read their work, and gifted musicians have played to open the night (Abbe May, Sean Pollard, Gilbert Fawn, Silver Bulletin, to name only a handful). We’ve seen puppetry, photography, sound-art and playwrights, live-illustration and nights themed to promote the Amnesty ARTillery festival. Last year we held a session in conjunction with the Perth Writers’ Festival, and we published a book. In short, I am going to miss coming to these events, and the individuals who give such energy to the collective.
I read an excerpt from a story in progress called “The Nocturnals.”