Alicia Marsden in conversation with Michelle Cahill
Michelle Cahill is an Australian novelist and poet of Indian origin. They live in Sydney; their prizes include the the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for New Writing, the Kingston Writing School Hilary Mantel International Short Story Prize, the Val Vallis Award and the Red Room Poetry Fellowship. Their work appears in Future Library, ed Anjum Hassan & Sampurna Chatterjee, (Red Hen Press, 2022) and forthcoming in 4A Papers. Daisy & Woolf is published by Hachette.
This interview was recorded on 6 May 2022 on Woi Wurrung Country, on unceded Aboriginal land.
Photo: Nicola Bailey
A.M: I just wanted to start by acknowledging that I live and work and reside on the lands of the Jaggera and Turrbal people, and acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded, before we started.
M.C: Thank you Alicia, I’m currently on Woi Wurrung country, and I’d like to thank the Aboriginal owners. I’d also like to acknowledge the Aboriginal peoples of Guringai country, where I live, their elders past, present, and emerging, and thank them for their laws, their languages and their care of the land, for allowing me to live here on their lands. And to acknowledge that this is stolen land, and always will be Aboriginal land.
A.M: Absolutely. I have recently been studying Alexis Wright’s Boisbouvier oration from the 2018 Melbourne Writer’s Festival, and she has this beautiful quote: “We either ignoring or describing, exploring or grappling on the contested ground of stolen land with unsettled matters”. And I was reading a quote from you, where you talked about your poetry embodying “scrutiny over invasion”. How would you say Daisy & Woolf sits with those unsettled matters?
M.C: I think that it speaks of the story of a group of people who have been disenfranchised from their own country because of colonisation. The history of Anglo-Indians and Eurasian people is such a troubled one, with so much erasure, and has much in common, in many ways, with the history of Aboriginal people being moved, displaced and deracinated, and having to fight back against that to reclaim their language, their sovereignty and their culture. I think one review described this as a “novel of reclaiming” and that’s what I’m bringing into light is Daisy’s culture and Daisy’s language and her – well, not so much her language, I take that part back, but Daisy’s culture and her family and her absence of language, the fact that she resides in English as a result of colonisation. That’s mentioned in the first chapter where she speaks, when she talks about her children being tutored in Urdu and Bengali but they speak English better. There are little pointers in that first introduction to Daisy, where the conflicts for her as a mixed ancestry person are being dramatized by the fiction. So, I think in answer to your question, that’s really how it sits with unsettlement- I also think Mina, being the Australian author, who is also a migrant, an Anglo-Indian migrant, she’s able to sense, always, that she’s on stolen land and that this is Aboriginal land and this comes up for her in the first chapter when she’s talking about how colonisation came to the south coast of New South Wales where her family live, and how there were [coolies] from Bengal on those early ship journeys, and that they actually found their way with some of the colonisers because of Aboriginal people helping them walk from the south coast right up to Sydney, what was Sydney then, in Gadigal country. Mina’s aware of that and she’s also aware in the final chapter which was set in Varuna, not wanting to give too much away, on Gundungurra country where she’s aware, while speaking back to a white male who’s quite entitled. Mina tells him this isn’t even your land anyway, so I feel like Mina is a character who is aware of this fight against racism and this struggle of all disenfranchised people and First Nations people. In her own way, she’s so distanced from her culture, and she carries that grief with her every single day. There are obviously differences between her situation and how it might feel for Aboriginal people, but there are also some similarities and the sense of being able to share that struggle against the colony and against the oppression, which is often Eurocentric oppression and European oppression of First peoples.
A.M: I really liked how the story was cushioned on both sides by an acknowledgement of that, with the parts in the front and the parts in the back that you mentioned. Those were some of the first things that I highlighted that really struck me as poignant, especially with this sort of literature, writing back to the empire, these post-colonial excavations of literary canon, acknowledging that what’s there isn’t just what was always there; that there is so much more that’s been pushed to or resides in the margins, that isn’t spoken about or that stories aren’t recorded from but happened anyway. I thought that was a really beautiful theme throughout the entire text.
M.C: Thank you, Alicia. I love how you described that, as well. It’s a journey towards gathering the knowledge. You have to go back in order to reclaim, to go through the archives and piece together, and also new making as well, creating and adding and contributing to the archives in that process. I guess that was my process as a writer – there are so many gaps when you’ve had this experience as of being disenfranchised from culture and language and home. Having been so dislocated and removed from home, where do you call ‘home’?
In some ways you are always homeless. Those gaps make it very difficult and pose quite a challenge, but I found that on the positive side, there is substantial shared memory and shared collective history that can be added to narrative. I also use technology in terms of the internet to be able to help my research. So that was an enabling aspect to my research, I didn’t always have to go to libraries or rely on books.
A.M: Daisy & Woolf sits with such beautiful peers of texts like Wide Sargasso Sea, or Foe by Coetzee, doing the work of writing back to the empire and centring characters who were, to quote yourself, “devoured in the imperial closet” by the “wolves” of the Western canon. So it has such fine company, as well.
M.C: Thank you, Alicia. I’ve read those novelists and just admire so much the passion and the viscerality of their work, that it is multi-textured and vivid. I wanted to create that sort of narrative detail in Daisy’s journey, in her life and her voice, to give her an embodied voice. I was on residency at the Hurst in Wales at the time, and I was reading lots of journals from travellers who had travelled from India, or had travelled through the Suez Canal, and reading about the Indian independence struggle and so forth. When her voice finally came to me, it was just a wonderful moment that I could start that first chapter, where she speaks of stepping out into the dark morning, it was before dawn, and she was stepping out into the streets of Kolkata. I wanted that her appearance be similar to Clarissa Dalloway’s first appearance in Mrs Dalloway, where Virginia Woolf makes her opening sentence, “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”, and on it goes. I wanted something memorable and focused for Daisy, this woman who had an intention to do something that day, whilst conversing with her lover.
A.M: I really enjoyed finding the parallels between the beginning of Mrs Dalloway and the beginning of Daisy & Woolf, but when you departed from that, with Mrs Dalloway being a day in the life of Clarissa, but Daisy & Woolf is so much more, for Daisy and for Mina, it spans so much more time and space, and I really liked how you made that distinction.
M.C: I didn’t attempt to do anything in particular in terms of comparing the work to Mrs Dalloway, I was more focussed on the voice, getting the voice right, and then allowing the voice to follow its own journey. I had a good sense of where Daisy was going, so that helped me to structure the novel, because I knew she was traveling to England. Still, I didn’t really know what was going to happen. It’s a beautiful thing to have the story lead you as a writer and you trust that, as well as being the engineer of it. To allow that trust, I think it’s an interwoven relationship that you have with the text itself.
A.M: I love how Daisy has the agency, even in the structure and writing of her own story, I’m very fond of that idea, of characters having their own agency, if we’re just the scripters, I guess? That’s very interesting.
M.C: I experimented with the use of diary and letters. I thought a fair bit about whether to write in first person present or past tense or third person, as well, and I think a lot of my work I try in different tenses, POV as well and see how that works. The immediacy of the first person is powerful, it becomes quite separate from me as a writer. Even with Mina’s voice, although there are definitely autobiographical traces to it, having a first person POV, Mina becomes her own self and is released from me.
A.M: I really enjoyed how different and distinct the voice of Mina and Daisy were throughout the text. I very much enjoyed that, even though as a metafiction we understand the motions of writing but seeing the distinct voices and how they would tackle things was very interesting.
M.C: Mm, so how did you find the difference between Mina and Daisy’s voice in that respect?
A.M: I found they were both, not bleak so to speak but there was definitely an element of bleakness to the writing, in both perspectives. I think Mina’s was almost more visceral because there was more… not that there was more emotion, but there was more immediacy, because it was dated to 2017, and contextualised by events that she was mentioning, like the Grenfell tower collapse, and a lot of things that contemporary readers would see and remember. With Daisy, though, it was slightly different, but they both had elements of bleakness and viscerality, as you say, I totally agree.
M.C: Grenfell Tower and all the events that were happening, it is something that we find ourselves watching on social media, and all these things happening, the Black Lives Matter movement, landslides and environmental issues affecting Nepal and the Himalayan areas, all the changes that are happening, and we know that people of colour are suffering, right? They’re the ones who are going to be impacted, the ones who have housing insecurity, who are affected most in these situations, with economic vulnerability. There’s a sense of this world that we’re living in being so problematic on so many levels. Mina is also dealing with personal issues and past traumas, losses of her relationship with her offspring and the loss of her mother, her grief, and she’s trying to navigate personal intimacy as well. It’s a very fraught time for her that the novel is charting.
A.M: Both perspectives are saturated with grief, but especially with the modern events – I think because of social media, we have such an immediacy of knowledge, things pop up on Twitter or Instagram, we see them, we scroll. We think about it for a couple of days, or a couple of weeks, but then the next big, horrible event happens, and we’re distracted by it. But when we see those events harkened back to in fiction, it brings back all the emotions that were inherent to it, that we forgot about because of how readily information is available.
M.C: Absolutely, that is so true. How we just move on, it’s sort of overwhelming: a cascading current of issues and concerns; and so often re-traumatising.
A.M: There’s so much to pay attention to, so much to give nuanced thought to, but there isn’t a lot of time, because things are always happening.
M.C: It fragments us, doesn’t it?
A.M: Yes, absolutely.
M.C: It’s very hard to then focus on the work we have, the task of writing, which Mina has undertaken. In order to do that, to excavate that space, she has to sacrifice quite a fair bit. That’s where the bleakness comes through, the waves of bleakness and vulnerability.
A.M: Carving time for the people and the characters that haunt us, even though there’s already so much haunting us from contemporary events.
M.C: The haunting of Daisy’s voice through her life. And Shuhua Ling, the Chinese author who was in a relationship with Virginia Woolf’s nephew, she is also ghosting Mina’s writing of this novel.
A.M: Yes, this text is full of ghosts. But I like that we’re giving them, not so much a space to haunt but shining a light on them so they can tell their own stories, rather than just echoes through the text or other people’s works. I thought that was wonderful.
M.C: Ah, right. And how do you think it’s different in non-fiction? Does fiction do something different for you, reading these stories about these women, Shuhua Ling and Daisy – was that a different experience than say, if you had read about it in an essay, I’m curious about that.
A.M: I think so. It makes me think a lot about literary language and how that has such a different effect even if the words are the same, or have cousins in non-fiction, so to speak. I think the emotional aspect of literary language and fiction holds hands with the ghosts of these women. It’s much easier to read and see their experiences through literary language. It reminds me a little of Bakhtin, how he talks about literary language, specifically the language of novels is heteroglossic and it contains multiple different languages within the text – the languages of class difference, or race, or gender – and I think that is what’s happening here, in the literary language of Daisy & Woolf. I wouldn’t, I don’t think, get the same experience with non-fiction – I don’t the ghosts would be quite so loud, or prominent.
M.C: What Bakhtin says about heteroglossia and how literary language allows these interactions of different registers of voices. The silences become vocalised in all their different registers; I agree. In an essay, a writer can be scrutinised, and it’s so factually dependent, that your interpretation of facts in an essay could be criticised or turned around and used against the purpose that you had hoped to champion. I feel that in fiction, that’s less of the case because you don’t need to rely necessarily on the facts, although you can use fact, but you can use elements of the surreal, elements of embellishment or dream, or poetic language, or have different visualisations coming into the facts and merging with facts. In that respect, there’s a license for you to explore, and speak with greater liberty, to allow these aspects to be fleshed out. You’re doing that from behind a shield that protects not so much yourself but protects the truth that you want to give a space for as a creator and as a writer. I don’t like the word creator [laughs], I feel like it’s quite a dominating way of thinking about the writing process.
A.M: Hmm, is there a term you prefer?
M.C: I think ‘writer’, I don’t mind ‘writer’, but I find it’s a little bit precious, in a way, and I’m a little bit anxious about it, for myself anyway, I like to trust the work a lot and to build my intuition and work with that. I like to allow that to take on a life. Though, in some respects, it’s out of my control.
A.M: Yeah, it’s sort of as if the term ‘writer’ has a sense of something along the lines of ownership? Giving the text the agency to be what it wants be, the purpose that you wanted it to have, but also have its own sovereignty.
M.C: Absolutely. It’s such an interesting process, and it’s also interesting to talk about it, as well, because it’s a curious thing to talk about, that text that is quite separate from you, to talk about it objectively. Maybe that’s a tricky thing, in some ways. But I think what I’m really excited about is that it’s a story I hope will take on it’s own life. The most exciting thing for me, to be quite honest, is when people are reading it, for it to have its own life in their imagination, not in mine. In that respect, it isn’t my story anymore.
A.M: Absolutely. Perhaps not as concrete as death of the author, but letting it transform from not just a work but a text.
M.C: That’s right. I just have this little bit of confidence that it has a vividness, that it will come alive in people’s imaginations: the voices of these women, these brown women. It’s so exciting for me to see the term ‘Anglo-Indian’ used and being discussed in forums.
A.M: Well, it’s definitely taken a life in my own imagination, and I have been pestered quite a few of my friends about it, saying “you have to read it, you have to”, and using my bookseller privileges for evil [both laugh].
M.C: Oh, awesome, that is so good to hear.
A.M: So I can tell you for me it’s definitely taken a life in my head, and when I was reading it, there were so many times I put the book down to go “okay, that was a sentence I just read. I have to turn that around in my brain now” [laughs]. I’ve tabbed the life out of this poor book!
M.C: [laughs] I saw that lovely photo that you posted with the little tabs, that was amazing, that was so lovely. I’m really glad that you enjoyed it, I really enjoy hearing that people loved the characters or that they found it very vivid, that means a lot. There’s a lot of different aspects to the industry, but that’s a very special part of it, to hear readers responding in that way. To me, anyway, I don’t mean to be anyone else, I know there’s a clichéd persona of the ‘writer’ [laughs]. I’m just myself, just following my truths and pursuing and putting it out there and believing in it, being willing to say these things. For example, about storytelling, about how I like most when the story writes itself, it’s out of my control. There were parts when Daisy is in France, and some of the things that strike her were not planned, it was just my fingers tapping on the keyboard and these sentences coming out. They were deep feelings she was having about the losses she’d experienced as a brown woman leaving her home in Kolkata. I won’t say too much because I’d like readers to follow the story themselves but, yeah, it was really wonderful that it was just Daisy channelling through me. I do love that most about fiction, and poetry as well, but particularly in fiction, when that’s happening, you really trust the truth of it.
A.M: That’s such an endearing idea, that characters are just writing through us. You take a step back as a writer and ask them “where do you want to go, where does your story go next?” That’s such a brilliant idea, I really enjoy that concept, especially with work like this, and I think that’s how we get monumental works like Daisy & Woolf and like Wide Sargasso Sea and their peers, when characters really say “no, this is my story, and this is how it’s going to go.”
M.C: Oh, awesome. Talking to you, telling you, instructing you, taking on life and a body and language. I suppose it’s like the way we talk to plants, and plants talk to us. It’s that kind of thing, where there are these voices we can connect with and hear and respond to and channel.
A.M: Absolutely. We were just talking about the industry before, and I wanted to know, are there any pieces of wisdom or advice you would like to pass down to other writers, whether they’re new writers or young writers or any sort of writer? Or, is there anything you wish that someone would’ve told you about writing or the industry, not just before this book but before your other poetry pieces or essays?
M.C: I would definitely say persistence is important for writing. The most necessary thing is to believe in yourself and to believe in your work, and to trust that passion and believe in it. To not be swayed by society’s pressures about what you should be doing with your life. Be obsessed. Be okay with the obsession that writing is, keep finding your strengths and improving your weaknesses, where you see faults in your writing. In some ways I think, although it’s wonderful to have readers who go over your work and give you feedback, you are your best teacher. Finding what’s not working and what is working – you’ll do that by just doing the writing, the more you practice. I think there’s something technical about writing, as well, in that respect. The more you do, the better you become. You just get to be at the point where it happens, but it’s happening more easily. You also need to give yourself the space, to create spaces for yourself, and time and place and opportunities for you to immerse. Never be discouraged, because it is a long journey, but it’s so worthwhile. Even though you may have failures, in the short-term, in front of you, that’s just nothing in the scheme of time. Ahead of you are these successful pieces of work, they’re there, take your time. There’s no rush. Sometimes we feel that pressure, so-and-so’s got a novel out and they’re twenty-five, and they’ve got an agent, but there’s actually so much time. So, stay calm with that. Trust the real process and spend time with your writing, that’s my advice.
A.M: That’s so wonderful to hear, thank you very much for that! There is definitely that pressure, there are so many amazing young, successful authors, but there is always that feeling of “oh, they released their book at twenty-one and I’m twenty, when am I going to”, sort of thing. So, it is so nice to hear reaffirmed that there is that allowance of time.
M.C: Absolutely, there is so much time, and it is so worthwhile when you can have a book – I look at this now and I’m so happy and proud, it’s such a good book for myself. Nobody else’s measure, just my own measure, and I’m so proud of it. In some ways, it was a long time coming, in research and upskilling myself, and in other ways. So yeah, there’s that time and there’s time ahead; enjoy the journey, that’s what I say, enjoy. It’s so rich and there’s no rush.
A.M: That’s wonderful, and it is such an amazing novel, you should absolutely be so so proud of it, it is so good.
M.C: Oh, thank you, Alicia. I really appreciate your reading. The other thing I would say to writers is that I think it’s really refreshing to be amongst communities of writers, such as yourself, and younger people. That’s where the energy lies, actually. I was so looking forward to talking to you, I could just tell from your review you loved the book and your questions would be refreshing. It’s so important to not worry too much about the conventional and the heavy critics, don’t bother so much about reviews. Just connect with your audience, and with your communities, young communities, diverse communities, LGBTIQ+ communities, POC communities. It’s so important that we just open up the spaces.
A.M: Absolutely! When we get those voices that have been pushed to the margin, that’s when we get these beautiful, transformative works of art that we wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s terrible that they have to push themselves into the centre because they’ve been denied places, but when we finally start hearing from people who have either been denied the language or the agency or the space to make these pieces of art – the art that we get is just fantastic.
M.C: It is, it’s so rich. One of the things I’ve focused on, in talking about the book, is collaboration and the importance of allyship. The novel does speak to the non-encounter of white feminism with the other woman. That is something that allyship can address, and to me, it’s been an important part of activism. There are many very radical thinkers in Australia who really want to push things forward and change the literary landscape, and to allow for literature to be transformative. I think allyship and collaboration are really crucial, and that’s why, in part, I agreed to change the title from ‘Woolf’ to Daisy & Woolf. My initial title was Woolf, and it was suggested to me to change it and I totally embraced that, because I think book production is not something a single individual person can achieve, it’s a collaborative effort. Together we’re part of an industry that loops, and a collective community, and we all contribute. We can sulk and harden, but we can also vibe together. Through shared work, we can reform and transform.
A.M: Yes, definitely. As you talked a little about the decision to change the title, at first I didn’t quite understand, but when you explain the connection to allyship, it makes sense. The part in the novel, when you talk about the poetics and the etymology of ‘woolf’, and the different variations of that – that was such a fascinating passage, linguistically, and to tie that into the title and allyship is so very interesting.
M.C: Thanks Alicia, I enjoyed writing that part! The title ‘Woolf’, as a metaphor is quite powerful, and that was the title I wanted, however, I feel that metaphor itself is being challenged. It comes from an aesthetic tradition which tends to be apolitical in the way it negotiates meaning and representation. I think that the power of naming Daisy is specific and sets down her difference, exceeding the power of metaphor. Even though owing to my background as a poet, I’m naturally drawn to metaphor, I feel that just the naming of Daisy with Woolf, the appearance of [Daisy] on the cover, an Indian woman, a dark woman, dressed in European clothes with a European haircut. That hybridity centres her, the Eurasian woman beside Woolf, the white feminist, the privileged upper-class colonial. There is a subtle, unique presence.
A.M: There is always a sort of fondness, too, whenever Woolf is mentioned, even while excavating the Orientalism embedded in her work, especially Mrs Dalloway. By placing India and Daisy in the narrative’s peripheral, but there is always that imagining of Woolf. It was a very nuanced perspective and I very much enjoyed that reading as – I don’t want to say ‘as a Woolf fan’, but as a someone who has enjoyed her works – I thought it was a very interesting, very beautiful perspective.
M.C: So, you enjoyed the homage?
A.M: Yes. I definitely did. I wouldn’t say Mrs Dalloway is my favourite, but I did definitely like the connections. With Daisy & Woolf, you can’t forget that there is a homage aspect, but it becomes beautifully its own text. If that was worded well [laughs].
M.C: That was worded perfectly, I’m very happy to hear that you had that response to the text.
A.M: Thank you so much for your time, out of your very busy schedule I’m sure! And thank you for your lovely words on my review of Daisy & Woolf.
M.C: Thank you, that’s awesome. I’ve loved chatting with you, we’ve covered some great ground and topics, I’ve really enjoyed hearing your reflections.
A.M: Thank you so much!
ALICIA MARSDEN is an Australian reviewer, bookseller and student. She studies law, literature and politics at the University of Queensland, and is passionate about the overlap between legal studies and literature, namely the gothic. She blogs about books and her current literary musings on Instagram, @dashedwithprose.